SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient - Powered by the Science of Games - Jane McGonigal (2015)
Part 2. How to Be Gameful
Chapter 7. Bad Guys
How to Be Gameful Rule 3
Find and battle the bad guys—anything that blocks your progress or causes you anxiety, pain, or distress.
We all know how bad guys work in video games—they’re the obstacles that force us to be creative and clever, like the relentless chocolate fountains that block our moves in Candy Crush Saga. They require us to try harder and jump higher, like the ubiquitous turtles we have to avoid in Super Mario Bros. The really tough bad guys might prompt us to call in a friend for advice or a little backup. (Which first-time Minecraft player hasn’t needed some help figuring out how to avoid those pesky creepers?) Many nondigital games have bad guys, too, even if we don’t call them that: the sand traps in golf, for example, or defenders in basketball, or the letter J in Scrabble.
Bad guys in everyday life work just the same way—they make things tougher on us. But in making it harder for us to achieve our goals, bad guys also help us develop skills and strategies that ultimately make us smarter, stronger, and faster—so we can achieve bigger goals in the future.
That’s why we battle bad guys: to get better. As the poet T. S. Eliot famously wrote, “If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?”
This is not just a feel-good sentiment—it is a validated, scientific finding. In order to become happier or healthier, we need what researchers call psychological flexibility: the courage to face things that are hard for us. We must be open to failure and negative experiences—not just in games but in everyday life. We must know when to retreat and regroup, until we feel ready to try again.
Living gamefully helps you develop this flexibility. SuperBetter players have battled more than half a million real-life bad guys. And according to our data, SuperBetter players feel better—stronger, happier, more confident, and more optimistic—after reporting a battle, whether they win or lose.
Here are just a few of the real-life bad guys battled by SuperBetter players:
“Mrs. Volcano. She erupts inside of me and makes me yell horrible things at my little children and husband who I adore to bits.”
“The Elevator Sirens. They call to me seductively whenever I’m trying to be more active and take the stairs. They say, ‘You deserve a nice relaxing ride, come to me, come to me.’”
“Lord Impossibility. If I plan anything good, he comes and tells me it’s impossible. ‘You’re not good enough, you have no luck, it’s too difficult, you don’t have enough money, you never completed any of your plans, you’re quitting everything as soon as it calls for diligence. Look around you, can you see any people who can do it? Well, you can, but they are healthier, richer, smarter, younger, older than you, etc.’”
“My Four Devil Foods: pizza, soda, marshmallows, and hot chocolate. It feels really liberating to not worry so much about all the food in the world that I shouldn’t eat, and just work on battling the four big ones. I already took a Sharpie to the marshmallow bag and drew a scary face on it. Next time I really want a piece of fluffy sugar junk, I will be faced with a terrible monster that I must destroy . . . by not eating it.”
“The Regret Parade, in which all the things that I have done in my life that I regret scroll past at random, in my head.”
“The Late Night Computersaur and the Late Night TV-saur. These guys are tough. Not only do they strike at night, when I’m most vulnerable to the onslaught of distraction, but they can also battle for several hours at a time. You know they are close when you smell the distinct odor of Netflix and XBox.”
“The Sad Nap. That’s when I go to bed in the middle of the day because I’m bored or depressed, not because I’m actually tired. They tend to last a long time, and they screw with my sleep later on, which starts a Sad Nap cycle that’s hard to get out of.”
“The Pain That Doesn’t Go Away. I have rheumatoid arthritis that is very difficult to treat. For me, defeating this bad guy doesn’t involve making the pain go away, because it hardly ever does. Instead, it means making the day manageable and not using the pain as an excuse to be unhappy.”
“Snuff the Tragic Dragon. This is basically just self-pity. But guess what? It’s not a big, powerful monster. It’s ridiculous, and I can laugh at it.”
As you can see, there are all kinds of bad guys: mental, emotional, physical, and social. They can be counterproductive thoughts or bad habits (mental); unpleasant emotions that zap your energy, focus, or motivation (emotional); actions that make you feel unwell, or symptoms that cause you pain or limit your activity (physical); or negative ways of interacting with others that make it harder for you to find and keep allies (social).
In short, a real-life bad guy is anything that tries to stop you from doing what you want or need to do to get superbetter. Spotting a bad guy means identifying it as a potential source of trouble or distress. Battling a bad guy means experimenting with different strategies for dealing with it effectively. Succeeding in battle means not letting it stop you from having a good day or making progress toward your goals.
You’ll notice that in all the examples above, the bad guys have names that are worthy of a truly legendary foe. It isn’t necessary to get this creative, but it can help you spot and battle the bad guys more effectively. As one player explains, “My bad guys all have their own distinct names and identities. Otherwise I feel like I’m swatting the air. Also, the names help separate them from me. It’s no longer all the dark stuff I’m carrying around and can’t drop.”
