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Thanksgiving and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

Thanksgiving and the Stories We Tell Ourselves
First Thanksgiving in America

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving here in the U.S., possibly the most important secular holiday of the year. On this day, football is played, families come together and fight, vast quantities of turkeys are consumed, and stories are told. Stories of family and football, of course, but also a particular story, the story of the United States in its infancy, when beleaguered pilgrims came to American shores fleeing religious persecution. Pilgrims who were ill-prepared for the rigors of a new and harsh land, but who, with the help of their Indian neighbors, managed to flourish here.

This story tells a very specific and flattering part of the history of early America. It leaves out the earlier Thanksgiving celebrations in the Virginia colonies — those colonies being guided by commercial gain not religious enlightenment — and the history of slavery and armed conflict with America’s indigenous population.

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But historical accuracy is not the standard that we measure the Thanksgiving story against. It is the feeling of Thanksgiving, the kind of attitude about ourselves, our families, and our nation, that is important. The Thanksgiving story as we tell it describes us as a country founded in peace and goodwill — not in theft, slavery, and genocide. It’s the story of how we want to see ourselves and our past — and, sometimes, it’s the kind of story that inspires the best in us, instead of justifying the worst.

Each of us tells ourselves stories about ourselves and our lives, sometimes to inspire ourselves to great heights, and other times to justify our failures. This Thanksgiving, instead of thinking only about what I’m thankful for (though that’s important, too), I wanted to think about the kinds of stories I’ve told myself, or about myself, over the past year.

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I’ve talked before about how stories are powerful ways of encapsulating and passing on information — but they do more than that. Stories give shape to and direct emotion, passion, and behavior. They help us to grapple with experience and extract meaning from it. So, for instance, when my step-children’s father started behaving terribly towards his children, for no clear reason we could make out, my partner and I told the story to each other over and over in some attempt both to understand and to decide how to respond.

The stories we tell ourselves can motivate us to excel or to try something new. For years, I have told myself a story of academic life and of myself in it. In the gap between the story I imagined and the life I led lay all the steps I needed to take to make the story real, and it is that which has kept me motivated at a job that can be, at times, overwhelming. Part of that story was about my unique grasp of Internet technology as an instructional tool, which has motivated me to include blogging and online research in the design of my classes — earning me a great deal of attention from my colleagues and my department.

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But stories can also be deceptive, causing us to fall short of our goals. I have always intended to write for an audience outside of academia, but for years I have told myself that I had to pay my dues as an educator and a researcher before I could take up writing professionally. This year, I realized that it was not my academic situation, nor my economic situation, that was preventing me from becoming a writer — that it was in fact the story I was telling myself. So I stopped telling myself that story, and started telling myself the story where I’m a writer — and within months had begun writing at lifehack, as well as sending out submissions to several magazines.

These are only a few examples; I’m sure we tell ourselves dozens of stories about ourselves as lovers and partners, parents and sons or daughters, employees or employers, artists and amateurs. Often when we worry or back away from challenges, it is because in the stories we tell ourselves we are not good enough to deal with them, or just not the kind of person that deals with them. “I’m no hero,” we tell ourselves, and shy away from situations that demand heroism of us. Other times we charge headlong into risky situations because in our stories, we can and do handle them — in our stories, there is no risk.

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I wonder how easy it is to change our stories? It occurs to me that traditional psychoanalysis and therapy is based on telling your stories to a trained listener, who gently guides you through the process of developing new stories about yourself. Perhaps for the most deeply-held stories, professional intervention is needed, but what about the casual stories, the little tales of personal imperfection and unfulfillable desire that subtly shape our daily lives?

I think we can re-tell these stories — we humans are innately creative and creating new stories comes naturally to us. The catch is that to revise the stories of our lives means closely examining — proofreading, if you will — the stories we already tell ourselves, and that kind of self-examination is hard to come by. But as we face a long weekend committed to the telling of stories — both national and familial — maybe we can commit ourselves to examining at least some of our personal stories and considering how we might tell better ones.

That would be something to be thankful for, indeed!

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Last Updated on September 17, 2020

5 Practical Ways to Get Over a Mental Block

5 Practical Ways to Get Over a Mental Block

There’s nothing quite like a state of “flow” when you’re working. The rare moments when your inspiration aligns with your motivation likely lead to some of your most creative work. Plus, it feels great to actually check a task or project off the list so you can move on to the next thing. Meanwhile, a mental block — its opposite — can cause work to feel laborious and uninspired. Forget creativity when you have a mental block — it makes it difficult even to start working on what you need to do.

A mental block can manifest in several ways. Perhaps your imposter syndrome is squelching your creative ideas, for instance, or you’re overwhelmed by the breadth of a project and its impending deadline. Maybe you’re just tired or stressed.

