I was talking with a client about what it means to thrive. How do you know when you're doing great in life? You don't need to meet all the criteria below to thrive as a human, but here are some measurements to consider.
Thriving starts with wellness, the three main pillars of which are physical, mental, and emotional.
The concept of thriving is associated with a plant growing fast and strong. Are you planted in good soil? Do you have the nutrients required for wellness? Do you have access to healthful food, nourishing relationships, and protected living space?
A thriving plant will flourish. How does a thriving human flourish? Do they look great, are they vibrant, do they exude energetic joy?
To thrive can also mean to be successful. Whose standards are you using to judge your success? Feel free to step outside the industrial-capitalist definition. You can succeed at a task, one day at a time, or you might consider your accomplishments to date, as a whole. Choose your own measure of success. Are you proud as you look back on your life, or hopeful as you look ahead to your future? Are you happy with how you approached life today?
And with the success you enjoy, are you making the lives of others better? Do you share your mental, emotional, creative, and financial wealth with others to create experiences of joyful connection? Do you direct your resources in a way that helps others thrive as well?
By all means, do not compare yourself to celebrities, billionaires, or friends' social media fictions. Those images do not depict the ultimate version of success. Capitalism is a game that can be won, and ultimately there may be one person left controlling all the resources. Let's frame them as a mighty oak surrounded by countless smaller ecosystems thriving away and enjoying the process of being alive, oblivious to the constant strain of the tree trying to stay so large. Life is not a game to be won, but a process to be savored.
Thriving also refers to growing, developing, and building resilience. Do you know more than you did a year ago? Do you have new skills, insights, or dreams?
I think of thriving as extending into your full personhood, knowing who you are, and experiencing your life in a way that feels meaningful and satisfying to you. There are no comparisons—it is irrelevant how other peoples' personhood shows up in the world or feels to them. Your own thriving personhood is unique, authentic, and delicious.
If you consider yourself neurodivergent and don't feel like you're thriving in your current state, be sure to externalize the source of the problem. Can you consider a set of circumstances in which you would be likely to thrive? Perhaps living along in the woods with all your needs for comfort and survival met? Or existing within a socially supportive, non-competitive society where people are free to pursue their passions and interests as a way of supporting themselves and others? Autism and ADHD can present as obstacles to thriving because of the demands and expectations of competitive, capitalistic, achievement-oriented societies that have developed a clear understanding of what it means to be "normal" aka neurotypical, and hold everyone equally to those standards.
Fuck that. You're not the problem, the system is the problem.
Modern life is demanding! Beyond striving to survive, achieve, meet goals, and check off all the boxes of a successful life, what is the prize we long for past all the hustle? Peace, relaxation, adventure? Many of us fantasize about vacations, sabbaticals, or retirement—time to finally enjoy life aside from endless tasks and stress. Wouldn’t it be nice if daily life could include a greater balance between pleasure and productivity?
Even at humans’ modern stage of evolution, ensuring our survival still demands the largest proportion of our energy. For Americans, this looks like seeking economic security and securing and maintaining our basic needs. In the remaining hours of the day, we have time for other types of tasks. To live a well-balanced life, we need to find time for four main categories of activities:
Paid or in-kind work, such as homemaking and child-rearing. If you have a wage-sharing partner who works eight hours per day, eight hours of your unpaid labor counts as in-kind work. Activities beyond that belong in the categories of Administration or Other-Care. Be sure to include personal preparation for work, drive time, and overtime hours in the Work category. If you do in-kind work as well as paid work, this category of activity takes up a LOT of your time!
This category includes all of the invisible labor you complete to simply live day-to-day, such as maintenance of home and possessions, planning, and organizing. We often under-acknowledge the effort it takes to manage all the ongoing tasks of managing modern life.
We need time to care for our body, mind, heart, and soul. A balanced life requires time for relaxation, laughter, hobbies and interests, physical and mental healthcare, nourishment, love, and connection.
This category refers to time spent meeting others’ needs outside of Work and Administration. Supporting friends, caretaking of parents or extended family, caring for pets and animals, and giving to one’s community are examples of other-care activities. These may be enjoyable and nourishing, and/or they may divert significant time from other valuable activities.
A well-balanced life does not require spending the same amount of time on each category. Optimally, you will do something from each category every day which will help you feel accomplished, organized, nourished, and connected.
It may be helpful to review your current daily activities and assess which categories they belong to. Some people find that the majority of their time goes to work and administration. Might it be possible to put up some healthy boundaries around the time you dedicate to these categories? Or could you delegate some of those tasks to others in a thoughtful way?
Other people realize they spend a lot of time on Other-Care without necessarily realizing how much of their energy is flowing outward. Or perhaps they spend so much time on personal hobbies or interests that their important relationships aren’t being nurtured sufficiently.
Use the following worksheets to assess the current state of balance in your life. You may find that implementing new boundaries or restructuring your days or routines may create more space for the activities that restore your vitality and make life wonderful.
