The Joy of Acceptance

In this blog, Rob and I often write about ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Training). As the name suggests, ACT involves ‘Acceptance’. This means choosing to adopt an open and receptive attitude to internal experiences (such as thoughts, emotions, memories and urges) as they arise, even when they are unpleasant. There is a lot of good research that tells us this is likely to be a good idea. 

Kelly Wilson suggests acceptance involves deciding, ‘Where you want to go in life and then heading off in that direction, even if that means feeling some pain along the way’ 

What would it be like if next time you feel sad, afraid or angry – instead of either making yourself wrong for feeling that way or putting lots of effort into justifying why you are entitled to feel that way – you turn to yourself with compassion and allow those feelings to be as they are. And you slow right down… and breathe…and then choose your actions based on your values?

My experience is that there is a fierce joy in this.

Quote from: Things Might Go Horribly Terribly Wrong – Kelly Wilson and Troy Dufrene

Fairness is a Double-Edged Sword

In my work as an Executive coach I usually ask my clients to take the VIA Character Strengths test. The test gives you a list of your top five character strengths or ‘values in action’.

I have observed that strengths can be a double-edged sword. We can overplay certain strengths to our detriment.

For example, those who rate ‘Fairness, Equity and Justice’ in their top five can find that their determination to be ‘fair’ to others means that they can have a tendency to carry too large a workload.

The wisest response to these issues seems to be to dig a little deeper into what ‘fairness’ is. 

Carol Gilligan described three levels of ethical development;

  1. Focus on the self – making sure that my needs get met.
  2. Focus on the well being of others – a desire to do good through self-sacrifice
  3. A focus on ‘nonviolence’  – do not hurt others or self

The first two stages are easier perspectives to make decisions from – is it all about me or all about you? However, the third stage, where both my needs and yours need to be considered is a much more complex decision making situation.

What can help here is a to look at the decision from some different perspectives:

  1. The perspective of the future you – If you repeatedly make this decision, what will your life be like in 10 years time? Is that what you want?
  2. The perspective of a wise person – What would a wise person do?
  3. The perspective of an observer – If someone watched all your choices what would they say were your values? What would they think your life stood for?

On the Dangers of Psychometric Testing

Rachel wrote compellingly (below) about our three selves, and how the things we believe about ourselves can help us and limit us. I agree, but as an occupational psychologist this presents  me with a dilemma.

Psychologists are very keen to put people into boxes.  We like to label people –  ‘schizophrenic’, ‘depressed’, ‘anxious’.  For occupational psychologists we like labels such as ‘ENFP’, ‘conscientious’, ’emotionally intelligent’ and even ‘resource investigator’.  Of course, most of these labels are useful because they have good reliability and validity.  For example, if you are recruiting, the most powerful predictors of performance in the job are:

  • Cognitive ability
  • Integrity
  • Conscientiousness
Source: Robertson & Smith (2001).

Clearly, objective measurement of knowledge, skills and personality preferences such as these is preferable to the far more subjective unstructured interview of old.  (And certainly preferable to graphology – apparently still used extensively in France!).

However, when we use labels such as these on ourselves we must also be mindful that we are creating a reality as much as describing one.  And, particularly in the field of career decision making, I think there’s a danger when thinking of ourselves as being a certain way that we are reinforcing ideas which reduce psychological flexibility.  By extension, this reduces our capacity to notice and take advantage of opportunities to change.

As Freedman and Combs (1996) write: “Speaking isn’t neutral or passive.  Every time we speak, we bring forth a reality [which] gives legitimacy to the distinctions that those words bring forth.”

Anyone who’s seen the TfL advert will know we tend to see things that confirm what we look for.  In career decision making, we tend to see behaviours or judgments which confirm our existing views of ourselves.  We tend to believe psychometric tests, yet these are only modified versions of what we have told ourselves in the first place.

That’s why even very good psychometric tests (and there are lots of very bad ones) need to be held lightly.  The unquestioned use of labels and categories can consolidate problems that the client is experiencing   and reify something which perhaps did not exist – or half existed in the messy, ambiguous reality of being a human.

Your Three Selves

Stop for a moment and think about who you are….

