Accessing the Genius of Anxiety for Improved Mental Health

Karla McLaren discussed embracing anxiety in a podcast interview with Tami Simon of Sounds True when having a conversation about Making Friends with Anxiety … And All Your Other Emotions.   Karla was able to draw on her own life experience and her recent book, Embracing Anxiety: How to Access the Genius of This Vital Emotion.   She has spent a lifetime researching and writing about emotions.

In a previous post, I explored Karla’s concept of emotions as storing energy and providing a message and wisdom.  I also discussed effective ways to draw on the energy and wisdom of emotions.  Karla emphasised the importance of not attributing the characteristics of “good” or “bad” to emotions, including difficult emotions.  In her view there are real lessons and ways to move forward hidden in each emotion, even anxiety.

Trauma and anxiety

Karla herself experienced childhood trauma and many of her insights are drawn from her experience in overcoming the associated anxiety and depression.  Like other people who have been traumatised, Karla has had to deal with anxiety and depression throughout her life.  She found that she was ignorant about these emotions and tended to repress or suppress them.   However, through reading and research she has been able to develop practical approaches to addressing anxiety and depression.  She has learned to befriend these emotions and now views depression as enforced slowing down and redirection and has developed the ability to draw on the “genius of anxiety”.

The genius of anxiety

In her interview with Elizabeth Markle on embracing anxiety, Karla emphasised that anxiety is “an essential source of foresight, intuition, and energy for completing your tasks and projects”.  As with any emotion we have a choice – we can suppress, repress or “over-express” anxiety or, alternatively, listen to the message and wisdom that lies within this emotion.  We need to understand that emotion is a process – trigger, experience, response – we have a choice in how we respond to what triggers us and the feelings we experience as a result.

Karla suggests that the appropriate response to situational anxiety is to channel the energy of the emotion towards completing a task or project – much as a canal channels water.  Repression or suppression of anxiety blocks the energy flow, while over-expressing anxiety through panicked or frantic activity can dissipate the energy rather than direct it.  A starting point for channelling the energy of anxiety is “conscious questioning” – e.g. “What brought on this feeling?” and “What truly needs to get done?”   This approach enables you to work with, rather than against, the energy of anxiety and to simultaneously care for yourself by downregulating the impact of the emotion on your thoughts and feelings. 

Karla continued her discussion of “conscious questioning” for anxiety by referring to a sample of other questions featured in her book, Embracing Anxiety (p.85):

  • what are your strengths and resources?
  • are there any upcoming deadlines?
  • have you achieved or completed something similar in the past?
  • can you delegate any tasks or ask for help?
  • what is one small task you can complete tonight or today?

Karla argues that this approach involves “leaning into anxiety”, not artificially calming yourself.  She also alludes to the research that demonstrates that accurate naming of our emotions and identifying the level of intensity of them is another effective form of downregulating emotions.  To this end she encourages us to develop our emotion vocabulary and offers her blog as a starting point for emotion identification.  In her book she offers ways of describing different levels of emotional intensity, for example, low anxiety is described as apprehensive, mild anxiety as edgy or nervous and intense anxiety as overwrought or super-energised.

Karla suggests too that yoga and mindfulness are effective ways of downregulating that can assist the process of conscious questioning.  She offered very brief meditation to illustrate this calming effect.  The meditation basically involved focusing on the quietest sound in the room.  Karla provides a range of practices for each emotion in her book,

Different anxiety orientations: planner vs procrastinator

Karla drew on the work of Mary Lamia, author of What Motivates Getting Things Done: Procrastination, Emotions, and Success, to differentiate between two main manifestations of anxiety – planning anxiety and procrastination anxiety.  The planner maintains a low level of anxiety continuously and has a task “to-do” list(s) to manage their anxiety about getting things done.  The procrastinator, on the other hand, does not make lists but works to deadlines and has an immense burst of anxiety and energy the night before a deadline is due (and often achieves the task in the early or late hours of the morning).  The procrastinator can “chill out” while waiting for the deadline, the task person has difficulty “chilling”.

Mary points out that what is different in the two approaches to task achievement has to do with “when their emotions are activated and what activates them”.  The procrastinator, for example, is motivated by the imminent deadline and experiences “deadline energy”; the planner is motivated by the need to keep task commitments under control.   Understanding the difference between these two sources of motivating anxiety and your personal preference in how to get things done, can reduce conflict in a relationship and support success where partners have a different orientation.   Maria discusses the potential clash in orientation between procrastinators and non-procrastinators in her Psychology Today blog.

Reflection

Mindfulness practices along with conscious questioning and reflection can help us to focus the emotional energy of anxiety.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can better identify our emotions, understand what motivates others and increase our response ability

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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.

Understanding the Message and Wisdom of Difficult Emotions

In a recent interview podcast, Tami Simon of Sounds True recorded a conversation with Karla McLaren, author of The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings are Trying to Tell You.   The interview covered a range of emotions and the message and wisdom that lie beneath each one.  Karla’s primary focus was on emphasizing that emotions are not good or bad but serve to help us in various ways to change our situation and/or our behaviour.  In her view, emotions are a hidden source of wisdom that we should listen to rather than seek to control or dismiss.  Karla noted that people often deflect their attention from difficult emotions and try to displace them with “happier” experiences – thus missing the message of emotions.