My roster of bad guys changes constantly. Yours should, too. By regularly confronting your bad guys, you’ll eventually get strong enough, smart enough, or skillful enough to vanquish them forever. Something that’s a bad guy for you today likely won’t be a bad guy for you six months from now.
For example, when I was playing to get superbetter from my concussion, my real-life bad guys included bright lights, crowded spaces, and reading or writing for more than a few minutes at a time. These bad guys triggered my symptoms, so I had to avoid them. But little by little, I built up my tolerance to them, and eventually, my brain healed. Now I no longer have to avoid them. That’s one way to vanquish a bad guy: get strong enough that it doesn’t bother you anymore.
When I was training for my first marathon, my bad guys included painful blood blisters and throbbing shin splints. The only way to beat these bad guys was to get smarter about training. Instead of giving up or skipping runs, I learned better ways to run and cross-train. (I also learned about wool socks.) That’s another way to vanquish bad guys: to be clever and outsmart them.
When I was trying to get pregnant with my husband, it wasn’t easy for us. We went through fertility treatment, and I had to do all kinds of things that scared me: inject myself with hormones, get blood drawn every day for weeks, and even have surgery. But these things weren’t my bad guys—they were actually positive steps toward my goal. The real bad guys were the thoughts that made me anxious or pessimistic while I took those crucial steps. The biggest bad guy I battled during fertility treatment I nicknamed “Madame Esmeralda”—the psychic in my mind who kept looking into her crystal ball and predicting that everything would go horribly wrong. She never once predicted that everything would go right! So I had to tell Madame Esmeralda to shut up and stop trying to predict the future—it was better for my mind and my body to stay focused on the present. This is yet another way to vanquish a bad guy: learn a new skill to overpower it. My anxiety lowered considerably when I learned to turn off catastrophic thinking (or always expecting the worst)—and I know this had a positive effect on how successfully my body responded to the treatment. (In the end, Madame Esmeralda’s predictions all proved wrong—and my husband and I are the proud parents of twin girls!)
In this chapter, you’ll learn how to spot your own bad guys and develop the courage to do daily battle against them. You’ll practice simple techniques for becoming stronger, smarter, and skillful enough to conquer your bad guys permanently.
To begin, let’s introduce you to four of the bad guys that tend to trap and torment SuperBetter players the most.
Meet the Super Villains
SuperBetter players have spotted and battled more than half a million bad guys. Below you’ll find the four bad guys that have been most frequently spotted by our players, by resilience type. These are the biggest, baddest bad guys—the Super Villains, if you will.
The Sticky Chair. Can also be spotted in the disguise of the Sticky Couch or the Sticky Bed. It cons us into sitting or lying down and being sedentary all day.
Solitary Confinement. This bad guy freezes you in its icy shell and prevents you from having any meaningful human contact for an entire day. It’s a trickier foe than you think! You can find yourself in solitary confinement even if you’re constantly surrounded by other people—if you’re stuck in your head, distracting yourself with digital devices, or keeping all your thoughts and feelings to yourself.
The Too-Headed Monster. You know you’re in the clutches of this bad guy when you find yourself making an “I’m too” statement. “I’m too tired to . . . ,” “I’m too depressed to . . . ,” “I’m too scared to . . . ,” “I’m too stupid to . . . ,” “I’m too slow to . . . ,” “I’m too fat to . . . ,” “It hurts too much to. . . .” This kind of statement is usually an excuse to talk yourself out of doing something you really want or need to do to get superbetter.
The Guilty Twin. This bad guy twists positive feelings of gratitude into negative feelings of guilt. It happens more easily and often than you might expect. According to researchers at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, guilt is actually gratitude’s evil twin emotion.1 If we feel unworthy of someone else’s kindness or forgiveness, we can actually make ourselves feel guilty about something good.
So what should you do if any of these bad guys are lurking in your life? We tapped the insights of psychologists, doctors, and researchers at Stanford University, UC Berkeley, Ohio State University, and the University of Pennsylvania to come up with the most effective battle strategies possible.2 If you recognize any of SuperBetter’s biggest Super Villains, try out our recommended battle strategy right now!
The Sticky Chair strategy: Battle this bad guy by getting up for a count of five. (For an extra boost, when you get to five, say out loud or think to yourself, “I’m free!”) When you’re finished counting to five, you can sit or lie back down if you really want to. But once you’ve escaped the Sticky Chair’s clutches, you may find that you want to stay unstuck at least a little while longer!
The Solitary Confinement strategy: To battle this bad guy, blast through the isolation with a warm ray of human contact: send someone a “thinking of you” message, start a conversation, give a stranger a smile, pick up the phone and tell someone what you’re feeling, give someone a high-five or a hug. Or leave your digital devices at home and just go somewhere you can be around other people without distraction.
