My Siege of Leningrad

A couple of years ago a coworker convinced me to try fasting. I’ve never done a fast before and it didn’t make any sense to me that not eating would do any good, but I was in an exploratory state of mind and this coworker left a powerful impression on me so I thought I’d try it.

I decided to do a 48-hour fast to start with. I packed a bit of food for afterwards, a meditation cushion and a nice fuzzy blanket, drove to a tiny village not far from here and checked into a small hotel. It was the middle of winter, everything was covered with soft snow and the quiet was deafening.

To keep me entertained, I brought a copy of The Sedona Method, a book I’ve been meaning to read for a while but felt like I needed some space away from work and family to actually get into.

About an hour after I got to the hotel and set up my nest I felt the first pangs of hunger. “This is going to be interesting,” I thought. The book presented a method that promised to help me release my emotions. The idea seemed absurd. I didn’t know there was anything to release about emotions – I just felt them. What was this “release” business about? Nevertheless, I decided to give it a try.

So what was I feeling? I was hungry, that was obvious. But under the hunger, there was something else. Fear. It was hard to notice at first, but the hunger was mixed with an incredible amount of fear of being even more hungry. Looking out the window at the beautiful white vista I suddenly understood.

You see, my grandparents lived through the Siege of Leningrad in 1941-1944. It’s estimated that 1.5 million people died from hunger during that time. Throughout my childhood I heard repeated stories of extreme cold combined with extreme hunger (they’d boil shoes to get a bit of nutrients out of the leather). This stuck way deeper than I could have imagined, and even though they have both died quite a few years ago, I apparently still carried the scars.

With the snow outside and the hunger inside the images of that war came rushing in. I found myself howling, crying, shaking in agony. It seemed like it would never end. But it did. It took about 20 minutes for my body to process enough of that trauma to return to the book – and the method.

“Could you let the fear go?” the book asked.

– Yes.
– Would you?
– Yes.
– When?
– Now!

I took a deep breath in. My breathing slowed down, the knot in my belly loosened and I felt some tingling in my feet. I looked around inside my mind. The fear was gone, but there was something else. Deep grief. Grief for my grandparents and what they had to live through, for all the people who suffered and died in Leningrad and most of all for myself, the child that I was, listening to those stories, the emotions I denied myself, the loneliness I felt so many times in my life even when I was surrounded by people.

– Could you let the grief go?
– Yes.
– Would you?
– Yes.
– When?
– Now.

I didn’t feel that hungry anymore. I could feel the emptiness in my stomach but without the fear and the grief, it didn’t have as much power over me. My mind was blown. If it was possible to release hunger, a profoundly physical experience, what else was possible?

I kept releasing emotions as they came up using the same technique throughout the whole 48 hours. I drank plenty of water and slept a lot, but otherwise felt clear and deeply connected to my core. After coming back from my little retreat I started practicing The Sedona Method multiple times a day, with every negative emotion that came up. A few months later I decided it would be easier for me if I built a little app to help me with the process. Wuju was born.

The app has evolved quite a bit since then and so has my understanding of emotions and how to work with them well. But the basic truth still blows my mind to this day – we don’t just feel emotions, we hold on to them. And if we allow ourselves to feel them, and then let them go – they go away.

If you haven’t tried Wuju yet, you’re in for a treat, and maybe a life changing experience.

If you like this, follow me on Twitter. I write about how emotions impact our lives and how to manage them better.

@finereli

The end of depression

“I shouldn’t have done that.” This was the first thought that popped into my head when I opened my eyes. I was laying on top of my mountain bike with my leg stuck awkwardly underneath it. It was broken. I’d been chasing a friend of mine who was about twice as good as I was, and it was my 3rd fall of the day. It was the last one too.

My friend helped me hobble to my car on my broken left ankle and get my bike in. Driving home (and shifting gears without using a clutch that my left leg couldn’t operate) I realized I couldn’t get up the stairs to my apartment. Shit. I needed help. I was 28, an Israeli army leutenant and a startup founder and I needed to ask my parents to take care of me because I couldn’t. My ego wasn’t liking it one bit.

The shame of the embarrasing fall, being immobile, the collapsing economy of late 2008 that caused our startup to grind to a halt and staying in my teenage room that I left with so much flair threw me into a serious bout of depression.

