Reasons Why Meaningless Values Lead to Depression

In the previous post I explored Johann Hari’s discussion of the research demonstrating that disconnection from meaningful values – expressed as obsession with materialism – leads to depression and anxiety. In this post I will explore the reasons why this occurs. 

Four reasons why meaningless values lead to depression

In identifying why materialism leads to depression, Johann draws on the research of Emeritus Professor Tim Kasser and his colleague, Professor Richard Ryan, one of the acknowledged world leaders in understanding human motivation.  Based on their work and his own research, Johann identifies four main reasons for the consuming sadness experienced by people who relentlessly pursue materialistic values that focus on extrinsic rewards (Lost Connections, pp. 97-99).

1. Damages relations with other people

The research shows that people who primarily pursue materialistic values experience “shorter relationships” that are of lesser quality than their peers who focus more on intrinsic values.  Materialistic-oriented people are more concerned about superficial things such as another person’s looks, their ability to impress others and their material possessions, than they are about the innate qualities of the person.  Their focus on external qualities makes it more likely to end a relationship because they invariably find someone who possesses these external qualities to a greater degree.  Their self-absorption also means that their partner in a relationship is also more likely to separate from them.  People who are out to impress others as their major motivator are very poor at reflective listening as they are more likely to interrupt and divert a conversation so that the focus is on them and their accomplishments.  Listening is the lifeblood of a sustainable relationship and has profound effects on the its quality.

2. Deprives them of the joy of being in the present moment

Because a materialistic person is always seeking more or pursuing an elusive goal over which they have no control, they are more likely to be frequently frustrated and disappointed.  They tend to be driven and impatient in the pursuit of their external goals and they experience time-pressures continuously. It is difficult for them to be fully engaged in the present moment and to experience the joy that derives from present awareness.  The researchers point out, too, that the pursuit of materialistic values results in the inability to experience “flow states” – being in the zone where you are hyper-focused and highly creative and productive. 

3. Become dependent on how other people think of them

Other’s opinions become the driver for the materialistic person’s words and actions.  They seek to gain positive assessment by others of their looks, their possessions (e.g. clothes and cars) and their income and social standing.  They tend to pursue relationships for what they can get out of them in terms of extrinsic rewards.  They can never be satisfied and often engage in attempts to outdo others.  The researchers point out that materialistic-oriented people are also more sensitive to feeling slighted, even when no slight is intended – because of their sensitivity to others’ opinions, they can more easily feel criticised and be hurt by seemingly harmless comments.  This can result in their being “on edge” all the time when with other people.  Their sense of self-worth becomes “contingent on the opinion of others” which, in turn, can lead to negative self-evaluation and self-deprecation.

4. Frustrates innate human needs

Tim Kasser observed that a core reason why materialism leads to depression is that it ultimately frustrates a person’s innate needs – needs such as the desire for meaningful connection with others; realising a sense of competence in their endeavours; a sense of autonomy and being in-control; and wanting to do, and achieve, something meaningful in their lives.  Depression and anxiety will grow over time when these real, innate human needs are not met.

We can choose how we spend our time and energy

Johann observes that time is limited and that our day is like a pie with defined parameters.  The way we carve up our day – how we allocate our time to aspects of our life – will significantly affect whether we realise joy and happiness or depression and anxiety.  If we can align the way we spend our time to the pursuit of meaningful values, we can experience mentally healthy states of positivity, joy, happiness and gratitude. The more time we spend on materialistic goals, the lower will be our “personal well-being”.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we are better able to notice the impact that the pursuit of materialistic values has on our quality of life – our relationships, our joy, our sense of self-worth.  We will have a clearer idea of how well we meet our innate needs and how we can improve on their fulfillment.  Importantly, we will better understand the sources of our frustration and anger and be able to improve our self-regulation.  By developing mindfulness, we will more often experience the joy of being in the zone – of experiencing “flow states”.

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Image by KarinKarin from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Being Disconnected from Meaningful Values Leads to Depression

In previous posts I highlighted the relationship between depression and being disconnected from what is meaningful in terms of work and in terms of relationships with other people.  In this post, I want to draw further on the work of Johann Hari’s book, Lost Connections, by focusing on the loss of connection to meaningful values.

Being disconnected from meaningful values

In Chapter 8 of his book (pp. 91-105), Johann identifies a third social factor contributing to the rise of depression and anxiety – disconnection from meaningful values.  In this section, he draws heavily on the ground-breaking research of Emeritus Professor Tim Kasser who explored in depth how our cultural values contribute to the rise of depression and anxiety in today’s Western society. 

Tim was motivated in his search for meaningful values through the music of Bob Dylan and John Lennon and his own independent inquiry into the nature of authenticity while studying at Vanderbilt University, a learning institution committed to curiosity.  Tim was curious about the reason why there was such an increase in the incidence of depression and anxiety in today’s world.  He spent more than 25 years researching and working with colleagues to find the answers.

