9 Strategies for Managing Cynicism and Negativity in Your Work Team

Negativity and cynicism can develop in a team and become contagious leading to a toxic work environment.  Rollin McCraty, PhD, in his online Heart Science Course maintains that attitudes such as cynicism and negativity, along with challenging emotions like anger, resentment and anxiety, deplete energy – they drain energy and lead to loss of motivation and productivity. 

Rollin explains that neuroscience has demonstrated that these challenging emotions have a direct negative impact on people’s physiology – impacting heart rate, the nervous system, blood pressure and overall performance.  In contrast, research in relation to positive emotions such as appreciation, gratitude and compassion shows clear physiological and psychological benefits.

There can be many factors that contribute to the development of negativity or cynicism in a work team.  An individual who is constantly complaining can affect the attitudes of those around them, even sucking the manager into their negativity.  Individuals can express negativity because of adverse prior experiences in an organisation or because of a current personal problem that is pervading their thinking and perspective on life.  A team may become negative when they have experienced a series of unbroken promises on the part of a manager and be increasing cynical when they have been “over-sold” on the benefits of an organisational or system change.

It is worth noting, however, that some degree of scepticism can be good for a team – so that a team does not just accept what they are told without some evaluation or critique.  However, individuals who constantly play the “devil’s advocate”, are cynical or negative can drain the energy of the team and frustrate the manager.  People who complain endlessly or engage in passive aggressive behaviour whenever change is proposed can become a contagious negative force if their negativity and/or cynicism is left unaddressed.

Strategies to address negativity and cynicism in a team

Managers often feel powerless in the face of negativity and cynicism or when confronted with team members who are constantly pessimistic.  Doing nothing is not an option as these kinds of behaviours only become more pervasive and disruptive without proactive intervention by the manager.  However, there are strategies that can be employed to address the negative impacts of such behaviour.

1.Set expectations collaboratively

Managers can engage staff in the process of defining values and identifying the behaviours that give effect to the desired values.  This collaborative process builds a sense of agency and lays the foundation for a strong, positive culture.  A manager can include “positivity” as a desired value of a team and introduce “unwritten rules” or norms that give expression to this value.  

2.Call the behaviour

If an individual persists in behaving negatively and obstructively, it is critical to address their behaviour directly and privately in a one-on-one conversation.  This should be up-front, stating exactly what behaviours are inappropriate as well as their negative impact on the team. It should also be done at a time when the manager is calm and in control, not when they have developed a “head of steam” as a result of allowing their frustration to reach boiling point before they act.   Early intervention is important once the manager has laid out the team’s groundrules and explained behavioural expectations of team members.  During the feedback session, it is important for the manager to engage in empathetic listening once the inappropriate behaviour is addressed.

3.Avoid negativity or cynicism in your own words and actions

Managers need to monitor their own behaviour and avoid expressing negativity or cynicism in relation to what is going on in an organisation such as system or structural change, appointment of senior management or changes in policy or direction.  Staff continually observe a manager’s words and actions and take their cue from what the manager says and does.  A manager who continually expresses negativity or cynicism, will generate a negative environment and then have to deal with a toxic culture that undermines their efforts to develop a productive and mentally healthy workp0lace.

4.Monitor your language

It is so easy to fall into the habit of making statements like, “I wish it was Friday” or “I can’t wait till the weekend” – everybody does it.  However, these statements communicate dissatisfaction with the present moment and the immediate work environment.  They unconsciously give staff messages that the workplace is not enjoyable or that the manager resents being there.   They can contribute to a negative environment, rather than one that is positive and based on appreciation of what is good about being employed in the particular workplace.  Jake Bailey who was diagnosed with cancer in his final year of High School reminds us that we often overlook the potentiality of the present moment because we are focused on the future.  In his Senior Monitor’s speech at his school’s prize night, he commented, I was dying for weekends, I was dying for school holidays,. Before I knew it , I was dying.  His speech challenges you to ask the question, “Are you dying for tomorrow or living today?’

5.Be open to solutions

Managers often think that they are the one who has to have the solutions to all workplace problems.  Being open to suggestions by staff and being prepared to experiment with alternative ways of doing things, can develop positivity in a team.  It also contributes to staff’s sense of agency – their ability to influence their work environment and the way their work is done – all of which contributes to positive attitudes.

6.Provide positive feedback

Staff can become very negative if they feel they are taken for granted and their contribution is not valued.  Positive feedback is one of the best motivators of people because it involves recognition and appreciation.  If it is given in a way that is sincere, specific and timely, positive feedback can deepen relationships, build team cohesion and trust, and develop positive feelings.  It can also become pervasive and an integral part of team culture as staff observe a manager’s appreciative behaviour and model themselves on what they hear and see. 

7.Be congruent

Ensure that your actions line up with your words. This requires constant personal monitoring and reflection. If you say something is important (e.g. innovation), and don’t spend time, energy or resources on developing it, staff will become cynical and develop the attitude that you “do not mean what you say”.  Congruence builds trust, respect and a willingness to contribute.

8.Use de Bono’s 6 Thinking Hats

The six thinking hats (represented by six different colours) provide ways of viewing an issue or change from a variety of perspectives, some of which are optimistic and creative while others are more pessimistic and tempered by realism and critique.  A manager can use the thinking hats approach to enable staff to explore their reactions to an issue or change and move from a negative/cynical perspective to one that is positive and energising.  The manager can start with “black hat thinking” to surface and publicly record staff’s reservations, concerns and anxieties about an issue or change.  This can be followed by exploring feelings (red hat) and, then, exploring potential benefits (yellow hat) as well as creative possibilities (green hat).

9.Explore gratitude reflections

Often negativity, cynicism or resentment flows from a focus by individuals in a team on what they do not have which can also be a source of envy.  A manager can develop a ritual of appreciation and expression of gratitude as a group and/or individual process.  This has proven psychological benefits for individuals and teams and can lead to displacing negativity with positivity.

Reflection

Many factors both personal and organisational can impact individual and team attitudes and contribute to the development of negativity and cynicism in a team.  As a manager grows in mindfulness through reflection, self-monitoring and observation, they can increase their capacity to recognise the signs of negativity and proactively implement strategies to address this enervating orientation to help develop and maintain a positive and mentally healthy team culture.

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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.

Life Shaping Events and People: Finding Our Way Home

In an earlier post, I explored the concept of authenticity and ways to develop it – after listening to a presentation by Jeff Brown at the Surrender Summit.  This exposure to Jeff and his thinking stimulated my reading of his early book, Soulshaping, A Journey of Self-Creation – a revealing memoir that tracks his outer and inner journey.  As a result of the heartfelt responses to this book, Jeff came to understand that he was not alone in experiencing life’s challenges and exploring the inner journey to seek out peace, happiness and fulfillment.   He comments that he came to realise that “so many of us have walked the same trauma trails and endured hardships”. 