I couldn’t sleep at night, and I couldn’t wake up in the morning. I could think and I couldn’t feel. I couldn’t focus enough to watch movies or read books. I was running out of cash and needed to start looking for a job, but I just couldn’t get started. I didn’t answer my phone, even when my business partner or friends called to see how I was. I was in the shit.


I was thinking about this story the other day and wondered what would’ve happened if someone gave me a phone with Wuju running on it back then. I would’ve probably taken a look at the list of emotions, clicked on Apathy, saw that “Could you allow yourself to feel the apathy?” question and thrown the fucking phone at the fucking wall because why the hell would I want to do something like that?!! And then I would start to cry.

This could have been the beginning of my journey to heal from depression and reclaim my life. In reality it took another year, lots of meds and another full-on collapse before my journey began in earnest.

Depression might be the result of a chemical imbalance, it might be genetic, it might be the result of trauma or that your life is just shit. In my experience, none of that is even close to the root cause. After looking for answers for more than a decade, I reached a different conclusion:

Depression is our natural response to very powerful emotions, very powerfully repressed.

In Freud’s days the most powerfully repressed emotion was sexual desire, which was why he framed a lot of his thinking around it. In my own life, it’s usually been anger. For others it can be shame, or fear, or – as is the case in some religious families – doubt.

Our culture (and this seems to be true for most of the world, not just the West) only allows us to feel and express specific emotions at specific times. You can be sad at a funeral, angry at a football game or scared at the movies. But try to feel any emotion outside of its socially approved context and you’ll be ridiculed – by your own internal judge if not by the people around you.

We hear it all around us as we grow and we internalize a lot of it.

  • There’s nothing to be afraid of.
  • What are you getting all worked up for?
  • Don’t be so sad, it’s going to be OK.
  • Stop being so emotional!

Everywhere we turn we get told that our emotions are illogical, unreasonable, limit our ability to get ahead in life (or make money) and in general are a huge nuisance that we should ignore, rationalize away and suppress.

They are partially right. Emotions are indeed illogical, unreasonable, arise without cause, and, improperly managed, can cause havoc in our lives. And so, when they spontaneously arise we shove them into a little black box in the pit of our stomach. They accumulate and fester there until we need so much energy to keep everything bottled up that we have no will left for anything else, like taking a shower or brushing our teeth.

Exploring and safely expressing emotions is the common trait in most effective techniques that deal with depression. And when I say effective I mean truly healing, and not just aiding with suppression like SSRIs. Good therapy can help, so can good friends, although both have a limited capacity for our emotions as they typically are repressing some of their own. Therapeutic use of psychedelics can help too, although the experience can be quite violent.

And then there’s Wuju, the app I originally built to help with my own depression and has been helpful to many people since then.

If you’ve been depressed for a while and you want to try it, make sure you take it real slow. Start with Apathy or Tension, peel it back a bit and see what other emotions arise. Whatever arises, whether it’s Fear or Anger or Shame or anything else, go there, lean into it. If you need to throw your phone, aim it at a cushion, you might need it later. If you need to scream – scream, if you need to growl – growl, if you needed to cry – by all means, cry. Make sure you’re in a safe space where you can allow yourself to let go and give yourself all the time you need. You might need a blanket to wrap yourself up in, some water to drink, and a box of tissues. It can be intense, but it usually doesn’t last very long. And it feels amazing afterwards – like a great weight has been lifted off your shoulders.

The emotions will come back. They are our birthright, or most defining human trait and carry a lot of hidden wisdom in them. You’ll need to come back to Wuju again and again, lean into whatever is going on, feel it, let it go, and then do it all over again. It’ll get easier over time and there will be less to work through, but I suspect it will never fully go away. I wouldn’t want to live without the richness of my emotions even if I have to “manage” them for the rest of my life, and I suspect the same might be true for you too.

If you like this, follow me on Twitter. I write about how emotions impact our lives and how to manage them better.

@finereli

I built an app to fix my depression

I was first diagnosed with depression when I was working on a startup in 2007. I went to the doctor, told him I was feeling mild flu symptoms for a couple of months, he asked me a few questions, determined that I had depression, gave my some SSRIs, and sent me home.

It worked for a while, but then 2008 happened, our startup collapsed, the stakes got higher and the depression came back. The doc recommended I up the dosage, but I could see this would eventually lead me to a straitjacket.

