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Dr. Michael Gervais

404: Self-Talk, Mental Imagery, and Finding Joy | AMA Vol. 11

Today, we’re really excited to share the 10th installment of our Ask Me Anything (AMA) series!

The purpose behind these AMAs – is to hear from YOU and have conversations to explore the topics and questions that you have been wrestling with on your path to becoming.

The goal is to expand on the themes, lessons, and best-practices we’ve discussed on the Finding Mastery podcast in order to make them even more applicable to your own life.

We’re back with our favorite co-host—O’Neil Cespedes—and today, we cover some really interesting and insightful territory, including:

  • Where joy comes from (and the art of finding it, every day)
  • Why we must practice self-care
  • The intricacies of ADD and ADHD
  • Being a good friend to yourself
  • The nuances of narcissistic traits
  • The power of imagery and imagination
  • And so much more…


“How do we find the things that bring us alive? Start from within.”

In This Episode:

Where does joy come from? 

How do I find the things that bring me alive? Nothing outside of you can do that. Joy and happiness comes from the way that you experience and interpret experiences. And so it comes from within. So pleasure can happen from enjoying something externally, like buying something, like laughing from a joke from somebody, like whatever. Flipping through social media, there’s a pleasure stimulation. Good meal, whatever it might be. But joy and happiness comes from within, and so that’s kind of the first thing to bifurcate to make sure that we’re clear, that the work is to work from the inside out, and not think that the solution is going to come from something outside.

The importance of purpose

And I know in our last conversation we had we talked a lot about purpose, and just a quick reminder for Dara here is that, find something that matters and is bigger than you. And so it’s in service of something that is large and important. So this is where religion and spirituality can show up in meaningful ways for people, but it doesn’t have to be. But it’s been institutions that have done a nice job there for a lot of people, the majority of people find themselves fitting well in that structure. And then the second orientation is to give love, be in service to other people, and figure out how you can help them.

Taking care of yourself

I would start with some best practices for care. So when I am ripped around by the rapids of life and I feel like a wet dog trying to get to the shoreline, I know that I’m, been in it just a little too long and I haven’t been taking care of drying off and appreciating kind of high ground if you will. And so finding best practices for a high ground, and that can come from lots of different things. It can come from meditation, it can come from massage, it can come from enjoying sunsets, which I know is one of your favorite things to do. It can come from a lot of different directions. And so invest in self-care. There’s lots of literature on what some of those best practices are, and that can be something as small as five minutes upwards to an hour if we’re being pretty aggressive a day.

The personal benefit of helping others (O’Neil)

Because my mom, when I used to get depressed or go through things, my mom used to always tell me, go help somebody else. No lie, she’d be like, give money to homeless people, take them to dinner, just do something. And then through doing that, through being of service, you’ll find your way. You’ll eventually find your way because you’re not thinking about yourself, you’re being selfless. And through that you’ll find the magic and you’ll find your way. So I think I agree wholeheartedly with that.

Understanding ADD and ADHD

So attention deficit, and sometimes with hyperactivity, is that we have this funnel in our brain and this funnel basically is responsible for attuning to information. And if you think about the funnel being wide open and sometimes closing to narrow in, like if a gorilla ran in here right now or somebody ran in with a gun, we ought to have that funnel narrow down and pick up vital cues for survival.

And then it maybe needs to go wide again to figure out a solution. So it’s going back and forth on a regular basis for most people. People that have ADD or ADHD, the funnel stays wide open.

Underlying issues within ADD and ADHD

But I got a point I want to make about that. Is that 2.5 and upwards to 5% of adults have ADD or ADHD. And many adults do not seek treatment because they’re not sure what to do with it. Medication can work. And so this is a time where it’s important to attune to the value of some of these medications. And the point I want to make, though, is that one of the reasons this is such a high number across the United States, we don’t do anything, and I mean anything, to proactively teach attention, deep focus, concentration, shifting of attention.

Learning disabilities and skill gaps

So there’s a high potential, but there’s something choking off that potential. And we call that a learning disability. We can also, in sport, we think about high potential and there’s something that’s not allowing me to reach that potential as a skill gap. So one of the skill gaps, like I talked about, would be training deep focus. Another skill gap might be medication. And a third skill gap would be definitely working with the way that you speak to yourself. And so if nothing else from the last handful of years has been more apparent, is the relationship you have with yourself is really important.

Being a good friend to yourself

And so in simple little framing, is like, are you a good friend to yourself? And how do you know that? How do you treat yourself? How do you speak to yourself? How do you take care of yourself when it’s hard? How do you take care of yourself when you make a mistake? Do you have your back or you’re critiquing and judging, like those cold, timid souls judging the strong person in the arena? So I would say that I love this. I love this because it’s so true for anyone that has a gap between the person they want to be and then the way they show up on a regular basis, skills, medication, meditation might be one of the skills to develop, as well as being aware of the self-talk that you have with yourself.

