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Michael Phelps: Breaking records, smashing stereotypes

Michael Phelps: Breaking records, smashing stereotypes

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Have you ever heard someone suggest that ‘Depressed people are lazy, and they just need to toughen up’? Not only can such statements be extremely hurtful, but evidence flies in the face of such thinking.

Case in point: Olympic athlete Michael Phelps’s battle with depressive symptoms and suicidality. One thing that makes his story so compelling is that he is a record-breaking gold medalist whose training undoubtedly requires tremendous focus and dedication, and who most people would certainly not consider to be ‘weak’ or ‘lazy’.

In recent years, he has opened up about his experiences (1, 2). Let’s take a look at what he has shared, and how this might relate to mental health more broadly:

1. He cited social support as an important factor which helped him realize that suicide was not a good solution.  My clinical experience has shown me that people with depression often tend to isolate themselves. Low mood seems to say ‘just stay in bed, cocoon yourself under the warm covers, things will seem quieter and safer there, and you won’t have to struggle to expend energy interacting with people or doing activities.’  Sometimes people feel like they would be burdening others with their problems, or that others won’t understand what they are going through. But the reality is that isolating ourselves from the people who truly care about us can contribute to further worsening our mood, resulting in a vicious cycle where low mood makes us want to isolate ourselves, which in turn can contribute to further lowering of our mood. And ironically, sometimes the periods when our mood is lowest and our inclination to confide or socialize is plummeting can actually be among the most important times to do the opposite and reach out.

2. He reported having been critical or disappointed with himself when he did not beat a certain world record. This suggests that he may have had a focus on outcome goals, where the motivation is tied to the result (e.g. winning a competition), as opposed to process goals where the focus is on the steps involved (e.g. hard work, love of learning) (3). This may have left him feeling like a failure when he did not achieve his desired outcome. Indeed, some research has found that process goals can have certain advantages, including more enjoyment (4). I’ve often heard clients say things like ‘I’ll be happy when I achieve x goal / when I hit x milestone / when x is over’, but as clinical sports psychologist Kristen Keim noted, it is important to take pleasure in the process and in the moment (5).

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3. He reported that his sense of self-worth declined after he retired from swimming. Sports psychologist Dr. Goldman noted that equating identity with sport can lead some athletes to lose their sense of self (5). It can be very risky to put all of your eggs in one basket by linking your sense of self-worth to any one area of life (be it academic performance, romantic relationships, or physical appearance) because of the negative ramifications for mood and/or self-esteem when we don’t perform as well as we would have liked in that area, or when our involvement in that area diminishes. As such, some therapies encourage clients to develop and value multiple domains of life (6).

4. He noted that he had not reflected on his accomplishments along the way. Perhaps it is surprising that someone who has won so many gold medals during his career would not have already reflected on his successes. But many of us can relate to being focused on getting things done; it can feel like we are running on a treadmill that is going so fast that we struggle to keep up and to catch our breath, making it a real challenge to focus on the present moment and to practice mindfulness. See my colleague Natsumi’s blogpost to learn more about mindful awareness and how you can begin to incorporate it (7).

5. He was initially reluctant to get help, and anxious about the idea of change. Some people think – if you’re not doing well, you should jump at the chance to feel better, right? In reality, things often aren’t that simple. In many ways, we are creatures of habit, and we often find comfort in familiarity, even if that familiarity isn’t ideal. The idea of some unknown change can feel risky or scary, and people may wonder if they are capable of change, if that change will be sustainable, or if they will be fundamentally different people when their depressive symptoms have improved. These are all valid questions; make sure to raise them with your therapist if they are of concern to you.

6. Having benefitted from treatment, he went on to raise awareness and develop a foundation aimed at promoting stress management for youth. Although not everyone will have their own foundation, some people are eventually able to make meaning or see the silver lining in their experience, for instance, by noting that their own struggles have improved their ability to empathize with others and to demonstrate self-compassion.