Emotions hold a huge amount of energy

In her book, The Language of Emotions, Karla highlights the huge amount of energy that is stored in emotions, especially those that we label as “bad”.   The unproductive ways to deal with these emotions (and the energy stored within them) is either to suppress or repress them.  Suppression involves consciously distracting ourselves from the discomfort of these emotions and trying to meet the unrealistic ideal of an “always happy” person.  It can be okay as a short-term solution, but if the emotion (e.g. anger) remains unaddressed then it can lead to dysfunctional and harmful behaviour as we express our emotions in an unhelpful way.  

Repression, on the other hand, involves unconscious avoidance of emotions (a response partly conditioned by our upbringing and our perceptions of other people’s views).   The energy stored in repressed emotions can manifest itself in a depleted immune system and physical symptoms such as muscle pain and fatigue as well as the associated increased risk of serious illness such as cardiovascular disease.  You can see the negative impact of repressed emotions such as anger  operating in the workplace when someone at work blasts you for something that was a very minor mistake – you cop an “emotional dump” that is a response completely disproportionate to the nature of your error (but that manifests the accumulated energy of a repressed emotion).

Emotions are not good or bad

By naming difficult emotions as “bad”, we perpetuate our reluctance to face them and understand their message and wisdom.  Instead we increase our motivation to suppress or repress them because we fear what others might think, even if we express them in an entirely appropriate way.  Karla suggests too that when we label some emotions as “good” we are potentially setting ourselves up for disappointment or negative self-evaluation – because we perceive that we don’t feel as positive as others expect or express our good emotions in a way expected by others.

According to Karla, what lies behind calling emotions “bad” or “good” is an “attribution error” – we erroneously blame our emotions for the precipitating situation or trigger.   Our difficult emotions do not create our problems (like the health and economic impacts of the Coronavirus) – they exist to help us deal with our problems and difficult situations, if only we would listen to the message they convey.

Understanding the message and wisdom of difficult emotions

The first task is to name your feelings in a fine-grained way or what Susan David calls developing a granular description of your feelings.  This involves avoiding generalisations such as “I feel upset” and being more precise about the feelings involved such as anger, fear or anxiety.  Until you can name and compassionately accept your difficult emotions, you will be unable to understand what they are telling you.

According to Karla, each emotion has its own message.  For example, depression arising from a specific situation reduces your energy and slows you down so that you can see when something is not right, and you need to change the situation.  Karla maintains that depression “removes energy when we are going in the wrong way to do the wrong things for the wrong reason”.   On the other hand, anger helps you to establish boundaries (e.g. constant interruptions or intrusions into your personal space) and fear helps you to get really focused on the present moment and to draw on your insight and intuition to address the trigger for your fear.

Karla maintains that the current challenging times of the Coronavirus is resulting in people experiencing dyads or triads of emotions – she sees, for example, evidence of people simultaneously experiencing sadness, depression and grief.  In her view, sadness in this context is a message to let go of something that no longer works or applies (e.g. working in a workplace during pandemic restrictions) and grief is a natural emotion when you have lost someone or something – it is about taking the time to grieve and allowing for the fact that grief is experienced and expressed differently by different people and its expression changes over time.

Effective ways to draw on the message and wisdom of emotions

Karla emphasised the importance of being grounded when you attempt to deal with difficult emotions.  In her interview podcast with Tami Simon, she described a process based on deep breathing and sighing and complete focus on the present moment and your bodily sensations.  She suggested, for instance, that you feel the sensation of your bottom on the seat and your feet on the floor and listen to the sounds that surround you.

In her book, The Language of Emotions, Karla provides many experiential exercises to draw out the wisdom hidden in a wide range of emotions including anger, fear, jealousy and shame.  Through these exercises you can gain emotional fluency in dealing with your own and others’ emotions.  Karla stresses the importance of understanding a particular emotion and being able to differentiate it from other emotions, e.g. differentiating between sadness and grief.  This clarity about the nature of a particular emotion enables you to identify practices to understand and act on the message and wisdom inherent in the emotion.  She provides an alphabetical list of emotions and links to relevant blog posts on her website as well as videos on different emotions on her YouTube© playlist.

Another strategy that Karla mentioned is that of “conscious questioning” which she describes in detail in her latest book, Embracing Anxiety: How to Access the Genius of This Vital Emotion.  In the interview podcast, Karla provided an example of this process that can be used in relation to panic.  For example, you can ask yourself, “What is the basis of my fear and the likelihood that what I fear will happen?” or “Can I avoid the situation that has the potential to harm me and is making me fearful?”  In the latter case, you might put off a visit to a food store at a busy time for fear of contamination from the Coronavirus.  Panic can help us to realise a potentially dangerous situation and enable us to take action to avoid the situation.   If your panic is chronic and not situational, other approaches such as managing your morning panic attack might help.

Reflection

Karla draws on her own life experience of dealing with her difficult emotions as well as a lifetime of research into emotions, their manifestation and effective ways of dealing with them.  As we grow in mindfulness and understanding through experiential exercises, reflection, conscious questioning and meditation we can access the messages and wisdom hidden in our emotions and develop emotional fluency.  Through these mindfulness practices we can safely negotiate difficult emotions and restore our equilibrium in any situation.

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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.

Building Resilience through Compassion Towards Others

In a previous post, I discussed Pema Chödrön’s ideas of developing resilience through self-compassion by “compassionate abiding” in our own pain and suffering during these challenging times of the pandemic.  This entails abiding in, or dropping into, the full depth of our painful experience through our bodily sensations and conscious breathing.  As we undertake slow, conscious breathing we hold our suffering with self-kindness and warmth.  Lulu & Mischka in their mantra meditation, Warriors of Light, remind us to “breathe into our hearts” because breath is our chariot enabling us to face the unknown and stand on our own.

