Archive | September, 2012

Three C’s of Mental Toughness

26 Sep

Karen’s world crumbled when her professor said to her with skepticism, “You haven’t figured out what you want to do yet, have you?”  With a furtive glance, she bowed her head. Embarrassed to have demonstrated such a lack of conviction toward a specialization in her program, she replied, “I guess you’re right.”

“You can do anything you want to do, Karen. You don’t have to pick marketing as your primary area of study in business.”

How will you choose to perceive your situation?

Retreating from the meeting feeling lost and hopeless, she spent a few days spiraling, various thoughts bouncing around in her brain like tennis balls. She couldn’t dodge them. As one rolled away, another came flying at her. What do I do? Why have I spent so much time studying this particular area? If I don’t go into marketing, what DO I go into? How do I know what path to take with my job if I don’t know what I’m going to study?

As she told me the story of the seven days that had passed since our last discussion, the pace of her speech became rapid throughout the high tension areas, words tripping over one another. She explained that after two or three days she knew she needed to get a handle on her thoughts. Her concentration was suffering, she wasn’t sleeping, and her work was suffering.  As she recounted the situation, she was noticeably agitated.

I interrupted her here and asked if I could tell her a personal story.  “Please!” she stated eagerly.

“Karen, I went into counseling having no idea it’s what I wanted to do until I had already graduated from college with a degree in exercise physiology and then started dating a guy who was working on his PhD in psychology. When I enrolled in the graduate program I remembered in 8th grade that I was named a “Natural Helper.” Funny, I thought, how that part of my personality was resurfacing eight years later.  I had started college as a vocal performance major, then I changed my major to broadcast journalism after one year. I attended a career fair and met some women who worked for the local news channel.  The women at the fair made it clear that I could never expect to make a very good living, that it would take a long time to work my way up the ranks of getting good assignments, and it would just be really hard.  I wasn’t confident or discerning enough to soak up their words objectively and weigh them for myself, and with disappointment, I changed my course of study yet again.

Prior to enrolling in graduate school though, Karen, the program advisor told me that I hadn’t had enough life experience to expect to do well in the counseling program!”

I stopped here for effect—and because I am still in awe that someone who is in a profession embodying growth, acceptance, and awareness could make such a black and white statement.

Understand your WHY!

“This time though I didn’t let his words steer me in a new direction. I didn’t perceive them as limiting. I saw them as a challenge, and I committed to prove him wrong!  One, with my perception tilted toward the positive, my actions were galvanized in strength, determination, and perseverance.  Two, and here’s my other big point, Karen…. did I ever, for a single moment, believe that I would be where I am right now? I knew I loved to write. I knew I loved to perform. I knew I loved to be active and that health, fitness, and nutrition were passions of mine. How the heck did I go from vocal performance to working at The Diet Doc as the Wellness Director, creating the Mental Edge program, managing our nutrition consulting programs, writing for magazines, giving lectures, writing a book? You don’t know where you’re going to be 10 years from now, and you may not know exactly what you want to study, but you know where your passions lie! You know what you’re interested in. You know what your talents are!  You know what is important to you and what your values are! AND….all of those things can grow and change as well.

Every person who comes into your life, every situation, every circumstance can mean opportunity for you. But you have to be open to them and you must recognize how your perception of your circumstances is governing your reaction to it.”

She laughed—a knowing, assured chuckle.

“Kori, after those few days I felt like I just needed to purge everything that was in my head. I decided to clean! I started with the frig and just threw out all the old food that I knew wouldn’t get eaten. Then I moved to the cupboards…”

She paused and we giggled at the same time, similar thoughts shared just through our knowing, familiar connection.  This was a metaphor for a clearing of space in her life for a new challenge. A novel commitment was being made to approaching her situation differently.

