Science and psychology say there are two sides of human adaptability
Posted Dec 23, 2017
Lawrence*, a 68 year-old retiree, tells me he is prepared for anything life tosses at him. “When I was a child we had air raid drills in school because we were afraid that Russia was going to drop an atomic bomb on the U.S. When I was a teen, I was drafted into the army and went to Vietnam. We had race riots in my hometown and drug wars on my street. I’ve been poor, hungry, and afraid. And I survived. I know I can manage whatever I need to manage.”
Lawrence spent his adult life working as a drug counselor. “Lots of my friends became addicted,” he says. “That could have been me. I figured since it wasn’t, I ought to do what I could to help the ones who didn’t escape.” He has been married for forty years, and now he and his wife spend much of their time traveling and visiting their grown children and grandchildren.
What made it possible for Lawrence to escape the drug culture that was all around him, while so many of his friends did not? According to one group of theories, it might have been his adaptability.
Adaptability in its most basic form is “the ability to adjust to different conditions.”
To start the process of thinking about how adaptable you are, ask yourself these three questions:
Am I comfortable with change?
Do I embrace differences in friends, relatives, strangers, and colleagues?
Do I find a comfort zone and stay there, no matter what?
Most of us think that if we answer “yes” to the first two questions and “no” to the last, we are showing that we are highly adaptable. Yet there are times when being too comfortable with change and difference and not holding tightly enough to a comfort zone can actually be signs of a lack of adaptability.
So now, ask yourself these next four questions:
Do I feel comfortable with who I am most of the time?
Am I okay when I feel confused or conflicted about something?
Can I feel calm when my own views are in conflict with someone else's?
Do I feel comfortable with some change and some stability in my life?
If you are able to answer “yes” to these four questions, you are probably able to adapt without giving up a sense of who you are. And that is one of the most important components of adaptability: the ability to change, when it would be useful, and to maintain a sense of stability about yourself at the same time.
The psychologist David J. Wallin tells us that children are brilliant at adapting to their parents’ personalities. This ability to sense what their parents need and to respond appropriately is how children learn. It is also how we manage to function in the world as adults.
Professor of Social Work Alex Gitterman writes that an adult’s “social functioning and adaptations reflect the interplay and degree of congruence and compatibility between body, mind, and the environment.”
Adaptability does not mean giving up all that you hold dear. In fact, sometimes being overly flexible can create problems. For instance, says Wallin, unfortunately, some of the very same life-saving skills interfere with a child’s ability to see that not everyone is like his or her parents. Assuming that other people in our lives have the same needs that our parents and family have can create difficulties of its own in adulthood.
According to researchers, most adaptation is “epigenetic,” that is, an interaction between who we are and what we experience. At its best, epigenetic evolution leads to a greater capacity to function in the world. So learning to adapt involves both acceptance of difference and comfort with sameness. How do you find a way to provide this balance for yourself? And can you also teach it to your children?
Lynette*, a mother of three teenagers, told me that she had always had separation anxiety. “I was afraid to leave my parents,” she said. “So I didn’t do sleepovers as a young kid, and I had troubles when I went to sleep away camp and to college. I survived all of those experiences, and even made some good friends. But I wish I had gotten some kind of help managing my anxiety.”
When her own children were young, Lynette wanted to make sure that they did not struggle as she had. Her impulse was to force them to separate, even when they were frightened, but her husband offered another solution. “He suggested that we talk with them about what they were afraid of, and that we offer them ways of dipping their toes into situations that made them nervous instead of pushing them into the water, so to speak.” This compromise worked well for all three of her youngsters.
“Two of them have no separation fears at all,” she said. “And the third has learned to accept his anxiety and has a bunch of tools for managing it.” She added, “and in the process of trying to find tools for him, I’ve developed some new tools of my own.”
Adaptability, then, is not a matter of ignoring your own feelings, needs, beliefs, or thoughts and pushing through no matter what. It’s a process of interacting with changes – in your life, in the world around your, and even in yourself – with a mixture of compassion, understanding, and curiosity. You might be surprised. Even the most inflexible of us can, with some effort, adapt at least a little when we approach change with these three qualities in mind.
*names and identifying information changed for privacy
Please let me know what you think by commenting below. Unfortunately, I am no longer able to reply to requests for advice, but other readers might have suggestions for you.
Stressed out? Barely coping? Learn science-based ways to build resilience.
Posted Mar 15, 2018
Resilience is that amazing skill that helps you recover quickly from difficulties. If you are resilient, then when life knocks you down, you bounce back and you keep going. Sometimes life's challenges can even make you stronger. So how do you become a more resilient person?
Unlike positive thinking (link is external), or self-compassion (link is external), or gratitude (link is external) – which can all be developed when things are going good or going bad – you need challenges in your life to develop resilience. You have to get knocked down in order to learn how to pick yourself back up. Over time, you’ll start to see that being knocked down makes you stronger – plus it makes you less afraid to get knocked down again.
How resilient are you?
Not sure if you approach challenges in the ways that build resilience? Maybe you have room to grow and become a more resilient person. To find out how resilient you are, take this super short well-being quiz (link is external), which not only gives you a general idea of you how resilient you are, it can help you identify the other skills you need to build to improve your happiness and well-being (link is external).
What did you discover? Do you need to build your resilience? If so, here's how to do it.
How to build resilience
Although there are lots of ways to build resilience, I've aimed to focus on science-based strategies, starting from the more basic ways to the more complex. Choose your favorite strategies to start building your resilience.
Stop your negative thought cycles
Often, when bad things happen we get stuck thinking about negative outcomes. We repeatedly think about what we could have done differently in the past or how we are going to mess up again in the future. We ruminate on these events (link is external) because we mistakenly believe that thinking about our hardships over and over again will help us solve them. Unfortunately, negative thought cycles just get us caught up in our thoughts instead of taking the actions we need to move forward.
