After working with hundreds of women, femmes, and thems as a mindset coach, I’ve learned that one of the most common “mindset” issues that keep people stuck is what’s called “black-and-white thinking.” (Later in this post, I’ll share some tips for how to stop black and white thinking!)
The tendency to see things as being either this or that, is also called dichotomous or polarized thinking. It’s perhaps the most clear sign that you are experiencing a “limiting belief,” or what psychologists call a “cognitive distortion” or flawed thought pattern.
Learning to recognize black-and-white thinking is key to moving beyond the limiting beliefs that keep you stuck. Let’s examine what it is and how to stop it.
What is black and white thinking
First, “black and white thinking” has nothing to do with color and race. It’s the most common term people use to describe dichotomous thinking, so I’m using the language I expect my readers will know.
That said, I’m thrilled mental health professionals are discussing potentially problematic issues with the term “black and white thinking” and I echo those concerns. That’s why I’ll also use “extreme” or “polarized” thinking in this post.
Polarized thinking is the tendency to rigidly assess something as either good or bad, right or wrong, helpful or hurtful. It’s the type of thought pattern that tricks us into believing our only options are to be a success or a failure, to be loved or to be hated, to have it all figured out or be lost.
An all-or-nothing mindset is one that doesn’t make room for the middle ground. It keeps us from seeing the world as complex, nuanced, and full of shades of gray.
Words that can be red flags for extreme thinking include always, never, impossible, perfect, worst, best, or should.
Most people experience occasional black-and-white thinking, but it can be the norm for some people. The more often you experience either-or thoughts, the more likely you are to harshly judge yourself and others, and quit (projects, relationships, etc.) when things get difficult.
What causes black and white thinking
Black-and-white thinking can be a sign of serious mental health issues including bi-polar disorder, narcissism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression. For most people, however, extreme thinking is a learned behavior (and it can be one we develop as a response to trauma).
Some experts believe polarized thinking has its roots in the human’s survival instinct. The more simple our thinking, the more quickly we can respond to a threat. Boiling things down to just two options (this or that), the brain can more easily react (fight, flight, freeze).
I also believe this type of thinking is a direct result of living in a patriarchy. Binary thought is a patriarchal tool that establishes clear rules about what is good and what is bad (male is better than female, white is better than black, rich is better than poor, etc.).
Living in patriarchy normalizes hierarchical, right-or-wrong thinking. It’s not surprising, then, that most of us are conditioned to apply black-and-white thinking to everything in our lives.
Black and white thinking examples
At its most extreme, polarized thinking is very obvious. “I’ll never find a relationship,” “I’ll always be poor,” or “Reaching my goal is impossible,” are good examples of the most extreme thinking.
More often, though, polarized thoughts are more subtle and sneaky.
They can sound like certain or factual statements — “I’m not qualified for that job” or “I would be horrible at public speaking.”
They may also sound like reasonable questions — “What if I do this and fail?” or “Who would trust what I have to say?”
While they may sound certain or curious, these thoughts don’t stand up to investigation. Either the facts disprove the ideas, or we don’t have evidence that either supports or contradicts them.
Our thoughts and feelings aren’t facts, even if they feel that way. Examining real data is helpful in watching out for polarized thoughts passing as certainty or curiosity.
Black and white thinking vs. certainty
Once my clients begin to recognize polarized thinking, they eventually ask the same question: “How do I know if I’m certain about something, or if I’m experiencing black-and-white thinking?”
It’s not always easy to tell the difference between your intuition or inner knowing and extreme thinking. Both can feel certain. There’s not an easy answer for making the distinction, but it does become easier as you develop a better understanding of polarized thoughts and get more comfortable with your intuition.
In general, the process of making a decision based on extreme thinking will feel certain and absolute. That same process will feel curious and open to possibilities when it comes from intuition or inner knowing.
After making a decision, one made from black-and-white thoughts will feel likely restrictive and heavy, and lead to regret. A decision based on intuition or your inner knowing is more likely to feel expansive, light, and lead to relief.
Pay attention to these warning signs and eventually you’ll hone your ability to distinguish between extreme thinking and inner knowing.
How to stop black and white thinking
The first step is awareness, noticing when you are having polarized thoughts. When they arise, ask yourself “what’s the gray?” These thoughts don’t allow for complexity or nuance, but we know that life is far more complicated than a simple this or that.
Also, it’s important to recognize that humans are fully capable of holding two separate, even disparate, thoughts or feelings at the same time. If you need proof of this duality, just spend time with a child. My kiddo has no problem telling me when he’s feeling both angry and sad at the same time or when he thinks he loves me and finds me frustrating at the same time.
Your brain will tell you that it’s this or that, but how might it be this and that? What if it was both? How might that look? This line of questioning can be helpful when you’re experiencing dichotomous thinking.
Now, let’s look at 10 tools that can be helpful in managing polarized thinking.
1. Seek Therapy: Again, this type of thinking can be symptomatic of a mental health issue. If extreme thinking is regularly and negatively affecting your health, relationships, and mood, you may want to work with a therapist. Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to be particularly effective in dealing with polarized thinking. (Learn the difference between coaching and therapy)
2. List the Possibilities: When you notice you’re locked into two possibilities, write down any other option you can imagine (even if the alternatives seem unlikely or silly). Challenging your narrative can trick the brain into seeing more nuance.
3. Ask What’s True: Byron Katie teaches us to challenge our thoughts by asking, “Is this true?” and “Can I absolutely know that it’s true?” Ask yourself these questions whenever your brain gives you this-or-that options. Also, what evidence do you have to support or refute your belief? Examine the proof beyond your own thoughts and feelings.
