Bikes. Oh the places I go with bikes.

I have a couple of high school friends to thank for getting me on a mountain bike, and for an early introduction to the concept of just getting on with it. As a kid I had pad asthma, so sports were something from which I was sheltered. When I started mountain biking with friends, we had a lot of fun, and I saw I was able to push myself harder and further than I had thought possible.

Pretty quickly, bikes turned into a key aspect of my life. I ended up taking a job as a bike mechanic at a shop. I built trails both on a volunteer and paid basis. I travelled through eastern Africa and Europe working as staff on bicycle tours. I started writing about bikes and riders, and occasionally shooting photos of bikes. I went back to South Africa for more bike fun. I covered cycling for the London 2012 Olympics, and Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games. I’ve developed my life around this core of cycling.

And somewhere along the line I got discouraged and more or less stopped riding.

In fact, it’s happened a couple of times. In the first instance, I bought a new bike and used the whole “I have fancy new gear,” thing to kickstart my interest again. I couldn’t really afford the bike at the time, but bought it anyway.

More recently, I haven’t been willing to make so rash a decision, so I’ve made things fresh by switching to flat pedals after 17 years of riding clipped in. It’s actually made some of the old challenges easier, while adding in a fun new element that makes things feel like a fresh start.

I also took part in the Quebec Singletrack Experience – a seven-day stage race on trail networks surrounding Quebec City. I went in underprepared, and basically rode myself into shape. I was forced to do distances and elevations that seemed wildly out of reach. But I made it to the end of every stage, and rode some amazing trails. I met some great people and had a lot of fun. At the end of each hard day, I felt more and more like I belong on a bike, like I can legitimately call myself a rider.

That same week, I got some horrible news that a friend had taken his own life earlier in the week. He and I had loose plans to ride in August or September. He was also a person who was there for me when I needed it, though his help went unrecognized.

The next two days of riding in Quebec went at a snail’s pace. At what would normally have been moderate speeds, I was making dangerous mistakes because I was thinking about my friend instead of the riding. After nearly going headfirst into a rock garden, I realized I needed a time out. I slowed down, and soft pedalled everything while I looked to refocus on the riding. The focus came in fits and starts, and then would vanish again. Finally, on the last day of riding, it came together. It wasn’t the best riding I’ve ever done, but was great to push a little and have some fun.

The last few days, I’ve gotten out for a couple of rides, and have found greater endurance and skill than even just a few weeks ago. I’m having fun again, and it shows. After riding on Monday with Marc, he texted to say, “glad to see you smiling at the end. You rode great.”

It’s easy to get hung up looking at the roots and rocks right in front of you on the trail. You loose momentum, and falter. You can start to doubt yourself. But take a longer view, keep pedalling, let the bike run, and soon enough, you’ll find you’ve gone a long way through some difficult obstacles.

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What is my value?

What is my value? To different people, I am sure I carry different value. It’s only natural that my members of my family will see my value differently than each other, as will co-workers, friends, acquaintances. And I can learn something from each one of them.

Because a challenge I face is knowing my own value. I’m usually wrong, and almost exclusively by undervaluing myself.

I suppose some of this is rooted in my childhood – as so many things seem to be. My father would often tell me I was wrong, that I didn’t know what I was doing, that he needed to take over to fix things. I was disempowered from trying things myself, and when I did try, I was often labeled a screw up. He would say “I’ve been on this planet longer than you have,” which not only knocked down any ideas I had, but showed me that thanks to the currently linear perception of time, I could NEVER come up with better ideas than he could.

Now, I’m sure there were probably moments where he didn’t treat me this way, but I can’t recall any. He would praise me in public for my efforts only to tell me privately that he’d had to fix what I’d done. I came out of that feeling like I had very little value, unless it was in how I served others so long as I didn’t worry about my own needs.

As a writer, I enjoy telling stories, but to be honest, there was a period where I enjoyed the prestige of writing for a variety of outlets. In some respects, that was a good motivator. I’ve written for the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, a few nationally distributed magazines, ESPN, TSN, and covered three Olympic Games. The prestige of having my name attached to these projects was at least some of the appeal, and I’m proud that I was able to achieve such things (even if some of my old writing makes me want to hide forever).