Tim drew on the work of philosophers and research by others that established that the stronger a person focuses on materialistic values (such as wanting more money and possessions and wanting to be viewed highly by others), the more likely they are to experience depression.  He conducted his own experiments as well and learned that those who gave priority to materialistic values experienced less joy and lived a poorer quality of life than those who primarily pursued meaningful values.  Johann describes Tim’s research projects in detail in his book, Lost Connections.

Materialistic values pursue extrinsic rewards

Philosophers have identified two different types of human motivation – extrinsic and intrinsic.  Extrinsic motivation seeks an external reward in the form of money, status, recognition or being liked and admired. Intrinsic motivation, in contrast, is associated with internal personal rewards that flow from undertaking something for its own sake such as working to make a difference in the world, developing meaningful and supportive relationships, showing compassion towards someone in need or playing an instrument for the sheer joy it brings.  Materialistic values focus on extrinsic rewards and do not add meaning to a person’s life.

Tim engaged 200 people in completing a “mood diary” over a period so that he could establish the outcomes for people who primarily pursued extrinsic goals versus those who pursued intrinsic goals.  He was startled by the results – people who focused on, and achieved, extrinsic goals did not experience any appreciable increase in happiness in their daily life, despite the extraordinary amount of time and energy that they put into pursuing those extrinsic goals (e.g. gaining a promotion, purchasing a new car, buying the latest smart phone).   In contrast, people who pursued, and achieved, their intrinsic goals were “significantly happier” and experienced a decline in depression and anxiety.  These people set goals such as improving the way they related to others and supported those in need.

Johann points out that we all pursue both extrinsic and intrinsic goals and the associated rewards.  However, the challenge is to achieve the right balance – ensuring that materialistic values do not dominate our lives and lead to depression and anxiety.  We are constantly confronted with the choice of whether we pursue an extrinsic goal or an intrinsic one – such as whether we stay longer at work and earn more overtime money or go home to our young family and enhance our relationships with our partner and/or children.

I was recently confronted with such a choice – the choice between an extrinsic goal and an intrinsic one.  I was asked to write a book on action learning and the extrinsic rewards offered were to earn money for the work, receive royalties on an ongoing basis and, in the process, make a name for myself by way of my “legacy”.  The cost for me was to give up writing this blog on mindfulness, as the book would be all-consuming – I would have to give up what I consider to be making a real difference in some people’s lives (including my own) in favour of realising some extrinsic rewards.  I chose to turn down the offer to write the book and to continue to research and write about ways to grow in mindfulness via this blog.  The challenge for me was to put an important intrinsic goal ahead of offered extrinsic rewards.

We can become consumed by materialistic values and the associated extrinsic rewards by spending more and more time and energy in their pursuit, despite their achievement providing less and less satisfaction.  People, for example, chase the next promotion and movement up the ranks and are often prepared to sacrifice their personal values and joy to “get there”.

Western society encourages and reinforces materialistic values

Our consumer society cultivates extrinsic values and advertisers persistently encourage us to have the better car, to look better, to buy eye-catching jewellery, to upgrade our home (in terms of size and/or location) and to attract admiration.  Porsche, for example, in promoting its latest SUV, the E-PACE, describes the new “luxury” vehicle as having “head-turning good looks” – reinforcing the “look-at-me” values of Western society. 

The selfie revolution is another example of our pursuit of “looking good” on social media.  Technologists have pandered to this trend by developing the “selfie drone” which has now morphed into the “dronie” that enables you to focus on your group and yourself and also to back away to highlight your location, thus providing that extra “WOW factor”.  Some selfie drones even let you upload your shots directly to social media – meeting our need for immediacy and convenience. Taking selfies, by itself, does not mean you are pursuing materialistic values – some people use selfies solely for their family album or to share with family connections. The problem comes when taking selfies consumes us and their sole purpose is to establish our (superior) “value” in the eyes of other people.

Each year at Christmas time, there is a rush to have the latest and best toys/games/technologies that are available – what was the benchmark last year is now superseded by something more costly and peer pressure reinforces the “need” for this purchase.  Our children thus become indoctrinated very early into the “must have’ social norms and lose sight of what really makes them happy such as the sheer joy of playing a game with friends in the yard or park.

Our culture drives the desire for extrinsic rewards to the point where our elected officials feel it necessary to misuse their positions of trust to increase their own wealth through corruption.  More than fifty wealthy American parents were recently charged with admissions fraud through a scam designed to get their children admitted to “elite” universities.

Johann points out that multiple studies show that depression and anxiety will be experienced by people who pursue materialistic goals relentlessly – irrespective of their age, social standing or economic means.  He argues that just as junk food creates toxins in our bodies, “junk values” produce “psychological toxins” that invariably lead to depression and anxiety (p.97).