4. Watch your Words: Notice all the ways you use binary language, and consciously shift to grayer options. “I am stupid” becomes “I sometimes make mistakes.” “This is the worst” becomes “This could be better.” You may be surprised to see how frequently you use this-or-that language in your everyday life.
5. Practice Mindfulness: It’s difficult to be conscious of your thoughts when you are always busy and rushing. Practicing mindfulness on a regular basis can help you tune into your beliefs, giving you space to really notice them. From there, you can begin to release judgment of them. (Free mindfulness exercises you can do anytime)
6. Be Curious: When you notice yourself having polarized thoughts, you may be tempted to judge them as bad. That’s another example of engaging in polarized thinking! Instead, simply be curious (curiosity vs. judgment). Explore why you’re feeling that way (hint: it’s often a fear), and be compassionate with yourself as you do that exploration.
7. Look for the Best: Extreme thinking gives us only good or bad options, and most of us tend to focus on the negative. That can have us quickly spiral down the rabbit hole of worst-case scenarios. Another way to challenge the thoughts is to consider the best that could happen.
8. Talk Like a Friend: What would you say to a friend who was experiencing these same polarized thoughts—a person trapped in a this-or-that scenario? We can often give to our friends what we can’t give to ourselves, so stepping outside of yourself to think of how you’d speak to another person can help you find the nuance and treat yourself more compassionately.
9. Write it Out: Developing a regular journaling practice is really helpful with becoming aware of and challenging polarized thoughts. It helps you see the thoughts, refute them, and craft a new narrative. My massive journaling prompts bundle can help you get started!
10. Coach Yourself: You don’t have to invest in a coach to get the benefits of coaching. If you can’t yet afford coaching, do the work for yourself using these tips. The self-coaching model, along with asking thought-provoking questions, can help you manage polarized thoughts and feel more empowered.
A final thought: Give yourself time and compassion. Believing you must immediately solve or stop your polarized thinking or you are a failure is just another example of polarized thinking!
The truth is, it has taken you a lifetime to develop this way of thinking, and it will take time to change it. And you live in a world where these thoughts are pervasive, and that doesn’t go away as you do the work. This work will likely last for your lifetime.
The good news: If you challenge your thoughts again and again, and be kind to yourself along the way, then over time you’ll catch the extreme thoughts more quickly and they’ll happen less often.
Black and white thinking worksheet
Finally, to help you challenge your polarized thoughts, I’ve created a free worksheet you can use whenever you’re locked into two extremes. It walks you through unpacking the current extreme thoughts and then crafting a new, more helpful narrative.
–> If my compassionate, holistic approach to life coaching feels good to you, book a free discovery call with me. I’d love the opportunity to see if I might be the right coach to help on your personal growth journey.
What is a coach? What does a life coach do exactly? These are the types of questions I often hear from people who are rightfully confused about whether they need to hire a coach (or if they might be better served by a strategist, mentor, or therapist).
As a certified coach, I think it’s important to educate people about the work I do and how it differs from other services.
What is coaching?
Coaching has long been associated with sports. Athletes’ coaches help them reach their peak performance—not by doing the work for them, but by guiding and encouraging them.
Today, coaches play a similar role for all types of people in all aspects of life. There are executive coaches, dating coaches, health coaches, life coaches, and more.
Coaching is an unregulated industry, meaning anyone can call themselves a coach (even without training). That also means there is no official or uniform agreement about a definition of coaching.
I’m certified through the International Coaching Federation (ICF), considered the leading global organization for coaches. They define coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”
For many people, it’s easier to say what coaching isn’t than what it is. Coaching is not:
Giving advice or telling people what to do.
Sharing knowledge, best practices, or teaching a topic.
Healing trauma or ruminating on the past.
Doing work for the client.
Being friends and telling the client what they want to hear.
Passing judgment on a client’s thoughts, feelings or actions.
Coaching is a client-led relationship. By asking powerful questions, the coach serves as a mirror to help the client see outside themselves. The goal is to help clients come to their own decisions about what they want and how to make it happen.
What is a life coach?
What is the difference between a “coach” and a “life coach”? In truth, there isn’t one. Done correctly, coaching of any type is basically the same, and any coach should be able to coach any person around any issue.
Just because a coach can help anyone, doesn’t mean they do. Coaches often like to specialize based on the type of person or issue they find most interesting (and many coach training programs offer various concentrations).
Some of the most popular coaching specializations include fitness, leadership, and business/entrepreneurship.
But perhaps the most common type of coach is the life coach, which is a broad term for a coach who focuses on personal development. The coach helps the client unpack and devise a plan for a life goal or a personal situation.
Life coaching may touch on a client’s professional life, health, relationships, etc., but the overall focus is always about the client’s general life satisfaction.
What does a life coach do exactly?
Coaching helps clients identify how they want to feel in the future, and then supports their journey toward that goal. It looks at where a person is headed, where they are now, and helps them figure out how to bridge that gap.
Life coaching should always be forward-looking, focused on practical solutions, and empowering to the client.
When you hire a life coach, you’ll generally meet one-on-one to work through your particular issues.
During your sessions, the coach will ask questions meant to help you come to your own conclusions about your situation, including devising your own strategies for taking action. The coach will also check in on your progress to help keep you accountable to your goals.
Although the coach guides the relationship and individual sessions, you are always in the driver’s seat. You set the goals, you determine your action steps, you decide whether the coaching is working.
