The Courage of Simone Biles

Simone Biles, considered one of the greatest female gymnasts of all time, had a rocky road at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (23 July to 8 August 2021) that had been delayed because of the pandemic.  Simone, who has won 32 Olympic and World Championship medals, experienced mental health issues at the Olympics and opted to withdraw from the US team event after completing only one of the four components in the artistic gymnastics competition.  She also withdrew from individual events including the all-round gymnastic competition. 

However, Simone returned for one event, the balanced beam, to win a bronze medal in a tight finish.  Her courage and resilience in the face of her mental health issues is a source of inspiration for many others, including elite athletes who suffer from the burden of expectations.  Her courage is immortalised in the Binge© movie about her life – the 2018 movie, The Simone Biles Story – Courage to Soar, which among other things depicts her adverse childhood experiences which included foster care.

Mental health issue – the Twisties

During the final of her first event, the vault, as part of the US Gymnastic team, Simone experienced the “twisties” which can be very dangerous because it involves disorientation through loss of spatial awareness while twisting and turning in the air and attempting to land.  It can cause serious injury such as that experienced by British gymnast, Claudia Fragapane, during the 2016 Olympics.  Claudia explained that Simone would have experienced the “twisties” as a mental block resulting from too much pressure – unrealistic expectations that fail to acknowledge that world-class gymnasts, while being able to perform “superhuman” feats, are in fact human and vulnerable. 

As Simone herself commented, “At the end of the day, we’re not just entertainment, we’re human” and gymnasts not only have to manage the intricacies and demands of the sport but also “things behind the scenes”. In her case, one of the sad and disturbing things that happened during the Olympics was the unexpected death of her aunt, which occurred two days before her return to compete on the balance beam.

The courage to return

Simone returned to the Olympic competition to compete in the individual balance beam final where she won a bronze medal.  She displayed incredible courage to return and risk injury but had clearly developed a balanced perspective through her mental health crisis.  She said of her Olympic Bronze Medal, that it “means more than all the golds” because of the courage and resilience she had to draw on over the previous five years and the week of the Olympics. She also indicated that she valued her “physical and mental health” above all the medals.

During her break from the pressure of the 2020 Olympic competition, Simone spent time utilising the training facilities of Juntendo University which is located just outside Tokyo.  There she was able to regain her balance and confidence to enable her to return for the individual balanced beam event. She publicly expressed her deep gratitude for their support and technical assistance.  To acknowledge their support publicly when she herself was in the limelight demonstrated her humility, appreciation and healthy confidence.   

Simone is globally acknowledged for achieving “gravity-defying” feats that no one else has been able to achieve.  After this Olympics, her personal achievement in dealing with her mental health issue will rank up there with her physical achievements and inspire many others to seek help and grow through their challenges.

Reflection

When we are confronted with unrealistic expectations we can become both disturbed and distracted and lose perspective.  Sometimes, it requires “time out” (as in basketball and beach volleyball) to assess what is going on and to regain our perspective.  Simone showed us that she had the courage to declare her difficult mental state and to take time out to find her balance (physically and emotionally) and restore her perspective.

It took even more courage to return to the Olympic competition despite the sometimes vitriolic media commentary that saw her as “deserting her teammates”.  She had to face not only her inner demons but also the external, unthinking critics who lacked understanding and compassion.  Simone also demonstrated courage in bringing “the topic of conversation on mental health to light” which she stated “meant the world” to her.

Simone was willing to disclose what action she had taken to be able to return to the competition and she did so to express her gratitude to people who helped her in the intervening period.  As I discussed previously, gratitude is one thing that Naomi Osaka uses to help her become grounded in challenging situations.  Ash Barty, too, has gratitude as a foundational value.

We can develop our own resilience and courage by using meditation, reflection and other practices to grow in mindfulness.  This will help us to explore our inner landscape and our habituated responses and enable us to develop healthy confidence and a balanced perspective.

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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.

Mental Health and the Burden of Expectations for Elite Athletes

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics brought the issue of the mental health of elite athletes into the spotlight with the open admission of mental health issues by Naomi Osaka (World No.2 tennis player) and Simone Biles (American gymnast considered one of the greatest gymnast ever).  Both elite athletes acknowledge that their performance and capacity to participate to the best of their ability was impacted by mental health issues.  One of the key stressors for both these athletes was the burden of expectations, their own and that of other people, including the press and social media.

Naomi Osaka and mental health

In winning the 2019 Australian Open singles title, Naomi Osaka was the epitome of mindfulness in action – displaying resilience in the face of setbacks and disappointments, overcoming negative thoughts and drawing on gratitude as a means to stay grounded in the present moment.  Yet by the middle of 2021, Naomi was experiencing severe mental health issues that led her to withdraw from the French Open after winning her first round match.

Naomi explained that she had experienced “long bouts of depression” since her win over Serena Williams at the US Open in 2018.  She found giving post-match interviews particularly difficult because she is an introvert and inherently shy and has trouble dealing with the public scrutiny and criticism of the way she plays a match.  Because of these difficulties, she publicly stated that she would not give post-match interviews during the 2021 French Open.  This attracted a vehement response from an unforgiving press and social media that had created her social persona and related performance expectations.  Added to the stress of the moment was a fine of $15,000 for refusing to be interviewed after her first round win, along with the threat of expulsion from the French Open (along with other Grand Slam events).