To put an end to these negative thought cycles (link is external), which have become well-worn pathways in our brains, we need to short-circuit our thoughts mid-cycle. To do this, we can create a behavioral break, or an action plan for what we’ll do when our negative thoughts cycles get going. Here’s how this works in my life.
I’ll sometimes find myself dwelling on something negative (link is external), getting myself worked up more and more as I think about it until my blood pressure is through the roof and I just want to scream. When this happens, my negative thought cycles have complete control over me; I know from experience that no amount of positive thinking is going to stop the negative emotions at this point – they are in charge. So instead of trying to think my way out of my emotions, which is incredibly hard when your negative emotions are strong, I’ll drop everything and go for a 5-10 minute run. This behavioral break forces both my brain and my body to completely switch gears and focus on something else entirely, thus breaking the negative thought cycle.
Exercise seems to be a really effective behavioral break. But if exercise isn’t possible (maybe you’re at work or with other people), try to do something else that uses both your mind and your body. For example, you could excuse yourself for 5 minutes to practice deep, slow breathing (link is external). Deep breathing helps activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which can both calm you and switch off your stress.
For your behavioral break to work you need to decide what you plan to do before actually being in the situation that calls for it. So take a moment now to decide what you will use for your behavioral break and how you will know the right time to use it. When learning to use this strategy, it can be helpful to use it often, even if you’re only a little worked up. This can make it easier to implement during more challenging situations. Try it a few times to start short-circuiting your negative emotional cycles, helping you to recover from challenges more easily.
Question the catastrophe
Catastrophizing is when we expect the worst possible outcomes in a situation. For example, you may have lost your job and now believe that you will never be successful and everyone will think you’re a failure forever. This may sound extreme. Most of us don’t catastrophize quite this much, but many of us do sometimes believe that the worst possible outcomes will come true (link is external). Although being aware of possible negative outcomes can be helpful for planning ahead, when we believe the worst will come true, we set ourselves up for unnecessary stress and poor resilience.
One way to break this thought pattern is to wear a pendant or carry a stone or other small object with you. Every time you find yourself imaging the worst – about a person, situation, or outcome – touch the object. While you are touching the object, remind yourself that the best possible outcome is just as likely to occur as the worst possible outcome. Besides, worrying about it does you no good.
By gaining control over our negative thoughts, they stop being so scary. We start to see that negative thoughts come and go and we have the skills to handle them. Now we can start actively pursuing challenges – challenges which give us the opportunity to develop resilience and improve our lives in unforeseen and amazing ways.
Overcome your fear of failure
Unfortunately, many of us avoid failure at all costs. We do so because we are afraid of failure, we worry that people will think poorly of us (link is external) if we fail, and we feel ashamed when we fail. But by treating failure like a disease to be avoided, we never give ourselves a chance to overcome challenges and practice resilience. As a result, we prevent ourselves from becoming more resilient. So how do you conquer your fear of failure so that you can start building resilience?
If you think failure is a threat, like many of us do, your body will prepare for battle – and you’ll feel like you’re in a battle. On the other hand, if you choose to view doing something hard, something you could fail at, as a challenge then you're more likely to think you are capable of handling it. As a bonus, when you view things that you could possibly fail at as challenges, you actually will be more capable and less likely to fail at them.
To build this “challenge mindset”, reflect on past challenges that you’ve overcome. Let's say you're worried about starting a new job. Take a moment to think back to other goals you’ve achieved. Remind yourself that you have been successful at things in the past, even small things. When you remind yourself that you have succeeded before, you can help shift towards a challenge mindset.
Next, visualize success (link is external). By imagining yourself doing well, you shift your mindset to do well. On the other hand, if you ruminate about what could go wrong, your fear builds, and the failure you fear becomes more likely. Keep in mind that even if you are able to shift your brain to stop seeing something as a threat, you may feel nervousness or anxiety, but you'll also experience positive physiological changes that can help you make better use of these negative emotions.
Find the benefits of past challenges and failures
Part of what makes challenges... well, challenging, is that we become myopic and only focus on the bad without seeing the good. So how do you find the benefits of failure?
Plenty of smart folks will tell you that you should reflect on your failures right after you experience them. But negative emotions can cloud your thinking. If you are still feeling upset about a failure, it may be harder to see the benefits or come up with effective solutions. If this practice is new to you, an easier way to start finding the benefits of challenges may be to look at past challenges – challenges that you're no longer upset about. By practicing finding the benefits of past challenges, you can strengthen this ability so that it is easier to find the benefits next time.
To find the benefits, start by writing out a list of things you learned from a past failure. For example, if you missed an important deadline, maybe you learned that you need to prioritize better, delegate more, or tone down your perfectionism. Try to really search for as many benefits as you can think of. Ask yourself these questions to help you.
Were there, or will there be, any positive outcomes that result from this situation?
Are you grateful for any part of this situation?
In what ways are you better off than when you started? What did you learn?
How did you grow and develop as a result of this situation? Emotionally distance yourself from challenges
When experiencing a challenge, the ability to think about your experiences as if you were “a fly on the wall” or as if you were someone else who is witnessing your experiences from afar keeps you from getting stuck in your negative emotions. Emotional distancing also makes it less likely that you replay the unpleasant details of the event, and as a result you don’t feel quite as bad when bad things happen.
To practice this technique, first recall a recent stressful conflict you had with another person. Be sure to choose something very specific. For example, recall when “You got into a fight with John about forgetting your birthday.” Try not to think about fights with John, in general.
Now re-imagine the stressful event from an outside observer’s point of view – for example from the point of view of a stranger on the street or a fly on the wall.
Ask yourself these questions to practice being a fly on the wall.
Would the observer be able to understand why you are upset?
Would the observer be able to see the other person’s point of view?
How would the observer evaluate the situation?
