Do just one thing…


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I speak with people all of the time, frustrated with themselves for being unable to make a change, or unable to stick to anything to get the results they want.  Sure, life gets busy, or things happen, or our motivation waxes and wanes.  Or maybe the actions we need to take are too hard, it’s not the right time, or we decide change isn’t that important.

Whatever the case, we usually end up feeling bad.  There’s at least one reason for this.  Our society teaches us that everything is a dichotomy: good or bad, perfect or flawed, sane or crazy, and so on.  Turn on the TV or go online and you’ll see this.  And when it comes to improving our lives, if we’re not winning, we’re losing- or, if we’re not perfect, we’re failing.  For many people, they get up the motivation to do something, form a plan, and get going.  And sometimes things go well for a while- and you feel good.  Maybe you lose a few pounds, get some things done, or you start thinking more positively.  But then, something happens, you slip up, or you stop being perfect- and boom!  You’ve failed.  And not only that, YOU are a failure!  We feel bad about ourselves, decide we’ll never be able to change, or we don’t care anymore- until we then get motivated again.  And so the cycle goes on.  But until you can learn to think more flexibly, this is going to continue to be a problem.

In school, most people think of a 70, 80, or a 90% as a good grade- especially on a hard test or in a hard class.  But in our own lives, we’ve decided that anything less than 100% is a failure- and that’s a tough standard to live by!  100% is unrealistic, or at least not sustainable in the long run.

If you want to end the cycle, you need to have not only realistic goals (learn about SMART goals here, or check out some of my other posts), but you need a realistic plan.  This means being able to tolerate being less than perfect, avoiding specific pitfalls, and being able to recover (and quickly) from setbacks.

One strategy you might use is to do just one thing, as noted in the title of this post.  This can help you to get started if you’re having trouble, and it can set a realistic goal at least in the short-term.  If your goal is to lose weight, be sure to exercise today or to track what you’ve eaten.  If you can do both, great- but in this way, you will have done one thing today to work toward your goal.  So if you’ve exercised, but maybe you didn’t eat well today, you can say, “Ok, well I did exercise today.  And I’ll do it again tomorrow”.  If you give yourself permission to do just one thing, then you’re not allowed to be angry or upset that you didn’t do more.  But if you did, then that’s a bonus!  The idea is then to continue doing this, until you feel comfortable adding something else.  And you can do this in two different ways- either start with the thing that’s easiest, so as to build some momentum; or, you can work on the biggest priority first, provided it’s not too difficult.  Take it a step at a time, and you’ll likely have much greater success than if you try to do too much at once.  I usually use weight loss or leading a healthier lifestyle as examples, since they’re near universal- but this strategy and others I discuss can apply to just about anything.

Dichotomies are rarely a good thing, and I find that in therapy most people need to learn to recognize- and accept, that there are a lot of gray areas- and to be there is totally ok.  You’re on the right track.  And if you’re doing just one thing today, chances are that’s 100% more than you did yesterday- and that’s a step in the right direction.

As always, if you find this difficult, or if you’ve had limited success on your own, try contacting a professional.  A psychologist or another type of therapist can help you to address your challenges and get on the path to success.  Click here to find a referral.

Take care,

Dr. Jesse Matthews







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Do you REALLY want what you say you do?

ID-10054803 photo courtesy of 

You might say, “What kind of question is that?”  It’s a serious one, though.  We all want things, and we all say we have goals, but how clear is our picture of what these are- and how do we get there?  It’s hard to get somewhere if you don’t know.

And what are we really doing about it?  My wife often quotes me as saying, “Are you willing to do what it takes?”  You need to know what to do- and then you have to do it.  And that’s the raw truth.  Anything worth accomplishing isn’t easy.  It takes work- and a consistent effort, to make it happen.

To get to the point of this post, I wanted to talk about 4 related concepts: vision; goals; a plan; and execution.  These aren’t new, but they’re worth thinking about in order to clarify what you want, know what it takes to get there, how you get there, and then what you have to do to make it happen.  Without all 4, I would tell you that the answer to the question in the title is “No”.  And I’m serious.  So here goes…

1. Vision: We all should have some vision of where we see ourselves in 5 years, 10 years, and so on.  What does life look like?  What do you see yourself doing?  What do you want to be doing?  Most of us have some vision of the future, but it’s a good idea to spend some time thinking about it and to try to make it more specific.