In her interview podcast with Tami Simon of Sounds True, Pema extended the concept of compassionate abiding by moving beyond self-compassion to compassion towards others.  She maintained that embracing the pain and suffering of others particularly in these times, when everyone is suffering in one form or another, contributes to our resilience – we realise we are not alone and we are able to move beyond self-absorption and “panic storylines” to extending kindness to others.

Pain and suffering: a doorway to compassion for others

In these challenging times of the Coronavirus, we can be very sure that there are millions of people around the world who are experiencing suffering like we are.  People are experiencing all forms of loss – of loved ones, their jobs, their business incomes, their health, their financial security or their homes.  They may have become physically disconnected from their workplaces, their family and their friends, even stranded in a foreign country because of international travel restrictions.  They could be healthcare professionals working on the frontline and/or living away from their families for a number of months to protect their loved ones from cross-infection.  We can be very confident that there are people around the world who are feeling pain and suffering like we are.

Pema argues that abiding with compassion in our own pain and suffering is the doorway opening us to compassion towards others.  In experiencing fully our own suffering, not denying its intensity or pervasiveness, we develop a deep sense of connection with others who are also suffering at this time.  Pema spoke of the principle of Tonglen, a Tibetan word meaning “taking in and sending out” – taking in our own experience of pain and suffering and sending out desire for relief for others.  She suggests that once we become grounded in our own suffering (this may take 10-20 minutes), we can take in the suffering of others.  On our in-breath we can imagine others who are experiencing similar pain and suffering and on our out-breath, wish them relief and insight to enable them to move beyond their own discomfort, distress, grief or loneliness.  Connectedness and resilience lie in this mutual experiencing.

Pema maintains that we do not have to confine this compassion towards others to a time of extreme challenge, we can use our pain and suffering as the doorway to compassion and connectedness at other times.  We may be experiencing distress because a family member is suffering from Alzheimer’s or feeling panic and anxiety because someone we are carer for is experiencing the black dog of depression.  At these times, we can drop into conscious breathing, embracing our distress and anxiety with kindness, and gradually move beyond this abiding self-compassion to compassion towards others who are experiencing the intensity of our own emotions. 

Reflection

I think that Pema’s profound insight into compassionate abiding opens the way to develop self-compassion, compassion towards others and personal resilience.  As we grow in mindfulness through conscious breathing and extending relief to others, we can move beyond our self-destructive narratives, restore our inner equilibrium and peace, and develop the resilience to not only survive these challenging times but also be able to extend help and support to others. 

Compassion towards others can be expressed in many ways even in these times of social distancing – the virtual choir of women physicians singing “Rise Again” is but one example of many where people are moving beyond their own overwhelming challenges and distress to reach out to others.

Pema provides multiple resources including her many books, her free e-book titled, 5 Teachings of Pema Chödrön  and her online course, Freedom to Love, which expands on the principles and practice of compassionate abiding.

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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 through Self-Compassion

Sounds True founder, Tami Simon, recently interviewed Pema Chödrön as part of the podcast series, Resilience in Challenging Times.  The theme of Pema’s interview podcast was Compassionate Abiding – an emphasis on building resilience by abiding in, or inhabiting, difficult emotions while extending loving-kindness to our self and others.  Her focus was on ways to become “embodied” – being fully in touch with the physical manifestations of our feelings. 

Pema acknowledged that many people worldwide are feeling lost and experiencing “groundlessness”.  This is normal and natural in these challenging times when everything has been upended – intrastate, interstate and international travel, location of work, availability of work, education of children and adults, health risks, financial security and relationships.  We are now having to connect from a distance – with our colleagues, friends and extended family.  People in the streets, cafés and shops are wearing masks and observing social distancing – avoidance is the new norm in interactions.

Becoming grounded in your body

With this pervasive upheaval, it is difficult to stay grounded and avoid being swept away by a torrent of difficult emotions. Pema maintains that the one, immediately accessible control point is your body.  Your difficult emotions can manifest in your body as tightness in your chest, pain in your arms or legs, headaches, upset stomach, racing pulse or any other physical form of constriction, acceleration or discomfort.   Pema contends that the pathway to resilience lies in immersing yourself in your feelings and associated bodily sensations through your breathing.  She argues that it is important to “lean into your sharp points and fully experience them”.

Pema offered a breathing exercise during her interview podcast (at the 16-minute mark).  She encouraged listeners to get comfortable (sitting, lying or walking) and to ask themselves, “What does a specific feeling (e.g. anxiety) feel like in my body?’  You are encouraged to explore the depth and breadth of the feeling through self-observation and self-exploration – locating the point(s) of manifestation of the feeling in your body. 

Conscious breathing with kindness and self-compassion

Having named your feeling and fully experienced its manifestation in your body, the next step is to take three conscious breaths – breathing in and out deeply, feeling your lungs expand with the in-breath and experiencing a sense of release/relief on your out-breath.  Pema argues that in this way we are accessing the “wisdom of our emotions” – emotions that have been shaped by our personality, life experiences and responses to triggers.  This process can be repeated over a longer period if the level of personal agitation is high.  Pema mentioned that in one of her recent experiences of a difficult emotion, it took her half an hour to achieve equilibrium and peace through this breathing exercise.

For some people, the focus on breath may be too traumatic because it generates painful flashbacks to adverse childhood experiences or too demanding because of respiratory difficulties or other physical disability.  In this scenario, Pema suggests that embracing yourself, rocking, tapping or a more analytical approach could work to tame the emotions and dampen the associated feelings.

