A Haunted Life

Both in my personal and professional lives, I’ve continually seen examples of past events influencing the present. This doesn’t surprise me, as our present reality is rarely one we think to create ourselves. This despite the fact that we absolutely can do so. More often, it is the product of years of experiences, both pleasurable and challenging, with seemingly endless examples of triumphs, disappointments, frustrations, and beauty. However we have turned out, as some view it (that’s a little passive for my taste – I prefer to think of it as “How we interpreted that sum of circumstances, and the ultimate meaning we’ve assigned to that interpretation”), is often based largely on our past. Many of us never notice this, as our own experience is a bit like looking at life through a fish bowl – distorted, but if it’s all we know, all we can see, we tend to assume that perception is “real”. I won’t even delve into the fact that among this mass of experiences, many of which contradict one another, we often choose a theme, a perspective, through which to filter the others. In other words, as Milton Erickson MD pointed out, we necessarily must delete a good portion of our experience in order to make sense of the rest. So those memories are seldom, if ever, even an accurate representation of our history. Still, I want to focus on another aspect of our present reality and how it can become “haunted”.

The most common example of this is when an unpleasant experience lingers with us. You might go so far–though I wouldn’t recommend it–and say that it “scarred” you for life! This is in no way to diminish the significance of a painful or wonderful experience you may have had. Most of us have experienced some form of traumatic life event, whether in our adult lives or as a child, where the trauma may have imprinted itself on our developing minds in ways it never could have to an adult. These may be incredibly painful memories for us, And beginning to forget the suffering we experienced may now be too difficult to consider just yet.  I respect where you have been and the joys as well as the pain you have experienced. My aim is not to make you forget unpleasantness, only remembering the lessons, the joy, and the important parts of every experience.

More importantly, when a bad memory has served its purpose, it has taught you the life lesson you sought, given you the life experience you needed, my suggestion would be that simply clinging to the painful aspects of the memory may no longer be in your best interest. Its useful life could have expired, and it may be time to release its ghost. Let’s use a simple example to which most of us can related. You had a painful experience as a child at school. It may have been your first time dealing with a large group of children, some of whom may have been your age, some older, some younger than you. Let’s consider that you are in no way attacked or victimized, only embarrassed. Let’s say you fall off a swing on the playground. You were hurt, perhaps you cried, but instead of the compassion and assistance you may have gotten from your parents, some of the other kids laughed at you. This embarrassment may have been a somewhat new experience for you, that at home, you could trust that you would be safe from ridicule (and your own “ghost” may be that in fact you were not safe from such things at home). For some children, such an experience could be quite traumatic, as the need for acceptance by our peers emerges early in our development. So with this alternative reaction, ridicule, we might find ourselves too fearful or embarrassed to take any risks on the playground, avoiding any likelihood of making a fool of ourselves again. That would be a common reaction.

But let’s say that this strategy works for you. We might call that a functional strategy, for whether good or bad, desirable or not, healthy or not, it does succeed in minimizing our chances for ridicule when being clumsy or foolish. What if we keep that strategy in check, so to speak, using it only on the playground, or in high-risk situations? What, on the other hand, if we begin to generalize that strategy and use it everywhere? Could it eventually lead to our being unwilling to trying out for sports? Social activities? Could it make us too shy in high school to ask someone we like to the big dance? Could it develop long-term social awkwardness? Not finding and pursuing the love of our lives? Choosing a career path we consider safer? This happens all the time. I actually knew a man who in high school took great pride in excelling at everything he did. He planned great things for his future, being a star athlete and student. Then disaster struck. He got a B. In trying to cope with his perceived failure, he made choices similar to our example above – he began choosing classes that were less challenging, and while he still went to college, he choose a much less difficult major than he had planned. His strategy was, I suppose, functional – he never got less than an A again. But he now makes a fraction of the money he would have, had he followed his original career path, gets much less respect and recognition for his job, and has in many ways settled for less in his personal and professional lives. The “ghost” of that “B” grade has haunted him his entire adult life.

Our challenge is to put things into perspective. Yes, the experience we had may have been awful at the time, and its repercussions may very well still affect us today. Many of these terrible experiences are arguably much more profound than the two examples we have so far examined. I’ve known rape survivors, people who as children were molested or otherwise abused, people who’ve suffered what no one should ever have to endure. But the question we have to ask is – Once we acknowledge that our trauma has occurred, can we similarly acknowledge that it’s ‘over’? What does that mean? Let’s say you were kidnapped as a child and abused for months. No one would likely dispute that you have endured a horrible experience. But at some point, you escaped, were released, rescued, etc. Or you would not likely be reading this right now. So it’s “over”, correct?