Might this observer view the situation differently than you do?
If you prefer, you can also practice this on social media. Next time you are reading about one of your friends’ negative experiences on social media, practice switching back and forth from being in their shoes to being in your shoes. Try to notice how being an outside observer helps make the experience seem less intense.
Remember, this too shall pass
Another technique that can help you better handle stress involves thinking about the outcomes of stressful events in the relatively far future. For example, you might tell yourself that “time heals all wounds” or “this too shall pass.”
The ability to think about a future where you will no longer be feeling so bad about whatever you’re struggling with helps you get through difficult experiences. It can reduce the intensity of negative emotions and the distress caused by the situation. So next time you are in the midst of a stressful situation, try to look back at the situation from sometime in the future.
Start by recalling a recent stressful event. Be sure to choose something very specific. For example, try to recall, “When I failed to get the promotion I was after” instead of failure, in general. Now imagine what your life will be like 5 years after this event. Ask yourself these questions:
In 5 years, what will you be doing?
How will you be spending your time?
How will you be feeling?
How will you feel about this particular event?
Find the silver linings
The ability to find the silver linings in stressful or difficult situations (also referred to as reappraisal ability (link is external)) helps us generate positive emotions even when there is nothing in our situation to generate positive emotions for us. This is why finding silver linings can help counteract negative emotions, decrease stress, and quicken recovery from stressful events.
How do you find silver linings? Let’s say that you dropped your sandwich on the ground and you have nothing else to eat for lunch. You might remind yourself that you’re lucky to even have a sandwich when so many people go hungry. Or, you might see this as an opportunity to go get lunch with co-workers instead of eating your sandwich at your desk.
You see how it works? Now it's your turn to try. Recall a work or school project that didn’t work out the way you hoped. Now, try finding the silver linings of this situation. How could the situation be worse? What are opportunities that could result from this situation? What are the positives? Think of as many reappraisals as you can. Try to be creative and think of anything that would make you feel better about this experience.
Practice reappraisal while streaming movies
If you’re having a hard time finding the silver linings in your own life, it might be easier to practice this with other people’s lives. To use others’ experiences to practice reappraisal, plan to practice next time you stream a movie or show. Before watching a sad or emotional movie or scene, read these instructions:
While watching the scene or movie, think about what could be learned from the experience, or imagine possible positive outcomes. With these suggestions in mind, think about what advice you would give the characters for how to feel better. Now ask yourself, how could you apply this advice to your own life? Might these same reappraisals work for you next time you are feeling sad, anxious or angry?
Find the benefits in life
Benefit finding (link is external) is similar to reappraisal, but it can be used in negative, neutral, or positive situations. For example, you might say that the benefits of working a really difficult job are that you learn new skills and build character. But you might also say that the benefits of working a really easy job are that you feel relaxed and have more time to devote to other things you enjoy. With some practice, you can find the benefits to just about any situation.
To practice finding the benefits, first think about a slightly negative experience you had recently. Try not to choose an experience that is extremely negative – it’s important to choose an experience that’s not too bad when you are first learning how to use this technique. You can work up to harder experiences as you become more skilled. For example, maybe your car broke down or you got in a small fight with a friend.
I know that at first it can seem impossible to find the benefits of these situations. So let me help you out a bit more with some examples from my life. A few years ago, my car’s transmission blew completely. I immediately felt grateful that I wasn’t driving on the freeway when it happened, especially since I spent about 10 hours per week commuting. I was so happy that my car retained 3rd gear, so I didn’t have to get it towed. And, my husband was in the car with me, so I was glad he was able to help me get it to an auto shop that same day.
If I had wanted to I could have focused on the negative things about this experience – it cost about $2,000 dollar to fix, it happened as part of a string of repairs on that car, I desperately needed that car to get to work, and money was really tight. But rather than focusing on these negatives, I had trained my brain to focus on the positive. As a result, I handled this challenge quickly and easily, and got on with my life.
Now it’s your turn to try. It’s okay if this is hard at first. Just like any other skill, this takes practice. Start by spending a few minutes thinking about the benefits of a negative experience. Try to really search for as many benefits as you can think of. Ask yourself these questions to brainstorm.
Were there, or will there be, any positive outcomes that result from this situation?
Are you grateful for any part of this situation?
In what ways are you better off than when you started? What did you learn?
How did you grow and develop as a result of this situation? You can practice this on social media. If you post about a negative experience, add at least one benefit to your post.
Run at the dog
A wise woman once told me that when something scares you, just “Run at the dog”. Rather than walking up to that scary, growling, teeth-barring dog, run right towards it with no fear. Now, I don’t recommend you actually run at a real dog, but the metaphor stands. Running toward what makes you feel uncomfortable is a great way to overcome that discomfort and build resilience.
In life, a great many things may make you feel uncomfortable. For example, if you’re worried about your finances, you may not want to look at your credit card balance. Or if you had a bad day at work, you may want to drink alcohol to forget about it all. But this kind of emotional avoidance can be dangerous because the emotions never get resolved. Instead, they fester and build up. If you’re not addressing negative emotions, they never go away and you carry them with you wherever you go. Now, imagine facing a big challenge when you're already carrying a bunch of negative emotions with you. It's going to be a lot harder to cope, be resilient, and thrive.
So if you are the type to avoid feeling uncomfortable (link is external) – for example by avoiding doing things that will be hard, having difficult conversations, or being out of your comfort zone – challenge yourself to feel uncomfortable, just in small ways at first. For example, I used to have a hard time speaking up. To get out of my comfort zone, I challenged myself by speaking up at least once in every meeting. At first, my heart would beat like crazy. I was a sweating miserable mess. Now, I contribute freely to conversations and don’t even think about it. All that fear that I used to take with me to every situation is now gone.