Ask yourself the following questions: How does this fit with my beliefs, morals, or worldview?  Is this likely to be fulfilling?  Is this what I want, or what someone else wants for me?  You may ask yourself different questions, but it’s important to be able to articulate your vision as much as possible and that you be true to yourself in creating it.  And it’s ok if it changes over time- that’s to be expected.

Many people confuse a vision with goals, but they are not actually the same thing.  And some people don’t really have a vision.  Their vision is vague, like “be happy” or “be successful”, or they’re ok with just letting life happen to them…”everything will work out”.

2. Goals: Keeping in line with your vision, what are your goals?  What are some specific things you would like to accomplish?  What will it take to achieve my vision?  Your vision will likely include several goals- short and long-term.

Long-term goals might include: getting a degree; having a career; owning a home; getting married; or having children.  Short-term goals may be: getting into a particular college; getting A’s and B’s for the marking period; getting a desired SAT score; sleeping more; getting a better job; or finding a date.  The difference between short and long-term (you guessed it) has mostly to do with how long they take to accomplish.  This post has more to do with achieving long-term goals, although these are not achievable without short-term goals.  For example, if your long-term goal is to graduate from college, you might have short-term goals of registering for classes; paying tuition; getting enough sleep; going to your classes; doing class readings; and studying for tests (among others).

Some people don’t have goals, while others would say they do, but could not articulate them if asked.  And others’ goals are just too vague.  Whatever the case, the chance for success is low.  I would encourage anyone to have at least 1 long-term goal and at least 2 to 3 short-term goals they’re currently working on.  For a primer on how to set goals, check out this post.

3. Plan: A vision and goals are great, but you can’t stop there.  What exactly are you going to do?

Take this example… I live in Pennsylvania.  If I want to get to Seattle or San Diego I can jump in my car and start driving west.  I could end up in either place, but I could also end up somewhere else.  And that may or may not be anywhere I want to go.  But with a plan- a well-thought out, comprehensive one, I know I could get wherever I want to.  A plan may not prevent every possible setback (to keep with this example- running out of money, a flat tire, blown up engine, or injury), but it can help you to prepare for setbacks, deal with them, overcome them, and continue on your way.  A plan outlines the steps necessary to accomplish your goals and achieve your vision.

Many people don’t have a plan.  They may have a vision and even an idea of goals, but no plan.  Sure, goals sound good, but without a plan, you’re not likely to get any farther.

4. Execution: Simply, this is what you DO.  Using your plan, you take the steps and exert the amount of effort necessary to reach your goals and realize your vision.  And to make this possible, you do this consistently, every day.  To quote my wife quoting me again, the question is, “Are you willing to do what it takes?”  If you are, and you have a vision, goals, and a plan, this is where execution comes into play.  If you really want what you say you do, then you’ll make the commitment and do the work necessary.  If you don’t, it’s unlikely you’ll execute, at least with any consistency.

This is certainly not to put anyone down or to criticize anyone’s motivation.  You certainly are the best judge of whether you really want something or not.  On the contrary, my goal here is to have people think about these concepts, so when they do have something they hope to accomplish, they will be better-situated for success.  It’s critical to think about this and to be honest with yourself.  And are there any things holding you back?  There may very well be- either things you’re doing or not doing, circumstances you’re up against, or even people who are not supportive or even detrimental to your success.  All important to thin about.

If you find that any part of this is difficult or that you are not accomplishing your goals or getting to the place you want to get to, perhaps a professional can help.  Consider contacting a psychologist.  For a referral, click here.

