I’ve noticed perfectionism hits me hardest at work. Or maybe it’s just easier for me to recognize it in that area of my life. I procrastinate tasks because I’m scared I won’t do it ‘right’. I start getting sleepy, not because I’m tired, but because I’m avoiding a job responsibility I feel has to be done flawlessly. 

When perfectionism is running roughshod all over me and my (now) mushy mind, one way I manage it is by creating my own mantras. These little reminders help put things into perspective, pivot my thinking and reassure me the sky isn’t falling. They help me get out of my head and into perfectly imperfect action. I write them on sticky notes and plunk them all over my desk. 

My current, self-penned “progress-not-perfection” prompts are the following. See if any help kick your perfectionistic paralysis to the sidelines.

1.Don’t overthink it

Sometimes I find myself rewriting and rewriting and rewriting AND rewriting blog posts, emails, even text messages. This ‘don’t overthink it’ quip tells me I can take things less seriously and trust myself (and other people). I’ve learned I can send off that email more quickly, do only one or two revisions of my posts (yes, including THIS one!) and trust my texts don’t have to be eloquent or even intelligible (not for friends anyway). 

2. Good enough really IS good enough

Those of you who’ve been reading my posts, or following me for some time, know this is my touchstone. It’s a comforting and truthful mantra. It reiterates what I often forget: other people don’t care as much about the mistakes I make, most won’t care at all, some won’t even notice them. Good enough, helps me get to done. Voltaire and Confucius are considered cool cats for a reason. They both understood the importance of good old ‘enough-ness’. Voltaire said, “The best is the enemy of the good” and Confucius, “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without”. Maybe it should be perfect is the enemy of done!?

3. What if… I let myself be happy? 

When I start to spin my wheels, or launch into a whirligig of negatives ‘what ifs’, I ask myself this: ‘what if… I let myself be happy?’. I think about this. Really think about it, just… letting myself be happy. Relaxing and letting myself trust I can do whatever is in front of me while letting go a bit. Whatever the task, I can experiment doing it without fear or worry. When I do this, I start to feel a little lighter, a little happier even. I also forget about why I should hang on to my white-knuckle control. Try it. It’s not a question we often ask ourselves. See what happens when you do. This little glimmer of happy helps me be more productive with less emphasis on doing things impeccably.  *Note: this isn’t when I’m in an arm wrestle with depression or acute anxiety – that needs a different approach and sometimes an appointment with my therapist or doctor.  

4. Leave it ugly. Let it be messy. 

I have a hang up about making documents look pretty. Documents that don’t need a design flair. Documents that don’t even get seen by the public. Like colour coordinating my brand colours in my on-line to do list I share with my virtual assistant, or neatly entering data just so with proper punctuation in my CRM. Yes, it looked nice. But it took me forever and to what end? I fretted over bolding titles, changing font colours instead of just getting the task done. It was a sneaky way to feel productive. Now I leave things ugly and let them be messy. 

5. Try it and see what happens

This one really took me a long time to really get in my bones. Indecision has been a comforting friend and way to avoid uncertainty in an ass-backward way. But the experimenting approach has brought the most fruit and a lot of relief. Indecision masked my fear of failure and belief that one wrong move would collapse my career. “Trying it” simple as it sounds, wasn’t exactly simple. Not for this ‘risk-adverse-need-a-guarantee-it’ll-all-turn-out-ok’ kinda girl.  I started by taking micro-sized healthy risks and seeing what the outcome was. Then gradually took on bigger and bigger ones. This is all relative. For example, first it was writing a cold sales email to a potential client. Then it was choosing to do a follow up phone call (egad!) to a client instead of another email. Instead of postponing my webinar again until I knew exactly what topic people wanted, I chose to do one that I was excited about and tried it out. 

These action steps might be easy for others but for me they were huge. Perfectionism is an insidious, heavy and often sneaky culprit. What were the outcomes? Phone calls were nerve racking but effective, and actually welcomed by some clients. The “Catalyst for Creativity and Courage”: Intro to Storytelling webinar was…well it WAS! It happened and was a success.  

With these aphorisms I experience less anxiety and self-criticism. They help me get my work done, get more done and get it done more easily. The momentum of caring less about perfection carries me to a place of completed good work rather than almost perfect but never done work. 

Now that is pretty perfect. Not that it needs to be. 

© Victoria Maxwell


I took several mental health days off this past week and will take one today, too. 

I didn’t even lie to my boss and say something like, “I think I’m coming down with a cold”. My boss is pretty understanding. I work for myself.

After a nudge from my lovely husband and gentle curiosity from my new psychiatrist, I gradually recognized what they already saw. That, yes, I’ve been depressed and I needed a bit of a break. I’m usually pretty good at knowing my warning signs, but this occasion, not so much. Sneaky little *bleep* — this depression beast. It still can do a doozie on me.

Taking time off and practicing self-care made me think. How can I take care of myself, but still honor my work responsibilities? I have emails to return; this blog post and a newsletter to write; clients to follow up with. I also need to keep it simple for myself and keep the pressure off.