As you breathe into and out of your feelings, it is important to extend loving-kindness to yourself – avoiding negative self-talk that is debilitating and disabling.  Each person has a different way of expressing self-compassion and acknowledgement of their inherent goodness.  Pema maintains that “the essence of bravery is being without deception” – having the courage to face up to what we are not happy with in ourselves, as well as what we admire.  By holding our faults, deficiencies and prejudices in loving kindness and understanding, we can move beyond self-deception, self-loathing and self-recrimination.  It takes a brave person to face the reality of what they feel and why, and to open themselves to self-intimacy and self-empowerment.   Pema suggests that as we extend kindness to our self, we imagine our heart opening wide and filling an ever-expanding space.

Reflection

Pema is a humorous, grounded and practical meditation teacher who has written many books including Start Where Your Are and When Things Fall Apart.  She provides a free e-book titled, 5 Teachings of Pema Chödrön.  Pema has also developed an online course, Freedom to Love, covering the principles and practices mentioned in this blog post as well as a penetrating exploration of resilience through compassion towards others.

After many years of meditation and teaching, Pema Chödrön has developed a quiet, down-to-earth, insightful approach that makes you want to learn more from her.  To me, she evidences the calmness and peace that she promotes. 

Consistent with other mindfulness teachers, Pema encourages spending time in nature, walking and other forms of movement.  As we grow in mindfulness through our breathing, self-exploration and self-intimacy, we can better access our own sense of peace and resilience in the face of very challenging times.

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Image by jplenio – My pictures are CC0. When doing composings: 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.

Overcome Your Habituated Way of Reacting and Restore Your Energy and Power

In her podcast interview with Tami Simon, Dr. Lise Van Susteren identified four patterns of reaction to life challenges that she describes as “survival strategies”.  If we can understand these patterns of behaviour, we can regulate our normal way of responding to stimuli we encounter in life and develop more tolerance towards others.  In her book on Emotional Inflammation, co-authored with Stacey Colino, Lise offers a process to discover our triggers and recapture our balance, energy and power.  The book spells out the 7-step process, called RESTORE, and looks at ways we can personalise this process in line with our preferred survival strategy.

Four survival strategies that become habitual behaviour patterns

Lise maintains that the four survival strategies she has identified are based on solid empirical evidence and her own life experience.  She suggests that your preferred survival strategy is shaped not only by your personality and temperament but also by your life experiences and the people who influenced you throughout your life.  The four survival strategies are:

  • Nervous – fearful and anxious because they are able to clearly see dangers, both present and pending, and are capable of providing a warning and catalyst for action through their vigilance and thorough research (they “run the numbers”).
  • Molten – angry and outraged response to situations that are perceived as immoral, unjust or irresponsible and that constitute grounds for justifiable anger.
  • Revved – frantic response to the needs of others leading to ignoring own needs and resultant personal exhaustion.
  • Retreating:  a reflective and considered response that exhibits humility and compassion for others while exercising patience in the pursuit of resolution of issues and challenges.

Lise identified herself as a person who adopts the “revved” survival strategy.  She cannot say “no” to requests and finds herself in a whirlwind of activity giving talks and presentations and writing articles and other publications.  She identified Greta Thunberg’s “How Dare You” speech to world leaders, participating in the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit, as an example of a “molten” survival strategy – her words and actions precipitating a global, youth climate change movement.  In reflecting on my own response to the Coronavirus and its resultant impacts, I can identify my survival strategy as “retreating” – which is clearly shaped by my life experiences and the people who were most influential in impacting my thoughts and actions in response to anxious and challenging times. 

Lise suggests that if you can understand your habituated survival strategy, you will not only be more tolerant of others but also be better able to respond differently and more effectively when the occasion demands it – because you will have been able to reduce your “emotional inflammation”. She proposes the RESTORE process as a way to achieve these ends.

The RESTORE process

Lise maintains that the RESTORE process is a pathway to overcoming habituated responses to the things that trigger us while providing us with a means to regain our equilibrium and power to contribute to a better world.  Each of the seven steps of the process draws its name from one of the letters of the word, “restore”:

  • Recognise your feelings – identify and name your feelings, not denying or avoiding them.  The more you deny your feelings, the stronger they become and the greater is their influence over your words and behaviour leading to an increasing number of negative, unintended consequences.  This also involves getting in touch with your body and what it is telling you about your level of stress and agitation and the difficult emotions you are experiencing, particularly in situations where you perceive you have no control over what is happening.
  • Examine your triggers – gain an understanding of your triggers and their impact on your words and actions.  This involves a willingness to reflect on situations that led to a high level of reactivity on your part.  It also entails identifying the people and experiences that have shaped your habituated, unhelpful responses.  The process previously described for dealing with resentment is an example of this self-exploration.   Both this step and the former require self-observation and self-intimacy that can be developed through meditation, mindfulness practices and reflection. 
  • Steady the natural rhythm of your bodybreathing with the earth, somatic meditation and mindfulness practices help to restore your equilibrium that arises when you are attuned to the natural rhythm of your body. 
  • Think yourself into a safe space – often we are overcome by negative self-talk which makes us inflexible and destroys our equilibrium.  Working with your mind is necessary to achieve emotional agility and the capacity to adapt to ever-increasing stress situations. Jon Kabat-Zinn provides a cautionary reminder that “you are not your thoughts” – they are like passing clouds, while you are the peaceful and resilient reality behind those clouds. 
  • Obey your body – this entails self-care including physical exercise, practices like Tai Chi and yoga, avoiding foods that your body experiences as harmful, reducing stress by achieving a better work-life balance and using self-care services especially if you are a carer.
  • Reconnect with nature – Lise suggests thatyou can “reclaim the gifts of nature” by accessing its healing benefits and its capacity to stimulate appreciation and gratitude and inspire awe.  Mike Coleman offers online courses on nature meditation to assist you to reconnect with nature.
  • Exercise your power – Lise argues that to consolidate your newfound equilibrium and power, you can become an “upstander” instead of a “bystander” – taking effective action in the world (e.g. on climate change) out of a sense of thoughtfulness, compassion, self-belief and hope.  This is the pathway to joy – pursuing a purpose beyond yourself that reduces self-absorption.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness through nature meditation, mindfulness practices and reflection, we can deepen our self-awareness and tolerance, build our understanding of what triggers our unhelpful responses, develop equilibrium and reconnect with our personal energy and power to create positive change in the world. 

