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The Psychology of Quiet Success: Our Biggest Battles Are Fought Behind Closed Doors

On the 11th of February 1990, James “Buster” Douglas stepped into the boxing ring with Mike Tyson in an event that was advertised as “Tyson is Back.” As a 42-to-1 underdog, Douglas was barely expected to make it past round 1. Odds were so skewed that most bookmakers wouldn’t even accept a bet on Douglas to win. It was such a ‘sure thing’ that people were betting upwards of $100,000 just to win $3000-4000.

For most of the fight, Douglas was incredibly successful, which came as a shock to all who were in attendance. But in the eighth round, after 24 minutes of fighting, with only ten seconds left in the round, Tyson landed a devastating right uppercut knocking Douglas to the canvas. 

Douglas was down for a nine-count, but he was miraculously saved by the bell with just one second to spare. Round nine began, and Tyson came out with his trademark aggression, desperately trying to put an end to the fight once and for all. But Douglas weathered the storm and began landing heavy shots. Then in round ten, after 34 minutes and 22 seconds of back-and-forth James “Buster” Douglas landed an uppercut, followed by a flurry of punches to drop Mike Tyson and win by Knock Out. 

The world was shocked.

This was by far the biggest upset in boxing history and the biggest challenge of Douglas’ career and he overcame it. His win was rewarded with overnight fame, fortune and praise. He became somewhat of an icon and his $1.3 million payday for the Tyson fight paled in comparison to the record-breaking $24.6 million he was paid just 8 months later against Evander Holyfield. David had defeated Goliath and boxing fans would continue to talk about it for years to come.

It was the stuff of fairy tales. Only…it wasn’t. 

It may have been the biggest challenge of Douglas’ career, but it was not the biggest challenge of his life – not even close.

The public saw the unbelievable achievement on that night and that’s what they remembered about the life of Buster Douglas. Douglas went home and spent the next few months in a whirlwind. Struggling to grasp his newfound fame, he was now fighting legal battles, depression and an eating disorder. He lost the Evander Holyfield fight, several close family members passed away, his depression worsened, he began drinking heavily, put on almost 200lb’s in weight, his lifestyle led him to almost dying in a diabetic coma. It would be six years before he fought again, and his career would never reach the same heights.

“Life is definitely harder than fighting Tyson.” – James “Buster” Douglas

There will be no movies made about his depression, weight gain, relationships or legal problems. The front page of newspapers will never show photos of the tears, the sleepless nights, the funerals, or the empty bottles. You won’t hear the eerie beep of the EKG machine, the murmous of his concerned loved ones or his thoughts of suicide or self-loathing.

Fortunately for Buster Douglas, he was able to overcome that time in his life and continue to live for another three decades, although I’m sure not without further challenges. 

But there are important lessons to be learned from the Buster Douglas story.

Firstly, the biggest battles you face will probably go largely unnoticed by the rest of the world. Despite what we see in the movies, you won’t overcome life’s toughest challenges and be met with trumpets, confetti and a giant cheque. Most of the time it will be back to business as usual. 

Because of this, it’s really important to stop and smell the roses, to celebrate small victories, be kind to yourself, and all manner of other sayings which people post on Instagram but never seem to take seriously. Rewarding yourself for overcoming life’s challenges is an important way to correct the perspectival imbalance that media has on your psyche.

Thirdly, your achievements don’t define you. Sure, they give you goals, structure and meaning, but at the end of the day there are always going to be things outside of your control: your health, your resources, your responsibilities to others, even the amount of time in a day. It’s important to constantly remember that the image you see from others is not their life. I once saw a couple arguing in a park, almost at the point of screaming. The woman pulled out her phone, mid-argument, to take a selfie, they both smiled and hugged for a brief second as the photo was taken, then let go of each other and went back to arguing. 

In Zen Buddhism there is something called Shoshin, which is usually translated as “Beginners Mind.” Shoshin means looking at things with fresh eyes, curiosity, and openness, even when dealing with something at an advanced level. When we face either challenges or triumphs in life, we never really know where it’s going to lead, for better or worse. It’s important not to get too carried away with our ideas about how things are or how they should be – because ultimately, we never really know. 

So, if everyone is potentially going through hardships that we don’t see, what’s the best way to deal with that? Not just for them, but for you, the relationship between you, and for communities at large. Well, it’s simple enough – compassion. Suffering might be a bitter pill to swallow but sharing that suffering with someone else will at least make it bitter-sweet.

People are quietly overcoming the biggest challenges of their lives every single day, and just going on as if nothing ever happened. We tend to highlight our other more tangible and socially acceptable accomplishments (graduations, birthdays, promotions at work etc.). I’m not saying we need to change all of our systems of rewards overnight – or give everyone a participation medal for that matter – but words of encouragement and appreciation cost us nothing and go a long way. 

Remember that to struggle does not make you weak, it makes you human. And if you believe otherwise, then do me a favour and go tell that to Buster Douglas.

Why “Let Go” Is Terrible Advice (& what you should do instead)

Have you ever been trying to solve a problem for hours, only for the solution to come to you the minute you decide to give up?

Have you ever wanted something so badly, only to have it spontaneously come to you as soon as you stop wanting it?

This is what economist John Kay calls obliquity – achieving goals by aiming away from them. 

But why does this happen?

Well for one, while most people think of human beings as things, it’s more accurate to look at us as systems. For example, microorganisms outnumber human cells by 10 to 1 – though they only make up around 1-3 percent of our body weight. Each of these microorganisms has its own goals, as does each human cell, and each system that these cells form. Circulatory, respiratory, digestive, excretory, nervous, reproductive systems and so on, all have one or more drives (and these are only the systems that we’ve discovered, or feel are worth labelling). 

Any “thing” that happens in your experience – like letting go – is not an isolated event. It’s just the part of the system that you’re paying attention to. John Donne said, “No man is an Island.” And he was right. Unless of course, that island contains a complex ecosystem with multiple agents and influences. 

We can’t let go of our beliefs any more than clouds “let go” of rain. The reality is that if letting go was really something you could do; you’d just let go of your problems right now and wash your hands of them forever. 

But that’s not what happens. Instead, your mind clings onto the problem for as long as it can. You believe that you want to let go, and it feels like you’re trying to, but day-after-day you find yourself clinging to the same old problems. 

Then finally, out of nowhere, there is a moment of relief – and we call this “letting go.” 

Sometimes this relief is a partial realisation which whispers, “well this is way more complicated than I can get my head around, so I should just take a step back and relax.”

Other times it might be an overwhelming realisation which screams “none of this is up to you, there’s nothing you can do.”

But here’s the kicker.

The reason we hold onto habits is that the system of “you” still believes that it’s worth it to do so. Even if you “feel” like you want to let go, and you “try” to let go. 

You didn’t come to let go by becoming the best letting-goerer (google it). Letting go was a result of the network of thoughts, perceptions, feelings and beliefs, concluding that letting go (or giving up) was the right option. 

As long as that network is still convinced that it is in the best interest of the system, you’ll hold on. 

Surrender isn’t something you do, it’s a by-product of seeing that a belief you held is false and harmful. This can take time, physical addictions are examples of situations where we can logically understand that something is harmful, but unconsciously, somatically, neurochemically – there is still an investment in the addiction. 

A lot of goals in personal development (and under the guise of spiritual development), are actually a by-product of seeing the falsehood in long-held beliefs. 

Compassion, for example, is what naturally results when we see that we’re not as separate as we once believed. Our separation and boundaries are purely conceptual, and an experience of sharing pain or pleasure with someone can make this very clear. Real compassion is spontaneous action that is free from any self-service. Being compassionate so you feel better, or as a form of virtue signalling is not compassion. 

Acceptance isn’t taking a deep breath and saying, “I’m ok with this.” Then white-knuckling your way through the day. That’s simply pretending to accept. Real acceptance is the immediate coming to terms with the inescapability what’s happening right now. Whether you’re sick or in pain or just mildly uncomfortable, it’s already happening and it’s already here.

Peace of mind isn’t a result of attempting to force thoughts out of your mind. It’s what happens when the brain-body-mind system sees that thoughts are causing more harm than good, and there is more to be gained by giving thoughts less attention.  