“Then I went to my bedroom and organized my dresser drawers, getting rid of the clothes I hadn’t worn in a long time and knew I wouldn’t.  I felt such a sense of clarity when I was done.  You’re right.  My sense of being out of control all came from my perception that I needed to have everything planned out.”

“You may take this new job you’re applying for,” I said,  “with the understanding that you’re going to learn some valuable lessons and that it’s a stepping stone. But to what you can’t necessarily predict. What you can predict is that change is inevitable.”

Hans Selye, who in the 1950’s coined the term ‘stress’, explained how stress is a response.  We often hear people express statements like “I’m so stressed.” This would indicate a feeling or a reaction to a stimulus.  On the opposite end of the continuum is a statement of stress AS the stimulus, for example, “I have a lot of stress to contend with.” Selye called the stress response the General Adaptation Syndrome, signifying the inevitability of stress and the unavoidable nature of it but also the imperative that we adapt and respond to it effectively in order to survive! Karen certainly was surviving in the midst of her stress, however, had she perceived her professor’s statement differently and the meaning of his words, she would have moved from surviving to thriving.

Control, a key psychological factor in stress protection, was what Karen felt she was lacking in this situation. Dr.  Suzanne Kobasa, a researcher at New York University has studied this concept in the context of disease and health.  Related significantly to self-efficacy, a term for the confidence in the ability to learn and grow, control embodies a belief that one can influence their surroundings and circumstances and have a role in making things happen. I like to call this industriousness.  As Karen became more aware of her thoughts and feelings, she was able to call into question their impact on her sense of control.  Dr. Kobasa emphasizes such activity as imperative to developing control—being willing to ask oneself tough questions about life, development, and changes that can be made within one’s response repertoire.

Secondarily, Karen’s immediate response immediately moved her away from a position of commitment.  Commitment encompasses an awareness of mind and body moment to moment, in essence the ability to pay attention and be in tune for the purpose of doing whatever it takes to remain in a state of positive equilibrium in order to thrive. Dr. Kobasa explains commitment as being fully engaged in day to day activities and giving them your best effort.

Finally, after a few days of stewing, the stress eventually dissipating with effort, Karen began to perceive her situation as a challenge.  Rather than viewing it as confining, she saw it as a door being opened to new possibilities.

“People who are high in challenge,” Dr. Kobasa explains, “see change as a natural part of life that affords at least some change for further development.”

This was the Karen I had seen emerging during our weekly work together.  Her mind, through focused effort on consciousness-raising and being attentive to physical and psychological cues, had expanded toward perceiving whatever situation she was in as an opportunity for growth– a personal enrichment project!

Change is a sure thing!

We reviewed the three C’s, and as our conversation came to a close and she thanked me in her characteristically kind and gracious way she said, “I’d like to add a fourth C, Kori.  Change. I’m recognizing and accepting the fact that it’s inevitable.  This moment-to-moment awareness practice is allowing me to be okay with that, perceive it more positively, and trust that I’ll be okay within it!”


Turn On and Tune In!

20 Sep

“Kori it has been bad. Like really bad. I’ve done some things that are just super bad.” Could she use the word “bad” one more time?  My client’s words hung there as if to say, “I’m ready to reveal what’s been going on the last couple months that you haven’t heard from me”….but our time was up and I had to let her know that I very much wanted to hear it  but we’d need to couch it until our next session. I intuited that whatever ‘the bad‘ was, it would be like opening a can of worms, and they’d be squirming all over the place in no time. She was clearly needing to get it off her chest, the behaviors having created an uncomfortable dissonance within her.

Can you detect your emotions?

“I stopped thinking,” she said to me earlier in our session. “That’s obvious to me now, as we’re reviewing this consciousness strategy.”  I was presenting it to her and asking her to imagine herself in the context of her recent circumstances so she could sink into how she would use each step to become more directive in her approach, less impulsive, and more aware so that she wouldn’t crash and burn…again. Her pattern was to run herself into the ground, doing everything for everybody (with an underlying fear of being imperfect or looked upon unfavorably) and then having her own little meltdown. We needed to get her to a place where she was recognizing earlier how she was putting what was most important on the back burner and have her deliberately and consistently assessing where she was in space. A reorienting, so to speak. In order to do so, I was explaining how she would need to practice keeping her radar on all the time.