But that world of writing has a pretty funny way of cutting you down. There’s an element of your worth being only at best what your most recent project was. Go too long without a project and you become irrelevant. Of course, in the crash of the newspaper and media business models, landing work in big name outlets became harder and harder. As newsrooms downsized, the freelance market was flooded with experienced writers who had strong relationships with editors on one side of me, and exposure hungry new talent willing to work for next to nothing on the other.

I’m not suggesting this was unfair. It’s just the way things have been, and so I have been creative in trying to cobble together work, and mostly it’s been great. I wouldn’t change it. But when you get one rejection after another, or worse, no response at all, it can be hard to keep motivated.

Further still, rates for most outlets haven’t changed in 15 years. Again, that’s where things are at for those businesses. I just don’t know very many people that would stick out a job without getting a raise for 15 years.

Even the last full time job I had provided no raise over the four and a half years I worked there. I wasn’t too fussed because I have built up my own business, but then on the other hand, why the hell should I have to be subsidizing my own employer by doing work on the side just because they don’t want to give me a raise?

Anyhow, one of the many remarkable things that has come out of this project has been the support that’s been offered to me, and hearing what people value in me. I can very easily mentally run myself into a black hole thinking negative thoughts about my own value, and it’s crippling. Last year, when I was breaking down, I wasn’t showing up – literally or figuratively – in any aspect of my life. I lost one client altogether, and damaged my relationships with two others. Financially, that experience cost me $10,000.

I’m picking up new clients and new projects that are showing me that I do have value, and at least one of them knows that while they’re getting a deal on the current project, the next one will be at a much higher fee, and still be well worth it. Which is great.

I’ve been given some good tips by my therapist as well.

1. Write down what thoughts I have when I am feeling down.
2. Look for patterns.
3. Write down my thoughts when I feel good.
4. Look for patterns.
5. Write down all the things I have accomplished, so my focus isn’t only on what remains to be done.

With these five practices, I am learning what patterns and thoughts lead to negative feelings, and which contribute to positive feelings. Sometimes the same subjects lead to negative or positive feelings based on my own perspective, which is a great lesson. By writing what I have accomplished constantly leaves me feeling impressed and more capable than when I am focused on what remains to be done. Also, very helpful. Even if good mental health isn’t a challenge for you, I bet this practice might be of help. Let me know.

So I’m going to ask something of each of you reading this. If we’re ever talking, and you get the sense I am devaluing myself, don’t let me get away with it. I’ve got a lot to be proud of, and my life and value aren’t measured solely by what I have done most recently, because the kind of work I am doing now would never have been possible without the wealth of experience I have built up in my life as an adult.

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The Rebuild

I’ve been told that life has a way of giving you what you need, rather than what you want. Put another way, when you need to make changes, life makes you increasingly uncomfortable until you’re forced to make some kind of change.

I guess.

I have a hard time accepting what seems like a pretty fatalistic point of view. But I can say this, based on my experience in various athletic or performance pursuits. Where a bit of aggression can boost performance on a bike, on skis or in a race car, in other ways, it just never works.

Last summer I started to really develop whitewater paddling skills. I took a course in early August after spending most of the season fighting and trying to add power to get through rapids. The problem is that there’s no person in the world strong enough to overpower a river. Much like life, the only way to get where you want to go on a river is to make a plan, set some goals, and work with the currents to get where you want to go.

It’s been a long time since I last set some big goals for myself, and more recent goals had been too dependent on others, reducing my own agency over my life. Right now, a big part of what I am trying to do is develop new goals. I’ve actually written down six key goals, and some I’ve already accomplished, while others seem far away. But no matter how close or far they seem to be, having something to aim for is helping to guide my decisions in the short term.

These mid-term goals and the short-term decisions they guide are part of a rebuilding process. A few years ago, I had lofty dreams but wasn’t really conscious of how to get there, and so a lot of the foundational work wasn’t in place. I probably seemed a bit like a dreamer who had his head in the clouds. Stripping things down to the basics, and rebuilding in a way that allows these goals to be reached is the process I am now working on.

Many who know me know that I tend to question a great number of things in life. That’s both positive and negative. Right now, it’s a positive trait that allows me to cut down and evaluate the conceptions by which I’ve lived by for the last few years. I’ve found some incongruities, and confirmed some other facets of my life as key to who I am and what I want.