Happiness isn’t what happens when you get what you want. It’s what happens when there is an absence of interest or investment in the stories of your suffering which frees up energy that is used to engage in life.

So, where does that leave you?

Well, for one, I would recommend that you don’t beat yourself up for still having thoughts, beliefs and emotions that you would prefer to let go of. Instead, I’d suggest that you recognise that “it is what it is” and there’s nothing we can do about the fact they’re already here. This is clearly easier said than done – particularly with deep attachments.

I would also suggest that you don’t try to force yourself to let go. That will cause frustration. Instead, try and see why it doesn’t make any sense to keep holding on. 

Maybe you’re worried about a comment a friend made about you behind your back. Instead of thinking “I wish I could STOP worrying about this.” Try taking a measured, stoic approach and see how it goes. “Why is this silly to keep holding onto?” “What do I get from holding onto this day after day?” “Can I really be sure that this is what they think of me?”

In short, don’t let go. Just see what subtle belief is benefiting from “holding on” – and challenge it relentlessly. Patience is useful because you can’t force yourself to let go of a strong habit overnight. Oftentimes they take a bit more time to unravel.

For more about questioning unhelpful beliefs, check out the following posts: 

How to Stop Getting Bothered by Strong Opinions

I’m about to say something that might seem surprising.

But I truly believe what I’m about to say, so I’m going to say it.

I’m in the process of getting over an addiction. 

It’s a very common addiction, and like all addictions, it’s something that serves a purpose. That purpose, however, is not a sense of peace, contentment and wellbeing. The drive behind this addiction, at least it seems, has been to lull me into a false sense of security. 

It isn’t a physical addiction, like drugs or sex or food, it’s a psychological addiction. 

I am psychologically addicted to opinions. 

And I’m not the only one. Everywhere I look, people cling tightly to their opinions like a chain smoker taking that last puff before a long-haul flight, or an overbearing and jealous partner not wanting to let go, or like Gollum, obsessively guarding his precious ring.

Coronavirus conspiracies? Precious. Trump supporters? Precious. Anti-Trump supporters? Precious. Astrological natal charts? Vegan diets? Gun rights? Preciouuuuuus.

But why do we have such strong opinions?

I have no idea, honestly. As far as I can tell it’s some sort of interaction between an evolutionary coping mechanism and a cultural and technological landscape that rewards strongly opiniated thinking. In other words: opinions are viral.

Let me explain. Do you know what a meme is? You may think it’s just those silly little images with quirky captions that go around the internet. It’s actually a term coined in 1976 by the well-known evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins used the term to refer to a cultural phenomenon that replicates in a way similar to genes. 

In an interview with Wired UK whereby they asked him what he thought of the “new” use of the term. Dawkins replied:

“The meaning is not that far away from the original. It’s anything that goes viral. In the original introduction to the word meme in the last chapter of The Selfish Gene, I did actually use the metaphor of a virus. So when anybody talks about something going viral on the internet, that is exactly what a meme is and it looks as though the word has been appropriated for a subset of that.”

Opinions are, therefore, a type of meme. The nature and structure of the internet seems to fuel polarising attitudes.

Anonymity. We can hide behind a fake name and profile picture, saying whatever we want without repercussions.

Confirmation bias. Our mind naturally looks for other people who share our perspectives and we tend to form groups with them.

Positive Reinforcement. Others who share our opinions will give us social approval that costs them next to nothing and gives us the illusion that our opinions have significant value.

Rapid popularity. Fame and status used to be earned through trial by combat – either physical or psychological. With the internet, individuals who are entirely unprepared for the responsibility of influence are made famous overnight.

People look for opinions to manage their fear of uncertainty, they then look for opinions that match theirs (confirmation bias) in order reinforce this false sense of security, and double down by creating digital in-groups and out-groups. 

Whether we know it or not, we are rewarded for our opinions. This reward is a short-term dopamine spike in response to likes, retweets or other forms of social approval.  

This is all fine and dandy. But these rewards tend to obscure our perspective. My hunch (also an opinion), is that the validation that many of us crave and receive over the internet is causing us to greatly overvalue our opinions and become entrapped by them. 

How to let go of strong opinions?

Opinions are like street signs, but most of us use them like houses. Look at them periodically for guidance, do not live in them. 

I might feel that my own opinions are special. I’ll argue that they’re relatively well thought out, educated, and from a place of less emotional intensity than those of others. However, they’re still just opinions, and therefore no matter how shiny they may seem, they amount to nothing more than a plastic trophy. Try melting down a plastic trophy and see what it gets you.

It sounds paradoxical, but if you truly want to a sense of certainty don’t hold onto your opinions tighter and tighter. Let them go. See how easy life actually becomes when you’re not marching around with a backpack of passionate beliefs. Question your opinions, challenge them. Try living without them, even if only briefly, and notice how less reactive you become, how light life starts to feel, and how life keeps on going, civilisation doesn’t crumble, and you still manage to get through the day to day.

Take a look at your opinions. Where do they come from? Are they really as special as they feel? Pretty much all of what we think comes about as a result of cultural conditioning. I can’t tell you a thought I’m going to have in the next minute let alone an opinion I’m going to hold five years from now. A little perspective goes a long way. Remember the ideas you had as a child, or as a teenager? Beliefs that felt so real and important now seem a little silly. Recognising this, does it make much sense to get caught up in your own opinions?

This is the same for the opinions of others. Sometimes it’s easier to see how people change viewpoints day by day, week by week, year by year. I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine about spirituality – we found that we actually agreed on a lot. We had the same conversation seven years ago when we first met, and we agreed on nothing. Who knows where we’ll be seven years from now? It doesn’t matter, as long as neither of us let our opinions take us for an emotional rollercoaster ride.

We all have one strong opinion that we could loosen our grip on today and we’d travel a little lighter for it.

Right it down. Challenge it. Let it go.

What’s yours?

The Revolutionary Potential of Mistrust: 3 Unconscious Stories That Cause Suffering

I’m about to explain something that might seem revolutionary.

When I first saw what I’m about to share, I didn’t actually understand how important it was. That was until it started having a dramatic and positive effect on my experience. 

What I’m talking about isn’t special, but it’s very profound. Yet your initial knee-jerk reaction, like mine, might be to dismiss it. I would, however, warn against that. 

I’m talking about three simple words; mistrust your thoughts.

See, at different points in my life I, like you, have felt trapped by many things. Time, money, relationships, illness, fears – the hypothetical list could go on forever. As a result, I have suffered. But deep down I have never truly been trapped. I’ve only felt and thought I was

The only thing that ever traps anyone is the story they tell themselves. I know that sounds like a platitude, but before you angrily change tabs for a rage scroll through social media, hear me out. 

Obviously, there are physical trappings in life. A man with his leg stuck in a bear trap is quite clearly trapped. I’m not about to walk past him in the woods and say, “I respect the fact that you think your leg hurts, dude, but you just think you are trapped, you’re actually free.” I like to think that I’m not an asshole. A response like that would not be compassionate and shows the social skills of a giant panda (weird reference, I know…. google it later). 

If, however, that which was trapping him was literally a story, then yes, I might suggest that he try a little bit of mistrust on for size. 

Pain and suffering are not the same thing. Pain is an immediate sensation while suffering is a response to pain, it is a meta-experience about the pain. Most often that experience comes in the form of rumination – or as I like to say: T.R.I.P.S: Totally Random Imaginary Painful Stories.

You can use the acronym or throw it away. You can even just think about it literally, like a bad trip (or a nightmare). 

But why is mistrust revolutionary? Well that depends in what you mistrust.

The definition of revolution is “an overthrow or repudiation and the thorough replacement of an established government or political system.”

In this case, the established government are the trips, and that which overthrows this system is mistrust.

For years I’ve had chronic pain, apparently as a result of a developmental issue with my spine (but also, apparently maybe not). 

It sucks. But the pain itself is nothing compared to the trips I’ve had about the pain. The painful mental stories of injustice, responsibility and what-ifs. They are the real suffering. 