Becoming mindful about our lives and our values

Tim Kasser, in an interview in 2016, encouraged us to reflect on how we spend our time and energy.  He suggested that we look at what we really value and how that is reflected in our life.  He asks us to seriously look at how we act out what we claim to be important in our lives and how well we make time for the things that are important to us.

As we grow in mindfulness through reflection, meditation and mindfulness practices, we can identify the ways in which our words and actions do not align with the values that provide meaning and happiness in our lives.  We can explore ways to make better use of our time, not to pursue materialistic values, but to pursue intrinsic values that provide lasting satisfaction such as making a difference in the world, being fully in the present moment and connecting meaningfully with others. 

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Image by KarinKarin from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Depression and the Loss of Connection To Meaningful Work

Johann Hari, author of Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, was concerned about the extraordinary rise in the use of antidepressant drugs in America and the associated total focus on biological causes of depression.  He set about doing worldwide research on the social factors contributing to depression.  He was particularly interested in precursor events or situations that led to a person experiencing depression.  His research led him to identify nine social factors that were contributing to the alarming rise in the incidence of depression and suicide.  As the title of his book indicates, each of these social factors related to a “lost connection.”  He describes the first of these causal factors as “disconnection from meaningful work”.

Loss of connection to meaningful work

Johann’s research (and that of his colleagues) covered a range of people engaged in different kinds of work, usually at lower levels in organisations.  They found that certain job characteristics contributed to a loss of meaning for the worker.  This disconnection with meaningful work resonates with the Job Characteristics Model developed by Hackman and Oldham in the 1970s as a basis for the design of jobs that generated positive psychological states such as the experience of meaningfulness and personal responsibility.

Johann, drawing on his own research and that of his colleagues, identified several job characteristics in different contexts that contributed to the loss of connection to meaningful work and resulted in people experiencing depression:

  • Lack of control over work – research into the high incidence of suicide amongst staff investigating tax returns in the Taxation Office in Britain found that a key contributing factor was the lack of control over their work.  No matter how hard they worked, the pile of work kept growing and they could never get on top of it.  The ability to control the work environment and how work is done, known as “agency”, has been the subject of much research into what constitutes a psychologically healthy work environment.
  • Lack of feedback – in the previous research, another factor identified as contributing to psychological illness was the lack of feedback about performance of the job.  No matter how well or how poorly the work was done, there was no feedback received from supervisors or managers.  This led to a sense of the work and the worker being devalued.  The disconnection between effort and “reward” in terms of positive feedback contributed to people feeling “irrelevant” – they felt that they were not important or relevant to what the organisation valued.
  • Lack of discretion – research into the experience of depression amongst typists in a typing pool demonstrated that a causal factor of depression was the lack of the ability to make decisions affecting the work and the typists’ output.  The typists were totally disempowered because work was given to them with instructions on how it was to be done by people they did not know; they lacked understanding of what the documents involved or meant; demand was endless; and they were unable to speak to each other.  The work was thus experienced as meaningless and “soul-destroying”.  This research, along with other studies, highlighted the fact that people lower in organisations experience greater stress than those at higher levels who have a lot of responsibility because the latter have more discretion over what they do and how they do it.
  • Lack of ability to make a difference – the example given by Johann related to a worker in a paint shop who spent all day adding tint to base paint and using a machine to mix the contents to provide paint with the colour requested by a customer.  The repetitious nature of this task and the associated boredom contributed to the worker experiencing a lack of meaning because he did not make a real difference in people’s lives.  Hackman and Oldham had previously identified “significance” of a job as a key element for a psychologically satisfying job.  Associated with that was the degree to which a job provided what they termed “task variety” and “skill variety”.  Work without variation and with no perceived impact, can be experienced as mind-numbing and deadening and lead to depression.

The loss of connection to meaningful work can be addressed at two levels.  Organisations can develop greater awareness about what constitutes unhealthy work design and remedy deficiencies in the design of jobs.  Action learning interventions can be helpful in this regard and, in the process, build employee’s self-awareness and sense of agency.

Workers, too, can develop inner awareness about what in their work is impacting their mental health and causing depression. They can explore this awareness through meditation and reflection and identify ways to remedy the situation.  As they grow in mindfulness, they may be able to identify why they are procrastinating and not removing themselves from a harmful work situation.  Johann found, for example, that the worker in the paint shop really wanted to change jobs and had already identified what job would give more meaning and joy for him.  However, he was held back by his perceived need to achieve the external rewards of life – better income and a good car.  Through meditation and reflection, it is possible to become more acutely aware of the cost of “staying’ versus changing and to be able to cope with the vulnerability involved in changing jobs.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Carers Need Self-Care

Much of the focus in the resources on mindfulness is on ways to help people who are suffering from conditions that are debilitating such as mental illness or chronic pain.  Very little of the resources focus on ways to help carers in their role – ways to manage the physical and psychological toll of caring for someone else on a constant and extended basis.  Carers are the overlooked group – forgotten by others and themselves.