The Too-Headed Monster strategy: Whatever your excuse—as an experiment, just for today, get rid of the “too” and do it anyway! Instead of saying, “I’m too tired to cook dinner,” say “I’m tired, andI’m going to cook a healthy dinner anyway.” Instead of saying “I’m too depressed to get out of bed,” say, “I’m depressed, and I’m going to get up and dressed anyway.” Instead of saying, “I’m too slow to run a 5K,” say, “I’m slow, and I’m going to go running today anyway.” When you do battle using this strategy, you’ll figure out that you don’t have to change how you feel or what you thinkabout yourself to do something good that makes you stronger, better, happier, or healthier. So don’t let your “too-headed monster” stop you. Acknowledge it, and do whatever you want anyway.
The Guilty Twin strategy: If you find yourself feeling guilty, ask yourself: are you actually twisting profound gratitude about the good someone else has brought to you, or the forgiveness they’ve shown you? If so, then remind yourself that you are worthy! And to ease your guilt, thank that person. Thank them for their time, their effort, their support, their thoughtfulness—or just thank them for valuing and loving you enough to forgive your mistake. Express your gratitude—in writing or in person—to turn the “guilty twin” back into its better half.
Although bad guys like these four Super Villains can seem like nothing but trouble, you benefit enormously from confronting them. Every time you battle a bad guy, you increase your awareness of what’s really standing in your way, and you broaden your repertoire of potential strategies. These are precisely the two key components of psychological flexibility: increased awareness of the difficult stuff and a willingness to experiment with different responses to it.3
As you will recall, psychological flexibility is the courage to face things that are hard for us. Developing this courage is a two-part process.
First, you must increase your awareness, or mindfulness, of anything that might block your progress or cause you pain, difficulty, or distress. Being mindful means paying close attention to negative thoughts, feelings, and experiences. You don’t try to deny, avoid, or suppress them. Paying attention to the negative helps you deal with it more effectively. After all, you can’t solve a problem or change a behavior if you pretend it doesn’t exist.
Over time, mindfulness also helps you accept that negative sensations and experiences are a natural part of everyday life. This includes the inevitable temporary setbacks and failures you’ll face as you try to overcome tough challenges and achieve meaningful goals. Eventually, you’ll start to notice that bad guys, no matter how powerful or persistent, do not necessarily prevent you from having a good day or leading a meaningful and satisfying life. This realization is a pivotal step toward post-traumatic or post-ecstatic growth. Studies show that transformative personal growth is much more common among individuals who are both mindful and accepting of the negative as a part of their daily life.4
Then, once you’re fully aware of your bad guys, you can work toward developing multiple strategies for dealing with them. Psychologists call this having a flexible response. Instead of relying on a single dominant strategy, you develop many ways to respond effectively. You vary your response based on which bad guy you’re facing, what resources you have available at the moment, and whatever else might be compromising your motivation, physical ability, or attention.
Having multiple strategies makes you much more resilient to setbacks. When a bad guy takes you by surprise, or when multiple bad guys gang up on you at the same time, you’ll be much more agile and flexible in your response. And if one strategy doesn’t work, you’re less likely to give up entirely. You’ll simply pay attention, change your strategy, and keep trying to make progress. The more strategies you have, the more likely you are to keep taking action toward your goals, no matter how much difficulty, unpleasantness, or uncertainty you face.
Spot the bad guys and Battle the bad guys are gameful descriptions of these two essential mental strengths. When you spot a bad guy, you’re being mindful of the negative. When you battle a bad guy, you’re developing a flexible response.
So why do these two mental strengths matter? Studies have shown that people with greater psychological flexibility experience fewer psychological problems, more positive emotions, greater career success, closer relationships, and an overall higher quality of life.5 People with psychological flexibility have also been shown to cope better and recover faster from all kinds of injuries, illnesses, griefs, economic difficulties, career setbacks, and personal losses.6
On the other hand, a psychological inflexibility—or a tendency to ignore, deny, or avoid things that are hard for us—is linked to worse coping and longer recovery times, and higher rates of self-harm and addiction.7Psychological inflexibility also increases the chances of developing post-traumatic stress disorder after a traumatic experience.8
To understand how one simple mental strength can make such a huge difference in outcomes, it helps to take a closer look at one of the most interesting areas of research related to psychological flexibility: the development of chronic back pain and disability after an acute back injury.
Researchers have known for years that some people who experience acute back pain recover successfully and lead full lives, while others experience ongoing pain that eventually leads to disability. Surprisingly, it’s not the type or severity of back injury, or the degree of pain initially experienced, that best predicts who will recover and who will continue to suffer. Instead, it’s the psychological flexibility of the patients at the time of their injury.9
The more psychologically flexible a patient is, the faster they return to work, the more they exercise, and the fewer pain symptoms they report over time. But the less flexible they are, the less likely they are to ever return to full employment, and the more likely it is that back pain will continue for months or even years to interfere with their ability to lead full lives.