Take care,

Dr. Jesse Matthews






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The joy of long-term goals


On May 1st, 2016 I ran the Pittsburgh Marathon.  I had never run one before, and a year ago I had no desire to.  I played sports and was always active as a kid, but I never got into running until college.  I’ve been on and off with it, though, running much more in good weather than in the winter.  It was always a means to an end, though- to lose weight and to feel better.  I liked it at times, but considered it something I had to do.  I still run for the same reasons, but last spring (2015) I just really started to enjoy it.  I work inside and spend a lot of my day sitting, doing paperwork, and staring at a computer.  I’m more of an outside person, though, so running means time I get to spend in the outdoors, as well a great way to get exercise.

So I signed up for a half marathon last July.  I did well and it was fun.  I kept running, and after watching a recap of the 2015 Pittsburgh Marathon, I decided not only could I probably run a marathon, but I wanted to run that one.  Pitt is my alma mater, so I had a chance to live in Pittsburgh for a few years.  I love it there, and I enjoy any chance I get to go back.

Why am I telling you this?  Well, first, this post isn’t really about running.  Some people like it, some don’t, and I’m not here to get anyone into it or to change anyone’s mind.  But, other than going to college and grad school, this was a really difficult goal and one that took me a long time to accomplish.  But I ran steadily through winter this year (a first), 4 to 6 days a week, although I didn’t technically start training until February.  It got easier as time went on, but it was still hard!  And the hardest part wasn’t the running, but planning and finding the time.

As the title suggests, this post is about long-term goals.  Just what constitutes a long-term goal?  Well “long-term” varies from person to person, but simply put, these cannot be accomplished overnight.  A long-term goal could take a month (losing 5-10 lbs), a year (successfully changing your diet or sleep schedule), or even a number of years (getting a degree or starting a successful business).  Long-term goals require a sustained effort, which is hard to do.  Things get in our way, motivation waxes and wanes, or maybe we just lose interest.

Long-term goals have a few things in common, though: they give us direction; a sense of purpose; help us understand potential roadblocks and our own unhelpful behaviors; they can have a long-term positive impact; and they help us to see the big picture.  Unlike dreams or wishes, long-term goals are more concrete and specific.  A long-term goal can be described as a roadmap.  Without one, we could just be wandering through our lives, right?

Here are a few examples of long-term goals:

  • Train for and run a marathon that takes place on X date
  • Lose or gain 20 lbs
  • Save $5,000 for a trip to Europe
  • Get a master’s degree
  • Write a book
  • Get cholesterol to a healthier level

Although these contain different levels of specificity, none could be accomplished overnight, they would all require sustained effort and self-discipline, and there would be a defined cut-off for when the goal is achieved.  On the contrary, here are a few goals that might be more difficult:

  • Get rich
  • Get skinny
  • Be happy
  • Be the best at _______

You get the point.  There would be nothing wrong with striving for any of these, though they’re vague and it would be hard to know when we’ve had any success, let alone completed the goal.  And “be happy” for instance, is more of a process than a point we would be able to get to.

Back to my story about the marathon.  I think it accomplished a lot of things for me.  Of course I completed the race- and even met my goal of the time I wanted, but more than that I proved to myself that I could work toward a difficult physical goal and accomplish it.  Side benefits were that it made me think more about my health and forming some better habits, and through the process I came to love running even more.  I have no plans to run another marathon anytime soon, but I have continued running, and having achieved this it makes me think about what else I might do.  Hopefully I can apply that same level of discipline to other areas of my life and work toward something else.  I think formulating a goal and working on it over a period of time is a great exercise in self-discipline, self-reflection, and in getting to know yourself better.

I encourage you to think of a long-term goal, or to be more specific about one you have had in mind.  Not only might you have more success, but it really could change your life.  And if this is something that has been a struggle for you, perhaps the help of a professional could get you going.  Click here or here for a referral.

Take care!

Dr. Matthews

If you want some resources or more information on goal-setting, check these out:






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“We all want the same things, for pretty much the same reasons”

This is a phrase I use from time to time, whenever I feel myself getting caught up in other people’s emotions or annoyed by their behavior.  I read it in an article on the subject, which essentially talked about having compassion for others- even when it might be hard to do so.  In a time marked by a seemingly never-ending stream of anger and hate, and when everyone feels not only entitled- but obligated to share his or her opinions, I find this kind of phrase really useful.