The principle of mistrust that I’m about to explore with you could be applied to stories about any problem: depression, anxiety, fears about work, insecurities in a relationship.  I’m going to use chronic pain as an example, simply because it’s something I still have to manage, the stories still come up from time to time, so it’s easier to write about. 

Which is why I’ll say it again; mistrust your thoughts.

The Ownership TRIP: “For years I’ve had chronic pain.”

As you might have noticed, even in an article about mistrusting your stories, I’ve already presented a number of stories. That’s just the nature of language and pronouns. It’s also why I’ve mentioned this story first. It’s the original problem. The first story that kicks off all others. This is MY pain, MY problem, MY anxiety. 

But let us introduce a little mistrust into the equation. Is this really my chronic pain? I mean, I didn’t choose to have chronic pain any more than I choose to catch a cold. Whatever the chronic pain is, it’s been decided by factors over which I had no control: developmental changes in my spinal, past experiences, genetics, (at times) poor medical advice, a psychological disposition etc. 

The feeling of chronic pain is just something that shows up in this complex interplay of sensory experiences. But so is the sound of a car horn on my walk to work, so is the colour of the wallpaper in my kitchen, so is the smell of coffee in the office. None of these are taken in and called MY car horn sound, MY white (or is it cream?) wallpaper, MY coffee scented office. 

We don’t consider these experiences worthy of ownership. Why? Because they’re not painful! Our minds hold onto the story of pain in an attempt to figure them out, and in doing so, they create suffering. Whatever the trip you’re on right now, discard it. Your depression is not yours and it is not you. If you want to say anything about it, just call it something passing through your experience. 

“For years I had chronic pain?” Really? I’m sure at some point in those years I was sleeping. Maybe I should say “for years I have been sleeping” or “for years I have been growing my fingernails,” or “for years I’ve been seeing yellow cars.” Was I really, though? Or was that just something that seemed to pass through my experience.

The Justice TRIP: “It’s not fair that I have chronic pain.”

The justice story is deeply embedded in our culture. Basically, it says that whatever my immediate circumstance is, is not fair. For the sake of clarity, I’m going to make a couple of distinctions.

(Disclaimer: To doubt the idea of what’s fair or not does not mean to indiscriminately allow injustices to occur. It’s not a reason or excuse for abusive behaviour towards yourself or others. If someone else tells you that something is unfair or unjust, respect their experience.)

Firstly, we have justice in a finite game. A game with a limited number of variables and a set of predetermined rules – such as the judicial system or a boxing match. We might call this “relative justice.” This justice is by no means perfect, and it’s often illogical and full of contradictions, but it can be useful for attempting to curb abuses of power (then again it can do the opposite of that too). 

What I’m talking about here is a personal justice trip that applies to my life and my circumstances. Concepts like pain, life or circumstances have no concrete and defined boundaries. They are what we might call an infinite game, or “absolute justice.” Unless you believe in an anthropomorphised (human-like) god, then no, there is no absolute justice. 

So, is it not fair that I have chronic pain? I don’t know. Is it fair that I was born in a country that was not war-torn? Is it fair that I’ve had period of physical or mental illness? Is it fair that I have fresh food in the fridge? Is it fair that one sperm reaches the embryo over another?

Here’s a story that better illustrates the point. It’s a Chinese Folk Tale, originally called Sai Weng Shi Ma (Old Man Lost Horse). It’s a useful way to poke some holes of mistrust in the justice trip. 

A poor old man lived on the Northern border of China. One day, his stallion (male horse) ran North of the China border into the Northern tribes, later to be known as Mongolia. In the old days, a horse was one of the most valuable and useful possessions that a person could have. Therefore, the other villagers thought this was a very bad misfortune.

The old man did not worry, and he thought that this may actually be a blessing. A few months later, the old man’s horse returned with a mare (female horse). The mare was pregnant and gave birth to a foal (baby horse). Now the man had three horses as depicted in the painting: (1) the black stallion; (2) the white mare; and (3) the greyish blue foal. All the villagers congratulated the old man.

The old man thought that this may actually turn out to be a cause of misfortune. Later, his son became fond of riding the horses. One day, his son fell off the horse and broke his thigh bone. As doctors were not nearly as well trained in 206 B.C., a broken thigh bone meant that his son would be a cripple for life. The old man thought, “Perhaps this will turn out to be a blessing.”

One year later, the Northern tribes launched a major invasion into China. All able-bodied young men were required to fight against the Northern invaders. Unfortunately, the casualties of this war were very high, with nine of ten men dying in battle. Only one out of ten survived to return back to his village.

Since the father was old and his boy was crippled, neither were required to go to war, and both survived. The son’s injury had turned out to be a blessing in disguise – sai weng shi ma.

The Fantasising TRIP: “If only I didn’t have chronic pain, my life would be fine.”

You’ve probably heard the phrase “the grass is always greener on the other side.” What it means is that things look better in our imagination than they are. This is because we tend to focus on the positives in an alternative situation and ignore the negatives and focus on the negatives in our present situation, ignoring the positives. 

There are deeply rooted biological reasons for our habitual fantasising. One neurochemical system – the dopaminergic system – has developed to keep us addicted to our anticipations of the future. This is so we stay productive and reproductive, not because our fantasies are accurate perceptions of the world (or that their fulfillment will make us happy).

Studies have found that dopamine is initially released in response to a reward (e.g. chocolate), but as time goes on and more rewards are received (e.g. more chocolate), more and more dopamine is released in response to anticipating the reward (thinking about eating chocolate) and less and less upon receiving the reward (eating chocolate).

“Natural selection doesn’t “want” us to be happy, after all; it just “wants” us to be productive, in its narrow sense of productive. And the way to make us productive is to make the anticipation of pleasure very strong but the pleasure itself not very long-lasting.” 

– Robert Wright, Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment 

I’m going to be a little radical and take the grass-is-always-greener trip a step further. Actually, three steps further. 

  1. The only problem with the present situation is that we think there’s a problem.
  2. We have NO idea how an alternative experience would be.
  3. However, the alternative experience would be, it would NOT be like the fantasy trip.

A thought says that my life would be fine without chronic pain. But can I really know that? Maybe without the pain, I would find myself on a ski trip where I’m paralysed. Maybe without the pain, I would have little desire to write articles like these. Maybe without the pain, I would fantasise about some other, more objectively trivial issue, like how “If only I had more (money, affection, social media likes) then my life would be ok.”

Again, I don’t know, and I don’t care to know. The important thing here is that doubt continues to penetrate these thoughts, so their credibility is challenged and the intensity of belief in them diminishes. 

There are plenty more trips that are beyond the scope of this article, but these three are a good introduction to the archetypal stories that the mind activates in response to painful experiences. 

The story itself isn’t important, the principle is. What is the principle? Again; mistrust your thoughts.

Relentlessly challenging all stories around pain has been a lifesaver. It allowed me to manage what has at times seemed to be an unbearable experience. It allowed a drastic reduction in pain medication, and on top of that, a huge relief from anxiety and fear – both of which are echoed over and over again in our painful stories.

When mistrusting your thoughts becomes a habit, then the mind invests less energy in thoughts and stories, and they lose their power. And that, my friends, is the revolutionary potential of mistrust.

The Power of Doubt: 5 Questions To Help Eliminate Painful Stories

What I’m about to talk about is universal. 

By that I mean, we all have one.

No, I’m not talking about a heart, or a lung, or a brain.

I’m talking about a story – a painful story. A story about a challenge that we have faced or are currently facing. Most of us have dozens of these stories. And you know what? These stories make it much harder to manage the unavoidable discomfort and pain that comes with a human life.

There are three challenges that we live with – but only two of them are necessary. 

These challenges are discomfort, pain, and suffering, and for the sake of this article, I’m going to define them in my own way.

Discomfort is any negative feedback to your nervous system that is mostly unconscious. It may be that we are sitting awkwardly so our body shifts position. Or that someone says something that we don’t like, so we snap at them. Or even just that we feel hunger, so we eat. Discomfort is necessary to keep us alive.   

Pain is a strong sense discomfort that recognised by our conscious mind. Consider times that we roll our ankle, bump our head or burn our hand on a stove. Some of us have chronic pain, such as arthritis, headaches or back pain. 

