The Power of Purpose, Meaning, and Fulfillment



In my late teens and early twenties I knew what it meant to have a sense of purpose, but what I didn’t know was just how powerful its effect really was on my life. My discharge on January 11, 2008, was the first day of a new life where I had no purpose or meaning, and thus any potential sense of fulfillment felt impossible to attain.

I struggled a lot in the years since then, trying to find a new sense of direction. Through this experience I have learned that goals are the essence of purpose, the product of meaning, and eventual source of fulfillment. They empower us to push through when we face obstacles and setbacks in life.  Goals that challenge us also make us stronger when we have the support we need to achieve success.

When you feel lost in life, it’s because you’re not striving towards anything.  In behavioral health recovery, we talk about the importance of establishing and working towards attainable goals because it’s an essential process to living a better life. Goals are the threshold of a self-directed life.

A life without a goal is like a ship without a rudder, sure you may be tossed about here or there by the current or the waves or may even be caught up by the wind in your sails but in all of those scenarios you are at the mercy of the elements. Maybe they will take you somewhere great or maybe they will lead you to disaster, either way you are not making decisions for yourself about the direction of your own life. The core of recovery is to take back control, to regain a sense of self-determination.

Whether you’re still a teenager or you’re retired from your career, a goal can carry you through the hardships brought about in every stage of life.  But it’s important to understand that any goal you may choose, must be yours alone, it cannot be given to you by anyone else. It must be personal, it must be self-directed.

You have to believe in the goal if you ever hope to believe in your ability to achieve it.  You have to feel it, hear the calling, and hunger for its embrace.  Only then will it ever matter to you and only then will it ever give you the strength you need to find your way through the darkness that is the human experience.

Over the years I have developed something of a triage model for evaluating my life. For me, this model has been the guiding compass of my life since my discharge and I have continuously come back to it when I have begun to feel lost. It includes: purpose, meaning, and fulfillment. This article will cover these three factors and how they impact our lives in profound ways. In these first few paragraphs I want to give a brief introduction to all three and then give a thorough exploration of the methods and tools you can implement to help you identify your own sense of purpose, meaning, and fulfillment so that you can live the best life possible.

Our purpose is the collection of dreams, goals, and intentions that we set for ourselves. Our meaning is the sense of yearning or justification that we feel about those goals and ambitions, and our fulfillment emerges from the sense of satisfaction we get upon completing them. Meaning is what drives purpose because we yearn for things long before we ever understand why. You will know your goals long before you know the deep “why” behind your desire to accomplish them. Think of it this way, you may choose to go on a journey (purpose) and you may give yourself all kinds of reasons, but the true justification (meaning) will not come clear to you until you are on that journey and experiencing its hardships. If you complete that journey and find success, then you will know fulfillment, for fulfillment will only come at the end of struggle.

For example, I knew that I wanted to enlist in the United States Marine Corps, but I honestly didn’t truly know why, I just knew that I wanted to accomplish that dream. I had several reasons I gave myself and other people, but those were surface-level explanations, they weren’t the deeply held “why” that I didn’t yet fully understand. It took me a really long time to know why I wanted it so badly, to learn the meaning behind it all. I think a lot of things in life are exactly like that, particularly the big choices that we make in the various stages we go through. Think about it, how many times have you asked someone why they did something only to receive the response, “I don’t know.”

Meaning will always remain indescribable until you have begun the process and have set out in pursuit of your goal. Meaning drives purpose by calling to you in the distance, begging you to take action, but it remains hidden and obscure until you have chosen to take action and pursue your goal (purpose). You will likely give yourself all kinds of reasons as to why you want to chase after a dream, but those reasons are all false, true meaning can only be revealed during the pursuit itself.

A more concise explanation of my model would be this:

Sometimes I come across people who will roll their eyes upon hearing the word “goal.” For these individuals it summons to mind images of pushy parents, eager teachers, micromanaging bosses, life coaches, new age gurus, multi-level marketing schemers, or perhaps even those ‘law of attraction’ peddlers.

It’s unfortunate that people use the core principles of strife and success as tools to enrich and empower themselves at the expense of people who are struggling. But you don’t need to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to learn how to use the power of purpose, meaning, and fulfillment for yourself. All you need is a sense of longing, the curiosity to ask why, and the courage to take the first step. Though, I do caution that it will be the scariest step you will ever take and it is likely that you will initially find failure upon the path, but if your tenacity has been forged in the fires of deep desire then you will not wallow in your despair but rise to face adversity.

Theodore Roosevelt perhaps said it best in his famous speech, “The Strenuous Life”:

“…I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph…

It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed. In this life we get nothing save by effort… A mere life of ease is not in the end a very satisfactory life, and, above all, it is a life which ultimately unfits those who follow it for serious work in the world…

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

~ Theodore Roosevelt, April 10, 1899, Chicago, Illinois

The goal itself can be anything, it doesn’t even have to be life-changing. Instead of reinventing your life, maybe you just want to remodel the kitchen? Instead of restarting your career, maybe you want to learn basic survival skills? My point is the goal you pursue can literally be anything as long as it presents a challenge. Without that it’s not worth pursuing. Nothing in life worth anything, ever comes easy and the greater the challenge the more rewarding the eventual success.


Part One: Resiliency

Through this process of seeking challenges to overcome you are developing what’s known as active resiliency. By it’s very nature, resilience simply means that the more you encounter or experience something that challenges you and overcome it, the less negatively impacted you will be if you encounter or experience it again in the future. Active resiliency is not merely something you have, it is something that you do.

There is also a type of resiliency known as inactive. This type of resiliency is discovered through no intention of your own. These are the types of unexpected and unplanned-for scenarios in our lives that seem to come out of nowhere. For example, your health suddenly declines, your vehicle breaks down, your romantic partner cheats on you, your employer decides to terminate you for budgetary reasons, the list goes on and on. When challenged, your ability to not give up because of them or not be sidetracked or defeated by them, allows your resiliency to grow.

In the face of either type of adversity (active or inactive) you have two options: you can either engage with it and try to overcome the setback or obstacle, or you can choose to disengage and do nothing. The potential outcomes to engaging or disengaging are either gain or loss. Choosing to disengage with a challenge may initially feel like relief, safety, or even stability with the immediate reduction in anxiety, but it could also be demoralizing and regretful overtime. You must have the wisdom to know when to engage or disengage with the situation.

For example, perhaps you want a pay-increase but you are too fearful to ask for it, or too hesitant to take on the additional work to prove your value in the workplace. Avoidance of the challenge in this situation will feel as though you’re avoiding short-term stress and anxiety, but it will eventually lead you to long-term regret. On the other hand, if you’re out hiking a trail and suddenly see a bull moose charging at you, it’s highly likely you’ll seek an alternative path and not experience long-term regret over disengaging with this short-term stress and anxiety-inducing challenge.

In the more universal situation of a pay-increase, when you choose to not engage with your employer in fear of potential rejection or because of anxiety, it’s more than just being lazy – the behavior is addictive and destructive. Quitting or taking the easy way out is so very seductive and the more you do it the more desirable it becomes and the more likely you will do it again in the future. You will essentially train your brain to avoid difficult situations by rewarding it with those short-term feel-good brain chemicals, causing it to become weak and less resilient. I know this from personal experience.

Disengaging is a choice we are making for ourselves, a choice we have the power to transform. Thankfully, when you choose active resiliency you are forcing yourself into challenging situations and the more you do this the easier it also becomes in the future. It’s the hard choices in life that are the most meaningful and the most rewarding in the long-term. Aside from anxiety-avoidance, one of the other reasons so many people choose to disengage is because they try to accomplish something huge right out of the gate. Doing too much, too quickly is a terrible mistake.

It’s important to note that I’m not talking about merely exposing yourself to difficult situations or challenging experiences and then running away and never returning to it. It’s not enough to just acknowledge the fear, you must also struggle with it and overcome it. For example, if you’re afraid of heights you might consider riding an elevator to the top floor of a high-rise building. This is a good first step, but it should never be your last step. Progress further by looking out the window or over the edge the next time. Eventually your goal should be bungee-jumping or sky-diving. This practice is based on exposure therapy, what’s sometimes referred to as desensitization.

The goal is not to compete, but to win – there are no ‘participation trophies’ in adult life. Start small and push yourself to accomplish little objectives each day. Starting with major life changes will end in failure due to the enormous commitment required. Set goals that are achievable for you right now, based on your time, energy, abilities, and resources. Don’t overwhelm yourself and never set yourself up for failure. Build momentum by completing progressively bigger challenges and don’t ever be afraid to ask for help or to take time to rest and recharge so that you avoid burnout.

Too much, too fast is the enemy of many ambitious people. As of 2019, burnout has dramatically impacted so many people’s lives that it has been recognized by the World Health Organization as a mental health condition requiring treatment, and even though the American Psychiatric Association didn’t include the condition in their 5th Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published in 2013, they will likely follow suit and include it in a future publication.


Part Two: Setting a Goal

There are methods and models that you can follow to become better at setting attainable goals and actually following through with them. These tools have been around for decades and have been proven effective in clinical, non-clinical, and professional settings.

One of the big hurdles I’ve heard people say is “I don’t have a goal” or “I don’t know what I want to do.” I actually beg to differ, in fact, there’s always something you want to do if you just take the time to listen to your inner self. Somewhere in there you’ll hear a calling, a yearning to go and do something. You won’t understand it at first and that’s absolutely okay because the first thing we want to do is determine what kinds of things you feel a desire to do, we do not yet need justification.

Remember, “what” is the easy question, it’s the question we want to tackle first. The “why” is so much more challenging to figure out and should be considered your secondary step as it cannot be understood until you have already begun the pursuit. Potentially, spending time worrying about the “why” before taking action on the “what” is one of the worst mindsets to be in because you will just stand there, paralyzed with indecision, thinking and worrying. This demonstrates a trap of cyclic thinking that can easily turn into catastrophic thinking or even worse, learned helplessness. These states of mind must be avoided as much as possible.

So, the first obstacle to overcome is your purpose or identifying a clear goal. A model that can be used for this purpose is called Dissatisfaction Goal Setting, wherein you’re literally evaluating your life and determining if something feels unsatisfactory. This tool can not only help us identify a goal but also begin to bridge the distance between purpose and meaning.

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. What am I unhappy with?
  2. What do I not like about it?
  3. What would I rather be doing?
  4. What is keeping me from doing that?
  5. Who can support me in that goal?
  6. When do I want to start?

What you eventually identify by using the tool could be anything, there is no such thing as a wrong answer. This will be personal to you and your life and no one else can tell you what personal goal you should be setting for yourself. If someone attempts to do so, walk away from them – they don’t care about you, they care about manipulating you to do what they want or what they think would be best for you. A purpose-driven life is one lived by your own choices, not by the choices of others. You may ask for counsel or perspectives on the matter, but your path must be determined by you alone and walked by you. Though others may come along with you on the journey, they cannot lead you. Think of them as lanterns that you carry along with you, there to shine light into the darkness so that you may see possible paths, but only you must choose in which direction to travel.

Another model that can be valuable in helping identify a goal is the P.E.R.M.A. Model, developed by American psychologist, Martin Seligman. This model sets out to define what makes life worth living, what elements or factors make us feel as though we are living a flourishing life. He identified positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishments as measurement markers in determining whether or not you are currently living a flourishing life. Using this model we can identify areas of your life where perhaps it’s underdeveloped or missing something.

Positive Emotions can encapsulate just about anything that gives you a sense of joy. Whether it’s spending time with your loved ones, baking your favorite cake, going to the comedy club, going bowling on the weekends, adopting a pet, watching your favorite team, attending theater, starting or raising a family, or taking an annual summer vacation to your favorite wilderness area. No matter what you enjoy doing or experiencing, it is essential that you make time for it in your life and allow yourself to be present in the moment so that the experience can provide you with the positivity you need.

Engagement takes your enjoyment one step further. This is about more than just having fun or enjoying a spectacle, this is about becoming enthralled by the experience, mind and body, so much so that you lose track of time and become fully engrossed. Athletes, musicians, artists, all typically have the potential for this type of experience, but just because you don’t play soccer or play the violin or have the talent to paint a mural, doesn’t mean you can’t also satisfy this element of a flourishing life. From rock climbing to gardening, and furniture building to cooking, so many things can count as long as it requires mental focus and physical dedication and interaction.

Relationships are integral in the lives of pretty much everyone. Many of us strive for the social benefits of human interaction and crave the attention of someone who cares for us. While family is often the stereotypical go-to for relationships, it doesn’t have to be the sole source. We can find deep and meaningful connections with our friends – the family we choose. Whatever your circumstance, we all need at least one person who can be there for us at any time, for any situation, without judgment and with unconditional love and support.

Meaning is so critical because it keeps you going when everything is overwhelming, not just during the pursuit of a goal but throughout your whole life. Whatever you choose to do, you must make certain that either your professional life or your personal life is providing you with a sense of meaning. Many people look to spirituality to satisfy their meaning, but it doesn’t have to be that – you can also find meaning in advocacy and volunteering or even in parenting, anything that puts you into a situation of serving something larger than yourself. Like everything else I’ve discussed, it cannot be given to you, it must be self-determined – you must feel summoned to it if you ever hope to achieve meaning. Remember, meaning is derived from the doing and not the conclusion, or in other words it comes from the pursuit of a goal and not from its achievement.

Accomplishment is separate from meaning in this model for a reason, they are not the same. Fulfillment is the offspring of purpose and meaning, it is the product at the end of your journey. If you have strategized and prepared, planned and organized, then in time you will know accomplishment. Just as your purpose can be anything, your accomplishment can be anything and no one can tell you what should or should not be celebrated. Whether you have received an A+ on a test at school, received a job offer, remodeled your backyard, proposed to the love of your life, overcame cancer, whatever you have accomplished at any stage of life – you must celebrate that victory! And don’t do it alone, celebrate with your family, friends, or colleagues. Acknowledgement of your hard work and dedication matters, so share it with others! Whether you go out to eat, throw a party, buy yourself something nice, or just receive congratulations, revel in the glory of your accomplishment!

In review, answer these questions to make sure you’re not missing an essential element of a flourishing life:

  • What experiences in your life give you joy?
  • Which of your physical activities cause you to lose track of time?
  • Who do you have in your life that offers you unconditional love and support?
  • What in your life gives you meaning?
  • How do you celebrate your accomplishments?

At this point you should be able to identify a goal. Once you’ve done that we need to evaluate that goal or goals, to make sure that it’s reasonable for you based on various criteria including abilities, energy, resources, and time. There is another model that can be valuable here and it’s called the S.M.A.R.T. model.

S.M.A.R.T. is an acronym for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely. Think of these factors as a checklist with which to compare your goal. Have you taken all of these factors into consideration when selecting a goal?

Specific – every goal needs to be defined in as precise detail as possible. Saying that your goal is to run a race is too vague, you need to define what kind of race, how far, the location, and what kind of terrain. Selecting a specific race you’d like to sign up for would be best. All of these elements will help you determine the resources and training you will need to acquire prior to participation. Precision is key, peel away the layers of uncertainty until an absolute is all that remains.

Measurable – will you be able to track this goal over time? How will you know the goal has been achieved? Will there be milestones? If I continue the race analogy, will you set mini-goals of accomplishing a progressively longer practice distance each week or two until you are able to run competitively at your ultimate goal distance? Always establish a goal that can be measured.

Attainable – goals are great only when they’re achievable. Take into consideration your abilities, energy, resources, and time, do you have enough to actually be able to accomplish your goal? Don’t set yourself up for failure by underutilizing preparation, planning, and proper organization. Remember that other people are a type of resource, consider who you may be able to reach out to if you need assistance. Be realistic with your goals.

Relevant – consider your personal and professional life, your goal needs to be something that is relevant to these aspects of your existence. Just like you wouldn’t select a goal that was unattainable, you will not select a goal that has absolutely nothing to do with who and what you are authentically. My mom would have referred to an irrelevant goal as a “hair-brained idea” – something that sounded fun in the moment but had no connection to my current life or future ambitions. If you’re going to be pouring your energy, resources, and time into something, make sure it’s worth your while. Utilize the tried-and-true pros and cons model. Think about what will enhance your life experience.