In my work with clients I sometimes refer to this as a grounding phrase.  This concept is nothing new, as I think a lot of people have mottos or mantras that they try to live by.  I call it a grounding phrase because it can do just that- bring us back to Earth, grounding us in the here and now or reminding us of what’s really important.  And I like this one in particular, because I find myself either spending too much time reading about ideas and stances I don’t particularly agree with, and feeling baffled about how anyone can think like that.  And further, I sometimes feel compelled to counter these with my own ideas or something that, in my mind, would prove them wrong.

But, of course, I know three things here: 1) this will never work, because people are invested in their ways of thinking and it would take a lot more than simple logic or even data to change their minds; 2) I have no more right than they do to share my own opinions and spread them wherever; and 3) we all want the same things, we just may have different ideas about how to get them.  Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs comes to mind here, which, if you’re not familiar with it, is a model discussing 5 levels of basic human needs.  My point is that as humans we all have these needs, even though our ideas about what they mean and how to achieve them may be vastly different.

This is not to oversimplify some important nuances- for example, some may believe that for them to be happy, they need transgendered people to be legally barred from using certain bathrooms.  Or others assert that you must believe in a certain religion- and only that religion- if you are to be happy or to live a life that is meaningful.  But this post is also not about politics- or religion, or any other hot button issue.  As another example, some people believe that buying things is the key to being happy, while others prefer to save all of the money that they can.  The point is that when we avoid getting swept up in our emotions and can successfully bring ourselves back to the important things about life, we’re much better off.

I understand that people feel differently about “inspirational quotes”.  Some love them, read them all of the time, post about them, or live by them- while others think they’re corny.  Whatever your position, I suggest you find at least one that resonates with you and that can serve as a reminder to you- about who you are, who you want to be, or what is important to you.  Keeping this in mind can help to keep you grounded, which is something we all need.

And as always, if this is something that’s really difficult for you, or if you find yourself often feeling angry, sad, or frustrated by others, you might find it helpful to talk to a professional like a psychologist.  Although this is serious, I actually bought a shirt a while back, seen here:


image courtesy of:  

Very true statement indeed…  If you would like a referral, you can click here or here.

Take care!

Dr. Matthews

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How to Choose a Therapist

Photo courtesy of stockimages/

Photo courtesy of stockimages/

Since I have been a therapist for a number of years now, I have often been the first therapist a person has seen.  Other times I’ve heard about people’s difficulties and frustrations in finding the right therapist.  And since a certain match and the right expertise are essential, I may not always be the best therapist for some people.  So I thought I would put together a short list of things to look for in your search.  These may not be the only factors, but I believe they are some of the most important.

1.Cost.  It’s true that therapy is an investment in yourself, so it’s likely to pay dividends in the long run that you just can’t put a price on.  Still, the reality is that not anyone can afford to see just any therapist.  Some take insurance, while some do not.  Some take your insurance (are in-network with) and some do not (are out-of-network).  And some insurance plans offer out-of-network benefits and some do not.  So, when it comes to cost, here are some factors to look at:

  • Do you need to use health insurance?  If so, is the person you’re considering in the network (which means lower cost to you)?  And do you have mental health benefits and do you know what they cover?  For example, is there a deductible you need to meet first, or do you simply pay a flat copay or percentage of the visit?  If the person is out-of-network, will your insurance cover any of the cost?  Call your insurance company to get the answers if this is important to you.  Though a potential therapist can look into this ahead of time, it’s up to you to be informed so there are no surprises later.
  • What are the therapist’s fees for the services you are looking for?  How often might you need appointments?  If you can’t afford it, does the therapist have any flexibility in those fees?
  • Do you have a Health Spending Account (HSA) or Flex Spending Account (FSA) that could help pay for your services?

2. Was the person recommended to you?  Oftentimes I’m recommended to a potential client by another therapist or another professional like a physician, school counselor, or staff at a treatment center (i.e. hospital or rehab).  I may also get a recommendation by a friend or family member.  If a particular person was recommended to you by someone you know and trust, often this carries a lot of weight.  This person knows you and/or your situation, so he or she is in a position to offer names of people who could help.

