06/12/2014 09:28 am ET | Updated Mar 12, 2015

The Powerful Head Games Only Your Own Brain Can Play

By Leigh Newman

Here are the ways we silently -- and secretly -- discourage ourselves from doing the things that would make us the happiest.

  • 1. We focus on the positive.
    Axl Images via Getty Images
    This happens when we spend a lot of time thinking things like, "Our rent is half the market value for this neighborhood! We have free cable! We live in this supercool neighborhood with two parks!" In other words, you, and me, we convince ourselves how happy we are in our current situation (because we are grateful and we do want to be happy), so much so that we don't realize we could be even happier someplace else. Like someplace in a different supercool neighborhood but with equally inexpensive rent…and one more bedroom.
  • 2. We make up logical-yet-illogical rules.
    Joseph McNally via Getty Images
    Such as: If I earn this amount of money, I get to quit my job and paint beautiful strange flowers on glass. Or: If I don't eat six stuffed bagel-holes this morning, I get to quit my job and paint flower on glass. And when those somehow don't work out, we replace them with logical-yet-illogical laws. Such as: Only wildly talented, cool people get to paint flowers on glass. These laws are like gravity. They uphold the running of the universe and can't be broken. Until one day, we get a logical-yet-logical idea...and pick up a brush and start painting. Which, when you think about it, not only makes sense but also takes way less time.
  • 3) We call the correct wrong (or right) best friend.
    Hero Images via Getty Images
    Every best friend has a life-experience resume that you're intimately versed in. So when you are both dying to skydive -- and AFRAID!!! VERY AFRAID!!! -- of actually doing it, you dial up your acrophobic college roommate who will list every possible accident that might occur including a broken parachute and hitting your head on the wing of the airplane and falling for 500 feet to your death. Why we do this is a mystery. But the consequences of it can be rectified by calling your other friend, who has skydived five times, and who will text a photo of her flying in Hawaii with her arms outspread by a rainbow.
  • 4) We surrender to who we were.
    Constance Bannister Corp via Getty Images
    Most of us got to be the "fill-in-the-blank" one in our families. We were the funny one, the sad one, the crazy one, the bratty one, the one who ruined Christmas. Having grown up and moved away, we shed these historic roles. We've learned how to have a tough conversation with love, honesty and respect. We enjoy holidays and behave kindly to siblings when they call. And yet, when we want to do something wonderful, like move to Buenos Aires, we somehow revert in our old familial role. We make a joke about it, the way we used to about everything. "What would we do in Argentina?" we say, "Tango for a living?" And people chuckle -- confirming, yet again, this as a laughable idea. But moving to Argentina will probably produce actual laughter, as well as excitement and a few new fill-in-the-blank "ones" for the family to mull over. "Oh, her," they will say, "the happy one, the wild one, the one who does just what she wants."

Leigh Newman is the books editor of Oprah.com and the author of the memoir Still Points North.