You can do it too. Think of something small that makes you uncomfortable, something other people might even find silly, and face your fear. Run at the dog. Don’t let yourself back down. If you do, your fear will just build, preventing you from moving forward in the ways you desire.
Use your negative emotions to propel you forward
I’ve spent a lot of time helping you learn how to increase positive emotions and decrease negative emotions. But it’s important to remember that negative emotions are completely normal and healthy. Besides, negative emotions have benefits too.
Negative emotions like sadness and grief help communicate to others that we need their support and kindness. Negative emotions like anger can help motivate us to take action, make changes in our lives, and maybe even change the world. At their root, emotions are designed to direct our behavior in important ways. Casually pushing negative emotions aside without reflecting on where they come from can leave us stuck and unable to move forward in the ways we desire.
So when life throws you into a ditch, and you feel crappy, ask yourself, “is this negative emotion trying to teach me something?” Would pushing the negative emotion away leave whatever is causing this negative emotion in tact? Must something be done to stop this negative emotion from emerging again in the future? If so, then don’t push it away – use it to fuel change in your life or in the world. Pay attention to see if your negative emotions are trying to lead you in a positive direction. Then decide for yourself, will you follow?
If you need help understanding your negative emotions, you could take some time alone to reflect or talk to someone, like a therapist or life coach.
Resilience is truly a skill that can change your life, helping you to overcome challenges and develop long-lasting happiness. Hopefully these tips help put you the road to getting there.
Learn more from me at berkeleywellbeing.com (link is external).
How to Be More Self-Confident in Just 3 Minutes a Day
For self-esteem and life satisfaction, try this simple and powerful exercise.
Posted May 02, 2018
The Mystery of Self-Confidence
If you suffer from lack of self-confidence, you know that it truly IS a kind of suffering. You may feel “less than” others, unsure of what you think and believe, and/or unaware of your own strengths. These feelings may cause you to approach life with timidity, defensiveness, or an excessive need to please others.
Some people can project confidence without really owning it, but the kind of self-esteem that is important is not just an act. It is a positive feeling about yourself, your ideas, and your worth that enables you to take good care of yourself, stand on an equal footing with others, and feel pride about yourself and how you live your life. (Note: For the purposes of this blog, I am lumping “self-confidence” and “self-esteem” together, though distinctions are sometimes made between them.)
Not all of self-confidence is under your control. In fact, by some estimates (link is external), about 50% of self-confidence is genetic. Fortunately, you’ve got the other 50% to work with!
When you use the method described below, you will gradually acquire more inner confidence along with the ability to take actions that will improve your life. You can do this fun mental exercise by yourself, privately, and in very little time.
The easy exercise for confidence-building is a “Daily Success Review.” It is a cousin to the famous “Three Good Things” exercise in which you take some time at the end of the day to focus on three good things that happened to you that day and why. In this variation, you will focus on three successes you had in a particular day.
The process is straightforward: Take three minutes, or less, to make a mental note of (or write down) one to three successes of your day.
By “successes,” I do not necessarily mean major achievements, although if you have them, by all means think about them and bask in the glory of them. But don’t overlook the power of your everyday “small wins.” By focusing on daily victories, you are reinforcing your constructive actions and thoughts, thus making it likely you’ll have more “small wins” on subsequent days.
Some of you may be thinking, “Successes?!? I don’t have successes. My life is a mess.” I suspect that many people may not realize all the possibilities there are for feeling good about themselves during a given day. So, just to give you ideas, here are 25 possible small wins to notice as you go through your day:
You made a good decision.
You took time to exercise.
You felt compassion for yourself when you made a mistake instead of beating yourself up about it.
You responded to a situation in a better way than you normally would.
You took a break when you got tired instead of pushing yourself in an unhealthy way.
You refrained from making a bad situation worse.
You helped someone.
You refrained from helping someone because you needed to focus on your own projects.
You completed or made progress on a project.
You decided that something was not worth doing and quit doing it.
You persisted with a task, even if it was unpleasant.
You did something healthy for your mind, such as meditating for a few minutes when under stress or...doing the Daily Success Review!
You were able to find just the right thing to say to a family member, friend, or colleague.
You made a mistake and learned from it. You made a mistake and didn't let it ruin your day.
You took the initiative to set up a social occasion or strengthen a friendship.
You said NO to unreasonable demands or set a boundary that needed to be set.
You apologized when you did something wrong and didn't apologize when you didn't.
You lived up to your values, even though it was difficult.
You set goals for your day and adjusted them when necessary.
You got an idea about how to move your life forward in some way.
You got an idea about your next work project.
You prepared for an event ahead of time so you wouldn't have to rush the next day.
You accepted the reality that something couldn't be changed, thus conserving your energy.
You paused and reflected on something before you acted, instead of reacting impulsively as usual.
Of course there are an infinite number of things you might feel good about on a given day. The list above is meant only to give you ideas. With or without the list, can you think of three successes you’ve already had today?
To see if a Daily Success Review will work for you, try it for a few weeks. Feel free to NOT do it sometimes, just to keep it fresh. Your goal is to develop a small-success mindset, so that you are on the lookout for the many positive things you do as well as the courage you show when you learn from mistakes.
After doing a Daily Success Review on a regular basis, you may learn to recognize a small success immediately after it occurs. When you notice a little victory, you could give yourself an inner compliment, using self-talk like this:
“Hey, I handled that pretty well!”
“Way to go! You kept your cool under pressure!”
It Should be Easy
If you can’t seem to find successes in your day, you may be searching too hard for extraordinary and dramatic achievements. Remember the small wins!
Given our brain’s negativity bias, you may also find yourself focusing too much on failures. Of course you can learn from failures, setbacks, and negative events as well as from successes. If you decide to review one of these, give yourself credit! It’s not easy to take a hard look at our personal flops. And if the whole day was one mishap after another, just forgive yourself and move on.