A coach isn’t meant to give advice. Their role is to facilitate the client’s own process of uncovering their inner wisdom so they can make their own empowered choices.
Hiring a coach is like paying for an unbiased brainstorming partner. You do the heavy lifting of crafting your goals, outlining your action steps toward them, and actually doing the work to achieve them.
Do I need a life coach or therapist?
Coaching isn’t a substitute for therapy. Coaches should not make promises about “treating,” “curing” or even addressing your mental health. They also should not address or dive deep into past trauma.
Although coaching sessions can feel good and even cathartic, they are quite different from therapy. Counseling is about examining the past in the hopes of better managing its lingering effects in the present. Coaching looks at the present to understand what lies in the way of the future you desire. Therapy is about insights, and coaching is about action.
Unlike coaching, counseling and therapy is a regulated industry that requires specific education, licensure, and ongoing training. Practitioners may have the ability to diagnose and treat trauma, disorders, and behaviors.
While certified coaches certainly have training, and seasoned practitioners have experience, they cannot do “healing” work for mental health issues.
For many people, the answer isn’t to hire a coach or a therapist but to hire both. Almost all of my clients have been in therapy before hiring me, and often continue therapy while working with me. Therapy for digging into the past, and coaching for planning for the future.
A good coach—one who is certified and adheres to a code of ethics—understands the differences between coaching and therapy. She recognizes those boundaries, will stop coaching when it goes into therapeutic areas, and will refer a client to a therapist for issues related to trauma, depression, or other clinical needs.
What’s a life coach vs. executive coach?
A coach is a coach—the word describes the way they help. A coach is a partner who guides someone to find their own answers.
A life coach helps people make choices about overall life satisfaction. Executive coaches help people make their own choices about their careers. Business coaches help entrepreneurs make their own choices about their company. Leadership coaches help people make their own choices about how to lead. And so on.
Another common point of confusion is about a life coach vs. mentor. A coach could serve as a mentor, but mentors aren’t always coaches. A mentor is a seasoned professional who uses their first-hand experience to develop the skills of a novice in their field.
Mentors share best practices and lessons learned, and use their wisdom to teach another person. They will help you work through present problems, including giving their opinion on what you should do.
Finally, let me clarify the difference between a life coach vs. a consultant or strategist. In coaching, the client makes all choices and takes all actions. A consultant or strategist, on the other hand, provides the client with solutions for a particular problem—and may also implement those solutions for them.
In short, if you are looking for someone to non-judgmentally help you find your own inner knowing to come to your own confident conclusions, then you want to work with a coach. Any life coach can help, or you can seek out a specialist for your specific area of concern.
If you’re looking for hands-on guidance from someone you admire in your field, find a mentor. And if you’re looking for someone to solve your problems and maybe do the work for you, then you need a strategist or consultant.
How do I find a life coach?
Coaching has seen a major surge in popularity in recent years. With hundreds of thousands of options, how to choose a coach can feel overwhelming.
Again, as an unregulated industry, literally any person can hang out a shingle and call themselves a coach. It is up to the consumer to do their due diligence and vet the many options.
Here are a few things to consider:
1. Have they completed a coaching program?
There are excellent self-taught coaches, and horrible professionally trained coaches. Completion of a formal program shouldn’t be your only consideration, but it can be one signal of a quality coach.
There are thousands of coach training programs, including self-study options that cost only a few hundred dollars. Was the program they completed ICF-approved? Did they take the additional step of receiving ICF certification?
2. How much experience do they have?
It may also be helpful to ask how many clients they’ve helped and how many hours they’ve coached. LIkewise, what do they do for continuing education? If they are ICF certified, they are required to keep their skills sharp by taking 40 hours of approved education every three years.
3. What is their coaching model?
Ask potential coaches about their approach. Do they have a framework or methodology? Do they have a structured program that all clients experience in the same way? Or do they take a more intuitive approach and customize the experience to the individual? Is it open ended or does it end after a set length of time?
Will they do more talking or listening? What type of questions might they ask, and what’s the point of them? If they give advice or teach, do they understand and communicate the difference between coaching and consulting?
4. Do they have a code of ethics?
The coach should have a contract that clearly outlines the rights and responsibilities of each party. It should address confidentiality, conflicts of interest, and the boundaries between coaching and therapy.
You can also ask a coach about how they “set a container,” or create a safe space, for coaching sessions. This involves creating agreements about logistics, expectations, and trust.
5. Why are their core beliefs?
A coach’s beliefs will necessarily impact the coaching relationship. So it’s important that you understand and feel comfortable with their values.
As an example, I am an intersectional feminist which means I believe patriarchy is real and problematic. This affects my work in several ways:
I ask questions that help my clients unpack their own patriarchal conditioning so they can redefine success on their own terms.
I honor the lived experience of those pushed to the margins in patriarchy. That means I won’t dismiss or diminish reality by chalking everything up to “mindset.”
I value consent, so I focus on safety first. I always check on how my clients feel about my approach and about their choices. I also won’t use a person’s problems to manipulate them into spending money.
Know what matters to you, and make sure any coach you are considering holds the same values.
6. How do they know if they are doing a good job?
What is the coach’s barometer of success for individual sessions and the overall coaching relationship? The answer should be more than client testimonials or “the client reaches their goal.”
How do they critique their own practice? They should be able to explain to you how they measure “good coaching.” You may also ask about a time when they weren’t successful and why. The answer is almost always about the connection and communication (or lack thereof) between coach and client.