Jeff contends that his disenchantment with his early adult life was a result of following the “false-path”, instead of the “true-path” – alignment with his unique, profound life purpose.  He points out that the world we live in values external achievements not inner progress and constantly distracts us from our life purpose with false rewards and endless enticements designed to capture our attention and cultivate our obsessions.

His personal story captured in Soulshaping describes how he started on his journey to authenticity by listening to his “inner voice” (which he calls “Little Missy”) and exploring his true-path with its multiple challenges and turning points.  He argues that the inner voice is “the little voice that knows”, is persistent and unrelenting and contains what he describes as “the karmic blueprint for our destiny”.  The challenge is to allow this inner voice to reach our consciousness and influence our words and actions and, ultimately, shape our life choices.

However, the journey to authenticity – alignment with our life purpose – requires what Jeff describes as “gut wrenching, self-admission” because it is only when we expose what is really inside of us that we are able to “liberate our own voice”.  Admitting “who we are”, and not persisting with our social disguises (the face we present to the world), is essential for our liberation to a life of joy, profound realisation of our connectedness and experience of the well of ease with its inherent peace and tranquility – a stark contrast to the hurly-burly world we normally inhabit with its unceasing expectations.

Writing our way to our inner home

Jeff suggests that one way to access our true-path and the attendant inner sense of contentment and aliveness, is to begin writing to remove our “emotional debris” and uncover our inner voice.  To this end, I have enrolled in his online writing course, Writing Your Way Home, and I have set out on my own writing journey while concurrently exploring Jeff’s journey through reading Soulshaping and his latter book, Grounded Spirituality.  My core writing project will be a reflective memoir focused on acknowledging the people who have shaped, or are shaping, my life.

In a moment of synchronicity, I recently listened to an interview with Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, as he was discussing the fact that his life at the time involved parallel endeavours – his writings on emotional and social intelligence and his exploration of meditation through research and long-standing meditation practice.  He disclosed that he was pursuing these endeavours on two fronts simultaneously by writing another book about emotional intelligence and writing what he called a “spiritual memoir”.  He indicated that this latter inner journey was about the people who influenced him over his life and enabled him to be the person he is (and the person he is becoming).  Daniel indicated that he was thoroughly enjoying his memoir endeavour and that he was initially writing it for himself, not necessarily for publication.

Jeff indicated that we each have events and interactions with people in our life that shape us and our way of life.  Sometimes these events are traumatic and/or the people we encounter seek to turn us from our path through belittlement, envy or active discouragement.  Others seek to support us to be the best we can be and assist us to explore, and stay on, our true path.  As we are often reminded, “it is not what we experience in life (including traumas) that matters, but how we respond to life shaping events and people”.  In reading about Jeff’s “journey into self-creation”, I came to see some parallels in my life with events and people that were life shaping for him.

Life shaping events and people

Jeff describes a number of key events and people who influenced the direction of his life and his pursuit of a writing path as a manifestation of his profound life purpose.  As I read about his life, I experienced flashbacks to my own life as well as an intense motivation to begin writing my reflective memoir.  I am strongly convinced that the simultaneous pursuit of his writing course and his life story will provide the fuel to energise my memoir writing and help to sustain me in this endeavour.  Already, I have found the following parallels in life shaping events and people:

Adverse childhood experiences

In common with Jeff (and many other people), I had a number of adverse childhood experiences.  Jeff describes having a father who wished Jeff had not been born (he wanted a girl, not a boy) and who was violent and abusive towards him, always seeking to diminish him and his achievements.  He also had a mother who lived a life of “poverty trauma” and resorted to a world of fantasy as a way to cope with life’s harshness.  She “closed her heart” to protect herself.  Jeff experienced a life that was tumultuous and destructive as a result of the overflow of his parents’ challenging emotions and the constant state of conflict between them.

I had a similar upbringing with an alcoholic father who was suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of his imprisonment for three years in the Changi Prisoner of War Camp.  He sought to drown his pain through alcohol and, while not physically abusive towards me, he would physically attack my mother and, on at least one occasion, put her in hospital with broken ribs.  I can relate strongly to what Jeff describes as the verbal assaults of his mother which drove his father “deeper into darkness”.  I can hear my mother berating my father about his drinking and wasting our family income, and the resultant shouting and escalating conflict.  None of us, including my father who had no psychological or government support (apart from a miserly pension), had any idea of the impact of PTSD on a person’s life and family. 

In contrast to Jeff’s mother, my mother lived in the real world but experienced a life punctuated by illness and grief (her four month old son died of a brain tumour when I was 4 years old).  She found her life purpose in raising her other five children, including me, and continually sacrificed herself for our physical, emotional and intellectual welfare (professional support for our emotional welfare was unachievable).  She worked endlessly at the local Woolworths to sustain us and provide for our private school education.  She had high hopes for each of us and encouraged us in whatever we wanted to pursue in our sport, study or work.  Unlike Jeff’s mother, she opened her heart to anyone in need and, in turn, accepted food packages from Vinnies to enable us to live from week to week. 

Career misfit

Jeff describes his very successful entry into a high powered career as a defence lawyer.  It was only as his Bar Admission Exams approached that he began to have doubts about whether this was a false path or a true path for him even though it involved the defence of innocent people who had been subjected to a miscarriage of justice.  His inner voice (Little Missy) created some cognitive dissonance for him by suggesting that he was only pursuing the external accoutrements of being a lawyer – fame, visibility, high income and social standing.  Ironically, it was when he was trying on a new suit for Court appearances (a clothing accoutrement) that he heard that persistent inner voice yet again, “Who are you, really?”

He arrived at a crossroads when he was due to sign a lease for a legal office to share with potential law partners.  At the time, he was pulled by the Warrior in him and his survival instinct to sign up to an externally rewarding life as a defence lawyer in partnership with supportive colleagues.  He described this period of sleeplessness, agitation and hellish indecision as being caught “between direction and exploration”, where he was unable to surrender to the joy of the unknown nor to experience the relief and certainty that came from “knowing where I am headed”.   It was when he was in Santorini in Greece that he began to write a journal which led ultimately to his “calling” and true path of being a writer.  He refused to sign the lease because his life as a defence lawyer seemed to him to be “living in disguise”, not living his real, unique self.

Immediately after I finished high school, I entered a novitiate in Sydney (about 1,000 kilometres from my home in Brisbane) and became an inductee into the life of Catholic priesthood as a contemplative monk.  After completing my first year and confirmation in the religious Order, I moved to Whitefriars Seminary in Melbourne (a further 800 kilometres from home) to complete my studies and training before ordination.  However, after four years there, I decided that this was not the career for me and returned home with $100 and the suit on my back.  I had previously committed to vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as part of my confirmation.  The decision to leave required formal approval from Rome to release me from my vows.