Stress and anxiety are some emotional experiences strongly correlated with sleeplessness. Grief, loneliness, and excitement also have a strong impact on our quality of sleep. According to Cognitive Behavioral Theory, our feelings are activated by the thoughts and beliefs we focus on. So the feelings listed above are brought on by the active and latent thoughts you bring with you to bed.
People who experience insomnia for a period of time sometimes develop anxiety around sleep itself, on top of their other life stresses. They may be painfully aware of every passing minute they’re not sleeping, thinking ceaselessly about how tired they will be the next day. They may start to lose confidence in their ability to sleep, and blame their failure to sleep for the other problems they’re facing. They can develop bedroom phobias and start avoiding the bedroom and sleep altogether, to stop feeling like a failure.
So how does one clear their mind and calm their heart before crawling under the covers?
Calm the body first
Ease your emotions
Embracing a healthy lifestyle is valuable for reasons beyond general health and body aesthetics. Did you know exposure to sunlight creates dopamine? That spending pleasant time with others regulates your nervous system? That positive self-talk is the best medicine for anxiety?
For various reasons, some days, weeks, and months it can be difficult to tend to our basic needs on a regular basis. During especially stressful or low periods, we need extra support and strategy to do the basic things that keep us fueled up. The GRAPES acronym helps us remember the critical activities to include every day. Even if you spend only one minute on each one, it will support your physical and mental health and move you closer to better days.
G is for Gentle with self. Catch any self-critical or disparaging thoughts your brain is producing and shift them to a more positive perspective. For example, instead of calling yourself lazy for being a couch potato, affirm your need for rest and sink into it.
R is for Rest and sleep. Remember that your brain actually requires regular rest periods. Overall, it has two main modes of processing: 1) active, working mode and 2) default mode. The Default Mode Network (DMN) switches on whenever your mind takes a break, zones out, or has a pleasant daydream. Spending time in your DMN every day is critical for learning, memory, and problem-solving. So let’s banish the voice in our heads that tells us we need to be productive every minute and that relaxation is a form of laziness. Taking breaks makes us stronger, smarter, and happier! And remember that everything improves with a long, uninterrupted night's sleep.
A is for Accomplishment. Take care of at least one thing on your list every day. If you're in a very low energy space, it can be something small. But taking some form of action keeps you connected with your life and mentally engaged.
P is for Physical Activity. We don't need to call it exercise. Move your body for 10-15 minutes, preferable outside if possible. Breathe some fresh air, oxygenate your insides.
E is for Eat. Be sure to nourish yourself throughout the day. If you can include fresh foods with vitamins, protein, and fiber, all the better. There are two rules I try to follow: 1) whenever you eat, eat a fruit or vegetable. So either include a fruit or vegetable in your meal, or if you're just having a snack, make it a fruit or veg. 2) Whenever you drink, drink water. If you're going to have a coffee, soda, or other flavored beverage, have a full glass of water first.
S is for Social. Try not to fully isolate yourself. Keep in touch with your support network or social circle. Greet people you pass while walking. Meet with your therapist, doctor, or mentor. Interact with friends through games or social media. Social connections are imperative to robust mental health.
I believe everyone has a good reason for the things they do. Their reason may only make sense in their own mind, but the driving force behind their decisions makes good sense to them. I believe this and I try to remember it in traffic and while watching the news.
Humans aren’t as complex as they seem. A simple formula explains a process we all go through thousands of times a day. When we watch ourselves closely, we can see this formula come to life:
The magic of this formula becomes evident when the same experience elicits a different thought. It shows how powerful our thoughts and deep beliefs can be.
Here is a different example to illustrate the influence of a deep belief.
Being “woke” is both an insult and an aspiration. Too much of a good thing always leads to some kind of intestinal distress, but the intention behind this maligned term is evolutionarily valuable. If the human race is to survive this current round of ugliness, we need to wield the dual weapons of awareness and wisdom. Being woke refers to acknowledging and rejecting the beliefs and practices that hurt and oppress humans. So if you are a devout bigot, racist, or oppressor, you most certainly collude with trashing the idea of being woke. If you prefer not to carry those titles, becoming woke is actually quite achievable.
The simple prescription? Embrace the new.
People over thirty-five are automatically lumped into the category of “Boomer” by those who birthed the concept of wokeness. Humans have an undeniable affinity for tradition and “the good old days”, no matter how good they actually were. Those who refuse to stay young and engaged will find themselves fighting for outdated and useless ways of being. They start voting against their own best interests when they refuse to pay attention to the young people with their fingers on the pulse of culture and activism.
So for Pete’s sake, get TikTok, follow some smart people on YouTube, keep current on NetFlix. Listen to your kids, grandkids, and other young people. Ask them questions and resist teasing, lecturing, or comparing their experience to yours. Consider yourself lucky if they talk to you honestly, and don’t waste the opportunity to appreciate their perspective. When you notice the little door to new experience closing in your heart and mind, resist. Open it back up and listen. Be present and current and woke.