Two decades’ worth of pain and psychology studies help explain this phenomenon. It turns out that a fear of pain, discomfort, or failure can cause people who are ill or injured to enter a downward spiral of withdrawal from ordinary activity. In an effort to avoid triggering pain or experiencing failure, they severely limit the actions they take—avoiding physical activity, travel, or work, for example. This can be a helpful and natural reaction at first. But if these self-imposed limits are not challenged and tested often, they become artificial barriers to full living. Individuals become less likely to challenge themselves and therefore less likely to discover that they have, in fact, gotten stronger or can still do things that are important to them even while in pain.
To compound the potential downward spiral, restricting daily activity gives individuals more time and attention to pay to their physical symptoms. This can lead them, quite understandably, to become even more convinced that their injury or illness is so severe as to require further restricting activity.10 This has been shown to be true not only for back pain but also for migraines, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic anxiety, and many other potentially debilitating chronic conditions.11 In all these cases, avoiding pain and failure leads to more suffering and disability, not less.
The only way to avoid this kind of downward spiral, clinical psychologists have shown, is to stay fully engaged with your goals and your life, even when you’re facing extremely negative thoughts, feelings, or experiences.
In other words, you have to acknowledge and battle your bad guys. You can’t ever let them persuade you to give up or to stop looking for ways to lead a good life.
The biggest Super Villian I ever faced was the suicidal thoughts I had during my concussion recovery. They were persuasive and persistent, and I had never dealt with anything quite like them before. It took me almost a week to recognize that these suicidal thoughts weren’t just fleeting feelings—that something was happening in my brain, that some flip had been switched, and these thoughts were getting stronger and not going away.
I remember telling my husband, “I don’t want you to freak out, but I keep hearing this voice in my head that I should kill myself.” I was able to recognize the seriousness of this enough to want to talk about it. “I don’t actually want to kill myself,” I promised him. “But I keep having these thoughts. I’m trapped in this dark place, and I don’t know how to get out.”
By the time I became Jane the Concussion Slayer, I realized I needed to actually do something about the problem. So I asked my husband to do an Internet search for scientific articles about concussions and suicidal thoughts. Was this common? I wanted to know. If so, how long would it last? What should I do about it?
Within minutes, we found an article that described suicidal ideation as extremely common in traumatic brain injuries—up to one in three people with a concussion will go on to have suicidal thoughts. It’s a complication of the altered brain chemistry that occurs while the brain is trying to heal itself. It typically passes, the researchers wrote, in a few weeks or months.
I can’t remember another time in my life, before or after, when I have felt more relief than I did in that moment. I instantly saw my suicidal thoughts for what they were: not a rational reaction to my circumstances, not an option I should seriously consider, but rather merely a side effect of my brain trying to heal.
I remember saying to my husband, “It’s not me, it’s just a symptom!” I realized I didn’t have to believe the voice in my head telling me to kill myself, because it didn’t represent my true thoughts or feelings. It wouldn’t be easy, but I would have to tough it out for a few more weeks or months and let my brain heal itself. I didn’t have to fix the suicidal thoughts. I just had to acknowledge them and wait for them to pass.
The truth was that I wanted to live and my brain was going to tell me I wanted to die. I held this contradiction in balance until my brain healed and the thoughts went away. I didn’t know it at the time, but what saved me was the strength of psychological flexibility.
Now that you know what psychological flexibility is and why it’s so important, let’s talk about how to measure and increase it.
Researchers have developed several scientific questionnaires to measure psychological flexibility; the Acceptance and Action Questionnaire is the most popular.12 It tests your willingness to have negative thoughts, feelings, and experiences while remaining committed to your most important goals.
How flexible are you right now? Let’s find out! For your next quest, I’ve selected some of the most important items on the Acceptance and Action Questionnaire. (If you’d like to take the entire forty-nine-question inventory, check out the reference in this endnote for a link to an online version.13) Let’s see which items you agree with—and which mental muscles still need to be stretched!
QUEST 22: Touch Your Mental Toes!
Measuring your psychological flexibility isn’t quite as easy as bending over and touching your toes. But it can be done!
What to do: Take a moment now to see how many of the following statements from the Acceptance and Action Questionnaire you wholeheartedly agree with. If you’re not sure about a statement, skip it.
· It’s okay to feel depressed or anxious sometimes.
· I take action on a problem, even when I fear I may fail or get it wrong.
· I don’t avoid situations that make me feel nervous.
· It’s okay if I remember something unpleasant.
· I can move toward important goals, even if I don’t feel good about myself.
· I don’t have to get rid of every scary or upsetting image that comes to my mind.
· I would rather achieve my goals than avoid unpleasant thoughts and feelings.
How many of these statements did you wholeheartedly agree with? If you agreed with at least one, good news—you already have some psychological flexibility, and you can work to increase it. Every time you spot and battle a bad guy, without judging yourself negatively, you’re stretching it just a little further.