Bottom line: Struggling with depression does not make someone weak or lazy. And the wide variety of people coming forward about their own experiences demonstrates that very accomplished, hard-working and motivated individuals can struggle with mental health problems. Michael Phelps’s experience illustrates this point well, as well as the importance of factors like social support, motivation, self-worth, and mindfulness in mental health.

Simcha Samuel is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or like us on Facebook.


  3. Qu, Y.., Pomerantz, E. M., & Deng, C. (2016). Mothers’ goals for adolescents in the United States and China: Content and transmission, J Res Adolesc., 26, 126-141.
  4. Wilson, K. & Brookfield, D. (2009). Effect of goal setting on motivation and adherence in a six-week exercise program. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 6, 89-100.
  6. Fairburn, C. G. (2008). Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Eating Disorders. New York, NY: The Guilford Press. 

Those times when “being healthy”…. isn’t. How to integrate self-care into our exercise goals

Those times when “being healthy”…. isn’t. How to integrate self-care into our exercise goals


Lucy is a 25-year old working in her first job post-university. She’s always been an active person, but has never been confident with the way she looks. She considers herself to be pretty healthy, though. In the past year, she has gotten into more intense forms of cardio work-outs, and she makes sure to exercise most days, as well as to do yoga a few times a week. That’s good for body and mind, right…?  When she doesn’t have time to fit in exercise into her day, she gets antsy and feels irritable and guilty. Doesn’t that happen to everyone?

As a psychologist working with individuals aiming to improve their mental health, the topic of exercise often comes up in session. We have all heard that we “should” do some form of physical activity in our week (I’m going to come back to that word later). Indeed, the benefits of exercise on physical and mental health are well established (e.g., Penedo & Dahn, 2005, Anchor, 2010); better mood, reduced stress, increased motivation, better physical health across a range of measures, and an overall better quality of life.

But how can we approach exercise with an attitude of self-care, rather than obligation? And how can we notice when we’re taking it too far? Some clients describe moments when focusing on fitness and health can feel like a compulsion. It can be something that we feel we have to do (otherwise we might feel guilty, for example) - rather than something that feels good. It can feel obsessive and rigid, rather than a way of caring for our bodies and minds. The messages that we get from social media and general culture can be confusing, too. The rise of extreme fitness trends and Instagram-style fitness celebrities and workshops put forward the notion that fitness is about intensity, and pushing your body to its limit. And hidden in there too (often not so subtly) is a focus on body image - we “should” be strong, muscular, and intense in our dedication to physical fitness. As described in this recent article in the Walrus, messages about fitness have changed, but the focus on body image remains. For many adherents of extreme fitness, the message remains that, “we would be happier if our bodies were different”.

So how to pursue exercise in a way that is caring towards both your mind and body?


To quote this lovely blog, which discusses focusing on health in a mindful and balanced way: “Try paying attention to how you feel, the signals your body is sending you, and what would truly serve the needs you have.”

Self-care is a simple concept, but one that is often difficult to prioritise, given all the competing demands in our day. But the basic idea is that there are certain core needs that should be met in order for us to feel both mentally and physically healthy. Namely:

  • Stay hydrated - drink water
  • Eat a balanced diet
  • Be physically active
  • Go outside
  • Take a shower
  • Sleep
  • Spend time with friends and family

In essence, self-care has some basic ingredients, but the “fine tuning” is unique to every person. It basically means taking some time to make sure that you are taking care of you (check out this link for some examples shared by individuals).


Identifying our self-care needs involves tuning in with our bodies and allowing ourselves to think about what would truly be in our best interest. Importantly, this involves allowing yourself to choose what you need in that particular moment. Sounds easy, but think about how often you end up feeling that you “should” do something else instead (is it just me…?)