Timely – just as important as being measurable, establishing a timeframe for your goal can be the difference between success and failure. When should this goal be accomplished by? Without an endpoint in mind, you are far more likely to lose track, become distracted, or even lose interest. Setting mini-goals or milestones for long-term goals can aid in mitigating distractions or lost interest, and consider what intervals these will be established at along the greater timeline. It’s okay to move your final goalpost if need be, but it’s preferable to have a more static idea of when things should be accomplished and try as much as you can to stick to that original timeframe.


Part Three: Barriers to Success

Once you have decided upon a goal that satisfies the criteria we have set forth, then it’s time to evaluate your potential to be successful. Not only will you experience the joys of little victories along the path to a greater success in the ultimate goal, you will also face many barriers on your journey. In your planning and preparation you need to consider what these potential obstacles and setbacks might occur. While I cannot possibly identify each and every thing you may encounter, I can provide you with a quick overview of different types of problems and solutions which will encourage you to consider additional possibilities and help you deal with them.

There are three categories of forces that may keep you from success:

  • Exterior
  • Interior
  • Ulterior

Exterior barriers are those imposed upon you by external factors that are sometimes beyond your ability to control. For example, your goal was to run in a specific race that you registered for and have trained for months to compete in, but the race gets canceled due to the weather. You can’t control the weather!

Interior are those that you actually cause yourself either through action or inaction. For example, you have pushed yourself too hard during the training process and have injured yourself, rendering you incapable of competing at an acceptable level by the time the race occurs. Or if we are talking about inaction, perhaps you lacked the motivation to train often enough or you didn’t set aside the time to train and are thus unprepared to compete and withdraw your registration so as to cease further embarrassment.

Ulterior are barriers that are difficult to detect or predict as they are neither explicitly internal nor external, but that are within your ability to influence or manipulate. These types of barriers are frequently manifested by other people who may or may not be aware of your goal. You may know these individuals or they may be complete strangers, the common factor being that they will attempt to interfere either directly or indirectly with your goal. Sometimes their sabotage is nefarious, intentionally trying to bring about your failure, other times they are ignorant of how negatively their actions are affecting your progress. An example would be your husband taking on activities that prevent him from watching the kids on the days when it’s supposed to be your time to train for your upcoming race.

Though you may not always be aware of these three types of barriers and their interference with your goal, you can establish action plans to preemptively deter their potential to be a setback, or perhaps even dilute the impact of consequence if they become an obstacle. There’s the old adage, “Hope for the best, plan for the worst,” or “Expect the best, prepare for the worst.”

Once you have encountered a barrier, try utilizing this two-phase evaluation process:

  1. Assess the Issue
    1. What happened? Was the barrier exterior, interior, or ulterior?
    2. What damage has it caused? Slight inconvenience or major setback?
    3. What’s the potential for overcoming this barrier? What are the pros and cons of trying?
    4. What resources of support do you have or need to challenge this barrier?
    5. Do you need to take action? If yes, move to next phase.
  2. Action Plan
    • Consider the objective, what’s the desired outcome?
    • Utilize a problem solving method that fits you and the situation:
      • Analytical Problem Solving
        1. Come up with two or more potential solutions to the problem
        2. Take action
        3. Take stock of the effects of your action
        4. Learn from the feedback you get
        5. Modify your efforts
      • Practical Problem Solving
        1. Set aside emotional responses to problems
        2. Begin work on positive solutions
        3. Choose action over words and feelings
      • Creative Problem Solving
        1. Be fearless and curious – try new ways of thinking
        2. Avoid the usual comfort zone responses of doing what’s familiar or perceived to be safe and predictable
        3. Listen, observe, explore, experiment, ask questions, challenge the status quo, imagine, learn

When planning and preparing for potential exterior issues it’s important to think about what you already have in your repertoire. These are resources or systems of support that can shield you from external obstacles or setbacks. Think about the inner and outer social circles that surround you, the inner being your household, your immediate family, close friends, trusted colleagues, all of which you interact with in your daily life; and the outer being your distant relation, your neighbors, community members, organization fellows, social media contacts, the types of people you are connected to as acquaintances but are not close with. You can also consider non-profits and community agencies as part of your outer circle, you may not know them or be familiar with their services and resources, but they are their for you all the same.

Think about these entities as buffer zones, protective layers that keep you safe from those exterior factors that you may not be aware are lurking in the distance. Their role is to shield you in your time of need, but like any good shield they won’t be effective if you don’t utilize them properly.

The reality is that we cannot prevent all exterior setbacks or obstacles – it wouldn’t be a challenge if we could. Sometimes there’s going to be failures and sometimes they will be your fault (as when they are interior) and you will learn from those mistakes, but other times those failures will be outside your ability to prevent and you won’t have anything to learn, just wounds to heal. In those circumstances you should try your best to look for the positive. For example, perhaps inclement weather on your day to compete will allow you additional training time to become even more prepared for the next competitive event.

If the barrier you are facing is interior, your approach may need to be slightly different as the culprit here is always you. If you are the barrier that stands in your own way, it may be related to your attitude or motivation and you might be struggling with catastrophic thinking or learned helplessness. Your first step is evaluate your attitude.

Once again, Dr. Martin Seligman has a model for us to utilize:

In Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte’s book, The Resilience Factor, they describe two types of people based on Dr. Martin Seligman’s work in the Positive Psychology field and his “Explanatory Styles.” The first group are those who blame themselves for everything bad that happens to them, they are convinced that these problems will always occur and are therefore unavoidable, and that the consequences of these problems will affect every aspect of their lives. The second group faces problems without blaming it all on themselves, they believe that these problems are not permanent, and that they will not impact every aspect of their lives.

Based on Dr. Seligman’s work, the first group consists of people who think more pessimistically, they are prone to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and paralyzing fear and inertia in the face of setbacks and obstacles. This thought process is known as “learned helplessness” due to their habitual behavior of focusing only on negative events and outcomes that have occurred throughout their lives. The second group are more optimistic and they tend to be healthier, happier, significantly more successful at work, at school, and in sports.

It’s important to note that there is such a thing a chronic optimism, the sort that causes someone to be blinded and unaware of the risks of their thoughts and behaviors, rendering them detached from reality. For this reason, we never want to fully eliminate pessimism, there can be a healthy dose that grants us the ability to weigh pros and cons, calculate risks, and abstain from being dangerously naïve.

Learned helplessness is the thought process that results from regular exposure to negative experiences wherein the circumstances seem unavoidable and overwhelming, rendering the individual convinced that any future negative experience will also be unavoidable and overwhelming. Individuals who have fallen into the trap of learned helplessness will make no attempts to improve their own situations and will either remain idle or will rely on others to do the work of improvement for them.

When dealing with this type of barrier consider these factors:

  • Adversity – what is the obstacle or setback that you are facing?
  • Belief – what is your perception of the obstacle or setback?
  • Consequences – what’s the result of your perception?

The most important factor here is belief because your perception of a barrier has a profound determination on whether or not you’ll be able to overcome it.

Dr. Martin Seligman suggests using the following 4-step evaluation model.

  1. Evidence – what are the real facts in the situation and does this evidence support or eliminate your perceptions?
  2. Alternatives – pessimists tend to latch onto the most dire of explanations for obstacles and setbacks, often ignoring the more positive explanations.
  3. Implications – pessimists have a tendency to jump from negative implications to more and more catastrophic ones, but what are the chances of these implications actually happening?
  4. Usefulness – just because a belief is true doesn’t mean it’s useful. Clinging to useless beliefs keeps us from working on the things that we can actually change about ourselves.

Acquiring motivation sometimes requires understanding and explanation before it can be used. Here are three recommendations for putting the above model into action:

  • Internal Dialogue – talk yourself through the process step-by-step, even if that means speaking aloud. Ask yourself questions and make mental notes as you formulate answers. Thinking alone sometimes traps or prevents clarity from happening and hearing yourself talk through the process can help guide you to clear conclusions.
  • Journal Writing – write out your specific circumstance using the 4-step evaluation outlined above. Visually seeing the questions and writing out the answers is an aid to our thought process and can not only guide us but also keep us on track until we reach clarity.
  • Third Party – bring in someone who is external to and not bias of the situation or the consequences of any decision you make. This will allow you to see and understand the situation from a fresh perspective and could ultimately change your approach in such a drastic way that what you first thought was a detrimental outcome, might actually be a beneficial opportunity.

To help keep your thoughts and brainstorming sessions coherent, you really should document everything. Even if you’re not a writer, writing down your thoughts as you go through these models and tools can be incredibly helpful. Not writing anything down will cause your beneficial thoughts to dissipate. Think of it like rain falling on a hard surface, the sun is just going to cause the droplets to evaporate into nothing.

Use tools like task lists, action programs (which are categorized and layered task lists), or software like Sticky Notes, Evernote, or OneNote to keep track of the things you need to do. If you really want to be thorough use software like Excel or Google Sheets. The point here is to stay organized, you are far more likely to implement a transcribed action plan than one that just flutters around in your head, passing in and out of your awareness.

Similar to learned helplessness, catastrophic thinking can render you paralyzed in a cycle of fear, worry, and what ifs. This narrative of negativity is sometimes referred to as a chain of consequences, each one leading to the next. It’s this snowball effect that causes people to become paralyzed unable to make decisions or take action. Each link in this chain becomes more dire than the one that preceded it and by the end of the chain we have imagined a scenario where everything has collapsed all around us and life as we know it has become unrepairable. Nothing destroys our motivation faster than giving in to the seduction of fear, worry, and doubt.

Thankfully, this chain of thought can be broken and we can do so by following these four steps:

  1. Have an awareness of thought patterns
  2. Weigh the pros and cons of the situation
  3. Rank negative outcomes from one to ten by probability
  4. Develop an action plan for top three most likely negative scenarios

Awareness can go a long way in helping break the chain of catastrophic thinking. Being able to realize that our thinking is only taking us further and further into worry and despair is the first and most important step. The second step is to do something about it. We can do this a couple of ways, both require us to evaluate the thoughts we’re having. The first of the two methods is to weigh the pros and cons of the event or situation that we’re facing, as our minds tend to gravitate towards the negative – the worst-case scenario.

We can’t hope to build motivation if all we think about is how things might go wrong or all the negative consequences of a setback. Shifting the focus to the pros and not just the cons of every situation we face, can help us alleviate some of the stress and anxiety that obstacles and setbacks may bring. The other method is to rank the outcomes we’re imagining from one to ten, ten being the most likely to occur. Then you want to look at the top three and develop a plan of action for each of those scenarios. Having a plan can also help alleviate the stress and anxiety that we’re feeling and give us back some sense of confidence and control over the situation.

Stress and anxiety can be powerful deterrents to the pursuit of goals. For that reason I want to discuss them further and provide preventative measures and management techniques. The terms “stress” and “anxiety” are frequently used interchangeably. However, these terms do have separate definitions, based on when the response is occurring in relation to the event. In other words, each is a response occurring at different points of time, to any given experience.

  • Stress – A temporary response to present circumstances that causes mental or emotional strain.
    • Example: you’re currently experiencing a motor vehicle accident (in the present moment)
  • Anxiety – A potentially ongoing sensation of uncertainty in response to future potential circumstances or past experiences.
    • Example 1: when riding with someone who is driving erratically, you’re not afraid of the wild ride – you’re afraid of the imminent consequences (potential future).
    • Example 2: you have trauma over an accident that occurred a week ago (past event)

Though stress and anxiety are normal aspects of life, anxiety that continues for two weeks or more may be a symptom of a more serious mental health condition. Frequently, those who endure traumatic experiences may develop an anxiety disorder or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), in addition to the stress the event initially caused. Stress is used in the term PTSD because the individual experiencing this disorder relives the event in the present moment, not just the fear of it occurring again in the future or the ongoing trauma from it occurring in the past. Those who suffer from PTSD, experience both stress and anxiety at the same time (past, present, future).

Dr. Karl Albrecht outlined in his book, Stress and the Manager, the most common causes of stress and anxiety. He determined that we experience these responses due to time constraints, anticipation (anxiety), personal situations, and through encounters with others.

He identified the following:

Time – This type of stress is frequently attributed to feeling rushed to accomplish certain tasks, such as errands, meeting deadlines for projects and assignments, and arriving to an event before it starts. Though it might make us feel hectic in the moment to be rushing around, the stress of getting something done by the deadline, can actually reinforce our commitment to it and ensure it is actually accomplished. Establishing a deadline and intentionally introducing that stress, can be very helpful in keeping us on track and maintaining our focus. Without that stress, things may never be accomplished, particularly for procrastinators.

Anticipation – This type of stress should really be called anxiety, as it focuses on a response to future events and potential situations, those that have not yet occurred or are not yet being experienced or realized.

Some common examples may include upcoming:

  • Speeches / presentations / interviews
  • Family gatherings / holidays / weddings
  • First day on the job or first day of school

These impending events can trigger our anxiety not because of the event itself, but of our fear of not knowing how the event will unfold. For this reason, anticipatory responses such as these are self-induced or self-inflicted. Our fear of things going wrong or being a bad experience sets us up for unnecessary negativity, fear, worry, and all the other symptoms of anxiety. Individuals who are naturally pessimistic will find managing or overcoming this experience to be very difficult. However, if we are able to shift our focus away from the what-ifs our minds conjure up, and instead focus on the things we can actually control, such as our attitude, behaviors, and choices, the anxiety about these types of events can subside to a more manageable level.

Situations – Though it is a very broad category, situational stress can be clearly defined as anything we are currently experiencing. These categories would include life changes, physical illness or injuries, medication or substance use, and mental health conditions.

Some of the most common examples would include:

  • Getting married / divorced / becoming pregnant
  • Purchasing a new home / packing up or unpacking due to moving
  • Employed at a new job / recently assigned a new supervisor
  • Chronic or debilitating disease
  • Motor vehicle accident
  • Side-effects of prescription medication
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Illicit substance use
  • Anxiety disorders (yes, you can be stressed and anxious about your anxiety!)
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Depression or mood disorders

Encounters – The fourth group includes experiences that those close to you are going through that are impacting you due to proximity. There are a few categories that fall into this group, such as illness or injury of loved one, loss of a loved one, conflicts with those close to you such as family, friends, and coworkers.

Some specific examples of conditions and circumstances include:

  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Cancer
  • Chronic pain
  • Diabetes
  • Bereavement
  • Financial costs of funeral services
  • Disrupted emotional support network (friendships ending)
  • Animosity or isolation
  • Perpetually negative environment / attitudes

Knowing what stress and anxiety are and even their causes is only skimming the surface of how they impact our lives. The effects of these two mental and emotional responses can affect us in many different ways, even physically. Many studies have been conducted on the effects of stress and anxiety, especially when we are exposed to these things long-term. This long-term exposure is often referred to as chronic stress and the development of an anxiety disorder. While there is no cure for either of these, understanding their effect on us can help us understand just how important it is to utilize prevention and management strategies.

When stress and anxiety occur short-term and in mild to moderate levels, they can actually provide benefits to us. Research has shown that these responses can cause us to better react to circumstances we are currently facing or will face in the near future, and even provoke us to be proactive and be better prepared if they occur again. Experiencing stress and anxiety in the short-term can help build our resiliency to challenges and setbacks that we all experience throughout our lives. When someone is confronted by difficult events that trigger stress and anxiety, the exposure to those events strengthens their resolve to endure and triumph over any future hardship. This resilience means the individual will be less likely to feel overwhelmed or perturbed by obstacles they face. Even if success is not initially attained, a resilient person will continue to strive towards their goal because their past experience with stress and anxiety proved to them they can endure and overcome.