If you didn’t agree with any of them, don’t worry. By identifying and engaging with your bad guys on a daily basis, you’ll be doing what it takes to increase your acceptance of negative experiences while taking action toward your goals.
And if you already agreed with every statement on this list, congratulations—you are tackling your SuperBetter challenge with extreme psychological flexibility! Battling bad guys will help you stay flexible and take full advantage of the strength you already have.
Tip: Copy this list and put it in a place where you can read it every day to remind yourself of the mental strengths you’re trying to build. (If you really want to stretch yourself, read the list out loud once a day like a mantra.) Pay special attention to the statements you don’t already agree with wholeheartedly. These are the areas where you can improve the most. Be sure to test yourself again after a couple of weeks of battling bad guys—you’ll almost certainly see your flexibility growing.
Now that you have a better sense of how much psychological flexibility you’re starting with, let’s put it to use—and start taking the gameful actions that will help you increase these crucial mental strengths.
As you know, the first step toward psychological flexibility is greater awareness, or mindfulness. When you’re mindful, you have the ability to observe and describe specific things that are causing you distress or difficulty.
Every time you spot and name a bad guy, you’re building this skill. So let’s start increasing your mindfulness right now—with a bad-guy-spotting quest!
QUEST 23: Spot Three Bad Guys
If you want to get superbetter, you can’t hide from the bad guys. You have to spot them and look them squarely in the eye, so you can figure out how to battle them more effectively.
Remember, a bad guy is any habit, symptom, thought, feeling, or behavior that makes it harder for you to get superbetter.
What to do: Create your bad guy list. Did you recognize any of the bad guys already shared in this chapter? If so, add them to your lineup now.
If you’d like to hunt down a few new bad guys, here are some brainstorming questions to help you out:
· What habit do you want to break?
· What distracts you from getting things done?
· What causes you physical pain or discomfort?
· What makes you nervous or uncomfortable?
· What zaps your energy?
· What thought or feeling runs through your mind that makes you question your goals or abilities?
· What has a doctor or therapist recommended you do less of, or avoid?
· What makes you feel stressed out, if you let it get to you?
· What symptoms make your day harder for you?
· What moods make you want to just stay home and do nothing?
· What triggers are you trying to steer clear of?
· What behavior would you like to stop?
My bad guy lineup:
Quest complete: Well done! You’ve identified three of your biggest bad guys. Just by naming them, you’ve taken a huge step toward neutralizing their power.
Tip: Many SuperBetter players find that giving their bad guys a silly or creative name helps them tackle them with a more positive mindset. But you don’t have to give your bad guys clever names—just identifying them is a huge accomplishment.
You’ve got some bad guys in your sights. Now let’s talk about how to battle them effectively, with flexible response.
In order to ensure that you always have a purposeful and positive action to take in response to a bad guy, you’ll need to prepare and experiment with multiple strategies. But where should you start?
I’ve spent three years working with and studying SuperBetter players, trying to figure out the most effective strategies for vanquishing bad guys. I’ve learned that there are five potential ways to successfully battle any bad guy. You can Avoid, Resist, Adapt, Challenge, or Convert.
Let’s look at each strategy one at a time, with the help of some examples from experienced SuperBetter players. Keep in mind that the most successful SuperBetter players experiment with all five strategies before deciding which ones work best for particular bad guys.
This is the most straightforward strategy. If it’s a bad habit, you try not to do it. If it’s a symptom of pain or illness, you try not to feel it. If it’s an unpleasant or counterproductive thought, you try not to think it. Here’s an example of how it works:
Bad guy: The first bite.
Avoid it strategy: Don’t take the first bite!
“I’m trying to lose weight. I tell myself I’ll have just one bite of something I’m not supposed to eat. Before I know it, I’ve eaten a ton. But if I don’t start, I don’t have to stop!” —Michelle, forty-five.
Although avoidance is the easiest strategy to understand and adopt, it’s also—perhaps surprisingly—the least useful. That’s because it’s impossible to always avoid negative thoughts, feelings, or experiences. And no one has perfect willpower. If it’s in your control to avoid something, and there are no personal costs to avoiding it, by all means try this strategy. But you will absolutely want and need to develop additional strategies so you can make progress and have a good day even when you slip up, or when you’re simply unable to avoid the inevitable pains and difficulties of a full and meaningful life.
Resisting is a way to actively wrestle with the bad guy and try to stop it in its tracks. If you have an unhelpful thought, you try to change it. If you’re in pain, you try to alleviate it. If you’re isolating yourself from others, you try to connect. If you’re procrastinating, you leap into action. Here’s an example:
Bad guy: Thinking constantly about little things that go wrong, instead of moving on.
Resist it strategy: Spend thirty seconds doing something productive, to interrupt the thought cycle.