Solution: pare down to only the essentials. There’s only one pressing email I need to return. Even while experiencing this brain fog and insecurity, I can manage one email. My client follow-ups aren’t set in stone. Waiting a day and a half won’t collapse my business. Refusing to rest and practice self-compassion just might. For my newsletter, missing my deadline will make me more anxious, meeting it will create some relief. I’ll make it easy and share a piece I wrote a while ago but never published. I won’t, on the other hand, set myself up for failure and attempt what currently feels like the herculean task of writing completely new content. It’s about kindness today.

To boot, this post I’m using is meant to bring some laughter. Another self-care tool I use.

If you’re feeling good, well this will hopefully just make your day that much brighter.

If you’re fighting the dynamite of depression like I am right now — I’m about two-thirds of the way out of the woods — well, I hope it does at least one of three things. It might, a) make you smile a teensy weensy bit, or b) distract you from any negative self-talk if only for a couple minutes (depending on how fast you read), and/or c) help to read something positive in nature as opposed to all the crap the news has to bring.

Side note: I want to make my opinion known. It shouldn’t be called ‘news’. It should be called ‘BAD news’. That would be accurate. Then it would also make it clearer what we’re actually feeding our minds when we peruse it. But, I digress.

If you’re feeling the twinges of any mental health issues, this is my wish: that you take care of yourself like you would if you had the flu. Take it easy on yourself; adjust your expectations for a bit; celebrate the little wins; see a doctor if you’re really ill and reach out and connect with a friend or partner. Let yourself be helped. And, read this post to feed your mind and soul with something that’s on the lighter side as you pass through this tough patch. Because, as the cliché goes: this too will pass. And it will. Meet you on the other side.article continues after advertisement

If you know someone who might need a boost, please forward this to them.

© Victoria Maxwell

The holiday season is here, but the joy of it may not be, especially at work. Maintaining good mental health on the job can be a challenge at the best of times. Maintaining it during the holidays can seem impossible.  

The pressure of the holly jolly season along with regular workload can give rise to feeling even more behind than usual and increase anxiety and poor mental health. Like I’m sort of feeling right now. 

Can you relate? Strategic planning for the next year, year end reviews for this last year. Project deadlines that were due…oh like a month ago. Those damn people who take vacations during December (how dare them?!). The obligatory staff/client/shareholder events that mean you get home after the kids have gone to bed and spent more time with your co-workers than your family – again. Add your own to the list.

To find a little relief and decrease triggers for anxiety and depression, I suggest capturing mini-moments of joy. Think of moments of joy like moments of silence – but without the focus on dead people. Personal, brief and meaningful. 

Now after you finish rolling your eyes and before you click another link, wait. I promise this hack is doable and effective. It won’t change your life. It might not even change your mood. But it will give you momentary relief from the hell-bent chaos and burden you may be feeling right now at work. The more often you do this simple exercise, the more it will build upon itself.

Finding these mini-moments of joy goes deeper than intellectualizing gratitude. It moves into a mind and body experience of micro-sized feelings of appreciation and simple pleasures. 

First, what is joy? See if you can guess.

Joy is…

1.Not a feeling in response to a fortunate event, but a condition of spirit. 

2. The name of my neighbor 2 blocks over who has 11 cats & wears big hats.

3. A brand of perfume. 

4. Extreme gladness, delight, or exultation of the spirit arising from a sense of well-being or satisfaction.

5. A mediocre movie with Jennifer Lawrence about some Tupperware woman.

6. Sorry, what? I nodded off. I need more coffee

The answers are 1, 3, 4 and 5 (and potentially 6 if I’ve caught you before your morning coffee). Joy is: a feeling, spiritual condition, perfume and a movie. Now THAT’S what I call versatility!  

The American Psychological Association defines it as “a feeling of extreme gladness, delight, or exultation of the spirit arising from a sense of well-being or satisfaction.”

I like Existential philosopher James Park’s take on it: joy is “not a feeling in response to a fortunate event, but a condition of spirit”. It is the basis of our being. Often latent it is our basic nature. Now isn’t that optimistic? 

The mental health benefits of joy are real.  

When we experience joy, the brain releases the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. People with depression are known to have lower levels of serotonin.1 

Positive emotions, like joy, can decrease stress hormones and build emotional strength.2

But how to bring this joyful nature out? The easiest way is to become aware of the tiniest feelings of joy that arise naturally while you’re at work. I’m not talking about feeling states extending for a period of minutes. I’m talking about seconds or nano-seconds of joy that occur throughout the course of a day. Focusing on these tiny slices will ‘prime’ your body and mind to see and feel more of them. I take a deeper dive into joy in my workshop “Creating Wellness and Reclaiming Self-Care” with some fun, interactive exercises.

The Hack: How to Capture Mini-Moments of Joy to Improve Mental Health at Work

1.Make a conscious decision to be open to itsy-bitsy bits of joy at your workplace for one day (or even a half a day). 

2. Define what joy feels like for you. What does it feel like in your body, your mind and your spirit? Typically, these are small bubbles of positive emotions or sensations of relief or comfort in your body. 

For me, I know I’ve hit a blip of joy because the corners of my mouth give rise to a slight smile. I feel a little lightness in my body like my muscles have relaxed. The stream of (often negative) thoughts and worries stop for a split second and I am in the present (for like 1.5 seconds). 

3. When something triggers an inkling of joy, pause. Experience it. Notice it. Breathe with it.

4. Note what, if any, physical sensations go along with it and where those sensations occur in your body.

5. Notice what triggered said moment of joy. You can track it to see if it consistently elicits joy for you.

6. Take another gentle and conscious breath and go about your business.

It’s that simple. 