Clinical studies at Stanford University School of Medicine have shown that short-term exposure to mild or moderate levels of stress and anxiety can boost the immune system and speed up recovery time, due to the increase in stress hormones. A prolonged exposure has been shown to do the exact opposite – suppressing the immune system and creating greater risk for infection, as well as increasing the risk of heart disease and even cancer. The consequences of stress and anxiety highlight just how serious prolonged exposure to them can be. These consequences are vast and varied across both the mental and physical health spectrums. Listed below are the most common effects of prolonged exposure to stress and anxiety.

MindBody
HeadachesLack of Energy
DizzinessIncreased or Decreased Appetite
Racing ThoughtsWeight Gain or Loss
Feelings of Despair / Panic AttacksAcne
SadnessMuscle or Joint Pain
Nervousness / WorryIncreased Heart Rate
Anger / IrritabilityRapid Breathing
Confusion / ForgetfulnessShortness of Breath
InsomniaSweating
Behavioral Health Conditions (Depression, Substance Use)Trembling
Reduced LibidoNumbness
Social AvoidanceHigh Blood Pressure
ObsessivenessIncreased Risk of High Cholesterol
Increased Risk of Diabetes
Increased Risk of Heart Attack
Nausea
Abdominal Pain
Heartburn / Indigestion
Diarrhea or Constipation
Compromised Immune System

Due to some of the debilitating symptoms of prolonged exposure to stress and anxiety, the effects can stretch beyond our bodies and minds and affect every other aspect of our lives. If your goals are profession-related then employment can often be a source of stress and anxiety. From workload to deadlines, and coworker relationships to performance expectations, it is no surprise that levels of stress and anxiety have continued to be on the rise.

This increasing mental strain is not just felt in extreme work environments such as those in the labor industry, but also in business offices where sitting in front of computer screens for extended hours on a daily basis causes physical strain that mixes with mental fatigue. There has been a major shift in focus towards workplace mental health and burnout, as more and more employers are beginning to realize the consequences of not addressing the stress and anxiety felt by their employees.

Some of the initially observable consequences of not addressing this issue include:

  • Reduced ability to cope with deadlines and responsibilities
  • Irritability and loss of social support
  • Loss of productivity, confidence, and integrity

As with any loss in employee productivity and performance, stress and anxiety can ultimately affect the financial security and stability of an industry if left unchecked. Feeling stressed out and anxious can make us act in ways we normally wouldn’t. The effects of stress and anxiety on the connections we have with coworkers, family, and friends should not be downplayed.

Some of the most common effects that can hinder, damage, or even end our relationships include:

  • Irritability, loss of patience, overreacting
  • Pressure resulting in conflict escalation
  • Lack of interest in socializing

While it is not possible to completely remove stress and anxiety from our lives, there are things we can put into practice that will help us prevent unnecessary stress and anxiety, or at least make it possible to manage them and the symptoms that arise. When it comes to dealing with stress and anxiety, whether we are talking about prevention or management, our first step is to identify the things that cause us to feel stressed or anxious. These causes can be quite varied, some are obvious and others may not be obvious at all. Each individual person perceives and responds to things in different ways. What might feel overwhelming to you, may not feel overwhelming to another person.

For this reason, triggers for stress and anxiety can be put into three broad categories:

  • Control
  • Inaction
  • Pressure

Control – The sensation of a lack of control over circumstances, events, other people, and our lives in general is a very common trigger for many people. As human beings we naturally want to feel a sense of stability and safety. Any time we are facing situations where that stability or safety is interrupted and it’s beyond our ability to control, we become very unsettled, frustrated, fearful, and insecure.

Inaction – Procrastination is frequently attributed to creating unnecessary stress in our lives. For some, however, procrastination creates the stress they need to push themselves to accomplish certain goals that initially seem impossible. Without that stress, they may never achieve success. For the rest of us, our lack of desire to engage with, take on, attend, or pursue something may actually be the result of stress and anxiety. Meaning, inaction can both be a trigger for stress and anxiety, and also be a consequence of stress and anxiety.

Pressure – Any time we experience a sense of urgency or expectation, such as in pursuit of goals, we can accumulate ever-increasing levels of stress and anxiety. This pressure may be due to any number of other circumstances, particularly in regards to performance. Perhaps we have team members counting on us to accomplish a task in a timely manner, or management has expectations for high performance and a quality outcome.

In some situations, we may experience all three of these categories. We may face circumstances where we convince ourselves of, and feel as though, we have no control over the situation, but we may be under a lot of pressure to act anyway. Whether the pressure to perform is being put on us from others or we place it on ourselves, it can create such overwhelming and debilitating stress or anxiety that we become inactive and unable to do anything at all.

Research has shown that there are various methods for preventing chronic levels of stress and anxiety from accumulating, and methods for managing it in a healthy way if we do find ourselves struggling. Below are a few common practices that often get overlooked.

1.    Eat nutritious & portioned foods7.  Pursue enjoyable or laugh-inducing experiences
2.    Limit caffeine, sugar, nicotine, & alcohol consumption8.  Celebrate accomplishments
3.    Get sufficient sleep9.  Journal for self-awareness
4.    Exercise10. Take breaks from social media
5.    Practice mindfulness11. Develop physical social connections
6.    Set aside personal time12. Speak with a mental health professional (medication or therapy)

Now that we have thoroughly covered the most significant interior barriers, we can move on to those that can be considered ulterior. Remember that ulterior barriers are difficult to detect or predict as they are neither explicitly internal nor external, but are within your ability to influence or manipulate because they are caused by individuals somewhere within your periphery. Sometimes these people’s actions are nefarious, but sometimes they are merely not cognizant of the consequences of their actions. In fact, they may at times think they are helping you. Regardless of their intentions, what often results is drama and conflict, which is a mire that you will want to bypass or overcome as much as possible either through prevention or management.

There are a vast array of practices intended to help you prevent conflict from occurring, some of these are as basic as being mindful of your words and actions, practicing empathy, listening effectively and speaking deliberately. Conflict has many causes (misinformation, misinterpretation, miscommunication) and consequently there are many things you can do to prevent it from developing, but just know that you don’t have to wait for other people to begin this process, you can proactively lean into conversations by following the V.O.C.A.B. Model created by Clair Canfield, a professional mediator.

V.O.C.A.B. is an acronym for:

Vulnerability – be open and honest about how you feel, how you’ve been impacted, and your expectations
Ownership – own up to any part you may have played in creating an unfavorable situation, know your biases
Communication – ask questions, listen to responses, learn to practice emotional intelligence
Acceptance – you cannot control other people, only your own attitude, behaviors, and choices
Boundaries – identify goals and rules such as what topics or actions you’ll avoid or engage in

One of the most useful tools for examining how to handle conflict is the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, or TKI Model for short. This model was created by Kenneth Thomas, Ph.D., and Ralph Kilmann, Ph.D., for helping people select from a number of identified styles (or what they referred to as modes) for handling conflict.

Within the model they identified five separate styles:

  • Avoiding – unassertive and uncooperative
  • Accommodating – unassertive and cooperative
  • Competing – assertive and uncooperative
  • Compromising – somewhat assertive and cooperative
  • Collaborating – very assertive and cooperative

These can be better understood by examining the visual representation they created as part of the model:

Competing – an individual pursues his own concerns at the other person’s expense. This is a power-oriented mode in which you use whatever power seems appropriate to win your own position—your ability to argue, your rank, or economic sanctions. Competing means “standing up for your rights,” defending a position which you believe is correct, or simply trying to win.

Accommodating – the complete opposite of competing. When accommodating, the individual neglects his own concerns to satisfy the concerns of the other person; there is an element of self-sacrifice in this mode. Accommodating might take the form of selfless generosity or charity, obeying another person’s order when you would prefer not to, or yielding to another’s point of view.

Avoiding – the person neither pursues his own concerns nor those of the other individual. Thus he does not deal with the conflict. Avoiding might take the form of diplomatically sidestepping an issue, postponing an issue until a better time, or simply withdrawing from a threatening situation.

Collaborating – the complete opposite of avoiding. Collaborating involves an attempt to work with others to find some solution that fully satisfies their concerns. It means digging into an issue to pinpoint the underlying needs and wants of the two individuals. Collaborating between two persons might take the form of exploring a disagreement to learn from each other’s insights or trying to find a creative solution to an interpersonal problem.

Compromising – the objective is to find some expedient, mutually acceptable solution that partially satisfies both parties. It falls intermediate between competing and accommodating. Compromising gives up more than competing but less than accommodating. Likewise, it addresses an issue more directly than avoiding, but does not explore it in as much depth as collaborating. In some situations, compromising might mean splitting the difference between the two positions, exchanging concessions, or seeking a quick middle-ground solution.


Part Four: In Conclusion

There’s not a lot more to address in regards to purpose, meaning, and fulfillment. It may seem like I dedicated most of this article to the aspects of purpose, but remember that purpose delivers us to our meaning and provides a pathway to eventual fulfillment. So, understanding how to establish an achievable purpose and how to handle obstacles and setbacks during the pursuit of that goal is critical to your success with the other two.

This model has been so incredibly important to me, I’ve been developing it and preaching it for years. It has helped guide me through some of my darkest hours, when I have felt immensely frustrated and lost in life. I know that many young people especially experience these sensations, and sometimes these feelings lead them down a path that is not so healthy, nor fulfilling.

When we ask ourselves that massive question, “What’s the meaning of life?” we can become incredibly overwhelmed and perhaps even have an existential crisis, or at the least become nihilistic. I think we should let go of that question for our own individual lives, it certainly has never served me any good. Particularly when I have come to the realization that life has no greater meaning than to merely exist, that life’s purpose is life itself: to be born, to reproduce, and to die.

I think for us as individuals, we must choose our own destiny, to choose our own path through life and not rely on someone or something else to choose for us. Each of us has a small and smoldering ember inside of us, pleading to be sparked into flame. That little glowing ember is your meaning, yearning to be known and pursued. It calls to you, lures you in the direction of your dreams because it wants to be realized, it wants you to know it – to know yourself. There can be distractions and mistaken goals that lead you astray and into misfortune and dismay, so do be careful with what beckons you. The loudest call is not always the true meaning.

It can be terrifying to answer any call, but the only way fulfillment can ever happen is if you gather the courage to wander in the direction of your dreams. After all, dreams are just really big goals. Breathe life into that little ember, feed it the kindling it needs to grow. Once you do and begin your pursuit of purpose through strife and success, you will begin to reveal your meaning in life and ultimately come to know yourself. There is perhaps nothing more fulfilling at the end of a journey than to say that you have discovered yourself.

World Suicide Prevention Day

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day!

Some of us have had suicidal thoughts in the past.

Some of us are currently having suicidal thoughts.

Some of us have put those thoughts into actions and have had abandoned attempts.

Some of us have fully attempted suicide and survived.

Some of us have lost loved ones to suicide.

Some of us have experienced all of these things.

Today is personal for us.  Personal for me and for some of you, my family, friends, former colleagues, and strangers who fit into one or more of these categories.

Today, we remember our struggle.  Today, we confront our struggle.  And for some, we remember someone who’s been lost to the struggle.

We shine a light on a topic that too many people run away from, who wish to cast it into the darkness to be forgotten and unspoken.  But these people do not understand that in the darkness it festers and spreads, for it thrives in the darkness.

Today we stand together in defiance of stigma.  That wretched societal abomination that surrounds us like walls, holding us captive and unreachable.  Keeping us alone in the darkness at times in our lives when the last thing we should ever feel is alone.

Not only is stigma a visual impairment, hiding us away from the world, but so too is it a silencer.  Hushing our voices in fear of shame and ridicule.  And so we not only stand today, but we shout.  We shout loud and clear into the face of stigma, reminding all who are near that we exist and that while we struggle – we are more than the struggle.  We are human.

Today I have tears in my eyes not just out of sadness for the people we have lost to suicide, but also out of joy at the people we have saved from suicide.

Nineteen years ago I did not die, instead I saw hope, breaching across the horizon in the warmth of the setting sun, as if it were a hug from a friend saying to me “Goodnight, I will see you tomorrow.”

Reminding me that after the close of the day there would be a new dawn and every dawn is a new day and every day is a new beginning.  Today I am still alive because of hope, hope that change will come, hope that tomorrow will be better.  Hope that was born from love.  Love of myself and love shared with other people.

16-year-old me was clueless to what he would one day be able to do because of that small amount of hope he received.  He was being tossed about and tumbled by the waves of emotion he was experiencing, like waves ebbing and flowing on an ocean on a moonless midnight.  Too blinded and silenced by stigma to consider what the future might hold.

So, I ask you, whomever you may be and whatever your story, that you stand with me and defy stigma today and always.  Shine the light of hope into the darkness and pierce the veil that has been cast upon us all.  Unseal your lips and be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.  Lives depend upon it.  One person cannot save the world, but one person can save a life.

Give someone hope.

We Are Not the Burden, We Carry the Burden

Me, circa 1992

I would like to share some personal things about myself that I have been experiencing as of late, just in case others can relate. First though, I want to provide some context for why I decided to share my recent experiences.

In June, I read a memorial tribute to a young Marine who died by suicide back in 2011. After reading it I wanted to learn more about who he was as a person, so I Googled his name and found his Facebook and YouTube accounts.

Through them I learned that he was a father and a lead vocalist in an alternative rock band who played local gigs where he was stationed at in California, but I also learned that he was struggling with family drama and his own mental health and substance use issues.

I found out that he was trying to get help for his mental health issues, but was being belittled and ostracized by people he was stationed with for seeking help. Basically being told by his superiors and peers that he was weak.

The pressures of all these experiences led him to make a choice that couldn’t be undone, impacting the lives of those closest to him, leaving them behind to pick up the pieces, and leaving behind his very young daughter who would only remember what her father’s voice sounded like because of old YouTube videos of him singing.

This was a prime example of stigma perpetuating the silence of suffering, and if you know me, then you know that few other things make me as angry as stigma and the dismissal of other people’s struggles and suffering.

So, I decided to share my own issues in the hopes that it would reassure others that they are not alone. For people struggling with a mental health condition or with a substance use disorder, it can often feel very isolating and those of us with these struggles can often convince ourselves that we are the only one in the trench. This is made worse when we are belittled or ostracized and convinced into believing that we are weak and unworthy.

In the lingering midst of this pandemic many people are suffering and struggling. The first nine months for me went relatively well, then I hit a bump in the road, then shit got real ugly real quick and it was a fucking climb to get back out of the pit I had fallen into.

April and May of 2021 finally saw me climb out of that pit. I also got myself into a more beneficial workout routine and physically I am in better shape than I’ve been in for almost the last 4 or 5 years. I doubled my workout time and my sets, and made it a daily priority.

There is not a moment where I regret quitting my job in February. Don’t get me wrong, I miss the income but I was immensely unhappy there and no amount of money was worth staying. My body and mind were suffering the consequences. I was eating sugary foods, drinking caffeinated drinks every single day just to feel a false sense of enthusiasm in order to make it through the day.

I have gone from 152 lbs in February down to 132 lbs as of August. Most of the weight I lost was belly fat that I had put on after my mom died. My workout routine had become a joke, and as stated my diet was not healthy. I had pretty much stopped cooking and was eating whatever was fast or easy.

So, that change is the positive bit but life is not always rainbows and butterflies, even though social media can make it feel that way. For instance, back in early April I posted a long article about my many up-and-down mental health struggles that played a role in me quitting my job. Even right now, I am still experiencing those ups and downs.

I’m always hesitant to log into my social media accounts because most people only ever post about their successes and joys. Few people I’m friends with will ever share anything not rosey and pleasant. That’s not to say people are being fake, I think there’s just the social expectation that people should only present themselves and their lives in the most appealing light possible. To do otherwise is seen as shameful or distasteful.

For those who do share a more complete picture of what their life is really like, I do greatly appreciate it. I want to see the good, with the bad and the ugly. I want to witness the full human experience because that’s what I live.