“When something goes wrong, I just can’t let it go. I’ve been trying this strategy, and it’s working for me. I tell myself I only have to spend thirty seconds being productive. Usually that’s enough to get me out of the stew. But even if I go right back to sitting around feeling sorry for myself, at least I’ve done one thing.” —Jason, twenty-five.
The resist strategy is much more powerful than simply trying to avoid a bad guy. When you resist a bad guy, you use your unique skills and strengths to prevent the bad guy from having too much of a negative impact. This strategy works even when you can’t control your circumstances.
It’s important to resist bad guys without judging yourself negatively. It’s not your fault that a bad guy appeared; bad guys appear to everyone, every day. Instead, congratulate yourself for having the mindfulness to spot the bad guy at work and the courage to confront it directly.
Adapting means making a significant change, or finding a long-term solution to the bad guy. You might not be able to avoid or resist the bad guy when it gets you, but you may be able to come up with a clever or creative work-around that massively limits its ability to affect you.
Bad guy: Forgetting to take my medication.
Adapt to it strategy: Set three daily reminder alerts on my phone, for seven, eight, and nine p.m.
“I have a new prescription for my depression. I keep ‘forgetting’ to take it, which I think is just me avoiding making a commitment to seeing whether this drug will actually help me or not. This strategy gives me three chances to take my pill. If I decide not to, at least I’ve consciously made the decision not to take it and not just halfheartedly ‘forgotten’ about it. This strategy was suggested to me by one of my allies. With three alarms, there is basically no way that I will just ‘forget’ to take my pill anymore, so I have definitely vanquished this bad guy.” —Cliff, thirty-three.
Other people are a great resource for coming up with adapt strategies—ask around. It’s as simple as saying, “If you had this problem, what would you do to solve it?”
Challenging a bad guy means asking yourself: Is this actually bad for me? Is it possible that I don’t have to make this feeling or thought or habit go away before I can lead a happy, healthy, meaningful life?
Bad guy: No self-confidence.
Challenge it strategy: Ask yourself: “So what if I lack self-confidence? Does it really matter?”
“My biggest fear in life right now is that I won’t be able to complete my college education and get a good job. I have full-on panic attacks about it. I’m full of self-doubt, and I lack the confidence to believe that I can actually do it. But my allies are helping me think about it differently. Maybe I worry so much because I really care. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It shows how motivated I am. Also, I do want to be more confident in life. But having doubts or fears doesn’t have to stop me. I can still show up to class. I can keep applying for internships. I think that taking steps toward my goal is more important right now than fixing how I feel.” —Julian, twenty.
This is a strategy you should adopt early and often. Be open to the possibility that your bad guys have less power or influence over you than you thought. Something that made you feel nervous or unwell in the past may be perfectly fine today. Or if something always makes you feel stressed, anxious, exhausted, or physically uncomfortable, can you simply acknowledge those feelings and accept them? Do you really need to feel calm, or rested, or pain-free to pursue your goals? This is the single most powerful kind of psychological flexibility you can achieve. It’s the freedom to keep important commitments and pursue your daily dreams, regardless of whether you can lessen pain, discomfort, and distress or eliminate them from your life.
Converting means finding a way to turn your bad guy into a power-up. For example, if you’re feeling pain, it could help you experience more compassion for others who are in pain. If you’re feeling angry, you could use it as a source of energy and channel it into something productive. Can you imagine any situation in which having your bad guy around would help you instead of hurting you?
Bad guy: Addiction to drama.
Convert it strategy: Be inspired by other people’s drama to do better myself.
“I keep getting into friendships and relationships with people who bring all kinds of drama into my life. This distracts me from putting my time and energy into my own plans. Eventually, I want to bring more positive people into my life. But some people are in my life for good no matter what. They’re family. I can’t change them, but I can get inspired by them to do better and be better. They are inspiration to develop my own drama-free qualities, like patience and forgiveness.” —Therese, thirty-six.
Converting a bad guy into a power-up isn’t always easy, but it’s worth the extra effort. It’s the most profound stretch you can make in your psychological flexibility.
A SuperBetter Story: The Dream Warrior
Mia, twenty-nine, is proud to call herself a survivor.
At twenty-six, she escaped a violent and abusive marriage. But years of physical abuse and sexual assault had left her in a constant state of high alert, always full of adrenaline and certain she was in danger. She found herself socially isolated and, understandably, had a hard time trusting new people. Her therapist diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Mia was determined to reclaim her life. With the support of her therapist, and in addition to regular counseling, she started playing SuperBetter to work through her symptoms of PTSD. During this time, she learned as much as she could about the disorder, not only to help herself but also to help others. She started a blog to encourage other victims of domestic violence to seek safety.
She was making great progress, but one bad guy still haunted her. In life, she was a survivor—no doubt about it. But in her dreams, she was still a victim. As she explained on her blog: “I have nightmares almost every night about being attacked. Last night I dreamed that a stranger attacked me in my home and was trying to kill me. The nightmares are so intense, they feel real. I often wake up screaming.”