We all need an emotional navigation system.

I’ve likened this process to a navigation system. This past weekend when I was in Boston and had to get somewhere in a foreign place, I needed to plug in my destination and then follow a specific set of directions. I needed a map. I couldn’t get there without being present, aware, and deliberate in paying attention to where I was going. When I made an error halfway to my destination, the woman said to me, “rerouting”. She recognized I had taken a wrong turn, and she let me know. If I hadn’t been watching my phone though, if I’d been jamming away to some music and had let my attention wander elsewhere, I wouldn’t have known a change needed to be made.

Just like the navigation lady, our bodies tell us when we need to reroute or look ahead for upcoming turns. We may not have a blueprint or a map for getting from one place to another, but listening to our internal signals being transmitted can clue us in to taking a pause, pulling over to the side of the road, and reassessing our next step. We have an internal radar, but most people would rather keep it off. Flip the switch to autopilot and let things play out as they may. In some circumstances this may be just fine, but in others it can land us in some pretty precarious and less than optimal situations.

For a couple months, my client had her radar turned on and tuned in. Even during what she’d classify as one of the most stressful times in her life (finishing her masters degree, working full time, and managing contest preparation), she was calm, felt controlled and empowered, and rarely felt overwhelmed by life. I remember her saying to me, “I have more on my plate than I ever have, and it’s all just coming together.” The serenity in her tone was palpable.

When we reviewed what she was doing, she easily rattled off her strategy of implementing regular small self-awareness checks throughout the day to allow for a deliberate removal of whatever had stuck to her earlier (what I call the Magnet Mentality); staying present-focused and being in the moment; breaking down her responsibilities into small, management chunks; paying attention to her body’s cues signifying emotion, particularly anxiety, among others. But as the days waned on, she got too confident. She thought, “I’ve got it.” And she let the radar frequency dissipate.

I’ve created a quote before that resonates with many and ignites the fire in me to constantly strive for excellence. Not perfection. Excellence.

“The second you decide you have arrived is the second you’ve died.”

In other words, you must never let up. This does not mean you shouldn’t rest, it doesn’t convey that you can’t take a vacation or daydream or relax. It means that in order to continue growing, we must continue learning. We must be present and aware and we must think about our thoughts and their influence.

My client recognizes now how easily we can revert to old patterns of behavior. The only way to have them become automatic is to check that our radars are not only on but functioning well and tuned in to the appropriate frequency. More than new and optimal actions becoming automatic, however, it’s more a process of them being implemented with less perceived effort. The individuals I consult with who are working toward weight loss and regular exercise are reading food labels, tracking their food consumption, looking at online menus, weighing their food and looking it up to see what it contains in terms of protein, carbs, and fat—none of these behaviors come naturally. We weren’t born with an innate food intelligence.  They are having to be deliberate and think through every decision. Dieters who have maintained their weight even for a year say that the level of perceived effort it takes to do so is very high. As time passes though, the same behaviors are implemented but without the same feeling of difficulty. As long as I’ve been involved in the health industry and watching my diet, I still sometimes will think, “I just want to eat whatever” and can find myself slipping into not wanting to think anymore about what to do and how to do it. But getting back to it doesn’t require nearly as much “energy.”

To get to that place, it takes having a structure. What do I want to do and how will I get there? There will be re-directions all the time, but having your radar on will help you with the navigation.

Turn it on and tune it in. Here we go:


Your Problem-Solving Approach

R: RECOGNIZE the signals your body is transmitting that convey emotion (signs and symptoms)

How do you know when you’re uncomfortable?

How does your mind & body tell you?