While I was studying in Melbourne, I consistently scored 90% in the annual oral exams for my various studies in philosophy and theology.  It was suggested that I was earmarked to complete a doctorate in theology in Rome because of my academic ability and “model” behaviour as a monk dedicated to daily silence, meditation and study.  However, I suffered from severe migraines and constant anxiety about my home situation where the conflict and domestic violence was relentless.  I came to think that I had undertaken the vocation as a priest as an escape from my distressful home situation and to win the approval of my mother who was very religious.  In some sense I was living my mother’s desire for my career – which filled a deep-seated need on her part.   Like Jeff, I was torn between “direction and exploration”. 

I had all the accoutrements of success – a sense of doing something worthwhile, high standing in the community and amongst my tutors and colleagues, a very balanced lifestyle and enjoyment of the journey.  However, my inner voice caused me to be dissatisfied and I left the Order as I approached ordination as a priest.   I had experienced an overwhelming sense of responsibility to the community generally and to my parents in particular.  As it turned out, sometime after I returned home, I took my mother away from my father for her own safety (but this is another story).  Both my parents blossomed when they were separated and I went on to pursue marriage and a career in the public service.

Reflection

Jeff recalls that as he set out to write a book that “talked about spirituality through the vehicle of my own journey”, he became caught up in self-deprecation.  He was “riddled with shame and doubt”, questioning whether anyone would want to read about his “miserable journey”.  While he recognised that the process of exploring his historical inner landscape through writing was therapeutic for himself, he doubted whether anyone else would benefit from it.  His experience after publishing his book certainly put paid to these doubts about the beneficial effects of his writing for others who read his Soulshaping book.  

Jeff encourages each of us to explore our life story and share it with others.   His writing course provides the psychological support and technical knowhow, including insights into how to get published.  He offers Soulshaping as a flexible template to assist us on our writing journey. His hope is that some of the themes he has written about will resonate with the reader/writer and provide the encouragement to follow our own true path.

Like Jeff, I have had considerable self-doubts about the benefit of writing my own memoir.  However, I am encouraged by his experience and support and the resonance I have already experienced with some of the themes in his recorded journey.  I am continuously flooded with recollections, insights and ideas now that I have chosen my reflective memoir as my core writing project.  I am excited by the prospect of researching aspects of my life and recording my growing self-awareness.  I am also flooded with feelings of gratitude towards the people who have helped shape and enrich my life.  I can already envision my memoir as an e-book, illustrated with historical images from significant events in my life.

As I continue to grow in mindfulness through my regular practice of meditation, Tai Chi and reflection (including writing this blog), I look forward to exploring further my inner landscape, gaining in self-awareness and emotional regulation and experiencing the joy of creative writing grounded in lived experience.

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Image by Robert C 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.

Savouring the Wins of Others

I have been reflecting on Jeff Brown’s comments about the journey into authenticity and particularly what he had to say about savouring the accomplishments and wins of others.  He comments for example, “I love it when people accomplish something they have set out to do”.   My reflection helped me realise that I have been pursuing a path of authenticity in how I turn up for, and play, social tennis (although I have not previously framed it that way).  Like when playing competitive tennis, the inner game of social tennis is challenging but influences how you approach successes and failures. 

I realise that the journey into authenticity while playing social tennis has a number of dimensions for me and while I have started the journey, I have a fair way to go.  The journey entails confronting inner challenges that impact the way I relate to others on the court, both partners and opponents (I only play doubles tennis at my age due to exercise asthma – I turned 76 today!).  Some of the inner battles I have been addressing include the following:

  • Expectations: I have had to adjust my expectations.  I am no longer a 30-year old A-Grade tennis player playing competitive tennis in tennis fixture competitions. I have had to realise emotionally, as well as cognitively, that I no longer have the speed, mobility, strength or endurance that I had when I was half my present age.  This means that I have to control my emotional response when I am not able to execute tennis shots that I have been able to achieve previously.  This has led me to accept my situation without being captured by negative emotions.
  • Blind Spots: By watching competitive tennis and reflecting on my own social tennis game, I came to realise some of my blind spots, both behavioural and cognitive.  On a behavioural level, after I had some lessons (at age 75) on playing a two-handed backhand, I had to rethink how I held the racquet when I waited for a serve.  On a cognitive level, I had to reacquaint myself with my “slice shot” (both forehand and backhand) which I had “put away” because I thought that it was not a “real shot”.  My thoughts about this shot changed after observing Ash Barty achieve Number One world ranking in tennis.
  • Making Mistakes: Because I still carry “video-tapes” in my head of shots I have played competently over many years, I would often get upset when I made a mistake.  However mistakes in tennis are part and parcel of the game …and it took me quite a while to acknowledge this emotionally.  I had to deal with negative self-evaluation and find ways to develop emotional equilibrium even when making basic mistakes.  To assist this journey into authenticity, I try to savour the present moment – the opportunity to play, the capacity to run and hit the ball and my developed tennis competence. 
  • Savouring the wins of others: This is still my greatest authenticity challenge when playing social tennis.  I can fairly readily acknowledge and savour the good shots of my tennis partner.  However, to do the same for my opponents is a different matter.  Because of my conditioning over many years of playing competitive tennis, I want to win every point in a tennis game (although this is not physically possible).  After a long rally where I have hit a lot of shots, run a considerable distance and displayed some tennis competence, I get annoyed if my opponents ends up winning the rally.  It means effectively that I am not authentically focusing on the process but worrying about the outcome.   This is a considerable challenge because it involves rewiring – overcoming my competitive conditioning.  It is my current focus in trying to achieve authenticity when playing social tennis on a weekly basis. 

Reflection

The journey to authenticity in playing social tennis is a continuing challenge.  For one thing, I have to explore why I become annoyed when my opponent wins a rally and learn to savour the wins of others on the tennis court.  As I grow in mindfulness through reflection, Tai Chi and meditation, I  can learn to better accept my physical limitations, admire the achievements of others (even if they are at my expense) and manage my expectations and associated emotions.  This will require a major change in my mindset and help me achieve authentic transformation.

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Image by mohamed Hassan 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.

Overcoming Anxiety

Presenters at the Anxiety Super Conference reinforced the view that adverse childhood experiences provided the foundation for anxiety in later life.  The early childhood experiences could involve sexual and/or physical abuse, psychological control, cruelty, demeaning words and actions or any other form of adversity that undermines a child’s self-esteem, sense of self-worth and security.  The effects of adverse childhood experiences are long-lasting, sometimes a whole lifetime.  I find it amazing that in my seventies, I am still anxious in confined spaces, especially lifts.  I track this anxiety back to 18 months of confinement in an orphanage when I was 4 years old and separated in the complex from my younger sister.

We are told that there is wisdom in anxiety and it can be good for us, e.g. warning us about an unhealthy situation, either self-generated or other-generated.  It can also be useful when it activates focus and energy when pursuing our goals, whether at work, in sport or in our homes.  Anxiety is counterproductive when it undermines our confidence or causes us to freeze, dissociate or engage in destructive, addictive habits.  However, the path to overcoming debilitating anxiety does not lie in avoidance or denial, but in truly facing up to anxiety and related fears.   The presenters at the Anxiety Super Conference provided ways to overcome anxiety, many of them embedded in the body, such as Restorative Yoga offered by Adelene Cheong.