Mia declared nightmares her number-one bad guy. And she started asking allies for help. Over the next few weeks, she started experimenting with different strategies.
One of the first suggestions she received from an ally was to learn lucid dreaming. “The idea is that you train yourself to recognize when you are dreaming. So when you are asleep and suddenly you realize, ‘Hey wait this is a dream,’ then you have the power to change what you are dreaming about.”
Mia took this idea to her therapist, who gave her concrete tips for learning to control her nightmares. She learned a simple exercise called Alternative Endings. Here’s how it works: During the daytime, you think of a scenario that frequently occurs in your nightmares—for example, being chased by a dangerous man. While you’re wide awake, you vividly imagine alternative endings to this scenario. You might imagine your pursuer getting smaller and smaller, or slower and slower, until he is no threat to you at all.
Over the next six weeks, Mia got better and better at stopping the nightmares in progress. “I’ve always been a vivid dreamer, I just never really realized how much I could influence the dreams. I still have dreams with disturbing things, but they don’t jar me like the nightmares. Taking control of my dreams consciously has really helped.”
But Mia also realized that while lucid dreaming was a good way to adapt to the problem, it wasn’t a total cure. The nightmares sometimes were harder to control, and she still occasionally woke up sweating, crying, and shaking. She needed to be flexible in how she battled them—so she decided to try out a challenge strategy.
To challenge her nightmares, she asked herself, “What if they aren’t all bad?” She played with a new way of thinking: “Maybe nightmares are just reminders so we don’t get too comfortable and not alert about the bad things that could happen to us. Nightmares are just my brain’s way of understanding and dealing with trauma and healing. They’re not trying to torment me. They’re trying to help me.” Although this cognitive reappraisal didn’t stop the nightmares, it helped Mia stop beating herself up for having them. More important, it gave her a way to look for possible benefits from nightmares—a previously unthinkable idea. If her nightmares were just a reminder, could she use them to change her waking behavior in a positive way?
One day she updated her allies: “I’ve been going along fine for the past couple months, and then last night I had a terrible nightmare, one of the ones where I wake up bawling my eyes out and screaming. I was dying in my nightmare, blood all over the place. I was in a whole hell of a lot of pain, and no one was around to help me. I felt so much remorse for being alone dying with no one to help me.”
Using her new strategy, Mia decided to treat this terrible dream like a helpful reminder. What important message could it have for her? “I’ve been feeling really isolated from my friends lately,” she realized, “and I think that’s what this is about.” She put aside the haunting imagery of the dream and embraced the important insight instead. The next day she made it a point to reach out to her brother and to a friend. “I do need more social support, and I felt so much better after I took the step to reach out.”
By taking a positive cue from a terrible nightmare, Mia was able to convert a bad guy into a power-up. Today Mia still uses all her favorite strategies—resist, challenge, and convert—and as a result, she feels happier and braver. “When I have a nightmare, I no longer feel like I lost the battle. I may not be able to prevent a bad dream. But I’m always able to triumph, whether it’s during the dream or after. And best of all, I can share what I learned about my bad guys with others who are facing them, too. That’s truly been the best part of getting superbetter.”
Now that you know all five potential ways to engage a bad guy, let’s put that knowledge into action.
QUEST 24: Develop a Battle Plan
Let’s see how far you can stretch your psychological flexibility.
What to do: Pick one of your bad guys. Got it? Good.
Let’s develop a battle plan for your bad guy that includes all five potential strategies: Avoid, Resist, Adapt, Challenge, Convert.
For each strategy, try to think of just one thing you could do to prevent this bad guy from ruining your day or blocking your progress.
If you find yourself stuck on a strategy, don’t worry. Just do your best. If you need ideas, ask a friend or family member for their advice. You can also come back later and add more strategies. You’ll have more success with this quest if you keep thinking about it, mulling it over in the back of your mind for a day or so.
Examples: To help you out, I’ve included responses from another SuperBetter player who successfully completed this quest. Liz is a thirty-two-year-old teacher whose challenge is defeating insomnia. The bad guy she chose for this quest is the White Night, or as she describes it: “A long, endless night where I lie sleepless in bed until morning.”
STRATEGY 1: AVOID
What one thing could you do to prevent this bad guy from making an appearance in your life today? Liz says: “To try to avoid a White Night tonight, I could have zero caffeine after nine a.m.”
STRATEGY 2: RESIST
What one thing could you do to minimize the impact of this bad guy, once it makes an appearance? Liz says: “I can do stretches in bed to occupy my mind and relax my body. Or, I can take extra care to support my immune system the next day, since when I miss sleep, I often get sick. I could take vitamin C and wash my hands more often.”