The downside of my tendency to question everything is that I implant doubts about my abilities. There’s a lot more about my life experience that predisposes me to doubt myself, or devalue what I have to offer. It’s frustrating, and is one of my biggest hurdles.

Part of this rebuilding process has been meeting new people, and hearing about new first impressions. It’s been great because people have told me I’m more capable than I think. This isn’t just about feeding an ego, but there’s no question that doing that is helping me step up and improve my life. It’s so easy to feel like feeding ego is a selfish or narcissistic act, but ego is also important in developing confidence.

And it’s not just new connections that are fuelling this. As I have started to open up about my experiences, and what I want to accomplish in my life, there are some amazing personal and professional relationships where people are stepping forward to tell me just how capable they see me to be. And that’s great, and in some ways far more valuable than those new first impressions.

You see, the first impressions help in providing fresh perspective without the baggage of a longer term friendship or professional relationship. The views offered up by those long-term relationships powerfully validate those fresh perspectives with the weight of long-term experience. I know that these views stem from years of other’s knowledge of me. It’s proof that for all my self-doubts, I am more powerful than I give myself credit for being.

Connections new and old are also stepping up with support to help me reach those goals. One of my new client says if you tell people you have a goal you want to accomplish, just watch how the world will come together to make that happen. I’m starting to see that happen, and it’s fascinating.

I’m still working to accept all of this, but as I do, I’m casting a far bigger net in terms of what goals I can set, and what I can accomplish. I’m learning what to leave behind, and what to bring back into my life. Most of all, I’m focused on goals and processes that get them done, instead of floating around in dreamland.

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Why and How to Burn Bridges

Fire

For most of my life I’ve been told not to burn bridges, that I never know where life may lead , or who I may encounter down the road. The sentiment is valid, and Ive given the same advice to friends and family on occasion.

Recently though, I have come to realize the value of running against that advice. There are situations where burning a bridge is the best course of action someone can take. The trick is knowing why and how to burn a bridge. I’m not saying this advice is something you as a reader should follow. As with anything I post here, these are my thoughts, and they seem to work for me right now.

There are poisonous people in this world. The kind of people who categorically make you life worse by adding stress, drama, and the wrong kind of uncertainty to your life. Some of them don’t mean to do so. Maybe they have their own bad stuff going on and it spills over into their relationship with you. That happens, and in the short term, I believe it’s important to support people as they try to navigate life.

However, there are some that can’t or won’t get beyond this problem behaviour. And so I reach a tipping point where instead of feeling sympathetic and gracious, I’m more inclined to run towards the scene – perhaps a little too gleefully – with any manner of incendiary products, looking to create a scorched earth from which something more healthy can grow.

I’ve only ever felt this way with two people in my life. One of them is my dad, and while I often want to burn that to the ground, I also carry fire extinguishers. For every thing he and I have been through, there’s enough narratives out there about estranged fathers and sons that I’m half tempted to keep him in my life in a very limited way, on the off chance he’ll grow up and take some self responsibility before he dies.

The other person is someone who has displayed time and again key traits of narcissism. They are manipulative, a liar, and a user. They used me to lie to and manipulate their own family, and I watched as they lied to and manipulated some of our mutual friends. It was the kind of a situation where once I opened my eyes and really saw this behaviour, friends pointed out that I dodged a bullet by cutting that person out of my life. I see it more as dodging a hail of gunfire. But I like hyperbolic metaphor.

I don’t hate this person. Far from it. In some ways, I feel bad for them, knowing that this behaviour is rooted in a whole lot of self loathing, and that unless they figure out how to turn this all around, they’re going to live a pretty miserable life.

However, I also know that how I received their actions tore me to pieces. I was so broken by what transpired that I felt entirely hopeless, and life just wasn’t ever going to be worth it. There were other things that contributed to feeling depressed, but this stuff pushed me so far down that I am not entirely sure I would still be here were it not for a few really good friends. PLEASE NOTE: I AM ACTUALLY IN A VERY GOOD PLACE NOW.

What I ended up with was a realization that I had a lot more power than I thought. As soon as I cut off interaction, this person started coming to me, saying nice things and trying to worm their way into my life. The more I pushed away and drew boundaries, the more they tried to get closer. It was then that I knew really, this wasn’t actually a bridge.