For instance, if you’re feeling tired and stressed after a long day at work, what would serve your needs best? Would exercise help you get rid of some of that pent-up energy, and boost your mood? Or, some days, do you feel that what you really need is to sleep? This may mean choosing to go to bed early, and cancelling some of your plans (not always easy!). When you notice that your knee is hurting (a personal example of mine, following a knee surgery), does it need rest? Or, on the contrary, do I need to get to the gym and do my knee exercises? When you notice that you’re feeling under pressure and irritable at work, can you say no to a few requests and allow yourself to complete your existing tasks as best you can? And could you do some activity that will allow you to feel good and direct your focus back to you and your health (some laps in the pool, a dance class, a jog)?

The key is to become familiar with your body’s signals and needs, and allow yourself to choose what self-care would look like for you at that time - be that going for a jog, taking some time to read, spending time with loved ones, or simply going to bed. Being honest and flexible with oneself is key here. Feeling that you “should” do something is a warning sign to ask yourself if it is truly in your best interests. (Note: It’s worth pointing out here that self-care does not mean being selfish, or considering only your needs. It’s not “me first”, but rather “me too”, and ensuring that you maximise your own resources in order to be able to engage with what’s important to you - check out Andrea’s blog for more on this topic).

For those who have difficulties identifying their self-care needs, check out this fun, interactive guide).


Read Jodie’s awesome 3-part blog posts which discuss identifying and connecting to your values, and figuring out how they can be pursued on a daily basis. Pay special attention to self-criticism (“you need to lose weight”) or “shoulds” that leave you feeling coerced (i.e., the stick, rather than the carrot). Jodie breaks this down into figuring out your WHYS, WHATS, and HOWS. This includes the most challenging part - how to keep your self-care habits going!

Follow us on Instagram @connectepsychology for your daily connect to self-care.

Maeve O'Leary-Barrett is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogspodcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.


Achor, S. (2010). The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. Crown Business: New York.

Penedo F. J., & Dahn, J. R. (2005). Exercise and well-being: a review of mental and physical health benefits associated with physical activity. Curr Opin Psychiatry;18(2):189-93.

Rupert, P. A., & Kent, J. S. (2007). Gender and work setting differences in career-sustaining behaviors and burnout among professional psychologists. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 38(1), 88-96. 



Guest post from Dr. Jessamy Hibberd

Dr Jessamy is a Clinical Psychologist. She has a private practice in London and is co-author of the bestselling THIS BOOK WILL… series. To read more tips and strategies to feel good visit, follow @drjessamy on Instagram, or like on Facebook.

We’re into February and despite best intentions, most resolutions are already failed and forgotten. A study by the University of Bristol found that only 12% of resolutions were successfully kept.

Despite this, I’m a big fan of “NYRs” and believe they can be beneficial for both mental health and general well being – as long as they’re made in the right kind of way.

So if you’re struggling with your resolutions instead of feeling deflated try a new approach. The key to good NYRs (or goals in general) is using them to celebrate your successes and basing them on what you hope to gain, rather than give up.

The rules are simple:

  • Write down all the things you were proud of in 2016 and any achievements, no matter how small
  • Make a list of everything you hope to do in 2017
  • Share your resolutions with someone you care about

This approach offers a chance to reflect on the year that’s passed, take stock and look forward to the year ahead with optimism, hope and excitement. Something we all need as we make our way through the winter months!

Of course, if you’re planning on giving up or restricting things in your life (such as giving up alcohol on weekdays or quitting sugar) then you’re likely to fail in the long term. Those definitely aren’t the sort of resolutions I’m talking about.

Think about your hopes, dreams and goals for the year: new things you want to do or try out, places you’d like to visit, work goals or people you’d like to see. Rather than giving up, it’s all about gaining.

The start of a new year offers the perfect time to review our lives. Often we are so focused on getting through the day that we forget to stop, step back and remind ourselves of the things we’re happy with – what’s gone well, what made us laugh, and what we’d like to improve on.

See the new year as a fresh start (February is not too late!). Use it to renew your motivation and allow yourself to let go of the things that didn’t go so well or that you weren’t so happy with. Avoid guilt or self-criticism and focus instead on where you want to go to next.