Throughout our restorative approaches we need to practise self-compassion, not beating up on ourselves for any shortcomings or shortfalls.  Louise Hay recommends that we practise the affirmation, you’re always doing the best you can with the understanding and awareness and knowledge you have.

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Image by NickyPe 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 Emotional Inflammation with Reconnection to Nature

Tami Simon recently interviewed psychiatrist Dr. Lise Van Susteren on Emotional Inflammation as part of the Insights at the Edge podcast series.  Lise drew on her newly published book co-authored with Stacey Colino, Emotional Inflammation: Discover Your Triggers and Reclaim Your Equilibrium During Anxious Times.  While the book was written before the onset of the Coronavirus, it is made even more relevant in these times of the global dislocation caused by the pandemic.  Lise maintains that emotional inflammation existing before the outbreak of the Coronavirus has been aggravated by the virus and its flow-on effects such as anxiety and grief and the unnatural states of social isolation and social distancing.

Prior to the onset of the Coronavirus, people were experiencing emotional inflammation as a result of our global and local environments impacted by climate change, gun violence, racial and refugee discrimination, economic disparity and turbulent economic conditions.  Lise acknowledged that the pre-existent emotional inflammation has been exacerbated by the advent of the Coronavirus.

She described out current conditions as a “fraught inflamed time” and encouraged us to be kind to ourselves and others as we work our way through the many challenges confronting us on a daily basis.  Lise maintained that individuals will deal with the challenges in different ways, e.g. some will keep themselves busy and get engaged with community work such as The Care Army, while others will use the time to retreat, read and reflect and/or listen to encouraging and inspiring podcasts.

Loss of connection to nature

I have previously discussed the impact of  the “nature-deficit disorder” and the loss of connection to nature and its healing powers.  Lise, who is a renowned climate change activist, argues that much of our emotional inflammation is caused by a loss of harmony with nature and its natural energy flows.  We have not only devastated our ecosystems (and the “immune system of the environment”) but also lost our capacity to be attuned to nature and its tranquillity and timelessness.

We have become time-poor, impatient, intolerant and stressed by the pressures that surround us and, increasingly, by the technologically paced character of our lives.  We refer to “slow mail” and “running out of time” on a consistent basis as our communications have increased in speed, simultaneously with increased expectations about response times and constant exposure to information overload – we are drowning in information and unrealistic expectations.

Lise is a firm believer that our ecology impacts our biology and she bases her assertions on sound scientific evidence.  She is at pains to point out that climate change has a devastating effect on our physical and mental health, a perspective reinforced by the American Psychiatric Association (APA).  Our physical and mental health is intimately linked to our connectedness to others and to nature.  Connection is a deeply felt need and frustration of this connection leads to physical and mental illness, including depression, ill-health and anxiety.

Reflection

Emotional inflammation is strongly associated with disconnection from nature.  Reconnection with, and respect for, nature can bring many health benefits and reduce the enervating effects of this “fraught inflamed time”.   Mindfulness practices involving breathing can help us to become better attuned to nature and more at peace with ourselves and others.  Nature is a rich source of healing and time spent being mindful in nature can assist us to develop the equanimity and creativity we need to navigate the unprecedented challenges of our time.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation on nature, mindfulness practices and reflection on our way of living, we can begin to realise the critical role that nature plays in our health and wellbeing.

Peter Doherty, Nobel Prize winner for his work on infectious diseases, suggests, like Lise, that there are opportunities to be taken, and real lessons to be learned, from the current challenges of the Coronavirus:

We need to take this opportunity to rethink how we live in the world, what’s of value to us and start to look at what is really important. (Interview quoted in the Australian Financial Review, 9-10 May 2020, p.37).

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Image by NickyPe 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.

How to Overcome Self-Protection to Create Personal Behavioural Change

Tami Simon, in a recent interview podcast, spoke to Dr. Lisa Lahey about her co-authored book, Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization.  Lisa is also a member of the faculty for the Inner MBA, jointly conducted by Sounds True in partnership with New York University, Wisdom 2.0 and LinkedIn.  In the interview, Lisa and Tami explore our self-protection mechanisms, the need for courage to overcome them and the importance of supportive challenge to sustain significant personal change.

Our self-protection mechanisms create an immunity to change

Our self-protection mechanisms are designed to protect our sense of self-worth and overall psychic health – they stop us from doing things that would be harmful to our psychic welfare.  Research and experience demonstrate, however, that that many people in organisations find it difficult to make positive behavioural changes that would make them a better staff member or manager.  For example, staff may not change inappropriate behaviour despite regular corrective feedback and a manager may not be able to delegate effectively despite their belief in the need for delegation.