Over the years I’ve tried different meds, various forms of therapy, studied and actively practiced life coaching, got married, had kids, moved to another country and changed everything I could think of about my life. Unfortunately the dark bouts of depression remained.

About four years ago I stumbled on a book called Highly Sensitive Person that absolutely blew my mind. I realized I had very intense emotions that I was culturally programmed to repress, which caused my psyche to overload and go into full apathy mode also known as clinical depression.

I’ve been on a path to figure out how to process my emotions without repressing them and combined my personal experience with several non-mainstream techniques to build Wuju. It’s an online app that can help you tap into your hidden emotions and release them so they no longer influence your behaviour or cause depressive symptoms.

I’ve used it in the last 18 months to deal with parenting two kids, surviving infidelity, losing my job, starting a business, and covid anxiety. My longest bouts of depression now lasts a couple of hours at most and even that doesn’t happen too often.

You can try it too: wuju.app

Update 2020-10-07

I got a huge response from this tiny article and decided to take the app to the next level to try and make a living off it. It is now subscription based at $6/month but you can try it out for free for as long as you need before paying.

If you like this, follow me on Twitter. I write about how emotions impact our lives and how to manage them better.

@finereli

How to stick to good habits without being hard on yourself

Say you decide to start meditating. You get one of those meditation apps that guide you gently through the process and get to it. You feel pretty good the first time. The second time feels nice as well. By the end of the week with 5 sesssions under your belt you think you’ve got it, the habit is locked in.

Then the weekend comes and you stay up late drinking beer with some friends (responsly keeping social distancing of course). The next morning your alarm goes off, reminding you of your morning sit. You snooze it. And then you snooze it again. By the time you get out of bed, the sun is up, it’s too warm, you’re hungry, the dishes from last night need washing and you convince yourself it’s OK to skip it – just today.

The next morning you wake up intending to restart your habit, but you feel some resistance. Your knees hurts and your mind is messy and you think maybe you’d skip another day. By day three of the pause, the guilt and shame set in and the doubt arives: Could you ever do it? Could you ever stick to anything? Could you ever amount to anything? By day four you decide that meditation isn’t for you and it might take years before you try it again.

Most guides on the internet will tell you to never skip that set on that first day of not feeling like it. But that’s impossible. We’re human beings, not machines. We fail and we need to work with that.

Of all the different ways to describe meditation, there is one I found particularly useful. Instead of viewing meditation as an exercise in clearing your mind, the teaching goes, it is the practice of returning your focus to the breath again and again. Importantly, meditation happens not when you’re already focused on the breath, but in that instant when you catch yourself lost in thought, and return your focus to the breath. It is this repetition of losing yourself in thought and then finding your way back again that trains your mind to be present and that’s where most of the benefits of meditation come from. Curiously enough, the same approach works on a higher level too. The meditation habit isn’t primarily about meditating daily. Instead it’s about about restarting your daily practice when you invariably lose it (often for reasons outside your control).

Now, this post isn’t about meditation, it’s about habits in general. And this approach is useful for any habit you want to set up. Learning how to restart habits after skipping a few days is more important than setting them up in the first place.

You’ll need to learn how to do four things:

  1. Forgive yourself when you skip a day (easy)
  2. Forgive yourself when you skip two days (harder)
  3. Forgive yourself when you skip three days (oof)
  4. Forgive yourself when you skip four days (yeah…)

This will give your natural motivation four whole days to resurface by which time you shouldn’t have a problem restarting the practice.

And if you meditate / exercies / eat well / write a thousand words only once every four days, it’s still a consistent habit. A few months of that will change you for good (and help you set tighter habits).

If you like this, follow me on Twitter. I write about how emotions impact our lives and how to manage them better.

@finereli

How fear of success causes procrastination

You probably know about the fear of failure, that impending sense of doom when looking at your goals, comparing them with your abilities, and finding them lacking. But that’s not the only thing that can get you stuck, frozen and unable to move. Fear of success can do it too.

