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Jay Shifman: “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”

Personally, I recognize mindfulness as awareness wrapped in empathy. It’s deep levels of being aware, of yourself, of your surroundings, of other people you are impacting and who are having an impact on you. Of what’s sitting hard on your chest and what’s motivating you. But it’s also going beyond that. It’s having empathy for […]

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Personally, I recognize mindfulness as awareness wrapped in empathy. It’s deep levels of being aware, of yourself, of your surroundings, of other people you are impacting and who are having an impact on you. Of what’s sitting hard on your chest and what’s motivating you. But it’s also going beyond that. It’s having empathy for others, and for yourself. It’s a deep sense of knowing, both what you know and knowing that there’s a lot you don’t know and being ok with all of it.


As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jay Shifman.

Jay Shifman is an Addiction and Mental Health Speaker, Writer, Consultant, Coach and Advocate and the host of the Choose Your Struggle podcast. Ten years in recovery, Jay works every day to help #endthestigma around issues of Mental Health and Addiction. He lives on Daniel Island, South Carolina, with his wife, Lauren and their dog, Nell.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Thanks for having me! I love the topic and I appreciate the focus you’re giving to it.

My story is a bit convoluted. But essentially, I was misdiagnosed with a severe issue of Mental Health for many years. I was prescribed countless amounts of drugs until I was physically dependent and addicted to them. By my early twenties, my life had collapsed. At twenty-three I attempted suicide twice and overdosed.

The next few years saw me spend time in an inpatient hospital and a rehab facility, finally enter recovery and work harder than I ever had before to go through the personal and mental growth that had been denied to me for almost a decade. As my symptoms dissipated, I pledged myself toward using my second chance wisely. That’s where my personal brand, Choose Your Struggle came from. For much of my life I wasn’t able to choose what I struggled for. Now? I get to choose. And I chose this!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Definitely! One comes to mind whenever I’m asked. It may be my favorite work memory.

It took me almost five years to start even talking about my struggles with Addiction. I hid the fact that I was in recovery for a long time. But after a friend convinced me to tell my story on stage, I did so, reluctantly. And it launched my new life in one night!

Not long after that, I was invited to speak at a TEDx event at an event space. I was still reluctant and a bit unsure of myself, it was only my second time telling my story on stage, but I did it. As soon as I got off stage, the manager of the space came over to me and asked if I wouldn’t mind coming with him to the kitchen. I had no idea what was going on, but I said sure.

I followed him into the kitchen, and everyone was at a standstill. It turned out that the entire staff who worked back there were all in recovery. They’d heard my story over the speakers, and we ended up sharing some time, talking about struggling with substances and Mental Health. To say there were tears would be an understatement. It was a beautiful moment.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

Great question. I work with organizations on this topic a lot. I stress two characteristics, or habits, in a leader than can foster an open environment and allow employees to feel comfortable at work. They’re empathy and vulnerability.

Businesses waste a lot of time on politics. Sure, if there’s something that the leader cannot legally talk about with their employees, that’s a matter into itself. But when a leader views themselves as sitting on the precipice, whether they are afraid of falling off or it’s an issue of ego, they speak, whether intentionally or unintentionally, from that place of higher power. We know the best leaders are ones that encourage others to fulfill their best selves. Leaders who talk down to their employees can’t do this.

When a leader is vulnerable; when a leader shows empathy to their employees and really invests in them, employees see this, and it changes the dynamic and the conversation style in the office. A leader that spends all their time in their office with the door closed may as well not be at work, as far as the employees are concerned. But when an organization’s leaders invest in their employees and truly live the values of the organization, employees feel more excited about their work and more seen as an entire human, not just a cog in a wheel.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Oh man, so many. But I narrowed it down to three:

The Abstinence Myth by Dr. Adi Jaffe, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Dr. Gabor Mate and Job Joy by coach Kristen Zavo. All three are by leaders who are willing to challenge their own beliefs and step outside the conventional box to accomplish what they set out to do. I’ve personally worked with Kristen Zavo and I’ve had the chance to chat with Dr. Jaffe. You couldn’t mind more down to earth people.

We need more leaders willing to step back and challenge in thoughtful ways. Disagreeing doesn’t have to be the end of the conversation. In fact, it should be the beginning!

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?

Awesome! I think you’ll get some really interesting answers here.