Like Us On Facebook |
Follow Us On Twitter


  • I Can Negotiate with My Brain
    When it comes to sleep, I get eight hours a night. My insomniac friend Julie follows a more complex system, swearing that if she gets four hours per night over the course of the week, she can make up for the shortage by sleeping 12 hours on Saturday. I maintain that this does not count as adequate sleep. It turns out that science backs up my years of anecdotal research: A recent study suggests that "catching up" on sleep on the weekends doesn't actually work to reverse all the effects of mild sleep deprivation throughout the week. The real lie, however, is the bargaining process. We make so many of these bogus contracts with ourselves: "If I work really hard on this project, then I can drink the whole bottle of wine tonight." "If I run 3 miles, I can eat 3 pieces of salted-caramel apple pie.” (Well, I'm pretty sure that last one is true.) I know these back-and-forths feel like you're rewarding yourself, but remember what you already know: Your body is not your brain. It gets confused when you keep changing the rules.
  • Nobody Will Ever Love My Calves...Including Me
    Maybe you've never been a fan of your bulbous calves, so you've resigned yourself to a life of long pants. We all have parts of our bodies we don't like and have to figure out how to make peace with. (I used to work at a coffee shop with a fellow barista who hated her elbows so much she was sure they were distracting the world with their puckered ugliness.) But do these so-called flaws hold the key to our emotional futures? Listen to wise and wonderful Amy Poehler responding to a woman who says she feels that her body issues have kept her from finding a mate. Her advice: "Don't worry about finding love. There's a lid for every pot."
  • I Can Run a Marathon!
    Technically, you inhabit the same body now that you did in the 11th grade, when you could stay up all night, consume nothing but Mountain Dew and, after months of strict inactivity, run 6 miles straight. Then again, technically, you are also made of the carbon from billion-year-old stars. Actual earthly humans over the age of 20 can't just run four hours straight out of nowhere. Actual earthly humans over the age of 20 will be very sad when they tear tendons they didn't even know they had.
  • I Can't Run a Marathon!
    So you can't hop up and run for miles the way you once could. That's completely normal. That said, don't get discouraged because you start from zero and find yourself wheezing on the side of the running path, while toddlers stumble by faster than you can run. Yes, there are 99-year-olds and paralyzed people who complete marathons, but guess what? Every one of them trains. You obtain proper shoes, with the arch support becoming of a person your age. You start slow. You stretch. You hydrate. You alternate short runs and long runs, days on and days off. It takes some doing to get your body in shape for such a test of endurance. A marathon takes ENDURANCE. It's REALLY HARD. That's the whole point. Whether it's running a marathon or becoming a manager or making meringues, the last thing any of us needs is a resounding, internal can't. Because you can (if you train).
  • Loneliness is Mental
    Feeling lonely isn't just about your state of mind. It can affect your whole body and can lead to hardened arteries, high blood pressure, inflammation and problems with learning and memory, researchers have found. Isolation also affects the immune system, at times, creating a downward health spiral. Sure, you've told yourself you have to get out there and meet new people. But since that hasn't worked, let these potential medical side effects give you a friendly kick out the door. (And if that still doesn't work, try getting professional help. It's worth it.)
  • I Will Magically Know the Moment Right Before I Overtweeze
    I have no idea why there is not a 24-hour help hotline to call when you're considering cutting your own bangs or tweezing your own brows past 10:00 p.m. There ought to be. You think you've got it—okay, just one more—and then you step back and realize you've gone too far and, unfortunately, are not psychologically prepared for a life (or even a week) without eyebrows. Let me be clear: You not only will not know the moment to stop plucking, you also need a friend present to say "That's enough!"
  • I'm Too Antsy to Relax
    I am miserable at meditating. I can't get calm at the end of a yoga class when we lie down in the quiet room for shavasana (aka deep relaxation) because my brain buzzes at me about all the things I have to do that day, that week, that year, before I will have time to be calm... Perhaps yogic meditation is simply not right for me. Perhaps I would do better with a "walking meditation," or with a soothing mantra. Perhaps we can each find our own ways to slow our minds. Perhaps being calm is not, after all, a requirement for getting calm.
  • I Don't Have Time for a Mammogram
    It's not a bikini wax. It's not a haircut. It's not another errand. It's a mammogram. You do it even when you don't have time to do it.
  • I Don't Feel Bad, So That's Good
    So many of us deal with feelings of sadness—or vulnerability, or neediness—with a self-preserving technique that Brené Brown calls numbing. Numbing is a kind of armor that comes in many forms—food, drugs, gossip, social media—whatever way we choose to distract ourselves from feeling our painful emotions. A few generations ago, I think, numbing was simply a way of life. How many of us had grandfathers who wouldn't talk about war or bad marriage experiences, drinking quietly in the armchair instead? Now, we have even more choices. If I'm feeling disappointed by a professional failure, or even just suffering a general life malaise, I can sink into a Netflix drama, or lengthy Twitter exchange. Or...I can consult a certain all-too-relevant Seamus Heaney poem, which says: "The way we are living, timorous or bold, will have been our life." So don't numb out this day. That too easily becomes numbing out every day. Which will have been your life.