Giving yourself grace

And Melissa, I want to speak right to you right now, is give yourself grace, give yourself a bit of a pass. Be kind to yourself in the way that you speak to yourself. And we’re all just trying to figure it out. And that’s both of us. So if I could kind of whisper that on a regular basis into you, it would be, I love that word grace. There’s a poise and a presence, and literally it means with God. And so give yourself that connection with God that we’re all just trying to figure it out. There’s no perfect, and keep being kind to yourself as you’re working on getting better.

NPD vs narcissistic traits

Let’s frame it first is that there is a difference between, as a psychologist when I hear that, there’s a difference between NPD, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and narcissistic qualities or traits. And so NPD, true narcissistic personality, is relatively rare, and it’s about 1%. And I’m going to check the data and I’ll put it in the show notes, but it’s about 1% of the US population, which is one in a hundred is not a huge number. However, and I want to give you some specific criteria. I’m looking that up right now to make sure I get the exact diagnostic and statistical manual criteria for diagnosis. But as you move into the ranks of certain populations, like sport or unicorn type entrepreneurship or multinational businesses and senior leaders and whatever, we might see it just a little bit more than the general population because there is a rewarding that takes place with these types of characteristics.

The nine traits of NPD

And so let me just kind of read some of the characteristics so we know that it’s a pervasive pattern, which is really important, of grandiosity, as we mentioned. And you need five of the following nine characteristics to meet the criteria. A grandiose sense of self-importance. Check. A preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love. Isn’t that interesting? And a preoccupation with fantasies, of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, and ideal love. That sounds closely to what we ask people to think about when they think about their best. Vision big. Shoot for the stars. Remember that part of our conversation?

… Big. Shoot for the stars. Remember that part of our conversation from earlier, from our last conversation? This fantasy of unlimited success is the problem. It’s unlimited. A belief that he or she is special and unique and can only be understood by, or should be associated with other special high status people or institutions. So if you don’t have status, you can’t possibly be around me. That’s where it becomes a badgering or a belittling of somebody who doesn’t present with power or status. They will make you feel as if you don’t matter, because the deepest part of the narcissistic personality trait is that it’s hard for them to tell the difference between you and themselves. You are an extension of them.

…Let me just to give a few more, just to be clear. A need for excessive admiration, a sense of entitlement, interpersonally explosive behavior, a lack of empathy, envy of others, or a belief that others are envious of him or her, a demonstration of arrogant or haughty behaviors or attitudes. You can see yourself in all of these. Right? I can see me in some of these, but it’s the pervasiveness of a handful of them that makes the criteria. Just to be clear, it’s five of the following nine criteria. We’ll put these in the show notes so people can go reference and take a look at them.

Dealing with NPD and setting boundaries

How do you deal with those types of people? You got to have clear boundaries and they will not like it. Clear boundaries is how you take care of yourself. You got to square up with an NPD and be like, “I like this shirt. Sorry, you don’t like it. It’s not your shirt. If that’s not okay with you, I don’t know, maybe we have a problem with it.” It’s eye contact and you square up and they will not like it. They will not want to be around you anymore. That type of clear boundaries and self-respect will change the relationship and the house of cards might fall apart.

Who do you want to work with?

When I get emails about how to start in the profession or how to get going, most of the emails are asking the wrong question. They’re not asking what I would consider to be the right question. Most are asking for tactics or strategy and they’re asking like, how do you work? What is the best path to be able to work with the best? I never wanted to work with the best. I wanted to work with people that were nearly or obsessed with something. They were fundamentally committed to getting better. I uniquely, I don’t know if this is true for other sport or performance psychologists, but I struggle with the patience of long therapy and I want to work with people that want to roll up their sleeves and go. I found a unique population of people that want to go. They want to go deep, they want to be honest. They want to apply the insights that happen in the conversation at practice the next day or that afternoon. Then they want to have a feedback loop about how it’s going. I love that part of it.

Do you really love the craft?

My wife took a real run at acting and she reached a place where she’s like, “I’m not sure if this is the right path anymore.” And super agent at the time said, “Do you really like to act?” She’s like, “Yeah, I love it. I love the art and the craft of it.” He said, “How come you’re not pursuing local theater stuff?” She’s like, “Yeah, that’s a cool question.” It’s a cool question. It was fun to wrestle that down with her and explore how do you answer that question? At that time, I answered the question for me as well, which is like, no, it’s a difference when you want to do it at the highest level versus wherever you could do it. Painting on the curb or the sidewalk as opposed to only painting for galleries. I don’t know what that metaphor might be, but so it’s a cool question and I respect that process to answer that question as well.

Should you burn the boats?