Personally, I recognize mindfulness as awareness wrapped in empathy. It’s deep levels of being aware, of yourself, of your surroundings, of other people you are impacting and who are having an impact on you. Of what’s sitting hard on your chest and what’s motivating you. But it’s also going beyond that. It’s having empathy for others, and for yourself. It’s a deep sense of knowing, both what you know and knowing that there’s a lot you don’t know and being ok with all of it.

This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?

Definitely not intuitive. Actually, I want to make a point there. NEVER hesitate to ask questions. Never feel bad for doing so. Some of these questions are hard to grasp. And that’s ok!

Physically, when we spend long periods of time at higher stress levels, our body reacts. High blood pressure, which can lead to a whole host of problems, is a regular result. As are stomach problems. Working on mindfulness lowers that stress and reduces the side effects.

Mentally, it’s hard to think clearly when your thoughts are fighting through the clutter! Think of your brain as an attic. It’s hard to find the thing you need in the back if you’re digging through piles and piles of junk! Mindfulness organizes those boxes and clears out space for you to walk.

Emotionally, personally, I think is the key to all of this. Think of your emotions like a balloon. When you overfill the balloon, what happens? It explodes! And you RAGE! No one likes feeling that way nor do they like having to say they’re sorry afterward. And no one wants to be around that person. Practicing mindfulness helps you identify the atoms making up that air in that balloon, your feelings bouncing around faster and faster, and, as you do, you can deal with it and let some of them out! Which keeps you from filling up and exploding.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness and serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.

Ok, now we’re into the meat of this.

So the first thing I recommend is the daily check-ins. The exercise I recommend to my clients is to, once a day (I do it at lunch), open up a note on your phone or your journal and write “I feel…” and complete the sentence. Do this over and over again until you can no longer do so. At first, the feelings that come out will be surface level (I feel hungry! I feel angry that my coworker…). But if you push through those, you start to tap into some of your subconscious ideas and feels. Some of what comes up may surprise you. It takes work, your brain will be barking at you to stop. Or it will feel awkward and you’ll want to walk away. But push through! And if you do this and push down to some of these deeper issues, you’ll be able to face them and deal with them. And that frees up more room and lowers your stress. Think of it as letting some of the air out of that balloon.

The second thing I recommend is what I like to call Morning Personal Affirmations. I do it while I’m stretching in the morning. It’s pretty simple. Decide on something you need to hear that day. Maybe you had a fight with your partner and you need to hear that it’s going to be ok. Simply give yourself a pep talk. I recommend it in the morning because it sets you in the right direction! Then, if hits come during the day, you’re already in a better space to defend yourself against them.

The third is the acronym DTTIR, which stands for Detecting Toxic Thoughts and Identifying Replacements. Every time you have a negative thought, write it down. That’s the first step. Just write it down. Then start exploring it. Is there any proof to that thought? Probably not. More likely, you’re taking a small spark and turning it into a roaring fire. So recognize that, number one, then work to replace it. Say it’s a common one like “I’m not worthy of my position and one day I’ll be exposed.” Well, why do you feel that way? Because one time you were something less than perfect, but you’ve crushed it ever since? That’s how our brains work unfortunately. We remember all the garbage and none of the positive. So start replacing the negative thoughts “I’m not worthy” with a more honest thought, “I’m not perfect but I’m good at what I do and I do the best I can.”

Fourth tip. Building off this idea, make a Proof Box. Like I said, we remember all the garbage but none of the positives. So, force yourself to! Here’s the beautiful little secret, for every one negative thing someone says about you, you’ll get ten times more positives. But you have to save them! So, save these positive things. Is it a tweet? Copy and paste it into a word document. Email? Same thing. Then print them out and put them somewhere you can get to pretty easily. Whenever you are struggling with the DTTIR, pull out that folder or box or whatever and use it as fuel!

Last one. I call it Necessary Removals. Next time you feel awful, next time you’re struggling, do an inventory. Who, what, where etc. made you feel that way? Write it down. And don’t act immediately! Just write it down. And save those notes. Then, after you’ve got a couple of these, read them. Is someone, something, etc. coming up a lot? If so, figure out a way to talk to them or fix that situation. If you can’t, don’t be afraid to walk away, or at least take a time out. Self-care isn’t selfish. If someone in your life is making you feel a way they shouldn’t you CAN work to fix that and, if noting else works, remove them.

From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

First things first, just show empathy. Be there. Don’t fix it always, although some friendly advice is great. But mostly just tell the person you’re there for them and just listen!