Some people rallied around Naomi and praised her for her willingness to publicly acknowledge her mental health issues, her judgment in taking a “mental health break” to concentrate on “self-care”, and her desire to avoid being a “distraction” from the main event.  Some ruthlessly and with no compassion judged her as weak and suggested she toughen up.  So the very criticism she had wanted to avoid was heaped on her after her decision to withdraw for mental health reasons. 

It is understandable then that Naomi (with the memory of the trauma of the French Open still raw and real), should play a “loose game” when losing her Olympic third round match to world No. 42 Marketa Vondrousova.  Naomi admitted that she found the pressure of expectation too difficult to handle.  She had been made the “face of the Olympics”, had her first round match delayed so that she could light the Olympic Torch at the Opening Ceremony and carried with her the hope of her entire country, Japan (the host of the Olympics).

Barney Ronay wrote a scathing piece during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics about the role of media in Big Sport creating a “24-hour rolling hell” amid what he described as an “endlessly hostile kind of unregulated social experiment”.  He points out that the athletes carry the weight of unrealistic expectations to be brilliant all the time, to assuage the sadness and despair of individual nations with rays of hope and achievement and fulfill political desires and sponsor demands.  He argues that the world has become “a place of unceasing noise, reverence, poison, expectation” where athletes who have had a disrupted preparation in the face of pandemic uncertainty are subjected to the amplification of their mistakes and the associated “unkind words” voiced by caustic observers. 

Naomi, in an insightful essay in Time Magazine after her French Open withdrawal, expressed her disappointment and regret that she was subjected to detailed, public scrutiny of her mental health condition by the press and French Open organisers.  She explained that this invasion of privacy aggravated her mental illness at the time (and subsequently, through the memory of these painful events).  She asked for “empathy” and “privacy” from the press.

There is now a special three-part Netflix documentary on Naomi Osaka which will help people to understand the influences in her life, the pressures she is under and the ways she seeks to manage overwhelming expectations.

Reflection

Privately, we each carry expectations of elite athletes and at times express criticism of their performance without knowing what is happening in their lives at a point in time or understanding the pressures they are under. It might be more helpful, caring and compassionate to refrain from our criticisms and focus on what the athlete has had to go through to achieve an elite performance level.

I have just finished reading Tania Chandler’s novel, All That I Remember About Dean Cole, which tracks the journey of a young woman from trauma to triumph.  This penetrating and “compelling portrait” of mental illness is insightful and engaging.  In an interview about her book, Tania explained that the book is “about memory, time, mental illness, perception, and perspective”.  She stated that she drew on her lived experience of mental illness in her book as well as thorough research into areas such as trauma, mental health, depression, schizophrenia, psychosis, caring for people with mental illness, burns care, terror attacks and synaesthesia

Tania’s book can help us become more aware that people we interact with daily are all subject to the influence of past events whether they experienced psychological control in a relationship, sexual abuse, physical abuse, trauma, social conditioning, parental neglect, an alcoholic parent, parental divorce or any of the multitude forms of adverse childhood experiences.  This should encourage us to be more empathetic and compassionate towards others. 

As we grow in mindfulness through loving-kindness meditation, reflection and other mindfulness practices, we can enhance our sensitivity and compassion, develop insight into mental illness and its behavioural manifestations and learn ways to develop self-care, gratitude and compassionate thoughts and action.  In the process, we can develop our resilience in dealing with challenging times, ill-health, disappointments and setbacks.  We can grow in awareness of the impact of our words and actions and learn to overcome habituated responses such as criticism.

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Image Source: Ron Passfield (Point Lookout, Stradbroke Island)

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.

The Dark Clouds of Expectations

Expectations, our own or that of others, can be good.  They help us to extend ourselves, go beyond our comfort zone and realise our potential in the various endeavours of our life.  However, when expectations become too great, they can be disabling and damaging to our physical and mental health.  Excessive expectations can lead to unhealthy levels of stress and the attendant negative impacts on our bodies and minds.

Previously, I discussed the tyranny of expectations, drawing on a blog post by Phillip Moffitt, author of Emotional Chaos to Clarity.  In this post, I want to focus on the disabling effects of expectations when expectations become too great.  Recent events at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is the catalyst for this reflection.

Impact of excessive expectations on elite athletes

During the Tokyo Olympics what struck me was the number of elite athletes whose performance was adversely affected by excessive expectations, their own and that of others.  An athlete who readily comes to mind is Ash Barty.

Ash Barty, world No. 1 tennis player, was beaten in the first round of the Olympic women’s singles by world No.48, Sara Sorribes Tormo.  The straight sets loss created a media storm.  Barty commented after the match that “she wanted to do really well” at the Olympics but her game was “too erratic” – she made an uncharacteristic 55 unforced errors.  The expectations of others around Barty’s performance prior to the Olympics constantly made headlines in the press – she was  Australia’s only  guaranteed gold medal hope and would meet Osaka in a classic final that would decide who was the real world No.1 tennis player.  Barty admitted after the match that she felt the stress of expectations but did not perform at her normal best. 

What was interesting as an observer, was her failure to demonstrate her normal trade-mark skill of being able to assess an opponent’s strategy and adjust her own game if things were not going well.  As Phillip Moffit points out in his book, excessive expectations can lead to “emotional chaos” at the expense of clarity – the resultant excessive stress can lead to “frazzle”, a state of conflicting thoughts and emotions, blocking out access to personal creativity in the situation. 