As someone with a mental illness, I need to know that I’m not the only one who suffers, struggles, faces obstacles and setbacks, makes mistakes, and fails at some challenges. The facade of perfection is part of the stigma that forces people like me into suffering in silence. People like me become hesitant and fearful of sharing the reality that we live because of how we believe others may see it as abnormal or unwanted.

When I’m about to experience a dip in my mental health, I can feel something approaching on the proverbial horizon, I can feel this impending thing lurking out of sight. This past spring and summer I have felt panicked and anxious, this often means that I’m about to have another episode.

At times I’ve felt productive, but other times I’ve struggled to get out of bed, feeling a sense of panic and fatigue. At times it’s taken everything I have to do my workout routine. I fight to get that daily workout in because I want to feel like I have at least accomplished one thing each day.

Sometimes I don’t feel like cooking because it requires too much effort, so I go to bed without eating, but then can’t sleep. So I lay in bed until the following afternoon, beating myself up over the fact that I haven’t eaten, showered, or even so much as brushed my teeth since the morning before. Why not? Because it all felt too hard, too heavy. When I’m like this, I will also refuse to answer my phone, respond to messages or reply to emails.

Eventually I manage to drag myself out of bed despite the weight I feel. Sometimes mental illness feels like you’re carrying a heavy backpack or have chains wrapped around you and everything that should be easy is hard to do. I want to get up earlier, but I can’t, my brain won’t let me.

This is what it’s like to have a mental illness. Some days or weeks are great, others are a total shit-show. For those of us with a more severe mental illness, the things we think, feel, say, and the very decisions that we make are all influenced by our “uniquely wired” brains. A decision I made yesterday may seem wildly absurd to me today.

I constantly question myself and what I’m thinking and feeling, and I have to ask myself if it’s a product of myself or a product of my mental illness. Who’s speaking, thinking, feeling, and making my decisions? What version of me is in control today? If not self-aware, you may not even realize that you’re under the control and influence of your mental illness.

If anyone else isn’t living the ideal life right now, just know that you aren’t the only one. While most people on social media share the pleasant things happening in their lives, most of us have all kinds of shit we deal with. If not mental illness, then family or marriage issues, financial issues, physical health issues, the list goes on. Life on social media is seen through a filter, one that blocks out the bad and the ugly, but I promise you it’s there. You’re not the only one.

Like other people with a mental health condition or substance use issue who post about their experiences on social media, I sometimes receive derogatory comments or messages that essentially belittle or dismiss the symptoms of my mental illness. As someone who has lived-experience, education, training, and volunteer experience in behavioral health and recovery, I know that such invalidating comments and messages are not helpful to me or others who happen to see them.

The individuals who post these things often mean well and don’t understand that it invalidates personal experiences or emotional states by comparing me or others to people who don’t have behavioral health issues. Invalidating people’s experiences is detrimental to their mental health and their recovery.

Sometimes I come across people who will attempt to suggest that I should distract myself with tasks or errands, to just stay busy and avoid the thoughts, but distractions are like slapping a bandaid over a wound, hiding it away from yourself and others, it does not force anything to actually heal, sometimes even causing it to fester and get worse. Distracting myself and focusing on external things is part of my problem, as compartmentalizing does not resolve my issues, it only conceals them and saves them for later. I’m focusing on me because I cannot assist and receive the struggles of others while my own cup is already full and overflowing.

I absolutely agree that doing something that gives you a sense of meaning, fulfillment, and purpose is an important factor for living well and I encourage it in the recovery process, but it’s not a fix-all. It takes support from the people around you, which cannot be manifested from someone who is degrading you for how you feel or what you are experiencing. The most important thing needed is hope, the hope that things can be different, that change is possible. Telling or suggesting to someone that they are weak will never give them hope.

Consider this post a little note etched into the walls of the trench, an act of kinship towards those of you in it alongside me. I see you, I hear you, I understand you. Without judgment, without demands, without expectation. You’re already dealing with enough. People with mental health conditions and substance use disorders are some of the strongest people I have ever met.

I won’t tell you to have a good day or a good night, just have a day or a night, and I’ll talk to you in the next one.

Social Media, Psychopathy, and Time Management

In May 2009 I joined Twitter, two months later I deleted my account, and now twelve years after that I have rejoined the quagmire of Twitter for one single reason: it’s the only place where I can follow the vast majority of authors, scientists, philosophers, psychologists, etc., who discuss the intellectual and fascinating topics I enjoy, as very few are on Facebook or Instagram.

People like Sam Harris, David Frum, Andrew Hubberman, David Grinspoon, Yuval Noah Harari, Carolyn Porco, David Deutsch, Paul Bloom, Adam Grant, Max Tegmark, Brian Cox, Ethan Kross, Matt Haig, and the list goes on and on.

Though I’ve had an account on Facebook since 2006, I infrequently log in, thus people’s posts from a week ago show up at the top of my newsfeed when I do log in.  So, for most of my friends and family, I never hit the like button on their selfies, kid or dog photos, food photos, yard sale posts, or conspiracy posts. They probably think I’m ignoring them, but it’s really that I just never see the posts.

I once considered Instagram to be easier to interact with, and all the photos and videos were more interesting and engaging, but now days I find it to be so uncompelling that I don’t know why I still log in.  I just heart photos without even reading the captions anymore, most of the time just quickly scrolling while brain-dead and thumb-tapping.

I suspect my new experience with Twitter will not be anymore refreshing, but I will at least not be tweeting anything related to the humdrum that is my day-to-day life and unless a person tweets content related to science, history, physics, psychology, philosophy, economics/politics, or environmentalism, I honestly won’t be following them.

Beyond the scope of my social media ventures, these last 7 months of unemployment have been interesting.  I have come to a few self-realizations, as I have been reflecting and ruminating on many things.  Of particular note, I’ve come to realize that I’m far more apathetic and narcissistic than I had previously accepted myself to be.

I mean, I’ve never been particularly interested in the ongoings of other people’s monotonous daily lives and I’ve had an ever-growing ego since I was a teenager, but these past few years I have now seen that I have really pushed the limits of what is socially acceptable.  To a point where I have begun to evaluate whether or not I might have some degree of psychopathy.

Not to the point where I’m worried I may engage in criminal behavior, but just to the point that I don’t find myself interested in the stereotypical things that other people desire to spend their time doing or discussing, up-to-and-including seeing or hearing them discuss the on-goings of their own personal lives.

There have been moments, particularly this year, where people have come up or messaged me and started telling me about basic human experiences occurring in their lives, like relationship issues or recent purchases or something that happened at work, and within seconds my mind was flooded with thoughts of, “Sweet baby Buddha, I hope this woman stops talking soon,” or “This is painfully boring,” or “How can I end this conversation?”

At least before, I could still pretend to be interested or fake sympathy or empathy, but recently I can’t even do that and I can tell people notice as my facial expressions and other bodily nonverbal cues give me away by expressing what I’m thinking and feeling during conversation. It feels exhausting to pretend like I care.

It’s a rather jolting conclusion to have drawn about myself, that I somehow have this growing apathy towards other people and their lives. One would think that the past 7 months that I’ve spent hidden away from the world, avoiding socialization, would do the exact opposite – grow a yearning for socialization. But no, I’m more antisocial now than I’ve ever been.

The narcissistic behavior that I’ve noticed is one that I’ve been more aware of over the years. I’ve had an issue with my ego for many years as it spawned from my adolescent insecurities. A meager way of defending myself in the midst of an underdeveloped self-confidence. It also didn’t help that I have bipolar disorder which often gives rise to irrational self-importance, feeding the ego exactly what it craves.

Being unemployed has been humbling and through the process of humility, the layers of deceit that my ego has been hiding behind have been slowly peeling away. Making the dastardly creature far easier to spot as it constantly maneuvers to renounce any suggestion that I’m not a valuable and skilled employment candidate worthy of any employer. Every rejection letter exposes the truth it refuses to believe, that I am, in fact, rather ordinary and deserve no special attention.

Sometimes my apathy and narcissism are at odds because my apathy pushes people away in fear I will have to interact with them but my ego demands their attention, creating a bizarre dance of delusion. This very writing is one of those dances – my apathy refuses to engage and communicate with other people about my thoughts, but my ego presumes to believe that people will want to read about my thoughts if I post them publicly.

I’ve attempted to make my time away from the world as productive as I can, even in the midst of a pandemic.  I have been getting more reading done than I have in years, books that had been sitting around collecting dust. I’ve been writing a little too, giving this blog the attention it’s been lacking. I’ve even been sewing (no joke). But what I’ve been doing the most is consuming video-based media, truly an insane amount of streaming on Netflix and HBO Max, and even some films.  I’ve also been drowning myself in YouTube videos on topics ranging from science and history to comic books and film.

I had a conversation yesterday with a friend about time spent on media like TV and video games and whether or not that time is a waste. When I was a teen and in my early-to-mid twenties, I easily played video games for 9 to 12 hours in a sitting.  One could easily suggest that playing video games for that many hours was a waste of my time and brain power.

It was just such a perspective that was ultimately what pulled me away from the activity in my late twenties, I couldn’t see beyond the fact that I wasn’t accomplishing anything meaningful while sitting there, hands glued to my controller and eyes glaring at my television screen.

When I gave up that addictive behavior several years ago, I replaced it with watching vast amounts of TV, thanks to streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Crunchy Roll.  Arguably it was worse than video games because with TV your brain is doing less work than when you’re interacting in games, and if you’re gaming with others in-person or online – you’re also socializing. TV only required me to assume a vegetative state on the couch.

One could reasonably argue I took a questionable waste of time and swapped it for an even greater waste of time. There are three arguments I could consider for continuing to watch TV: it provides an escape, it activates the analytical part of my brain, and that it mirrors elements of human behavior and society.

To elaborate a bit, the first potential positive is that it allows me to unplug from the world around me as a coping mechanism, a way to either channel or avoid the stress or anxiety caused by things happening in my life that I might not have the power or ability to change or address. The apparent negative to this would be if I’m using it to avoid responsibilities that I am capable of accomplishing.

The second positive is that it stimulates my brain in a different manner than a book because I visually and audibly learn about characters, their history, motives, the setting, anticipate future actions, and so on. While books require you to imagine the elements that are often described in the necessary detail, television and film require you to fill in the gaps created by the reduced textual elements.

In other words, books explain in detail what’s happening so that you can use your imagination to visualize how it’s happening, where as videos show you what’s happening in the absence of details so that you can analyze and decipher why it’s happening.

The third consideration is that our society molds itself from the stories we tell each other, including those stories told through the medium of television and film.  Perhaps TV shows and movies help make our society better by suggesting altered human behavior, normalizing things that might otherwise seem alien or taboo. A lot of social movements rely on the power of this medium to help people see and understand various topics. Of course the negative to this is if the theme of the content is criminal in nature, certainly not something that should be normalized.

It’s hard to stop binging on streaming services because it’s addictive, just like video games.  In the past year or two I’ve also taken up the habit of regularly watching the video uploads of my favorite YouTube channels. I could argue that the YouTube videos I watch are on history and science and are interesting and educational, therefore valuable, and one could argue that’s better than spending time watching fictional TV shows and movies. But in all honesty I also watch a lot of YouTube videos about comic books and movies.

I found out today that my favorite intellectual, Sam Harris, watched Game of Thrones and it surprised me because he’s so accomplished, hard working, and productive.  I couldn’t believe he had spent any amount of time on a medium like television, especially since he has stated he spends very little time listening to music because he considers it less valuable than listening to audiobooks and podcasts.  He went on to mention that he wasn’t the best at time management, which also shocked me.

Ultimately, if I question the time I spend doing things, I try to ask myself what I get out of it rather than what I’m losing or sacrificing because of it.  The value gained should be more than the value lost.  If it’s not, then I decide to agonize no longer and walk away knowing I’ve made a good decision.

Employment Nostalgia

I woke up the other morning thinking about how when I quit my job more than seven months ago, I never thought I’d experience nostalgia about my twelve-year career there. At least not to the degree that I have.

It wasn’t the first time that I had quit a job, not the first time I left behind coworkers, not the first time I walked out of my work building for the last time. But there was a unique combination of the large amount of my life that I had spent there, the people I met, and the experiences I had that left me ruminating.

Working in three different positions and offices stretched out over twelve years of your life when you’re 35 years old, you just don’t get to walk away from that without feeling anything. When I stood in that parking lot next to my car on the evening of my last workday and I turned and looked back at that building, I told myself I wasn’t going to miss that place.

I was thinking about all the negative experiences I had while working there, especially those of the last three years. But what I hadn’t allowed myself to think about or feel were the positive experiences. Maybe because I was too spiteful or maybe because it would make getting into my car and driving away difficult.

Lately, I’ve been trying to put into words what my experiences have been like. Trying to find a new job has been far more of a challenge than I honestly thought it was going to be. I expected to be unemployed for no longer than 4 months, 6 months max. Maybe it’s the labor market or maybe all those years of bosses telling me my performance was great and my skills marketable – perhaps they were all just lying to me. After a while of unemployment you begin to lose confidence and convince yourself the latter is true.

At any rate, these last several months of unemployment have allowed me time and space to ruminate about the seventeen years I spent in the workforce in full-time employment, and the six different job titles I held over those years.

Being unemployed has mostly been a new experience for me, as I started working full-time right out of high school and except for a few short weeks here or there, I had remained employed at one job or another ever since. So for me, this experience has felt like a break-up or like a divorce. A strange and new experience I have never known.

One of those situations where you assumed you’d be together forever until you hit a few rough years and you’re so over the relationship that your prolonged bitterness initially makes you view the whole thing as a totally negative experience, only to later remember the good shit after you’ve separated and had time away to reflect.

That’s not to say you’ve forgotten all the drama or the bad things, nor even forgiven them, it just means that you’ve allowed yourself to see the bigger picture and remember that it wasn’t all shit all the time.

I had a conversation a while back with a friend who used to work a retail job in his twenties at an entertainment store that sold books, videos, games, etc., and I specifically remember him talking about how the pay and hours were shit, but that he had really enjoyed the overall experience and had nostalgia about it. This was not the first time someone had said something like that to me about low-paying past employment, it seems to be common.

Could there be something to that experience or is it all just nostalgia about what used to be? Is it merely a coincidence that so many of us look back on jobs we had when we were younger, jobs that had low pay, with a sense of fondness? Or are we all just under the illusion of nostalgia and in fact it was generally a crappy job that we’re all the better for leaving?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I share in the experience. I won’t go into the details of the last position I held at my former employer (the one I quit several months ago), but I really don’t have nostalgia for that position, at least not yet. What I’ve been having nostalgia over is the first position I ever held at that employer, during the timeframe of 2008 – 2017.

That low-paying position where I was struggling to keep my head above water, living paycheck to paycheck, complaining all the time about how I didn’t have enough money, terrified all the time that I was about to face financial ruin if my car broke down or if I got fired. Even though I’ve now been unemployed since February 2021, I’m still in a financially better place than I was the nine years I held that job.

Seems wildly absurd that I would have nostalgia over that time in my life. When I was hired into that job in 2008, it was a different world, or at least it felt like it was to 22-year-old me. Young and less concerned with the on-goings of the wider world, I didn’t have a lot of worries. A simpler time.

However, I don’t feel nostalgic over that job merely because I was younger. It’s the people I met and experiences I had over those nine years and two months that I spent there.

In many ways the job was easy in its mundane and monotonous nature, some times so boring you wanted to slam your face into the keyboard for the sake of a little excitement. So, not every day was butterflies and rainbows. I might have nostalgia but I’m not delusional about the reality of what took place there.

Like any workplace, there was all kinds of drama, gossiping, backstabbing, and the like. Admittedly, some of that drama was caused by me and my poorly treated mental illness, triggered by the stress I occasionally encountered. There are people I worked with during those years that I’m glad I no longer have to deal with or even see.

Despite all of that, there are things I miss. A lot of people joined and left the team I was a part of during those nine years, not only the full-time staff but also the temporary staff that we hired on a seasonal basis. I can safely estimate that I met and closely worked with over 1,000 people during that time in my life. Most of their names and faces I have long since forgotten because the nature of the temporary job only allowed them to work with me for six months.