There are important life lessons to take from a painful experience. Sometimes it’s only the obvious – how to avoid going through that experience again. But sometimes the learning is much more subtle, something another person, one who didn’t experience the same thing, might overlook. Whatever the lesson is, by all means, learn it. The pain, the fear, the upset, was only there in the first place to help you recognize a lesson was coming. So first learn that lesson. And then consider that the time to begin forgetting all the pain, its usefulness having passed, is almost here now. When the time comes to actually let go of that ghost, to send it away, be ready to do so. Because if anywhere at all, ghosts belong in old, creepy houses…not your life!

Choose to Laugh…or to Cry


Robin Williams, dead at 63. He made us laugh and he made us think. In the end, he made us cry.

Much has been written about movie and music stars who seemed to have had it all – fame, success, wealth, sometimes even a good relationship – then who shocked us by taking their own lives. This is tragic, though I don’t want to say what has already been said many times. What I think about as often is the map of reality from which that person lived and functioned. If our map is rich, full of perceptions and beliefs that support us, being happy is just a natural outcome. On the other hand, if we have a map full of self-doubt, self-criticism, self-loathing, and distrust of the good things in our lives, we tend to find ways to be miserable – no matter how perfect our life appears from the outside.

Our Reality Map is something that begins forming, and continually adjusts, throughout life. But we can make conscious choices about which components to keep and which no longer belong on that map. We can, and should, consciously make choices that update that map to maintain its usefulness and functionality.

Don’t believe me? Haven’t you ever stumbled across a very old map, carefully unfolded it, and tried to make sense of it? Even if it covered the same space, perhaps your own town,  it was from another time. Sure, the main roads may still be the same, railroad tracks and bodies of water will likely be the same. But cross streets, highways, and many landmarks will be entirely new, not present on the map. Likewise, some roads may be closed, many landmarks will have been built after the map was drawn. Your life works the same way. Sometimes a set of beliefs and values serve us exceptionally well when we’re very young. Though as we start to grow up, a lot of those beliefs no longer make sense for us. At different stages of life, we may need entirely new beliefs that at an earlier time, perhaps had no purpose.

But we humans are superstitious, and sometimes the new beliefs and generalizations we form are guesses, and have no actual functional value. A bit like the superstar pitcher who wears the same socks for every game that he had worn during his first no-hitter. If socks could lead t0 a 100 mph fastball, science would have figured that out by now. So we waste a lot of energy on map features that frankly aren’t accurate. NLP of course is even less concerned with accuracy in that context than it is with usefulness.

If we make a decision to update our map in a destructive way – to choose a belief, for instance, that undermines our happiness, gives us a shortcut to depression or a sense of helplessness, then we short-circuit our own fulfillment. When we have done this, and perhaps have not yet noticed the likely impact of that choice, it is easy to become distracted. The busier our life becomes, the more people demand our time, the more activity going on, the easier it is to overlook the significance of that choice and to inadvertently choose misery. For a superstar, beloved around the world, portraying joyful characters and making us laugh and feel good, it would be incredibly easy to become thusly distracted.

And yet, it’s never too late, once you realize that you’ve made a bad choice, to change your mind. The difficult part, of course, is that realization in the first place.

Naturally, we don’t want to oversimplify or undermine the tragedy that such people have experienced. Rather, it’s to draw attention to the fact that for every Robin Williams, Kurt Cobain, Brad Delp, et al, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people going through the same experience. There are naturally some things that are not solely controlled by the mind. For instance, when you break a leg, you don’t just want to visualize yoru leg healing and go about your business. You must get the bone set and likely have a cast put on it to protect the healing bone. But once you’ve done that, there is a lot of evidence that the visualization process just mentioned will expedite healing of the leg in the cast.

I appreciate that depression is an illness. There are several treatments that have been proven to have great success in treating depression with a great deal of success. Though again, we must first choose to believe that our situation is treatable, we must choose to commit to treatment, and we must choose to commit to follow through and do all we can to improve. Are you starting to see a pattern here?

Our choices dictate everything in our lives. Sure, some things occur without our actively and consciously selecting them. Though our choices play a role in just about everything else. You may not have consciously chosen to be in a car accident, but you chose to drive at that time. You may not have been distracted with your radio or cell phone as you drove, but you chose to drive when it’s possible that others on the road were thusly distracted. You chose to either wear your seat belt or not. You chose how to respond after the impact. You could choose to panic and struggle to get out of the damaged car, possibly injuring yourself after the fact. You could choose to make the stress worse by focusing on all the negative consequences this wreck could bring? You could choose to have kept your insurance current. When viewed this way, most of us can begin to see how, even when we don’t choose a specific outcome, we choose just about everything else. So our choices always have enormous influence over what we experience.

