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.

Understanding the Process of Emotions

Dr. Eve Ekman recently presented a session on Overcoming Negativity and Judgement as part of the Wise@Work Virtual Communities series organised by Wisdom Labs.  Eve’s professional work focuses on developing emotional awareness, compassion and mindfulness. In pursuit of this goal, she draws on her knowledge, research and experience in areas such as integrative medicine, clinical social work and contemplative science. The mission of Wisdom Labs is to improve mental health in the workplace and the organisation offers guided virtual communities and a stress reduction app as a means to pursue these goals.  The positive outcomes from these tools are reduction in workplace stress, combating loneliness and burnout and improvement in teamwork.

Eve facilitates the Cultivating Emotional Balance Online Course and is Director of Training at the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC), University of California Berkeley.  Eve demonstrates the benefits of her yoga and meditation practice in her concise, calm, practical and insightful presentations in many contexts, including in large organisations around the world.   Her video presentation on cultivating emotional balance and fluency at the 2013 Summer Institute for Educators (GGSC) is another example of the depth and passion of her work in developing emotional awareness

The process of emotions

Eve made the point at the outset that we have to understand the nature of emotions if we are going to learn how to keep them under control.  She explained that emotions are more than feelings (e.g. feeling good or bad about something).  In her view (informed by scientific research), emotions are really a process – a process involving “a trigger, an experience and a response”.

The trigger for a feeling of frustration and anger in the workplace could be something like the internet freezing continuously, someone who continually talks loudly in your open office workspace or the fact that your views and suggestions are ignored by management.   Working from home in the current lockdown environment of the Coronavirus can provide multiple triggers for frustration such as distractions, inadequate computer resources and managers who lack an understanding of your personal situation and associated difficulties (such as young children at home).   

Our experience of frustration and anger and associated thoughts of unfairness have a “biological correlate” – in other words, our thoughts and feelings are reflected in our body.  We may feel “uptight”, experience soreness in our back, arms or legs or have a stiff neck or headache.  Our response to the trigger and associated feelings and bodily sensations, can be mild, measured, “over-the-top” or involve some form of calming of ourselves and our emotions.

Eve suggests that we draw on integrative science (Western and Eastern approaches) to identify emotions as “constructive or destructive in how they are enacted” – in other words, how we respond, how our emotions play out in our words and actions.  Whether we choose a constructive or destructive way to act out our emotions will depend on how well we have our emotions under control at the time. 

The capacity to consciously chose an appropriate response to our triggers and associated feelings is described as emotional fluency or as Susan David calls it, “emotional agility”.  Eve’s facilitation in workplaces and her research, confirm that meditation and mindfulness practices are a pathway to developing emotional fluency/agility.   Without awareness of our emotions and how we enact them, we can be easily captured and controlled by them, resulting in harmful interactions and poor decision making.

Reflection

Viktor Frankl reminds us that between a stimulus (a trigger) and our response, there is a gap – wherein lies the opportunity to exercise choice in how we respond, and in the process, free ourselves from the enslavement of our emotions.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and mindfulness practices we can build our self-awareness in relation to our triggers, thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and habituated responses and develop self-regulation to deal with our emotions constructively.

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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.

Using Meditation to Let the Light In

Lynne Goldberg presented at the 2020 Mindfulness & Compassion Global Summit on the theme of Leonard Cohen’s words, The Crack is Where the Light Gets In.  Lynne spoke of her life experience where meditation enabled her to find joy, happiness and holistic success after a dark period of pain, grief, and anxiety.  The “crack” was the fracture of her external, projected veneer as the perfect wife, mother and businesswoman (Vice-President of a retail store).  Lynne epitomised what Harriet Braiker called The Type E Woman who had to be “everything to everybody”.