That’s not to say I forgot them all, in fact I keep (or attempt to keep) in touch with many of them, the ones that made the biggest impact on me. Some of the most profound or memorable experiences of my life happened during this period due to the interactions I had with some of those people. A primary reason I harbor so much nostalgia about that job.

So much time has passed in the years since I left that some of the people I worked with are no longer here among the living and have already been gone for nearly a decade. I’m sure there’s some kind of life lesson in here somewhere, about savoring the time we have with the people currently in our lives. If there’s anything true about life it’s that it changes, all the time.

What feels like forever in the future, will quickly become a memory of a distant past. I think we all look back ever-so-often and think about what used to be, perhaps we do feel somewhat bitter about the more recent things, but the more distant the time and place the more grateful we become.

Vaccination?

On July 2, 2021, I joined about a hundred-million other Americans and partook in a medical practice that has occurred for more than two centuries, I received my second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, specifically Moderna.

I didn’t want to get the vaccine right away when it became available for the group in which I belong, I wanted to wait and see what happened, I wanted to see the data.  On its effectiveness and on the long-term effects.  Some of my hesitancy was also due to fear and uncertainty caused by the speed at which everything was happening and by the fears shared by others online and in the news. Fear too is contagious after all.

I watched as federal and international agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the World Health Organization (WHO), spoke in circles about best practices in response to the outbreak, about effective preventative measures, and treatment options. I heard contradictory information from politicians on both sides and their peddlers and commentators, all of whom were flying by the seat of their pants in the whirlwind of uncertainty, speculation, and worst of all – agendas.

I watched as people in my hometown died of the virus, I watched as my friends and coworkers contracted the virus – some never having a symptom and some becoming long-haulers experiencing debilitating side-effects long after initial recovery. I listened to strangers talk about the loss of their mother, father, son, or daughter, old and young alike. I listened to news outlets that made it seem like the world was coming to an end and I heard then President Trump compare it to the common flu – nothing to be particularly concerned with.

We all have reasons for the decisions that we make, some of our reasons are legitimate and worthy of consideration, but some of our reasons are not.  Some are unfounded, illegitimate, or are based on our emotions.

Sometimes we justify those emotional responses with someone else’s emotional response, especially when we trust that person or group of people as representatives of our own concerns or values.

Like most people, I’ve heard all kinds of things about the COVID-19 vaccine, positive and negative.  It shouldn’t be surprising that the negative statements are repeated much more frequently, as we humans love our drama, our scandals, our fears.

Walk into your office on Monday and tell a coworker that you’re in love with your spouse and the information spreads no further, but tell your coworker that you’re in love with your spouse’s sibling and everyone in your office will hear about it before the day is over.

Doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not, no one cares whether it’s true, people care that it’s shocking, surprising, exciting, intriguing, scandalous, outrageous.  People care because it’s drama and people love drama.  It makes their mundane lives more interesting and exciting.

Drama, however, is blinding and so are emotions, especially fear and anger.  These things discard and obscure what is true, or sometimes even prevent what is true from being discovered and shared.

Like most of us, I wanted answers about the vaccines, real answers if at all possible.  Not rumors, not confabulations, not lies that serve an agenda.  Especially not a political agenda. I watched, I waited, I listened to hear what more intelligent people than myself had to say.

But this was hard because every time I listened to the news or logged into social media to see what other people’s experiences were like, I was inundated with political propaganda about COVID-19 and the vaccine, articles shared from people and Facebook pages I did not know – some proclaiming or pretending to be experts, news outlets and sites with no reputation but lots of opinions, some random person’s viral and misleading political meme, and so on.

I was surrounded by drama and political motivation.  This has been an ever-increasing problem, not just about this health risk but about everything and it’s particularly prevalent online.  There was a time when I too was part of the problem – only listening to people and entities that agreed with me.  We all wish life was black and white, right and wrong, because absolutism is easier than the complexities of reality.

It’s easier to believe that there is a government or pharmaceutical conspiracy than it is to find the truth for yourself. Sometimes truth-seeking means that you don’t have a definitive conclusion, at least not right away. The truth often means you have to work for it, it means you have to swim through the bullshit, it means you have to be willing to hear what other people say – people who don’t share your perspective, it means you must do the thing that scares us the most – question ourselves and our biases. And sometimes the truth just takes time, more time than we have and we are left with only the best information available but no definitive truth.

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Google searches, news outlets, and so on, have been breeding grounds for subjective information, sensationalism, fear-mongering, politicalization for liberals and conservatives, and for radicals who just want to see everything burn.  These past several years have been horrendous.

All of this is not to suggest that I was attempting to get medical advice from social media or a news outlet, I’m just saying that misinformation spreads across these systems like a virus, pun intended, and these systems are always just a few taps of the keyboard away.  No one should ever get medical information or advice from an obscure Facebook page, or unreputable news outlet, or a person on Twitter who is uneducated on the topic, or anyone who doesn’t provide sources.

Even if you deem the source of the information as trustworthy, you shouldn’t immediately accept everything as truth.  They need to provide citations for their information, a pathway for you to independently verify their information.  Understand that people are generally lazy and will not fact-check anything.  This is especially true if the information already complies with their political beliefs.

Confirmation bias dictates that a person accept information as truth if the information validates what the person already believes to be true.  This must be avoided at all costs.

We now live in a world where everyone needs to be a skeptic, not out of luxury but out of necessity.  Your life could depend upon your ability to practice scrutiny.  A skeptic is not someone who denies all claims, but someone who does not accept any claim as truth without either independent research or verification from reputable sources.

This won’t be easy because you’ll be getting information from people and people lie, even highly educated or otherwise respectable people lie.  With politics festering and infecting every aspect of our lives, even the medical industry cannot be viewed wholly as a bastion of reason and logic.

This is why you must broaden your sources of information, set aside your bias and seek input from a variety of medical sources, whether they comply with your political views or not.  No, I’m not saying seek out a shaman, I’m saying read more than one cited article or reputable study, talk to more than one licensed physician.

Ask yourself questions such as:  (1)  How does this person know what they claim to know?  (2)  Where are they getting their information?  (3)  Does this person have an agenda, do they gain something from making these statements?  (4)  How does this information compare with the information I’m receiving from other sources?

Politics is a disease that has encroached upon the sanctity of our humanity.  Politicians and their political peddlers and commentators lie for a living, it’s what they get paid to do and they do it well.  They don’t care about you and your problems, they don’t care whether you as an individual live or die, they only care about themselves and the political institutions that they all mutually prosper from.

They prey on your emotions because that’s where you are weakest.  Once they have your attention, they can get your support, from your support they get money, and from money they get power.

So, this brings me back to the vaccine.  I cannot and will not tell anyone else whether or not to get the vaccine. Why not? I’m not a licensed physician, I don’t know your medical history, I don’t know how your body will react.

What I will tell you is that you should investigate from reputable sources, communicate with people who have the educational background to form an objective and informed determination.  And then decide for yourself.  Whatever choice you make, you must live with the potential consequences – for yourself and those around you.

I found this conversation between neuroscientist Sam Harris and cardiologist Eric Topol to be rather insightful and informative on the topic.  They discuss vaccine hesitancy and related misinformation, as well as the problem of political and social siloing, concerns about mRNA vaccines, the Emergency Use Authorization by the FDA, the effectiveness of the COVID vaccines, vaccine efficacy vs effectiveness, the Delta variant, the misuse of the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS).

They also discuss concerns about long-term side effects from vaccines, bad incentives in medicine, ivermectin, government and corporate censorship, the curious case of Bret Weinstein, vaccine mandates, and other topics.

Should You Go Back to School?

Should You Go Back to School?

Introduction

An adult or independent non-traditional student is typically defined as a student attending a college or university who is 24 years old or older and has surpassed the usual age of a college or university student and is not dependent on a parent or legal guardian for financial support. If you’re reading this then chances are you are 24 years old or older and have asked yourself, and probably Google, some variant of the question, “Is it too late for me to go back to school?” Or maybe your search query was “Should I go back to school as an adult?” If you’re anything like me, this is probably not the first time you Googled that question. Probably hoping, like I was, to find some definitive answer or justification, to be convinced that it either is or isn’t a good decision at your age or stage of life to go back to school.

Perhaps, like me, you considered quitting your full-time job and dedicating the next four years of your life to returning to a college or university in pursuit of that bachelor’s degree you never received. Maybe you convinced yourself (or maybe others convinced you) that without at least a four-year degree you’ll never reach your professional career goals and that you will continue to work a low-wage job that barely pays the bills and certainly doesn’t afford the lifestyle you wish you had. Not one of luxury perhaps, but definitely one of financial stability. Or perhaps like me, you have also been looking for a more fulfilling career?

In this behemoth of an article I have reviewed the statistical data on whether or not it’s worthwhile for someone who has surpassed the traditional college age range (18 – 22 years old) to return to college for the degree they didn’t complete during their youth or never pursued to begin with. Not only do I cover the data, but I also go through the process of how to return, which includes reviewing schools, making a selection, the admission process, and a review of financial aid. While this isn’t everything you’ll need to think about or do if you want to return to school, it is a huge hurdle that has to be crossed in order to truly begin the journey.

By the end of this article you may come away feeling empowered and motivated to return to school, or you may feel like it’s a total mistake and decide that it’s a phase of your life to which the door has already closed. Each person has to make the decision for themselves and while many people will give you advice or their opinion, you’re the only person who has the final say on what you choose to do. No matter what decision you make, the consequences will impact your life for years to come.

I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve wondered whether or not I should return to college or university. In fact, I have enrolled and withdrew four times since I was 18 years old, and I’m now 35. My first attempt was the longest I spent in a college or university, when I had managed to stay enrolled for two weeks before quitting because I was an 18-year-old in the midst of a psychological breakdown and was in no condition to be sitting in a classroom, certainly not pursuing an associate’s degree I didn’t want, in a subject matter I didn’t understand. Overwhelmed by an internal battle and external pressures, I quit school and unknowingly launched myself into the next 17 years of my life where I would routinely wonder if I had made a mistake all those years ago.

I often found myself considering whether it was too late or if I still had the option of going back to school. Sometimes I’d think about it after meeting someone who worked in a career field that interested me but that required a bachelor’s degree. Sometimes I thought about it after scrolling through job postings and realizing that I was woefully lacking in post-secondary education. Sometimes I would apply for a job that preferred candidates with post-secondary education but that noted work experience would be considered a potential substitute on a year-for-year basis, only to later be told that not enough of my 16 years of work experience were relevant.

Many times I felt as though everyone around me had received post-secondary or higher education, I also felt trapped or stuck in my career, believing myself professionally stagnant by the fact that I didn’t have a four-year degree and that I had spent too many years working in the same field, a field that I was good at but didn’t enjoy. Not all of these were rational sensations, in fact I was doing well financially at a salary of almost $40,000, as according to the U.S. Census Bureau the average 2019 American only earned about $31,000 annually.

If my desire to go back to college could not really be justified as a need for higher income, then what was it and would there be any benefit in actually returning and receiving a bachelor’s degree if by the end of the experience I would be lucky to be earning a few thousand more than I was already making without it? Have you found yourself perplexed by the same dilemma, pondering whether all of the financial costs and other challenges would actually be worth it? In order to answer that question, we need to look at the data.

Part I: A Data-Driven Evaluation

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) – the U.S. government’s center responsible for tracking and publishing all education statistics, the rate for undergraduate students enrolling at degree-granting institutions decreased by 5% from 2009 to 2019, suggesting that fewer high school graduates were interested in pursuing higher education. In 2018, only a reported 31% of 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled as undergraduate students in a four-year college or university. An additional 10% were enrolled in a two-year institution, but the remaining 59% were not pursuing post-secondary education at all.

Of the 94% of 25- to 29-year-olds who had received a high school diploma or higher by 2019, only 9% reported they had received a master’s level degree or higher, only 30% had received a bachelor’s degree, only 10% received an associate’s or two-year degree, and the remaining 45% completed high school or the equivalency but demonstrated no interest in higher education.

Of the U.S. high school graduating seniors who enrolled in a four-year or bachelor’s degree-granting institution (including public, private non-profit, and private for-profit) as full-time undergraduate students in 2012, a total of 62% attained their degree by 2018 (over a six-year period). On average, only 41% of full-time undergraduate students attending for the first-time will receive their bachelor’s degree within the traditional four-year timescale. This issue has become so commonplace that the term “super-senior” is widely used to refer to a student who has exceeded the traditional four-year timescale. This is an issue because it adds an additional significant financial burden on the student that they should have otherwise avoided. There are three main causes for this problem: students being indecisive about or changing their majors, students taking less than 15 credit hours per semester, and students experiencing financial issues and leaving school for a semester or more.

If you’re considering returning to college, you likely have spent time thinking about what you might want to study. The below figures show the most popular fields of study within associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs, respectively. Each also includes a graph identifying the ratio of men to women who received the degree in the specific field of study.

Popular Fields of Study for Associate’s Degrees

Popular Fields of Study for Associate’s Degrees by Sex

Popular Fields of Study for Bachelor’s Degrees

Popular Fields of Study for Bachelor’s Degrees by Sex

In terms of the financial burden of attending college or university, 43% of first-time undergraduate students attending full-time, received a loan in addition to any scholarships or grants they received during the 2018/2019 school year. Student’s who graduated with an associate’s degree on average borrowed $19,700 and those with a bachelor’s degree borrowed $31,800.  Among bachelor’s degree holders, those who attended public institutions received the lowest cumulative loan amount at $28,600, followed by those who attended private nonprofit institutions at $33,900, and those who attended private for-profit institutions at $43,900.

The reason for this should be pretty clear, education is expensive! Even after scholarships and grants have been applied to the average cost of attendance, students still face significant costs: first-time undergraduate students attending four-year institutions for the full-time were still required to pay $13,900 after scholarships and grants were applied at public institutions, $27,200 at private nonprofit institutions, and $23,800 at private for-profit institutions during the 2018/2019 school year. Of course, trying to understand the average cost is difficult and doesn’t really paint a clear picture because students have so many factors that determine how much they will eventually have to pay, including how long it takes them to actually attain their degree.

The Cost of Attendance

Among full-time undergraduate students in 2018, a reported 43% were employed while attending post-secondary education, compared to part-time undergraduate students who had an employment rate of 81%. For 25- to -34-years-old who graduated from a post-secondary institution with a bachelor’s degree or higher, 87% had full-time employment in 2019, compared to 74% of the same age group who had completed high school or the equivalency but did not attend any post-secondary institution.

In terms of annual income for 25- to 34-year-olds who were employed full-time in 2018, the average income of those who had received a master’s degree or higher was $65,000, for those with a bachelor’s degree it was $54,700, for those with a high school diploma or equivalent it was $34,900, and for those who did not complete high school or the equivalency, the average income was $27,900.

Most of what we’ve covered so far sounds fairly reassuring if you’re thinking about returning to school, but we have to remember that the term employment as it is used here, does not solely refer to field-related employment. In other words, the jobs these recent college and university graduates hold may have nothing to do with the field of study they have a bachelor’s degree in and some of these jobs may not even require a degree at all.

When an employee with a bachelor’s degree works in a field or position that doesn’t require it, this is referred to as underemployment. Essentially meaning the employee could be working elsewhere with the expectation of earning higher income. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, who keeps a running tab on the labor market for recent college grads with data collected from various sources including the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, underemployment for recent college graduates is quite common. As of March 2021, slightly more than 40% of 22- to 27-year-olds with bachelor’s degrees or higher were underemployed, meaning they held jobs that didn’t even require a four-year degree.

So, what exactly does this mean? It means that for recent graduates with bachelor’s degrees, it’s hard to get a job in their chosen field of study right out of college or university, or even five years later. While this may sound startling or concerning for anyone considering going back to college, this information is mostly relevant to the young. Most college or university freshmen are 18 years old and likely have no full-time employment experience. Even though some colleges and universities provide internship opportunities, most of the students will graduate after 4 to 6 years without any meaningful employment experience in their fields of study, making it challenging for them to actually be employed in a job that requires a four-year degree and is applicable to their field of study.