Ben Crowe, Barty’s mentor and performance coach, makes the point that one of Barty’s great strengths is her capacity to block out distractions which can take the form of expectations, who is watching the match or any multitude of things that draw attention away from the present moment.  Ben sees his job in part as helping Barty to manage distractions and he gives her feedback after a match about his observations of how she has handled distractions during a match (drawing on both displayed non-verbal behaviour and performance level).  He stated that one of her “superpowers” is to be able “to separate self-worth from expectations of others”.

As Ben explained, you have no control over the expectations of others and limited control over outcomes.  So many things can impact the outcome such as the excessive heat during the Tokyo Olympic tennis matches, the absence of spectators, anxiety about the pandemic and its impacts or personal weariness, ill-health or injuries.  Ben observed that being able to separate your own sense of personal worth from outcomes enables you to separate goals/dreams from whether or not you achieve them.  He explained that Barty’s sense of her own self-worth is rooted in her foundational values of “being a good human being” who is both respectful and respected.  He maintains that her healthy self-confidence flows from a focus on “human-being” over “human-doing” – the being vs doing focus that is prominent in mindfulness.

Reflection

If we define ourselves by our outcomes in whatever arena we operate, we will be captured by the “tyranny of expectations” – our own and that of others. However, if we focus on the process rather than the outcomes and express gratitude for what we have and can do, we are less likely to be caught up in the distraction and disablement of expectations.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and other mindfulness activity, we can become better at paying attention in the present moment, achieve greater clarity about the present situation (however challenging it might be) and tap into our inner resources including our creativity.

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Image by mbll 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 Confidence through Mindfulness and Reflection

Rick Hanson, in a podcast interview on the topic Confidence or Narcissism?, focused on the fact that many of us confuse confidence with narcissistic tendencies –  in summary, being self-absorbed and pursuing the need to be valued in the eyes of others.  He suggests that our behaviours often derive from adverse childhood experiences where we have been deprived of what he calls, “narcissistic supplies” – a deprivation of expressions of love and appreciation for who we are, not for what we might achieve or become.  Later in life, we try to fill the gap left by this deprivation by seeking to draw attention to ourselves or pursuing self-interest at the expense of everyone else.

Rick suggests that one way to fill the gap is to be mindful throughout the day whenever we experience something that is self-affirming, e.g., an expression of gratitude, and to savour this in the moment.  He also recommends loving kindness meditation towards others who are engaged in extreme narcissistic behaviour – recognising that their bullying, belittling, and blaming behaviours are often the result of a deficit (not receiving positive affirmation in their younger years). Mindfulness meditation can increase our awareness of our own narcissistic tendencies, build a genuine confidence born of appreciated positive affirmations and help us to understand what drives behaviour that is perceived as “over-confidence” or “superior conceit”.

The disabling effect of negative self-stories

Negative self-stories can undermine our confidence, lead to procrastination and act as a barrier to creativity in our life’s work..  These can have their origins in parental messages, schoolyard experiences, workplace exchanges or other environment influences.  They are below awareness and are often reinforced by our own self-criticism throughout our life experiences.  The self-stories get reflected in our emotional responses and habituated behaviour, such as procrastination. 

Tara Brach, meditation teacher and practitioner, suggests that it is important to bring these stories “above the line” in order to prevent them from undermining our confidence and self-belief.  She encourages us to practice meditation and reflection to enable us to  name the stories, embrace the underlying feelings, understand recurring patterns, and increase our awareness about their origins and our self-reinforcement of the persistent false beliefs.  Leo Babauta recommends adding a dose of self-kindness, as well as loving kindness towards others.

A reflective framework

In a recent online webinar on Awaken Your Confidence, Empowerment Coach Amy Schadt provided a reflective framework that identified four categories of self-doubt.  After the workshop, she generously provided a worksheet for one of the four categories that you identified during the workshop as being the most prominent self-doubt category in your life at the moment.  The worksheet provided a means of reflecting on the thoughts and behaviours that were creating a blockage for you and undermining your confidence.

Amy usually works with women and offers a range of services such as personal coaching, workshops, and her signature online program, Design Your Unstoppable You.  However, I participated in the webinar because I wanted to address a blockage to undertaking what Leo Babauta, creator of Zen Habits, describes as “your meaningful work” – your life purpose which involves actualising your knowledge, skills and experience in the service of others. It often entails uncertainty and moving outside your comfort zone.   The meaningful work that I found difficult to initiate is the conduct of a series of online mindfulness webinars.  So, I could readily relate to the category of self-doubt identified by Amy as Hesitation.

Viewed on a purely logical level, this hesitation is not rational.  I am trained in group facilitation and have run hundreds of paid, face-to-face workshops and, more recently, many via the Zoom platform.  I am very comfortable with the technology, have a paid subscription to Zoom (so I can control the medium) and have a group of over 200 potentially interested people in my paid Meetup Group, Brisbane Courses and Workshops.  I have conducted a number of paid workshops on mindfulness in organisations.  I have also written more than 550 blog posts on the topic of mindfulness and engaged in a wide range of regular mindfulness practices, including Tai Chi. 

It is as if my life’s study, training, and experience has been preparing me to undertake this meaningful work in the form of online, mindfulness workshops.  I am very conscious that there is a huge need for mental health support in the community and I am firmly convinced through my research, writing, and practice that mindfulness has a role to play in providing that support. While my hesitancy about conducting these specific mindfulness workshops has no rational basis, it clearly has an emotional one.