Lynne’s world fell apart when she lost her mother through cancer, her marriage through divorce and her twin daughters who died two days after their birth (after she had tried to conceive for six years).  Despite the turmoil in her life, Lynne tried to keep it together and be the perfect executive but lost her position.  Lynne numbed herself to the physical, emotional and mental pain she was experiencing.  It was only through meditation and improved nutrition that she was able to restore her equilibrium and find peace and happiness.  Up until then, she was full of self-loathing and self-recrimination.  She had to acknowledge to herself that “position and possessions” do not guarantee happiness – they were only the external trappings of “success”.  Meditation enabled Lynne to loosen the hold of false beliefs and let in the light of self-belief and self-esteem. 

Meditation to let the light in

Through meditation and nutrition Lynne found her balance and love for life and others.  She became a certified meditation teacher and described her odyssey in her book, Get Balanced, Get Blessed: Nourishment for Body, Mind, and Soul – a life journey that shares strategies and tools to overcome the stress of trying to be perfect and “control the uncontrollable”. Lynne is also a co-creator of the Breethe app.

In a recent interview with Beau Henderson discussing meditation’s role in challenging times, Lynne offered five steps to help us overcome fear and anxiety and achieve mindfulness and serenity:

  1. Set your intention – be very clear about why you want to develop a meditation practice and find ways to remind yourself of this intention.  Clarity of intention energises the discipline to maintain practice.
  2. Stay present – avoid wandering into the past and the uncertain future and practise restoring your focus to the present.  Some simple mindfulness practices such as mindful walking, focusing on the sensation of your fingers joined together or deep listening, can be helpful here.  You can also monitor your own words, e.g. when you say, “I can’t wait till the weekend!” or “I wish it was Friday”.
  3. Practice non-judgment – be with what is happening rather than judging it to be good or bad, e.g. the weather. 
  4. Let go of control – give up on trying to “manage the unmanageable” but do what you can to the best of your ability, given limited resources, time and understanding. 
  5. Go from “me” to “we” – help other and in the process help yourself to overcome fear and self-absorption. Compassionate listening in times of anxiety and uncertainty is a bridge to self-compassion and compassionate action towards others.

Lynne offers a 5-minute meditation that can be used at any time during your day to let the light in and bring peace and tranquillity to your life.

Reflection

There are many simple meditation practices that can help us to become grounded and to rest in equanimity.  The starting point is a clear intention to undertake a core meditation practice on a daily basis. Starting small enables us to build the discipline of consistency.  The core practice, even five minutes a day, can be supplemented by other mindfulness practices to build and sustain the momentum. 

Revisiting the benefits of our meditation and mindfulness practices helps to reinforce our intention and reward our discipline.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and mindfulness practice, we can overcome false beliefs, experience serenity, access our creativity and achieve holistic success.

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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.

Strategies for Couples to Cope While Working at Home during Quarantine

In a previous post I discussed Rick Hanson’s ideas about the intrapersonal and interpersonal challenges facing couples working from home during the quarantine conditions brought on by the Coronavirus.  In his podcast, Coping with Quarantine, Rick also explored strategies for couples to cope with these challenges.  His suggested strategies focused strongly on connection, contribution, control (inner and outer) and compassion.

Strategies for couples to cope with the challenges of working together at home during social isolation