Either way, having a mental block feels like being trapped in your own head, and it can seriously dampen your ability to think outside the box. The problem is, you’re so locked into your own perspective that you don’t see more innovative approaches to your problems.[1]

Luckily, jumping over these mental hurdles is simpler than you think. You just need the right strategies to get your flow back.

Try these five practical ways to overcome a mental block.

1. Break Your Project Down

A few years ago, I was working on changing a company product that I believed would hugely benefit our customers. Sounds great, right?

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As inspired as I was to make people’s lives easier, though, the sheer magnitude of the task at hand felt overwhelming. Every morning, I cracked open my laptop to work and felt totally paralyzed. I loved the idea, yes, but actualizing it felt risky. What if it didn’t turn out the way I pictured in my mind? More importantly, where would I even begin?

A former colleague gave me great advice over coffee:

Change how you think. Start by breaking the big project down into small tasks.

When a major project overwhelms you, you only see the entire forest instead of the individual trees. And as you stare it down, you start to feel discouraged by your own lack of progress, thus slowing you down further.

Breaking down a massive task into smaller chunks makes the work feel more manageable. You’ll have multiple clear places to start and end with, which will lend a motivating sense of productivity and mastery to your process. Learn more about it here: The Motivation Flowchart: The Mental Process of Successful People

Think of it as accumulating small wins. When you realize you’re more capable than you have once thought, you’ll develop the momentum and confidence needed to get your big job done little by little.[2]

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2. Change Up Your Scenery

Of course, there’s a time and place for sitting down to get things done. But if you’re experiencing a mental block, switching up your surroundings can make a big difference in your output.

Have you ever noticed how your environment directly impacts your performance and mood?

Your brain associates your physical surroundings with certain feelings and activities. So, if you feel mentally stuck, your mind may need some new sensory stimuli.

During this time in your life, it may not be possible to set up shop at a cafe or move from your cubicle to a conference room, so you may need to think outside the box. If you’re working remotely in a home office, try going to your dining table or couch. If the weather cooperates, sit outside for a bit with your computer or take a walk around the block.

You can also simply rearrange your workspace. Not sure where to begin? Try decluttering. Some studies show that an organized desk enhances productivity.[3]

The point is to stimulate your brain with new sounds and sights. You may find a much-needed dose of inspiration when you work while breathing in the fresh air, listening to city sounds, or staying in the comfort of your own living space.

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3. Do an Unrelated Activity

When it comes to productivity, a bit of distraction isn’t always a bad thing. That’s especially true if your chosen distraction helps you get things done in the long run.

Have you realized how your most creative thoughts tend to bubble up when you’re, say, lying in bed or taking a shower? In their research of the “incubation period,” scientists have discovered that people’s best ideas seem to surface when they aren’t actively trying to solve a problem.[4]

In a 2010 study, participants needed to look for a roommate or new employee based on the profiles that the researchers gave. The people who had a brief “incubation period” — in this case, working on an anagram — consistently made better choices than those who spent more time weighing their options.

If you can’t seem to prime your brain for a project, try doing something completely unrelated to work, such as washing your dishes, working out, or calling a friend. Some experts say finding another low-stake project to work on can help jump-start the creative part of your brain and activate your flow.[5]

The key is to allow your unconscious mind to do its best work: eliciting the new knowledge your conscious mind may be ignoring or suppressing.[6]

4. Be Physical

Feeling antsy? When your mind won’t seem to settle into a state of flow, it may help to swap out your mental activity for a physical one and see how it impacts your perspective.

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While any physical activity is beneficial for your body — and getting up to move can serve as a helpful form of distraction — certain forms of exercise can more directly impact the mind. To be specific, relaxing, flow-based exercises like dance, yoga, or tai chi can create a gentle sense of momentum in your body, which can prime your brain for the same state.

Stress-reducing activities may also be necessary. Meditating or taking slow, deep breaths will also calm your nervous system if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Evidence shows that the logical, creative part of your brain essentially shuts off when you’re stressed.[7]

On the flip side, when your mind and body are relaxed, you can think more clearly, be more creative, and focus for longer periods — all of which will help you overcome a mental block.

5. Don’t Force It

It can be frustrating to fight against your own mind. If your mental block won’t go away after some effort, it may be time to take a break. Forcing creative thoughts only adds to your stress levels, which in turn inhibits your ability to think creatively. And if you sit and stare at a project for too long, you’ll not only waste valuable time but also begin to associate this specific work with frustration and produce work you’re not proud of.

“I know that forcing something is not going to create anything beyond mediocre, so I step aside and work on a different project until it hits me,” the artist Ben Skinner said about his creative process.[8]

If your work isn’t time-sensitive, then it may make sense to step away for a while to focus on something else, be it an administrative task that requires less creativity or a project that you feel motivated to work on.

When the time is right, you’ll find your way back to the original task with a fresh, creative perspective (hopefully).

More on Getting Rid of a Mental Block

Featured photo credit: Jonas Leupe via unsplash.com

Reference

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