Things happen in our lives all the time, and if we asked a dozen people we trust to agree upon the objective truth of what those things are, we would, likely after a bit of negotiation and compromise, arrive at a reasonably objective list of events. But that’s where any semblance of objectivity leaves us. From that point forward, and I would argue, well before that point in most cases, we choose what everything means.

What does being paid millions of dollars to appear in movies that will be loved for generations to come mean? Subjectively is that good or bad?

Sure, for some of us that doesn’t sound ideal, but I would dare say that a lot of people would say this scenario is resoundingly “GOOD”.

Next question: what does being world-famous, loved by millions of people, most of whom have stories they can tell you of how your work helped them through a tough time, or inspired them to do something wonderful, mean to you? Is that good or bad to you?

Of course, some people don’t like the idea of fame, but for many of us, that still sounds like a “GOOD” thing.

Next: would it be good or bad to be able to just pick up your favorite book, pack a bag and travel anywhere in the world you want, at any time you want?

If you don’t like to travel, maybe you would be a lone dissenter, but again for most of us, this would be “GOOD”.

I’m oversimplifying the life of a Hollywood actor, of course, and I’m making it sound almost as though they have no pressures, no responsibilities, deadlines, or any other mundane challenges that all people face. And naturally that’s incorrect. Despite all the wonderful things we have in our lives, we will still face challenges, no matter how wealthy, famous, or loved by the general public.

The irony is that when we, on the outside, evaluate someone in such a position, and therefore don’t know their private challenges, we are tempted to assume that life for them is a matter of choosing which Ferrari to take to the film premier? Or should we use a limo? Such choices… I’m being facetious of course, because life is not easy for anyone. We all make continual choices about what things mean to us. One person’s mansion is another’s prison or fortress. What determines which it will be for us? Choices! We must choose actively, in accordance with our individual reality map, and if we share our life with a significant other, hopefully also in accordance with our Relationship Map™ (To learn more about what we call the Relationship Map™, check out www.happinesseverlaughter.com.)

Should we make choices that do not serve us, it’s entirely possible to take those questions above, and where most of us judged them to be “GOOD” things, it’s very simple to turn them “BAD”. It’s all a choice.

This is not in any way to diminish the tragedy of those we’ve lost. On the contrary, it is a warning, a call to choose actively, to actively participate in, and make decisions about our lives and the meaning we ascribe to the events and items in those lives. Let us not allow those tragedies, those losses, to be in vain. Let us allow them to teach us something positive, something healthy, something that perhaps will prevent further such tragedies in the future.

As challenging as this may sound, as overwhelming as it might seem sometimes…

It’s a choice. Choose happiness. Choose success. Choose a great relationship. Choose to choose well!

And one final caveat – choosing is the first step, and we must take it seriously. Yes, there will be work involved, and yes there will be play. But the habit of actively choosing will make this much easier in time. Your future is far greater than you can imagine, right now,  it will be. But you’re heading right for it, so you might as well choose to enjoy it, and to make it as wonderful and fulfilling as you possibly can. Choose to.



Keep your hands off Mayan calendar! or What a fortune cookie can teach us, part 1

There’s a great joke that’s circulated the web for some time that’s also a great way to view the supposed Mayan Apocalypse of 2012. Forgive me, but I can’t recall exactly who said it first, but I’ll admit that it wasn’t me. The idea is that since the Mayan calendar ended on Dec. 21, 2012, a new calendar would make an exceptional gift for your Mayan friends.

As humorous as that is, there’s a great illustration of how to interpret a statement more usefully. The idea that a calendar was ending sent (admittedly faint) ripples of concern throughout even the non-Mayan world. As though if the calendar ends, it also means that time just stops. That would be like not having any specific plans for next Saturday, therefore assuming it likely will never arrive. Admit it, are you one of those people who starts getting nervous around the last week of the year, until you see the next year’s calendars available for sale? Did the new dates assure you that in fact they would arrive? Conversely, without those dated squares on the new calendar, did you fear that the days would not?

I’m not superstitious, and I never saw the logic in presuming that Mayans foresaw our demise in the year 2012. After all, they entirely missed their own demise. If you’re going to foresee the future, wouldn’t you rather see things relevant to yourself and your family, in your own time? And if you can’t, why would anyone take your warnings of an impending disaster seriously, centuries later?