Example of mini-moments of joy are: 

  • Completing a task on your to do list
  • Petting your co-worker’s dog (that is of course if you like dogs. I’m a sucker for them.)
  • Laughing at a joke said in the staff meeting
  • Seeing the winner of the staff’s ugly cookie decorating contest
  • When your computer screen unfreezes
  • Seeing birds fly by your office window
  • Sipping coffee or tea on your break
  • Getting through to the tech department within a minute

Being open to and paying conscious attention to the mini-moments of joy can, even in the most stressful day, bring you out of your head and into the present moment. This gives both your body and your brain a break before you dive in the flurry of work that’s waiting for you. 

I use this hack on a daily basis at work. Even during my most stressful work days, noticing mini-moments of joy clears my head and reduces my anxiety. It re-energizes me even when I’m in a rotten mood. Try it and see what happens for you. Happy joy hunting at work for a little bit better mental health.

© Victoria Maxwell

  1. Carrie Murphy https://www.healthline.com/health/affects-of-joy#9 
  2. Create Joy and Satisfaction https://www.mhanational.org/create-joy-and-satisfaction 

Until recently, I never identified as someone who went through childhood trauma. Dysfunctional family dynamics – oh yeah. But trauma? No. Until I started learning about it and talking to my counsellor, Andi. 

She knows my psychiatric diagnoses but also all the juicy details of my childhood to adult history. “What you experienced is called complex or relational trauma.” She told me. 

“But trauma is,” I piped in, “physical, emotional or sexual abuse or neglect, right? Like I need to be the recipient of it to ‘qualify’.” 

“Not exactly. What you described are examples of trauma, but trauma encompasses more than those.” Huh? This was news to me. 

What is Complex Trauma?

Andrea Schneider MSW, LCSW quotes Dr. Ron Doctor, psychologist: “complex or relational trauma can arise from prolonged periods of aversive stress usually involving entrapment (psychological or physical), repeated violations of boundaries, betrayal, rejection and confusion marked by a lack of control and helplessness.1

Oooh-kay…maybe I’ve been wrong. 

Still, I tend to dismiss what I experienced. Sure, as a child I witnessed daily rage and emotional abuse between my parents. But I wasn’t the target of it. 

Both had mental illness, but my dad was ‘only’ depressed and anxious. Yes, my mom had bipolar disorder and talked to me about wanting to die. But she never attempted suicide. 

My parents lived in a pretty much loveless marriage, but I felt loved, in a precarious kind of way. I felt scared most days, but loved at the same time. 

Ok, that does sound pretty uncomfortable and confusing even to me.

But it’s been years since all this happened. I’ve done lots of therapy.  It can’t be running my life STILL? 

Others had real abuse. You know like getting hit, sexually molested, living in poverty. Others had it way worse.

Ron Doctor’s definition describes trauma in a new light. One that makes sense to me. One that validates why I still feel haunted by the basement cobwebs of my past. 

It’s true, others suffered abuse I can’t even imagine, but that doesn’t mean what I underwent was any less significant or painful to me.

I’m cautious though. There’s a danger of overidentifying with being a victim of trauma. It can unintentionally perpetuate the learned helplessness I want to escape. 

Regardless, to create a calmer, healthier life and more positive relationships I’ve discovered I need to face the pain without clinging to it and find new behavior patterns.

Attachment and Healing

As a result of trauma, wounding to secure attachment can occur. PsychAlive explains that attachment is “the particular way in which (we) relate to other people. (It’s) formed at the very beginning of life, during the first two years.”2

Though I felt loved, and I was taken care of in a haphazard manner, this didn’t protect me from developing what is called an insecure attachment style. Oh, gawd. I know, more labels. But it has actually helped me create a coherent narrative.

There are different types of insecure attachment, and often we are a combination. I discovered, I have a mainly avoidant style. There’s also what’s called disorganized attachment. Though I don’t fall into this form, I relate to how this kind of attachment originates. 

Dr. Lisa Firestone, Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association explains “Disorganized attachment arises from fright without solutions. A child may experience repeated abuse, neglect or scary behaviour from a parent or caregiver as life-threatening. 

The child is stuck in an awful dilemma: her survival instincts tell her to flee to safety, but safety may be in the very person who is frightening her. The attachment figure is thus the source of the child’s distress. In these conditions, children often disassociate from their selves. They may feel detached from what’s happening to them. What they’re experiencing may be blocked from their consciousness.  A child in this conflicted state develops a disorganized attachment with their parental figures.” 3

As an adult, at times I feel overwhelmed, swallowed up by my feelings (no wonder I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder). I disassociate easily. Terror comes up when I face anger or even disagreement. 

It can trigger me and render myself and my needs invisible. In order to find some semblance of internal safety and relief from the tsunami of fear, I’ll capitulate to others needs and wants (whether they are asking me to or not). 

But this is changing. And the good news is it CAN be changed. 

I’ve healed some of the behaviors and continue to transform the ones still hanging around. It doesn’t serve me or those around me to stay stuck in patterns of unresolved trauma and unhealthy coping tools. Is it messy, hard and painful work? Yup. But it also feels essential to free myself from what has unconsciously been driving me. 