Second, try not to be offended if someone tells you, honestly, how you make them feel. Yes, it hurts. A lot. But that person had to struggle to tell you. So acknowledge that. And apologize right away. Let them explain. Then, when your initial temper has cooled, pause and think about what they said. There’s at least SOME truth there. And it’s how they feel, not what you meant that they’re telling you. So take that to heart. Sometimes being right isn’t the most important thing.

Third, pump people up! Just reach out. It’s that easy. Randomly message your friend and tell them they’re awesome and you wanted them to know how great they are. Compliments are super easy and they’re like a drug. They make us feel good. And if someone is using a Proof Box, maybe they’ll save it!

Fourth. Normalize. When someone tells you they’re anxious, tell them it’s perfectly normal to feel that way. Let them talk it out to you. Then ask them how you can help. Most of the time, simply allowing them to feel like someone else agrees with them is enough.

Final tip, one of my favorite ones. I call it Friday Philanthropy. Nothing makes us feel as good as helping other people. So every Friday, I make it my mission to do as much philanthropy as possible. One thing I started a couple years ago was Friday Coffee on Jay. I Venmo someone five dollars and tell them why I think they deserve a cup of coffee. Then I take a screenshot and post it on my Instagram story to let all my followers know how and why they’re awesome. Just a little fun thing I do to make someone’s day and make me smile!

What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?

Well, number one, reach out. My contact info is below. Let’s chat! I love helping people Choose Their Struggle and find themselves.

Second, be mindful (see what I did there) of where you’re getting your information on this topic. Look, meditation is amazing. It is. But it’s not the only way to be mindful nor does it work for everyone. Recently, meditation has become the Alcoholics Anonymous of Mindfulness. We’ve developed this idea that the only way to do (mindfulness, be in recovery) is (Meditation, AA). But that’s not the case. Both of those examples are great! But they are not the only tool in the toolbox.

So, if you’re reading or listening to something, or talking to someone, and they’re saying meditation is the only way to be mindful, challenge that. Search out alternative points of view. People are talking about mindfulness a lot these days. Which is awesome! Just make sure it’s a broad spectrum and not only the method that’s in fashion.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

Oh, definitely.

I’m 10 years in recovery now. But like I was saying, the first five years, I rarely told anyone. I kept it a secret. I thought it was a mark of shame! Man, that stigma is real.

But that friend of mine I mentioned earlier runs an organization that puts on events where influential or well-known people tell their origin story. It’s called Cincy Stories and they’re amazing. Check them out!

Knowing my story, he asked me to tell my story. I said oh, no. No way. But he asked again, and again, and I kept saying no. Well, after the third time he asked, I was at home visiting my parents. And I told my Dad about this opportunity and how I was saying no. And I remember this vividly. He was reading the New York Times. And when I told him this, without lowering the paper, he asked why I said no. And I said well, duh, I’m terrified.

After I said this, he slowly lowered the paper, looked me in the eye and said ‘Fear is never a good reason not to do something,’ then picked the paper up like he didn’t just blow up my world!

So the next day I told my buddy I was in. And my life hasn’t been the same since that night! So, yeah, fear is never a good reason not to do something! And it’s true.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Oh I love this! So, my personal movement, hashtag, everything is Choose Your Struggle. Look, we live in a world that wants you to care about EVERYTHING. And, we, as humans, make choices for people we don’t even know ALL THE TIME. We don’t just let people do their thing. We’re selfish like that. We create stigma because we decide WE know the answer and WE know what’s best for everyone else. It’s foolish and it’s harmful. And it’s often based on absolutely nothing but our own foolish selfishness.

So, I work with people around that mantra, Choose Your Struggle. What do YOU want? Ignore what your mother/father/sister/brother/wife/husband/pastor/rabbi wants for a moment. What will make YOU happiest and most fulfilled. And as long as it’s not harming anyone (you or someone else), let’s figure out how you can achieve that.

So it’s that. Choose Your Struggle. Don’t worry about everyone else. If they’re laughing, it’s because, deep down inside, they terrified of being as free as you are. DO YOU! Choose Your Struggle!

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

You can find me at my website, www.JayShifman.com, or at my LinkedIn, https://www.linkedin.com/in/jayshifman/, where I regularly post about Mental Health and Addiction topics. Finally, you can listen to my podcast, the Choose Your Struggle podcast, dropping every Friday, wherever you get your podcasts.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

Thank you for doing this. We need to talk about Mental Health more often. It’s the only way to #endthestigma!

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