Lisa maintains that the real barrier to these desirable behavioural changes is not a lack of procedural or technical knowledge but the need to change our “inner landscape” – made up of our beliefs, inner rules, feelings, self-stories and assumptions about our self, others, and our world.  Many behavioural changes in an organisational setting require these “adaptive changes” – becoming aware of the specific, inner landscape barriers to a focal behavioural change and working consciously to remove them.  This perspective advanced by Lisa lines up with our earlier discussion of “absolutes” and their impact on our thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

Lisa likens our inner landscape to our immune system which is a self-protection mechanism designed to protect us against infection.  Our immune system, however, can also work against our physical welfare.  This can happen when it becomes hypersensitive to foods that would otherwise be good for us and creates inflammation in the form of rashes, hives, and other manifestations of food intolerance and allergies.  Another example is when the immune system rejects a liver or heart after a transplant.   Our inner landscape, just like the self-protective mechanism of our immune system, can work against making and sustaining desirable, personal behavioural change (whether within an organisational setting or in daily life with our family).

Making adaptive change through the “immunity change process”

In her Book, Immunity to Change, Lisa provides a detailed four-step process for making adaptive change which she calls “the immunity change process”.  In the podcast interview, she offered a brief description of each step and these are illustrated below:

  1. Have a clear goal in mind – Clarity around your behavioural change goal is critical because it enables a focused exploration of your “inner landscape”.  Lisa gave the example of her gaol to overcome the fear of public speaking.  Here I will focus on the goal of improving delegation as a manager, drawing on my experience working with managers over many years.
  2. Honest exploration of your self-sabotaging behaviours: As a manager, you might work against the achievement of your delegation goal by constant interference/ checking in with the person to whom you have delegated work (the delegatee), expressing a lack of trust in the delegatee’s ability to complete the work successfully, showing increasing signs of nervousness, and/or being unclear in your instructions/requirements when establishing the delegated task.  These behaviours can feed your anxiety cycle and thwart effective delegation to the delegatee and, at the same time, undermine their confidence so that they do not do the delegated job very well (an outcome that reinforces your belief system about the threats to your self-worth involved in delegating).
  3. Honest exploration of your inner self-protective goals:  These inner goals lie beneath your self-sabotaging behaviour and provide the unconscious rationale for behaving in a way that works against the achievement of your goal.  These self-protective goals could include trying to avoid the embarrassment of staff making mistakes, ensuring the security of your own job, maintaining a sense of superior knowledge and skills (“better than”) or avoiding being seen as lazy. 
  4. Identifying and challenging the underlying assumptions that give rise to the self-protective goals: These could include the assumption that if the delegatee becomes really good at their work your job will be at risk, they will see any poor work that you have done in relation to the delegated task,  they might do it the wrong way if you don’t constantly check on them, you will be seen as incompetent if they do the delegated task poorly or you will lose control of the task and the delegatee and reduce your influence.  These assumptions are interrelated and self-reinforcing, reducing your capacity to see possibilities and explore creative options.  Once these underlying assumptions have been surfaced, you can challenge them by exploring alternative assumptions.  Lisa suggests, for example, in relation to delegation, that the process could be seen as adding real value to the organisation and the delegatee by enabling them to be the best they can be.  This not only contributes more fully to the achievement of organisational goals but also builds staff motivation and mental health through providing a sense of agency.  Also, as neuroscientist Tali Sharot explains, you grow your influence by letting go.

Reflection

Our inner landscape acts as both a self-protective mechanism building our self-esteem and a self-sabotaging system that comes into play when we perceive that our self-worth is under threat.  As we grow in mindfulness through reflective processes such as the “immunity change process”, we can become more aware of our self-sabotaging behaviour, our unconscious self-protective goals and the underlying assumptions that hold them in place.  As we challenge our assumptions and associated expectations, we can break free of their hold over us and be open to creative options that we can pursue with courage and persistence.

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Image by Peter Perhac 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.

What it Means to be a Tough Male Today: Strength through Adversity and Vulnerability

In a recent interview podcast, Tami Simon spoke to former NBA star Lance Allred about his book which focuses on changes to what it means to be a “tough” male in times of adversity.  Lance is the author of The New Alpha Male: How to Win the Game When the Rules Are Changing.   As the first legally deaf player in the NBA, Lance missed hearing a number of plays but he brought to the game a keen sense of sight and intuition – he was able, for example, to develop heightened peripheral vision and the capacity to read body language through intuition rather than analysis.

Lance explains in his interview (as part of the Insights at the Edge podcast series) that he was raised as a child in America to become the classical Alpha Male – dominant, powerful and focused on the external signs of success that were associated with materialistic values (what you possess) and “superior conceit” (“better than” or “superior to”).  The catalyst for his change of perspective on what it means to be male was the sudden end to his NBA career (precipitated by the Global Economic Crisis) and nervous breakdown which resulted in thoughts of suicide.