I get impatient though. Do you? I’ve been doing this thing called ‘talk therapy’ for years now. I’ve been fortunate to be able to do it. Shouldn’t I be further ahead? Shouldn’t these patterns have dissolved already? But I know the answer. 

Clichéd but accurate: it’s like a snake shedding its skin or peeling layers of an onion. Though I’d rather have less slithery, stinky metaphors. How about…a rose bush? Stay with me. 

Healing trauma or recovering from mental illness, or both, is like caring for a rose bush year after year. Each season, buds bloom. Then the plant is pruned (parts no longer needed are removed) so that next year’s flowers are even more lush. 

In the tending of the roses, the thorns may still prick but over time both the flowers and the plant get healthier and more lovely. That’s what I hope anyway. That’s what I’ve been told. That’s what I’m beginning to experience. So I keep the faith and continue gardening.  

© Victoria Maxwell

References:

1 Schneider, Andrea  (2018, January 22) “What Is Relational Trauma?: An Overview” retrieved November 29, 2019 from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/savvy-shrink/2018/01/what-is-relational-trauma-an-overview/ 
2 PsychAlive “What’s Your Attachment Style?” retrieved November 29, 2019 from https://www.psychalive.org/what-is-your-attachment-style/

3 PsychAlive “Disorganized Attachment: How Disorganized Attachments Form & How They Can Be Healed” Retrieved September 7, 2019 from https://www.psychalive.org/disorganized-attachment/

December is almost here and the pressure to have the perfect holiday experience can come along with it.

Not only that, but we live in an aspirational, Instagram-curated world. Maybe we always have (minus the social media bit). The “great American dream”, “the pursuit of happiness”. Capitalist culture is based on the quest of bigger, better, MORE. 

Because of this, I didn’t recognize the part perfectionism is still playing in my life. I thought I was a rather “recovered perfectionist”. Oh, our blind spots! I thought I had left most of those tendencies behind or at least were aware of them when they popped up. Afterall, one of my most popular posts on Psychology Today is “How To Escape the Vicious Triangle of Depression, Anxiety and Perfectionism”.

My favourite quote is: Good enough really IS good enough.

I actively use it to remind me to send that email after revising it only twice – instead of 11 times; to finish that (or this) blog post even when I have the urge to do just one more rewrite; to NOT research 15 different types of dog beds before choosing one.

Perhaps because I got some distance from my perfectionistic patterns, I started to think of perfectionism as harmless, like an annoying party guest. “Oh, yeah, I’m such a perfectionist – I have to have everything just so or I just can’t relax.”

But in his TEDMed talk “Our dangerous obsession with perfectionism is getting worse”, social psychologist Thomas Curran explains perfectionism has been on “an astronomical rise over the past few years.” It conceals, he goes on to say “a host of psychological issues that can lead to depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation”.

It erodes good relationships by setting unattainable standards. It cuts accomplishments, never allowing any celebration or feelings of gratitude. The very feeling of which in fact supports good mental health.

Far from being merely an annoying party guest, if left unfettered, perfectionism can become a destructive live-in monster.

Interestingly, perfectionism kept me sane and safe when my world as child wasn’t even close to that. When things around me were exploding, it was easier and less terrifying to (unconsciously and erroneously) believe it was my fault.

The belief gave me hope. If I could just behave better, be better, do whatever it was more perfectly then maybe I could stop the chaos around me. In essence, my striving for perfection as a child and youth gave me a sense of control, even if it never worked.

As an adult now, my drive for the ideal, works against me. Knowing that, however, doesn’t mean it’s a simple decision to let it go.

There’s some hardwiring that needs to get well, rewired. The good news is our brain is like a neurological Gumby, flexible and malleable. Rewiring our thinking and re-routing past patterns of behaviour is possible.

Slowly (and I mean very slowly) I have started that rewiring and begun to embrace the perfectly imperfect.

 How? Here are 9 Strategies I use:

1.  Take it seriously. That’s actually the biggest one.  Realize perfectionism, as much as I scoff at it, dismiss it or even laud it as a motivating force in my life, has a corrosive and potentially devastating nature. That way it’s on my radar and I’ll attend to it as part of my self-care.

 2. I choose to recognize that perfectionism, NOT me is the problem. It’s a learned habit that served me when I was young, not a sign of irreparable damage. Note, I use the power of choice (over and over again) to see this problematic habit is not who I am. 

3. I bring my awareness to my patterns of perfection, particularly the negative self-talk that accompanies – or more likely precedes and drives – my perfectionistic actions. Notice when this type of behaviour is triggered and what activities are most involved with it. Examples for me are: writing blogs, emails, even texts sometimes! Decision making about my simple steps in my career, resistance to celebrate accomplishments.

4. Honour process and progress over impeccable outcomes. Yeah – sort of a bumper sticker ‘the journey is the destination’ kind of thing. But it’s a good mantra and reminder.

 5. Make choices that feed my soul, instead of fuel the ‘flawless’. I don’t use Instagram much. I watch “The Ellen Show” because she celebrates being human and laughs a lot. I go for runs in the rain and splash in puddles so I get muddy.

 6. Allow myself a temper tantrum when it’s not perfect. Paradoxically, it helps me realize it doesn’t need to be.

 7. Make my own decisions when normally I’d ask for help and see what happens. It builds trust that I can depend on myself even when I’m uncertain I’m making the ‘right’ choice.