But how’s that possible? The promise of success, you might think, is a powerful motivator that should get you going in the morning and keep you going until late at night. But that’s not all it is. Imagine someone who wants to climb mount Everest. They secure funding, build a team, train like crazy for a year or more all the while imagining that spectacular moment at sunrise on top of the highest mountain in the world, at the peak of their game. They imagine standing there, looking around and wondering – “OK, so now what?” That void, that sense of the future accomplishment combined with a devastating uncertainty of where you go next is what fear of success is about.

Turns out we’re not afraid of the actual success (which is why the title is a little misleading), we are instead afraid of the loss of identity that comes with it. If you’ve ever graduated, or got that job or that girl, or travelled to that exotic place you’ve always wanted to go, you probably experienced this. It is amazing for the first few hours or days, but then it fades leaving an emptiness in its stead. After defining yourself in terms of your ultimate goal for a long time, you suddenly don’t have that which leaves you a bit lost.

Your egoic minds recognizes this potential future and can try to sabotage your progress to keep you in the chase for as long as possible. And the harder you push to reach for your goal the more resistance you’re going to experience. So what can you do? You can’t stop pushing for your goals, can you? That won’t get you anywhere either.

The usual advice to try and enjoy the path, not the destination, applies of course. If you can find joy or peace in every step along the way and hold the goal gently without being too attached to it, the resistance should lessen considerably.

The other part is feeling your fear fully, deeply, and honestly. Find that knot in your belly, that tightness in your throat, that tingling in your elbows (yeah, don’t ask) and tune into it. Imagine yourself after having achieved your goal, staring at the void and the uncertainty. Brace yourself for the unknown. And dive in. By aiming at slightly beyond your goal, at the emptiness just after it, you’ll find the freedom you need to pursue your dreams.

If you like this, follow me on Twitter. I write about how emotions impact our lives and how to manage them better.

@finereli

How fear of shame causes procrastination

You’ve got a big presentation to give in a month. All the big shots are going to be there, you’ve been working on this project for the last year and it’s going to be great. You can see the standing ovation, the accolades, the smiles. So why does day after day goes by without you starting to work on it? Why can’t you bear staring at that empty slide deck and the pull of YouTube videos is so strong? Why can’t you just sit your ass down and get to work?

What you’re experiencing is fear of shame. And even though the positive thinking part of you, reinforced by years of listening to well meaning productivity gurus, is generating the images of a standing ovation, the fearful, younger part of you is sensing the potential of crushing shame. The unplesant images don’t come as easily, but if you stay with the sensation you’ll probably note the tight throat, deer in the headlights, OMG what have I done feeling you’re dreading. The silence. The dubious looks. The desire to run away and hide under a bed.

And while you’re sitting here, getting angry at yourself for being on Reddit all day long for no reason at all, you’re missing the fact that there’s actually a profound reason for you to be running away from working on this presentation. Fear of shame is a very intense demotivator and is way sneakier and nastier than the actual experience of shame.

When we feel shame when we failed at something, it’s real, it’s strong and most of all – it’s justified. We know what happened, we know why we’re feeling this way and we usually aren’t judging ourselves for the feeling itself (just for the actions). It’s an awful sensation but because we’re not fighting it, it eventually goes away. Fear of shame on the other hand hides in the shadows and creates the perception that there’s no reason to feel what we’re feeling. So we fight it, or as is more commonly the case, we run away from it. And what’s a better place to run to than the autoplaying, autoscrolling, autoloading madness of YouTube, Netflix and Reddit?

If you like this, follow me on Twitter. I write about how emotions impact our lives and how to manage them better.

@finereli

If you think you’re bored, think again

My 6 year old came to me this morning and uttered the words that no parent wants to hear during the endless summer vacation: “Daddy, I’m booored!” Shit, what do I do now? How do I keep him occupied and off my back so I can get back to scrolling through Reddit? Wait a second… Something’s wrong with this picture. What’s going on here? And what is boredom anyway?

The simplest way to understand boredom is to think about its opposite – excitement. Bordem then is just the lack of excitement (or insufficient stimulus to be more precise). For my kid, most excitement comes from the outside. If the game he’s playing poses just the right amount of challenge, reward and sense of progress, he’s happy to play. If it doesn’t, he’s bored. But boredom comes from the inside. He’s bored when he’s sad and feeling lonely, he’s bored when he’s scared the Minecraft monsters are going to kill him, he’s bored because he doesn’t know what to build with his Legos and he’s bored because the reading app is way too hard for him. Bordem in other words, often hides a bunch of other emotions that he can’t see.