Suffering is an existential pain that arises when the sensation of pain also becomes a painful story about “me.” This is the fuel for most emotional pain that we experience.

Put simply, what we tell ourselves about the pain, i.e. how we ‘own’ it, determines both how long the pain sticks around and the intensity with which it arises. If there was no story about the pain, and only a sensation, there would be no suffering. This is true for both acute pain and chronic pain. 

When you look closely – through the lenses of direct experience or science – there is really little difference between the beliefs that cause emotional pain and the physical pain we feel. In fact, on a neurological level emotional and physical pain is actually processed in very similar parts of the brain: the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex. 

Fortunately, we can start to break down these beliefs by questioning our thoughts. Not just once or twice, but over and over again, until they start to unravel. 

Think about beliefs like a sweater that we walk around with and thoughts like the threads that make up the fabric. As we question the thoughts we are pulling at threads, until eventually the painful belief that we carry around with us just falls away. This is a longer process that requires more than what is contained in this article, but the following questions are useful starting points. 

#1: What is the story I am telling myself about this pain?

If pain is in your conscious awareness, then there is almost always a story you are telling yourself about the pain. Maybe it’s something like “this is the worst thing that has ever happened to me” or “I used to be happy before I had this problem.” Whatever the case, if you don’t first identify the story then it’s very hard to question it, and you’ll go on assuming that it’s the reality, rather than just a painful story.  

#2. How have I mistaken the story of this pain to be my identity?

Almost all stories have a degree of ownership to them. Anytime you notice the use of “I, me, mine” in a story about pain, then you’ve taken this story to be part of your identity. There are, however, different degrees of identification with our painful stories. For example, “My sore ankle is going to stop me from rollerblading next week” is more like a leaf on a branch, whereas “I’m just the guy in pain, everyone sees me like that” is more akin to the tree-trunk.  

#3. Do I truly know how I’m going to feel tomorrow?

The degree to which we perceive future certainty over our stories of pain is also the degree to which we become anxious about the pain. If you look close enough at your experience of pain, there may be very little consistency. Maybe you have a headache and the pain wants to tell you “You’ll have one in the morning as well.” But can you really know this? Have there been times where you expected to have pain, but didn’t? Or you expected to not have pain, and you did? Pain can cause fear and fear causes anxious predictions about what tomorrow brings.

#4. If humility could talk, what would it say about this pain?

What role does humility have in dealing with pain? Well, it’s simple. On a basic level, pain tells our brain that we are in danger. An organism in danger is one that is forced to put itself first. In terms of a painful story, this is usually translated through the mind as “this shouldn’t be happening to me.” “I don’t deserve this.” Or “This pain is unnatural and unfair.” Humility, however, is the opposite of this. It is capacity to see that that discomfort and pain is everywhere in nature. It’s normal and it says nothing about who or what you are, or what you “deserve.” Does a shrimp deserve to be swallowed by a whale? Does a fly deserve to be caught in a spider’s web? Does a tree deserve to be struck by lightning? Maybe your mind will argue that someone or something (like a medical system) has wronged you, and that without their errors or malintent, you wouldn’t have this pain. But then that wouldn’t be humility talking, would it?

#5. Could I be less interested in this painful story? 

Interest is the ingredient that keeps the painful stories going. Imagine your mind has a Netflix-like algorithm. The stories are only written if the viewer shows interest in them. If you stopped being entertained by episodes like “This isn’t fair.” “I can’t be happy while I’m in pain” or “When I get rid of this pain, everything will be ok,” then soon enough they’d stop appearing on your timeline, and eventually they would be discontinued altogether. The less interested you are in the stories about your pain, the less your brain will pay attention to it.

Question your painful stories and they will loosen their grip.  In time, suffering will become a painful sensation and painful sensations may even become unrecognised discomfort. 

How have you learned to separate pain from painful stories? Let us know in the comments!

The Self-Improvement Fallacy: 6 Delusions That Keep You Chasing Happiness Forever

Admit it.

There’s a part of you that is reading this with the hope that I will give you the answer.

The answer to what, maybe you’re not entirely sure. But you can sense that it’s the answer you’re looking for. Something that will make you feel slightlybetter than you feel right now. Which is fair. You wouldn’t click on this article headline if you thought it was going to make you feel worse than now. Right?

Unfortunately though, we have a problem, you and I.

I’m not going to give you the answer you want. Frankly, you don’t need any more answers. Actually, you don’t need any more ideas at all.

But wait, isn’t this article just more ideas as well? No. Well, yes, but there’s an important distinction: my intention with this post is to subtractrather than add. By the end of this page I want you to leave you feeling a little bit lighter and more relaxed. Right after we cut a hole in the bottom of the backpack of beliefs you carry with you.

Let me be honest. As a writer and reader, I have been a repeat offender of the transgression I’m about to share with you. Likely more so than you.

I’ve easily read over 200 books on topics around self-improvement. I’ve also written 200–300 self-improvement related articles — myself!

Which is why I’m perfectly positioned to say what I’m about to say.

Self-Improvement is a fallacy, and I’ll tell you why.

All self-improvement boils down to one thing. The entire multibillion-dollar industry feeds itself on this principle: you are not ok with the present experience.

Self-improvement is an attempt to move towards a “better” state in which you will feel content with how things are. We call this state of being happiness.

If we watched a movie with a character who had everything we believed we might want (money, wealth, relationships, amazing experiences, etc) but that character was fundamentally discontent — would that be the happiness we want?

Of course not!

But herein lies the problem — we don’t need to improve anything to feel ok with right now.

“What’s wrong with right now if you don’t think about it?”

— ‘Sailor’ Bob Adamson

Let’s make it simple.

When we were young children, assuming we were healthy and living in a safe and loving environment, we were generally happy. Why? Not because we found the answer in some repetitive self-improvement book, or we went on an expensive yoga retreat, or we got a 20% raise at work.

It’s because we hadn’t yet accumulated all the ideas that get in the way of us feeling ok.

I know this because I used to run on the self-improvement treadmill all day, every day, and I never got where I thought I was going.

But when I started to strip away the following delusions, I could actually begin to feel the contentment I did as a child.

So without further ado;

Here are Six Common Delusions That Keep You Chasing Happiness Forever

#6. When I Figure Out Why I Feel [Down, Sad, Anxious etc.], Then I’ll Be Happy

This myth is debunked the second you see a baby smile. Do they need to analyse their emotions before they can experience joy? What about all the non-human apes; bonobos, chimps, gorillas? Do they need to figure out their feelings before they can run around with a grin? No, because happiness is something that is inherent in their natural state.

But not us. Not human adults. We’re intelligent and sophisticated. We sit with our thoughts, reflecting on our fears, our sadness, and our anxieties. Because on some level we believe that with just enough rumination we’ll get the magic answer that leaves us permanently fulfilled.

There is significant value in talk therapy, but not the value we expect. A coherent story might appear to release a bit of tension, until it doesn’t. Children fall over and cry, then they pick up their toys, and get on with whatever they were doing. They don’t analyse why they cried, whether they’re going to cry again tomorrow, if their crying means that they’re fundamentally deficient and should be banished to a life of time-out for the rest of eternity.

They just start playing again, and at some point, the residual effects of those tears vanish, and they’re blissfully content with the next moment. It’s not an unsophisticated approach to such emotional challenges, it’s very adaptive.

Children have less to worry about, yes. But that doesn’t mean their attitude is any less valid, it just means that it doesn’t come as naturally to us as adults. Somewhere along the way, we picked up the capacity to reason and reflect on our emotions. Now we think that the way to solve all emotional issues is to think our way out of them.

Related Beliefs

  • I’ll be happy when I work through all my past traumas.
  • I’ll be happy when I dissect every argument I’ve ever had with my mother.
  • I’ll be happy when I assess the symbolism in all of my dreams.

#5. I Should Be More Successful

There are two problems with this idea:

1. Many of us aren’t even sure what success means.

Success is defined as the outcome of an aim or purpose. If that is the case, how can I be more successful? I am not an outcome, nor an aim, nor a purpose. I am a process. The reason we even have the concept of success is for guidance. A successful ‘you’ is a location on a map, it’s a direction on a compass. Saying ‘I’ want to be more successful is like saying I want to be more north. But the earth is not flat, and you are not a single goal. Keep travelling north and you will keep having a north to travel to. Ad infinitum. Keep trying to BE more successful and you will keep having an idea of a successful you to move towards. Yet you’ll never quite reach it.