Carers: people who care and support others

Carers come in all shapes and sizes  – adults looking after ageing parents who may be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease; siblings caring for a family member who has a mental health condition such as schizophrenia, anxiety or depression; or anyone caring for someone suffering from a physical condition such as paraplegia, chronic pain or cancer.  According to Carers Australia, carers are people who provide unpaid care and support to family members and friends who have a disability, mental illness, chronic condition, terminal illness, an alcohol or other drug issue or who are frail aged.

The toll of caring

The “burden of care” can be felt both physically and psychologically.  The physical toll for carers can be excessive – they can become exhausted and/or accident-prone, suffer from sleep disorders or experience bodily symptoms of stress such as irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue or related conditions like fibromyalgia. The physical toll of caring can be experienced as cumulative stress and lead to chronic conditions that adversely affect the carer’s long-term health.

The psychological toll of caring can also be cumulative in nature and extremely variable in its impact.  Carers can experience negative emotions such as resentment or anger, despite their compassion towards the person who is being cared for.  They can become extremely frustrated over the paucity of time available for themselves, the opportunity cost in terms of inability to travel or to be away for any length of time, the lack of freedom (feeling tied down), the lack of improvement in the condition of the person being cared for or the financial impost of caring (preventing desired savings/purchases or home improvements). 

Carers do not have inexhaustible personal resources – physical, psychological and financial.  They can suffer from compassion fatigue which can be hastened by emotional contagion resulting from close observation of, and identification with, the pain of a loved one.  Hence, carers can experience depression, anxiety or grief – reflecting the emotional state of their loved ones who are suffering.

The toll on carers has been the subject of extensive research.  For example, Emma Stein studied the psychological impact on older female carers engaged in informal aged care.  Sally Savage and Susan Bailey reviewed the literature on the mental health impact on the carer of their caregiving role and found that the impact was highly variable and moderated by factors such as the relationship between caregiver and receiver and the level of social support for the carer.

Being mindful of your needs as a carer

The fundamental problem is that carers become so other-focused that they overlook their own needs – their need for rest, time away, relaxation and enjoyment.  Normal needs can become intensified by the burden of care and the associated physical and psychological stressors.  Carers tend to neglect their own needs in the service of others.  However, in the process, they endanger their own mental and physical health and, potentially, inhibit their capacity to sustain quality care.

Carers can inform themselves of the inherent physical and psychological consequences of being a caregiver, particularly if this involves intensive, long-term caring of a close loved one (where feelings are heightened, and the personal costs intensified).  Mental Health Carers Australia highlights the fact that people who care for someone with a mental health illness are increasingly at risk of “developing a mental illness themselves”.

Self-care for the carer

One of the more effective ways that carers can look after themselves is to draw on support networks – whether they involve family, colleagues or friends; broad social networks; or specific networks designed for carers.  Arafmi, for example, provides carer support for caregivers of people with a mental illness and their services include a 24-hour carer helpline, carers forum, blog, educational resources, workshops and carer support groups. Carers Queensland provides broader-based carer resources and support groups.

Carers tend to go it alone, not wanting to burden others with “their” problem(s).  They are inclined to refuse help from others when it is offered because of embarrassment, fear of dependency, concern for the other person offering help, inability to “let go” or any other inhibiting emotion or thought pattern – in the process, they may stop themselves from sharing the load.

Carers could seek professional help from qualified professionals such as medical doctors or psychologists if they notice that they are experiencing physical or psychological symptoms resulting from carer stress.

Mindfulness for carers

Carers can use mindfulness practices, reflection and meditation to help them cope with the physical and emotional stresses of caregiving.  Specific meditations can address negative feelings, especially those of resentment and the associated guilt.  Mindfulness practices can introduce processes that enable the carer to wind down and relax – such as mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful eating or using awareness as the default when caught up with “waiting” (a constant companion of the carer role).

Carers can employ techniques such as body scan to relax their bodies and release physical tension.  Deep, conscious breathing can also help in times of intense stress such as when experiencing panic. For people who are religious, prayer can help to provide calm and hope.

Dr. Chris Walsh (mindfulness.org.au), offers a simple mindfulness exercise for self-care by carers in his website article, Caring for CarersThe exercise involves focusing, re-centering, imagining and noticing (thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations).

As carers grow in mindfulness, they can become more aware of the stress they are under and the physical and psychological toll involved. This growing awareness can lead to effective self-care through social and professional support and meditation and/or mindfulness practices. Mindfulness can help carers develop resilience and calmness in the face of their stressful caregiver role.

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Image by Sabine van Erp from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Facing Up to Vulnerability

I am not a Buddhist.  However, I readily acknowledge that in the area of mindfulness I can learn from the oral tradition of the Buddha that has been passed down over more than 2,500 years through teachings and stories.  Tara Brach, practising Buddhist and international mindfulness teacher, shares one such story related to vulnerability, “I See You, Mara”.   Tara recounts that the Buddha when travelling and teaching often encountered a sense of vulnerability experienced as “fear of loss or rejection”.  His way to manage this fear was to name it and face it – he called the fear Mara (“the god of darkness”).  So, whenever he encountered such fear and sense of being vulnerable, he would say, “I See You, Mara”.