Anxiety Loops

Amber Benziger, who spoke at the Anxiety Super Conference, provides a short video on the nature of anxiety loops that potentially generate escalating fear.  She suggests that experiences like the pandemic can intensify uncertainty around day-to-day activities like getting the children to school, retaining a job or maintaining physical and mental health.  The uncertainty can provoke anxiety about how to handle the resultant disruption and disconnect with established routines.  This, in turn, can lead to physical manifestations of heightened anxiety such as increased heartrate, headaches, or pain in the arms , legs, neck or back (through tightened muscles and constriction of blood flow).  The physical symptoms can activate negative thoughts such as, “Why haven’t I prepared for this?” “I am not a good parent/spouse/colleague”, “Why can’t I cope with this disturbance when other people seem to be coping?.   Amber suggests that, over time, the uncomfortable feelings intensify, negative thoughts become reactionary and excessive and anxiety can be experienced as a panic attack or burnout.

Breaking the anxiety loop

Amber’s suggestion to break the anxiety loop is to first validate the true nature of the external stimulus, e.g. acknowledge that it is a global pandemic and certainly a challenging time that is causing uncertainty and worry for many people.  Then, asking yourself a number of questions relating to control (which appears to be the thing we experience as most under attack), e.g. “What can I actually control?, “What is in my power to do now to prepare, protect and provide for myself and others?”  She encourages us to check in to our bodily sensations via processes such as a body scan and progressive releasing of tension.  At the same time, she encourages us to challenge our negative thoughts and underpinning assumptions.  Amber asserts that in the final analysis, “feelings are not facts!” and we should question why these feelings are arising  – just as Jon Kabat-Zinn asserts, “We are not our thoughts!” and we should use diffusion strategies to minimise their impact.

Amber is the creator of The Anxiety Lab which is a membership site for women who want to overcome anxiety and restore control in their lives.  Besides social support provided by members, Amber offers resources and workshops to enable participants to develop mechanisms for coping with anxiety.  As a trained counsellor and clinical therapist, she also offers counselling for individuals and families as well as group therapy and teletherapy.

Anxiety can be compounded when we take on new roles such as that of a leader in a community organisation or a manager in a commercial enterprise.  Our inability to cope with anxiety can be more public and open to scrutiny in these roles and environments.

Managerial anxiety

Managers can be anxious about the decisions they make, their impact on the welfare of staff, their ability to properly represent the organisation and its goals, their capacity to observe legislative requirements or meet any of the multitude other demands of a manager in this day and age (including coping with new technologies and industry discontinuities).   Managers can be concerned about how they are viewed by their hierarchy, their staff, their colleagues or their clients. They can be anxious about meeting targets, avoiding budget overruns or achieving the required organisational growth.  Managers, whether executives or managers lower in the organisation, can be captured by expectations, those of others as well as their own unrealistic expectations arising from a perfectionist tendency.  This anxiety can lead to overwork and an inability to create boundaries between work and home (particularly in these days of hybrid work).

During the Anxiety Super Conference, Moira Aarons-Mele raised the issue of leadership anxiety and explained that it is different for every person.  She stated that because of our nature as “human relational creatures”, we worry about how we are viewed by others, “ping” off others’ anxiety and take on others’ urgencies.  She maintained that this anxiety-related behaviour is aggravated both by email (where we worry about the communications we initiate and our response to others’ communications) and online meetings.  Meetings via platforms such as Zoom, can be draining not only because of the level of concentration required but also the fact that we are “performing under lights”.  Moira suggests that the “energetic output” required for a series of Zoom sessions is excessive and in a TED Talk, she offers 3 steps to stop remote work burnout.

Moira self-identifies as “an extremely anxious overachiever” who is working to bring some normality to her life.  In pursuit of this purpose, she created The Anxious Achiever Podcast – a series of podcasts in which she interviews experts in the field of anxiety management including those who propose writing as therapy, adoption of the Acceptance and Commitment (ACT) therapy and dealing with the “imposter syndrome”.  One of her interviewees, journalist Priska Neely, explains why managing is the hardest job she ever had.

Overcoming managerial anxiety

Moira offers a number of ways to overcome managerial anxiety.  She suggests that one of the first steps for a manager is letting go – stop micromanaging and empower others through mindful delegation.  Associated with this, is the need to adopt healthy work habits that become new norms by way of modelling desired behaviour.  Sometimes this involves changing the expectations of staff that have arisen as a result of the previous behaviour of the manager, e.g. arriving early and leaving late. 

Moira also recommends talking about the work situation and the stressors involved and working collaboratively with staff to develop ways to cope effectively – e.g. introducing a wellness program or a morning exercise routine.  This self-care and other-care approach could involve checking in on oneself as well as staff experiencing distress.  Moira also strongly recommends setting boundaries , both at work and at home, ensuring there is a clear divide between work life and home life (avoiding endless spill over, a trap for the unwary when working from home).   Moira, like Ginny Whitelaw, encourages movement and bodily awareness to enable leaders to let go of tension – otherwise, their tension contaminates the mood of everyone else they come into contact with (bosses, colleagues and staff).

Reflection

There are many paths to overcoming the anxiety that negatively impacts our health, productivity and overall well-being.  We have to start, and persist with, the journey into our inner landscape.  This can be a lifetime pursuit but the rewards are great as we begin to break free of expectations and the other ties that bind us.  As Janine Mikosza writes in her novel, Homesickness: A Memoir, “your past doesn’t have to be your future”.

If we adopt mindfulness practices such as Tai Chi, yoga or meditation, we can find that over time as we grow in mindfulness we begin to develop heightened self-awareness, the courage to change, the creativity to develop new ways of being-in-the-world and the resilience to maintain the journey.  In the process, we will positively impact others whom we interact with at work, at home or during our everyday endeavours (such as sports or social events).  

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Image by John Hain 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.

Mindfulness in Everyday Life

Rachel Kable – author, podcaster, blogger and mindfulness coach from Victoria in Australia –  recently participated in a podcast interview with Dr. Justin Puder.  In the course of the interview, she explained that when she first started out practising mindfulness in the more formal way of meditating (e.g. focusing on her breath), she had great difficulty and did not like it at all.  At the time she lived very much in the past and the future, not the present.  She would review past performance and prepare to-do lists for future activities to the point where she would lie awake at night, not being able to quiet her mind.  To sit still and focus on the moment was a real challenge and counter-intuitive.

However, Rachel persisted with formal practice because she had heard of the benefits of meditation and mindfulness and wanted to experience them for herself and to share them with others.  As she persisted in her more formal efforts, she found that mindfulness practice increased her ability to focus and concentrate, enabled her to sleep more restfully and fully, enhanced her relationships (e.g. through being present to the person speaking and listening actively, not distractedly) and improving her capacity to be creative in her career endeavours.