There is ‘something’ happening—what is it?

Say it out loud.

Approach it from a scientist’s perspective- -a place of inquiry.

D: DEFINE your experience.

What is this emotion and what got me here?

Identify your rules & cognitive distortions (errors in thinking that can lead to unrealistic beliefs).

A: ASSESS how you would like to proceed .

With the information you have, assess your best next step.

What is your intention?

Intention is only as meaningful as the action that follows.

R: REFLECT & REVISE  your decision.

Was it made with a present-focused approach?

Did you act in your best interest?

Did you achieve the desired results?

How did you do it?

What could have been different or more effective?

Engage in rational thinking– what was your motive?

Take what worked and restructure what didn’t.

My client is one of the smartest girls I know, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t require support and help with what is happening in her life. It’s great to have a plan, but sometimes it’s the implementation of it that feels impossible. As always, if you need help, I’m here.

My Not So Simple Sammy Situation

11 Sep

Sammy curled her tail around my ankles as she bobbed and weaved through my legs, her contentment emanating in warmth on my skin as she pushed her little body against me. “Pet meeee,” her nudged indicated.

I brought her to the office with me today to give her away. To get rid of her. To say, “see ya later, gator. It’s been real.” Who was this selfish person I had become. This poor, tiny, helpless kitty loved me.

My new dining room chairs that I spent hard-earned money on are marred with the memories of cat claws clamoring over the tops of them to get to the window. The kitchen counter was introduced to a dingle berry just yesterday. Seriously? I put up with this?

She looks at me with a softness in her eyes, “I love you, Kori. Thank you for taking care of me.” I scratch gently the soft area by her nose and under her dainty chin glad to have her to come home to after work each evening.

CHOMP! The damn cat just latched onto my leg, drawing blood and a yelp escapes my lips. “Whoa!” I scream. Sammy bounds into another room but then shoots back over to me like a freight train, no intention of slowing down. It was a hit and run in motion. I turn and crouch down as if I’m about to be tackled by a 250 lb defensive lineman. For a freaking cat!

“Joe, what do you think about making Sammy a shop cat? That would be pretty cool eh?”


I’ve been in situations in years past when I was consumed by it, deadened by it, incapacitated and made impish because of it. And I was doing it again with Sammy—the cat. Am I obligated to keep her? No. Can I find her a better home that can give her what she needs? Yes. What was I needing to prove by continuing to “try” to care for her despite having no attachment to her or desire to keep her in my home? Resentment was what was building as a result of keeping her—not an appreciation for her “unique personality” or “needy independence”. Yes, I’ve used both of these terms to describe her in the most strength-based of ways in an effort to get out of the guilt.

Perhaps I’m anxious about looking insensitive or callous.

Oh my goodness, I got it. As I write this I’m taken back to years of being called cold and vacuous. And there it is. Wow.


Maybe I need the cat whisperer…..

or a therapist. 😉

What does it take for the shift to occur?

1 Sep

I remember a time when I was lost. No navigation system. No way to tell what direction I needed to go in. Just lost.

When I was 19 and a sophomore in college I developed some extreme eating habits.I had gained weight my first year and I can vividly recall the moment when I decided that I could starve myself. I could, I thought. Finally, after years of asking why I couldn’t be more like my sister and my mom, I could do something about it. I’d be thin like they were, and have a nonchalant relationship with food.

I was lying on the couch with a mouthful of gauze, my gums swollen from the excavation work done on them the day prior, and swallowing was barely possible without severe pain. I was getting in some food through liquids- broths mainly. I remember having a milk shake and relishing in the gloriously refreshing feel of the frigid liquid washing over my pillaged flesh. But the pleasure was short lived. All I could think about was how I’d just consumed however many calories and was going to get fatter.

