Photo: by David Elikwu, in Nice

27: Lessons in emotional fortitude

Newsletter 🗞 Mar 8, 2021

Some recent life events made me rethink my approach to therapy, and why regular trips to the mental mechanic should be for everyone.


Today's issue is slightly different than usual, so forgive me. That said, my promise in starting this newsletter was to share everything I'm learning about navigating the world around me, and today's topic falls soundly into that category.

Today, I am celebrating my Dad's birthday. That is great news, and I am excited to share in celebrating this occasion. That said, the two weeks leading up to this day have also forced me to concede something I have always strongly contested.

I probably need therapy - not the scribble in the diary kind of therapy, or the voice in your head kind of therapy. Not even my most frequent form of therapy - random outbursts on Twitter that are subsequently deleted. I probably need to spend regular, focused time with a mental mechanic, and maybe you do too.

When resilience fails

Today is a happy day, and I am happy. My father and I have a pretty good relationship now, and that has been the case in recent years. The buried bones of times past have been swept under the carpet and maneuvered around for decades with a dexterity that has become second nature. My childhood doesn't need to be discussed. I often steer clear of discussing it. Trauma happens, and you move on with life. You just need to be resilient. At least, that's what I always thought.

I have overcome my fair share of adversity. I've escaped depression, cheated death, and kept my anxiety in check. All good things. I've faltered and failed and picked myself up again more times than I can count. As a result, I felt completely resolute in my ability to take life in my stride. My skin is thick and people count on it remaining that way. Being brave is an example others can follow.

In the weeks leading up to my father’s birthday, I received a lot of messages from family members, old friends, and old church acquaintances. They wanted to know what anecdotes I had to share. What gifts I might recommend. What insights I could offer for a quiz someone was putting together about my father’s life. And for some inexplicable reason, every new message filled me with a wave of nausea. Every time I got a notification I suddenly needed air. I felt like saying "sorry I just need some space to process this right now" as though I was grieving some untimely catastrophe. I had no idea what was wrong with me. Naturally, I escaped into books and work and characteristic busyness, doing my best to vanish completely. Focus only on what you can control, the Stoics say. Typically, I emerge from Narnia (read: emotional exile) a few days later completely composed to deal with the fallout.


Adulting for dummies

I think the truth is that my approach to this yearly occasion for much of the last decade was largely transactional. It is a birthday. You buy a gift, sometimes a card. That's pretty much it. It's a low-stakes affair. But suddenly, for the first time in ten years, it's a big birthday. A big deal. Something I've never actually had to deal with as an independent adult. Suddenly I was expected to contribute and plan and be emotionally present and it was just suffocating.

I don't think I ever took time to thoroughly process any of this until now. I think I was about 15 when I stopped regularly writing cards because of the emotional noise generated when deciding what to write. Those of you who know me personally may understand that I haven't always had a great relationship with my father, and it never really improved until I left home and became sufficiently independent. This reality was also difficult, to be honest, and open about when you grow up in the asphyxiating noose of a tight-knit religious community where all roads lead to home.

The nature of life is that we are often misunderstood. You never truly know what anyone is going through. Everyone is adulting for the first time and all of our experiences are similar and yet markedly different at the same time. These commonalities and distinctions make us human.

Each year you get a little bit older and with this new age come new expectations. In the blink of an eye, you're perceived to be a competent adult, both physically and emotionally capable of navigating the world, the workplace, and a complex web of societal engagement. As you move from late teens to adulthood, life doesn't ask you if you're ready for what comes next - you just need to adapt fast enough to swim when the tide hits. You develop your coping mechanisms for growing up early on, and with each incoming tide of change, the callous hide of your emotional identity forms.

Because of time's natural velocity, we often don't create the necessary space in adulthood to step back and re-process our emotional identity. As erudite and empathetic as we may be in evaluating our actions, we can often fail to go a step beyond that in considering what drives those actions. We don't spend enough time picking apart why we think as we do and evaluating the core motivations behind what we perceive as instinct. In a world where we are increasingly connected, there is always pressure to present your best facade or the expected version of yourself in every area. There is little room to be truly vulnerable.

We don't live in silos. Each of our lives has a multiplicity of touch-points. Despite being a notorious homebody, there are concentric circles of strangers and loved ones who have justifiable expectations of me to be present, and to engage with them consistently. I write 280-character off-hand tweets read by between 5 and 30 million people every month. 10,000 of those people follow me directly. Up to 3000 people might read my newsletter in a given month. At least a dozen friends will send me a message in a given week, and I haven't really figured out how to balance these expectations with my own emotional development. The more touch-points you have, the more time you spend learning to be presentable.


