Can People Really Change?

Early on, society labels us, we label ourselves, and we label others. A child is told he is a good or a bad listener. A high school student thinks of herself as good or bad at math. These labels become even more entrenched in adulthood. A coworker might be thought of as a “lazy human being.” You might decide you will never be a good cook or that you are not a morning person. These beliefs are all based on the idea that people don’t change. Not so long ago, scientists held a similar opinion about the brain. The prevailing belief was that the adult brain was completely formed and unchangeable. The number of connections and neurons was thought to be finite. Any notion of brain change or growth was dismissed as science fiction. But new research shows this is not the case at all. In fact, the brain is far more malleable than once thought, responding to changing environments and situations and reorganizing itself throughout our life.

What happens to the brains of London taxi drivers is one of my favorite examples of how the brain can change. Unlike cabbies in other cities, London cabbies are forced to learn thousands of street names and routes in order to pass a notoriously difficult licensing exam known as the Knowledge. It requires a tremendous amount of memorization, and researchers were curious about how this affects the brain. In scans, they found that the part of the taxi drivers’ brains associated with memory is significantly larger than the average person’s. In the same way that the brain is changeable and capable of adapting, so are we. Skills can be learned, abilities can be developed, and character can be cultivated. When we adopt a growth mind-set, we open ourselves up to possibilities and explore our potential and the potential of others.

Recognizing that you are not set in stone can help you cope with stress, develop new interests, and make new connections. It can even make you a better friend and partner. To facilitate a switch from a fixed “I am who I am” mind-set to a growth mind-set, Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, recommends attaching the word yet to new challenges, e.g. “I am not a master chef yet.” It will help remind you that you are a work in progress, not a finished product.

This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Marie Claire

Why Reading Is So Good For You

People increasingly tell me they have a hard time starting a book, let alone finishing one. Reading a book takes time and concentration-two rarities of daily experience. There are so many competing demands on attention. Who has the time to actually sit down and lose oneself in a book? In our busy lives, quick reads like news updates and snackable articles may be the only reading we have the energy and bandwidth for but don’t let this mindset get between you and a book during vacation. A great book can make a holiday even more memorable. You will always remember where you were when you read it. Take a favorite from the past or a new one someone you trust recommends or one that takes place where you are going. Reading opens us up to the experiences of others and provides an escape from the echo chambers of our own minds.  Studies suggest it might even build empathy by awakening awareness, broadening perspective, and expanding imagination. As author L.R Knost observed, “Humanly speaking, there is no greater teacher, no greater therapist, no greater healer of the soul, than a well-stocked library.” A patient stopped reading fiction somewhere between her first and second child. Life got in the way. Scrolling replaced deep reading. She found her way back to novels after a friend insisted she take Anthony Doerr’s All the Light You Cannot See on a trip to France.  While sitting in a cafe, instead of picking up her phone, she would reach for her book. She said it enhanced her experience immeasurably and shielded her from tumbling down the rabbit hole of pointless scrolling, commenting, and liking. The vacation is long over but the joy of reading lingers. After putting the kids to bed, instead of turning on the television, she makes a habit of reading instead. She has found that reading a few pages is the perfect vacation for a restless mind. This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of Marie Claire.

Don’t Let Stress Interfere With Gut Feelings

Listening to your gut when you’re anxious is like going to the supermarket on an empty stomach. Your judgment is clouded so you end up buying stuff you don’t need.  The last time I made that mistake, extra-large bags of potato chips, wheels of cheese, and sugar-packed cereals I had sworn off for life made their way into my shopping cart.  Being hungry impairs the ability to make healthy choices. Similarly, anxiety can impair the ability to make intuitive or “gut” decisions.  While there is no agreed-upon definition in psychology, intuition is generally thought of as resulting from a fast, unconscious, and automatic process that leads to knowing something without knowing how you actually know it. Intuition can be a valuable tool, especially if you have expertise in the situation at hand. For example, intuitive decision-making athletes make faster and better decisions than their more analytic counterparts. Related research shows that intuition is enhanced in people when they are in a good mood. But when you are anxious, the opposite is true. There are a number of possible reasons why an anxious state of mind interferes with intuition. A lack of self-confidence, a fear of failure, a pessimistic outlook, a narrow perspective, and a tendency to pay attention to irrelevant stimuli contribute to why it is hard to see the forest from the trees when you are filled with fear or uncertainty.   Intuition can be an excellent guide but only in the right context and when you are thinking clearly. As one researcher puts it: 

"The primary takeaway is: intuition is like nitroglycerine -- it is best used only in certain circumstances.” 

This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Marie Claire.

You Aren’t The Only One With Duck Syndrome

A duck appears to glide calmly across the water, while beneath the surface it’s an entirely different picture: The duck is frantically paddling its little legs to stay afloat and keep up. Watching everyone else gliding effortlessly through life—achieving professional success, thriving socially, and looking fabulous—is making you feel worse about your own difficulties.