2. Why should we be more successful?

We think we should be more successful because of the misconception with our definition of success. We think success will get us somewhere. The second you think that ‘you’ are moving towards success, failure will creep up right behind you. That’s why upon achieving goals we often have an anticlimactic feeling “ok…what now.” It’s not because happiness was in the goal, or that it was hidden in the process of striving for a goal. It’s actually because in striving for a goal we placed ourselves in a structure in which we were allowed to stop thinking about happiness.

Related Beliefs

  • I’m not as successful as my [brother, mother, friend, work colleague, celebrity, athlete]
  • I thought I’d be more successful by this age
  • As long as I hit all my goals by 35, then I’ll be successful

#4. I Won’t Be Happy Until I’m My Best Self

Ugh.

This is another muddled idea that just ends up getting in the way. You hear other platitudes mixed in with this. Instagram captions might refer to it “Living my best life.” New age spiritual junkies use the term “Your highest self.” A silicon valley executive might even call it “Optimal functioning.”

Your best self, like success, is an idea. It’s a direction to travel in, a constantly moving target. It is not a place that you reach at a specific point in time.

What happens when you’re sick? When you age? What happens when forces outside of your control derail your ‘best-self’ plans?

This bullsh*t idea of your becoming best-self is not the benchmark by which you should choose to accept yourself. Your best-self is a noun. Your actual-self is a verb. In the stream of life, the points at which they meet are likely to be few and far between. Deciding that you can’t be happy with life until you are “your best self” is like saying an Olympic swimmer shouldn’t enjoy being in the water until they’re standing on the podium receiving a gold medal.

Related Beliefs

  • I need to live my best life
  • I need to live with NO REGRETS
  • I need to win, no matter what the cost

#3. I Could Be Doing Something More Important Right Now

Technically that statement is true. But so is “I could have been born an Emperor of Never-never land.”

Both of these statements have an equal material relationship to the present moment. That is, neither of them actually exist outside of our thoughts. The only difference is that you think that this statement might bring you closer to happiness, whereas you’ve been smart enough to accept the fact that you will never be emperor of Never-never Land.

Some people think that accepting that things are enough will turn you into a lifeless couch potato. That’s just a deficiency story taking another form. We don’t walk down the road to get milk and spend every step reminding ourselves where we are going and why. That would be torture. We can still move through life with goals and preferences without our happiness being contingent on them being met.

Related Beliefs

  • I should be more productive right now
  • I should be doing something more enjoyable right now
  • I need to make a REAL difference in the world

#2. Finding Happiness Is Difficult

We only believe that finding happiness is difficult because we still believe that happiness is something you find. You don’t find happiness, you only ever find fleeting moments of pleasure.

Lasting happiness is something that you uncover. Something that you reveal when you remove a series of beliefs such as those being presented to you here.

When you have a whole society looking in the wrong direction to find something, and a relatively small percentage stumbling across it, the perception of it being a rare jewel is likely to be written into the way of life. This is perpetuated by hollywood-esque narratives that are built into our popular culture.

A story is not an experience. Success is a story. My best life is a story. Fulfilment is an experience. And it doesn’t require fighting dragons, climbing mountains, making millions, seducing the boy/girl of your dreams, sacred pilgrimages or any other incredibly difficult fantasy.

Maybe uncovering happiness is actually quite simple. Like taking a deep breath right now and embracing the idea that this experience right now is enough. It may seemingly get worse in the future, or better, but that could be enough also.

Nah. That couldn’t be it.

Related Beliefs

  • I just need to achieve my life goals, then I’ll be happy
  • Finding peace of mind can’t be easy
  • I need to overcome my fears before I can feel ok

#1. I Should Be Happier Right Now

Which brings us to the last point. The deepest belief that gets in the way of your capacity for happiness.

The subtle but persistent idea that you should be happier than you are right now. Maybe no tool in human history has perpetuated this fallacy more so than social media.

Consider how crazy this is.

We open social media and look at 2-dimensional images of other people, intentionally curated by them. We then pretend that based on those pixels, we understand their 4-dimensional experience. And finally, we conclude that they have something that we don’t, and that something is wrong about our experience because of it.

It’s ok to want pleasure. It’s ok to strive for peak experiences. But these are moments that come and go. They mean nothing about our inherent value, how we should be feeling at any given moment, or our birthright to feel happy.

How about you? What ideas have got about the idea of happiness? Let me know in the comments.

The Optimism Habit: 6 Ways To Rewire Your Brain To Focus On The Positive

It’s an uphill battle we all go through.

Life presents us a challenge, big or small, and at some point, we decide to approach it with a positive mindset. But for whatever reason, something just keeps getting in the way. Maybe we have days where we manage to stay optimistic for 80% of the time, but the second we get tired or sick or hungry, all that cheerfulness is replaced by negativity. 

“Why do I have to deal with this?”

“This is ridiculous?”

“I don’t want to be doing this right now!”

The reality is, if our goal is to have a positive mindset, something IS standing in our way. Something huge; our brain. 

See, our brain developed in environments very different from the one we live in now. So evolution gave us what cognitive scientists call a negativity bias. This is the propensity of the mind to give more weight to negative information than positive information. It also means that more often than not, we perceive neutral information as negative.

Intuitively, we understand the negativity bias, because anyone with a human mind has lived with it at some point in time. Some people, however, manage to rewire their brain and make positivity their default attitude. Usually, this happens through sustained effort, but occasionally through luck or genetics. 

Before I jump into the different ways that you can begin to rewire your negativity bias, I want to first touch on some things that increase the pessimism habit. Some of these will be obvious, but it’s important to consider them in the context of the later strategies because they help you form a conceptual system for dealing with negativity. 

Stress. Any stress, whether physical or emotional, will supercharge the negativity bias. We see this when we’re sick or tired, and we become less tolerant and accepting of things in our experience.

Tension and pain. Where the body goes, the mind follows, and vice versa. Physical tension and pain will more often than not also cause mental tension and pain. 

Fear and trauma. Broadly speaking humans have two ways to deal with the world. One is open and free, and the other is closed and fearful. These will vary depending on your personal history, past traumas, culture and context, but it’s important to notice how fear and trauma – such as what we’ve seen with COVID-19 – can cause antisocial attitudes and behaviour. 

Egocentrism. These closed and open ways of dealing with the world are also linked to whether we are focused on protecting ourselves or focused on helping something bigger than ourselves. People who give their life to a greater cause can often seem more happy and positive. Part of this is because their mental content isn’t so acutely concerned with self-preservation.

The following list is by no means exhaustive. Anything that addresses stress, tension, pain, fear, trauma or egocentrism will tell our brains that we are safe and help to change our default focus from negative to positive.  

6 Ways To Rewire Your Brain To Focus On The Positive

#6. Negativity Fasting

What we consume on a mental level is as important as what we consume on a physical level. A psychologically nutritious diet should not include a heavy flow of negative information. Unfortunately with the way things are going into the third decade of this new millennium, day-by-day we are force-fed the mental equivalent of fast food. Limit this by turning off the news and reducing your social media use, reading optimistic books and only hanging around with people who are positive-minded.

Tips and Resources:

What is Negativity Fasting and can it make you happier? – Dave Asprey 

#5. Cognitive Reframing

This is pretty basic cognitive behavioural therapy. Take a negative thought such as “I can’t get up at 7 am every day” and change it to a positive (but realistic) one “I can get up at 7 am every day (though it may take a little extra effort). In my experience, this is quite a surface level tactic and doesn’t create deep change unless you take it very seriously. If, however, you consider cognitive reframing a practice, and you keep track of your negative thoughts with a journal, you can see some surprising changes.

Tips and Resources:

#4. Repetition and Habit Formation

This applies to pretty much any of the strategies on this list. Basically, the point I’m trying to make here is, chunk your tactic down into a manageable habit and repeat it over time until it becomes unconscious and natural. The best habit formation method I have come across is the work of Stanford Professor BJ Fogg. I actually took a training course in his habits coaching method a couple of years ago. Unless you’re specifically interested in mastering certain habits I wouldn’t spend much money – but I highly recommend his book.