Reflection

As Amy points out, underlying hesitancy is a fear that something could go wrong, I might make a wrong decision or the workshops will not work out as I expect them to.  In combining Amy’s Self-Doubt Hesitation Worksheet approach and Leo’s approach to dealing with rationalizations that prevent us from undertaking our “meaningful work”, I decided initially to explore my rationalisations for hesitancy and identify “contrary arguments based on evidence of my past experience”.  

My Rationalisations

After some sustained thought and reflection, I identified the following rationalisations as blockages to my undertaking the desired workshops:

  1. I am uncertain about the needs/interests of potential participants
  2. The workshops may not meet my expectations in being able to help people
  3. Workshop participants might have questions that I might not have the answer to
  4. Workshop participants may have mental health issues that I do not know how to handle
  5. I am concerned that I might accidently trigger a trauma response.
My counter arguments for these rationalisations

Leo suggests that you explore counter arguments for your rationalisations to weaken their hold and open up new, creative possibilities. Here’s my attempt to provide counter arguments for each of my rationalisations listed above:

  1. Uncertainty re needs – It is likely that members of my Meetup group (people who have expressed an interest in mindfulness and related topics) have needs and issues in areas that I have covered in my blog, including effective leadership and creating a mentally healthy workplace. The workshop would also enable them to be aware of, and have access to, the numerous resources mentioned in this blog.  There are many other people who are members of Meetup groups across the world who have similar interests and would be interested in participating once the workshops were advertised throughout Meetup.  This increases the likelihood of my not knowing what their pressing needs are or how to address them in the workshop.  However, I could conduct a survey via Survey Monkey© to elicit these.  I could also just ask participants what topics they want to cover in future workshops (which is something I do on a regular basis in my manager development programs).
  2. Not meeting expectations – I know from my many manager development workshops over many years that you cannot control outcomes in workshops, you can only design the process the best you can with the knowledge and information that you have at the time.  People come to workshops with different expectations, orientations, readiness to learn and motivations.  People have different learning styles and they also learn differently in various situations.  For one person, something another participant says might be the catalyst to deep insight; for another, it might be something they read away from the workshop.  I cannot control outcomes, nor should I try.  Hugh Van Cuylenburg, author of The Resilience Project, and other creative writers, artists and performers, emphasise the need to focus on process not outcomes and explain how this perspective generates freedom and creativity.
  3. Questions I can’t answer – I am not intending to present myself as a mindfulness expert or mindfulness trainer.  I want to share what I have learned about mindfulness – its processes, benefits, challenges and rewards.  I will encourage participants to share their experiences, knowledge, practices and insights.  I also have a mountain of resources at my disposal to share with anyone who has a question that I cannot answer or that someone in the participating group does not have the answer to.
  4. Mental health issues that are too complex – I will not be presenting myself as a mental health expert but as someone who has had to deal with mental health issues personally and as an ongoing carer.  I will provide a disclaimer – “I am not a Medical Doctor or Psychologist/Psychiatrist; I am a retired Emeritus Professor of Management who has worked with many people within organisations on a very wide range of issues affecting human behaviour.”  I know that for some people in some circumstances the very opportunity to share their challenges in a supportive environment can be a healing process.  I have some understanding about when to refer people to a professional in the area of mental health and I am aware of many resources in this area (having provided organisational consultancy services to a number of organisations in the mental health field). 
  5. Trigger a trauma response – I have become acutely aware that some mindfulness practices, as well as facilitation activity (e.g., storytelling), can be a trauma trigger for an individual.  I became very aware of this through the work of David Treleaven on trauma-sensitive mindfulness.  I have researched this area and written a number of blog posts on the topic.  The staring point is to have the awareness about this possibility.  There are strategies I can employ such as providing a choice of anchors when undertaking meditation practices that will reduce the risk.  However, the reality is that I have no control over what will be a trigger for an individual – many people have had adverse childhood experiences and trauma in their life and the potential triggers are too numerous to mention or even adequately conceive. I think I also have a particular sensitivity in this area because I have seen on a number of occasions where a relatively harmless intervention activity has resulted in a major physical and emotional traumatic response – and it is something that made myself and other people present very uncomfortable.

These reflections on rationalisations and counter arguments have helped me to strengthen my resolve to undertake this meaningful work and clarified for me what I need to do to ensure I develop a quality process for my proposed workshops.  As I grow in mindfulness through meditation, reflection and other mindfulness practices, I can gain greater self-awareness, insight and wisdom, increased clarity about what I am trying to achieve and heightened creativity to achieve outcomes people value. 

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Image by Couleur 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.

Solitude and Silence in Nature – A Pathway to Self-Awareness and Resilience

We can have an approach-avoidance attitude to solitude in nature – being alone in silence away from other people.  It can at first generate fear and tap into all our negative associations with “being alone”.  Solitude is different to loneliness because it involves choice – choosing to be by ourselves or to make the most of being “forced” to be alone.  It involves developing a positive perspective on being alone – seeing it as an opportunity for increased self-awareness and empowerment rather than a deprivation of company.

Ruth Allen, author of Grounded: How Connection with Nature Can Improve our Mental and Physical Wellbeing, maintains that when we are in nature we are never really alone – we are always in the presence of other living things that are around us that we often do not see.  Our natural environment is teeming with life.  When we choose solitude in nature, time away from other people, we can become more connected with nature and every living thing.  We can be more open to the vibrancy and beauty that surrounds us.