  • Connection with others: the fundamental principle underpinning physical distancing is avoidance rather than contact and connection.  However, this does not prevent us from connecting with each other as a couple, with our family and friends or with colleagues.  All of the remote communication strategies are available to us – online video calls, telephone, social media and email.  There can be a tendency to let the physical distancing principles impact the rest of our behaviour.  However, now is the time to reconnect with others who are also feeling socially isolated.  As a couple, connection can take the form of increased hugs, considerateness, words of love and appreciation and thoughtful touch – all of which builds the relationship. It also involves avoiding the temptation to escalate an argument or conflict to prove you are right or to assuage your pride.  Fundamental to connection with your partner is listening for understanding, not interrupting but being open and vulnerable to the thoughts and feelings of your partner.  As Rick points out, listening provides you with the time to deeply connect with the other person and enables them to experience calm and clarity.  He reiterates Dan Siegel’s view that deep listening enables the communicator to “feel felt by the other person”.
  • Connection to nature:  we are connected to nature on multiple levels and it is possible through mindfulness practices, including mantra meditation, to experience this connection at a deep level.  When we experience our deep connection to nature, we can feel inspired, energised, positive and calm.  The very act of breathing and walking in nature regenerates our physical systems, clears our mind and helps us to reduce the power of our negative emotions.  Nature has its own healing capacity which we can tap into in multiple ways – if only we would stop long enough to let it happen.  
  • Contribution: there are so many people in need as a result of the pandemic.  There are also endless ways to contribute and help others, to draw on our creativity and resourcefulness.  For example, despite the lockdown in the Northern Territory in Australia, Arnhem Land artists are offering a series of free online concerts to lift people’s spirits and reinforce their connection to the land and the resilience of nature.  Thirty of Australia’s top singing stars have also collaborated to provide an online concert from their homes, Music From The Home Front, that is dedicated to people who are in the frontline of the fight against the Coronavirus.  Another exemplar of contribution in adversity is Nkosi Johnson who was born with HIV in South Africa and died at the age of 12.  In his short life, he dedicated himself to fighting, locally and globally, for the rights of HIV affected people in South Africa and beyond.  Nkosi is quoted as saying, “Do all you can with what you have in the time you have in the place you are”.
  • Controlling yourself and your environment: in times of crisis it is important to develop a sense of control over our difficult emotions and our immediate environment.  There is a growing pool of advice on managing anxiety and achieving mental and emotional balance during these times of uncertainty and social isolation.  In times of uncertainty we can achieve a sense of agency by controlling aspects of our immediate environment – whether that be tidying or renewing our garden, removing clutter from our workspace, developing new skills or getting our finances and accounts in order.
  • Compassionate thoughts and action: in the section above on contribution, I stressed the importance of finding ways to help and to take compassionate action.  However, action is not always possible because of our personal circumstances, including being confined to home as a high-risk person.  This is particularly where loving kindness meditation can be used to experience compassion towards others who are suffering and/or experiencing grief.  Everyday there are stories of individuals and families experiencing heart-breaking situations brought on by the Coronavirus.  We can keep these people in our thoughts and prayers and feel with them.

Reflection

Creating connection, making a contribution, achieving self-control and control over our immediate environment and offering compassion and loving kindness are ways forward for individuals and couples restricted to working from home.  Meditation, reflection and mindfulness practices will help us to grow in mindfulness and to develop the necessary self-awareness, awareness of others, self-regulation and presence of mind and body to bring these positive aspects into our lives as individuals and couples.

Chris James captures the essence of connection to nature in the songlet Tall Trees on his Enchant album:

Tall trees

Warm fire

Strong wind

Deep water

I feel it in my body

I feel it in my soul

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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.

Challenges for Couple Relationships During Quarantine and Working from Home

Rick Hanson, in one of his Being Well Podcasts, spoke of Coping with Quarantine.   His focus in this discussion was on the intrapersonal and interpersonal challenges of physical distancing and restrictions on movement.   In the podcast, he identified the challenges and highlighted the fact that the pandemic and associated quarantine conditions have contributed to an increased divorce rate in China since the pandemic outbreak.  Rick spoke of the interpersonal challenges brought on by the confinement conditions and the mental and emotional pressures experienced by couples working from home.

Challenges of social isolation for couples working from home

The unusual conditions for a couple working from home in the context of other social constrictions creates increase emotional pressure for individuals in a relationship as well as for the relationship itself.  Rick describes some of these challenges as follows:

  • Heightened emotional activation: both individuals in a relationship who are working from home will be experiencing heightened emotions in the form of anxiety, fear and frustration as a result of the Coronavirus and associated restrictions on location and movement.   Couples typically experience daily aggravations with some of the comments and actions of their partner.  These aggravations can be intensified in the situation of limited physical space in the home environment and restrictions on movement.  The home environment can become a place of continuous annoyance, conflict and anger rather than a haven of peace and contentment.  Married couples in this situation can experience suffocation and/or staleness and need to draw on considerable internal resources to increase their tolerance and maintain their relationship.
  • Loss of social support: physical distancing can separate us from people we usually associate with and from whom we draw support and reinforcement.  Normally, we gain validation and confirmation of our competence and self-worth through these external relationships.  The change to a working from home environment means that we have lost the daily “water cooler chat” and with it the exchange of information, including sharing of our thoughts and feelings.  The loss of various forms of social reinforcement can cause us to challenge our self-concept and self-worth – difficult feelings compounded by feeling inadequate working from a home environment where we lack the personal capability for remote communications or the working space and technology to take advantage of the positive aspects of remote working.
  • Loss of structure: it is surprising how many people report in the current situation that they “don’t know what day it is”.  This is due, in part, to a loss of structure in their day.  The loss of regular, repetitive activities results in a loss of anchors to our days that serve to remind us what day it is.  We no longer get dressed for work, take the train or car at set times, play our social tennis on Monday nights, watch the footy together on Friday nights, visit our extended bayside family or the local market on weekends or undertake any other activity that serves to structure our day or week.  Rick suggests that these structures normally “prop us up” and their absence can leave a sense of “groundlessness”. 
  • Loss of familiar role:  in the work environment, we can feel competent and in control.  When forced to work from home in a more complex and difficult environment, we can feel overwhelmed by all the challenges and be ill at ease for much of the time.  For some people, this can be temporary as they develop the skills to master their circumstances; for others, being able to adapt becomes a real issue and aggravates the feelings of frustration and reduced self-esteem.  The intense sense of ill-ease and associated stress can debilitate people and hinder them from seeing a way forward and acquiring the necessary skills to capitalise on the current situation and personal conditions.
  • Loss of freedoms: with the restrictions on movement and need for social isolation, people can experience a loss of the fundamental right to “freedom of association”.  Along with this, may be the experience of a lack of privacy where both partners are working from home, especially where for many years one partner went to work every day for an extended period.   Introverts may experience a loss of access to their “cave” where they would normally retreat to recover from extroverted activity, including interactions with their partner.   One or both partners in a relationship may feel that their other partner is constantly “under their feet” – a complaint frequently voiced by people where one partner usually works from home and the other partner has recently retired from their job in the city or away from the home.

Reflection

Quarantine as a result of the Coronavirus and enforced working from home conditions can place increased stress on couples and their relationship.  The current environment also offers an opportunity to develop our inner resources through meditations (including mantra meditations), mindfulness practices and reflection on our resultant emotions and responses.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop a deeper understanding of what we are experiencing, keep issues and aggravations in perspective, develop tolerance, build our skills and draw on our innate resourcefulness and resilience.

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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.

Developing Resilience for Uncertain and Challenging Times

Danielle LaPorte – blogger, author, entrepreneur, podcaster and inspirational speaker – was recently interviewed by Tami Simon on the topic, Resilience in Challenging Times.   When asked how she is coping in the current Coronavirus crisis, she explained that in the main she is “feeling resilient” but sometimes drops out from her centre and experiences intense feelings of pain and sorrow.  For her, resilience is “coming home” to your true centre and your life as it is.  Danielle reinforced the need to fully face our fear and anxiety, rather than deny the reality of what is happening for us.  She reminds us that acceptance – accepting what is – is core to mindfulness, mental health and happiness.

Scenario thinking as a way to manage the uncertainties of life and business

Danielle drew on her role as a “social visionary” to recommend using scenario thinking as a way to manage through the uncertainties that confront us on every dimension of our lives today.  For example, with the staff of her entrepreneurial business she explored potential scenarios as they move forward, including the “worst possible” scenario.  Facing up to the worst possible scenario and exploring how you could cope gives you a sense of control over fear and anxiety – you have faced up to the thoughts that generate your fears and anxiety and diffused them by identifying ways to cope (rather than letting them whirl around in your head and disorientate you by pulling you away from your centre).  Danielle indicated that she applied scenario thinking to her personal life as well, even facing up to the possibility of her own death through Coronavirus infection.