Rachel also discovered that she could bring mindfulness to everyday life and the things she already did each day, e.g. cleaning the house, washing the dishes, preparing the meal, driving the car, eating her meals, or sitting on her deck (which provided the opportunity for engaging in “natural awareness”, taking in the sounds, sights, and smells already present to her).  Consequently, she decided that the focus of her mindfulness coaching would be on helping people to bring mindfulness to the activities of everyday life.  To this end, she has developed her blog covering things like self-care, meditation techniques, and simple living.  Rachel’s podcast series, which at the time of writing has 322 episodes, provides lots of practical advice on how to be mindful in everyday life, dealing with issues such as challenging emotions, expectations, stress, decision making and negative self-evaluation.

Rachel has also written a book, The Mindful Kind Book, wherein she provides practical advice and tools to manage overwhelm and stress, enjoy life more, improve resilience to handle setbacks and to practise mindfulness as a form of self-care when engaging in everyday activities, including work.  Her interview is one of many conducted by Dr. Justin Puder who has developed the podcast series, Drop In with Dr. J.

Reflection

Tennis is a very important part of my life and my exercise activity and has been since I was in Primary School (about 10 years of age).   Rachel’s podcast interview reminded me that I need to bring mindfulness more to the fore when playing tennis.  I have certainly used reflection-on-action in the past when looking at how I play tennis.  Through reflection, I have become more conscious of the importance of savouring the moment when playing tennis; addressing my “habit loop” (and related reward system) when experiencing blockages to trying out new tennis strokes; being able to constructively manage mistakes when playing social tennis; and identifying the behavioural and cognitive blind spots that are impeding my tennis performance.

I am often conscious of the technical aspects of playing tennis, e.g. keeping your eyes on the ball, preparing for a tennis shot, choosing the right shot, deciding the stance and position to receive a serve, and identifying the gaps in which to play a shot.  I can become more conscious of when my attention strays to what is happening on one of the other eleven occupied courts and bring my attention back to my own tennis game.

What Rachel’s comments remind me to do is to face my emotions in the moment when playing tennis (e.g. anxiety, fear), name them and decide how to manage them – rather than ignore or suppress them.  It also means acknowledging to myself (and challenging) my self-imposed expectations that impede my performance and enjoyment of the game. 

Rachel reminds us that mindfulness can be practised in every aspect of our life, even having lunch.  For me, for example, that means eating my lunch mindfully, savouring the taste, texture and aroma of what I am eating – not processing emails or planning my day as I eat. 

As we grow in mindfulness through formal processes such as meditation, Tai Chi, or yoga, we can more readily bring mindfulness to our everyday life whether that is driving a car in traffic, sitting on our back deck, working in our garden or just taking a walk.  Mindfulness can accompany us wherever we go and whatever we do – if we only let ourselves drop into present moment awareness.

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Image by Peter H 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.

Letting Go: Breaking Free of the Ties That Bind Us

In his earlier book, The Resilience Project, Hugh Van Cuylenburg discussed his search for the way to develop resilience to meet the demands of these challenging times.  In a previous post, I explained  Hugh’s  GEM pathway to resilience – gratitude, empathy and mindfulness.  This book proved to be a bestseller and Hugh has gone on to present talks to 1,500 schools, elite Australian sports teams and clubs (covering cricket, soccer, AFL and Rugby League) as well as presentations to numerous businesses and organisations.  

When reading The Resilience Project and/or hearing Hugh speak, you could be forgiven for thinking that he was one person who “had it all together”, that he was “on top of things” in his life.  However, in his follow-up book, Let Go, he exposes his own vulnerabilities and weaknesses and argues that “it’s time to let go of shame, expectations and our addiction to social media”.   Let Go could be subtitled, “The 101 Ways I have Stuffed Up in My life” or alternatively, “How My Human Foibles Have Undermined My Resilience”.   This is a disarmingly honest account of his personal vulnerabilities and how they have played out in his life.

Hugh covers a range of topics that highlight his vulnerabilities and offers suggestions on how we can address our own vulnerabilities and learn to “let go”.   Throughout the book, he generously shares what he has learnt from his therapy with Anita and discussions with Ben Crowe (famous mindset coach of people like Ash Barty).  Hugh covers  topics that are natural human reactions to the fragility and uncertainty of the human condition.   His key topics include the following that most people can relate to:

  • Shame: feelings of shame can arise from things we have done or failed to do, from negative self-talk (generated in childhood or later in adulthood) or from perceptions of what other people think or feel about us.  Hugh illustrates this by his own inaction in relation to his sister, Georgia, who suffered from mental health issues and the “shame stories” he told himself.  He reminds us that shame and associated guilt have been clinically linked to all kinds of psychological problems.  Hugh argues that we need to understand the nature of the shame that we feel and learn new, healthy ways to respond to it.  He offers a three-step process to address our shame, including sharing our shame with someone (as the hiding of shame, rather than the shame itself, causes us psychological problems).
  • Expectations:  Hugh shares stories of how his own “unreasonable expectations” caused him stress and worry in his life.  The expectations that we place on ourselves can cover any or all aspects of our life – our physical fitness, weight, academic achievements, professional life, home roles, house care or contributions to society.  We can create a living hell through these expectations that are self-fabricated and their effects can impact on others.  Hugh speaks with honesty and openness about instances in his professional speaking life where his unreasonable expectations almost derailed him.  One of the ways he was able to manage the situations was to share his vulnerability at the time and encouraged others to do likewise.  He drew strength from Frou Frou’s rendition of the song, “Let Go” and particularly the lyric, “There’s beauty in the breakdown”.  Hugh also discusses how we can become captive to the expectations of others and the freedom we can enjoy when we break free of what others have called “the tyranny of expectations”.  He offers a series of questions to address the expectations of others and the suggestion to write down the answers and then challenge the truth or otherwise of these recorded expectations. 
  • Perfectionism:  while Hugh provides a serious discussion of perfectionism and the “inner dialogue” that can plague us in every area of our life, he illustrates the hold of perfectionism by sharing a hilarious anecdote about “one (not so) perfect day”.   The story relates to  an invitation to Missy Higgins and family to join his family for a meal.  He had established a friendship with Missy Higgins who wrote the forward to his earlier book, The Resilience Project.  He was so anxious to make everything right for the day that he ended up creating a “disaster” where everything went wrong, Including his artificial grass catching fire.  He encourages us to overcome perfectionism through self-compassion and the honest exploration of all the areas of our life where our “perfectionism rules” and to challenge ourselves about “what would happen if these things weren’t perfect”.
  • Fear of Failure – Hugh illustrates this “phobia” with a humorous description of an embarrassing encounter with Hamish Blake at a café.  Hugh admired Hamish immensely and had been a long-term fan and so wanted the encounter to go well.  However, his “fear of failure” left him tongue-tied resulting in an embarrassing interaction (for both Hugh and Hamish).  Hugh goes on to discuss “atychiphobia” which he describes as “the abnormal, unwarranted and persistent fear of failure” which can result in all kinds of emotional and physical symptoms, including panic attacks.  He makes the point that some level of fear of failure can be healthy because it inspires sound preparation and conscious performance. However, an unhealthy level of fear of failure can lead us to procrastinate, avoid making an effort or miss the opportunity to pursue our life goals and make a contribution to the wellness of others.  Hugh offers an exercise on “how to let go of fear of failure”.