Characteristics of males who successfully persevere despite adversity

In the interview, Lance describes the seven characteristics of what he terms the “New Alpha Male”.  The characteristics are strongly aligned to mindfulness and Lance describes them as the “seven principles of perseverance” when faced with today’s life challenges:

  1. Accountability: Lance argues that we need to own our feelings and avoid hiding them through “false bravado”.   He maintains that to be accountable we have to cast off those embedded self-stories that lead to envy and aggression and own our real feelings, instead of playing the victim or the child throwing a tantrum.
  2. Integrity: Speaking your “authentic truth” – not showing one side to a valued audience and another worse side to people viewed as lesser in importance. This entails working towards personal integration as a lifetime pursuit and being congruent as a leader.
  3. Compassion: Understanding that others are in pain and can often cause you hurt as a result of their pain (e.g. pain resulting from adverse childhood experiences).  It entails being willing to forgive others and show compassion towards them and their suffering.
  4. Intimacy: Being able to have the “intimate conversations” that express how you really feel but also being able to “own your side of the street” – what you have contributed to the conflict.  Lance talks about “self-intimacy” which is effectively a very deep level of self-awareness along with the courage to own up to what you are thinking and feeling.  The resultant vulnerability becomes a strength, not a weakness.
  5. Adaptability: Being able to deal with “extreme discomfort” including feeling alone because you are not conforming to other people’s expectations – people who do not see you for “who you truly are” and what you are capable of.
  6. Acceptance: This is the precursor to surrender.  Acceptance entails acknowledging mistakes but working to overcome them for your own benefit as well as that of others affected by your mistakes or inadequacies.  Surrender goes one step further in accepting “what is” after you have given your all to a particular pursuit or dream.  Lance explains that acceptance and surrender in turn involve both heartbreak and gratitude – willingness to learn through heartbreak and gratitude for what you have achieved.
  7. Choice: A fundamental principle underlying perseverance. This involves showing up in your life – choosing to start again after some “failure”, not being afraid of failure.  In the final analysis it means to “be a leader of your own life”.

Reflection

Lance puts forward the challenge of conscious choice and mindful action – being willing to overcome our self-stories, moving beyond our comfort zone, being truly accountable and authentic about our thoughts and feelings and being compassionate and forgiving towards others.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop the self-awareness and self-intimacy that underpins his principles of perseverance and progressively move towards personal integration.

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Image by Pete Linforth 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.

How Could Mindfulness Help to Sustain and Nurture Relationships in a Second Marriage?

Tami Simon recently conducted a podcast interview with Terry Gaspard on navigating the challenges of a second marriage.  Terry is a college professor, author and very successful couples therapist.  In the interview, Terry drew on her book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around.  Both Tami and Terry pointed to the divorce static that highlighted the difficulty of a second marriage – while 50% of first marriages end in divorce, this figure rises to 60% for second marriages.

Second marriages entail the added complexity of increased financial expenses, the challenge of blending families (where there are children involved) and the intellectual and emotional baggage from the previous intimate relationships.  As the two insightful women discussed the topic of sustaining a second marriage from ideas and perspectives developed through their own research and personal experience, it occurred to me that mindfulness could help partners develop the insights and skills required to effectively and happily navigate the many challenges involved in a second marriage.

Mindfulness for accepting “what is” in terms of partner differences

In a previous post, I explained that Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at MARC, incorporates “accepting what is” as an integral part of mindfulness.  Neither speaker in the podcast interview mentioned above thought that this entailed a totally passive position in relation to differences in partners in an intimate relationship.  While they recognised from research that 70% of differences in a relationship cannot be changed, they did identify ways to negotiate some differences.  Terry suggested, however, that some differences can involve what she calls “deal breakers” and these may need to be resolved with the help of a couples therapist if the second marriage relationship is to be sustained.

Terry drew on hundreds of interviews of couples and her own relationships to develop her book.  She maintained that trying to change the other person in a second marriage to be like yourself or some ideal image very often leads to divorce in a second marriage.  She points out that you will not change a person’s basic personality in a relationship – “morning people” do not automatically become “night people”, for instance, or introverts change readily into extroverts.  These are deep differences that cannot be changed, but if partners in a second marriage accept what is in terms of these more profound differences, it is possible to work towards various accommodations over time that make the relationship workable and rewarding.  Terry offers some suggestions in the podcast and in her book to address these differences.

Mindfulness for self-awareness

Research has consistently demonstrated that mindfulness develops self-awareness and the associated skill of self-regulation.  Self-awareness is critical to negotiate several significant hurdles in a second marriage:

  • Intellectual and emotional baggage – whether we like it or not, our past is in our present.  Each person in a second marriage brings their own baggage, both in terms of thoughts and feelings, to the new relationship.  We can act these out unconsciously and damage our relationship(s).  It may be that we bring to the second relationship a lack of trust, unresolved hurt, resentment or fears. Terry suggests that often rebound second relationships do not work because individuals have not taken the time and space required to heal from the damages of the prior relationship.  Mindfulness can help us to see what our personal “baggage” is and how it plays out in the conflicts we have in our second marriage, the points of irritation or the frustration and resentment that we experience towards our partner. 
  • Unrealistic expectations – we all develop expectations of ourselves and others that at times prove to be unrealistic.  Terry particularly mentions the challenge of blending two families in a second marriage and the unrealistic expectations that arise around this difficult endeavour. She contends that it takes at least four years for a partner in a second marriage to negotiate and achieve a balanced relationship with a stepchild (even longer for “stepchildren”).  Through meditation and reflection, we can become aware of our expectations and the influence they are having on our intimate relationship.  We can create the freedom of possibility by gaining release from the tyranny of unrealistic expectations of our self and our partner.

Compassion and forgiveness

Compassion and forgiveness are required in an intimate relationship because grievances will occur on the part of either or both parties.  Terry draws on the work of Fred Luskin, an expert in forgiveness, who talks about the “grievance story” or narrative that we develop when we are hurt in a relationship.  Grievance stories are effectively negative self-stories focused on our hurt that result from unresolved grievances we carry towards our partner over one or more incidents occurring in our second marriage.  They Invariably involve an unbalanced perspective, blaming the other person and some form of “punishment”, e.g. through personal attack (e.g. nagging) or withdrawal.

