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August 22nd, 2015


Above the clouds

On a daily basis I get requests for life advice, questions from people who are struggling through hard times, or generally need guidance or assistance in making big decisions. I wanted to take some time to offer my advice, for what it’s worth…

I got pretty carried away with the response, and then this turned into a MAJOR ramble, so I decided to huck it up here, since I give some type of this answer out regularly. now you can read it here, or share it with a friend if you like:

Would you have any advice for going through a hard time in life? I don’t have anyone to talk to. I feel depressed. I’m unsure of the path I need to take and feel permanently stuck. Got any words of wisdom about deciding what I should do with my life?

Hi! The good news is you are most definitely not permanently stuck, but I know life can feel that way sometimes. And as disheartening or frightening as it may feel, I suggest viewing that feeling as An Indicator – your mind is letting you know that something in life needs your attention. If you accidentally cut your leg, you should feel intense pain. That pain itself is a good thing: it is an indicator that there is something requiring your immediate attention. Without that pain you may never notice the cut, or maybe you would lack incentive to do anything about it. The ‘appropriate response’ to being in a tough situation is to feel the painful response, because it notifies you that certain issues require your attention, and it motivates you to take care of yourself.

We’ve all been there before. What you are feeling is normal, and it’s a good thing because its inspiring you to pay attention and work on yourself. Self-optimization is an awesome process! I think it is exciting to “improve” – do some soul searching and reflect on the areas of your life which need attention, and brainstorm how to make yourself happier or healthier. This involves you reflecting critically on your life and thinking “what can i do to make things even better” – it’s how we grow, evolve, solve problems, etc.

When it comes to feeling confused, depressed, or lost, I don’t think there are any bandaids or shortcuts. So if you are struggling with something, it is likely complex and interrelated among many separate issues. I think of it like a bunch of tiny pebbles. When they come together it feels like a huge mountain. Humans get overwhelmed easily, we feel the weight of our ‘problems’ all massed together like this enormous mountain pressing down on us, and it feels impossible to escape. But really it’s a bunch of dinky little pebbles which can be calmly and eventually lifted off one by one if you take the time. If you try and lift it off all at once, you will just get more exhausted, but if you take the time to really address each issue in turn, and solve each problem, eventually the weight is lifted.

So again, I think this is good news: whatever you’re going through IS going to pass, although I know it feels impossible & overwhelming in the moment. I suggest dedicating a serious amount of time and attention to addressing your ‘issues’ as valid concerns: each deserves time and attention, preferably alongside a trusted guide (a parent or counselor ideally). I advise that you dedicate time each day/week to reflect on your life, and to strategize solutions, etc. You can build a longterm plan which identifies each little issue (each tiny pebble of pressure) in turn, and work alongside a counsellor or friend or guide to solve each in turn.

For some reason, people get shy about Therapy. They think it’s embarrassing or a sign of weakness. Maybe you tried therapy years ago and it didn’t work (many therapists suck, or are just average, just like many doctors or lawyers or journalists are average… it just means you need to keep searching until you find the right fit. It can be a school counsellor, a life coach, a family therapist, a good friend) or maybe you have tried seeing a ‘Psychiatrist’ which is something i don’t really recommend. Don’t treat this problem with drugs! Don’t let someone (posing as a doctor) push pharmaceutical drugs on you to mask the emotional pain or anxiety you are feeling. Again, that pain or anxiety is there to help you, as an Indicator Light, notifying you that something in your life requires attention. It’s my opinion that only in the rarest & most extreme cases should one be treating an emotional issue with pharmaceuticals: I think these drugs are prescribed WAY too freely, due to financial incentive for the “doctor” or the drug company.

The Pharmaceutical Industry is just like the Tobacco Industry or the Sugar Industry: they exist to make money. They push addictive, harmful, complicated drugs into your system simply to make money. So if you are seeking guidance/therapy and end up getting prescribed some heavy-duty drug from a psychiatrist, you are numbing the pain instead of solving the problem, and you are likely creating side effects which require even more drugs to offset. [And let’s not make this a debate about pharmaceuticals: I am sure there are people out there who definitely need them, and I personally would take them if i needed them. Let’s just agree they are prescribed VERY freely, and most of these situations are better to solve without using them.]