By making resolutions, you’re setting your intentions for the year ahead. These act as a map of where you’d like to head and carry you through the harder days giving you something to aim for and look forward to.

The good feelings don’t stop there, working towards and reaching your goals is brilliant for confidence and self-esteem. They give you a sense of purpose and feeling of fulfilment and when your mood is higher you’re more likely to succeed at making changes in the other areas of your life that you wish to tackle.

My top tips for making and keeping 2017 NYRs

Make a positive change

Resolutions work best when their aim is to make a positive change. Keep them simple and ensure they are realistic and achievable. Take time making them, if you make them too hastily they may only reflect how you were feeling at that time.

Step out of your comfort zone

It’s good to do things that mean you take a step out of your comfort zone. New experiences, new hobbies and challenging ourselves on a regular basis are massively important for maintaining good mental health, personal growth and improving self-esteem.

Have a mix of goals

Include small, medium and big goals. Have some goals that are outward focused – charitable, community based or involving others, so it’s not all about you.

Break them down

If it’s a bigger goal, break it down so that it’s clear what you’ll need to do to achieve it. Don’t add too many rules – there’s no need to start them exactly on the 1st or to have to do them 100% of the time.

Enjoy the journey as well as the destination

Ensure you enjoy yourself as you work towards your goals – if you’re only focused on the end point, you won’t gain the full benefits. How you get there and what you learn along the way is as important as the destination and it’s ok to make mistakes it’s just part of the process.

Reserve the right to change your mind

Your goals don’t need to be set in stone or last forever. I always reserve the right to change my mind! If it’s not working or you don’t like it, you can be pleased you tried it, but know it’s not for you.

Dreams are so important to living well and feeling good

Make 2017 the year that you dream big and look to gain from your resolutions so you fill your year with hope and optimism. Good luck! (And let me know how you get on!)

Professor Richard Koestner shares his knowledge about the why, how and with whom of goal pursuit.

Professor Richard Koestner shares his knowledge about the why, how and with whom of goal pursuit.

Want to make changes in your life? Most of us do. On our very first podcast episode Professor Richard Koestner shares the why, how and with whom essentials for goal success. Richard Koestner is a Professor in the Psychology Department at McGill University where he has conducted research on human motivation for the past 27 years. He has published over 125 scientific articles and has received several awards for excellence in teaching. He first inspired my love of psychology when I attended his undergraduate class at McGill and today he shares some of his expertise with you. We talk about his journey to becoming a professor and researcher and dive into a little research on teaching and parenting related to his earlier work. We move into a discussion about why it is difficult for people to successfully make changes in their lives; why we usually fail 6-7 times before we make changes last! Professor Koestner has dedicated his research to understanding what helps us beat these odds and in this episode he talks about three important ingredients for success related to the why, how and with whom of goal pursuit. We also discuss when we should think about letting go of some of our goals and how to do that most effectively. This episode is a must if you're thinking of making New Year's resolutions or any resolutions for that matter. Hope you get as much out of his teachings as I have over my years of knowing him.

Music by P. Bourdon

To listen to our podcast on iTunes, click here.

Jodie Richardson is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. Richard Koestner is a professor in the Department of Psychology at McGill University. Learn more about Richard's research here.

Show notes

Drive, Daniel Pink

How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen so Kids will Talk, Faber and Mazlish

Self-Determination Theory, Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan

Edward L. Deci, Professor of Psychology, University of Rochester

David McClelland, Professor at Harvard University

Wayne R. Halliwell, Professor and Sports Psychologist

Peter M. Gollwitzer, Professor of Psychology, Implementation Intentions

The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg

The Importance of Goal Disengagement, Carsten Wrosch, Professor of Psychology at Concordia University

Jutta Heckhausen, Professor of Psychology, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow

Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation, Edward L. Deci

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Roy F. Baumeister, John Tierney