Often, we can be fearful of being alone with ourselves – facing up to who we really are (rather than who we project to others).  It means confronting those parts of ourselves that we may not like – it might be our character flaws or personal weaknesses, our past history of unkindness or thoughtlessness or our self-indulgence.  Many of these traits can be hidden away from consciousness because they appear too painful to confront.  The power of solitude in nature is the gift of silence and quiet reflection – time away from the distracting influence of noise and the pollution of expectations (our own and those of other people).

Gaining self-awareness and clarity

Solitude in nature offers us the opportunity to become increasingly self-aware – to understand who we really are and what we are truly capable of.   In his TED Talk, photographer Benjamin Powell argues that solitude in nature gives “our inner voice the opportunity to speak” and reveals our life purpose to us because it unearths our “latent gifts and talents” and cultivates unselfishness.  We can move from being self-absorbed to being absorbed in everything around us.

Often when we are experiencing challenges we say, “I need to go for a walk to clear my head”.  Solitude in nature gives us the opportunity to develop clarity, restore perspective and find creative solutions to issues that are causing us stress.  We can gain insight into our own way of perceiving the issues as well as develop an understanding from other people’s perspective.  Reflection through solitude in nature can help us, for example, to understand residual resentment that we may carry after an interaction (even if that was a long time ago).  It enables us to step back from the noise and clutter of a busy life and self-indulgence in hurt feelings and to find the insight to balance our perspective on the interaction, including understanding how our own sensitivity has contributed to our hurt feelings and appreciating the influences that contributed to the other person’s behaviour.

Strengthening relationships

When we return from solitude in nature, we are in a better place to engage with others, whether partners, family, friends, or colleague.  We can be more self-aware (particularly of our sensitivities and our habituated behavioural patterns), more patient through absorption in the quietness and stillness of nature, more in control of our own emotions and more ready to appreciate others in our life through experiencing gratitude for nature and its freely-given gifts.

Building resilience and self-reliance

When we spend time alone in nature, in stillness and silence, we have to fall back on our resources and resourcefulness.  We have to tap into our inner strength as we explore our “inner landscape” with openness and curiosity.  Meeting this challenge head on builds our capacity to meet the challenges of everyday life and to learn the depth and breadth of our inner strength.  Solitude in nature can provide us with an experience of bliss that flows over into our daily lives and strengthens us when we are confronted by adversity.  We know, too, from experience of solitude that we can seek refuge in nature to restore our groundedness and self-belief.

Reflection

If we have an aversion for solitude in nature, we can explore the feelings we are experiencing to better understand the source of our fear.  It might be that such solitude is a trigger for a traumatic reaction because of prior adverse experiences.  It could be that we are very reluctant to look too closely at our lives and what we have done in the past.  Sometimes, we may need professional support to engage with the challenge of solitude.

Ruth contends that we can train ourselves for solitude in nature and offers activities that we can undertake when alone in nature and ten strategies to employ when planning solitude in nature.  She also cautions against trying to move too fast or too far when we are not used to spending time alone.  Ruth points out, too, that we can progress from a short period to longer periods in solitude as we expand our comfort zone.  She also recommends that we reflect on our solitude experience and learn what natural places are more conducive to wellness for us as well as what is an ideal amount of time for us to spend in nature alone.

As we grow in mindfulness through solitude in nature and the resultant self-reflection, we can grow in self-awareness, self-reliance, and resilience to face the challenges of life.  We can also gain clarity about our life purpose and what we can contribute to helping others achieve wellness.

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Image by Antonio López 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.

Change Your Perspective and Change Your Life

Foundational to Hugh Van Cuylenburg’ Resilience Project is a change in perspective and in his book on the topic he provides evidence of people who have turned their lives around through a change in their perspective.  He urges us strongly to focus on what we have, not what we lack.  He maintains that this change develops the positive emotions of appreciation and gratitude that replace the negative emotions of envy and resentment.  He points out too that it replaces depression about the past and/or anxiety about the future with the capacity to live the present moment more fully.

Underpinning the gratitude perspective is a change in our point of reference – from comparing ourselves to those who have more, to making the comparison with others who have considerably less.  His story of the Indian boy, Stanzin, highlights the impact of this different way of looking at things.   Stanzin was one of the most destitute children he met in India but the happiest person he had ever met – he appreciated everything in his life (no matter how old, broken, or impoverished). 

Hugh worked with elite sportspeople including NRL and ARL football players.  He mentions that at least five elite athletes changed their lives dramatically by implementing a daily gratitude journal – going from suicidal thoughts to appreciating the richness of their lives.

From loss and failure to learning and understanding

Hugh suggests that loss and failure can be seen in a very different light if we change our perspective.  If we view them as opportunities and lessons to be learned and realise that they are often the result of our own unmet expectations, we can move away from depression and anxiety to understanding and valuing the experience.  In each of life’s experiences, there is something to learn.  If we always experience “success” we can harbour false assumptions about what “made” our success, not realising our underlying deficiencies (often propped up by others).

Associated with this change in perspective is moving from self-absorption and self-congratulation to acknowledging the very rich contribution of the many people who have had a positive influence on our life (including our parents who provided our “gene pool”).  This latter thought came to me this morning when I was making an entry in my gratitude journal.  I was able to write, “I appreciate my genetic legacy from my father – athleticism, resilience and stamina, and from my mother – kindness, compassion, understanding and patience.”