In line with her scenario thinking and her role as a social futurist, Danielle suggested that the Coronavirus will bring out the best and worst in people.  We have seen this already, on the one hand, in panic buying and profiteering by hoarding and selling scare resources at exorbitant prices; on the other hand, the growing prevalence of kindness, thoughtfulness, generous sharing and compassionate action.   Danielle drew on Barbara Marx Hubbard’s analogy of the “crisis of birth” to talk about the pain of establishing a new world order where there is increasing integration of the scientific, social, economic and spiritual capacities of the human race through a process of “conscious evolution”.

The growth of heart-centred leadership

Danielle maintained that the current crisis creates a situation where heart-centred leadership becomes the new norm.  Leaders and managers of people working remotely as a result of enforced physical isolation are confronted with the need to be empathetic to the adverse situations experienced by many of their staff – some with ill parents, school-aged children at home, inadequate space, lack of necessary technical resources or inexperience in operating within a working from home environment.  Heart-centred leadership requires the development of compassion, a perception of leadership as resonance and the capacity to build leadership agility.

Danielle herself demonstrated heart-centred leadership when she spoke of “bothness” – the capacity to not only see and face your own suffering but also to recognise that others are suffering too, often experiencing much worse conditions and life circumstances than you are.  For example, she explained that the experience of a short supply of a particular grocery item bears no comparison to someone else’s situation where they have no food or any likelihood of obtaining anything that is nourishing.  Danielle suggests that her own pain and suffering is connecting her with “someone else with more pain”.  In the mutual experience of crisis, lies the energy of connectedness.

Reflection

The current Coronavirus crisis precipitates the development of self-intimacy rather than self-denial, the promotion of compassionate action over self-absorption, the growth of heart-centred leadership over narcissistic leadership and the emergence of a greater sense of connectedness, rather than disconnection.   As we grow in mindfulness – deep awareness of our self and others – through mindfulness practices, reflection and scenario thinking, we can maintain a positive mindset and contribute, however painfully, to the growth of a new, integrated world order.

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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.

Managing Remotely: Challenges and Opportunities

Managing remotely brings many challenges and these are compounded in the current uncertain times associated with the relentless march of the Coronavirus.  Managers like their staff can be ill-prepared for the sudden change in their work location and circumstances.  Managers who are used to seeing their staff daily and being able to observe what they are working on, lose that “line of sight” and can become anxious about their perceived loss of control.  Workers themselves can experience a sense of social isolation and can lack access to timely information and adequate technology.  These difficulties can be aggravated by distractions, particularly where there are young children at home and other children who need to maintain a school study program while being unable to attend school.  Managing remotely demands increased flexibility and adaptability on the part of managers, the willingness to “cut their staff some slack” and the emotional agility to manage themselves in times of crisis.

While the challenges of remote management are personally demanding for managers, particularly in times of uncertainty, there are also opportunities inherent in the remote circumstances.  These include the opportunity to develop stronger relationships with individual staff, to build effective teamwork and to promote creativity and capacity development.

The challenges of managing remotely

Staff working from home and/or in remote locations can lose their sense of belonging very quickly and become withdrawn and disengaged.  Managers on our Confident People Management (CPM) Program report that some of the other challenges that arise are:

  • Things can get out of hand quickly
  • Staff can become demotivated because they often do not know “what is going on” (compounded by the absence of the informal, “drink fountain” conversations that often entail sharing, “Did you know that…?”)
  • Misunderstandings and conflict can arise because of the lack of information and/or communication
  • Staff can feel a lack of support because the normal supports (presence of mentors, technical experts and resources) are not readily accessible
  • The working space and/or technology of staff working from home may not be ideal
  • The potential for negative cohesion and “groupthink” to arise in the absence of the physical presence of the manager
  • Staff can experience feeling isolated and this sense of disconnection from others can compound, or be the catalyst for, mental health issues such as loneliness and depression
  • Managing poor performance can be more difficult because of the loss of “line of sight”, the lack of face-to-face interaction and the extra demands of communicating and problem solving on a more regular or routinised basis.