Tips and Resources:

Book: Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything – BJ Fogg

#3. Cosmic Humour

“Man suffers only because he takes seriously what the gods made for fun.” – Alan Watts

Humour is the most effective (and underrated) tool for dealing with negativity in the entire human arsenal. It’s a gift that is so often squandered or ignored. Part of this is because psychology professors and spiritual teachers either take themselves too seriously or their students take them too seriously. If you can perceive your life from a bird-eye view and see the humour in each and every situation, it’s very hard to stay negative about it. Situations that are tragic or comedic have many of the same elements in them. Choose wisely. Alan Watts is good at this, but he might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Jedd Mckenna also does this a bit, but again, he’s not for everything.

Tips and Resources:

  • Books by Alan Watts 
  • Book: Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing – Jed Mckenna
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hIlTwsbl_7U

#2. Radical Compassion Practices 

Different forms of compassion-based practices have been used in almost all spiritual traditions throughout history. They obviously work. I like the work of Tara Brach, who uses the term radical compassion. What she means by that, as far as I understand, is all-inclusive, non-discriminatory compassion. This means it’s often not easy because we’re at times practising compassion, gratitude and forgiveness, with things that we have strong negative feelings towards. But that’s why it works. 

Tips and Resources:

#1. Memory Reconditioning

Much of our negativity is stored in based memories and what some might call traumas. It’s probably better to call them micro-traumas to distinguish from more serious traumas associated with PTSD etc. By consciously bringing to mind certain negative memories and their associations, and changing the emotional tone that is connected to them, we can undo a lot of the baggage that we picked up throughout our life. When taken to its extreme, I think this is even more effective than the compassion practices, but they go hand-in-hand. I like the work of Byron Katie and Lester Levenson. They both have free and paid content. 

P.S. The Sedona Method is associated with Levenson, but they charge an arm and a leg. I wouldn’t recommend any of their more expensive programs. 

Tips and Resources:

Conclusion

These six strategies need to be applied with consistency and intensity if you are to really change your brain’s habits. Don’t be too hard on yourself if it doesn’t go the way you expect overnight. 

What experience have you had with the brain’s negativity bias? Let us know in the comments!

Peace of Mind is An Acquired Taste

In my late teens, I became interested in Buddhist Psychology.

I read about meditation, attention, the four noble truths, dharma, karma, citta, and various other exotic words.

Ironically, all these ideas became somewhat of an addiction.

On the one hand, I came to understand, at least superficially, that my mental experience was a reflection of my environment. Put simply: garbage in, garbage out.

Yet despite knowing this, and despite my mind being in a pretty uncomfortable place, I never took up a meditation practice. I just kept piling up the knowledge like trophies, and I was (literally) none the wiser.

At the same time, weekends would usually involve the consumption of a concoction of caffeine, sugar, alcohol, cannabis, fast food and the particular type of reality t.v. that made a hangover seem like an achievement.

My mind was so loud and chaotic I didn’t even notice.

Sattva and Samadhi might as well have been Vodka and Sambucca.

What You Don’t Know Will Hurt You

The cabin of an aeroplane is louder than you think. You actually cruise at around 85 decibels. After a couple of hours on board though, you tend to forget you’re sitting on the sonic equivalent of a lawnmower. It all becomes white noise. Most of the time, that was my mind. Loud, bustling, restless white noise.

Part of me wanted to meditate and truly experience what these books we’re talking about. But most of me wasn’t ready; I simply wasn’t accustomed to a quiet mind. Silence was a salad, but my mind had a sweet tooth.

Hmmm. Maybe a salad isn’t the best analogy here. Silence is more of an acquired taste. It’s something that requires exposure before we can start to enjoy it. Like a pungent cheese, a glass of dry wine or whisky with a kick, often we might need to grow into it.

Until we train ourselves to enjoy silence, we’re going to keep being attracted to those things in our life that bring us confusion, disquiet and drama. It’s a slippery slope, because when chaos becomes familiar, it is silence that seems too intense. Noise can distract us from the overwhelming sensations that a quiet mind will expose. At that point, we don’t even try to hold space in our life for peace and quiet — at least that’s where I was.

Even 30-seconds of silence waiting by myself for a friend would build up into an explosive scroll through social media.

I would’ve mourned for my mind’s chaos but the minute’s silence would’ve been unbearable.

Evolution and the Modular Mind

In his 2011 book, Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind, Evolutionary Psychologist Robert Kurzban explains how the brain evolved to have several specialised, and often competing, systems.

To put it simply, our brains have independent ‘modules’ for separate tasks. For example, we may have one system to promote short-term physical survival, another for morality or social status, and another for meaning-making. Given that meditation is now a billion-dollar industry, we likely have a module for peace of mind.

It’s all much more nuanced than that, but you get the point; sometimes one part of you will do things that another part of you doesn’t appear to want.

That’s why meditation is such a hard habit to stick with. It’s not exactly an easy sell. Happiness and calm aren’t really necessary for the four F’s of evolutionary survival: fightingfleeingfeeding and fornicating. If the different parts of your mind are having a board meeting, whoever is pitching meditation is probably doing a pretty lousy job.

Fortunately, with time, life experience and a little maturity, our palates can change. The sensations that you’re motivated to experience at 11 are different from what you look for at 21, as they are at 41 and I’m assuming at 81.

Eventually, I did take up a meditation practice, and quite a serious one at that.

Until I acquired the taste for silence — an ongoing process by the way — the benefits of silence just wasn’t interesting enough to convince me to stop chasing the dramas in my head. They didn’t make sense in a paradigm where I didn’t know what peace of mind looked, smelled, felt, tasted or sounded like.

The cost of peace of mind tends to be discomfort and sacrifice, and the uncomfortable reality is that in the realm of the mind, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

So what to do?

Well, that’s up to you. To be clear, this isn’t a call to cut out everything in your life that might contribute to mental noise. That’s unrealistic and relative to each individual.

All I’m trying to say is that at this point in my life, I simply don’t get bored with silence. As strange as it might sound, it can be more interesting than noise. The more time I’m exposed to silence, the better I feel. If someone would pay me to meditate, or even just stare at a wall, I’d take it. It’s probably just a sh*t wage.

Although nutritious, peace and quiet alone doesn’t necessarily constitute a balanced diet. Engaging with noise and chaos and all the stuff that makes your mind race is part of being human. To me, silence rules, but it need not be totalitarian. And besides, sometimes it’s no fun being the only vegan at the BBQ.

BetterHelp Review: I Tried Online Therapy for 30-Days & This Happened

Affiliate Disclosure: This post is sponsored by BetterHelp, but all views and opinions expressed herein are my own. As a BetterHelp affiliate, I may receive compensation from BetterHelp if you purchase products or services through the links provided. 

BetterHelp Review (2020 Update)

We all know what loneliness feels like.

In June 2016, I moved to Barcelona, Spain.

At the time I was new to the city, and going through a difficult period with work. I was having back pain, my living situation wasn’t supportive, and I was starting to have real troubles sleeping.

All in all, I was really, really stressed.

In fact, at one point, I didn’t sleep for two nights straight.

As the anxiety grew, and depression started to set in, I began to realise that I needed help. But I was in a city where I didn’t have a group of friends, the culture was different to what I was used to, and I didn’t yet have a fluent grasp of the language. Did I really want to go through the painstaking process of finding a therapist?

Admittedly, I was being stubborn, and it wasn’t doing me any favours.

Then, one night as I was mindlessly scrolling social media – trying to distract myself from obvious concerns – I came across a Facebook Ad that seemed to magically (cough) read my mind.

“BetterHelp – Affordable online counseling that’s convenient for you.”

Like most of us, the majority of things I read on Facebook seem to go unnoticed. However, two words caught my attention: affordable and online.

I definitely needed someone to talk to, but I was resisting the idea of a traditional therapist. I didn’t want to spend MORE money on therapy, foolishly believing that I’d be ok again in a week or two (though that wasn’t going to be the case). Plus, I was already so busy with work, how was I going to find the time?

