Your greatest challenge for making progress with self-improvement is your own Critter Brain. What it is and how you can combat it.

“It’s normal to have challenges and big feelings and you can still experience emotional freedom.  It can all co-exist.”

Amy McLaughlin-Margolis is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Co-Founder/Director of Santa Monica Counseling in California. She specializes in treating eating disorders, addictions, anxiety, depression, codependency and adoption-related issues.

What Really IS Freedom?

Freedom… I can hear almost George Michael belting it out and love the whole notion of it!  But what does it actually mean? 

The classic definition of freedom is “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.”  Again, sounds lovely, but how realistic is this? Don’t we all have life circumstances where this is just not possible?

Why, when we change for the better and feel so good, do we get in our own way?  As if our brain is at war with itself.  Well, because in a way, it is. - Critter Brain

You can’t just tell your boss to “ f%&k off” when he takes credit for your idea again! 

Or you can’t just put your feet up and watch reality tv on the day your two year old decides he doesn’t need his nap anymore. 

Or worse, have you ever had times conducive to feeling free, like being on vacation, but your head was so full of fear, resentment, regret, fill in the blank… that it robbed you of the experience.  

Where is the Freedom in that?

Emotional Freedom is the Key

That, my friends, is what I want to address today… emotional freedom. How do we experience freedom within the constraints of our lives and our busy minds?

We all have histories, responsibilities and we can’t always control people, situations and our ensuing feelings, but we do have agency over our attitudes and actions.  We always have the freedom to choose how we will show up, how we will respond, and how we will treat ourselves and others.

Viktor Frankl, an Austrian Holocaust Survivor, neurologist, psychiatrist and author of the amazing book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” put it best…

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Why, when we change for the better and feel so good, do we get in our own way?  As if our brain is at war with itself.  Well, because in a way, it is. - Critter Brain

Okay, Amy, this sounds great, but…

How can I choose to have a positive attitude at work when my coworker bugs the crap out of me? Or How can I have the freedom to be happy when my child is an addict or my spouse left me or I regret not following my dreams and now it’s too late? 

The list can go on and on. 

Struggles are a Part of Being Human

Well, take comfort in the fact that you are not alone.  Nobody is running a perfect race. I don’t know anybody who has the exact life they set out to have and/or hasn’t made one misstep.  Nor do I know anybody who hasn’t gone through pain, struggled in a relationship or felt out of control and if you do, give it time.

We will never have all our “ducks in a row” and if we do, it will be temporary.  Welcome to the richness of life.  Welcome to being human.  I love Norman Vincent Peale, who was a great minister and author of many books, namely “The Power of Positive Thinking.” He often said, “If you want to see a person without problems, visit a cemetery.” 

Norman Vincent Peale also said,

“Problems constitute a sign of life.  The more problems you have, the more alive you are.”

I exhale just reading that.  It’s normal to have challenges and big feelings and you can still experience emotional freedom.  It can all co-exist.

While reading this, if you are feeling too heavy hearted with resentment, trauma, sadness, etc, getting professional help could be transformative.  In a perfect world we would all be able to just purge our souls of all the pain and negativity in our histories and have a clean slate to live in freedom.  In reality, we can do this work little by little and be satisfied, and at times even exhilarated, by the journey.

I personally see emotional freedom as the ability to show up in the present, authentically, with an open heart, free from pain about the past and anxiety about the future.  This is a daily practice as life is always in session…  old wounds can get triggered, we are all in relationships, and new resentments can always pop up.

Two Simple Exercises

To Help you Feel a Better Sense of Emotional Freedom

Here are two journal exercises to help you feel a greater sense of freedom.

The first you can do daily to ground yourself and practice positivity and letting go in your day ahead.  The second one is a little formula that helps when you are having big feelings or obsessing about something and could really use relief to free yourself up!

Change Old Ways of Thinking and Being with These Exercises to combat Critter Brain

Exercise 1:

5 Gratitudes, 5 Did Wells & 5 Surrenders

Most people wake up in the morning looking at what’s wrong or missing in their lives and/or what’s wrong or missing in them.  As humans we are typically wanting more and rarely feeling like we are quite enough. Writing your GRATITUDES and DID WELLS will slowly change this lack mindset and free you up to enjoy what is.

The 5 Gratitudes
Your GRATITUDES could be as epic as getting a new job or as simple as the taste of your morning coffee. The practice of writing them down daily will cause you to look for things during the day you are grateful for, which in turn, will cause you to be a more appreciative, happier person.  And if you are continuously looking at what’s good, like a magnet, you will attract more good. For we attract what we are.