7. Do you like them?
To be effective, coaching requires you to be vulnerable. You must be honest, and not hold back about your thoughts and feelings. To do that, you’ll need to feel comfortable with your coach.
Spend some time with them to evaluate whether you like them as a person and feel like you can be yourself with them. A coach isn’t a friend, but it is an intimate relationship that requires trust.
8. Will they share testimonials?
Check a coach’s references. Are her past clients satisfied? If possible, ask those people specific questions about how they felt during their sessions, what they achieved during and since coaching, how often they refer people to the coach, and what words they’d use to describe the coach and the experience.
9. What is the investment?
It’s important to understand the complete price of the coaching experience and exactly what is (and isn’t) included. Get the details and then be honest with yourself—can you afford it?
There are coaches who will encourage you to use credit to pay for their services. Some coaches will use high-pressure sales tactics, even questioning your commitment to change if you aren’t willing to immediately purchase.
Do not sign up for coaching until you are ready. First, it’s unethical and rude to pressure anyone into a purchase. And second, coaching only works when you are committed because, after all, you are the one who must do the work.
10. What does your intuition tell you?
We’ve been conditioned to discount our instincts in favor of what looks good on paper. But it’s a great sign if your heart, soul, intuition are singing when you think about working with this person. Trust your gut. If someone feels like the right coach for you, it doesn’t really matter why. If someone doesn’t feel right for you, move on (and you don’t owe anyone an explanation).
If you’re not yet ready to invest in coaching, that doesn’t mean that you can’t benefit from it. It’s possible (albeit more difficult) to act as your own life coach using self-coaching techniques. Do the research and give yourself as much coaching as you can until you are ready for help from a professional.
Having a son has been the most challenging and rewarding experience of my life. I’ve written before that I don’t always love the act of parenting, but it has been an incredible learning experience. In fact, the most difficult parts have provided the best teaching moments.
Watching a child move through the world is a beautiful reminder of so many things we lose as we age. My son has helped me become a better person and a better coach, and I want to share five of the most valuable mindset lessons I’ve received from him.
1. Feel it all, and feel it big.
When my son gets hurt, he cries. When he watches a funny YouTube video, his laughter echoes through the house. When he gets angry with me, he stomps and screams.
Of all life lessons from kids, I think the most important is that it’s natural to have feelings and that it’s healthy to fully express them.
Unfortunately, we begin learning at a young age that we should “brush it off” and “tone it down.” Most of us are routinely ignoring, suppressing, and downplaying our feelings by the time we are teens…and it continues throughout our lives.
We could all stand to act like a child when it comes to emotions. Feeling our feelings, as big as they want to be felt, helps them naturally run their course (more quickly and therapeutically than stuffing them could ever do).
2. Allow for your complete emotional experience.
Speaking of feelings, kids don’t buy into the idea that you are only allowed to experience them one a time. They know it’s entirely possible to hold two different feelings at the same time. When I ask my son how he feels, he often says “happy and sad,” or “a little angry and really bored.”
Life isn’t black-and-white. Rather than this or that, children know they can allow for this and that. And so can you.
Humans are capable of simultaneously feeling, thinking, and doing two (even seemingly disparate) things. Rather than fighting this truth, learn to embrace duality as evidence of your wholeness.
3. Failure isn’t fatal.
If failure were fatal, the human species would end. Children fail daily! It’s impossible to learn how to eat, walk, talk, and more without an incredible amount of failures.
For children, “try, and try again” isn’t only a sweet pep talk; it’s key to survival. The only way to learn the skills they need to live is to repeat them over and over until they master them. They must get up each time they fall, practice their letters until they are correct, repeat 1 + 1 until they remember the answer is 2.
Despite our early experiences with failure, most of us eventually decide that getting things wrong is bad—very bad. We go out of our way to avoid failure (and feeling like a failure).
That’s too bad. As children know, the only way any of us can grow and improve is to “try, and try again.”
4. Asking for help is smart.
Failure and practice necessitates asking for help. Children have so much to learn, and so quickly, that they realize they must ask for help. How else can they understand what they don’t yet know, especially something as complicated as talking or using scissors?
That willingness to ask for help shifts as we age. Eventually, many of us decide it’s a sign of weakness rather than of basic need (or even of intelligence). And that leaves us doing too much, feeling overwhelmed, and often longing for support we won’t receive.
Ask for help with the ease a child does, and you’ll be able to do more, faster, and with far less stress and loneliness.
5. It’s okay to need others.
My son doesn’t bat an eye at being completely dependent on his parents. It’s just the way it is. Sure, he says “I can do it myself” more often with each passing year, but he also has no problem admitting when he has a problem that only my hug can solve.
The need to belong is natural and instinctual. Children are born with that understanding, but we adults condition them to devalue community.
Eventually, many people come to view needing others as weakness. That’s terribly unfortunate. Raising my son has clearly shown me that “it takes a village” is true.
What mindset tips have you learned from your children? Share them in the comments!
As a life coach, clients (and strangers) sometimes ask me to solve their problems. They want me to tell them the secrets to finding the perfect job, choosing the right partner, being happy. But guess what? I don’t have the answers.
Coaching isn’t telling people what to do! Practiced properly, coaching is holding up a metaphorical mirror that allows a person to see their own truth, find their own answers, and make their own choices.
A coach is a guide, a questioner, a cheerleader … a coach isn’t a Magic 8 Ball.
I’m not here to tell anyone what to do, but I have learned a lot from my clients—and I feel confident sharing these life coaching tips for success. After hundreds of clients over several years, I know these lessons from a life coach can be life-changing.