Something something Anti-fragility

Typically this is the point where, having gone away and done sufficient research, I could come to you with carefully packaged answers about how all this works and what you're supposed to do about it. That would likely preserve my reputation, but it might not do the most good. The truth is I don't have the answers yet - or at least I am too early in the journey of discovering them to present myself as having even limited expertise.

The most immediate lesson I have learned is that regardless of your perceived capability in performing through challenging times, you will only become more potent having taken the time to review your internal engine. It is very easy to see a warning light in your car and keep driving because whatever is wrong is not making scary noises and isn't impacting your immediate driving experience. However, as someone who has already been in a few car crashes, prevention is generally cheaper than the cure. You'll expend far more mental energy training yourself to navigate your handicaps than you would by sitting down and solving them.

Therapists get a bad rep. They’re often thought of as scientists or psychotherapists, and the idea has persisted that you only need to see a shrink when you’re spiraling out of control or losing your senses. A lot of that also ties into historic stigmas around mental health. In recent times we’ve come a long way in normalizing the universality of anxiety and depression. However, at the other end of the spectrum, many have been put off by the postmodernist push for therapy combined with the bizarre zeitgeist-led trend of people using ‘depressed’ and ‘OCD’ to describe commonplace emotions. A bad day doesn’t equal clinical depression, and you’re not a bad person if you’re not first in line to be coddled because therapy is in vogue.

There is a notion that younger generations are weak and mentally brittle because they appreciate (and maybe occasionally overstate) the place of empathy and mental health in everyday interaction. The final hurdle to clear necessitates a reimagination of the role of therapy. You can still subscribe to notions from Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile while embracing the need for robust mental development. Therapy isn’t just for the broken in need of mending.

Emotional kaizen

The accountability of a trained professional is best considered a sophisticated tool for self-assessment, development, and training. Not everyone can afford it, and there are things you can do alone with sufficient practice, but focused time for emotional development is nothing to frown at.

As good as you might be at self-diagnosing, hot-wiring, or talking to a friend that knows a few things, sometimes there's a lot to be gained by speaking with a trained mechanic.

There's a reason that Lebron James spends over $1.5m a year taking care of his body despite being a natural freak athlete and one of the most enduring sportspeople of all time. We all need trainers and coaches. The best golfers of all time have golf coaches - someone to review their swings and develop them. We should treat our emotional conditioning in the same way. The more interconnected we are, the more mental stamina you'll need to cope, and that's where therapy can help. We undergo emotional exercise every day, and the need for emotional intelligence is higher than ever. We need better tools for managing this exertion, and you should take any steps possible to equip yourself.

In business circles you might hear reference to 'kaizen' - a word loaned from the Japanese, describing the process of continuous improvement in manufacturing. Kaizen is a philosophy centered on making regular, positive changes to existing processes and improving productivity rather than relying on the status quo.

Mental fortitude can seem like something so natural and intuitive it needs little retooling—until it crashes. Train it. Work on it. If you want to stay on the court, continually adapt your game. Find someone who can objectively look at your shooting form, break down your game tape, and make suggestions that will make you unstoppable so you can keep playing the game that you love.


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If you have any thoughts on therapy or mental fortitude, I’d love to hear from you! Reply via email, leave a comment or send me a tweet!

Read on for this week’s recommendations >>

People strolling, resting and kids playing at the park in Nice: A photo by David Elikwu
Photo: by David Elikwu, in Nice

Reading list

Books I’ve read/seen/will impulsively buy and add to my “to read” shelf on Goodreads. Recommendations from newsletter readers are always welcome:

  1. The Great Mental Models Volume 1 by Shane Parrish - impulsively bought. Currently available for a steal on Amazon right now.
  2. Antifragile by Nassim Taleb - impulsively bought. A great book explaining why we should embrace uncertainty, randomness, and error.
  3. Anything you Want by Derek Sivers - read. A tiny book worth revisiting over the years - 40 short lessons for entrepreneurs, from one of my favorite internet writers.

Things I’m loving

Films and shows:

  • Judas and the Black Messiah - Seriously worth signing up for a month of HBO just to watch this.
  • Coming 2 America - This film was so absurdly terrible it was almost… enjoyable?

Resources:

  • Sanity & Self - this app is just for women, but I have it on good authority that it’s awesome for anyone trying to develop their mental robustness.
  • Headspace - An awesome app I’ve recommended before and am now starting to use more frequently.
  • Audible - sometimes there’s nothing better than escaping into a good book. I’ve been a regular audible user for a few years now and recently passed the 100-book mark on that app alone.

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