Acknowledging these harmful narratives and dealing with them through meditation and reflection can heal our wounds and enable us to participate more fully and constructively in our intimate relationship.  Fred’s book, Forgive for Love: The Missing Ingredient for a Healthy and Lasting Relationship, offers processes to overcome grievance stories.  It also provides an understanding of the nature of forgiveness, the underpinning science, the benefits of forgiveness and how to develop forgiveness (especially through the “gratitude channel”).

Reflection

After almost 35 years in a second marriage, I can readily relate to the issues described by Tami and Terry and the need for the perspectives and skills that they discuss to sustain a second marriage.  Their insights and strategies are particularly relevant, practical and workable.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop the acceptance, self-awareness and forgiveness necessary to deepen, enrich and sustain a second intimate relationship.  A key ingredient for success seems to be to develop a “growth mindset” along with tolerance.

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Image by Arek Socha 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.

A Framework for Reflection for Organisation Leaders

Chip Conley, author and hospitality entrepreneur, emphasised the importance of reflection, wisdom and lifelong learning for leaders.  He created the Modern Elder Academy to further that end.  He was especially interested in making the workplace a place for fullment, inspiration and self-actualization for employees – which he maintained was the means to achieve a sustainably successful organisation.  Chip acknowledged that his leadership philosophy was heavily influenced by the writing of two men Viktor Frankl and Abraham Maslow.

Viktor Frankl through his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, impressed on Chip the importance and power of a meaningful life for leaders and the critical role of leaders in providing an environment that is conducive to employees developing a “sense of purpose and meaning”.   Research has confirmed that a meaningful life is foundational to a person’s health, happiness and overall well-being.

Abraham Maslow and his work on developing a Hierarchy of Needs had a very profound effect on Chip and his approach to leadership, both as an owner/entrepreneur and a mentor to other leaders, especially the young founders of Airbnb.  Maslow’s work gave Chip an insight into how to develop a reflective framework to guide his own role as a leader and to assist other leaders to create meaningful work for employees.

A framework for reflection for organisational leaders – the transformative pyramid

Chip explained his reflection framework in a TED Talk© given in 2010 titled, Measuring What Makes Life Worthwhile.  He elaborated further on the evolution of the framework and how to put it into practice in a podcast interview with Tami Simon of Sounds True.  He was particularly concerned about the challenge of applying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to business and the management of employees.

What Chip realised is that, for employees, meaning provided inspiration which in turn developed intrinsic motivation.  He came up with the idea of a framework which he called the “transformative pyramid” – built on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which was illustrated as a five-level pyramid with physiological needs at the bottom of the pyramid and self-actualization at the top.

To simplify things and make his framework easy to implement, Chip developed his transformative pyramid as a three-level pyramid with “survival” at the bottom, “success” in the middle and “transformation” at the top.  He pointed out that many leaders focus only on the bottom of the pyramid, the survival needs, by using all their energy to create non-sustainable, extrinsic motivation in the form of pay, bonuses and financial rewards while ignoring what truly influences and shapes employee motivation.

In Chip’s model, “success” relates to recognition that an employee is achieving their role and contributing to the organisation.  He understood that positive feedback was a powerful motivator and that people often left their jobs because of the way they were treated, including feeling a sense that they had been “taken for granted” and their efforts were unrecognised.   Chip explained, by way of example, that during the dot-com crash, he introduced a process of recognition at his weekly managers’ meetings that not only provided some positive element to what was a relatively sober discussion but also helped to spread recognition and positivity throughout the organisation. 

The initiating process for giving recognition was simple – he introduced a ten-minute period at the end of each meeting where a manager would mention someone in one of the teams who “deserved recognition” for something they had done in the workplace or in the field.  This recognition was communicated personally to the individual involved who felt that they were “noticed” and respected, and their contribution was appreciated.  Chip suggested that great companies are differentiated by the fact that they are “first-class noticers”.

At the highest level of the transformation pyramid is personal reframing of work from “just a job” to something that is meaningful and worthwhile.  Chip suggested that this can be achieved by helping employees to understand the higher purpose of the organisation – the inspirational “why”,  and to find meaning in what they do by understanding the connection between their daily work and something broader that makes a difference in people’s lives.  

Chip indicated that he learned this lesson from a maid who had worked for a  long time in one of his hotels.  When he asked her why she seemed so happy doing mundane work every day (such as cleaning the toilets), she said that she was able “to create joy” for people who stayed in their hotel away from their home and often without their family or partner.  She was able to mentally connect what she did every day to a “noble purpose”.  This realisation and reframing were “transformative” for her – putting her mundane work in a totally different light and acting as a source of intrinsic motivation.

Chip encapsulated his “transformation pyramid” and its underlying principles in his book, PEAK: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow.  He encouraged leaders to use his framework to reflect on their relationships with their employees, customers and investors.  Since the first edition of the book, many organisations worldwide in different industries have used his framework to transform their businesses. In particular, they have found innovative ways to recognise the contribution of their employees.

Reflection

It is often the simplest ideas that have the greatest impact.  Chip demonstrated that focusing on intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation was the way forward to transform companies and he proved this through his own roles as founder and CEO of Joie de Vivre and as mentor to the founders of Airbnb.  In the process, he addressed one of the key underlying problems associated with the growth of depression – the loss of connection to meaningful work.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can increase our understanding of leadership and what is meaningful in life for us and others, and notice, appreciate and provide recognition to people we encounter who contribute in whatever way to our own welfare and that of our organisations.  Noticing, appreciating and giving recognition require us to be present in the moment – a key aspect of mindfulness.  Being present builds awareness of our self and others.

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Image by Pete Linforth 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.