But whether you feared the end or not, consider the joke at the beginning of this post. Rather than dwelling on a gloomy outlook, either likely or not, spinning it in your own mind to find the opportunity. After all, upon the end of the calendar, they certainly would want another. That is of course if they had survived the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores.

Sometimes it can be tempting to assume that there’s only one way to interpret a set of facts. As life becomes simpler, albeit by taking such shortcuts, we don’t have to think as much. But what if there are two, five, or a dozen different ways to view the facts? And that’s of course assuming these “facts” hold up to scrutiny. In my experience, many “facts” do not. And if you shift the context, even the most solid of “facts” can suddenly become suspect, a bit like the laws (laws, mind you, not mere proclivities or preferences) of physics, which though more or less stable in ideal circumstances, can be bent or even shattered when the context is changed (i.e. the speed at which we travel, the perspective of the perceiver, different gravitational influence, etc.). Do you honestly believe that your life is more involved than the physics of all reality? So if context changes meaning in such laws, isn’t it possible (c’mon now!) that context may also influence your own life, your own circumstances, and the events and experiences you have every day?

Let’s consider a trite, though potentially useful, expression we’ve all heard. “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade!” Sure, it’s groan-inducing, but at a literal level, doesn’t it also make sense? You could sit in a pile of lemons, complaining that they’re going to start rotting and stinking…or you could use them in a way that’s useful (and delicious!). You could make a fortune being the Next Big Lemonade Czar. (Now in a world where a Reality show has been created about everything else, it seems to me that wouldn’t be the strangest. So you could not only be wealthy from your lemonade sales, but also the star of your own reality show about your life as the Lemonade Czar.

Or you could just complain about life dropping all these lemons in your lap.

I know it’s a silly example, but it makes the point. “Particle Board” was created when someone looked at all the wood shavings and dust created in wood mills, and wondered if something useful could be made from it. I’m not a big fan of particle board, but I have to admit it was a clever use of waste materials, the by-products of milling “real” wood. Someone changed the context and suddenly saw a possibility.

What about you? What do you presently interpret in a way that doesn’t serve you that perhaps you could shift context and find something useful? Is there something about an employee or coworker that you find irritating and in their current capacity, seemigly useless? Is there another way that “useless” attribute could in fact create value? Or perhaps it just opens a new opportunity.

What if you believed that when something bad happens to you it just means that something really good is that much closer? As if we must take the bad with the good? Of course, there’s no objective truth in these statements, there’s only belief. As we’ve spoken about earlier, beliefs are very powerful things. The beliefs themselves are more important than “truth” as we know it. The only real question becomes whether the belief is useful or not. Does it sustain you? Does it encourage you to persevere, to up your game, to work harder or smarter to achieve your outcome? Or does it discourage you and make you want to give up?

That’s really what we’re talking about here. Events happen and we notice them. But until we assign meaning to those events, they have none. So choose that meaning with your outcome in mind. And if you’d rather not be that outcome-oriented yet, just play with it a little.

Have you ever heard the old joke that whatever you read on your fortune after cracking open your fortune cookie at a Chinese restaurant, you should append the phrase, “–in bed” to the end. So “You will have much success and joy” becomes a slightly more fun and certainly more exciting message: “You will have much success and joy…in bed”.

Since I want to keep this PG-13 at worst, let’s do something a little different. Let’s add something I made up entirely at random (you might choose something more appropriate for you) — “in Siam”. Identify five limiting beliefs you have, perhaps just negative statements you noticed yourself making about yourself or to yourself. Something like, “You’ll never get this right!” or “They just don’t like you very much”. Next, add our new phrase to the end… So now you realize that “You’ll never get this right…in Siam”, you can take heart that with enough persistence and practice, you’ll likely get it right where you are. And while “They just don’t like you very much…in Siam”, you’re probably liked by quite a few folks in your vicinity (obviously if you do in fact live in Siam, please adjust accordingly).

Like the fortune cookie joke, this new addendum changes the sentence quite a bit. As its meaning shifts, due to the context change, we feel different from before. That’s our objective, to play with context until your old statements become more useful.

If you simply don’t speak critically or rudely to yourself, limiting your possibilities with your own self-talk, then congratulations. You can still play with this. Is there some way you can shift the context to make it even better?

What if your statements are more empowering, like, “I can do anything I put my mind to”, or “I will succeed because I work harder and smarter, with more commitment and passion than anyone else!” Those sound great, but imagine you see those on a fortune after cracking open your fortune cookie…

And you add “…in bed” to the end!