Bridges connect. They run two ways (most of the time). They’re stable and supportive.

The relationships I’ve described above are none of these things. Perhaps then I am cheating in that I’m not really burning bridges, but rather something else. But whatever it is, I know that neither of those contribute to my life in any positive fashion, and so why even have them? Why not make room for better people?

Here’s the nuts and bolts of my approach.

1. Cut off any interaction as completely as possible. In both cases, there were circumstances that meant I couldn’t entirely cut them out of my life. What I did though was stop responding to any social interaction completely.

2. When getting push back from them at the separation, I have a tendency to respond with mild levels of aggression in the form of language typically reserved for the most salty of Tarantino movies. An aloof ambivalence has also been a key part of my toolkit. At first, I found that simply ignoring wasn’t enough to shed the dead weight these people brought to my life, hence my responding in ways meant to make them feel shitty. I know, not the most enlightened approach, but being calm and cool wasn’t getting the job done. Repeated, hearty “Fuck Off”s became necessary.

These two points helped me initially, but if that were all I did, these people would still – as one friend described it – be “living rent-free in my brain.” So create the boundaries for sure, but don’t stand guard forever.

3. Getting on with the best parts of my life feed my soul and get me back to the person I know I am. So spending time with Bryson (even when he rolls in a dead porcupine) and riding bikes and reading good books all are wonderful things to savour.

4. Open up. As you’ve learned in this blog, I’m doing that with professional help, but I am also doing that with friends who I’d fallen away from. It feels pretty good. Instead of getting frustrated by a shitty bridge, I’m arriving at others to find them in better shape than I thought, with my friend standing waiting to walk across with me.

5. Recognize that this is a long process. This morning, I woke up from a bad dream where this person was once again trying to auger into my life. I’m sure there’s all manner of theories out there that this carries some significance. For me, it’s just a sign that there’s still a couple of glowing embers. That’s ok.

You may be in a situation that is similar, or you may know someone in a similar situation. Be sure you’re actually looking at a fully functional bridge. If you are, maybe it needs repair. But maybe it’s not a bridge at all. In which case, consider burning it to the ground, and make room for something better.

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Progress vs Perfection

If my life were a title fight night in Vegas, this would be the main event. Nearly every hurdle I have had to face typically comes in the form of a perception of perfection. I want the perfect turn of phrase in an article. I want to feel I am perfectly fit before I will commit to entering a race. I want to have the perfect setup before I go camping. I want to have the perfect moment come along before I am ready to take action.

Each of these is something of an extreme, but every single one of these examples has hung me up in the past.

I’ve written too many articles to count in my career, and a portion of these are late because I am busy trying to make them perfect. Most editors have learned this behaviour and are probably giving me earlier deadlines to compensate, and I get feedback that my work is among the cleanest and best they receive. But I bet we’d all be happier if I hit every single deadline, every time.

I once wrote a car review for the Wheels section of the Toronto Star, about the Mitsubishi EVO X. In it, I used the word “perfect.” Naturally, my editor replied to let me know that no car is ever perfect, nor should be described as such since next year, once improvements are made, then what is the car? Beyond perfect? That’s impossible. And the EVO was far from perfect. The rear seats were an afterthought covered in fabric; the aux input for the stereo came in the form of a pair of RCA jacks; the fuel economy display displayed information so terrifying I selected a different in-dash info display and pretended the car ran on hopes and dreams.

And yet, the EVO is an incredible car.

I’m sure the engineers and designers at Misubishi knew there were things that could be improved, but the back seats, stereo, and fuel economy were not (should not be) priorities in that kind of car. Instead, they created a turbocharged, all-wheel-drive, modern incarnation of a muscle car. It was exactly what it needed to be.

Now, if you haven’t been feeling too hit over the head by my use of a car as a vehicle for metaphor, allow me to finish the job.

What the auto industry does – and most industry – is recognize that testing and iteration is how to improve. Instead of hiding in seclusion trying to dream up some ideal, they release cars. Some get panned, some get accepted and others get lauded. They learn the lessons, and they apply those lessons to future designs. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is changing. Known competitors fall away, others rise to the surface. Consumer tastes shift. Everything changes. So the perfect car two years ago might seem out of touch next year.