3. Do you need an expert?  Most therapists work with common issues like depression or anxiety, often with people of various ages.  But if you’re looking for someone who specializes in working with young children, older adults, LGBT individuals- or with particular issues like trauma, OCD, or substance abuse, it may be important to find someone who specializes in that area.  If you’re searching online, looks for words like “expert”, “expertise”, “specialty”, or “specializes in”.  Although this may not always be accurate, most often it indicates that the person has particular knowledge and experience in a certain area.  If you want to be sure, ask.  Most therapists would not claim to be an expert in something they’re not- and if they’re not the person you’re looking for, most should be able to help you find someone who is.  If you don’t need an expert necessarily, you might be ok to look at other factors in your choice.

4. Face value.  Does this person look like he or she would be a good fit for you?  Nowadays pretty much every therapist has a website or a profile on a Web directory (Psychology Today is one of the most popular).  Websites and directories may include a personal statement by the individual, the populations and areas they work with, and of course information on their location, how to contact them, and what methods of payment they accept.  They even have photos!  So you can use this information to get a general idea of what kind of therapist this person is and whether or not you might be able connect with them.  It would be worth a try to contact them and ask a few questions to see if it might work.

5. The first visit- or the second or third.  Of course sitting in the room with the person, talking with him or her, and seeing if there is a connection is the best indicator of whether it’s going to be a good match or not.  I know this sounds like dating or something, but it is crucial that you feel a good (or at least a good enough) connection with your therapist.  You need to feel heard, to feel like you’re not being judged, and to feel comfortable enough to say just about anything, much less disclose private details of your life.  Of course, this may not happen in the first session- particularly if the therapist is more focused on getting paperwork completed and gathering information during an initial session than usual.  But by the second or third meeting you should know if this is the right person or not.  If not, don’t feel bad about telling the person you want to check into some other therapists.  Even ask for some referrals if you like.  A good therapist should also be a professional, so their feelings should not be hurt by you saying it’s not a good fit.  And whether they are or not, therapy is a service you’re paying for, so you deserve to feel good about it.

2 bonus factors…

6. Location.  The person you see is important, so hopefully you’re not basing your choice solely on the fact that you can walk to the therapist’s office.  However, in reality this may be important.  You might be going close to home or close to your work or school, which of course would be preferable to driving 40 miles out of your way.  If this happens, great, but at times traveling a little farther might be necessary- especially if you live in a rural area, need an expert, or just want to see a certain person.

7. Hours.  Obviously, this is important too.  Most therapists have at least some evening hours, since that’s what most people who work or go to school need.  Some even offer weekend hours.  If you have limited availability it might be harder to find someone, so the more flexible you can be the better.  I see a lot of people at night, but it’s not uncommon to see adults before or after work, or even on their lunch break.  And though I typically see kids after school or in the evening, at times I need to see them before school or at some other point in the day.

If you’ve never looked for a therapist or you have found the process to be frustrating or daunting, I hope this list will give you something to go on.  Sometimes people see one therapist and have a negative experience, so they give up- either because they don’t want to try again, or because they assume all therapists are the same.  I tell people, “If you went to a new hair stylist and got a bad haircut, would you give up haircuts?”  Or, “If you went to one mechanic and felt like he didn’t do a good job, would you stop getting your car worked on?”  I know therapy is different, but the same premise remains.  I encourage you to be thoughtful in your search and not to get discouraged if it takes some time to find the right person.  This is common, but hopefully you will find a good match without much trouble.

All the best,

Dr. Matthews

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5 Words I Have Come To Hate As A Psychologist

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

Being a psychologist, I sit with people every day and listen to their lives- what makes them happy or sad, what they like or dislike, how they see things, and what they view as the reasons for why things are.  I love hearing about other people’s concerns and helping them to get to a better place- whether it’s finding a new way to look at things, strategies for handling themselves or situations better, or even solutions to difficult problems.

Over the past few years I’ve become especially sensitive to certain words- at work, but in my personal life too.  It’s not just not liking the words, but what they mean and how they’re used.  Here is my top 5, as it stands now- and I’m sure most therapists would agree.