I had a patient who had a picture-perfect life from the outside. At our first meeting, she showed me the holiday card she sent to everyone. It was a collage of “pinch me now” photos: her three kids frolicking in a turquoise ocean; her and her husband embracing in front of the Eiffel Tower; a family ski trip; her eldest child in cap and gown at his graduation. She showed the card to me to convey the disconnect between the facade she worked so hard to maintain and her internal unhappiness. She was too embarrassed to speak to her friends about what was going on, fearing they would forever think differently of her. From her perspective, their lives were perfect. She thought she was the only one working overtime to fake it. As the weeks passed and she opened up to a few friends, she learned that they too were going through some stuff on their own. Two were in therapy for depression. Another was in rehab but told everyone she was visiting a sick family member. Another was in couples therapy. The feverish effort to maintain the appearance of effortless happiness had made her feel even worse. Knowing she was not alone was an important part of her recovery.

Research shows that we systematically overestimate how happy other people are, even people we know well. This is because we see other people only in social settings or in carefully crafted worlds on social media. Their private emotional lives are unobservable to us. We have no idea what life is really like for them. As a result, our perception of their lives is based on an illusion. The consequences of the illusion, however, are real. Making assumptions about others’ happiness encourages us to hide our own negative emotional experiences, which leads to feelings of loneliness, unhappiness, and less satisfaction with life in general.

This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Marie Claire.
Love being single, single, relationships,

Can You Love Being Single Too Much?

Increasing numbers of women are single for one simple reason: They want to be. They don’t have intimacy issues, they are not selfish, and they are not single because they cannot find a partner. It’s a deliberate choice. While many may still believe that being single is synonymous with isolation and that the only on-ramp to happiness is marriage, research tells a different story.

Social scientists Natalia Sarkisian and Naomi Gerstel found that single people have more social connections and are more involved in their communities than their married counterparts are. They are also more likely to socialize with neighbors and friends and to reach out to those in their social network. In other words, they are generous and happy. Other research suggests they are also healthier than their partnered peers. They work out more and are in better shape. On top of their physical fitness and active social lives, single people are more likely to experience a sense of personal growth and a feeling that their life is a continuous process of learning and discovery.

One thought to keep in mind: People change. We are ever-evolving. Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of the best-selling Stumbling on Happiness, puts it this way: “Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished. The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting, and as temporary as all the people you’ve ever been. The one constant in our life is change.” Stay flexible. Keep an open mind. You never know what your future self will think.

This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Marie Claire Magazine.
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How to Get Out of a Bad Mood

The next time you find yourself in a bad mood, try to pinpoint exactly what is bothering you and describe your feelings more precisely. Are you frustrated? Disheartened? Despondent? Exasperated? Instead of resigning yourself to a generalized negative mood for the next few hours, try to label your emotions.

People who are able to differentiate their negative emotions are better at regulating and managing them, according to science. Rather than being consumed by a general feeling of malaise, differentiators are more action-oriented. Knowing what is wrong empowers them to seek a solution and tailor a response to the situation. For example, recognizing that you felt flustered after a disagreement with a colleague might prompt you to speak to the manager or go for a walk outside. Feeling “bad” doesn’t provide you with the same kind of useful information. It just hovers over you like a cloud. And because it is so vague, it can easily spill into other aspects of your life and be the reason you snap at your partner later that day.

People who struggle with emotion differentiation are more likely to feel overwhelmed and helpless. They may also be more vulnerable to unhealthy or unfocused responses like binge drinking or physical aggression. Distressing feelings are more likely to dominate their attention and dictate how they behave.

The good news is that emotional differentiation is a skill that can be learned and deployed on a daily basis. By expanding your emotional vocabulary, you are giving yourself the tools to label and understand an array of nuanced emotional states. Not only will your bad moods be less bad, you will be better equipped to handle negativity when it arises.

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Marie Claire Magazine.

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Tina Sharkey


Tina Sharkey is the Co-Founder & Co-Chair of Brandless, a company that makes a curated assortment of high-quality things for you, your home, and your family in support of a life well-lived life.

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Can People Really Change?

Early on, society labels us, we label ourselves, and we label others. A child is told he is a good or a bad listener....

Why Reading Is So Good For You

People increasingly tell me they have a hard time starting a book, let alone finishing one. Reading a book takes time and concentration-two rarities of...

Don’t Let Stress Interfere With Gut Feelings

Listening to your gut when you’re anxious is like going to the supermarket on an empty stomach. Your judgment is clouded so you end...

You Aren’t The Only One With Duck Syndrome

A duck appears to glide calmly across the water, while beneath the surface it’s an entirely different picture: The duck is frantically paddling its...
Love being single, single, relationships,

Can You Love Being Single Too Much?

Increasing numbers of women are single for one simple reason: They want to be. They don’t have intimacy issues, they are not selfish, and...

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