 8. Similar to #6, take small, safe imperfect risks to prove the sky won’t fall. My friend, Leah Goard, calls it taking “inspired imperfect action”.

9. Finally, I repeat my mantra “good enough, really IS good enough” when I’m stuck in perfectionistic procrastination paralysis.

 These steps build my tolerance for perfectly imperfect imperfection, for uncertainty, and eventually cultivate more and more acceptance for myself, just as I am. Because like the quote I have on my vision board says “We were born to be real, not perfect.”What do you do when you notice you’re caught in perfectionism? I’d love you to send me your tips. Put them in the comments or email me at victoria@victoriamaxwell.com. I’ll put them in a future post so we can all live more comfortably and compassionately with imperfection.

© Victoria Maxwell


I went to Stanford. Well, ok…not in the traditional way. Like I didn’t go there for university. But I did go there to see The Manic Monolgues, a storytelling project I assisted with. 

True stories may be the most powerful stories there are. When I perform my theatrical keynotes about my lived experience with bipolar disorder, anxiety and psychosis, I see the immediate positive effect on the audience. I personally feel the benefit of sharing as well.

If you’ve been touched by mental illness and are considering writing about it, please do. It doesn’t matter if you share your story publicly or not, but it’s amazing the hope and freedom it can bring just by writing it. 

I’d heard of Stanford. I knew that it was an impressive university to go to and that it has some of the brightest minds studying there. 

In Winter 2018 and Spring of 2019 I had the pleasure of working with several of those bright minds. I’d add to that, bright hearts too. 

Zack Burton and Elisa Hofmeister, Stanford students, created the Manic Monologues by bringing together actors and non-actors, writers and non-writers, all to create an evening of storytelling. An evening dedicated to sharing experiences of mental illness, both of recovery and adversity. 

In May 2017, Zack had his first psychotic break and following, bipolar diagnosis. During those first few frightening months, Elisa and Zack failed to find relatable, hopeful stories from those who had been through a similar struggle. They decided to create The Manic Monologues to humanize and normalize mental illness.

I was involved as an advisor to help gather stories and offer some guidance to those writing pieces. I also had an excerpt of one of my plays performed by a local acting student.

I flew to Palo Alto. There, I spoke on a mental health panel at the university and attended the productions three-night run. Each night was raw, moving and funny. 

Standing ovations followed each performance. 

“We received feedback from those brave individuals who shared their stories with us,” Zack explained, “that writing down their experience was extremely cathartic, in some ways liberating.” Zack goes on to say that “one of the storytellers, who was able to attend the performance, came up to us after the show. They shared that providing their story for The Manic Monologues allowed them to open up with a family member who they had not spoken with about their mental illness in many years.” 

In chatting with the actors involved, I learned that some who had not been touched by mental illness, learned and grew, both in compassion and understanding. Those who had lived experience felt empowered. “The audience,” Elisa commented, “was deeply moved by the performance. Laughter and tears filled the evening.”

5 of the 18 monologues were written by students of the course I led “Truth be Told: Storytelling for people living with mental illness and their communities” in 2018. That program ended in a community storytelling evening as well. It too was incredibly healing for both those in the audience and on stage. 

It was so wonderful to see these beautiful Truth be Told pieces shared again by a new person and to a new audience. 

Shout out to the White Rock/SS – Mental Health Substance Use Services team and especially to Leah Kasinsky, my co-facilitator for the wonderful support they offered.

I witnessed again the power of creativity and storytelling in the free Catalyst for Creativity and Courage: Intro to Telling Your Stories webinar. Attendees learned strategies to kickstart their creative juices and their bravery. They received tools to help write their personal stories.

I was moved to hear and see how freeing it was for people.

Comments included: “I have felt so alone in the stigma of mental health, and this was very empowering to learn additional tools, and to know that there is a person out there that has had a similar experience.” ~ webinar attendee

“It gives me so much hope.” ~ webinar attendee

Writing your stories and giving voice to your experiences can be particularly liberating. Whether you share them with a public audience, a close friend, or leave them for yourself to enjoy, the written word has the power to heal.

The more we shed light on those hidden, what we may feel are taboo items, the more we can free ourselves. As the elegant lyric from the Leonard Cohen’s song, Anthem reads: 

“The is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Help the light get in. Start by sharing a tiny part of your story. 

© Victoria Maxwell


Wabi-sabi. (Whah-bee/Saw-bee). C’mon say it with me. I know you want to. 

Just saying it makes me feel a little better. These two strange words and the concept it encapsulates, has changed the way I look at failure, my mental health, my life, humanity. Seriously. I was introduced to it by the same dear friend who sent me the link of the Thich Nhat Hanh recording about bringing kindness into mindfulness which I wrote in this post.

Yes, she is one wise woman, this friend of mine! You know who you are. 

What is wabi-sabi? Contrary to what I thought it was, it’s not related to wasabi or sushi. Though it is of Japanese origin. 

Derived from Buddhist teachings and ancient Japanese philosophical ideals, wabi-sabi is a world perspective centered on the acceptance of beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete”. 1

Doesn’t that bring you a little bit of relief just reading that? 

Another term for it is ‘flawed beauty’. The modern translation might be ‘perfectly imperfect’. 