1. Hate.  Ironic, I know, since it’s in the title of this post.  Do you know someone, though, who regularly seems to say, “I hate this…”, “I hate that…”, “Don’t you hate…?”, and things like that?  When my children say this word, my wife says, “When you hate someone, that means you want them to die.  Do you want _____ to die?”  To which, my kids say, “No!”  I think that serves to show them how extreme a word like hate is.  I like looking at it that way, at least when it comes to people.  Even more, throwing that word around just breeds negativity.  I strive to be a positive person, and I encourage my children to be so as well.  And no one likes a hater, right?  Try this…I challenge you to get up one day and count just how many times you say “hate” in a day.  I’ll bet it’s more than you think.

2. Always, Never, Only…any absolute term.  Two ALWAYS comes after one…A ALWAYS comes before B…and cars ALWAYS run out of gas if you don’t refill the tank.  These are certainly absolutes, but your child does not ALWAYS lie, or your husband does not ALWAYS say X, Y, or Z.  Something may happen quite frequently, but almost NOTHING occurs in absolute frequency.  Some would say I’m nitpicking or “what’s the big deal?”  The issue is that using and believing these terms tends to skew our perception, and again in a more negative direction.  It also makes the person you’re blaming pretty defensive and unlikely to listen to what you have to say.

3. Fault.  If someone rear-ends you in your car, it’s probably their fault.  In most problems involving one or more people, someone is at least partially at fault.  But this is often used as a tool for blaming.  “It’s YOUR fault, HIS fault, Obama’s fault”, etc. (Notice how rarely is it MINE!).  Many times fault could be distributed between any number of people.  Think about sports- a loss is rarely the fault of one person.  In football, people may blame the quarterback, the kicker, or the coach, but a team has 11 players on the field at any one point in time, as well as a number of coaches telling them what to do.  A team loss is a team loss and a win is a win- much like a relationship problem (or lack thereof) is just that.  So assigning fault is not only negative, but in many instances fault is beside the point.  Blaming doesn’t solve problems- but it does make people angry, builds resentment, and deteriorates relationships (and in the context of sports, team chemistry). We all like to be right and don’t like to be wrong, or we like to be the one with the answers, but getting stuck on whose fault it is rarely helps us to fix things.

4. You.  No, I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t ever use the pronoun, you.  I’m referring to some people’s tendency to blame, by saying, “YOU… (do this, do that, don’t do this, don’t do that, etc.)”.  “I messages” are typically better at making your point.  For example, if I don’t like that my wife is “always late”, it’s better to say, “I don’t like when we’re late for things”, because the focus is then on me and what I dislike, rather than blaming my wife for what I’m labeling as a personal flaw… “YOU always make us late!”  Focusing on “I”, rather than “you”, keeps the focus on me and will likely make my wife less defensive- and more receptive to what I have to say, than blaming her.

5. Normal.  We all say this, but it really is a relative term.  Normal compared to what?  Sure, most of us don’t want to stand out in a negative way, and it’s nice to feel like we fit in, but is “normal” really what we want?  In my own opinion, at least, life is just too short and too rich to strive to be like everyone else.  There is so much to do, so many things to be into- and more so, I think we should all strive to just be who we are- do what makes us happy and makes us feel like we’re living a life that’s genuine.  The other thing I’ve noticed is that when people use the term “normal”, it sets up a negative dichotomy- that there is normal and abnormal, or weird/not weird, good/bad, right/wrong, and so on.  With the way we use “normal” in our everyday language, not feeling normal makes us feel bad, and it’s one reason why we may not do anything about it- much less come to therapy.  For many, doing this is like accepting that they’re not normal, they’re bad, or that something is wrong with them.  I don’t like this at all.  A better way to think of “normal” is relative to ourselves.  What’s normal for you?  For example, if you’re generally a happy or minimally anxious person, and you start to feel depressed or what you believe to be too anxious, then that’s abnormal- and something you might want to do something about.

Hopefully this post can help you to think of these words in a different way- or maybe you’ll notice more often how others use these words.  Words can be powerful, and they affect our lives more than we may realize.  Paying attention to them can help to change our perspective and to see things how they are, not just how they make us feel.