Facing up to vulnerability and naming our feelings

There are times when we feel intuitively that we should do something that would be helpful to others, but we become fearful and give into our sense of vulnerability.  For the Buddha, “Mara” epitomised this fear and vulnerability.  We could find our own name for this darkness that can overwhelm us and impede our ability to be intimate, creative or compassionate.  Whatever way we choose, the basic process involves naming our feelings when we feel blocked by a sense of vulnerability.  In this way, we can tame our feelings, draw on our strengths and reduce the inhibiting influence of feeling vulnerable

In a previous post, I discussed the genesis of our sense of vulnerability and offered a short meditation that Tara teaches to help us to open to our vulnerability in our everyday life.  However, we may be faced with a specific challenge represented by an opportunity to do something worthwhile for others and, despite the value of the proposed action, we find ourselves procrastinating out of fear of some adverse outcome.  On these occasions, we can face up to our procrastination self-stories and bring them above-the-line.

What can be helpful, too, is to explore whether there is an underlying adverse event (or series of events) that gave rise to our personal sense of vulnerability.  Have we experienced an occasion when we were deeply embarrassed, totally rejected or attacked for our ideas or efforts?  How is such an event playing out in our lives now?  In this reflection, we can relate our sense of vulnerability to its origins and our deeply held belief (however false), that a similar outcome will be experienced again if we challenge the “status quo” or advance ideas that are different to mainstream thinking.  This deeply held belief about adverse outcomes can immobilise us if it remains hidden and not exposed to the light of observation and reflection.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can become increasingly aware of the impact of our past experience on our sense of vulnerability, begin to name our underlying feelings and access ways to face up to being vulnerable.  In this way, we can progressively release our capacity for intimacy, creativity and compassionate action.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

How To View Stress to Improve Health and Happiness

Kelly McGonigal presented a talk on How to Make Stress Your Friend that challenged the way we think about stress and the bodily response to stress. Her talk could have been subtitled, How to think about stress to improve your longevity. Kelly draws on research that demonstrates how we think about stress can impact negatively or positively on our physical and mental health during the experience of stress and beyond.

How we can view our bodily responses to stress

When we experience stress our bodies respond in predictable ways. Our heart may be racing or pounding, we tend to breathe faster, and we can break out into a sweat. How we view these bodily responses to stress determines the short-term and long-term effects of stress on our wellness, heart condition and longevity.

If we view these bodily responses as a positive response to stress, we are better able to cope with the current stress and future stressors. Kelly argues that our perception of these responses makes all the difference. We can view them as an indication that our body is preparing us and energising us for the perceived challenge that precipitated our stress. World-famous aerialist Nik Wallenda maintains that this positive perception of the bodily stress response enabled him to walk on a tightrope across a 400 metre gap in the Grand Canyon.

Kelly argues that we should view the pounding heart as readying us for constructive action; the heightened breathing rate is providing more oxygen to the brain to enable it to function better. The net result of viewing these bodily responses as positive is that we can experience less anxiety in the face of stress and feel more confident in meeting the inherent challenges.

Kelly points out that what is particularly amazing is that instead of the blood vessels in your heart constricting (as they do when you view stress negatively), the blood vessels actually remain relaxed when the bodily stress response is viewed positively. She notes that the relaxation of the blood vessels in the heart is similar to what happens when we experience positive emotions of joy and courage.

Stress makes you more social

One of the key effects of stress is that the pituitary gland in your body increases your level of oxytocin (known as the “cuddle hormone“) which tends to move you to strengthen close social relationships. This facet of the stress response prompts you to seek and give social support. Kelly maintains that your stress response “wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you”. It also stimulates you to reach out and help others in need – which, in turn, can increase your oxytocin levels. Thus stress can help us to accept compassion make us more compassionate.

As we grow in mindfulness, through meditation, research and reflection, we can learn to view our bodily response to stress in a positive light, reduce the negative physical and mental impacts of stress on ourselves and strengthen our commitment to compassionate action.

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Image: Sunrise in Manly, Queensland, taken on 1 July 2019

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

A Reflection: Seeing Our Self in Our Children

In our leadership/management development workshops, my colleague and I often have participants identify what their staff say or do that annoys them. Then we ask them to think about what they say and do that would annoy their boss. They are frequently surprised that their staff’s words and actions often reflect their own annoying habits. They are surprised too that this process of using their staff as a mirror opens up the possibility of their being honest with themselves. So too, we can use our children as a mirror into our own behaviour.