Building self-confidence is a process, not an event. But if you’ve tried this exercise for a few weeks and you still find it difficult to notice your good qualities and actions, see a therapist for help.
Other Benefits of Focusing on Successes
A Daily Success Review is a great way to know yourself. As you do it, you will begin to see patterns in your successes. You could realize that you have a strength in one particular area and a weakness in another. You may realize that your passions lie this way not that way. You could notice what you value. You will more easily recognize people, places, and things that lift you up, and people, places, and things that it might be better to avoid.
Just thinking about past successes and values has surprisingly positive effects on behavior, thinking, academic performance, and even IQ. Dr. Jeremy Dean, in this blog (link is external), cites research that suggests that recognizing your own successes can raise your IQ about 10 points. Similar types of “self-affirmation” were shown in other research to increase the test scores of oft-marginalized students such as African-Americans and female math students.
In a nutshell, being able to savor your successes will make your life more pleasant and more meaningful. Since "pleasure" and "meaning" are two essential ingredients of happiness, you will feel happier, too.
Yes, your daily successes may seem small, but often small victories are the sweetest. And maybe those positive actions you took are not so small after all.
We often emancipate ourselves into the same old trap repackaged.
Posted May 01, 2018
They got fed up with each other and divorced, confident that they would each find better partners. They found new partners but in the end, no real improvement.
She was raised devout Catholic and broke free into new age spirituality which she practiced as dogmatically as a Catholic.
They were sick of the government swamp and voted for a conman who said he would drain it, only to end up with a worse swamp.
He rebelled against convention’s straitjacket, committing himself to anarchy which he now practices with the same orthodoxy he rebelled against.
He was a heroic rebel leader who overthrew the dictator, then becoming the next dictator.
They say you can never run away from your problems - you’ll take them with you wherever you go. That’s an exaggeration. Sometimes a change of scene is all it takes to end a problem.
Still, there’s something to it. Often we think we’re making a clean break when we’re not. What we turn toward is just a repackaging of what didn’t work before.
It’s easy to see why our clean breaks don’t break clean. The emotional energy of activation required to break free is often so distracting that we don’t get around to diagnosing what exactly we need to change. We know our rut sucked but not why. We launch our heroic self-emancipation, spurred only by intense but general dissatisfaction. We scapegoat, lashing out at whatever is easiest and most motivating, a symptom of the problem, not its underlying source.
We end up wrong about what was wrong.
Here are a few things to keep in mind if you want a clean break, really.
Cliché Guevara: We crave something new but safe, revolutionary but comforting. We therefore secretly love a repackaging of the same old, same old. It gives us the impression of movement without having to move. If you want real change you’re going to have to curb the Cliché Guevara appetite or you’ll end up like the New age nun or the anarchist authoritarian, confident that you made a clean break when you haven’t.
Pacman syndrome: In Pacman, if you go off the edge of the screen on one side, you pop up again on the other side. We often do this in everyday life. Your last partner was too something so you end up requiring your next partner to be the exact opposite, only to find that you ended up where you started. We do it in politics too, becoming so extremely left or right that we end up on the opposite side. Leftists are notorious for this, liberators like Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Venezuela’s Chavez, Zimbabwe’s Mugabe and Nicaragua’s Ortega all became oppressive dictators. Hence, on the right, a resolute hatred of leftist dictators, but in their extremist right-wing campaigns to rid the world of such leftists, we end up with movements that become equally oppressive.
The tonic: An alcoholic set out to figure out why he got hangovers. He got them after gin and tonic, vodka and tonic, whiskey and tonic, and decided it was the tonic, convenient for him since he so loved the other ingredients. Extreme, political movements do something similar. They fight communists or capitalists without noticing that the real problem is that there’s something about all governments that tends toward fascism. Likewise in partnership: You can change partner after partner without noticing that there’s something about the whole romantic package that makes it difficult for you to sustain.
Stuck in expired high resolve: Years ago you had a breakthrough insight that you pledged never to forget. It is so sacred to you that you can’t afford to consider anything that threatens to dilute it. You’re frustrated with your situation and insist on getting real, facing absolutely any truth just so long as it doesn’t jostle your delicate antique outmoded epiphany.
Breakthrough baggage: Love is blind. That’s how you got into the last mess. And how are you going to get out of it? Through another round of blind love. Cults play on this tendency. They expose to you the ways that you’ve been living a lie. That softens you up enough that you fall in love with whatever snake-oil they’re selling. If it emancipates you from the old rut, you don’t get around to wondering what exactly emancipated you. You were born again but does that mean you have to spend the rest of your life lugging around all the baggage that came with your emancipation? The same can occur in therapy. You went into it with a problem. Your therapist trained you on some epic account of what went wrong in your life, a definitive story you think you need to sustain the new you when really it was just a useful crowbar to get you out of that rut, not the one and only true interpretation of your life.
Startup hill: The energy of activation required to get out of a rut focuses on how bad things are and how good things will be if you make a change. We tend to exaggerate the benefits of liberation. That helps us liberate but leads to disappointment with what comes next. Many partners fall in love on their way out of a relationship. Some stay with their new partner but many don’t. Many are surprised to discover that, after the bloom fades they are as disappointed as they had been with their last partners. The dream of a panacea motivates a change that often isn’t a real change.
Outside the box? Some gold, much garbage: “I want out,” we cry as though anything must be better than what we’re in. We forget that most of what’s outside our box is not an improvement. That’s why it’s outside the box. It’s not enough to escape. If you don’t want to settle for just another bad box, you’ve got to search carefully outside yours to find a good one.
Through blame, no pain and no gain: What we’re leaving is never us. It’s always them. Your divorce? You did everything right, except falling for your ex who was a narcissistic disaster. Your job? You left it because your boss and co-workers were idiots. Maybe, but even so, their failings make it too easy for you to walk away without having learned what you can do differently. When you’re leaving there's calm reassessment to be done. Don’t skip it, even if you’re leaving jerks.