As always, if you find yourself feeling much too negative or just not feeling like yourself, talking with a professional may help.  For a referral, click here or here.  Take care!

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Compassion: A Key to Happiness and Well-Being

Image courtesy of

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I’m from the Philadelphia area, and this past weekend was the long-awaited Pope’s visit.  During and afterward I saw lots of articles, video, and commentary on compassion being at the center of Pope Francis’ messages. And this seems to be a big part of his appeal- among Catholics and non-Catholics alike.  This post is not about the Pope or his visit, however, but about compassion in general. Compassion is the response to the suffering of others that motivates a desire to help (Wikipedia).  It’s something our world could use more of, and in my experience as a psychologist, I have found that compassion has a number of benefits, not just for others but for us as well.

I had another experience last weekend that inspired this post. I’m a hockey parent, as I have been for a number of years, and I spent that same weekend in suburban Boston where my oldest son was playing in a tournament. Since he has to be at the rinks 90 minutes early, I spend a lot of time at coffee shops, getting work done or just killing time.

So I was in Starbucks on Saturday evening, working on my computer. As I sat there, I noticed a woman wheeling a large suitcase in the door. She must have been in her 60’s, with long hair tucked under a hat. The woman was somewhat frumpily dressed, yet it wasn’t immediately apparent if she was homeless or perhaps waiting for a ride to the airport (which we were close to). I was at Starbucks in what I believe to be a stereotypical New England suburb, which was very clean, filled with nice homes, upscale shops, and well-dressed people. It wasn’t at all where I would expect to see a homeless person. As she’s standing there, adjusting her suitcase and the umbrella she had perched on top, suddenly the woman yelled, “Get your fu**ing hands off of it!” And then (as if responding to an inquiry of, “What?”) she yelled, “The suitcase!”

I looked around the room and the staff seemed to pay the woman no mind, making me believe she must be a frequent visitor there. But of course, a number of other patrons stared, snickered, or just watched in awe. I couldn’t help but notice this, and I tried not to stare myself, as if that might help mitigate the reactions of others. As a psychologist, it became clear to me that this woman was responding to some kind of internal stimuli- a voice and/or a vision of some other being that only she could see or hear- and she was afraid or perhaps tormented by it.  The woman was also likely homeless, protecting what may have been her only wordly belongings. I saw her there twice more on Sunday, sitting on a bench outside or inside getting a cup of coffee. By then there was no question that this woman was probably homeless as well as mentally ill.

Of course, I haven’t always been a psychologist or had education in psychology, so there were times in my life that I didn’t understand mental illness or poverty.  And I admit that in my younger years I would have laughed at a situation like this and then shrugged it off.  That’s a pretty typical reaction when you see something unusual or unexpected, especially something you don’t understand well.

But now I’m in a position to be more compassionate, since I understand the issues this woman is likely dealing with and have met many people like her. She probably has difficulty getting anyone to help her, much less finding support or access to necessary resources or treatment. And personally, I think experiencing psychosis (hallucinations and/or delusions) would be one of the most scary things a person could ever go through. It’s very sad, and rather than laugh at these people or make fun of them, it would be a good thing if people had more understanding  and more compassion. It’s difficult for people to put themselves in others’ shoes (having this ability is what it means to have empathy), and this is especially true when it comes to those that we see as being so different from ourselves.

So how might one be more compassionate? How is this something we could just do? A good start is to remember to try not to pass judgment on others, because you really never know them or what they’re going through.  It’s natural for us to judge- good or bad, right or wrong, beautiful or ugly, and so on.  We probably do this hundreds of times per day, without even noticing.  Making judgments, of course, is useful in many cases, and even helps us to survive.  But especially here in America, we have become too quick to judge others, their motives, and even their value- even spreading our opinions widely via the Internet.