Reflection

One of the most profound things that Hugh asserts is that our vulnerabilities can build authentic connections.  We begin to realise that we all share the same fragility even though it may have different manifestations in each of us.  Throughout his Let Go book, Hugh explains his developing relationship with Hamish and Ryan Shelton.  It was the realisation that each of them experienced the struggle with “shame, expectation and the fear of failure” that led to the development of the podcast, The Imperfects in 2019.  Hugh and his colleagues (brother Josh and Ryan Shelton) also developed a sub-group of The Imperfect podcasts that they titled The Vulnerabilitea House which was designed to enable people to share, over a cup of tea, “something honest and a little vulnerable”.   Vulnerabilitea House interviewees included Peter Helliar, Martin Heppell and Missy Higgins, as well as Hugh, Josh and Ryan.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become aware of what is holding us back in terms of shame, expectations, perfectionism and fear of failure. This self-awareness, along with self-compassion, provides the motivation to face our frailties and the courage and persistence “to do the inside work” necessary to “let go” and break free from the ties that bind us.

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Image by Сергей Корчанов 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.

New Perspectives on Aging

Day 1 of the Radically Reframing Aging Summit brought to light many new perspectives on aging, and work, home and city environments that are conducive to a meaningful and enriching life for people as they age.  The four presenters represented people drawn from the fields of academic research and the performing arts.   They were Professor Laura Carstensen, Dan Buettner, Jamie Lee Curtis and Vanessa Williams.   Drawing on their research and personal anecdotes, they strongly reinforced the view expressed by the Convenor, Maria Shriver, that we need to urgently reframe aging because the mainstream view of aging is disabling, denigrating and debilitating.

Laura is professor of Psychology and Public Policy at Stanford University.  She is the author of A Long Bright Future in which she challenges current perceptions of aging and promotes practices and approaches conducive to a long and fulfilling life.  She argues that ageism is everywhere and particularly in the workplace.  She proposes that organisations should readily embrace “age diversity” for the rich mix of talents and experience that it can afford and the demonstrated productivity benefits that ensue.  Laura is the founding Director of the Stanford Center for Longevity which has established The New Map of Life initiative which aims to enable people to live century-long lives that are characterised by cognitive, physical and financial wellbeing and enriched by a strong sense of self-worth, purpose and connectedness while contributing to the greater good of society through their wisdom and experience.

Dan Buettner is a multi-faceted individual, who epitomises the capacity and contribution of people as they age.  He is a producer, author, explorer, award-winning endurance cyclist, journalist, National Geographic Fellow and sought-after public speaker.  He is especially known for his research into super-aging published in his book, The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest (2nd edition).  Dan is the Founder of Blue Zones, LLC where he shares his knowledge, research, and lessons learned with individuals, organisations and communities.  His community transformation projects have led to the development of communities across America that enjoy higher productivity, lower healthcare costs and recognition as a great location for living, working and playing. 

In his summit presentation, Dan stressed the importance of a social network as a key element in achieving a long and fulfilling life.  This theme is further developed in a chapter dedicated to this topic in his recent book, The Blue Zones of Happiness: Lessons from the World’s Happiest People.  In that chapter, he identifies the desired characteristics of a social network (three or more people)and suggests that a key task in aging is to “curate a social network of healthy, happy friends who care about you.”  He draws on the seminal work of Nicholas A. Christakis to demonstrate the positive contagion that can occur within a social network if the chosen participants support your desired lifestyle as you age.

In the Summit, Jamie Lee Curtis and Vanessa Williams were introduced as “groundbreaking public figures”.  Their achievements as performing artists and authors alone are mind-boggling.  Both have expanded into new arenas in pursuit of creativity and collaboration.  They highlighted the fact that ageing brings with it the potential for freedom and the opportunity to do what you want, unconstrained by other people’s perception of who you are or what you are capable of. They were able to bounce off each other’s ideas as they shared the energy and joy that comes with age, experience, personal strength and a positive vision of what is possible.

Reflection

The Summit provided the opportunity to reflect on what is possible to achieve once you move beyond the debilitating mainstream perception of what aging entails.  The emphasis on freedom and creativity was exhilarating and energising.  Each of the presenters reflected in their own lives and their choices the unlimited potential of aging.

As we grow in mindfulness and develop increasing self-awareness and insight, we can begin to realise the potential of aging and to have the courage to move beyond our own limiting expectations and assumptions and those of others.  

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Image by 愚木混株 Cdd20 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.

Coping with Grief During the Pandemic

Jenée Johnson, mindfulness trainer and visionary leader in the public health space, gave an enlivening and inspiring presentation during the current Healing Healthcare: A Global Mindfulness Summit.  In her talk, Honoring Grief with Your Whole Heart, she highlighted the collective grief resulting from the pandemic and offered processes and tools to cope with grief, whether pandemic-driven or the result of life’s normal circumstances.  She mentioned that she had been well equipped for the pandemic – having the solidity of a house, finances, nutrition, supportive partner, work and a relevant skillset – but she too found the pandemic “unmooring”. 

Jenée experienced the added personal grief of the death of her brother – an experience I can relate to with the recent death of my brother Pat.  However, her brother died not only from the isolation associated with the pandemic but also from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from 9/11.  Jenée spoke of grief, whether personal or collective grief, as depleting and “an energy expenditure”.  She maintained that the pandemic created a “tsunami of emotions” which Dr. Lise Van Susteren describes as “emotional inflammation”.  

Ways to cope with grief

While Jenée acknowledged that the pandemic and associated events impacted individuals differentially, grief was a common outcome – a sense of loss of people, a way of life and/or positive memories.   She contended, however, that there are ways to replenish ourselves, rebuild our energy and achieve emotional regulation.  Some of the ways to cope with grief that Jenée suggested are:

  • Firstly, acknowledge that the reactions of fear, anger and grief are natural human responses.  The challenge is how we manage or regulate these difficult emotions in a time that is constantly unmooring us from our established way of doing things and our regular supports.  The pandemic and personal grief impact our whole human system – our minds, hearts, body and emotions. 
  • Cultivate awareness of everything that has happened to you over the period of the pandemic and subsequently.  Jenée suggested that we need to attend to, rather than hide from, our emotional state.  There is a tendency to shut down and block out painful feelings and recollections but unless we face them, they can overwhelm us when we least expect.  She mentioned that there were times when she cried and wailed after her brother’s death, releasing pent-up emotions.
  • Central to Jenée’s approach is heart-focused breathing.  She stated that when we breathe deeply and release our out-breath we can let go of what is constraining us.  The HeartMath Institute that has pioneered research on the intelligence of the heart has promoted heart-focused breathing and developed a suite of tools, programs and videos to promote health and wellbeing.  They contend that heart-focused breathing contributes to heart coherence which helps to balance mental and emotional energy and activate creativity.  Jenée argued that this form of breathing creates space for energy, enables the pain of grief to move through us and opens us up to flourish and experience joy and pleasure once again.
  • Change our expectations about our capacity to focus and achieve productivity.  Jenee suggested that is not reasonable to expect that we can be as productive during the pandemic as we were before and the same applies to personal grief.  The pandemic and personal grief contribute to a depletion of energy and reserves.  Rather than overload our system with unrealistic expectations, it is important to modify our expectations in the light of our reduced energy levels.  For example, I have to reduce my expects about how many posts I can write per week given my recent grief and the accumulated effects of the pandemic.  Some people have gone so far as to change their expectations about he nature of their work and sought more fulfilling and rewarding work that is less depleting in terms of time and energy.
  • Pamper ourselves with things that relax us – spending more time reading novels or the paper, sleeping in when appropriate, enjoying a massage, purchasing aromatherapy oils or indulging in treats (Jenée admitted that coffee and almond croissants are one of her treats – something else I have in common!).  One of the dangers is to resort to alcohol to dampen our pain (alcohol sales have exploded during the pandemic) and we need to be cognisant of the impact of increased alcohol consumption on our sobriety goals and this may entail a reassessment of the “reward value” of consuming more alcohol in times of grief. 
  • Rebuilding social connections through our recreation and work activities. Resuming social activities such as social tennis or dancing (where permitted) along with walking generates movement which in turn builds up dopamine which makes us feel good.  Sometimes grief brings extended family members together and creates the opportunity to develop new connections or re-establish old ones.  In the workplace, we could begin our meetings with a grounding exercise followed by an emotional “check-in” to see how everyone is coping – putting people ahead of task in these challenging times.
  • Practicing gratitude can generate appreciation and joy even amidst grief and pain. Jenée suggested buying a beautiful gratitude journal and an exquisite pen to cultivate the habit of journal writing and expressing gratitude.  She recommended Robert Emmons’ book, Gratitude Works, for its insights on the benefits of gratitude and its tips on ways to foster gratitude. 

Reflection

Jenée quoted Jon Kabat-Zin when he said that “the challenge of mindfulness is to be present for your experience as it is”, not as you wish it to be or try to make it different by denying the reality of the experience and your related thoughts and emotions.  Mindfulness can build resilience in challenging times as has been proven by extensive research.   As we grow in mindfulness and enhance our self-awareness, we are better able to gain insights into the way forward, develop the courage to face our fears and increase our window of tolerance.  We can experience gratitude, joy, renewed energy, and heightened creativity.

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Image by SEBASTIEN MARTY 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.

Identifying Our Blind Spots Through Observation and Reflection

Kelly Boys, author of The Blind Spot Effect: How to Stop Missing What’s Right in Front of You, highlights the fact that blind spots have multiple dimensions, including cognitive (the way we think) and behavioural (what we actually do in response to stimuli).   In an earlier post I explored these dimensions in more detail and shared Kelly’s approach to identifying our core blind spot involving a meditative exercise that focuses on our bodily sensations and the underlying cognitive message that we are giving ourselves.

Our blind spots can impact every facet of our lives, including our relationships, work endeavours, sport activities, exercise routines and our diet and nutrition.  Through mindfulness and employing observation and reflection we can gradually recognise our blind spots and work to overcome them.  This is a life-time pursuit that needs to be worked at consistently and persistently.  Our blind spots are often manifest in our reactivity to stimuli whatever form they take.  Underlying our reactivity can be negative self-talk, prior adverse experiences, assumptions or resentment.  Tara Brach offers a simple S.T.O.P. practice that can be used, particularly when we are anxious or agitated, to overcome our habitual behaviour  (whether fight, flight or freeze) in a particular situation. 

In a recent post, I compared playing tennis to day-to-day life emphasising the uncertainty,  the mental and emotional challenges and the constant need for adaption that they have in common. 

Reflection

Being a “tennis tragic”, I have been watching the Australian Open Tennis Championship, particularly the matches played by Ash Barty, World Number 1 Australian tennis player.  In the process, I have been able to observe the behaviour of players and reflect on their mental attitudes, especially when they were challenged by falling behind in the score.  Some players became despondent and were able to regroup, others let out their frustrations in a show of anger (e.g. by smashing racquets), while others succumbed to the weight of expectations – their own and that of others especially the World Press.

While watching tennis matches during the Australian Open I was able to reflect on my own tennis game and, despite having played tennis for more than 60 years, I learned two key things through observation and reflection that will enable me to improve my social tennis games and enjoy them more, even while aging.   One had to do with a behavioural blind spot and the other with a cognitive blind spot.

My first revelation involved a behavioural blind spot that related to how I had my hands placed on my racquet as I waited for a tennis serve from my opponent.  Having just learned the technical aspects of a two-handed backhand, after 60 years of using a single-handed backhand, I was curious as to how two-handed backhand players prepared to receive serves in excess of 180 kph.  It surprised me that they could be prepared to use a single-handed forehand or a two-handed backhand with little loss of flow in transition.  Through observation, I learned that when receiving a serve they held the racquet differently to what I had been taught when using a single-handed backhand.  It made me realise that instead of having the left hand loosely supporting the right hand like I have been doing, they were already prepared to play a two-handed backhand by having a firm grip with their left hand in the right position on the racquet. 

From this I learned why I was having trouble accessing my two-handed backhand when I was waiting for a serve.  With my usual way of preparing for a tennis serve, I had firstly to move from holding the tennis racquet loosely with my left hand to achieving a firmer grip higher on the racquet (above my right hand) – all of which took too much time and impeded my readiness to receive a serve.  The new stance for me will be uncomfortable for a time.  This experience reinforces the point that we can have behavioural blind spots in any aspect of our lives, even something as simple as how we hold a tennis racquet.

My second revelation involved a cognitive blind spot in relation to the “slice tennis shot”.   When I learned to play tennis the slice tennis shot was part of your tennis armoury, but not your primary shot.  I have often used the slice tennis shot when out of position or when I have difficulty handling the power of an opponent’s shot.  However, I always viewed it as an inferior tennis shot – one played from a position of weakness.

However, after watching Ash Barty’s dominance using the “slice shot” as a primary tennis stroke, I have had to change my mindset and elevate the slice to at least an equal part of my tennis armoury along with a flat or top-spin forehand.  This has been a mental block for me in the past.  But now I have realised that the move from an Eastern forehand grip to a Western grip (sometimes extreme) has meant that a lot of players are unable to effectively play or handle the slice tennis shot.  The reasons are explained by Jon Crim in his overview of the Western grip.  This means that times have changed yet again and that the slice tennis shot (mainly through the success of Ash) has now achieved a status equal to that of the top-spin forehand.   While the top-spin forehand gives the tennis player an advantage in net clearance and depth of shot, it has the inbuilt disadvantage of making it more difficult to play the slice shot which tends to go lower over the net and stay quite low on impact, as well as having a “shooting” effect.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, observation and reflection we can develop curiosity about our blind spots, enhanced self-awareness and the capacity to overcome our habituated responses.  The insights gained can open up the opportunity for more joy and success in our relationships, work endeavours and sporting activities.  As Kelly points out, unless we observe and reflect on our thoughts and behaviour, we can miss what is right in front of us because of our blind spots.