This brings me to my next point: employability. For those of us who have been in the workforce for a long time, we know that it takes more than just work experience to attain gainful employment, it also takes post-secondary or higher education. When flipping this around, the opposite is also true: in order to attain gainful employment one must also have work experience. For adult non-traditional students, we have the advantage because we already have years (sometimes many years) of work experience under our belts. And more often than not, when we return to college it is for a field of study we have already been employed in or is at least in some way applicable to our past work or volunteer experience. So, when we do finally graduate, we are far better off than our younger counterparts in achieving full-time employment in a field applicable to our degree.

Now that we’ve covered the essential data, you may have a more clear sense of what you should do, but more than likely you’re still undecided, just as I was after reviewing the information. You also may not be aware of all the things you’ll need to do to actually become a student. There are two primary components that must be considered before you take any serious action towards becoming a full-time adult non-traditional student: consider your finances and choose a field of study.

We’ve already discussed how costly returning to college or university can be, so you really need to look at your own finances to determine if it’s really an option for you. Remember that 43% of all first-time undergraduate students who are enrolled full-time, take out loans in addition to the scholarships and grants they receive. So unless you’re quite wealthy or only plan to attend part-time, you will likely need to take out loans to afford your four years of higher education. Not to mention that many scholarships out there are not intended for adult non-traditional students, the majority are geared towards high school seniors.

Luckily, there are scholarships and grants specifically intended for adult non-traditional students. Your best bet for learning about these is to visit the website for your state’s department of post-secondary or higher education. You also need to know that many scholarships and grants for adult non-traditional students still have requirements that limit the number of people who can apply and almost all of them have strict deadlines for the application process. Your potential eligibility may be determined by your age, educational background, location, race, ethnicity, gender, income level, employment status or history, and the list goes on and on. These types of scholarships and grants may pay for some or even all of your tuition costs, so they are absolutely worth looking into.

Returning to school is not a decision that should be taken lightly, it could have significant financial consequences for your life for the next 14 years. Yes, I said 14 years. Most student loans are required to be re-paid within 10 years following graduation, meaning after a six-month grace period that follows graduation, you may be making loan payments for the next 10 years. The amount of this monthly loan payment can be quite varied, usually between the $100 to $400 a month range, all depending on how much you borrow, what kind of loans they are (subsidized or unsubsidized), from whom they are issued (federal or private), and what the interest rate is and whether or not it’s fixed or varied.

But I feel like we’re getting ahead of ourselves and haven’t addressed the elephant in the room. Why do you want to go back to school and what do you want to study? Don’t be wishy-washy about this decision, you need to think strategically. The time for creative exploration has long since passed, you are not 18 years old anymore, you have serious life responsibilities as an adult and if you choose to go back to college or university, you are going to face challenges that the younger version of you would have not faced while attending post-secondary education.

The labor market should absolutely impact your decision making. I suggest you review the Labor Market Outcomes of College Graduates by Major section of the report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. There you can review data in regards to the unemployment and underemployment rates for recent college grads based on their major (field of study), as well as early and mid-career median wages for each major. It is incredibly valuable data that reveals to us that just because a field of study is popular or fun, doesn’t necessarily equate long-term value in employability.

While it shouldn’t be the only factor in your decision making, you obviously still need to choose something that actually interests you. There’s nothing worse than working a full-time job that you hate so much your mental health is deteriorating. No amount of money is going to keep that from happening. Yes, financial stability makes life easier and is very important for that reason, but it doesn’t automatically make life better or even satisfying. Working a job that you hate is a surefire way to develop a mental health condition that will dilute any brief happiness that such financial stability might bring. You can spend that money for short-lived zaps of dopamine, but nothing can replace the satisfaction you will get from a job that is meaningful, fulfilling, or purpose-driven.

This is critical for your future success: will your field of study and eventual career choice bring you a sense of meaning, fulfillment, or purpose? If you can’t answer yes to at least one of those, don’t do it! This doesn’t mean you have to like all of your job responsibilities every day, but you should find some aspect of your job that you love and that makes it worth it in the end. The most potent and satisfying factors for any career are that they provide a sense of meaning, fulfillment, or purpose. If you can select a field of study that will lead to this type of career, then you will be miles ahead of every other student, most of whom are too young and lacking in enough life experience to have any understanding of what satisfies these requirements.

Be cautious though because some people attempt to turn a hobby into a career and overtime they realize that by turning something they casually enjoy into a job, it loses the sense of enjoyment it once gave them. It becomes just another stressful daily task they have to complete. That is no way to live life either. The reality is that we spend the majority of our lives at work and we need to get more out of it than just a paycheck or justifying our employment by saying it’s an easy job. Money and easy are not meaningful, fulfilling, or purposeful. Remember: you don’t have to like your job every day, but you have to love some aspect of it, one that gives you justification for going to work and satisfaction on your way home.

Whatever decision you make, just know that most degrees are versatile, so even if you get an engineering degree, it doesn’t mean that you can only become an engineer. The labor market data company, Emsi, identified in their 2019 report, Degrees at Work, that many students not only don’t get jobs in their field of study but that they also fluctuate in and out of different career fields throughout their lives.

Selected Field of Study vs Post-Graduation Career Field

Part II: Making A Choice and Initiating the Admission Process

The first thing you need to be aware of is what time of the year it is. Your window for filing your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is from October 1st to June 30th. If you are not familiar, this is a federal program that helps you learn what types of federal, and eventually state, funding that you are eligible for. You also need to be aware of school admission deadlines as some colleges and universities have very narrow timeframes for when you can apply to their school. Most schools will open for admissions in the spring, so March to May, but understand that this is not a standard observed by all schools and is merely an average. This is why it’s important that you create a list of colleges and/or universities you would like to attend, it will help you identify potential deadlines. Some schools observe a “rolling admission” process wherein you have a much wider timeframe for applying to the school, but of course that doesn’t mean you can simply attend classes any time of the year, they do still have a cutoff point for when you are able to attend fall classes.

Even though the FAFSA application timeframe might be wide, it doesn’t mean you should slack. You should always submit your application as soon as possible to ensure the best chances of securing federal funding. Not only that but each state has its own deadline for when you should file your FAFSA because they utilize the form in determining your eligibility for some state funding programs like grants. The federal government provides grants too, but they also offer federal loans and I will talk about them more later. When it comes to grants, the money is limited – there is only so much to go around. So for the sake of state and federal funding, you will want to file your FAFSA as early as you can. To learn more about the FAFSA and how to apply, access the U.S. Department of Education’s website at: https://studentaid.gov/h/apply-for-aid/fafsa

The federal application is free, but that doesn’t mean all school admission applications are also free. While it is becoming increasingly rare, some colleges and universities still charge a fee to receive applications. This fee is usually less than $50 and most institutions now utilize an online process, though if necessary you can still request a traditional paper application. As an adult non-traditional student applying to a four-year college or university as a freshman, you may find the process a little wonky and not adequately setup for you. I ran into this problem with a few schools that I applied to. For example there were times where I could not select my age because their online forms were programmed to only list years of birth that stretched back 20-odd years, or times where I couldn’t select my high school graduation date for a similar reason – it would only accept a date that occurred within the last few years!

Another situation I frequently encountered were parent or legal guardian requirements. At times I was required to fill out sections of applications or special forms that requested my parent or legal guardian information, with no option to bypass or ignore the “required” fields. When I contacted the schools about these issues, they would tell me to enter the oldest dates available on the online forms and enter my own information in place of the parent or legal guardian fields. If these institutions want adult or independent non-traditional students to feel welcome, they certainly should begin with adapting their admission software to allow people older than their teens and early twenties to fill them out. I regularly felt embarrassment by the fact that the software was, in effect, telling me I was too old to be applying to the school. There are other circumstances where your age may become an issue during admissions or even while just attending the school in general, but I’ll touch on those later.

It’s important to point out the difference between a college and a university because there are differences and these differences may influence what school you choose to attend. Some people think the word college refers to a public institution and university refers to a private institution, but this is not the case because both institutions can be public or private. A college is traditionally an institution that serves students seeking two- to four-year degree programs. Colleges may offer vocational training or job certification programs, usually lasting two years or less, and will offer associate’s degrees which are similar in nature and typically require a two-year commitment, as well as the traditional four-year bachelor’s degree. Universities also offer bachelor’s degrees to undergraduate students, but they also provide master’s and doctorate degree programs for graduate students.

Other factors in selecting schools that you might want to consider include distance and your living arrangements. Will you be living on campus in the dorms, in an apartment on or near campus, or will you be living off-campus? If off-campus, how far will you need to drive to get there, how long will it take you? If you have an 8:00 AM vs a 9:00 AM class, will that impact your family and their morning schedule? Most colleges and universities have restrictions on first-year students and whether or not they are allowed to live off-campus. For example, if you are older than 24 or live with your parents and live within a specific distance of the campus you may be allowed to live off-campus your first year. But if you are 20 to 23 years old and attending college or university for the first time, you may be required to live in the residential dorms along with the other incoming freshmen.

Some schools allow older students to live on campus in the dorms if that is of interest to you, so if you want to have that “immersive” college or university experience it might be possible. Other institutions do not allow older students to roommate with younger students, so you may be paired with another adult non-traditional student. Some schools even have special housing arrangements set aside for adult or independent non-traditional students. In some cases these buildings can even accommodate students who are married with children.

If you choose a strictly online program, distance shouldn’t be an issue for you, provided you are comfortable not having in-person contact with your professors and classmates. Be advised that the number of degree programs available online are limited, so your options will not be as varied in what field of study you will get to pursue.

There are many other things you will want to take into consideration and are just as important as the location of the school. If you intend to participate in school activities, such as athletics, make sure the school you’re looking at offers them. Also take note that there may be restrictions or limitations on what activities you can get involved in due to your age. For example, certain summer programs and extracurricular activities may not be available to you if you are older than 18 and a freshman, or in some cases if you are simply older than 24. Be sure to ask the admissions staff (preferably more than one of them) if your age will be an issue with your school involvement.

I ran into the issue where I was told I was eligible for two summer programs that would allow me to potentially graduate early. After I paid the costs out-of-pocket to participate in these programs, I was told that I was, in fact, too old to participate in the programs. When I requested a refund three separate times, I was finally advised that when I signed the forms I agreed to the terms which included a statement that the expenses were nonrefundable. The school stated that they would apply the funds to my student account and use the money for other potential costs. I later found out that they applied it to my fall tuition despite my intention to apply for a grant that pays all of my tuition.

Be aware that many school activities are geared towards the age range of 18 – 22 years old. You may find yourself feeling awkward and out-of-place if you’re in your thirties or above. You will have to decide for yourself if you’re okay with that because some colleges and universities mandate student involvement, and even if your school doesn’t – future employers may ask about your involvement during your time at college or university during an interview.

As someone who previously worked in human resources and occasionally sat on interview panels, I have heard supervisory and managerial staff ask employment candidates about their experiences at college or university and what types of things they got involved with, especially volunteer-related activities. A prime example that I hear frequently is the role of an RA, or resident advisor. Of course, as adult non-traditional students, we have a plethora of other employment background or at least enough that questions about our college or university life will likely be less concerning to future employers. It’s important to note though, I have seen an increasing trend in employers pushing their staff to be more involved in their community, so it may pay off for you in the future to get involved around campus while attending, if it is an option for you.

Since I’m on the topic of interviews, I want to mention something I hear people talk about but have never actually seen for myself and that’s the topic of “school value,” the idea that the perception of one’s institution of higher learning either hinders or helps their employability. Over the years I’ve heard people spread here-say about employers tossing resumes and job applications into the trash or fed into the shredder if the applicant attended unfavorable, unpopular, or low-cost colleges or universities. In my personal experience, I have never seen this happen, nor have I ever sat there and discussed with the other members of the interview panel any applicant’s college or university of attendance. Neither they nor I honestly cared where someone went to school, we concerned ourselves with whether or not they could apply the things they reportedly learned there. That’s the thing that matters to employers.

Now, if we’re talking about a high-profile employer, okay maybe they might be looking for graduates of ivy league or highly-reputable traditional colleges or universities, but for the average American looking to provide for themselves and their family, attending your local affordable community college is not going to flush your future career down the proverbial toilet. Generally, as employers we know that some of the most effective, efficient, and brilliant people in the world never even attended college or university or dropped out without a degree, so relax, your community college degree is valid and valuable – provided you can apply and share the knowledge you received.

Some colleges and universities go to great lengths to make sure their soon-to-graduate seniors or super-seniors have employment setup before they even leave campus. The job opportunity that the senior might be encouraged to apply for may not be directly related to their degree program, but most respectable institutions will do what they can to help students secure relevant employment rather than just waving them off and shouting “bon voyage” on the last day of classes. Most institutions have employment offices setup specifically for this purpose. Examining their track record of assisting students in finding meaningful employment may be something you might want to add to your checklist when evaluating your college or university options. When you speak with the school, ask them directly what policy or protocol they have in place to help support students in achieving employment after graduation.

Once you have chosen schools to apply to, you’ll receive a tuition and fee estimate, which is a breakdown of their annual cost of attendance (tuition) plus fees. These fees can be quite varied, fees for living or not living on campus (resident or commuter), medical fees, activity fees, parking fees, class fees, school supplies fees, textbook fees, meal plans, security fees, and the list goes on. Fees can cost you hundreds to thousands of dollars per year and not all schools provide these fees upfront, for example I didn’t find out how much my textbooks would cost until after being enrolled and registered for classes. Accepting these costs and moving forward with enrollment can feel overwhelming because at this point you may not have even begun applying for scholarships, so you have no idea how much money you really have to pay towards these costs, which is why so many students apply for loans. Thankfully, most loans can be rejected or returned by the time school starts, if it turns out that you don’t need them, but we’ll take a closer look at financial aid soon.

Aside from telling you how much potential debt you might be facing, the college or university will request several different types of documents as part of the admission process. Some of these are obvious, such as your high school transcript or college transcript if you did attend a different college or university in the past. Make sure that you have documentation to support your dual credits if you received them while in high school, most high school transcripts won’t include this documentation so you will need to reach out to the college or university the dual credit program was through and have them submit your transcript to the college or university of your choice. Be advised there may be a fee involved in this transfer of your dual or college credits and not every college or university will recognize or accept credit hours completed at all other institutions.

Another obvious document they will request is your immunization records. For young people this process is generally easy because they are coming directly from high school into college or university and their immunizations have been recent, but for those of us who’ve been out a while it can be more difficult to locate our immunization records from ten, twenty, or thirty years ago and some of those immunizations may need to be received for the first time or again due to the time that has passed (booster shot). Common immunization requirements for attendance are proof of two Mumps, Measles, Rubella (MMR) immunizations and one Meningococcal (MCV4 or MPSV4-Menactra, Menomune or Menveo) vaccine for all residential students. Due to the current times we are living in, most schools are also strongly encouraging students to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. While they cannot legally mandate it like the other vaccines, they can and do implement restrictions if you do not provide proof of vaccination. This is true regardless of which of the immunizations we are talking about.

You can typically get copies of your immunization record from the doctor’s office that administered them, from your local city, county, or state health departments, from your high school, or from your previously attended college or university – if applicable. In accordance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), none of these entities can deny you access to your own medical records if you are 18 years old, or 17 years old and enrolled in a post-secondary institution, so if any of them deny your request for a copy because they don’t want to be bothered with the effort of retrieving it, don’t just assume you can’t access those records. If you have questions about this process, you can contact your state’s health department or department of higher education for further guidance.