1. You aren’t broken.
Every time a client says, “I feel so broken,” my heart breaks a little. There’s nothing wrong with you just because you haven’t reached all of your goals, sometimes feel lost or out of control, or otherwise don’t have everything figured out.
Feeling stressed, sad, frustrated, lonely … anything … is normal. Wanting more for your life, or longing to be okay with less, is normal. Not really knowing what the hell you want is normal.
The world around you (including far too many coaches) need you to believe that you are broken. Profits and power depend on you believing it.
The truth is, though, you aren’t broken. You are normal and wonderful. Release the shame, and embrace self-compassion as you endeavor toward personal growth.
2. Your thoughts aren’t trash.
Related to #1, my heart breaks every time I see a coach tell people to label thoughts as “trash” (or gremlins or trolls etc.) and feelings as toxic.
This is a patriarchal notion trapped inside the binary. It’s patently false that everything must be either good or bad, right or wrong. Truth exists in the gray, in the duality. Life is messy, and so are our thoughts and feelings. That’s not bad or wrong, it simply is.
All of your thoughts and feelings serve a purpose, they all are part of you, and they all are valid and worthy.
Releasing the judgment of thoughts and feelings is at the heart of developing self-compassion. Learning to feel your feelings, witness your thoughts, and love the totality of your being is essential on the path to liberation.
3. Be kind to yourself.
As you can see from #1 and #2, I’m a big proponent of self-compassion. That’s because I’ve seen that learning to be kind to yourself and keep yourself safe is how we build self-trust. And people who trust themselves are the ones who become unstoppable.
How do you develop self-compassion? Again, see #1 and #2. Start by bringing concentrated awareness to all the times when you judge yourself (and if you’re a normal human, it is a lot). Don’t judge the judgment. Notice it, and gently nudge yourself into curiosity instead.
What is this really about? What fear might be underlying this thought? What feeling might I be avoiding? What if this isn’t good or bad? What is the gray here?
Judging our thoughts, feelings, and actions as good or bad isn’t productive. Guilt and shame keep us stuck. Getting curious, however, allows for forward momentum. It shifts us out of feeling stalled and into finding proactive and productive next steps.
4. This is all there is.
Living for the future or ruminating on the past won’t change anything about the present. And yet … how much of your headspace is taken up with thoughts (worries, regrets) about tomorrow or yesterday? We all do it.
The answers aren’t in the past. The solutions aren’t coming in the future. Nothing about your life will get any better or worse than it is right now, because right now is all there is (we are not promised anything beyond our current breath).
This may sound nihilistic, but I find it comforting and motivating. Why? Because how you do anything is how you do everything. What’s keeping you from contentment won’t change with a change of circumstances. True contentment is found when you learn to be fully present in the here and now.
This moment is all there is. The more you can tap into that, the less pain you’ll feel.
If #4 makes you feel like you’re failing unless you’re living like a Buddhist monk, then go back and re-read #3!
Life isn’t black-and-white. It’s not “be perfect or be a failure.” In all ways, the truth is found in the gray. Instead of either-or, always look for the and.
It’s okay to strive to live in the moment and strive to reach big goals. It’s okay to work on accepting yourself as you are and work on improving your mindset. Humans are capable of simultaneously doing two (even seemingly disparate) things.
Show yourself compassion as you notice the duality of your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Embrace that duality as evidence of your wholeness.
Finally, beware life coaches that use guilt, blame, or shame as a motivational tool. That type of coaching can create short-term results, but rarely leads to long-term change. And it feels awful in the process.
–> If my compassionate, holistic approach to life coaching feels good to you, book a free discovery call with me. I’d love the opportunity to see if I might be the right coach to help on your personal growth journey.
When you’re having a bad moment or day (or even a long series of bad days), it can feel like things will never get better. You may intellectually understand that change will eventually come, but that doesn’t lessen the load in the moment.
At those difficult times, it’s tempting to beat yourself up, lash out at others, or simply give up. To avoid these less-than-desirable reactions, it can be helpful to have a few healthy responses at the ready.
Want to know how to turn around a bad day? Here are 10 tools that can help you feel better. Keep them in your back pocket to pull out whenever you need to turn around a negative downward spiral.
*Note: Coaching is not a substitute for professional mental health care or medical care. This advice is not meant to take the place of any form of therapy. If you are feeling especially bad, or are having thoughts of self-harm, please seek help from a licensed therapist right away.
When you find yourself down—or angry, frustrated, overwhelmed—it can be really useful to simply be with the feeling. This is about coexisting, not criticizing. Rather than judging it, just observe it. Recognize that you are a person having a thought or feeling, nothing more.
When you feel the urge to judge the thought or feeling as good or bad, lovingly nudge yourself back into the role of unbiased observer.
If you have the energy, you can also get curious about the thought or feeling. When do you first remember feeling or thinking this? What made you feel or think this? What is the thought or feeling wanting you to know? Who benefits from you thinking or feeling this way?
If that line of questioning feels energetically draining or unsafe, then stop and simply return to the goal of presence without judgment.
When it comes to “mindfulness,” meditation gets most of the attention. It’s a wonderful practice, but is also very misunderstood. Too often, we think we can only meditate if we have 10 minutes to an hour to dedicate to sitting in silence.
I think it can actually be far more powerful to sprinkle shorter bits of mindfulness throughout your day. Mindfulness simply means being aware of and fully present in the current moment. It’s about bringing your focus—even if only for a few fleeting seconds—to the present (vs. living in the future or past).