It also means moving away from the perspective of “better than” to realistically appreciating our strengths and limitations – a change in perspective from “superior conceit” to a “healthy confidence”.  This change can result in improved behaviour together with happiness and contentment.

From “clients” to “friends”

Hugh mentions that at some stage in introducing students, elite sportspeople, and businesspeople to his GEM pathway, he started to view them as “friends”, instead of “clients” who paid for his services.  He viewed his role as helping people and building relationships, not engaging in a money-making venture.  This made the experience richer for himself and others he interacted with.  He gained many friends and was better able to help them as a result.  It also meant that sometimes he offered his services for free to people or organisations that had limited resources.

From “outcomes” to “process”

Both Louie Schwartzberg and Lindsey Stirling, award-winning creative producers of film and music, stress the importance of focusing on the process, not the final outcomes.  This involves enjoying the moment and fully experiencing making film or making music or engaging in any other creative endeavour.  In our organisational consulting work, my colleague and I have moved from a focus on outcomes to designing a process that enables people to “have the conversations that they need to have”.  This reduces the stress of process design because there are so many factors that influence the outcomes over which you have no control – what you can control is how well you design the intervention process.  This shift in perspective from outcomes to process provides the freedom to explore innovative and creative ways to work with people, music, or photography.

Reflection

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more aware of the perspectives and expectations that create our self-sabotaging behaviours and limit our options.  Changing our perspectives can significantly change our lives for the better, increase our happiness and strengthen our resilience in the face of setbacks and failures. Perspective change can open the way for the exploration of creative options in all our endeavours – family, work, and sport.

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Image by Renan Brun 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.

Healing Grief through Compassion and Love

Frank Ostaseski was recently interviewed during the 2020 Mindfulness & Compassion Global Summit by Rheanna Hoffmann on the topic, Grief and the Healing Power of Love and Compassion.  With so many deaths worldwide from the Coronavirus (410,000 at the time of writing), the issue of grief and its manifestations becomes increasingly prevalent.   Frank is the cofounder of the Zen Hospice Project (now called The Zen Caregiving Project) and founder of the Metta Institute designed to provide creative education in the art of “mindful and compassionate end-of-life care”.

Healthcare professionals may not have lost loved ones through the virus, but they can experience grief too with the loss of patients that they have been caring for – this is in addition to other stressors that challenge their resilience.  In his interview responses, Frank explained the nature of grief and the power of compassion and love to heal people who have experienced profound grief.

The nature of grief

Frank who has supported more than 1,000 people in the process of dying maintains that grief is not a single point but a process – an evolving process of “loss, losing and loosening”.  There is the initial shock of the loss that can result in physical collapse and total disorientation.  Shock impacts people differentially – some people may experience numbness, there is no “one way”.   Beyond the initial shock of the loss, is a process of “losing”, where in the midst of other things an overwhelming sense of loss returns accompanied by strong emotional and physical symptoms.  “Losing” can persist for many years and eventually become an intermittent event.  In the meantime, the process of “loosening” commences with progressive release of the hold that grief has over a person.

People grieve in different ways – some withdraw and have a strong desire to be alone with their grief, others experience tears and crying uncontrollably, while still others may take out their grief by aggression and violence (such as is occurring in the riots in America in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement).  Grief and our response may be aggravated in challenging times such as the pandemic where everyone is experiencing a form of “emotional inflammation”.

Frank maintains that grief has many faces, e.g. anger, rage, sadness, depression, fear and even regret.  He also suggests that grief results not just from the sense of loss of a loved one but also from the associated lost opportunities – a young life cut off in their prime, a missed opportunity to reconcile with a loved one, a lost chance to say goodbye or to be physically present with someone as they were dying.   For people exposed to dying and death as a result of the Coronavirus, there can be a collective grief brought on by the lost opportunity to save lives, as well as the lost opportunity of the lives lost.

Healing grief through love and compassion

The starting point for being able to show compassion towards the people experiencing grief is having an understanding of the nature of grief and its many forms of expression. It is important not to add to the stress of people who are grieving by communicating expectations of how their grief should be expressed.  Grieving is a very personal process and requires compassionate attending and listening, not the projection of personal preference.

Pema Chödrön discusses ”compassionate abiding” in our own grief and suffering as the pathway to expressing compassion for others.  Frank suggests that we need to “metabolize” our own fear and suffering by facing it fully, experiencing it in our body, mind and heart and converting it to compassion for others.  He maintains that when we can explore our own experience through self-observation and self-inquiry we can “build an empathetic bridge to other people’s experience”.  Otherwise we can be working out of our own distress and needs rather than the needs of others who are grieving.  Without this level of self-intimacy we can appear dishonest or disingenuous to others we are trying to help in their grief.

Frank explained that he has difficulty expressing self-compassion but has developed a number of processes that enable him to express compassion for others.  Each night before going to sleep, he focuses on the suffering of others – those who might be suffering through loneliness, those experiencing grief or those who are caring for others who are dying.  Through this process he feels love and warmth towards others and the emergence of his “innate compassion” that is broad and deep enough to absorb or dissolve his own experience of suffering.   In the morning, with his hand on his heart, he asks himself, “What would love have me do today?”