People ideally suited to working remotely are those who are self-reliant, strong communicators, self-directed, resilient, trustworthy and outcomes/results focused.   Unfortunately, in these times of enforced working from home arrangements, managers do not get the opportunity to decide who is personally suited to working from home and whose work is adaptable to a working from home environment.  This situation of lack of control over a critical aspect of decision making can be particularly challenging for a manager and also make performance management even more difficult because some people will not be suited to these quickly implemented, new working arrangements.  The current need for social isolation and social distancing for both managers and staff can place an added burden on the manager and can make it difficult for them to maintain a positive mindset when faced with the added challenges of complexity, uncertainty and anxiety (their own and that of their staff).

The opportunities of managing remotely

Managers on our current CPM Program report that the remote management situation has surprisingly improved their communication with individual staff when they use video as apart of remote communications technology (such as Zoom© or Microsoft Teams©).  Both managers and staff are finding it easier to share openly and with some degree of vulnerability in this new context.  They put these relationship improvements down to the lack of workplace distractions, the absence of an open office environment where privacy is sacrificed in the misguided pursuit of efficiency and a mutual sense of vulnerability (occasioned by the Coronavirus).

With the right strategies for managing remotely, managers can create opportunities for staff to develop new skills, build resilience, improve teamwork and collaboration and gain more enjoyment and motivation in their work.  As the oft-quoted English-language proverb goes, Necessity is the mother of invention – the need to do something imperative about something that is significant to working effectively, generates creativity and innovation.  Both managers and staff are forced to find new ways of working and communicating to maintain their own sense of agency and to achieve the desired team outcomes.

Reflection

There is a tendency to see only the challenges inherent in remote management because of our natural negative bias when we feel threatened or forced to go outside our comfort zone.  However, there are very real opportunities involved in managing remotely, not the least of these being the catalyst to involve managers in accelerated self-development.  As managers grow in mindfulness through meditation, mindfulness practices and reflection they can build their personal resilience, enhance their capacity to make “adaptive change” in their behaviour and more readily access their creativity and innovation.  With every challenge there is an opportunity for personal growth if the manager has worked at creating fertile ground, through mindfulness, for their own flourishing.

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Image by Anrita1705 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.

Managing Yourself in Times of Crisis

Susan David was recently interviewed as part the Ted Connects© series of talks.  Susan spoke on the topic, How to be Your Best Self in Times of Crisis.  She maintained that “life’s beauty is inseparable from it’s fragility” and provided a number of ways to manage yourself in times of crisis.  She emphasised the importance of facing our difficult emotions, naming our feelings, being curious about what our emotions are telling us, developing our sense of agency and finding ways to help other people.  Susan stressed that underpinning her approach is the concept of “emotional agility” – the core of which involves “radical acceptance” of our emotions and self-compassion.

The fragility of life

Susan reminds us that the Coronavirus highlights the fragility of life. This fragility, however, is part of our everyday life experience. We love someone then lose them, we enjoy good health then experience illness, we savour time with our children only to watch them grow up and leave home.  The problem for us is that our social narrative, the stories we tell ourselves as a society, is so focused on the importance of always achieving, being fit and happy and appearing to be always in control.  There is an inherent denial of the reality of death and the fragility of life – we have to appear to be strong and deny our difficult emotions.

Facing our difficult emotions

Susan stressed the importance of overcoming our habituated way of responding to difficult emotions.  We typically deny them, turn away from them and, yet, end up stuck in them or “marinating in it” as Rick Hanson, in his Being Well Podcast, describes the resultant state of self-absorption.  Susan maintains the critical importance of facing our emotions and owning them, not letting them own us.  This involves naming our feelings not in a broad way such as “I’m feeling stressed” but in what she calls a “granular” way or fine-grained identification of exactly what we are feeling, e.g. disappointment, resentment, anger, fear or anxiety.  It is only by truly facing and naming our difficult feelings that we can tame them, stop them from owning us.  Susan points out that this self-regulation is a key facet of mindfulness.