True therapy has nothing to do with drugs, and it’s as normal as exercising at the gym, or having a heart-to-heart with a good friend. THINK OF IT LIKE EXERCISE! It’s normal for you to go to the gym to ‘work out your body’. And it’s also normal for you to ‘work out your emotional body’ by working on your issues, alongside someone who is experienced at helping you navigate confusing feelings, weigh your options, and address complicated problems. A good therapist specializes in seeing your issues and helping you see them, and then helping you address them through conscious consideration, critical thinking, paying careful attention to each issue & committing to resolve each issue slowly and carefully, like a little dinky pebble. Don’t get too overwhelmed 🙂

And I want to point out that word “navigate” – think of a ship lost out at sea, 400 years ago… It’s dark, it’s storming, you have no map, no compass, and you are the only one alive on the ship. This is honestly what life can feel like at times! When I go through times like this, the number one thing I need is help *navigating* myself (the ship) through the intense confusion, or overwhelming emotions, or blinding anxiety, or even sadness (the storm… the feeling of being lost). A good, trained therapist is a guide. A guide helps you navigate terrain when you are helpless. They may listen, they may ask questions. They may walk you through exercises, or get you to open up and express yourself, or maybe they just help you vocalize what you are feeling but lacked words for. Sometimes they become a good confidant, or someone to talk with. For myself, I talk to an amazing therapist on a regular basis, and most of the time I am fortunate enough to be extremely positive & inspired about life, so we just philosophize about life, or sometimes I ask him advice on behalf of friends or family members. He is more of a Life Coach for me. And when the next storm hits, there is someone in my life who knows me well who I can turn to for unbiased advice, and to help me navigate the situation.

If you haven’t had much luck with therapy, but you are feeling lost, then I suggest you do a self-assessment and put together a plan for you life. Since I am not a trained therapist, I can’t help as much as someone who you are meeting with once a week. But as a general approach I recommend this:

Form a longterm plan for your life by first deciding what your goals & priorities are. This is important because sometimes we lose sight of what matters most, and we can’t figure out the next step because we don’t clearly understand where we are going. Once you have a clear list of your top priorities you can use that to decide where to live, what to do, and who to do it with. I think the first parts of a plan should be about Survival: house, job, etc, make sure you have a safe home, some good friends, and a job to be able to pay your bills, even if the job is a pain in A. After 6 months of this, or even a year, then you can move into a new phase of the plan which is about Thriving. Thriving is how you enjoy life, how you explore/express passions, how you spend your time outside of work and outside of self maintenance (sleeping, errands, etc). This may be just a few hours a day if you are in school & work at the same time. Or maybe you get more time to Thrive. It can be art classes, creative projects, hiking, sports, dancing, music, cooking, poetry, friendship, romance – honestly it can be a zillion things. but first step is making the plan:

1. Do a brainstorm where you make two lists. A brainstorm is when you flush out all your ideas and thoughts about a certain topic without pausing or stopping or editing. Just take 20 minutes and write as much as you can about a topic. In this case, try brainstorming a Positive List and a Negative List. For the positive list, write down everything you love about life, all your favorite things, your hopes & dreams, your skills & talents, what you excel at, what you enjoy, what you never want to lose, or what you strive to attain. Then for the Negative List write down all your fears & challenges, your worries, your issues/problems, what you failed at, what you think needs improvement, all the negatives.

2. Then take some time and organize each list in order of priority from top to bottom. During the brainstorm you should write without editing yourself, so even if you write the same things several times or maybe even write something which isn’t correct, it’s ok. Just let yourself WRITE, and flush it all out. Then in the organizational step, you can clean it up. And you will have two lists, in order of importance, of your Positives and your Negatives.

3. Then Choose the top 2 or 3 points from each list, and merge them into one list of your TOP PRIORITIES & GOALS. If they come from the Positives, then its something you want to maintain or keep, or work toward. If it’s from the Negatives, it’s likely something you need to change, or something you lack. Once you have these, you can translate each point into a word or phrase, like a Title of the Priority. So you may end up with a list like this:

Independence (financial, emotional, survival)
Discipline (work ethic, meeting my goals)
Community (friends, support group, social life)
Health (diet, exercise, quitting smoking)
Adventure (art, making time for fun, etc)

These are general examples, but likely good goals for someone who is struggling, although maybe yours will be different.

From there you can take that list to your most trusted friends or family members and seek their opinions. Maybe they see something which you don’t see, or maybe they can suggest something which you are too proud to notice. Maybe your parents have some insight to share, or maybe a life coach or a counsellor can help you build out a long term plan in order to achieve those goals.

This may require a move to a new city, or enrolling in school, or getting a new job, or ending a toxic relationship, or making new friends, or working on a deep personal issue. Life is a wild road, but the more you engage it with an enthusiastic, interactive, open mind and open heart, the better you will get at navigating its complex and amazing terrain!

Good Luck!