What helped me in my writing was the crucible of live event coverage. There are no deadlines except “right now.” Often, there are no editors, so no second eyes to look over my work. In the case of each Olympic Games I have covered, there’s millions of eyeballs waiting to read what I post on the site. And they can’t wait. So neither can I.

What I learned from those experiences is the following. Mistakes can be fixed. Some people will be offended no matter what you do. Things change (In Vancouver 2010, the iPad wasn’t on the market, but by London, we were designing for it).

And also…

My best efforts in any given moment are often much better than I think, and sometimes much better than most people could do. Truly, very few people actually expect perfection.

The only way I could have developed those skills is through practice. Through giving up on the idea of “perfect,” and knowing that progress and practice gets us closer to our best.

Why do I fall down on this? That’s a question my therapist and I discuss in almost every meeting. But here are a few observations.

Perfection is an excuse. It really is. If I am waiting for perfection before I file a story or enter a race, then I’ll never have to do either one. We’ve all said something along the lines of, “Well, I’d like to do that thing, but timing just isn’t perfect right now.” It’s a cop-out. Because timing will never be perfect, so you will never actually have to follow through on whatever it was.

Perfection is singular to an individual. I have an event I’d like to run, and my natural tendency is to want to work out every single detail in exactly the right fashion. However, my perfect is unlikely to line up with any other person’s version of perfect, so all that planning will actually to rigidly define the event away from what might make it perfect for others.

Perfection is too late. By the time you’ve done the research, made the plans and launched whatever your effort happens to be, things have changed, and the perfect you were planning for no longer exists. Whoops.

Perfection gets in the way of happiness. Perfection a lens made for seeing the faults in something. IN seeking perfection, we tune ourselves to find any imperfection and remove it. We are not looking at the strongest points of an excellent thing, but at the faults that keep it from being 100% perfect. We miss all the good things. Taking an objective view, that’s idiotic.

I’m a long way from accepting the reality that perfection is a siren song. I still want to follow that voice, but I am learning, first in my writing, followed by other aspects of my life, that perfection isn’t helpful to me in any way, and stands directly in the way of my own progress.

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Expecting…

Or…The trouble with expectations

This one’s a biggie for me. I’m someone who sees potential in many situations. I can develop mental images of the success or happiness that comes from heading down certain paths. It’s perhaps an optimistic view of the world, but it has its faults.

Seeing potential helps me set goals and identify the paths to those goals. However, I can get so invested in the goal itself that I develop expectations even though I have missed a step or two. Then, when a goal is not realized, the accompanying expectations are not met, and I am hit hard with frustrations of my own making.

I’m still working to figure out a way to change this level of mental and emotional investment, without becoming ambivalent, cold, or hopeless. Here are a couple of things I am trying to varying degrees of success.

1. Take the long view – measuring success or failure can make the difference in how I feel about wherever I am at any given point. When I feel weak, I see only the most immediate situation without appreciating all of what has happened in that thread of my life. Bad moments are amplified and make me feel worse unless I look at the longer term. Thankfully I am mostly smart and emotionally capable enough that the threads of my life are generally positive. The bad ones have been cut long ago. Looking over the longer term helps me recognize that while something might be rough right now, in this moment, that challenge is only just now, in this moment, and not reflective of longer trends.

2. Remember it’s a process – Taking the time to remember life is a process has been a big help. There’s only one end point (death), and the rest is all the process of getting there (how we choose to live). Goals can have a way of creating target fixation that leads directly to having expectations. So while goals can be helpful, it’s important to remember that we don’t get there without first putting in the time in the process. When I do this right, the goals almost seem like a byproduct of the process. And by embracing the process, a funny thing happens to the challenges and roadblocks I hit. They become a vital part of the learning process, without which, I would not develop as far as I can when facing adversity.