Goldilocks blindness: We overcorrect, taking oversteps in the right direction. He who’s burnt by hot milk blows on ice cream. You know the last porridge was too hot so you assume no porridge could be too cold. You know your last partner was too yang so you assume no partner could be too yin. You forget that there are always two toos, opposites you need to balance, not just one extreme you need to avoid.
The Kicker – Paradoxical irony: Escaping humanities bad habits takes much more than the impulse to do so. It takes owning our inescapable paradoxes. So many revolutionaries become the next dictators. So many "love-is-the-answer" crusaders become the next haters. So many freedom-lovers become the next tyrants. They try to escape the universe and get bent back in at the edges. That's what happens when you don't hear the paradoxical irony in such platitudes as, "be intolerant of intolerance, shame on you for being judgmental, being negative is a no no, commit yourself to flexibility."
Deaf to irony, our absolutist assertions can’t be sustained without blind or willful hypocrisy, which gets easier with time, doubled down when challenged until admitting to it is a cost too steep to pay.
The alternative? Owning the paradoxes of life as all yours, all everyone’s. We’re all managing polar opposites, like tolerance vs. intolerance. That’s a box we cannot escape. We, so we better try to comfortable with the uncomfortable life-long task of deciding when to be tolerant, judgmental, loving, and negative.
And then we can laugh at our paradoxical human condition, laughing at it with it since it's ours too. That’s irony, a whole-hearted, hearty, self-effacing, self-respecting laugh at ours and everyone's predicament. It's the alternative to hypocrisy the effort to stay blind to, or claim exemption from the paradoxes.
To make real change, meditate on the perennial paradoxes, everyday and everyman koans.
Better that than to swap one extreme for its opposite only to end up in the same old box, repackaged.
A little self-doubt doesn’t have to hold you back.
Posted May 03, 2018
It might surprise you to learn that having "total" self-confidence is not desirable. We actually need a balance of confidence and doubt to achieve the best possible outcome, whether it's in our work life or in relationships. Here are some ways self-doubt helps you:
Self-doubt can help you create your best work. People who have little self-doubt run the risk of not putting their “all” into a project. They may think they know everything already and don’t take the steps needed to ensure a quality product. Author Alice Boyes, Ph.D., writes in The Healthy Mind Toolkit:(link is external)
I need both periods of self-confidence and self-doubt to create my best work. Both of these states help me in different ways. Sometimes I need confidence to crank out work or take charge of a situation. On the flip side, sometimes I need self-doubt to propel me to examine where I might have blind spots and to motivate the effort involved in correcting these.
Self-doubt can help you know when you need to ask for help. This is a simple example, but it gets the point across. I was putting together a bookshelf and the instructions were less than clear. I was getting quite frustrated. I was sure I knew the way it was supposed to go together, but nonetheless, I kept running into snags where the screws and the holes weren't lining up. If I had stuck to my initial confident reaction (I knew the right way), I could have ended up spending hours on what should have been a simple project. Luckily, I was willing (eventually) to admit my self-doubt and looked online for some reviews that contained tips on assembly. Turns out, I wasn’t the only one who had some issues with the instructions being confusing.
Self-doubt can help you get the information you need. A journalist I know had always judged herself harshly because she was quiet. Her journalism professors labeled her as insecure and admonished her to be more self-confident. However, when she reflected on the criticism, she realized that what was perceived as a weakness, was actually a strength. Yes, she was on the quiet side, but this helped her to listen during interviews, draw the interview subject out, know when to ask follow up questions, and get the facts of the story straight. Alice Boyes notes in The Healthy Mind Toolkit (link is external)that sometimes our traits (even those we perceive as negative traits) can shape our skills. This was definitely the case for my friend.
Self-doubt can help you prepare. Imagine you have a presentation to give. If you are over-confident (i.e. no self-doubt) you may not take the steps to plan an engaging, useful preparation. A little self-doubt can propel you to do the needed work. Having a little humility can also help you connect with your audience.
Self-doubt can help you get along with others. Many of my socially anxious clients, ones you might label as having self-doubt, are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. They consistently are kind to others, work hard to get along, and take extra steps to be helpful. Of course, there are downsides to too much self-doubt and too much people pleasing, but evolution seems to agree there is an advantage to having at least some social anxiety. From an evolutionary point of view, being a part of a group ensures survival. Modern day research bears this out: people with harmonious social relationships fare better on many outcome measures.
Question for you: Has there been a time when self-doubt was helpful to you? I'd love to hear about it in the comments or on my Facebook page.
To change stubborn beliefs, get out of your head and into your life.
Posted Sep 15, 2018
“I am attracting a loving partner who’s ready to commit.”
“I’m moving confidently in the direction of my dreams.”
“Any excess weight comes off my body steadily and easily.”
Affirmations are a way of saying that what we want to be true, is already true. And that’s not a terrible idea.
The use of affirmations is based on the notion that the subconscious mind can’t tell the difference between imagination and reality. Therefore, if we tell ourselves something is true, the subconscious mind will do everything it can to create a matching reality.
This works well in theory. But usually, only in theory.
Beliefs vs. Thoughts
The problem is belief. How do we convince ourselves that what we’re affirming is really true?
If all I’ve ever known in relationships is abuse and neglect, my belief about what’s coming down the pike for me – let alone what I deserve – will match that experience. I will tend to end up with abusive or neglectful partners, repeating an unfortunate and very stubborn pattern.
Which do you think is stronger – a belief that’s based on lived experience, or a thought that you decide to think?
Don't kid yourself. Beliefs are stronger than thoughts.
Anyone can introduce you to a new thought. But they can’t necessarily make you believe it. If I tell you that you’re the absolute smartest, most attractive person in the entire world, you might appreciate the thought, but how much do you believe it?