Now back to us, grownups. We get bored too. We get bored while sitting on the toilet, we get bored while eating, we get bored in the evening after work, we get bored if we’re with a group of friends and the conversation either isn’t stimulating enough or way too stimulating (e.g. a heated debate about politics). And we have the perfect response to bordem – we pull our phones out with our trusty Reddit or Twitter or Instragram feeds to infinitely scroll through and provide just the right kind of mindless stimulus to keep the bordem at bay. But as we saw with my kid, bordem is rarely just a lack of stimulus. It is often an indication of some deeper unwanted emotion trying to push through the surface that we don’t want to feel.

If you manage to notice the thought “I’m bored,” and instead of running towards the next distraction close your eyes and stay with that boredom for just a few seconds, you’ll notice how much resistance there is to just be bored without reacting. If you stay with that for a little while longer, you might notice some emotions bubbling up. It might be a sense of worthlessness or self-judgmenet, it might be anxiety, it might be a sense of overwhelm or just some garden variety tension you can’t really pinpoint. If you stay with those feelings even longer and allow the train of thoughts to gently flow through your mind, you might see what’s actually going on, what your bordem is covering up.

There’s typically one thing on your plate that is both terrifying and extremely valuable. One thing that would change the course of your life if you did it. One thing that causes so much anxiety that you’d rather forget it even exists. You know what I’m talking about. And now back to scrolling.

If you like this, follow me on Twitter. I write about how emotions impact our lives and how to manage them better.

@finereli

Why discipline isn’t the answer to procrastination

We tend to look at procrastination as a lack of discipline, which causes us to try to push ourselves harder. But as you do that you might find to your surprise that you’re procrastinating even more after a short period of sticking to your guns. So what the hell is going on? Why does applying discipline to procrastination make it worse?

You probably intuitively know this already, but you discipline and will power have a limit. If you apply too much of it, you’re going to run out. This is called Ego Depletion in research1Many readers pointed out the research on this is quite controversial. Still, you may have a personal experience of having a limit to your willpower which makes it a useful construct to consider. and it’s the reason why if you’ve skipped the cake, you’re going to have a hard time skipping the beer. And if you’ve been pushing yourself to study all day, the cake, the beer and the Netflix show will have an irresistable appeal even if you’ve firmly decided you’re going to limit all three.

The real reason we procrastinate (and keep procrastinating) is that we are running away from discomfort. In particualr we’re running away from the discomfort of feeling a negative emotion. That emotions is guilt, and guess what emotion comes up when you’re procrastinating? Yep, guilt, and a lot of it.

Let’s roll that back for a moment. Let’s say you’re looking at the stack of books you need to go through to prep for an exam and it triggers a subtle fear in you. Maybe you don’t believe you can go through all this in time, may you doubt if you can absorb all that knowledege – it doesn’t matter. What matters is that fear sets in, and fear is really uncomfortable to feel. The physical experience of tightness in the chest and throat, and the mental images of doom that accompany it are so unplesant we want to run away. This of course all happens subconciously. The only concious response is a thought: “I’m just going to watch a couple of videos and then get to it.”

And so, the need to study caused fear, and the fear caused the first bit of procrastination. And now we’re back with guilt, caused by our procrastination. Since guilt is even more unpleasant than fear, the incentive to run away from it is even more intense. So we get into a perpetual cycle of procrastination reinforcing guilt and guilt reinforcing procrastination and we aren’t even enjoying the f’ing funny cat videos anymore!

We’re always going to have fear, anger, sadness and shame causing discomfort and causing us to reach for our vices. And our vices will always create more shame and guilt and anger at ourselves, reinforcing the need to reach for the vices even more. The only way to properly deal with this cycle is to face the discomfort of our emotions directly. We need to feel our guilt, our shame, our fear – fully, without reservation, without running away. It’s going to hurt like hell, but luckily it won’t last forever. In fact, when we are able to fully feel an emotion, it usually only lasts for a few minutes and then dissipates.

And that is the measure of true courage – facing our fear, our anger, our self-doubt and in particular our shame. Face them, feel them fully, and you’ll be free of them.

If you like this, follow me on Twitter. I write about how emotions impact our lives and how to manage them better.

@finereli