Seeing our self in our children

When we look at our son or daughter, we might acknowledge that they regularly withhold information or only provide information that puts them in a good light – and we might think of them as deceitful. They might regularly lie to us or mislead us – and we might think of them as dishonest. They might never clean their room or leave things lying around the house for us to trip over – and we might think of them as thoughtless. They might throw tantrums or angry fits when they don’t get their way – we might think of them as manipulative. They might be self-absorbed, ignoring your needs at any point in time – we might think of them as inconsiderate. They might carry grudges or disappointment for a very long time – we might think of them as resentful. They might accuse us of something they do themselves – we might think of them as incongruous.

Whatever negative characteristics we attribute to our children can serve as a mirror into our own words and behaviour – as reflecting who we really are. Often our self-reflection is full of “shoulds” and self-deception as we hide our real self behind a mask. Again, we may judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions, rather than by what we say and do.

It is a revealing and challenging reflection to apply the negative attributes that we ascribe to our children to our own self. We could ask our self for instance, “In what way do my words and behaviour in my relationships show that I am deceitful, dishonest, thoughtless, manipulative, inconsiderate, resentful or incongruous?” The adjectives themselves carry such negative connotations that we are reluctant to ascribe them to ourselves, yet we might ascribe them to our children. Facing up to the reality of ourselves as both meeting our own expectations and falling short is very challenging – but it is the road to an open heart and all the happiness and effectiveness that this portends.

Extending the reflectionlooking deeper into the mirror

It is challenging enough to acknowledge our own negative attributes; it is even more challenging to extend the reflection to look at how our words and actions impact or shape the words and behaviour of our children. We can readily deny that we have influence, either directly or indirectly, on what they say or do, but we are part of their learning environment – an influential force in shaping their character for life. Owning up to this impact takes considerable courage, insight and self-awareness.

However, whatever negative traits we attribute to our self through this reflective exercise does not define who we are – we are much more than the sum of these negative attributes. We have to move beyond the shame we feel (with the self-realisation from this reflection), to the genuine exploration of our inner depth and extend self-forgiveness and loving kindness to our self as we move forward.

As we grow in mindfulness, through meditation and reflection on seeing our self in our children, we can progressively overcome our self-deception, develop inner awareness, build understanding and tolerance and develop an open heart. We need to nurture ourselves through self-forgiveness and loving kindness if we are going to be able to deal with the emerging self-awareness.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Resilience and Positive Psychology

Louis Alloro, co-founder and faculty member for the Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology (CAPP) at The Flourishing Center, recently presented a webinar on The Science of Resilience. In his presentation, he described resilience as the ability to persist in the face of adversity or setbacks in the pursuit of one’s goals. This approach focuses on perseverance when encountering blockages – a view that emphasizes the ongoing nature of resilience, rather than the espisodic view which describes resilience as “bouncing back” from some major adversity.

Positive Psychology and resilience

Positive Psychology has its foundations in the work of Dr. David Seligman, author of the books, Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness. David highlighted our capacity to live an optimally fulfilling life through training ourselves to think positively rather than indulge in negative or pessimistic thinking. Positive thinking keeps us open to possibilities, while pessimistic thinking focuses on barriers to achievement. Resilience builds through positive thinking, while pessimistic thinking leads us “to give up”.

In David’s view, “authentic happiness” is achieved by putting the spotlight on our strengths, not our deficiencies. This positive perspective enables us to develop what is best in ourselves, rather than being obsessed with where we “fall short” or where we deem ourselves to be “not good enough”. Focus on the positive aspects of ourselves enables the achievement of sustainable contentment or equanimity and releases the energy to build a better world. It shifts the emphasis from avoiding “mental illness” to developing “wellness”.

Our thinking shapes our emotions and behaviour

In his presentation, Louis discussed the ABC Model underpinning authentic happiness. “A” stands for the activating event (or stimulus), “B” for beliefs or thoughts about the event and “C” for consequences expressed in terms of emotions and behaviour. So, when something happens, we can view it positively or negatively and, depending on our beliefs or thoughts about the situation, we will experience emotions (positive or negative) which, in turn, leads to our behaviour. One of the easiest ways to view this cycle (optimistic or pessimistic) is to consider the possible range of responses to “being ignored by a colleague at work”.

Louis reminds us of the words of Viktor Frankl that there is a gap between stimulus and response, and that choice and consequent freedom lie in the gap. We can choose how we use the “gap” to shape our thinking about a situation and that choice determines our resilience and happiness. A fundamental way to do this is to bring mindful awareness to our intention (why we are doing what we are doing), to our attention (consciously paying attention) and to our attitude (one of accepting what is, openness to possibilities and curiosity about our inner and outer world).

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and reflection, we can progressively overcome our innate negative bias and build a positive orientation that develops our resilience, releases energy and opens the way for creative actions to deepen our wellness and happiness and contribute to a better world. Developing mindful awareness of what we bring to each situation – our intention, attention and attitude – enables us to be truly resilient in the face of difficulties and blockages (real or imagined).