BetterHelp looked like something I could fit around my work schedule and it was the cheapest option available at the time.  Plus they were offering a free week-long trial.

I thought I might as well, so signed up for their 7-day free trial and got started.

(Unfortunately this 7-day free trial is no longer available, but my readers do get a 10% discount off the first month!)

Note: In May 2018, I signed up for another month of BetterHelp – despite already having a therapist I talk to – I did so in order to see if the service was the same. The one big difference I noticed it that they have hundreds more therapists with a much wider range of expertise.

What is BetterHelp?

BetterHelp is an online therapy service that offers live messaging, phone and video sessions with almost 2000 qualified counsellors, psychologists, therapists, and clinical social workers from around the world.

Their website states that their mission is: “Making professional counseling accessible, affordable, convenient – so anyone who struggles with life’s challenges can get help, anytime, anywhere.”

betterhelp review

Before you begin you spend 10-15 minutes answering a psychometric-style questionnaire in order to match you with the right therapist. This is actually incredibly useful – I spent years bouncing between therapists before I found the right one, and this speeds up the process significantly.

You’ll be prompted to answer a series important questions such as:

  • Have you ever been in counseling or therapy before?
  • How would you rate your current physical health?
  • How would you rate your current sleeping/eating/ financial habits?
  • Are you currently experiencing overwhelming sadness, grief, or depression?
  • Are you currently experiencing anxiety, panic attacks or have any phobias?
  • Are you currently experiencing any chronic pain?
  • Do you consider yourself to be spiritual or religious?

Funnily enough, I’ve never had a therapist do this thorough of a background check with me. In fact, the questions about chronic pain and spirituality are two themes that have defined a lot of my own psychotherapeutic process, but these didn’t even come up in the first month of my therapy. It’s easy to put therapy and spirituality into separate boxes, but that need not be the case, obviously therapists meditate too!

After you’ve answered these questions you’ll be assigned a therapist who will introduce themselves and give you some worksheets to fill out. I found these very useful in helping me define what I wanted out of the therapy and to feel that I wasn’t wasting my time.

betterhelp review

I changed therapists in the first week, simply on a hunch after reading their biography that I’d have more rapport with someone else. It took BetterHelp 24 hours to assign me a new counsellor to work with. (I actually have a friend that switched more than 10 times before he found the perfect therapist – and he swears that being this picky made all the difference).

Once you’ve decided on a therapist you can choose a time for a live session, whether you want to do directed messaging, over the phone, or live video, it’s up to you. However, if you decide on a time with your therapist, make sure you book that time through BetterHelp – otherwise, they’re not obligated to show up, or they may not remember (they typically deal with quite a few clients).

BetterHelp Cost/Pricing (Updated for 2020)

Compared to traditional therapy, BetterHelp is a bargain.

There are three tiers to the BetterHelp pricing and they also have an option for financial aid for some people that may not be able to afford it.

(Note: They slightly change their pricing structure from time to time – so you’ll see different costs all over the internet – it’s best check with them before you commit.)

  • Unlimited $40/week billed annually
  • Unlimited $50/week billed quarterly 
  • Unlimited $70/week billed weekly 

Many people ask how often they should talk to a counsellor or psychologist. In my experience, talking to someone less than once a week makes it really difficult to build rapport. Once a fortnight or once a month is fine once you’ve already established a relationship, but at the start, it makes the process slightly difficult and tough to get the ball rolling.

I chose to go for the monthly option, and I managed to fit in three phone calls with the therapist in that month.

They say unlimited live sessions but from what I’ve gathered they only really tend to offer one live video session a week. To be fair, it’s more than enough as they tend to answer any questions you have over text within 24 hours anyway.

What are the advantages of BetterHelp?

Cost. Cost is an obvious benefit of online therapy. Typically a one-hour session with a psychologist will set you back $100-150 USD, so with plans starting at $40 a week, you’re saving a lot of money.

Flexibility. Online therapy is a lot more flexible than traditional therapy. Whereas you’re often limited to a one-hour session a week – plus travel time – that fits into your the schedule of your therapist, online therapy allows you to take therapy from anywhere you have an internet connection. This was one of the main reasons I decided to experiment with BetterHelp in the first place. It’s all available on mobile so you can ask questions on the go as issues come up in real time.

Anonymity. Therapy can be an uncomfortable situation for many people. There are issues that you don’t want to talk about with a stranger. Many people from all walks of life still have to deal with a stigma around mental health issues, and therefore online therapy allows an anonymity that can help us get started on our journey to better mental health.

Easy to switch counsellors. When I decided I wanted a different counsellor with BetterHelp, it took less than 24 hours for them to allocate someone new. In face to face therapy, you have to do some research to find a new therapist and then call to book an appointment in the hope that they have an appropriate time available.

More goal-directed. I’ve had experience with three counsellors at BetterHelp, and from what I can tell, they tend to be a lot more exercise orientated. Before the first session they will give you worksheets to complete. These are built into the BetterHelp interface which makes them easy to refer back to later on. This is good because you can feel like there is a tangible benefit to the therapy, as opposed to traditional therapy, where you may not even get exercises.

betterhelp review

Good for anyone outside their country. When you’re living in a foreign country it can be hard to find a therapist you can relate to. There may be an obvious language or cultural barrier that prevents you from building rapport and opening up in a way that’s necessary for the therapy to be fruitful and productive.

More frequent contact. In the culture of face to face therapy, it’s often not typical that you are able to message your therapist frequently throughout the week. This can tend to lead to a feeling of isolation, and that you don’t really have someone who’s trying to help. With the messaging function, your online therapist can give you direction and advice between live sessions, so you don’t feel like there’s you’re on your own the majority of the time.

Specialists. If you don’t live in a big city it can be tough to find a therapist who specialises in what you’re dealing with. This is particularly relevant if you’re dealing with something outside of the most common mental illness issues such as depression and anxiety.

What are the disadvantages of BetterHelp?

Rapport. Some people might try to tell you that there’s no loss of rapport between online and face to face therapy. I’m going to be honest with you, there is. The therapist I see now is online via Skype, and though there is trust in the relationship, that’s only been built after more than a year of sessions. When you first start online therapy, it’s not going to feel as it would were you in someone’s office – but a live video session does get close. The benefit of that is obviously anonymity, but it depends on your personality.

May need to try more than one counsellor. Because BetterHelp chooses a counsellor based on your initial questionnaire, you may not always get someone that you believe is a good fit for you. Fortunately, it’s easy to request a new one, and they are usually assigned to you in less than 24 hours.

Don’t always give immediate feedback. A lot of people go into online therapy expecting that they’ll have a friend to instant message any time of the day. Unfortunately, that’s not how this service works, which is fair enough, these are professionals with multiple clients and their own lives. Typically the counsellors at BetterHelp will respond at least once a day, so request someone on your time zone. However, if you’re looking for someone to chat to constantly, this isn’t the best place to find it.

You need to be proactive. This isn’t really a disadvantage, but it’s something I feel I should make clear anyway. If you don’t make an effort to book a time, you’ll still be charged the subscription. There are lots of people online angry that they’ve paid and haven’t had a session. The therapists aren’t necessarily going to chase you up, you need to ensure you’re setting

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Is BetterHelp for me?

BetterHelp has more than 30,000 reviews that you can read on their website.

But the question is, would I recommend BetterHelp?

Yes, 100%. BUT.

There are two situations where I would recommend traditional counselling over an online approach.

  1. If you are experiencing symptoms of a major mental illness – schizophrenia, bipolar, persistent suicidal ideation.
  2. If you can afford the time and cost of traditional therapy AND would much prefer to speak to someone in person.

In my own experience, I have had both better and worse experiences than BetterHelp with face-to-face counselling. For me, it’s a legitimate option if you’re struggling with depression, anxiety, stress or loneliness.

30 days of online therapy with BetterHelp was just what I needed at that moment in time. It helped me manage stress and anxiety, and knowing my history, I’m sure helped prevent me from getting caught in a long depressive episode. It provided a necessary support and was obviously worth every cent.

Was it life-changing? No. But I can tell you that it’s never ever worth risking falling into a depression, or prolonging your experience in a depression, when you have the option to seek help.