The way that I did it was I didn’t like that it felt like I was going to find myself in positions of desperation as opposed to positions of inspiration. What I did was, it’s a bit of a native image in my mind, a Native-American image, which is lots of horses. I’m riding one horse and I’ve got three or four other horses that are riding with me, but they’re empty that there’s no riders on them. I’m working to keep all of them moving in the same direction. Now, one of them, I’m pretty sure is going to be a thoroughbred or a Mustang that’s going to really go, I’m losing the analogy here a little bit, but so I’m keeping my pulse on the three, four, five different horses, the three or four or five different things that I’m doing. But they’re all kind of moving in that same direction of working from the inside out, psychology based.

That’s how it worked for me. I don’t understand burn the bridges, because for me, I knew that that would create a sense of desperation. And I’m not good in that. I’m not good enough coming from a sense of desperation. The last thing to answer this question is that maybe I can pass on this fundamental mistake I made is I was giving it away a lot early.

Productive self talk or driving all your attention to the task

Celebrate when you catch that you’re speaking to yourself in a way that’s not serving you. And see if you can flip the script, see if you can work with it. And one way to work with it is to find a new narrative, a new way of speaking to yourself. Another option in the positive or productive direction is to go, “That’s cool. Let me just drive all of my attention to the task.” So I’m not going to prop myself up or do any self narrative, self-talk stuff, but I’m going to give myself completely to the task at hand because we can only attend to one thing at a time. Whatever that one thing is, it occupies the attentional abilities that we have. So if you’re pouring all of your attention into the task that you’re trying to solve or do, that’s awesome, that’s essentially where we want to go.

Visualization and speaking things into existence (O’Neil)

…what I did was I wrote down every great thing that I wanted to do and who I wanted to become. I put it in my notes section in my phone, and every morning when I wake up, every morning when I wake up, I would look at it so much to the point now that I can recite it off the top of my head and I say it every morning when I get up. But I used to say it mindlessly because I thought, “Let me just say it and it’ll happen because you speak things into existence.” And at one point I realize that I can’t only just say this, but I have to visually see it. I have to see it happening. And I would go through the list, part of my list I would say, “I want a Frank Lloyd Wright home overlooking Silver Lake Reservoir.” So then I would ride past the reservoir and look at Frank Lloyd Wright homes.

I want a loft in New York City. I’m looking up lofts in New York City, and I’m staring at them. I’m visualizing lofts in New York City and me sitting in the loft, and I started to understand that, “I need to really see these things.” And slowly and surely not the loft of Frank Lloyd Wright home yet, but other things on the list started happening. So much so I didn’t realize that I was asking for them anymore. They just started happening. And one day I was driving in my car and I looked at the list and I was like, “Oh my God, I asked for this car on my list.” Crossed that off. “Oh my God, I asked for this on my list.” Cross that off. And I found those things just happening because I made it a part of who I am. That really works. At first I thought it was crazy, but that really works.

Imagery in sports psychology

Imagery though, let me just go back to imagery. Imagery in sports psychology is a very powerful tool, and it’s one that’s under practiced and maybe not well understood, but when we see ourselves doing something in the future, when we see ourselves doing something well, there is research that would suggest that not only does that help lay neurological paths and tracks to be expert at something, if you’re seeing yourself being an expert, meaning when you take a jump shot, tuck your elbow, snap your wrist, see the ball, go in and do that over and over and over again in your mind, you’re not spending physical energy, you’re also doing it, quote, unquote, “ideally.” And so your elbow is not drifting out, it’s staying grooved in a pattern. And Geno Smith, he’s the starting quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks, talks a lot about that, about mental imagery in our episode of being able to see it beforehand.

Understanding myelinization and imagery

So when you use this radical power of imagination and you harness it for something that matters to you in a meaningful way in the future, we start to lay neurological pathways so our body becomes more familiar with it, so we’re likely to do that action well in the future. And the second thing we found is that it also supports myelinization. Myelinization is like the fat that surrounds the bundle of nerves. And it’s a little bit like the rubber coating or tubing on an electrical wire. Your nervous system is like an electrical wire, and the more fat and tubing you have around that, the faster that impulse travels through the nerve. Imagine if you had a wire in your home and it had a bunch of holes in the rubber protective sheath, that electrical impulse would spray out. And it’s not going to shock you, but it’s not efficient.

And so imagery has been associated with increasing the myelinization process around the bundle of nerves that are associated with excellent movement. Think about that. That is incredible. When you see it, you’re laying neurological pathway and you’re also increasing the bundling and the fat tissue around the nerve called myelinization. This is also why, as I’m on a little tirade here, this is also why making sure your diet supports the substrate of myelinization, which is omegas, omega oils, fish oils, omega-3 in particular, that that is one of the main makings of myelinization.

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