Again, I’m in a unique position to understand compassion and I spend a lot of time thinking about it.  I work as a therapist and day after day people divulge their pain, losses, embarrassment, and other thoughts and feelings to me that they may not tell others. It’s ironic, because as a psychologist, people assume that I work with “crazy” people, but the reality is that most clients are just regular-looking (and quite high functioning) people.  Many have good jobs, or get good grades in school, are great athletes, have nice families, and so on. People see me for all different reasons, but the average person on the street who saw someone go in or out of my door would never guess anything was wrong.  People who look normal, typical, or perfect on the outside may actually feel very different on the inside. We don’t know that, though, unless we get to know them.   

On the flip side, we make all kinds of judgements about those who we deem to be “crazy”, “poor”, “stupid”, “gay”, “fat” and so on and so forth.  We do this anytime someone looks or acts different from us or from what we see as normal.  Not only are we labeling people, but we’re assigning a pretty negative connotation most of the time.  And making snap judgments like that, not even knowing the person and having virtually no evidence to back up what we’re thinking or saying, who are we to say who that person is or is not- or what they’re like?  Who gave us the right to make these determinations?  The people we’re judging are usually very different from what we assume, and that’s something for us to keep in mind.  And just because something is different from us, what makes us less?  This reminds me of the HBO movie about Temple Grandin, a famous woman with autism.  Growing up, her mother kept telling her, “You’re different, not less than”.  I love that line.  One thing I encourage clients to do is to think of someone they initially judged negatively, but who ended up becoming a friend or even someone we were in a relationship with.  We can probably all think of someone like this.  We thought they were annoying, not cool, arrogant, stuck up, etc., but then we got to know them and realized they were quite different.

Another thing I have found helpful is to try to view things in a neutral, nonjudgmental way.  Try to just observe what’s going on, rather than being quick to judge.  I’m not formally trained in mindfulness, but this is a key aspect of it.  We can’t reliably make meaning of something we have witnessed for probably less than a minute.  Try to just observe, and not only see what fits with our initial impression.  This is also a key part of the scientific method.  If someone judged you and your whole life based on a 30 second segment (possibly when you are at your worst), what would they say?  That doesn’t seem fair, does it?  Or take the person or family who seems absolutely perfect.  Get to know them and I guarantee you will find imperfections- unhappiness, anxiety, addiction, cruelty, ignorance, and so forth.  There is no such thing as a perfect person or a perfect family.  No such thing.  So it takes practice, but judgement in either direction isn’t generally good.

You might also think of a phrase or two that keeps what you’re noticing in perspective. This can be helpful when you see or hear something that you don’t like- someone voicing an opinion, doing the opposite of what you would do, or showing what you see as ignorance.  I’m not talking about situations where it might be appropriate to intervene- like when you see someone bullying or harassing another person, but I am talking about when we just don’t agree with something.  This might be someone sharing thoughts on politics, religion, money, and things like that.  One phrase I have personally found helpful, and I can’t remember where I heard it, so I’m not sure who to attribute it to, is:  “We all want the same things, for pretty much the same reasons”.  Simple, yes, but true.  We all want to be happy, to have fun, to have the world be the kind of place we think it should be, and to feel some control over that world.  The difference is how we go about it.  What makes you happy or what you think is right might differ from what I think, and most times that’s ok.  We don’t need to lash out against that person, to confront them with our own opinion, to try to change their mind, or talk about them behind their back.  It just doesn’t work.

What I’m saying here is that being more compassionate not only helps others, but it helps us.  I think most people view compassion as something we do for other people, but don’t underestimate the good it can do for you.  When you can view others with compassion, you feel less angry, less hateful, less annoyed…which makes way for more understanding, a greater focus on ourselves and what we have going on, and ultimately, more happiness and a greater sense of well-being.  If you want to be healthy and happy, don’t think you can do it by changing others.  It starts with you- being happy with who you are and what you have to offer (we also need to feel compassion toward ourselves!), and thinking about what we can do in our own lives to make a difference.  The sooner you realize that, the better off you will be.

If compassion is a struggle, if you find yourself distracted by others or what they’re doing, or if you want to find greater life satisfaction, happiness, or well-being, consider talking to a psychologist.  For a referral, click here or here.  Take care!

(c) 2015, Jesse D. Matthews, Psy.D.

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