The Japanese art form, Kintsugi reflects it brilliantly. Kintsugi is the process where cracked pottery is repaired with gold lacquer to highlight the beauty of the imperfection or damage rather than hiding it. 

Why have I found this idea so powerful? Because in our curated Instagram lives, it celebrates imperfection that inevitably is part of life. That’s my kind of world view. 

When recovering from mental illness, or an addiction, or let’s face it, just plain living life, mis-steps are part of the process, not an exception to it. Like the saying goes: Progress not perfection. Its approach to beautiful messiness is a pragmatic and compassionate one. An approach that, particularly with the creative process or the onslaught of depression, can be sorely absent.

I introduce this concept in my creativity playshops. You’ll also have a chance to experience it in my *FREE* webinar Catalyst for Creativity and Courage: Intro to Telling Your Stories on October 25.

I partner wabi-sabi with an improv exercise that underlines the very essence of it. No, we don’t thwack each other with blobs of gold paint or break glasses and put them back together again with glitter tape. It’s called the Failure Bow.

The Transformative Power of the Failure Bow

The ‘failure bow’ hails from the world of improv, but has wider applications than just on the stage. It, along with understanding wabi-sabi, can reframe failure as part of success and the creative process.

The idea of celebrating mistakes has taken off even in corporate settings. You can find variations of it at MomsRising’s “joyful funerals” for failed projects or FailFest as organized by DoSomething.Org. Beth Kanter’s article explains them in more details. 

Innovation and creativity die if stifled by the fear of failure.  Recovery can be stopped in its tracks, and the joy of living can too if perfectionism isn’t tamed. 

Here’s the exercise. Do it and I guarantee you’ll feel a little happier.

 ‘Failure Bow’ (takes less than 30 seconds) 
1. You can do this alone or in a group.

2. Stand in a ‘super hero’ pose. You know, we all have one – even if we haven’t done it since we were 10. Feet hip width apart; hand on hips, chest out, head up and an ear to ear grin.

3. Then lift your arms in the universal “V” victory position and happily, shamelessly, proudly say: “I failed!”

4. And… you guessed it…take a bow (don’t shy away from it – full on bow, bending at the waist – several times if the spirit moves you).

5. Then if you’re in a group, everyone else around you claps, whoots, and hollers for you, celebrating your gaffe with you.

Variations: 

In the Moment Failure Bow

As soon as you’ve noticed you’ve made a mistake – immediately do the failure bow to counteract any self-judgment that might rise. The smile alone will help.

Intentional Snafu Surrender Bow 

  • Before you get into your super hero pose, think of a mistake you made that you’re still hanging onto (big or small doesn’t matter). 
  • Get in your super hero pose holding that mistake in your mind.
  • As you lift your arms, imagine the energy of that snafu running up your arms to the tips of your fingers.
  • As you yell “I failed” and bend over to take a bow, imagine all the energy and emotion of that mistake drain out of your hands and surrender into the earth. 

Why does it work? 
1. It helps us redefine failure, Ted DesMaisons, Stanford University instructor, suggests, it can “(lead) us to more productive action or more empowered choices going forward.”

2. According to a Beth Kanter’s 2013 Harvard Business review article it “alters our physiological response to failure by removing the demons of self-doubt and self-judgment. Without those holding us back, we can be more flexible and improve results and learning.”

3. Both the wabi-sabi ethos and the simple failure bow exercise gives a positive view of mistakes preventing us from falling into immobility and self-condemnation.

4. They offer a psychological and physical approach to fully embody failure as part of creativity, success, work and life. 

Through wabi-sabi and the failure bow we can learn, flub by flub, to take ourselves and our mistakes less seriously and increase our self-compassion.

Here’s a filmed version of me explaining the Failure Bow. Send me YOUR failure bow videos.

Let’s unite in the love of our failures and create a FAILURE REVOLUTION! The world will be a kinder, softer, more perfectly imperfect place because of it.

© Victoria Maxwell


1 Koren, Leonard (1994). Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers. Stone Bridge Press. ISBN 1-880656-12-4.

I’ve been talking to strangers from foreign countries on-line. Wait. It’s not what you think. 

They have prevented me from falling into depression, helped me avoid perfectionism, boosted my productivity, decreased my loneliness and reduced my procrastination. 

Are they therapists? Nope. One has been a journalist, a computer programmer, another a business school student. Even more surprising we actually barely talk and they have no idea they’ve helped me in these ways. 

So how is this happening? With a free on-line tool called Focusmate.1

This is going to sound strange. Bear with me. In a nutshell you schedule a virtual on-camera co-working session with a stranger.

The tool wasn’t designed as a mental health tool, but as Taylor Jacobson, Focusmate Founder and CEO explains, “it was on our radar. Yes, it was designed with productivity in mind, but both myself and my friend who (first) tried this out have had mental health journeys.

It was created to “help independent workers break free of the shame and anxiety caused by chronic procrastination…(and) connect with like-minded individuals committed to holding each other accountable…for the actions contained in those to-do lists, productivity tools, and goal trackers.”

At the first signs of depression my head gets foggy and full, lethargy starts to seep into my body, and a feeling of isolation and dread places its foot on my chest. Perfectionism increases, as does self-critical thoughts which fuels the perfectionism which further drives avoidance. Working productively is difficult. Working period is. Focusmate unknowingly helps counter these things for me. 