Reflection

Self-intimacy is a key to genuine compassion towards others who are grieving.  Compassion and love help to heal grief because they involve abiding fully with someone who is experiencing grief, not trying to fix them.  Our very presence, uncontaminated by unrealistic expectations of the other person, can be a source of healing just as “listening generously” can be.   As we grow in mindfulness, we can develop self-intimacy, calmness and peace and be better able to be present to and compassionate towards others.

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Image by Gordon Johnson 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.

Self-Care for Healthcare Professionals

Dr. Reena Kotecha presented at the 2020 Mindfulness & Compassion Global Summit on the topic of self-care for healthcare professionals.  Reena highlighted the irony of healthcare professionals caring for everyone but themselves and, in the process, suffering pain, disillusionment and burnout.  She shared her own story of depression, mental illness and suicidal thoughts resulting from working as a young doctor in an emergency department in a hospital.  She was drowning in self-doubt, suffering anxiety about the future and trying to cope with her present level of stress symptoms such as palpitations and sleeplessness.  Reena found her way out of the dark hole of depression through meditation.

She highlighted the stresses that healthcare professionals are experiencing in these challenging times of the Coronavirus.  Reena spoke of frontline healthcare workers who had to move out of home to protect their family and/or elderly parents, of the sadness and grief they experienced with the death of patients, of the frustration of having inadequate resources (such as personal protective equipment) and of their fear for their own safety in terms of the impact of their work on their mental and physical health.  Frontline professionals experience the intensity and immediacy of Coronavirus-related stress and emotional inflammation as a result of the risks to the life of their patients and their own life.

Barriers to healthcare professionals seeking help

Reena emphasised that healthcare professionals not only tended to overlook caring for themselves but also failed to seek help for their mental welfare when they really needed it.  She spoke of the barriers that stop healthcare workers from seeking professional support (some of which she experienced herself):

  • Training focus – all the focus of their training is on how to care for others, very little of the training is focused on caring for themselves or how to seek professional help for themselves
  • Priority focus – healthcare professionals are singularly focused on caring for others and they fail to give priority to their own mental and emotional health that would actually enable them to care for others more effectively and in a more sustainable way.  As Reena points out, healthcare professionals are much more comfortable and more proficient in the role of caregiver than that of “care-taker”.
  • Career focus – healthcare professionals become concerned about what others, including management, would think of them if they admitted to not coping and experiencing some form of mental illness (which still carries its own stigma).  They can be concerned about how others will judge them and what impact this would have on their career.
  • Expectations focus – the community has highlighted the heroic efforts of the frontline healthcare workers but this brings with it an unrealistic set of expectations that they are all strong and courageous, free from normal human emotions of fear, anxiety and self-doubts and the resultant experience of depression with its concomitant impacts of inertia, exhaustion, reticence and lack of energy.  In the light of this community expectation set, they are reluctant to admit to “weakness and fragility”.

Young healthcare professionals may begin their career with an unerring focus on their patients, giving priority to their caregiver role and ignoring their own needs.  They may feel really uncomfortable about being seen as “needy” or becoming a “care-taker”.  Professionalism is interpreted by them as being strong and efficient, able to cope with any situation.  Gradually, however, the singular focus on patients begins to take its toll and is compounded by the fact that no matter how hard or fast they work, demand continues to outpace resources and capacity.  They begin to experience stress, fatigue and sleeplessness.  Despite these signs of not coping they push on – driven by their own expectations and the perceived expectations of others, including the “worshipping” community.  Burnout results when the gap between what they are putting in and their intrinsic satisfaction with their work widens to the point where they lose belief in the value of what they are doing – burnout occurs on the physical, emotional and spiritual levels.

Mindfulness as self-care for healthcare professionals

Self-care for healthcare professionals is a lifetime passion for Reena, partly generated by her own early professional experience but also reinforced by the healthcare workers who seek her help and support during these highly stressful times.  She is the founder of Mindful Medics – an 8 week course for healthcare professionals incorporating mindfulness, emotional intelligence, neuroscience and positive psychology. Participants in the course have experienced significant benefits for their mental and physical health as well as in their overall personal and professional lives.

Reena is also a highly recognised public speaker on the topic of her lived experience.  For example she presented at the Happiness and Its Causes Conference in 2018 on the topic, Personal Story: Healthcare Starts with Self-Care.   In her Summit presentation, Reena provided a gratitude meditation designed to focus on appreciation for what we have in the present to displace a focus on a disturbing past or anticipatory anxiety about the future.  There is so much that we can be grateful for and savour in our life – nature and our environment, the development of our children, our achievements and rewards and the space of being alone

Reena in an article, titled I am grateful…, recommends strongly that we develop a constant practice of expressing gratitude for the simple things that we have in our lives and highlights the neuroscience research that supports the benefits of gratitude for mental health and wellbeing.

Reflection

It is important to express compassion for others, especially healthcare professionals and those directly impacted by the Coronavirus.  However, we have to recognise the enormous stress healthcare workers are experiencing in these challenging times and be more aware of not adding to that burden by perpetuating the expectation that they, individually and collectively, can cope with any challenge at no cost to themselves.  We can also offer our support for people like Reena who are helping healthcare professionals to develop mindfulness as a means of self-care.  The Mindful Healthcare Speaker Series is one ongoing event that we can support.