I was home on break and fortunate enough to have my wisdom teeth pulled while I was there. My mom took good care of me. And now I had an excuse to not eat. I was in pain. And I really just couldn’t as easily as normal. Cheetos, one of my favorite snacks, were the first thing to go on the banished list. I didn’t like Cheetos anymore. That was my strategy. The foods I felt like I couldn’t stop eating– I just wasn’t interested in.

And so it progressed.

I went back to school, I went from 130 lbs to 96, and I looked like I was wearing a bowling ball atop my shoulders. I was a starving, overexercising bobble head. I was miserable.

I’d cry in class. I was a zombie. I couldn’t pay attention. Food. Food. Food.  That was the word I saw behind my eyes. Pretty normal for someone who is starving to be preoccupied by food.

No looks from my mom, no unabashedly rude but unknowingly hurtful words, no stares, no moment to moment inner turmoil, no job denials due to my emaciated appearance….nothing would convince me that I was doing anything wrong. Nothing.

Until one day when I went to Student Health for my yearly exam.

The doctor, whom I had no prior relationship with, assessed my vitals. She glanced at my blood pressure reading, my heart rate, my blood sugar from the chem panel I’d had done the week before….but all she really needed to see was me. My tiny body there in front of her, slumped over on the edge of the hard, paper covered exam table with a flat affect and shallow breathing. It was like she was practicing her approach in her mind before she opened her mouth. I could see her gears churning. What would she say that I hadn’t heard before, I thought.

“You’re dying.”

Did she see the stunned look on my face?

“You’re killing yourself,” she said. Only I don’t think those words came out of her mouth. But they are what I heard.

And then the sadness, remorse, guilt, embarrassment, shame, confusion…..they tossed and turned and toppled one over the other like bubbles in a black boiling cauldron until I burst through the door of the building to the outside, to freedom, and they splashed violently over the side, cleansing the pavement beneath my feet.

I don’t remember my walk home. It may not have been a walk but more a hobbling, crippled, wretching climb. All I know is that it was those two words that began the epiphany. You’re. Dying. Those two words gave me the incentive to claw my way back to health. Those two words.

This week I was met with the words of two clients that brought me right back to my two words. “I woke up one day and made the decision…” she said.  I wanted to say, “Really? Just like that? Nothing beforehand? No, ‘I’m sick of x,y,z?”

Another client wrote, “Right before I moved back up here I had an enlightening moment…as simple as it is, I realized that I’m in control of everything I do and how other people perceive me is based on how I show myself.  With so much in life that’s out of our hands, I’m the one with the complete power over myself.”

What does it take for these shifts to occur? For the dam to break? For the clouds to part and the sun to break through? Just like these ladies described, it was like lightning for me also. I was struck with awakeness. I was demanding a new level of personal responsibility.

That day marked a new commitment to myself.

To Recognizing. To Acknowledging. To Defining. To Assessing. To Responding. And to Reflecting. I had to turn the R.A.D.A.R.R. on and not just let it hum silently in the background. I would have to religiously tune into it, find the clearest frequency, and pay attention.

Over and over and over and over and over again.

Fifteen  years have passed since that time. The R.A.D.A.R.R. is on. Sometimes I notice it has gone to static and I have to consciously dial it back in so I can hear its clear murmurs. It often blips out things I’d rather not hear, and when I notice I’m turning the volume down, it’s my signal to tune in even more. I don’t struggle with food. I help those who do. I’m comfortable in my skin. I help those who aren’t. I’m committed to  being as real and vulnerable and genuine as I can be. And I help others who want the same.

Those moments of enlightenment like my client described, the awakenings…..those are big blips on the R.A.D.A.R.R. But there are hundreds and thousands of smaller ones that we could be listening to. They often show us the way, even if we don’t want to go that way. We all have a personal R.A.D.A.R.R. — it’s our compass. And all of us have to learn how to use it.

(In my next post I will break down the acronym, describe what each aspect of your R.A.D.A.R.R. can reveal, and how you can use it to become your best, most authentic self.)

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