In response to this question most of us come up with a list of statements about ourselves, perhaps some memories; some labels about the roles we play; some values; our beliefs about our personality: I am a mother; I am a business woman; I am a gardener; I like chocolate; I am kind; I am lazy; I am messy; I have a Derbyshire accent….

We develop these ideas about ourselves throughout our lives but particulalry in childhood – who we are, what we like; what we dislike. These stories we have about ourselves are important because they help us to maintain some sense of self coherence. However, if we treat these self descriptions as true, fixed and unchangeable then they can limit us. It is helpful to hold these self-descriptions lightly. One term to describe this aspect of the self is ‘the conceptualised self’.

There is another aspect of self. This is the part of us that watches what is happening in each moment. The part of us that can notice our thoughts, feelings and actions. Research on mindfulness suggests that if we can learn to observe our thoughts and feelings with openness and curiosity we can make better decisions, perhaps because we get better at noticing our thoughts and feelings rather than being unconsciously controlled by them. This aspect of ourself is called ‘self-as-awareness’.

The third self is the ‘observer self’. This is the ‘you’ that is the context in which all of these thoughts and feelings occur. The ‘you’ that notices that you are noticing your thoughts. The ‘you’ that has been consistent all through your life, even though you have grown and changed. Sometimes we become aware of this unchanging part of ourself during a moment of crisis. People who have coped resiliently with traumatic events often talk about connecting with this part of themselves: ‘I realised that there is a part of me that can not be hurt by painful thoughts, feelings and memories or even outside circumstance.’ Steve Hayes describes this aspect of the self as like the sky – our thoughts and feelings are like the weather, constantly changing, but the sky is always there. Having a sense of this unchanging aspect of the self can help us to handle difficulty with more grace and less panic.

The Certainty Bias

A fantastic interview with neurologist Robert Burton highlights the mind’s Certainty Bias.

The mind evolved to help us make sense of the world around us, because without that understanding it’s pretty hard to know how to act.  Not many of our ancestors had time to make a list of pros and cons before making important decisions.

But in today’s context the mind’s pull for certainty has different consequences.  The mind likes nice, uncomplicated beliefs which can help us make sense of a situation.  Yet these beliefs often leave us trapped by our own perceptions:

“I must get this right”.

For important events and decisions, our mind will tell us how important it is to get this right.  Yet the mind will be far slower to identify what ‘right’ is.  The unspoken assumption is that right is perfect.  Perfection is hard to achieve… so procrastination ensues.

“I need to know the likely outcome / if I can cope before I start”

The mind likes to dictate terms and the terms are – no movement towards a new project unless certainty is guaranteed!  The trouble is this often stops us from taking action on the things we value most.  Result: the mind’s goal will be achieved…by doing nothing.

“I need to have all my things around me / complete silence / the right people to work effectively”

The trouble is we rarely get the ‘right’ environment.  Deep down we know this and that we need to start right now – even if it is with the wrong pen.

“If I was good at doing this it would be easier / life is about enjoyment”

The great happiness myth!  The problem is life isn’t meant to be enjoyable in the sense that we should enjoy each moment.  Our most fulfilling moments weren’t preceded by feeling good – far more often they were preceded by the most dreadful doubt and fear.  Our intolerance of ambiguity keeps us stuck – which eventually makes us miserable.

So what can we do about it?

As Burton acknowledges, the most important thing with such thoughts is to recognise them.  After all, you do not need “the right result” so much as you are having the thought that you need it.  Even recognising this as just a thought – not reality – is effective.

Once you’ve noticed your thoughts, bring your attention back to your behaviour.  The mind often leaves behaviour unspecified, because perfection is more certain than an imperfect first step.  This makes purpose hard to find.

So try to counteract this by getting specific about what it is you will do:

  • I’d love to get the right result – so I will make a list of what that result looks like in practice.
  • I’d love to know more about the outcome I can expect – and the most important things I need to know are what the client really wants and why they want it.
  • I don’t want to fail – and the main risk to failure is that I don’t revise properly.  Therefore, I will make a revision plan.
  • I want better working conditions – so I will make a specific list of improvements I could make,  starting right here and now.
  • I want to enjoy myself – but I am willing to experience uncertainty now in order to make progress towards my goals.