This practice is so powerful because it helps reduce stress and worry, which are results of living in the past or future. Taking even a few seconds to recenter or ground yourself in the present can dramatically improve how you feel.
Like mindfulness, exercise tends to be something we judge as only being “worthy” if it takes up a decent amount of time. That type of thinking is rooted in patriarchal (capitalistic) notions of productivity, and it can be extremely damaging.
In truth, all movement is beautiful, helpful, and worthy. Moving your body doesn’t have to be tied to any physical or aesthetic goal. It can be strictly for feeling better, and it can look however you want and last as long or as short as you like.
Movement is known to be a powerful tool for “completing the stress cycle” (read “Burnout” by the Nagoski sisters for a well-informed explanation), or releasing the trapped feelings of stress and overwhelm.
In a patriarchy, people learn from a very young age that crying is bad (because it’s a “feminine” or “weak” trait). We are told to “brush it off,” “suck it up,” and not be “too emotional.”
That’s so unfortunate because crying is not only natural, it’s incredibly healing. It’s a release valve for so many feelings, from stress or sadness to grief and frustration. Tears are cathartic; they cleanse the body of stress, metaphorically and literally.
In a world that tells you crying is bad, it takes incredible strength to do it. It’s not weak, it’s a sign of courage. Shedding tears is one of the bravest acts of self-care possible.
There’s truth to the saying, “laughter is the best medicine.” Science has found that laughing has myriad benefits. It relieves physical tension, decreases stress hormones, increases immune cells, releases feel-good endorphins, and can even help you live longer.
When you’re feeling down, try forcing a laugh. Very often, a forced laugh will eventually turn into a real one. The same goes for smiles.
A few other ways to work a little laugh therapy into your day include watching a funny movie, reading a joke book, searching for silly .gifs or memes, hosting a game night with friends, dancing with a child, playing with your dog, letting loose at karaoke, or attending a laughter yoga class.
Getting too little sleep causes stress levels to increase. Feeling stressed can cause sleep deprivation. It can be a pretty awful Catch-22. Plus, being tired depletes us of the energy required to proactively and positively cope with difficult days.
Improving the quantity and quality of your sleep isn’t a short-term solution, but it’s an important piece of the feel-good puzzle.
There are things you can do to improve your relationship with sleep—sticking to a schedule, cutting back on or eliminating caffeine, not napping, getting exercise, meditating. That said, as a recovering insomniac myself, I know it’s not always as simple as it seems. It can be helpful to talk to your physician and seek out therapy if you’re not sleeping enough.
When you’re down, it’s easy to get singularly focused on scarcity. You may only think about what you don’t have, what’s missing, what you wish for to change your circumstances.
As always, I am not an advocate for ignoring those feelings, pushing them down, or beating yourself up for having them. In truth, there may be some very real deficiencies that are rightfully causing you anger or frustration.
If you get to a place, however, where you’d like to do some work to shift out of scarcity and into abundance, gratitude work can be a game changer.
A first step is to simply list out everything for which you have to be grateful. This can truly be as simple as looking around you and itemizing all that you have (as an example, I’m in my office and I could easily list more than 100 things in this space).
To go a step further, however, I really recommend thinking about how you can EXPRESS or SHOW gratitude. Write a thank-you note, text a friend some appreciation, send a gift to your mom. Taking action and including others in your gratitude is almost always more powerful than writing down what you have or love.
Please do gratitude work only if it feels good. It doesn’t work if you force it but don’t mean it, and it definitely doesn’t work if someone else is using it as a weapon against you (read more about that here).
“Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” I believe the first person to say this was St. Augustine, although it’s been repeated many times in many ways by countless others.
Hopefully you recognize that holding onto anger isn’t healthy. And I mean that literally. Studies have found that forgiveness is associated with lower levels of depression and anxiety, reduced substance abuse, higher self-esteem and greater life satisfaction.
There’s nothing about forgiveness work that is easy, but it is fairly simple. There are two parts: First, making the conscious choice to let go of the hurt, and second, actively stopping the rumination on negative feelings. The second part is more difficult; it takes time and practice.
Withholding forgiveness for others or for yourself, keeps alive all of the anger and hurt. Doing the work to let go can free yourself from the stress and pain. Of course, you cannot forgive before you are ready. Don’t beat yourself up if it’s not yet the right time.
Suffering in silence is lonely, and our most difficult emotions can often multiply when they exist in the dark. Shedding light on them, however, can help them dissipate.
When you feel down, chances are good that you ache to be seen, heard, and loved (even if you can’t yet admit it to yourself). Having your feelings witnessed, validated, and loved can be healing and empowering. Just look at the “Me Too” movement and how powerful it was for so many to hear that they weren’t alone.
If you’re not yet ready to confide in a friend or seek out therapy, witness for yourself by writing out your feelings in a journal. If you feel ready, validate the feelings for yourself by writing next to each one some version of, “it’s normal to feel this way” or “of course you feel this way.” Finally, love yourself by writing or saying aloud, “I love you.”
“It takes a village,” yet modern living has become incredibly isolating. So many of us can go through our days interacting with very few people, and rarely or never having meaningful conversations.
I recently shared a post on TikTok saying that it doesn’t get talked about enough that it’s really hard to make friends as an adult. That post exploded and now has about 80,000 views and more than 1,000 comments. I was blown away, but probably shouldn’t be surprised, to hear how many people feel like they have few or no real friends.
That’s such a problem because connecting with others is such a powerful tool for emotional regulation. Being part of a community is a basic human need, yet many of us aren’t having this important need met. And it only makes our bad days worse.