Note: I am not affiliated in any way with Focusmate. I just really like the tool and thought you might too.

The Co-Working Model

It’s based on what’s called a virtual co-working model. 

What is co-working? Think back to when you were in school. Some of you may have had study buddies. This is the same thing, except we’re not 12 (or in a school library shooting spitballs through a straw).

Instead you’re in front of your computer for 50 minutes. Camera and sound on. A concrete task to complete (usually a dreaded one) and your “study buddy” from another country set up in the exact same way. 

Whoa…you may be thinking. Me too. When I heard about this, I thought about all the ways this could go wrong. Very wrong. A video session with a complete stranger to do what together? You know where I’m going. But of the 20 and counting work meetings I’ve had all of my work mates have been nothing but dedicated to getting their crap done. 

Jacobson has strict but friendly community guidelines. For some reason, it attracts similar people. Individuals who have work to do, who want to get it done and find it effective having someone working alongside them. 

A Typical Session 

At the start there’s a short but friendly introduction and declaration of what task or tasks each of you will work on. I often write mine in the chat box too. There’s usually some good luck wishes exchanged and then you’re off! 

I sometimes update the chat box when I’ve completed a task. But there’s no other talking. 

50 minutes later, a bell chimes. You check in: “How’d it go?” The answer may be “pretty slow” or it could be “great”. Doesn’t matter. You say goodbye. That’s it. Strange I know. But I can’t emphasize it enough how good this is for both my mental health and my productivity.

My Interview with Founder of Focusmate, Taylor Jacobson

I interviewed Taylor to hear from him how he would describe the sessions and the potential, though unintended, mental health benefits.

Mental Health Benefits I’ve Experienced

1.Combating Lethargy and No Energy:

The 50 minute length is long enough for me to get something done but not so long that I start to tire.

2. Reducing Isolation and Loneliness:

Working alongside a ‘live’ person reminds me that I’m not alone in our oh so very virtual world. The sessions aren’t for conversations, but the quick exchange of words at the start and the end of the call adds an encouraging human touch to my strong sense of isolation that creeps in when I’m beginning to feel depressed. Social contact has long been known to help alleviate depressive symptoms. See research at the end of this article.

3. Keeps me moving and out of bed (not to mention dressed and showered):

This may seem small – but in depression, getting out of bed and having a shower can feel monumental. Having committed to a specific time and to another person, I don’t want to let them down. The scheduled sessions motivate me to get up, get clean and honour my word. It’s only 50 minutes. I can show up for that and go back to bed if I want. But I haven’t yet. 

Note: It’s amazing – There’s no pressure to look marvelous or have awesome video quality. The objective is to show up and get one task done.

4. Teaches me Realistic Goal Setting and Sets Me Up for Success:

That brings me to the next reason I like Focusmate. It helps me set realistic goals and experience success. I’ve got 50 minutes. What task can I do in that time frame?  In order to create a little sense of success and help my lagging self-esteem, I aim to accomplish one or two very small tasks. When I accomplish it, I get evidence that counters all my negative self talk.

I go deeper into much of this, like realistic goal setting and strategies for a balanced life and mind in my workshop Creating Wellness and Reclaiming Self-Care.

Some Science Behind My Experience: 

According to an article in Medium, Patricia Arean, a professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at the University of Washington says: “People with major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder can find it difficult to motivate themselves because of what researchers call ‘cognitive burden’, when your brain is overloaded with distracting thoughts.” 2

I see this tool as a protective factor in preventing depression. Choosing to get up, keep my word and have a work session when I’d rather crawl back into bed is part of a DBT strategy called ‘the power of opposite action’. You take steps in the opposite direction that your depression is telling you to go. Despite your low mood, you still get on with your life and don’t let depression run your life. It’s a technique to help you change how you feel. 3

Research has shown consistently depressive symptoms can be alleviated by interventions that increase social support and contact. 4,5 

Some precautions: 

I suggest this is for those who noticed the warning signs of depression or mild depression. If you’re in a major depression this tool, I believe, wouldn’t be as helpful and could potentially backfire.

Research is needed: 

I have only my experience to go from and anecdotal experience from other users. Focused research needs to take place (sorry no pun intended) to determine if this is indeed true. 

Productive and Possibly Preventative

Focusmate can help us be more productive. But it may also alleviate mild depressive symptoms, act as a protective factor preventing depression from occurring at all, prevent relapse and improve our overall mental well-being. 

Whether you work at home or in an office, it could be a great asset. By increasing social contact, creating experiences of small achievements, and using the power of opposite action as described in DBT, Focusmate might be not just a productivity hack, but a recovery hack to add to our wellness toolbox.

© Victoria Maxwell


References

  1. Shout out to Marie Poulin of Oki Doki, who introduced me to this fab tool.
  2. Productivity Hacks Don’t Work When You Have Mental Illness https://elemental.medium.com/productivity-hacks-dont-work-when-you-have-mental-illness-4635239860c6 
  3. Opposite Action – Marsha M. Linehan https://vimeo.com/101373270 
  4. Feeling connected again: Interventions that increase social identification reduce depression symptoms in community and clinical settings https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0165032714000573 
  5. Social group memberships protect against future depression, alleviate depression symptoms and prevent depression relapse https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0277953613005194

September is fast approaching. In light of this, I thought it apropos to write a post regarding accommodations for students with mental health issues in a post secondary setting. 