Being curious about our difficult emotions

This is a form of self-observation and self-exploration. It’s being curious about what our difficult emotions are telling us about ourselves and what we value.  Strong emotions are indicators of what is important to us but, at the time, perceived as lacking in our personal situation.  Loneliness, for example, is experienced as disconnection from others and tells us how much we value relationships and connection.  Social distancing and social isolation, as a result of the Coronavirus, have compounded our feelings of loneliness.  So, it’s important to move towards ways of re-connecting, if not face-to face, by phone and online communication. 

Developing our sense of agency

Susan argues that in these times when everything seems out of control, it is important to develop “pockets of control” to enable us to develop our sense of agency – our capacity to control some aspect of our life and our immediate environment.  These arenas of control can be minute things like deciding what three things you want to do today, developing a menu plan for the week, setting up a daily routine (especially when you are working at home with children present) or changing the way you normally do things to adapt to changing circumstances.  It may be that you decide to master the skill of online communication – developing new capacities as well as gaining control.  Some people look to regain control and appreciation over their own yard or garden.  My wife and I have recently bought a coffee-making machine so that we can better control our expenditure on coffee, increase our control over how our cappuccinos or Piccolos are made and limit our time and social exposure by avoiding having to go out and queue up for a take-way coffee.

Sense of agency can extend to appreciating what we have and savouring it.  The Coronavirus attacks our respiratory system, quite literally taking our breath away.  We can begin to really value our breathing through various forms of meditation which can ground us in our body in these times of uncertainty and anxiety.  As we learn to control our breathing through meditation, we can develop ways to calm ourselves in times of crisis and stress.  Our calmness is reflected in our breathing, as is our agitation. 

Helping others in need

Besides showing compassion towards ourselves (in owning and accepting our emotions and what they tell us about ourselves), it is important to move beyond self-absorption to thinking of others and undertaking compassionate action towards them.  This may mean a simple phone call to an elderly relative who is in lock-down in a retirement village or contacting someone you have not spoken to for a while.  Everyday we hear about people showing random acts of kindness and generosity towards others.

For example, our weekend newspaper reported about the wife of a doctor on the frontline of the fight against the Coronavirus.  He has decided to live apart from the family for six months to protect them from contracting the virus.  Despite her resultant loneliness, his wife is creating homemade meals for him and his fellow health workers and enlisting the support of neighbours, friends and anyone else to do likewise so that these frontline workers don’t have to rely on unhealthy take-aways to sustain them during their very long hours of courageously caring for others.  Susan challenges each of us with the question, “How can we help in little and big ways?” – how can we demonstrate being part of a community and being “values-connected”?

Reflection

In times like the present with the Coronavirus impacting every facet of our lives, we begin to wonder how we will all cope.  Susan expresses great optimism that the crisis will enable people to be their “best self” and daily we see evidence of this.  Susan points to the history of people handling crises with courage, wisdom, compassion and mutual kindness (witness the recent wildfires in Australia).  As we grow in mindfulness and learn to face our difficult emotions through meditation and reflection, we can understand better what our emotions are telling us, regain our sense of agency and begin to show compassionate action towards others in need.  Mindfulness helps us to be calm, resilient and hopeful.  

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Image by ShonEjai 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.

Developing Our Inner Life as a Leader

As we grow in mindfulness, we develop our inner life – realising a deeper self-awareness, developing increased understanding of the nature and strength of our personal triggers and building a greater understanding of, and tolerance for, other people’s differences.  This enriched inner life builds our capacity for insight, resilience, creativity and integration of our words and actions with our life purpose – all essential traits of effective leadership.  Ginny Whitelaw, in her book The Zen Leader, describes this reframing and reorientation of a leader as a flip from “Out There” to “In Here”.