Find yourself a group of like-minded people who are dedicated to personal growth. They can be your support system when you need to be witnessed, validated, and loved. And you can return the favor to be there when they need the same.
If you aren’t sure where to start, consider the Gutsy Boss Club, my membership community for women, femmes, and thems who are looking to unlearn patriarchal conditioning and redefine success on their own terms. In this intimate, supportive space, you’ll find a community ready to help you navigate whatever highs and lows you experience.
I hope these tips were helpful. I’d love to hear what other things help you when you’re feeling low. Share yours in the comments!
From our youngest days, we are told to dream big, reach for the stars, swing for the fences, aim high, go big or go home. As adults, we continue to receive the clear message that if we’re not always striving to “play bigger”—to have and be more—then we’re lazy, lack ambition…basically, we’re failing.
Even more, we’re pushed to do it fast. It’s not enough to have big goals, we must realize them as quickly as possible. Take too long and, again, you’re failing.
And how do we make it all happen? Be smart and work hard. Hustle and grind hard and fast enough, we learn, and we can have everything we desire. If your effort doesn’t net the desired results? Yep, you’re failing.
Pass a test? Get an A+!
Play soccer with friends for fun? Join a competitive club team and try for a scholarship!
Go to a local state university? Strive for an ivy-league education!
Cultivate a rewarding career? Be an overnight success!
Incrementally earn more money? Get rich quick!
Ease into a healthy lifestyle? Craft rock-hard abs in 30 days!
Be content in a 1,500-square-foot home? Long for a 5,000-square-foot McMansion!
Treasure a dependable Honda for a decade? Lust after a shiny, new Tesla!
Enjoy a staycation with the family? Drool over the 5-star resort on a secluded beach!
Marketers call this Problem, Agitation, Solution. Identify a problem (wanting more for your life), then make it seem bigger by “throwing salt in the wound,” as one marketing blog puts it, and then offering a solution. By the time they’ve made you feel shitty enough, the solution they’ve presented feels like the only option.
This type of all-or-nothing, now-or-never thinking isn’t limited to the big stuff. It’s even part of common thinking around simple daily tasks. It’s not enough to tick one box off your to-do list in a day. You better tick all of them—plus a few of tomorrow’s.
Does this never-ending chase for more feel crushingly familiar? You’re not alone. In fact, it’s nearly impossible for any of us to avoid receiving and participating in this narrative. That’s because it doesn’t happen by chance. It is an integral part of patriarchy.
Inherent in the “play bigger” messaging? The need to produce and acquire. You must work long and hard to get that carrot dangling from the stick. In other words, do your part to sustain capitalism (one of the five pillars of patriarchy).
Perhaps worst of all, the pursuit of more never ends. We spend our lifetimes trying to measure up to external expectations, “keep up with the Joneses,” and stave off FOMO (exacerbated tenfold by social media).
We’re never satisfied, even as we get more. This phenomenon is called the hedonic treadmill, or the theory that humans quickly return to a baseline of happiness even after positive changes. Even if you get a promotion, buy a new car, or win millions of dollars, you’ll return to a set point and soon find yourself again desiring even more.
In short, we’re like hamsters stuck on a wheel. We’re endlessly running, hoping to reach some magical destination that will never arrive.
This isn’t just infuriating, it’s also incredibly damaging to our physical and mental health. We’re in a perpetual state of motion, placing priority on doing (not being) and getting (not having), which leads to stress, overwhelm, and burnout.
And when you’re so busy you can barely breathe, you certainly don’t have time for self-care.
Chronic, unchecked stress is proven to contribute to a great number of health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, insomnia, anxiety, and depression. It can, quite literally, kill you.
You may be thinking, “how does any of this benefit patriarchy?” That’s a fair question.
Here’s the deal: When you’re stuck spinning in circles on a fruitless pursuit, you aren’t much of a challenge to the status quo. Your efforts are wasted, your energy is drained, and you accomplish no meaningful change.
The system is designed to simultaneously manipulate you into pursuing money and power while overtly and covertly keeping you from it.
[I could go into far more detail about how patriarchy keeps people from actually amassing money and power, but the long and short of it is the more marginalized boxes you check off, the more plentiful and dominant are the forces of denial.]
This cycle keeps you producing and acquiring, both of which contribute to the wealth of those in power, while wearing yourself too thin to fight against the system.
We aren’t invited to participate or given the option to opt out. All of this is so baked into the fabric of our society that we are indoctrinated into it without conscious awareness. And while we can never fully exit the system, we can become aware of it and function differently within it.
The good news is there’s another way, and I call it “playing smaller.”
I bet reading that made you bristle. It flies in the face of everything we understand to be true. How could smaller be better than bigger? Isn’t that choosing failure?
Take an honest assessment of all the ways you have or are currently participating in the “play bigger” narrative. In what ways has it been helpful? In what ways has it not been helpful? How might it feel to slow down your pursuit for more?
For the first 35 years of my life, I did what we’re all trained to do … I aimed high and worked hard.
I chose a career path at 9 years old, and relentlessly pursued it. I was the editor-in-chief of both my high school and college newspapers. I took AP classes in high school, and graduated college in 3 years.
Within 3 years, I married a nice guy, worked my way up into an editor role at the largest magazine in the country, bought a home, and had saved nearly six-figures for retirement.
Just 5 years after that, I was self-employed and earning six figures. We built a gorgeous custom home, went on regular international vacations, and I drove a shiny red BMW and wore designer labels.
Mine was the kind of life people envy… and I wasn’t happy.