Creating accommodations help students who have mental illness reach their academic potential. Whether you’re advocating for yourself, or helping to advocate for someone else here are points to keep in mind.

1. Accommodations are a right, but are negotiated.

2. Determine what changes would be most effective for your specific illness or illnesses. It may take some experimentation.

3. Role-play asking for the accommodations to gain confidence before actually requesting them.

 With few exceptions, teachers and schools are very amenable and experienced in accommodating students with disabilities. As part of the American Disabilities Act and the Canadian Human Rights Act, they have an obligation to fulfill reasonable accommodations requests.

Dr. Sarah Helm, Diversity and Inclusion expert, cites “according to the National Center for Education Statistics, individuals with depression, mental, emotional, or psychiatric conditions now represent approximately 24% of college students with disabilities and have become the largest cohort of post secondary students who identify having a disability” (Helm, 2012; NCES, 2009).

Despite this, fellow students and teachers still can lack understanding, sensitivity and patience. The more comfortable you are with your mental health needs the easier it will for you to communicate with teachers. In the classroom, you are not required to disclose what illnesses or disabilities you have. But you will need to be able to discuss what accommodations will be helpful. You can, if you choose, to disclose voluntarily. But that is a decision that is very personal, and should be made carefully.

There are both informal accommodations (strategies students can implement on their own) as well as ones that are formalized through disability services on campus. Two people with the same condition may not need the need the same classroom strategies. Here are a few examples of formal accommodations:

– Due date extensions

– Time extensions on exams

– Quiet and/or alone place for taking tests

– Ability to complete work at home

– Advance notice of course expectations

– Study buddy or academic coach

– Alternative forms for assignments

– Alternative types of study resources

– Pre-arranged breaks to get fresh air and move around

Dr. Helm explains “counseling centers and disability services offices have been increasing their level of support for students with psychiatric disabilities; yet despite these existing support structures, students are not seeking assistance from disability services offices due to fear of disclosure and the negative stigma” (Collins & Mowbray, 2005; Helm, 2012).

So it is imperative students with psychiatric disabilities understand they have a right to reasonable accommodation as well as protection from discrimination stemming from stigma. Colleges need to recognize that insidious stigmatizing attitudes towards those with mental illness have subtle yet far reaching ramifications. On-going dialogues about mental health and mental illness on campuses are crucial so stigma and it’s consequences are lessened. In doing so, students can be propelled from the fear of disclosure and requesting support to the freedom of accommodation and academic success.

 An excellent resource is the Higher Education Support Toolkit: Assisting Students with Psychiatric Disabilities from Boston University Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation.article continues after advertisement

© Victoria Maxwell


 References:

Helm, Sarah PhD Career Development Experiences and Employment Concerns of Job-Seeking Students with Psychiatric Disabilities PhD diss., University of Tennessee, 2012 http://trace.tennessee.edu/utk_graddiss/1304

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). (2009). 2007-2008 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS: 08). Computed by the Data Analysis System (DAS-T) Online Version 5.0 on June 29, 2009

Collins, M. E., & Mowbray, C. T. (2005). Higher education and psychiatric disabilities: National survey of campus disability services. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 75 (2), 304-315.


Last February I wrote the post “10 of My Favourite Quotes that I Live, Learn, and Love From”. I ended it with a call for readers to send in their go-to, must-remember, ever-inspiring quotes. And send them in you did!

Words can’t cure mental illness or alleviate stress, but they can make it more comfortable as the pain passes. Below you’ll find further hope-filled sentences helping us to breathe a little easier and guiding us when the path gets rough. Thanks to all of you who contributed! 

1.“Love conquers all (Amor Vincit Omnia).” – Roman poet Virgil; painted by Caravaggio; sung by Deep Purple (anonymous submission)


2. “The best way to overcome it [the fear of death]—so at least it seems to me—is to make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life. An individual human existence should be like a river: small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue. And if, with the decay of vitality, weariness increases, the thought of rest will not be unwelcome. I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done.”  – Bertrand Russel (submitted by Amir A.)


3. “Peace begins with a smile.” – Mother Teresa (anonymous submission)

4. “Bad things happen not to go through, but to grow through.”  – Prince EA (submitted by Terri L.)

5, “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” – EE Cummings (anonymous submission)


6. The Peace of Wild Things – a poem

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.  

– Wendell Berry (submitted by David G.) 


7. “Honor your future self with good habits.” – Terri Lawrence (submitted by Terri)

8. “I can tell you that whatever you are looking for is already inside you.” – Anne Lamont (submitted by Suzanne T.)

9. “To the bird, a nest; to the spider, a web; to man, friendship” –  William Blake (submitted by Shelley P.)

10. “If you wish to experience peace, provide peace for another.

If you wish to know that you are safe, cause another to know that they are safe.

If you wish to better understand seemingly incomprehensible things, help another to better understand.

If you wish to heal your own sadness or anger, seek to heal the sadness or anger of another.” – His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama (submitted by Roger S.)


11. “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift…which is why we call it the present.” ― Bill Keane (submitted by Sylvia P.

Keep those quotes coming! I love discovering new ones. Which ones of the above is your favourite? Enquiring minds want to know. Or at least this enquiring mind wants to know. 

© Victoria Maxwell