The 5 Did Wells
Your DID WELLS, the things you are proud of yourself for, could be noteworthy like volunteering at a soup kitchen and/or small like making everybody dinner while PMSing without being a biatch!  Most of us are our own harshest critics and lament, “Why can’t I treat myself like I treat my friends?”  Newsflash!  You can – and this is me giving you permission.  It might feel uncomfortable at first, but trust me, with time you will fall in love. Insert Smiley face emoji here.  The other cool thing about this is when we treat ourselves with more compassion, our resentments toward others soften up, which helps us feel what?  Drum roll please… more emotional freedom.

The 5 Surrenders
Your SURRENDERS are the things in life that are out of your control.  We absolutely have a lot of power over our actions and attitudes… not so much over the results we get, nor many circumstances in our environment.  These are things like: other people’s behaviors and the inevitabilities of life such as aging, death and loss.  Or perhaps a global pandemic.  Our freedom lies in doing what we can, and surrendering the rest.

Change Old Ways of Thinking and Being with These Exercises to combat Critter Brain

Exercise 2:

Emotional Freedom Formula

Use this exercise when you are troubled by a situation, pissed off at someone, obsessing, or “trying to figure something out” that just won’t be settled today.  I will fill it in with a relatable example… marriage!

What is the Situation?
For example,  I am feeling really disenchanted in my marriage.  My husband has gained weight.  He seems moody and checked out.  I feel like there has been a bait and switch!  He was so hot when I married him and now I look at him and want to run for the hills!  Arrghhh

What does it affect/threaten in me?
My peace, my home life, my ability to be happy and have fun, my security, my relationship, my future.  My freedom.

What do I get by hanging on to this?
I get to be totally distracted and not fully present to enjoy my kids and family life.  I get to be bitchy to my husband, feel guilty and not like myself very much.  I get to feel self righteous, better than, and lonely.  I get to fantasize about leaving and finding greater love.  I get to feel obsessed with trying to figure this out!

What would it look and feel like if I could let this go?
I would be able to accept my husband for who he is and have some compassion for both of us.  We are human and doing our best in this thing called marriage, and this bigger thing called life!  I would get the microscope off him and focus on me, take care of myself and do things that fill me up. I would be present and enjoy what is and know that everything doesn’t have to be perfect for me to feel freedom and joy.

What is my part?
Wishing my husband would change so I can be happy.  Wanting control.  Giving him and his weight gain, self care and moods my power.  Focusing on these negative, and possibly temporary aspects, of my husband instead of all the good in him and in our life.

What action can I take?
I can allow my husband to be who he is, and be kind.  I can examine my expectations about marriage and current feelings and decide if I want to respectfully share them with him or not.  I can always share my feelings with a trusted friend, join a women’s group, or get outside help so I don’t feel alone.  I can do things that make me happy and not look to get all my needs met by my husband.  I can do a gratitude list about my husband and look for our points of connection and enjoy his company.   I can choose to focus on things I appreciate in my life.  And, if I am truly miserable, I can be proactive about looking into my options. I always have choices.

Do Something Physical to let this go:
This can take many forms.  You can write your husband a letter you never send, but instead burn it as a way to release it.  You can get on your knees and pray for your husband and yourself and the whole enchilada.  Or put his name in your “surrender box” to let go of this whole issue for today.   The point is you are symbolically giving this trouble over to the universe, God, the ethers.  You are surrendering it, trusting that help and relief are coming, so you can be freed up to enjoy the good in your life.


Doing this exercise helps you get your feelings out on paper, but more importantly, it helps you see how you contribute to your own resentments and troubles that keep you in bondage and prevent freedom.

If you do these exercises with many situations in your life, you may see a pattern in your own thinking and behaviors.  This can be humbling… but also very empowering.  There will often be people and situations in our lives that can’t be changed.  When this is so, our emotional freedom lies in changing ourselves.

I will end with a prayer which always brings me greater freedom:

“Dear God, Grant Me the Serenity to Accept the Things I Cannot Change, the Courage to Change the Things I Can, and the Wisdom to Know the Difference.”

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Amy McLaughlin-Margolis, LCSW - insidewink guest author

Amy McLaughlin-Margolis, LCSW

Amy is a wife and mom to three humans and two animals! Hailing from Boston and NYC, Amy is a SoCal transplant. And though she misses her big Irish family, she is incredibly grateful come January when she is taking long walks in the sunshine and her cousins are calling her about a wicked cold Nor’easta! Amy is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Co-Founder/Director of Santa Monica Counseling. She specializes in treating eating disorders, addictions, anxiety, depression, codependency and adoption-related issues. Amy is also a Meisner and Groundlings trained actor, who has spent the majority of her career doing Voice Over work for animation and commercials and recently optioned her first animated series. Amy is excited to be contributing to insidewink, a site she finds so inspiring. She hopes to be a worthy contribution!

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