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Image by athree23 from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Reduce Resentment through Reflection

In previous posts I provided meditations to deal with the thoughts and judgments associated with resentment and the feelings precipitated by the words and actions that you are resentful about. Sometimes resentment runs so deep and is aggravated by other intense emotions and/or related events, that it is difficult to sustain your focus during a meditation. Some relatively isolated event could even surface resentment that has lain dormant for many years. You might find that your emotions are so stirred up and your related thoughts so rapid or random, that meditation is extremely difficult.

One way to overcome these difficulties is to combine reflection with journalling – in other words, writing or keying responses to a series of reflective questions. The very act of writing down or keying up your responses to these questions enables you to get your thoughts “out of your head”, understand what you are thinking and why, name your feelings and begin to view the conflicted situation from the perspective of the other person. There is nothing like empathy, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, to dissipate resentment.

In the following sections I offer a series of reflective questions covering a range of topic areas related to unearthing and reducing resentment. If a question or series of questions do not resonate with you at this point in time, do not worry about it or try to force a response – just move on. Sometimes it takes only one question to break down the wall of resentment.

Reflections about events that resurface your resentment

  • What was the catalyst for the re-emergence of your resentment? Was it a specific event, news report, social media comment or interaction with, or sighting of, the other person involved?
  • What was your behaviour when the catalyst occurred? Did you spend your time talking to others, recalling the precipitating event from the past and intensifying your agitation by re-telling the story? If it was an interaction or sighting, did you express your anger, act curtly towards the other person or avoid them entirely for fear that either you or they would act inappropriately?
  • Are there other external events or interactions that reinforce or intensify your feelings? For example, the precipitating event in the past may have involved misrepresentation of facts and/or false accusations. Untruths or misrepresentations reported in the press or false accusations made about another person on social media, may intensify your feelings of resentment (even though the misrepresentation or false accusation reported may have limited direct impact on you).
  • Do you experience a desire for revenge – wishing some misfortune for the other person?

Reflections about the initial, precipitating event or interaction

  • What was the initial precipitating event or interaction? What actually happened? Sometimes just recalling the situation may diffuse your resentment because, in the light of hindsight, the issue may seem so trivial now. Alternatively, being accurate about what actually happened, not your interpretation of the event or interaction (nor your assumptions about the other person’s motivation), can help you become more clearly focused on your thoughts, judgments and residual feelings.
  • What was the impact of the initial event/interaction for you? What happened as a result? How did you feel at the time – embarrassed, angry, defensive, distracted, antagonistic? Did you have a strong sense of injustice, unfairness or dishonesty? Did insensitivity from the other person compound your feelings of hurt and resentment?
  • What identity issues were playing out for you? Was your integrity unfairly challenged? Was there a baseless claim that created a situation where you had to publicly defend yourself? What impact did the event/interaction have on your personal and/or professional reputation? How did it impact your sense of self and achievement of your purpose in life?

What sensitivity on your part was aroused by the precipitating event/interaction?

  • Is there anything in your early family experience that made you particularly sensitive about what happened during the precipitating event/interaction? Did you feel abandoned, criticised unjustly, neglected (your needs not being met), isolated, unsupported or abused? How did these feelings tap into any prior experience? Did the event/interaction uncover what was a “blind spot” for you?
  • Were your words and actions at the time disproportionate to what the other person said or did? Did your response highlight a particular personal sensitivity?
  • What judgments have you formed about the other person? Do you consider the other person thoughtless, lazy, dishonest, ungrateful, mean, disrespectful or revengeful? Do you believe that they would lie under any circumstance or that they believe “the end justifies the means”? Do you think they are a freeloader or that they trade on their family/business name? What do these thoughts/judgments say about your own values?
  • What assumptions have you made about their motivation? What is the basis for these assumptions? What do these assumptions say about you and your goals? Are you a competitive person?

Reflections from the perspective of the other person

There are several ways to explore the perspective of the other person. Here are three areas for reflection to gain a better understanding of what it all meant for them.

How they experienced the precipitating event/interaction – their concerns, feelings and identity issues

  • What happened for the other person in the initial interaction/event? Did they consider themselves exposed, threatened, embarrassed or under attack? Were their words and actions designed to achieve self-protection? What potential loss could they have faced in the situation? Were they trying to “save face”? [Tim Dalmau, when explaining the perspective of NLP, stated that the starting point for understanding others is to realise that “their behaviour, however self-defeating, is self-caring”]
  • How do you think the other person felt? They may have felt locked in, unable to think of another way out of their dilemma. They could have felt vulnerable, insecure or exposed. They may have felt that they had failed in some respect. They could have been experiencing non-specific anger and lashed out at the first person they interacted with. They could have been depressed, anxious and wary. What feelings do you think could have been at play for them?
  • What identity issues were involved for the other person? How were they trying to protect their sense of self-worth? What was at stake for them in terms of their sense of competency, their perception of their own goodness and self-assessment of their lovability?