A thought is just a thought. Belief is something quite different.
The power of belief is even more evident when someone tries to convince you that you’re wrong.
Thanks to cognitive dissonance, if you hold a firm belief, no one’s likely to convince you – even with substantial evidence – that it’s not true. In fact, the harder someone tries to convince you that a cherished belief is false, the more you’ll hang onto that belief.
The beliefs we hold … Those we really, really believe in our heart of hearts … affect us more than the thoughts we choose to think. Unlike affirmations, they’re always with us, even when we’re not thinking about them.
Focusing on things we'd like to see happen does nothing to change entrenched negative beliefs and the life patterns that form around them. Until those beliefs are addressed, affirmations can be a huge waste of time and energy.
Does this mean we’re stuck with what we've got? Not at all.
Our beliefs can change over time, and they can start to help instead of hinder us on our hero's journey. But we can’t change our beliefs just by wanting to.
Genuine belief, as noted previously, is based on experience. So the key to changing any belief about yourself and your life is to create a different experience.
Let’s say you want to attract a loving, committed partner into your life, but have only dated abusive, neglectful or otherwise unsuitable partners in the past. Take change in stages.
Start by paying attention to your friends. How do they treat you? Are your friends ever abusive, e.g., Are they critical? Do they back-stab? In what ways are your friends neglectful? Do they flake out on plans with you? Are they always late?
Once you’ve examined any abuse or neglect in your friendships, ask yourself which (if any) of your friends express the positive qualities you’re looking for in a romantic partner.
You may have a friend or two who is always kind to you, generous, or a good listener. If you haven’t noticed this before, you’re not fully experiencing what it’s like NOT to be abused or neglected. So begin your search for the right partner by noticing and celebrating truly good friends.
Then cull the herd. Keep only the friends who treat you well. This is critical for those with histories of poor treatment in relationships.
Once you’ve gotten rid of any so-called friends who neglected or abused you, pay attention to all the good stuff you get from the friends who are left. Notice how it feels to be valued, respected, and cared for. Don’t be in a hurry to find a partner until you give yourself time to absorb this good experience.
When you do start dating, date only people with the qualities you’re looking for. Look for warm, kind, honest, patient, trustworthy, dependable good listeners. Or whatever your version is of someone who treats you well.
They may not be the people you’re normally attracted to, but if you give folks with the right qualities a chance, you’ll experience what it’s like to have a non-abusive, non-neglectful relationship. Affirmations are no substitute for this experience.
The bottom line is that if you want something different, you must do something different. Action beats self-hypnosis.
Once you’re on the move in the right direction, affirmations are a wonderful way to record the changes you’re making: “I’m now dating men who appreciate and respect me” is a powerful affirmation, if true.
But until you start creating different experiences for yourself in the real world, don’t waste precious time affirming what you don’t believe.
How can this key ingredient help in your personal growth? Posted Sep 23, 2018
A few years ago I had a huge epiphany about my behavior. I love playing the saxophone, yet it had been almost 10 years since I played – at my wedding. Where was the disconnect between what I say I like, and following through and playing? As I explored this discrepancy I realized that when I play I get frustrated with mistakes or when I don’t perform well enough. And I realized in that moment that I was doing something I work with clients on – all the time. I was expecting myself to be better than I was. I was expecting myself to play like musicians who have been playing and practicing for years.
As with clients with more important issues, I was holding myself to unreasonable expectations. I was judging my performance prematurely, before I could realistically expect to play well. When I fell short, I became frustrated and disappointed. With this pattern, I lost the excitement of playing or even thinking about playing and wound up avoiding my saxophone.
This is a common theme in the therapy process and reflects what most of us deal with in the real world. This is an example of experiencing failure and not embracing what you love or need to learn; not because you can’t learn, but because you don’t give yourself “psychological space”. And this pattern extends to many areas of your life and interferes with growth and progress.
I refer to “psychological space” as being accepting of yourself and your performance while you are learning something new or trying to improve upon existing behavior. Antonio Salieri, in the movie Amadeus, is awestruck when he says that Mozart is divinely inspired. He is the only one who’s written musical scores that have no correction marks on the paper. “He receives the notes directly from God.”
Unless you are a Mozart, your behavior requires a learning process which frequently feels awkward as you experiment with how to do it. The process involves trial and error in which mistakes are an integral part of the feedback in which you gradually learn what works and what doesn’t in the process of improvement.
But most of us have great difficulty avoiding self-judgment and criticism – if we even think about it. This leads to premature dissatisfaction; we become discouraged, and may give up, or slowly reduce our time engaged in the behavior. Take a moment to think of times and situations where this is true for you: you get frustrated or angry with yourself for not doing better? It may take place at school or at work. Furthermore, this pattern might lead to not even trying in the first place, to avoid this disappointment.
While most would agree that it’s impossible to expect yourself to be good at anything right off the bat, most of us fall into the same boat as me with my saxophone. We have great difficulty not measuring up to our own unfair internal critic. We judge our performance prematurely, always believing we should be doing better than we do.
Many people I work with have come out of difficult or scary childhood environments that interfered with their learning and development. As adults, they frequently judged themselves for not being as far along in life as others. Here again, this establishes a pattern of negative self-talk that takes the form of not being good enough.
Even if you can’t identify serious childhood traumatic events, if you had a father who could be demanding, or got angry easily, or a parent who was anxious or worried, these circumstances can easily lead to fear, resulting in learning impairment. Childhood wounding that interfered with your ability to keep up with other children frequently leads to negative self-judgment that short-circuits psychological space.
Giving yourself the experience of acceptance – of allowing yourself to make mistakes, to be awkward and not perfect, what I’m referring to as psychological space – is a necessary ingredient in the process of learning something new.