In therapy circles, the "I Statement" reigns supreme. Our first interpersonal psych classes taught us this method for helping people communicate their feelings in a concise, healthy way: "I feel (an emotion), when (a certain thing happens), because (why it matters to you)." We learned it, we practiced it, and most of us kinda forgot about it. It's one of those skills that is simple to say but not easy to do, and even harder to convince clients to use in their own lives.
Today I was pondering a way to stay neutral when receiving a message that feels like criticism. Many of us have an instant reaction when we think we've done something wrong and our nervous systems respond as though we're in Big Trouble. Common emotional responses are guilty apologizing, shrinking in fear or shame, puddling into sad tears, or angrily avoiding the conversation.
Maybe if we have a healthier, more assertive approach at the ready, we won't need to sink into any of these uncomfortable responses. Behold, the Reverse I Statement! With this approach, we can look the other in the eye, rather than feeling inferior or unworthy. And we can say: "I heard you say that when I (my action), you felt (an emotion), because (their interpretation of the event)". Then stop talking. Let them respond to your statement-- they will likely either agree or correct you. Continue rephrasing what you hear them say until you have achieved complete understanding of their concern. No apologies, no tears, no shouting.
Once the other has been heard, they will likely be more receptive to hearing your side of the story. Now you can swoop in with an I Statement of your own, or something simpler if you need more time to process your thoughts and feelings. It's perfectly ok to ask to return to the conversation after you've had some time to collect your thoughts.
Many of us struggle to find the right words when we're not prepared for a conversation, so the Reverse I Statement can come to our rescue by taking the pressure off us to come up with just the right response. Try it out and share your thoughts in the comments!
I recently watched a show in which the question "What do you stand for?" was asked. I paused to consider my answer and felt pleased that it came to me pretty quickly. In my clinical work, I find that the answer to this question is often the answer to many of the questions brought into the therapy room.
We don't always give our personal values as much thought as they deserve. Elections give us a chance to consider the issues and leadership qualities that are important to us, but only a small percentage of people vote, and even then our judgments can be clouded by affiliations and other influences. Identifying the rights, privileges, and human experiences that we believe to be undeniable helps us know ourselves more deeply and gives us a solid foundation up which to base our most important decisions.
My clients often come to a point of exploring their next moves in life. Their decisions may include work opportunities, relationships, education, parenting, homesteading, or vacation planning. Sometimes when I inquire about the deep personal beliefs involved in making the decision, I get a blank look in response. So we begin by exploring what really matters to the individual, and distinguishing a value from an activity or a simple preference. The question "What do you stand for?" refers to something we are willing to take action to protect, to show reverence for by leaving our seat and proclaiming our devotion.
Having values and the confidence to claim and protect them is an important avenue toward creating a meaningful and fulfilling life. Loads of worksheets can be found online to help with values clarification and personal exploration. Your TikTok "For You page" and Amazon ads can you reflect on the values you have aligned yourself with. Look around at your friends and chosen family and remember the saying "Show me who your friends are and I'll show you who you are". In essence, we are our values. So know your values and claim who you are! It will ease your passage through this life.
As much as we humans love to create and label mental boxes in which to organize the nouns we encounter throughout our days, the Russian doll effect applies in that every labeled box actually encompasses endlessly smaller labeled boxes, for our sorting enjoyment. Any member of the LGBTQ+ community can attest that every variation of romantic, gender, and sexual disposition has a name, a flag, and a thriving community of enthusiasts.
Same goes for the Introvert-Extrovert spectrum. Rather than settling for the classic binary, we now understand that gradations are typical and many people strive to find just the right term to describe their particular approach to engaging in the interpersonal realm. Extroverted Introverts are also referred to as Social/Sociable Introverts, Ambiverts, or Omniverts. I'm sure there are other synonyms I haven't come across yet. Feel free to deep-dive into this more if terminology interests you.
My insight of the day around this is a question that occurred to me: I wonder if it is common for Extroverted Introverts to be misunderstood and possibly rejected by others? Lots of people walk this earth feeling different, excluded, and "othered". The people who enjoy and need time alone, who can be quiet and solitary in certain moments, but who can also assertively lead a group and hold their own at a cocktail party, perhaps these people are confounding to others who try to pin them inside a decorative display box and attach a neat label underneath? Maybe these people come across as inconsistent and unreliable due to their seemingly unpredictable nature? These qualities can signal danger and put others on the defensive.
The catch is, the EI's behavior isn't actually unpredictable if you understand the nuances of the situations, their personal needs and energy sources, and the predisposition that allows them to shift between two different styles of engagement with the world. If you are an EI, it may be enlightening to consider whether this dynamic affects your personal or work relationships. It's fascinating to explore the gradations of human experience and work toward releasing our reliance on clean lines and strong demarcations between us.
My job is fascinating and I've let too much time go by without documenting the little moments of revelation that happen practically every day. I am going to use this as a micro-blog to share the new and interesting thoughts that arise through my work with therapy clients and clinical associates. At the end of the day, psychotherapy is two humans sitting in a room together, learning from one another.