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Image by Bessi 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.

Life is Like Playing Tennis

Daily living has a lot in common with playing tennis – this does not suggest that they are exactly the same, only that they have some features in common when observed from an effectiveness viewpoint.  As with any metaphor, to say that life is “like playing tennis” is to say that there are some aspects that are the same in each thing being compared.  Life and playing tennis are characterised by uncertainty and challenges, require constant adaption, are affected by our mental and emotional state and can be a source of happiness or disappointment.

When playing tennis, as in life, you are uncertain about the next ball/challenge you will have to face.  In tennis, the shot you have to deal with can vary in spin, speed, and direction and be affected by external factors such as wind and air temperature and the kind of surface you are playing on, as well as the condition of that surface.   In life, we are faced with all kinds of challenges such as financial and health issues, relationship problems or adverse work conditions as well as broader issues such as financial constraints or heath crises such as the pandemic.

I have to admit that I am a “tennis tragic” having played tennis for over 60 years and continuing to do so in my 70’s.  I only play social tennis now once a week (compared to in my youth when I played morning and afternoon on Saturdays and Sundays, including different forms of fixtures and coaching).   As with life, I have had to make continual adaptions as I age.   I have decided, for example, that I need a new tennis racquet to provide better support for my game.  I requested a new racquet from my wife for my recent 75th birthday –  a racquet that is lighter and has a larger frame (for failing eyesight).   This replaced my 20-year old tennis racquet which was badly in need of a restring to restore power and precision.  

They say that to ward off Alzheimer’s disease you need to exercise and learn a new skill that challenges you and provides you with mental stimulation.  Again to overcome the declining strength in my arms and wrists, I decided to learn how to play a two-handed backhand instead of the single-handed backhand that I have used for the last 60 years plus.  This is incredibly challenging for me, not only from a technical viewpoint but also from the perspective of incorporating it psychologically in my game, with the high probability in the early stages of making a lot more mistakes when playing a tennis game.  It means  that I have to take more risks, reflect on what I am doing wrong and manage my mental and emotional reactions to the higher level of mistakes

To help me start out with the requisite technical knowledge, I asked by my sons to pay for three professional coaching lessons (as a 75th birthday present) which gave me a good grounding in the technique required to achieve an effective two-handed backhand.  Now, I just have practice to acquire the technical competency of a two-handed backhand and learn to manage my fear of making a lot of mistakes as I learn to adapt my shot and my positioning to different balls that I will face in a tennis game.  Fear can prevent me from trying out the two-handed backhand in a real game and deprive me of the opportunity to learn as I go.  As with life, I have to learn to manage my fears if I am to achieve a rewarding level of competency and joy.  

Over many years, I have learned to develop a number of principles for playing tennis effectively – a set of principles that have relevance to achieving a life that is fulfilling and happy.  I describe these principles below and they may serve to reinforce a positive approach to life.

My six principles for effective and joyful tennis playing are:

  1. As I approach each night of social tennis, I decide on one micro skill that I am going to concentrate on improving during that night (usually over three or four sets).  There are so many micro-skills involved in playing tennis that it is not possible or effective to concentrate on everything.  As with making resolutions in life to improve your behaviour, focusing on a single goal can prove to be more achievable, effective and reinforcing.   This process employed on each occasion of playing, has served as the basis for continuous improvement, one micro skill at a time.
  2. When playing, I make continuous adaptions to my game to adjust to the circumstances – different players and different conditions.  If some particular tennis stroke is not working or getting me into trouble, I try something different.  Over the years I have developed multiple forms of spin such as top spin, slice, back spin, “out-swinger” (spins away from the body of my opponent) and “in-swinger” (spins into the body).  I adapt my spin to suit the circumstances, e.g. the type of players I am playing against and the external conditions.
  3. Over the last few years dealing with declining physique, I have had to change my mindset playing tennis.  Earlier on when I was much more physically able, I used to try to avoid making mistakes.  But increasingly now, mistakes are a part of the game of tennis.  So I have come to view playing each shot as an experiment – in the face of the numerous variables involved in a tennis shot (both received and hit), it realistic to view playing tennis as a process of conscious “trial and error”, with relevant adjustments for what is deemed to be an error in shot selection and/or delivery.
  4. Instead of dwelling on mistakes I make in a game, I try to savour my really good shots – those that were executed well with the desired effect.  Over time, I have built up a mental video playlist of really good shots which serve to build my sense of self-efficacy – my belief in my capacity to competently complete a particular shot (e.g. a backhand, half-volley lob). 
  5. The challenge when continuously making mistakes or doing the wrong thing, is to avoid beating up on yourself.  I am learning instead to appreciate the fact that I can still run, play a tennis shot, enjoy a game with friends, have ready access to tennis courts and be able to afford to play.  When I am tempted to chastise myself for a poor shot, I try to express gratitude for the things that I have and can do on a tennis court.
  6. Over time, as my physical capacities have declined, I have had to adjust my expectations of what I am capable of achieving.   In my secondary school days, I was trained as a sprinter and achieved selection at GPS level.  Now I am a lot slower off the mark.  I have had to change my expectations about my speed and mobility around the court and capacity to hit fast tennis shot (owing to weakening strength in my arms and wrists).  I do try to strengthen my wrists and arms through exercise but this can only serve to reduce the rate of decline.  In the meantime, I have had to adjust my expectations (though sometimes, I attempt to play like a 40 year old…and suffer accordingly!).
  7. I have taken up again the regular practice of Tai Chi which helps to build balance, flexibility, reflexes, coordination and overall energy.  I have learned that Tai Chi has quite remarkable benefits for playing tennis.  This form of meditation-in-action also suits my personal approach to developing mindfulness and helps to offset my declining physical prowess as I age.

Reflection

I have previously written about how tennis can build mindfulness if approached in an appropriate way.  For me, playing tennis involves a continuous process of reflection.  AS I grow in mindfulness through reflection, meditation and other mindfulness practices, I am increasing my self-awareness about my thought patterns and emotional states when playing tennis.  I am also learning to adapt and adjust my expectations and to approach my game more mindfully, enjoying the present moment without the contamination of continuous negative self-evaluation.  There can be real joy in savouring the experience of competency and being grateful for what I have and can do. Despite the aging process.  I am increasingly convinced that If you live a reflective and mindful life, wisdom becomes a natural outcome.

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Image by Tonny Nijkrake 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.