My personal experience with therapy has shown me that at the very least it can provide a structure to your mental health care that gives you a buffer against hopelessness. And at the very most it can provide important psychological insights that allow you to get through tough times and prevent future relapses.

Meditation has shown me that most of our resistance to therapy is simply out of fear and pride – and it’s a losing game that only ever prolongs our suffering.

My understanding of the neuroscientific implications of mental illness and therapy – through a Masters Degree in Applied Neuroscience – has shown me that the longer we leave mental illness untreated, the more our brain is physically damaged, and the harder it is to deal with in the future. The quicker we take action, the easier it is to heal, both now and in the future.

That’s why I’m recommending BetterHelp – not because it’s the be all end all, but because it’s a very useful service in the fight against mental illness.

Depression is a very serious illness that is unpredictable and can worsen unexpectedly, and very quickly. If you’re experiencing any signs of depression, I urge you to seek help. If you’re going through a tough time, don’t keep it to yourself, please reach out to someone, whether that’s BetterHelp or traditional therapy.

Your therapist will recommend that you commit to 4-6 months of therapy – but I understand that it’s a significant ask.

So I’m going to suggest that you give it a go for one month, and just see how you go. I’m an affiliate for BetterHelp, which means I get a commission if you sign up.

You used to be able to get 2 weeks free with BetterHelp, but due to the popularity they’ve changed that. Fortunately, if you use the link below you will be able to get a 10% discount on the first month.

Click on this link or the image below, to claim your discount and you can feel out the service. Try it out, you’ve got nothing to lose!

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P.S. Like I said before, I used to be stubborn when it came to therapy. But I’ve come to realise that there is nothing more valuable than my wellbeing.

The amount of money we spend on shining-objects in an attempt to feel better about ourselves trumps the cost of therapy ten times over.

Have you ever tried online therapy? Let me know! I’d love to hear from you.

DON’T Start Therapy Without Knowing These 5 Destructive Beliefs

Affiliate Disclosure: This post is sponsored by BetterHelp, but all views and opinions expressed herein are my own. As a BetterHelp affiliate, I may receive compensation from BetterHelp if you purchase products or services through the links provided. 


My jaw hit the floor when I realised what I’d done.

It was unbelievable.

At that moment I wished for one thing and one thing only. I wished that I was a time-traveller. I wished I could go back with what I know now and just do it all again.

Therapy, that is.

Yep, it’s a strange wish, I get it. But hear me out. See, ten years ago I had my first experience with a therapist.

It can probably be summed up in one word. Disastrous.

I walked into the room carrying a bunch of false beliefs about therapy, the therapist, the process and my role in it. Not to mention false beliefs about myself. So, after five or awkward, combative, yawn-filled, watch-checking sessions, I walked out — with a bitter taste in my mouth.

Disillusioned and angered by the whole process, I battled through five more years of low moods and anxiety before I even gave therapy another chance. On top of that, when I finally did see another therapist, I entered with many of the same destructive ideas and they unconsciously blocked my potential progress.

The result: thousands of dollars, down the drain.

Sure, sometimes it felt good to get some things off my chest. But was it worth it? Was I seeing things in a new light? Was I truly getting what I wanted out of therapy? It hurts to say this, but no, not at all.

Finally, I ended up with a therapist who I liked, and he not only took me through therapy, but he also taught me exactly what therapy was. Since then I went on to finish Masters in Applied Neuroscience (the neuroscience of mental health) and then trained to become a therapist myself.

When I sat at the other side of the table, it all became so clear — THAT is when my jaw dropped. Seeing all the misinformed ideas I had about therapy, I wished that someone could have told me this before I began my journey.

If I had known what I’m about to tell you, I’m confident I would have made much more rapid progress in therapy.

Anyway, what’s done is done. But I felt it would be a shame if I didn’t share this with anyone else who was going through therapy or thinking about doing so.

Here are 5 destructive beliefs that stop you from getting the most out of therapy.

#5. “I’m paying the therapist for their time.”

On one level this is the case. The therapist has decided to charge by the hour, or whatever the case may be. But on a deeper level, what you’re actually paying for is their expertise and the opportunity to make a change.Change does not happen in therapy, it happens what we call ‘integration’ — the day to day application of what comes up in therapy. That’s why it’s so important to do two things:

  1. Reflect on your sessions during the week.
  2. Reflect on your week during the sessions.

Tip: Keep a journal between therapy sessions to track your thoughts, emotions and goals

#4. “I’m not that interested in their background.”

Knowing the background of your therapist is vital. For the most part, you don’t need to know their academic achievements. But do you know the difference between a counsellor, psychotherapist, psychologist and psychiatrist? Or the difference between a cognitive-behavioural, person-centred, gestalt and psychoanalytic approach therapy. Do you want to be talking about your thoughts, feelings and emotions or would you prefer to analyse dreams and patterns in your past? Above all, you want to make sure that whatever your primary reason for coming to therapy is; depression, relationship issues, anxiety, trauma, or chronic pain, they need to have experience with it.

Tip: Do your research and choose something with experience and a style that sounds

#3. “The therapist is the expert.”

The therapeutic relationship is not a one-way street, it’s a collaboration. The therapist may be an expert when it comes to asking the right questions at the right time, and guiding the conversation, but they aren’t an expert on your emotions. I assumed that the therapist would ‘figure out’ whatever needed to be talked about, we’d get to the core of my issues and that would be that. But that’s not the case, to really open up, I needed practical radical honesty — the skill of being aware and truthful of what was happening in my body and mind at any given time. This required vigilance both in and out of the therapy sessions.

Tip: Be mindful of your feelings during the session and practice being radically honest with your therapist.

#2. “The morning is the best time for therapy.”

When I first started therapy, I just decided to do it in the morning. This was for no other reason than that it was more convenient for me. But the time of day you decide to do therapy is very important. We all run on circadian rhythms, which means our energy levels and mood fluctuate throughout the day. My problem was that I’ve always been what you might call a morning person, so when I talked to the therapist in the morning, I’d generally be in a good mood. I’d also tend to have one eye on the work day ahead, so I wouldn’t be fully present. One day, however, I had a session at 6pm, straight after a long, tiring day, and I was in a terrible mood. The therapist almost seemed surprised, he commented that I was much more engaged with the negative emotions I would talk about in the morning sessions. This actually made for a much more productive session than doing it in the morning before I’d met the challenges of the day. There is not Abest time for therapy, there is only YOUR best time for therapy.

Tip: Schedule sessions at a time where you think you’ll be most connected to your feelings and open to share them.

#1. “I’m not supposed to have a relationship with my therapist.”

This is the number one problem that almost no one outside of the therapeutic community knows. The second biggest factor — outside of external life events — that determines a positive or negative outcome with therapy, is the relationship between the therapist and the client. No you should not have a personal relationship with your therapist, but you should absolutely develop a healthy professional relationship with them.

You need to find a therapist that you 1. Like 2. Respect and 3. Trust. If you are working with someone who does not tick at least 2 out of 3 of those points, you will probably not get very far in therapy. The greatest therapeutic relationship I ever had (and the most progress I made in therapy) was with my FIFTH!!! therapist.

Tip: Do not just settle with the first therapist you talk to.

Can I Give You 7-Days Free Therapy?

Online therapy can help you with a lot of the problems I’ve just meantioned. That’s why I want to offer you a free 7-day trial with my partners at BetterHelp — the most comprehensive online therapy service in the world.

They give you a free psychometric personality quiz and match you up with an online therapist who has experience with your personality-type and particular issue. It’s far cheaper than most therapists, you can contact them over text 24-hours a day, and if at any point you don’t feel like the relationship is going well, you can request a new therapist and they give you one immediately. (In fact, I have a friend who said he went through 10+ different therapists before he found the perfect one for him — though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that).

VISIT THIS LINK to get a FREE 7 day trial. You may be asked to enter your credit card details, but you can cancel at any time.

(Full disclosure, I’ve used BetterHelp in the past and written about my experience HERE. I wouldn’t recommend it if I didn’t believe in it. The above link is an affiliate link, meaning I get a commission if you continue using BetterHelp.)