Part III: Scholarships, Grants, Loans, and Other Financial Aid

The most overwhelming aspect of this entire process is the financial side. The majority of all dependent and independent students who quit school, do so because of financial reasons. As we covered in the previous section, it’s not just the cost of tuition that new students worry about, it’s all the fees and secondary costs not already calculated into the tuition. One of the most helpful things you can do is figure out your budget and finances. How much money do you have coming in and how much are you spending? Review your bank statements, not just your monthly expenses like your house payment or rent, but also look at what products and services you have subscriptions for.

I recently did and found that I was spending about $1,200 a month, or about $15,000 a year on cost of living expenses, service subscriptions, entertainment subscriptions, and other retail purchases. In order to figure out how much I was spending on each thing every month, I calculated the average by adding up each payment or purchase for each category that I made in a year and then divided it by twelve months. It had been a couple of years since the last time I had done this and I was surprised at how many new expenses I had acquired since then and how much I had been spending. I broke my expenses down like this:

Your budget and finances will not look exactly like this, everyone’s is different and is based on their living situation or arrangements, their lifestyle, how far from work they live, what they enjoy in life, etc., each person’s numbers will be different. The important thing here is that you breakdown all of your payments and purchases so that you know how much you’re spending each month. Evaluate whether or not you want or can continue these expenses if you become a full-time student and can no longer work a full-time job. More than likely, you’re going to have to start getting rid of a few things.

When it comes to the financial aid that is available, none of it is truly free, at the very least it will cost you time and energy – especially when over half of scholarships utilize an essay-style application process. Most of these essays are requested to be 500 to 2,000 words in length and require the basic tropes you’d expect: your background, why you need financial assistance, what your future goals are. I have seen some get a little more creative and require the applicant to create a video. While scholarships don’t require a financial investment or purchase in order for a student to apply, they almost always have eligibility requirements and as I previously mentioned, most scholarships are geared only towards graduating high school seniors. There are, however, scholarships that are open to people older than 18, you just need to make sure you read all of the eligibility requirements before you take the time to write your essay or fill out your application.

Some of the most common eligibility criteria evaluated by entities or individuals offering scholarships include:

  • Grade Point Average (GPA)
  • ACT/SAT Test Scores
  • Mentorship/Volunteer Hours
  • Degree Type Pursued (Associate’s, Bachelor’s, Master’s, etc.)
  • Athletics
  • Financial Need
  • Hobbies, Activities, Interests
  • Race/Ethnicity/Sexual Orientation/Religious Affiliation
  • U.S. Citizenship Status
  • U.S. State of Residence
  • Goals/Future Plans

The below list are the most commonly used websites to search for and apply to scholarships. These websites were provided to me by federal and state agencies, and various colleges and universities. While none of these websites require you to pay anything to find and apply for scholarships, most of them require you to create an account on their site and in some cases sign-up for their newsletters, in order for you to use their website. I highly recommend that you read the U.S. Department of Education’s webpage about scholarships, before jumping into these other private websites and you should always use caution when giving out your personally identifiable information. While I have personally used some of these websites to find scholarships, I am not affiliated with any of them for any kind of marketing and receive no compensation for providing their links.

Federal and state grants also don’t require you to make any kind of purchase, but they have limited funding and frequently come with a catch. The federal and state funds are awarded under specific conditions and circumstances, and if for some reason the student no longer attends a college or university or fails to meet or sustain one of the other conditions during or after attending school, they may not only be declined any future funds but they may also be required to pay back the funds they’ve already received plus interest, thus a grant can sometimes convert to a loan.

You will learn what federal and state grants you are eligible for via the FAFSA, provided that you file it on time for both the federal deadline and the deadline for the state you reside in. Common eligibility and conditions for sustained use include: having and retaining a specific grade point average (GPA), being a certain age or within a certain age range, studying in a specific field, being a full-time or part-time student, being employed or agree to be employed by a certain industry and within a certain timeframe, live and/or work in a specific location, and the list goes on.

Loans, while very common for college students, are best to be avoided as much as possible. Every respectable financial aid officer will tell you to take out as little a loan as possible, applying for only what you need and nothing that you don’t. All loans must be paid back, and most also require the student to pay all of the interest as well, with the exception of subsidized loans – wherein, for example, the federal government will pay the interest while the student is in school, has recently graduated and is in a grace period, or if the loan has been deferred temporarily due to such circumstances as financial hardship.

What federal loans you are eligible for will be determined after you file your FAFSA, but generally speaking you will want to take out federal subsidized loans before any other kind. If you still need additional loan money, apply for federal or state government unsubsidized loans because their interest rates are usually lower than private loans from schools, banks, credit unions, and other such private lenders. Whether federal, state, or private, it’s a good idea to apply for loans with a fixed rate before applying for those with a variable rate. While you may initially get a lower rate with a loan that has variable interest, it puts you at risk of a very high interest rate in the future, especially if the markets are unstable. You can learn more about federal and private loans by visiting the U.S. Department of Education’s official site for information on accepting student aid at https://studentaid.gov/complete-aid-process/accept-aid.

When you file your FAFSA and apply to a school, you may also discover that you are eligible for the Federal Work-Study Program, a program wherein you will work part-time on campus or through another entity that participates in the federally funded program, earning an income. Its only similarity with the grant process is that the opportunity is offered to students based on their financial need. Organizations are paid federal funds to hire college students, but these funds are not limitless and whether or not you are provided the opportunity to participate is largely based on how soon you apply and are accepted. Once the job opportunities are filled by other students, you’re out of luck. Not all colleges and universities participate in this federal program, so if this is something you want to do while in school, be sure to ask the schools you are applying to if they participate before you accept their financial aid offer.

Generally the income is minimum wage and some of the most common jobs performed for the college or university are in the school cafeteria, activity centers, financial aid office, or for one of the professors as a research assistant. Some schools allow you to choose which jobs you want to apply for and you will undergo the normal interview process to make sure you are a good fit, other schools may simply assign you a job with some consideration for its applicability to your major or field of study. Some organizations off-campus have agreements with your school and participate in the program, typically these are non-profit and not-for-profit private organizations, local and state public agencies, and on rare occasion private businesses. In all cases these jobs are usually located on-campus or off-campus and nearby, meaning the commute is generally quite convenient if you are a residential student or at least live near the campus.

Another advantage of this program is that these organizations are receiving federal funds to participate in the program and are required to provide you with flexible working hours so that it doesn’t interfere with your studies. For students fresh out of high school, it also provides them with the benefit of gaining work experience, which they will be in need of when they graduate. For most adult non-traditional students who have already been in the workforce for some five or more years, this perk doesn’t really apply, unless perhaps you have no prior work experience that’s applicable to your field of study – then if you are able to get a part-time job with the school or another participating agency in a position relevant to your field you’ll have some work experience by the time you graduate, hopefully increasing your odds of getting hired. If nothing else, at least you’ll have some spending money while being a full-time student.

Aside from all of that stuff, there’s also regular employment. As we’ve previously covered, around 40% of full-time undergraduate students have some type of job while attending school. The job may be part-time or even full-time in some cases, and if you pursue employment on your own outside of the Federal Work-Study Program, you may be able to find a higher paying job than the one the school would otherwise offer you. The real question here is can you juggle being a full-time student and working a full-time or part-time job? This can only be answered by the individual, there is no wide-sweeping absolute answer. Some people can handle working multiple part-time jobs while attending school, others can even handle working a full-time job while being a full-time student and single parent.

Each individual person must decide for themselves what they can handle. Your specific course-load and student involvement requirements will also play a huge factor here. If you are taking 16 credit hours your first semester back in school after more than 5 years away, you might find yourself struggling to keep up with your studies while working 5 or more days a week. It shouldn’t have to be this way, but it really is like being forced to juggle academic success with financial stability, it’s not right and it makes the whole process of returning back to school a hardship that the majority of Americans who quit college or university, never return to, and those who never attended in the first place, never choose to pursue it.

In Conclusion

To bring this juggernaut to a close, I want to come back to a question I asked in the beginning of this article, “Why do I want to go back to school?” Instead of answering that question, I want ask it in a different way, because in all honesty I actually don’t “want” to go back to school. I feel compelled or encouraged to go back, I feel pressured to go back, but I cannot say I want to go back. I want the outcome, but I don’t want the experience and the immense financial burden it carries. For that reason, I think a more appropriate question to ask myself would be “What would be required for me to consider going back to school?” I think this question is more effective and more useful, it demands objective information without relying so much on subjective emotions.

Aside from the obvious ability to financially afford to return, other requirements are that my chosen major must be a field of study…

  1. I already have experience in, such as employment or volunteering
  2. I can tolerate studying and doing homework in for at least 4 years, and have an understanding of without serious struggle
  3. I can actually find employment in so that I don’t end up working in a completely unrelated field due to the labor market
  4. I’m willing to be employed in for the foreseeable future

I call this objective information because I can look back across my life these past 17 years and identify reasonable evidence that the path I’ve chosen meets all four of those requirements.

I don’t need to go back to school to feel satisfied in life. I don’t need to NOT go back to school in order to feel satisfied in life. School is not a destination, it’s merely a pathway to something else. Some people walk the pathway of employment after high school, some continue to walk the pathway of institutional education after high school, and some of us meander around and end up walking both pathways. All pathways lead us to middle age, and some people on those pathways are miserable, and some people who have walked those pathways are satisfied. What I’m trying to say is that there is no right or wrong path, there is only a choice and an outcome, you have to decide what choice you’ll make, why you’ll make it, and if you’ll be okay with the outcome.

The Privilege and Risks of Pretentious and Delusional Self-Importance in American Youth

These past several years I have really been noticing a significant rise in bravado, grandiosity, self-aggrandizing, and a false sense of social importance, particularly among young American men. This pretentious view that one is special and important, and that the choices they make have great potential for incredible impact on the world is actually quite dangerous and feeds the ego that will one day become their greatest adversary and impediment to a fulfilling life.

In this article I’m going to further define this behavior, outline its potential causes, and explain how this mindset is leading many young men down a path of disappointment, inflated self-worth and self-esteem, and to the eventual and consequential development of mental health issues. In particular the anxiety and depression among teens and young adults increasingly prevalent the past twenty years. I will also identify a healthier mindset for combating the ego.

Starting in childhood, our parents and other family members begin telling us we are special, that our every effort and accomplishment a moment to be celebrated, no matter how ordinary it might actually be. Whether we are successful or not, our every attempt is applauded and praised as a unique and profound ability. This sets the groundwork for the ego to arise and begins to lay the foundation for a lifetime of seeking to satisfy that reward-center of our brain: the mesolimbic dopamine system.

By the time we enter school, the process of inflating our fledgling ego is well under way, but it’s in school when this ego begins to be fed to a dangerous degree, partially because of school practices but also because of societal norms, social media, and teen culture. Our teachers begin offering an overabundance of reassuring compliments and actions that further feed the delusion that we are special and powerful, and that our words and actions can change the world.

For students who happen to be athletes, the ego is fed ever the more. Coaches and other training staff set out to stroke the ego of their athletes in the belief that if you work hard, results will always follow. While a positive mindset and an established practice of self-improvement and determination can truly go a long way in life, there is a point where we are no longer being grounded in reality and are cast adrift into the space of endless possibility and glorification of the self. A mindset that concludes positive results will always follow our hard work. The notion that if we’re doing our best, everyone will notice, applaud, and offer us rewards for our achievements.

It might be that if parents and schools were to set limitations to this process of feeding the ego, it may simply result in a healthy egoism. However, society has changed and the practices common in parenting and school no longer limit recognition of achievement. Rewarding behavior has become overabundant and consequently saturated. Children, teens, and even young adults now have unrealistic expectations about what they “deserve.”

In my former career as a professional development instructor, I both taught career skills to employees and sat on interview panels. Through these processes I encountered managers and supervisors who expressed concerns over the behavior and mindset of young people entering the workforce today, referring to them as woefully unprepared for real life. They described their new young employees as having a type of privilege, an expectation that they should be rewarded for merely showing up and working.

I think a major part of the problem is society and culture grooming young people into the idea that life will somehow miraculously unfurl before them like a red carpet premiere, that opportunities will just throw themselves at them because they showed up. Unfortunately, beyond the security and comforts of home and the safety structures of school, adult life is relentlessly hard and unforgiving. Rewards and success are few and far between, recognition and acknowledgement only follow behavior that exceeds expectations, and even when you do go above and beyond it doesn’t always deliver what you think you deserve.

Hype culture is one of the things that makes me cringe the most, especially when young people carry that behavior and mindset into the workplace. The notion that anyone can think that they should receive attention or reward for exaggerated self-importance is one of the most unbecoming things I’ve seen from Generation Z and the younger members of my own generation, Generation Y (Millennials).

The painful truth is that we are unremarkable. Very rarely does any one of us accomplish something unique. Startlingly enough, most of the population is rather ordinary. Despite what their social media accounts might suggest, their lives and accomplishments are rather unimpressive. Even the rich and famous eventually fade into oblivion.

I’m sorry to inform you that you’re not a legend. In the grander scheme of things, you will live and die without anyone beyond your family, friends, and coworkers ever knowing you existed at all. Whether you have 300 or 300,000 followers on Instagram, in a 150 years from now, no one alive will ever know you even existed at all, save a few descendants who take the time to do genealogical research.

That trophy, medal, or plaque you received for winning first place in high school or college athletics is awarded to someone every year, you are just one of many. It doesn’t make you more important, better, or more capable than any other candidate in a job interview. Yeah, you were determined, you worked hard, you sacrificed time, energy, blood, sweat, and tears, but guess what my friend, some people do that every day just to survive.

Oh, what’s that you say? You have faith that your “god” has a plan for you and so that makes you special? You that 1 of 8 billion human beings, living approximately 75 years on one little blue planet of eight in our solar system, which is one of potentially hundreds of billions of other solar systems in the Milky Way Galaxy, which is 1 of 54 other galaxies in the Local Group, which is just 1 of 100 galaxy groups in the Virgo Supercluster, which is one of 10 million superclusters in the observable universe. You are one person on one planet of approximately 21,600,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 sextillion planets in the observable universe, but please tell me more about how special you think you are.

If your god exists, then it doesn’t know you exist anymore than you know a single specific microbial organism at the bottom of Point Nemo in the pacific ocean exists. Your god has no more of a plan for you than the 2-year-old that he/she/it just gave a terminal brain tumor to not but 30-minutes ago. Stop duping yourself into believing that you deserve a bright future and a long life, while your neighbor’s toddler deserves a terminal illness and a funeral in six months.

In other words, your god doesn’t know or even care that you exist. Your god probably doesn’t exist either, but if it does, it certainly doesn’t deserve to be acknowledged. I know, the truth hurts, I faced this reality a decade ago and the mere contemplation of it caused a crisis of faith and radically changed my perspective on life, purpose, and meaning. It also shattered my false sense of importance and that’s why I bring it to the forefront of attention here. We have got to shake the sleeping and dreaming self, we have to wake up to the reality that we are not as deserving as we’ve been fooled into believing our whole lives.

While all of this may sound dreadful, severely disappointing, and potentially life-crisis inducing, there is a bright spot in all of it. The only people whose attention and judgment you should ever concern yourself with are your family, friends, and colleagues. You interact with these individuals on a nearly daily basis, you should be striving to nurture these relationships and working to aquire their admiration and respect.

When you accomplish something, celebrate it. Not with strangers on Tik Tok, but with your family, friends, and colleagues. It’s part of their role in your life to give you the support and acknowledgement needed for a healthy dose of self-worth and self-esteem. No one person can change or save the world, but one person can change or save a life, and it’s with the people closest to us and that we encounter in our daily lives that we can begin this process of influence and lasting legacy.

There are going to be times where you feel like a failure, where you feel like life is unfair and that’s because we are all failures and life is unfair. The notion that things are going to go perfectly for you is a delusion that’s been spoon-fed to you your whole childhood and adolescence. There are no training wheels in adult life, just falls. Most of the time you can learn things from your mistakes, and sometimes there’s nothing to learn and only wounds to tend to. Maybe they’ll heal and maybe they won’t.