Most of us have great difficulty coming from this place of self-acceptance. We get caught because making mistakes is not something that we want to accept. In addition, we fear that if we accept less than perfect behavior we will either settle for this lower level of performance, or even worse, become lazy.
Here is a helpful way to frame what I’m talking about. If we are on a journey through life, at any time we are at a specific place along the path of that journey – say, point “A”. Typically, we treat ourselves as if we should be further along the path than we are. For example, you might say, “I should have done better”, or even, “That was stupid of me.” These judgments remind us that we expect ourselves to be at point “B”, not “A”. This continually coming up short undermines our confidence and sense of self-efficacy.
But the laws of physics say you can’t be in two places at the same time. If you are at point “A”, it’s impossible to be at point “B”. So, the healthy approach, the self-loving approach is to accept that, “at this moment, I’m at point “A”.” Perhaps this will be easier if we define acceptance as simply recognizing reality: here is where I’m at. Not that we necessarily like where we are at. So, acceptance is more about not putting yourself down, or being critical for being at point “A”.
I like to say that the fastest path in getting to point “B” is through point “A”. Acceptance helps remove disappointment in yourself that makes it easier for you to believe you can do the necessary learning. It takes away the self-doubt that comes from feeling that you aren’t doing well enough.
Adaptation and learning at the heart of Resilience
At the heart of resilience is the ability to adapt, to learn and adjust based on experience; to make adjustments as you navigate your environment to get your needs met. Psychological space makes it easier to be present in your experience and to believe that you can learn and grow. Psychological space is a key ingredient to your personal development. I hope you give this to yourself.
Dr. Sideroff is the author of, “The Path: Mastering the Nine Pillars of Resilience and Success”, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry & Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA.
By Gary Klein Ph.D. on September 06, 2019 in Seeing What Others Don't
Instead of getting frustrated when we encounter resistance, maybe we can learn to welcome it.
Gary Klein Ph.D.
Seeing What Others Don't
Bring It On!
Shift your mindset—from obstacle to opportunity.
Posted Sep 06, 2019
I recently heard a story about a kindergarten teacher meeting with parents prior to the first day of school. One of the parents commented, “How hard your job must be, with all these 5-year-olds disobeying instructions. It would be so much easier if they just did what they were told.”
The teacher disagreed. She explained that her class is where the children learn to become more civilized. It’s where they gradually give up their oppositional tendencies. That’s how she sees her job. She welcomes their disobedience and views it as an opportunity to gradually move them towards cooperation.
I was struck by this story and realized that what I considered an obstacle this teacher regarded as a gift. It was a mindset shift for me, and it has changed the way I engage with my grandchildren. Instead of getting irritated by their disobedience (and they are all real sweethearts), I get curious. “It’s not fair,” one of them will insist, and I will ask what they mean by “fair.” I know that this can become tedious for them and I try not to overdo it. My goal is to defuse their sense of injustice, and to calm them down. At the very least it calms me down. I think it makes me a better grandfather than I would have been otherwise.
In some ways, this mindset shift might be banal — along the lines of “make the best of it.” But I think it rises above cliché. The teacher was saying that “this is my job, and I can do it best if I get these opportunities — if the children act out so that I have a chance to help them grow up. I want them acting out in my classroom because that’s my skill and my profession, to help them mature.” Unlike many of their parents, this teacher could not be goaded into becoming angry or authoritarian. She could show the children that the games they played to antagonize their parents wouldn’t have any effect on her.
The teacher story reminded me of experts in a number of professional fields that I study. They get a bit antsy if everything goes too smoothly. They want challenges because that’s how they continue to learn and how they model skilled resilience to others. I thought about a police officer who told me that he used to get angry when someone he was arresting would curse at him or resist his orders. Now, he looks forward to this resistance because it lets him test his ability to gain voluntary cooperation, and it lets him try out new methods.
Or consider people making a sales pitch. They'd like to get instant buy-in and usually get frustrated when the potential customer seems unconvinced. Maybe they can see the resistance as a challenge and a chance to learn about this customer, a chance to educate the customer, and at least a chance to hone their strategy for future customers. They can find out more about the customer's perspective, and they can see if there are any parts of their message that the customer does seem to resonate to.
So there are two aspects of this mindset shift, from seeing difficulties as obstacles to seeing them as opportunities. The internal aspect is about the chance to gain skills. The external aspect is to help the people around us.
And that brings me to a recent cognitive training project my colleagues and I did. Our sponsor wanted to learn more about our ShadowBox approach and we discussed the types of domains we might work in. We felt pretty confident that we were up to speed on the different content areas our sponsor handled, but the sponsor threw us a curveball. Instead of picking one of these content areas, the sponsor picked an engineering specialty that cut across all of them: systems integration. We felt a sense of dread when we heard this because we knew nothing about systems integration, and we were pretty sure it was highly technical and we wouldn’t have enough time to learn more than the rudiments. Try as we might, we could not get the sponsor to select anything else. We fully expected the project to be a disaster.
We showed up for a week of cognitive interviewing, the front end for building the ShadowBox scenarios, and the situation got even worse. The sponsor showed us a 42-page manual detailing all the steps and sub-steps of systems integration. I have written about this experience in a previous essay, The Cognitive Dimension. By the end of the week we had identified a range of important cognitive requirements that never made it into the manual, and never would—tacit knowledge such as what are the tough decisions, how do less-experienced systems integrators get confused, what kinds of mistakes do they make, how do they recover, what weak signals do experienced systems integrators notice that novices miss, and so on.
What had started out as an obstacle—working in a technically complex area that depended on engineering capabilities—became an opportunity to spotlight the cognitive aspects of performance that our sponsor had never previously considered. It was a lesson for me and my team that the best way to demonstrate what a cognitive approach can add is to face a challenging domain that seems beyond our capabilities.
Once again, we are reminded of the lessons to be learned in kindergarten.