Pressures and stresses experienced by the other person

  • What kind of stress was the other person experiencing? Did they have marital/relationship problems, financial difficulties, job insecurity, illness in the family or personal ill-health? Did they have a carer role?
  • Were there parental pressures, peer perceptions or social/work expectations at play for them? Were they just modelling the behaviour of their hierarchy? Was parental acceptance and financial support dependent on their achieving “success”? – a conditional parental love? What would happen to them if they were cut adrift by their parents and/or left without social support? How would they cope mentally if their external source of self-definition was removed? Did they grow up in a family where there was no moral compass or a morality dependent on what was needed to achieve a desired outcome?

Putting yourself in their place – empathy and forgiveness

  • In what way were their words and actions designed to be “self-caring”?
  • Have you ever engaged in the same behaviours that you ascribe to the other person? Empathy and compassion flow from honesty with yourself – if you maintain the “moral high ground”, despite evidence to the contrary, then you will have real difficulty in being empathetic towards another person.
  • Can you forgive yourself for your own behaviour during the precipitating event and, subsequently, when you have “maintained the rage” and indulged in resentment? Self-forgiveness may take a long time to achieve and repeated attempts at a forgiveness meditation.
  • Are you able to forgive the other person? Forgiveness is easier when you have built up your understanding of the other person and their actions.

Turning intention into action

You might intend to be less resentful, but how are you going to put this intention into action? There are four questions that can help you in this process of translating intention into action:

  • What are you going to do more of? – e.g. reflecting on what it meant for the other person and what are their driving forces/influences (trying to understand their perspective in all its elements – thoughts, feelings, consequences, identity issues).
  • What are you going to do less of? – e.g. this could be less re-visiting of the precipitating situation and/or less negative judging of the other person’s behaviour.
  • What are you going to stop doing? – e.g. telling other people your side of the story and/or “bad mouthing” the other person (elicits support and sympathy for your perspective and reinforces your resentment).
  • What are you going to start doing? – e.g. approach the other person with an open mind and heart.

I am not suggesting that overcoming resentment is easy – but reducing resentment is possible with persistent effort, e.g through the suggested meditations and reflections. Resentment is typically a very strong emotion that is deeply rooted in our psyche and held in place by our assumptions. Unless resentment is tackled, it can eat away at you and lead to physical and psychological health problems. It is important to chip away at resentment, to dig up its roots and to break down the walls that it creates. Persistent personal work will lead to lasting results.

As we grow in mindfulness (particularly inner awareness) through meditation and reflection we can gradually reduce our resentment and develop self-forgiveness and forgiveness for others. Compassion grows out of a deepening understanding of the other person.

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Image by FarfOuille from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Forgiveness: Forgiving Our Self and Others

Forgiveness is challenging because it is not a one-off event. We are continually hurt by others and hurt them, often unconsciously. It is one thing to forgive others for words and/or actions that are hurtful and another thing to forgive ourselves for the hurt we cause. According to recent research, mindfulness can improve our tendency to forgiveness and our willingness to forgive a past offense, according to

Developing a tendency to forgive others

If we are able to develop a mindful disposition – consciously monitoring our physical, mental and emotional health – we are better able to reduce our negativity and improve our likelihood to forgive. When we feel hurt by someone, we can harbour the negative emotions of anger and resentment – feelings that become compounded by the re-telling of the story of the hurtful action to others. We can become obsessed with our rightfulness in the situation and elaborate on how much we have been wronged, entrenching our feelings of hurt and anger.

Mindfulness can help us to name these negative feelings and learn to tame them. It can give us insight into our own sensitivities and the pattern of our own emotional responses. In a conflict situation, it can also help us to understand the perspective of the other person who has, consciously or unconsciously, hurt us. In the process, it can assist us to develop a tendency to forgive others.

Forgiving our self: a lifelong process

It is one thing to forgive others for the hurt they cause us; it is another task – often more challenging – to forgive our self for the hurt we cause others. For one thing, we tend to be blind to the way we hurt others – we often will not let our recollection of these events reach conscious awareness because they are perceived as damaging to our self-esteem – our sense of our own (superior) worthiness.

There is also the difficulty of dealing with the very strong negative emotions of guilt and shame, once we have surfaced our recollection of our own hurtful words and actions. These emotions are hard to deal with and require a concerted, conscious effort to overcome them – a process involving lifelong learning and reflection.

Sharon Salzberg, author of Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection, offers a forgiveness meditation in her article, Practise Self-Compassion with Forgiveness. The meditation begins with focusing on forgiveness towards others and then our attention is directed to forgiveness of ourselves.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop a mindful disposition, an understanding of the perspective and hurt of others and awareness of our ingrained feelings of hurt (and related sensitivities). We can gradually, with concerted effort, develop the tendency to forgive others (for present and past hurts) and, at the same time, slowly develop self-forgiveness for the hurt we have caused others.

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Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.