I sincerely hope this article has been a reality check that humbles all who read it. The practice of temperance as a virtue is severely lacking in modern society and I am seriously concerned about American youth who are being set up for a painful awakening to the disappointments of adult life. There needs to be a strong cultural shift away from the obsessions of fame and fortune and the delusional belief that self-worth is the culmination of social media engagement.

While personal achievements are noteworthy, it is the actions carried out for the benefit of others that truly deserves recognition and reward. We should want to raise youth who go out of their way not for personal gain, but for selfless service. For any young person in high school or university, you should think less on the things you can do for yourself and reflect more on what you can do for others. Then and only then, will you be worth remembering.

Prajñāpāramitā Part III: The Sacred Lotus of the Dharma

Prajñāpāramitā

Part III: The Lotus Sutra

This is my third and final installment on the three core sutras that define Mahayana Buddhism. It has taken me four years to complete a study of these ancient Buddhist scripture in order to walk away feeling as though I have some grasp of their teachings as a Buddhist practitioner, but I am by no means a Buddhist scholar and this review is not intended for that purpose.

It is highly recommended that you read the previous two installments Prajñāpāramitā Part I: the Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion and Prajñāpāramitā Part II: The Heart of Insight before proceeding with part three. If you are not at all familiar with Buddhism, I highly recommend you read my introduction to the basics in The Middle Way and the Turning of the Wheel: A Brief Examination of Buddhism.

Though I have implied as much with the title of this review, the Lotus Sutra is not technically part of the Prajñāpāramitā sutras, and is in fact a standalone collection of text. It focuses on similar themes that I explored in the Diamond Sutra and the Heart Sutra and reads much the same way. All sutras were originally memorized as poetic verse, long before ever being written down.

The entire Lotus Sutra scripture took more than two centuries before arriving at its current written form. During the process of transforming from oral teaching to literary scripture, the verses were expanded and translations saw these teachings converted to prose, or at the very least accompanied by prose, in order to more fully explain the purpose and meaning of the teachings.

I will not be exploring the areas of study and practice we have already covered in the previous installments, and will instead focus on areas not previously discussed, or at least those not previously discussed in any depth. The Lotus Sutra is made of 28 chapters, but the first one that really stuck out to me as new and interesting was Chapter 14, wherein the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) has a conversation with one of his closest followers, Manjushri.

In this conversation Manjushri asks the Buddha how the Dharma may be taught in the future when “Bodhisattvas are rare, and life is full of evil and unhappiness and there are so many ignorant living beings.” The Buddha responds to Manjushri by declaring that they will be able to practice and spread the Dharma by “Dwelling in the Four Ways.” He outlined these as states of being, or conditions of existence and practice.

They are as follows:

  1. Action and Closeness
    • By practicing patience and tolerance with those unfamiliar with the teachings of the Dharma we dwell in the first way. We must seek harmony and not force others to adopt views they do not yet understand or are not yet ready for. The Buddha instructs us to not approach those who walk the wrong path in order to convert them, but to also not reject them if they approach with earnest desire to hear the teachings in the Lotus Sutra.
  2. Peace and Joy
    • To dwell or live in the second way, the Buddha instructs us to not praise (worship) nor criticize those we teach. Whether they struggle to grasp the meaning of the Lotus Sutra or if they quickly understand its teachings, we should be at peace and not struggle in aggravation nor hold them in high regard or renown.
  3. No Jealousy, No Contempt
    • The third dwelling is a follow-up to the second and simply reiterates that we should not allow ourselves to become jealous of others who are expanding their Dharma practice by quickly learning the Lotus Sutra, nor should we hold contempt for them if they need more time.
  4. Compassion and Aspiration
    • The concept of Bodhisattva is extremely important in Mahayana Buddhism, it is in fact one of the core principles that sets it apart from other schools of Buddhism. All Mahayana practitioners are striving towards becoming a Bodhisattva, one who suspends their own nirvana (complete separation from the self) in order to assist other beings who yet endure duhkha (suffering). Individuals in the pursuit of becoming a Bodhisattva take a vow and are said to have Bodhichitta or an enlightenment aspiration, and use skillful means to aid those who do not yet understand the Lotus Sutra and other Buddhist scripture and Dharma practice.

Aside from Manjushri, the Buddha mentions or interacts with several other well-known bodhisattva in the Lotus Sutra. Some of these include Dharanimdhara, Avalokiteshvara, Samantabhadra, and Kshitigarbha. Bodhisattva Dharanimdhara, also known as “Protector of the Earth” or “Earth Holder,” took a vow to connect humankind with nature, or to reconnect those that are distant, or mediate for those who do not agree or understand one another.

For anyone studying or practicing as an environmental engineer or working in environmental protection, conservation, or restoration, they will find a kindred spirit in Bodhisattva Dharanimdhara who suspended his own chance at nirvana for the betterment of all, swearing a vow to serve all living beings on planet Earth until none need his aid.

Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha, also known as “the one who seeks great suffering,” made a vow to seek out places of terror and torture, places of pain and punishment, sadness and grief so that he could offer aid and support. Instead of seeking his own nirvana, he sought to aid those in most need. For this he is depicted as the bodhisattva of trauma. Those who work or volunteer in his name are known as the “Hands of Kshitigarbha” or sometimes translated as the “Arms of Kshitigarbha.”

He is also frequently affiliated with people who are known in Buddhism as “hungry ghosts.” People who have wandered down the wrong path and have broken the Five Core Precepts, or people who are experiencing some form of suffering. When we are overly hard on ourselves or get angry with people when they don’t live up to our expectations, this too can cause us to become hungry ghosts. When we find ourselves or others in this state of being, we should remember Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha and his strength of compassion and try to follow in his footsteps.

The Lotus Sutra focuses heavily on being compassionate to ourselves and to others, it reminds us of how we can continue to practice the Dharma no matter the circumstances in our lives or in the world, and it reinforces the importance of taking a bodhisattva vow.

I don’t intend to cover any additional Buddhist scripture, but I would certainly encourage others to explore them if they have not. Like most ancient religious texts, they are filled with wild stories of supernatural beings and events, but they are also filled with profound lessons on the human experience and serve as gentle reminders of who and what we should strive to become.

How to Practice Empathy and Prevent Emotional Impotence

Your first question after reading the title is probably “What is emotional impotence?”

Emotional Impotence is a term sometimes used in behavioral health, also often called toxic positivity or chronic optimism, and refers to the act of compartmentalizing or dismissing negative and often traumatic experiences in order to “feel better.”

This behavior can be expressed inward towards one’s own struggles or outward onto other people and the traumatic experiences they are enduring, but you will notice this behavior in others before you will ever notice it in yourself.  Examples of this behavior can be seen in statements such as:

1)  It might be hard now, but things will get easier.

2)  You’ll feel better in time.

3)  Just don’t dwell on it.

4)  You need to move on.

5)  I think you need to do this… and you’ll be okay.

6)  You need to believe that it happened for a reason.

7)  You need to accept it.

8)  I’ll keep you in my thoughts.

9)  This was part of god’s plan.

10)  I’m praying that you’ll get over this.

One of the most egregious examples I have ever heard someone say or post online was to a grieving parent who had lost their child. Someone posted this comment on her Facebook page, “Thank God he graced you with other beautiful children!”

Though perhaps intended to be consoling or reassuring, this utter shit-show of apathy was abhorrent to read, I cannot imagine how the mother felt receiving those words. It’s as if this lady thought that because the mother had other children she need not dwell on the loss of the one and just be grateful she still had the other children.

This social media comment was borderline, if not full-on, psychopathic. Unfortunately it is not the first nor the last such comment I’ve read on social media or statement I’ve heard in person that stunk of emotional impotence. I am quite mortified by the atrocious things people will say without thinking of how the statement might actually come across to the recipient.

These types of responses can be delivered by both strangers and people we would otherwise classify as close friends or family. Another horrible thing I’ve seen or heard people say to grievers, were to young widows or widowers, statements like, “You’re young, you have time to find someone new.”

Though not intended to be malicious, selfish, or detrimental, or honestly outright psychopathic, all of these remarks are invalidating and dismissive of someone else’s traumatic experience and the extremely difficult emotions felt in the fallout of that trauma. Individuals say these things in an unconscious attempt to bring attention to themselves and to feel good as though they are being helpful, while not actually helping the other person at all.

A useful analogy would be this: you walk down your street after a bad thunderstorm and see your neighbor attempting to lift a tree limb that had fallen down onto his car. Instead of stopping to ask if you can assist, you shout to him, “Lift with your legs!” You carry on with your walk, proudly patting yourself on the back for offering your neighbor what you perceived to be supportive encouragement.

While not factually wrong, such a statement is rude and unhelpful to the neighbor. Yes, it saves you from having to get emotionally invested in your neighbors struggle, but it also dismisses it as nothing to worry about. Although this type of behavior can occur in a multitude of situations, it frequently occurs after loss, when people attempt to offer their condolences but then quickly or even immediately move on with their own lives and expect the griever to do the same because it’s uncomfortable for them if the griever doesn’t.

They want that person to quickly heal and move on because it impedes upon their own positive and optimistic view of life, which they need in order to feel good about themselves and their perception of life.  They selfishly see other people’s grief as a hindrance to their own joy and happiness.

It’s delusional thinking and a type of wall they build up around themselves to conceal their own trauma and their lack of willingness to address their emotions about those experiences.  Hence the name: emotional impotence.  It is literally their inability to address their own issues while projecting it onto those around them. This is why it’s toxic.  There is a huge difference between addressing trauma and concealing or compartmentalizing it.

So, if someone you know is struggling or grieving, what should you do or say instead? What kinds of actions or statements should you do or say to appropriately express how you feel about the other person’s grief or trauma? This is the power of sympathy and empathy, the ability to emotionally understand and connect to other people and the things they experience.

Often times people confuse empathy and sympathy, sometimes viewing them as interchangeable and sometimes drawing the false conclusion that one is always better than the other. It can be very difficult to properly understand them. Sympathy is your ability to understand that someone is going through something that is challenging their resilience. This could be anything from losing their job to losing a loved one. You may not understand how they feel about that experience, but you know that any reasonable person would be upset and struggling.

In my years of teaching, I have sometimes encountered people who believed that sympathy is less-than empathy, that somehow sympathy is for those incapable of practicing or expressing empathy. This is not true and represents a misunderstanding of the proper usage of these tools of social behavior and denigrates the honest value of sympathy.

When you go the store to purchase a card to express your condolences, you do not purchase an empathy card, you purchase a sympathy card. There’s a reason for that. Sympathy allows you to express yourself to the recipient without fully grasping what the recipient is actually thinking or feeling. It is a generalized expression of support and is appropriate for a wide range of recipients, anything from near complete stranger to a friend or family member.

Empathy on the other hand is a deeper, more careful, more attentive dive into human interaction and social understanding. Sympathy stops at the door and offers a casserole, empathy walks through the door and bakes it in the kitchen.

There is an old saying, “Empathy is your ability to understand what it’s like walking in another person’s shoes.” This description is true, but I often feel it doesn’t fully encapsulate the hard work that empathy truly requires in order to be authentic and effective in social situations. Empathy is more than looking at another person and imagining how that person might be feeling because doing that is still sympathy.

Empathy requires you to interact with the other person, to ask open-ended questions, to paraphrase their responses for the sake of your own better understanding, it requires you to remove yourself from the psychological equation you need to answer in order to understand the other person. What does that mean? You need to literally stop thinking about yourself and how you would act or feel or think in the situation. Stop thinking about your past experiences, your perceptions and perspectives, your past actions, your opinions and beliefs, you must fully let go of your ego.

This is why so many people fail at practicing empathy. Their ego doesn’t allow them to remove themselves from the equation, and instead insists that they always be a part of it, they feel compelled to always evaluate people and situations based on their own experiences, rather than on the other person’s experiences.

This analogy is extremely helpful in understanding the concepts of sympathy and empathy: You work with someone whose grandfather passed away last week and they are returning to work today and you want to express your condolences. You have also lost your grandfather and you reflect on how it makes you feel. What you choose to do next will determine whether you are practicing sympathy or empathy.

If you approach that person and offer your condolences, stating that you have also lost your grandfather and tell them that you can relate to what they are going through, then you are practicing sympathy. If on the other hand you approach them with condolences and ask them how they are feeling so that you can understand how they are mentally and emotionally experiencing that trauma, then you are practicing empathy. That’s the difference, whether or not you are leaning into that social interaction from your perspective or from the other person’s.

True empathy requires you to remove your perceptions and perspectives from the equation, essentially yourself, and focus solely on how the other person is perceiving and feeling about the experience. The reason this is important is because how you perceive an experience will not always be the same way that someone else perceives an experience. Going back to the analogy, the relationship that you had with your grandfather, may not be the same as your coworker’s relationship with their grandfather. When it comes to empathy, one of the most important rules is to never assume how someone else feels about any given situation.

The only way to know how someone else feels is to ask them. This is not always easy, and can often be difficult when you are engaging with someone who does not express themselves very well or when they simply don’t want to talk about the experience. If this is the case, you cannot pressure or force them to do so, simply accept things as they are and offer sympathy.

This goes back to what I was saying earlier, there is nothing wrong with expressing sympathy, it is not the ugly step-sister of empathy, both of them have their place in social behavior and both have important value to offer in human interaction. You just need to understand how and when to practice them.

If the other person is not able or does not want to express their emotions about what they are experiencing, but you still want to show them that you care, then use actions rather than words. So, if you know their lawn needs mowed, then mow it.  If the leaves need to be raked in their yard, rake them.  If the snow in their driveway needs to be shoveled, shovel it.  If they haven’t left their house and walked to the mailbox to get their mail all week, go get it and bring it to the door.

Remember, sympathy is your willingness to show up at the front door with offerings in-hand, empathy is walking through the door if/when they invite you in. Apathy is you avoiding the house altogether, or in some cases allowing your dog to shit in their yard as you go for your self-absorbed morning stroll.

Seriously though, if they call you or message you to talk about their grief, shut up and listen, even if they talk about it a lot and take up your time and make you uncomfortable.  They didn’t call for your advice unless they specifically request it.  Practicing empathy means you never give unsolicited advice! Always remove your ego from the conversation.

If you really can’t handle someone else’s emotions, understand that it is a reflection of your inability to deal with your own emotions and that it is not the other person’s fault. Be honest and politely apologize and tell the other person that you are struggling with your own emotions and that you are being triggered by the conversation.  If you know the person has no one else to talk to, ask them if they’ve heard of the various warm-lines, crisis-lines, and hot-lines for those struggling.

If you are able to practice empathy and listen to them, here are some more generalized things to keep in mind when you have conversations with them:

Let them know they can talk to you about what they are dealing with.  Let them know they can contact you whenever they need to if that’s an option for you.  Do not induce guilt trips or give them ultimatums about what you think they need to do or what will make them feel better.  Do not make it about you, they didn’t call or text you to hear about how your significant other won’t throw their dirty laundry in the washer or any of your other problems!

Establish social boundaries between you and them to make sure you are not overwhelmed by their grief or emotional struggle – be honest and tell them what days or what times of day or night they can call or text. Do not assume you know what they need, never assume why someone feels a certain way, or how they feel about any given situation.  Regardless of what you believe about your alleged superpowers, you can’t actually read their mind. Not everyone experiences every situation the same way.

Two examples of things you should say:

1)  I am here for you and I support you.

2)  It’s okay to feel the way you do.

Give praise when they do things despite their circumstances, point out their strengths and the things they have been able to accomplish despite the experience they have been going through, to remove shame over their emotional struggle. Remind them of their previous or past accomplishments.

We have a culture in America that is not well-suited for emotional understanding, or emotional intelligence.  The words we choose to use, the phrases we rely on, can either make or break another person’s recovery from a traumatic experience.  Think about what you are about to say to another person, think about how you’d feel if you were on the receiving end, and if ever possible ask them questions so that you can understand how they are feeling about their situation and how they perceive it.

In closing, if you wish to be a more empathetic person:

1) Never make assumptions

2) Remove yourself from the equation