As we grow in mindfulness by focusing on self-care through mindfulness practices and gratitude meditation, we can become more conscious of what we are thinking and feeling and be better able to appreciate the present moment and all it has to offer in terms of overall wellness and happiness.  Mindfulness enables us to identify our barriers and expectations, acknowledge when we need help, develop strategies to cope more effectively and progressively build our resilience.

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Image by Petya Georgieva from Pixabay

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

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

How to Overcome Self-Protection to Create Personal Behavioural Change

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

Our self-protection mechanisms create an immunity to change

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

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

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

Making adaptive change through the “immunity change process”

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

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

Reflection

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

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Image by Peter Perhac from Pixabay

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

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

What Absolutes Are Holding You Back?

In a penetrating video presentation, Lance Allred asks the questions, “What is Your Polygamy?”  Polygamy in the context of his talk is a metaphor for the “absolutes” that we carry in our head from childhood (absolutes that have been reinforced by our own self-stories and by the projections of others).   Lance was raised in a polygamous Mormon community established by his grandfather. The community’s beliefs were very “black and white” – no room for grey.  Polygamy was practised because of the belief that the more wives you had, the closer you were to God. 

Lance’s absolutes included the following:

  • He had to prove himself to God and man because he was born defective as a legally deaf child
  • Mormonism is the one true faith and you can only get to Heaven if you are faithful to Mormon beliefs.

Lance escaped from the Mormon community at the age of 13 years, but he maintains that it is taking him a lifetime to escape his “absolutes”.  He did become the first legally deaf NBA player, but this became another trap – he became captured by the lights and accolades to the point were his sense of self-worth was dependent on the views of others.  He won the praise of others but began to lose his integrity.  He was so caught up with defining himself as an elite basketball player that when he was cut from the NBA team, he was severely depressed and entertained suicidal thoughts.

What are your absolutes?

Our absolutes are “culturally indoctrinated” and embedded in our everyday language – they live underneath the “shoulds”, the “musts” and the “have to’s” that we tell ourselves daily and use as excuses when confronted by personal challenges or the requests of others (either explicit or implicit requests).

Lance contends that knowing our “absolutes” is a journey into “self-intimacy” and overcoming them is a lifetime challenge of moving outside our “comfort zone”.   He argues persuasively that “we were not born to be caged within our comfort zones” – places of comfort created by our absolutes that we mistakenly view as giving us certainty in an increasingly uncertain and ambivalent world.

Our absolutes hold us back from becoming what we are capable of being.  We fear failure because with new endeavours we will need to move beyond what we know and are comfortable with.  We are concerned about what people will think of us if we don’t succeed in our endeavour, particularly if we put ourselves “out there”.  Lance, however, maintains that “you are bulletproof if your worth is not tied to an outcome” – in his view, by being authentic and true to yourself, you can overcome fear and rest in the knowledge that your worth can never be challenged or questioned.  Growth comes through discomfort, and failure contributes to growth because it precipitates deep learning about our self, our perceptions and our absolutes.

Reg Revans, the father of action learning maintained a similar argument, when he said:

If you try to do something significant about something imperative, you will come up against how you view yourself and how you define your role. 

Don’t let others determine what you are capable of

Lance stated that others can reinforce the cage of your comfort zone by projecting onto you their own absolutes and/or fears.  He tells the story of his first game as an NBA player that he came to play because someone was injured, and a replacement was not readily available.  The coach told him not to try to do too much, just settle for one or two goals and lots of defence.  He was effectively communicating his belief that Lance could not accomplish more because of his deafness disability.  Lance went on to score 30 goals in his first game as well as 10 rebounds.  His message as a result – “don’t define yourself by your disability and don’t let others determine what you are capable of”. 

Often people associate deafness with both physical and intellectual disability.  As Lance stated, the greatest challenge he had to face with his disability was not the disability itself, but others’ perceptions of who he was and what he was capable of.

Lance had been profoundly deaf since birth and had difficulty talking in a way that people could understand.  He spent thousands of hours in speech therapy and has become an accomplished public speaker and author.  I discussed his latest book, The New Alpha Male, in a previous post.

Reflection

In another video presentation, Lance contends that moving beyond our absolutes and associated fears takes perseverance and grit, traits that he maintains define leadership.  I can relate to the need for perseverance and grit in moving beyond peoples’ expectations of what you are capable of when you experience a disability. 

In 1974, a disc in my back collapsed resulting in my inability to walk or even stand without extreme sciatic pain.  I was told that I would never play tennis again. However, over 18 months, I undertook every form of therapy I could lay my hands on – chiropractic treatment, remedial massage therapy, hydrotherapy, acupuncture, light gym work, physiotherapy and osteopathy.  When using the exercise bike in a gym (I hate gyms!), I would envisage playing tennis again.  My osteopath, Dr. Graham Lyttle, got me back on deck and I having been playing social tennis weekly for the last 40 plus years.

I can also relate to Lance’s concept of “absolutes”.  As I used to play tennis fixtures at an “A” Grade level, I have carried in my head the absolute that I should not make a mistake at tennis.  Managing my expectations around this personal absolute, has been a constant challenge.  I can take to heart Lance’s exhortation that if your self-worth is not tied to an outcome, you can overcome your absolutes and become what you are capable of being.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become aware of our absolutes and how they play out in our lives and develop the self-regulation and courage required to move outside our comfort zone and realise our full potential.  We can move beyond our procrastination and undertake our meaningful work.

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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.