STRATEGY 3: ADAPT
What one thing could you do to work around or solve the problem of this bad guy once and for all? Liz says: “Driving while exhausted is one of my biggest concerns. I don’t want to get in an accident because I can’t think clearly or stay awake. Maybe a short-term solution is to take a bus part of the way to work. This would basically eliminate one of my biggest fears around not getting any sleep. I will definitely try this for at least a few days and see if it makes this problem less of an issue.”
STRATEGY 4: CHALLENGE
What one thing could you do to prove that this bad guy has less power over you than you think? Liz says: “I guess the best way to challenge my anxiety about not sleeping would be to have a really good and productive day, the day after not getting any sleep. The next time I have a White Night, I’ll make an extra effort to activate a bunch of power-ups and get at least one important thing done off my to-do list. If I show myself I can be strong even after a sleepless night, maybe I won’t panic so much next time.”
STRATEGY 5: CONVERT
How could you turn this bad guy into a power-up? Liz says: “I have to get really creative here, because I really hate White Nights! But let’s say I start a list of things that I only do in the middle of the night. So when I can’t sleep, I can get up and cross something off my middle-of-the-night to-do list. I could put reading mystery novels, organizing my closet, and doing my nails on the list, since these are things I like to do but never have time for. It’s not a perfect solution, and I’d much rather sleep, but I guess using the time in the middle of the night is one way to convert it into a source of good. And I’ve been battling this bad guy for so long, I can definitely see the benefit in trying to think completely differently about it!”
Tip: Every additional strategy increases your psychological flexibility, so keep looking for more ways to battle your bad guy.
Congratulations on developing your first battle plan! As you build awareness of your bad guys and keep trying different actions, you’ll find that it becomes easier to be creative in battle.
As in any game, you won’t defeat every bad guy. Learning to deal with the occasional defeat is an important part of developing psychological flexibility.
“Don’t judge yourself by the moments when you’re not as strong as you want to be,” advises Dr. Todd Kashdan, a professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University, “or even as strong as you were yesterday. Allow yourself times where you’re going to have mini-breakdowns, where you’re going to fail a little bit.”
Dr. Kashdan is well known for his research on psychological flexibility and is also a supporter of the SuperBetter method. I recently asked him what he would say to SuperBetter players who feel overwhelmed by their bad guys. “It’s not about whether you’re vanquished by bad guys in the moment,” he replied. “It’s over the long haul, when you face a difficult situation. It doesn’t matter in any given moment, or even three times in a row, if the bad guys overwhelm you, if you back away. But if you look two or three weeks in a row, and there’s a willingness to approach those stressful things, and to absorb some of the stress and discomfort that come with it . . . that’s true psychological flexibility.”
Here are some final tips for battling bad guys.
Do battle at least once a day. Take the time, at least once a day, to notice a thought, feeling, habit, or interaction that has the potential to interfere with your health, happiness, or resilience. If you haven’t spotted any bad guys today, you’re either the world champion of getting superbetter—or, more likely, you’re not looking closely enough!
Always power up after battle. Whether you’ve successfully battled your bad guy, or you feel like it got the best of you, make sure to activate at least one power-up to reenergize. The power-up will give you access to positive emotions that can make future battles easier.
Track your encounters. What strategies have you tried? Which ones worked? Where and when do the bad guys show up most often? Keep notes in a journal, a spreadsheet, or whatever else comes naturally. Or borrow this creative idea from Linda, a SuperBetter player whose challenge is to become better able to handle stress: “I put sticky notes with my bad guys on the fridge at home to remind me to watch out for them. I mark them with an X whenever they get the best of me. I put a check mark when I get the best of them. I can see my win-loss record easily by comparing the Xs and the checks. When I get too many Xs, I know I need better strategies.”
Make friends with the bad guys that just won’t go away. You may never completely eliminate a certain pain, anxiety, or stress from your life. If the bad guy isn’t going anywhere, just keep experimenting and learning more about how the bad guys work. As one SuperBetter player, Kel, whose biggest bad guy is procrastination, puts it: “Even if you record thirty losses against a bad guy, thirty days in a row, it is still a victory, because look at you! You keep getting up and fighting again and again. You have learned to recognize that bad guy in every guise and disguise available. That is a hero.”
Skills Unlocked: How to Spot and Battle the Bad Guys
· Don’t suppress your negative thoughts, feelings, or experiences. Accept them as part of getting stronger and achieving your goals.
· When you spot a new bad guy, consider all the ways you could battle it: avoid it, resist it, adapt to it, challenge it, or convert it into a power-up.
· Experiment with different strategies. Don’t reject a possible strategy without trying it at least once. And don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t work; instead, learn what you can from the experiment and try again, or move on to the next strategy.
· Use the seven statements from Quest 22 to track your psychological flexibility, and to remind yourself of exactly what it takes to develop courage in the face of bad guys.
· Remember, no day will ever be free of bad guys. Don’t wait for a perfect day, or even a good day, to do the things that will make you stronger, happier, and healthier. Keep taking action and making progress toward your goals no matter how many obstacles you encounter today.