We create our world “out there”

Ginny explains that what we consider to be “out there” (external reality) is, in fact, a projection of our inner world.  Drawing on her study of biophysics, martial arts and Zen philosophy, Ginny marshals her arguments to demonstrate that our external world as we perceive and experience it, is mostly of our own making.  Her argument revolves around several key insights:

  • Limited perception – Ginny points out that our human capacity is to perceive external reality in two or three dimensions (the latter achieved mainly by artists and architects).  She maintains that our external world exists in ten dimensions, most of which are outside our awareness.
  • Cultural filters – our national culture, the world we are raised in, creates filters that shape our perceptions, beliefs, words and actions.   Naomi Osaka (Japanese tennis star), for example, explained in an interview for the Brisbane International that she was bemused by the enthusiasm, boisterousness and naturalness of Australian tennis spectators – which she pleasantly experienced as a sharp contrast to the “politeness” of Japanese tennis spectators.
  • Personal triggers – what we experience individually and differentially as negative triggers is shaped by our early life experiences which heighten our sensitivity to different interactions – a sensitivity that can be reflected in a constant need for control, an overwhelming drive to prove that we are “better than”, an obsessive need to please so that we are liked, or the continuous perception of criticism of ourselves by others.  These negative triggers are often the result of distorted perception of our external world – for example, we see criticism where none is intended or where the opposite is intended.
  • Expectations – our expectations reflect our self-image and influence how we experience others’ interactions with us.  Ginny maintains that through our expectations “we’ve pre-tuned our senses to notice only certain things and to place certain interpretations on them”.  Our expectations that reside “in here” create the world we experience as “out there”.

So, what we experience as “out there” is highly subjective and is of our own creation – we are constantly making our own world.  There are inherent deficiencies and dangers for leaders in assuming that what we perceive and experience, is “real” and is the only reality.  Reg Revans, the father of the action learning approach to leadership development, warns us that if we assume that we know what is real we are going to cause trouble for ourselves and others.  Politicians frequently attempt to shape our perceptions of reality by stating unequivocally that “the reality is…” (invariably something of their own making that serves their purpose).

Developing our inner life (as a leader)

In her book on Zen leadership, Ginny offers some penetrating exercises that address our individual distortions of “out there” and enrich our inner life (what is “in here”) thus empowering us to “lead fearlessly” but attuned to others’ reality and own purpose.  These reflective exercises fall into several categories:

  • What World do You Make? – this exercise built around personal skills and traits as well as values that you hold strongly, develops an insight into how you shape your world in a typical week. (p.86)
  • Turning a Difficult Relationship – involves reflecting on an interaction with curiosity and openness to ascertain what you personally brought to the interaction (in terms of perceptions and triggers).  It entails looking into the mirror, discovering the fear at the root of your perception and behaviour and “claiming your power” by naming and facing your fear. (p.97)
  • Sitting Meditation as a Core Practice – Ginny offers a guided meditation based on sitting and grounding that releases tension, develops deep body-mind relaxation and provides the opportunity to gain greater awareness of what is “in here” and “out there” for you. (p.101)

Ginny’s book is rich with insights and personal exercises and reflections to deepen self-awareness, enhance self-regulation and develop ways to empower yourself to take your place fully in the world (not constrained by distorted perceptions, unfounded assumptions and projections or unexposed fears).

Reflection

Our life experience and our personal responses provide a rich store for reflection and insight.  Developing our inner life is not a luxury for a leader – it is an imperative because leaders are able to influence others and to enrich their lives.  The starting point is acknowledging and accepting that the world we experience is something of our own making and that we can remake our world (and help others to do likewise) by growing in mindfulness through meditation (such as the sitting meditation proposed by Ginny), by reflection (such as focusing on what we brough to a difficult interaction) and by open exploration (seeking with curiosity to identify our personal “imprint” of our world).

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Image by Gerd Altmann 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.