3. Start where you are – This one is hard. Really hard. From an athletic standpoint, I had my greatest aerobic fitness ten years ago. I rode 11,000kms in the span of 12 months, and for years afterwards felt like I still had some sort of residual fitness. Last year, I hardly rode. I was living in Palmer Rapids where the closest trails were a 90 minute drive from home – and call me spoiled – weren’t that great compared to most places I have ridden. I wasn’t as fit as the guys I was riding with, constantly near the back of the group, catching them at a rest spot just in time for them to get rolling again. I’d often head home demoralized and totally gassed. But I needed to take a look at where I was. Every week I rode with the fastest group. Even if I was near the tail of that pack, I wasn’t always last. When things got technical and the importance of skills rose above that of fitness, I’d move up. On one techy downhill, I set a personal best that cracked the overall top ten on Strava, ahead of some of the “faster” riders in the group. Yes, I wasn’t as fit, largely because I didn’t enjoy the riding close to home and so wasn’t inspired. But I was really good in other places. I’m learning to pay attention to where I am as a whole, not just in one small and perhaps disappointing aspect of my life.

4. Recognizing the reach of my influence – Some stuff is just beyond our control. I dislike acknowledging that point, but I know it’s true. I just happen to really like the concept of autonomy, and the capacity to exercise free will. Whenever someone’s free will is infringed, I am deeply impacted. This point really just comes down to acceptance. Which is not the same as agreement, or what might be preferred. It’s just the way things are. At least right now. By remembering to take the long view, and focusing on the process, this acceptance thing becomes easier.

I’ve read you should never have expectations, but that has never felt quite right to me. Sure, expecting an outcome might come across as cocky when compared to hoping for an outcome. I prefer to view it as having confidence in my abilities to reach a goal. If that confidence is well-founded, then expectations are probably aligned with what I can achieve.

The techniques above help me make sure that confidence is well founded, and when I am clear and calm, it’s pretty easy to walk that line and maintain a healthy set of expectations. Other days, I fall apart on this. But that’s ok, it’s an expected part of the process, right?

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On Resilience and Recovery

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” – Ernest Hemingway

It’s a fun quote, and there’s truth to it in that the most compelling writing comes from deep within, and is part of the writer.

But there’s also a good bit of unhealthy bravado in this. Not shocking considering the source, and in his time, this was probably the rollicking macho kind of sentiment that fit in. But we’re not there anymore.

Research shows that enduring isn’t what makes a person resilient. The Harvard Business Review published an article that drives right to this point, discussing the research-backed lessons concerning resilience. The reality is that pushing harder – pulling all-nighters, or at least long days – really results in lesser outcomes, and lost productivity.

In the context of the HBR, the argument is largely a business one, but it just as readily applies to the world of sport. Many athletes I have interviewed talk a great deal about the importance of recovery. Instagram posts are as often showing down time as they show workouts. Without these breaks, our bodies and minds can’t recover from the strain of struggling against whatever stands in our way.

Yet we’re still stuck in a society where we are rewarded for putting in massive efforts without breaks. We feel guilt when taking time away from our desks, families, friends, because our dedication is supposed to fuel us through the tough spots. And it will, at least for a short while. But eventually the resources spent cannot be recouped, and we’re left a shell of our best selves. At that point, we’re no good to anyone – employers, family, partners, friends.

So it becomes a personal responsibility to take the time to recharge in whatever way best suits us.

Last year, I read Quiet, by Susan Cain. I’ve never read a book like it. From the first chapter, I had this uncanny feeling the book was written about me. Covering off the concept of introversion in an increasingly public and social world, the book suddenly helped me understand why I don’t recharge in large groups or loud places. It shifted my understanding of introversion from a trait of wanting to be alone to one of finding peace in quiet and intimate settings.

I’ve long been bugged for being a “Maybe” to most facebook invites I receive. Now I can better articulate why that has been my RSVP of choice. Large social events or even smaller ones where I feel disconnected from other participants are exceptionally tiring for me. So I avoid them. It’s a paradox. I can be exceptionally strong, but in the wrong setting, I can end up entirely depleted.

Just as our bodies respond to overwork by manifesting strains and overuse injuries, our minds and emotions can become overwhelmed by the wrong sort of use. We can either choose to try to endure and keep pushing, or we can recognize there’s always another way, and sometimes we just need some time to refresh.

This isn’t a topic that has specifically come up in my therapy – though I am sure at some point it will. For now, It’s one more piece in better understanding how I exist and behave in this world, and equally important, what those around me may need when they are overwhelmed.

Check out the Quiet Revolution to find out more about the Introversion to Extroversion spectrum, see where you might fit in, and develop your skills for understanding other parts of the spectrum. I get no benefit from this recommendation except perhaps being better understood by you. Which would be great.

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