I kept doing and getting more hoping to fill a void, but it didn’t work. I tried hard to be the smartest, the first, the best, but it didn’t work. I learned the hard way that “playing bigger” won’t necessarily bring joy.
It wasn’t until I opted out of the “play bigger” mentality that my life actually expanded in ways that felt good.
Today, I have a much smaller home, a 12-year-old Chevy, shop at Goodwill, and haven’t seen the beach in a few years. I still have big goals, but I don’t pursue them at the cost of sleep, time with family, or care of self.
I’m “playing smaller,” yet my life feels bigger and better than I ever thought possible.
Did hearing me say “playing smaller” make you uncomfortable? Did you laugh? Feel sorry for me? Think some version of, “oh, hell no, I’m not settling for less—she’s crazy!”?
Those reactions are perfectly valid, and I’m sure I would have done the same in the past. Before you run for the hills, however, give me some time to explain what I mean.
Actually, let me start by saying what I don’t mean when I talk about “playing smaller.” I don’t mean shrinking yourself or your goals. I don’t mean accepting less, being less, feeling less than. Notice I didn’t say, “thinking smaller” or “being smaller.”
By all means, keep your big, hairy, audacious goals (if it feels good). “Playing smaller” isn’t about giving them up, but rather how you go about getting them. It’s about jumping off the patriarchal hamster wheel of productivity and acquisition, and giving up the idea that the reward is what comes after all the hard work.
“Playing smaller” means slowing down, loving yourself, and cultivating joy in the pursuit.
The truth is, “playing bigger” is what makes us smaller. To be successful in the patriarchal paradigm of more, better, and faster, we learn we must fit a prescribed mold. We can’t simply be ourselves; we must be less feminine, less Black or Brown, less loud, less plump, less flashy…
When we can’t fit the mold—and most of us literally or figuratively can’t—then we’re conditioned to believe it’s our own fault. There’s something wrong with us, not the system. And that leads us to start thinking smaller, about our goals and ourselves. We begin to believe we can achieve less and—worse—that we deserve less.
“Playing bigger” sounds expansive but, for most people, is actually quite constricting. “Playing smaller,” on the other hand, may sound limiting but is, for most people, is a far more abundant and freeing way to live.
How might “playing bigger” actually be making you feel smaller?
Let me be really clear about what I mean by “playing smaller.” I don’t mean shrinking yourself or your goals. This isn’t “thinking smaller” or “being smaller.” What I’m talking about is playing, or how you approach life.
Patriarchy needs you to buy into “playing bigger” because inherent in that is producing and consuming. You must produce or work harder to achieve more and quickly reach your big goals. And you need to consume or acquire more to get all of the “stuff” of those dreams.
Playing smaller means no longer buying into the patriarchal idea that bigger and faster trump all else. To do that means opting out of the many tools patriarchy uses to push this narrative.
Wrapped up in “playing bigger” are things like perfectionism, hyper-productivity, the burden of expectation, a need for external validation, comparison, self-doubt or Imposter Syndrome, and loads of self-judgment.
You need to do it all, achieve it all, and get it all — perfectly, and NOW. The results of your efforts need to net the results you expect, exactly as you expect them. How you feel now is of far less importance than the promise of how you’ll feel when you reach the finish line. And the only way to really know how well you’re doing at playing bigger is to measure yourself and your results to everyone else. And when any one of these things doesn’t work out, and it often doesn’t, then you feel like a failure.
Whew. That’s a lot of trying to control the mostly uncontrollable! And it definitely sounds like a lot of tension, overwhelm, stress … struggle.
Wouldn’t it feel wonderful to release all of that? That’s what playing smaller is all about.
Rather than pushing to have it all, perfectly, and now … you take small and deliberate steps, focusing on emotional safety vs. speed. Rather than unrealistic expectations and trying to control outcomes … you set goals while also allowing the future to unfold and finding joy in the discovery. Rather than comparing yourself … you release judgment of others and yourself in favor of simply being curious. Rather than beating yourself up when things don’t go as planned… you give yourself permission to be messy and love yourself through it. Rather than exchanging current comfort for the promise of future joy… you create contentment in the here and now.
How do you make this shift?
Boiling it down to its core, I think it’s about learning to practice unflinching self-compassion to rebuild self-trust. With those things in place, you become unstoppable.
By self-compassion, I mean recognizing your truest needs. Not what society, religion, family or anyone else expects, but what your truest self needs to feel safe and content.
That may mean setting smaller goals. Or perhaps setting monumental goals, but allowing far more time to reach them. It could mean letting go of all goals and expectations in favor of finding fulfillment right now.
The only way to determine your version of playing smaller is to learn how to listen to your true self. For most of us, that’s really hard because we’ve been so deeply indoctrinated into these systems that benefit from us never really considering our own needs. We’ve never learned to hear our true self, to listen to our deepest needs, to trust our inner knowing.
That’s where my work comes in. I help women, femmes, and thems learn how to quiet the patriarchal noise and finally listen to, trust, and protect themselves. It’s not easy work, but it is absolutely possible.
I’ve seen person after person go from rushed, stressed, overwhelmed, tired, miserable to calm, peaceful, wise, fulfilled, content. I’ve seen person after person go from chasing, pursuing, clinging to a big dream they thought would finally make them happy to releasing, allowing, surrendering to what is and realizing they can have joy right now.
And guess what? I work with really smart, super ambitious people. They aren’t throwing their dreams in the garbage and giving up. They are still working toward big things. But they are finally doing it in a way that feels good.