Handling Painful Thoughts and Feelings

If we are to live rich and meaningful lives, painful thoughts and feelings are going to come along for the ride. If I love with all my heart, at some point I will get hurt. If I value doing a great job at work, sometimes I will make mistakes and look like a fool. If I want to really connect with someone, I have to show vulnerability.

So, what is the best approach to handling the painful thoughts and feelings that are an inevitable part of life? Russ Harris suggests letting go of strategies that don’t work in the long run, such as:

  • Ignoring your painful thoughts and feelings
  • Believing your painful thoughts and feelings
  • Not believing your painful thoughts and feelings
  • Resisting your painful thoughts and feelings
  • Letting your painful thoughts and feelings control your behaviour.

Instead, Steve Hayes suggests:

  • Honouring your pain the way you would honour a friend by listening
  • Walking with your pain the way you would walk with a crying baby
  • Carrying your pain the way you carry a picture in your wallet

Could you show yourself that compassion when you are in pain?

Why Values in the Workplace Don’t Work

Since identifying and following my own values my life has changed immeasurably.  Not happier necessarily, but I am now truly engaged in what I do and experience a lot of meaning.  If you asked me today whether this life is what I would choose I would not hesitate to say yes.  6 years ago, I would have been stunned into silence.

My experience of values in the workplace is very different.  The usual approach is for a management team to identify the organisation’s values in a darkened room or at a ‘team away day’ in a hotel just off the M4.  Then, the values are declared via an exciting combination of communications experts, office posters and mouse mats.

What follows is the ’embedding’ phase.  This means identifying what behaviours the organisation wants to see to demonstrate each value.  Very often they will identify what ‘good’ behaviour looks like and what ‘excellent’ behaviour looks like.  These behaviours will be embedded into competency frameworks, which are then used to assess each member of staff at appraisal time, and help the organisation find the right cultural ‘fit’ with new recruits.

That, in my experience, is best practice.  And it is utterly useless.

The result is usually a sense of incomprehension (at best), and at worst cynicism.  It leads not to engagement, but a sort of dull compliance, coupled with an acute sense of injustice if a manager breaches the behavioural code.

From an ACT perspective, this is easily understood.  Because these are not values being implemented, but what is known as pliance.   Pliance is where…”wanting to be good or please others dominates over one’s direct, personal experience of what works.”  Pliance (taken from the word compliance) is therefore a form of rule-governed behaviour which does not take into account context.

Rule governed behaviour may be useful in some contexts, but it also leads to a kind of insensitivity to the environment which can harm performance and rob the individual of a sense of autonomy and control – both critical to engagement.

Put simply, values work in organisations is usually not values work.  It is a form of managerial control masquerading as values work.  It is more accurately described as pliance, or rule-governed behaviour, which leads to disengagement and an insensitivity to one’s environment.  Both of these will harm performance and wellbeing.

And both can be avoided.

How Using ACT in the Workplace Could Transform Almost Everything … in the Antipodes

This week I will be presenting at the ANZ ACT conference in Brisbane. The conference is shaping up to be a good one with brilliant speakers and researchers  (e.g. Todd KashdanFrank Bond); wonderful clinicians (e.g. Robyn Walser, John Forsyth, Lisa Coyne); RFT experts (Niklas Torneke, Emily Sandoz, Louise McHugh) and home grown Aussie ACT experts (Russ Harris; Louise Hayes; Joseph Ciarocchi and Rob Purssey) included in the line up.

The session I am running is based on a session that Rob and I delivered in Parma at the World ACBS conference (it was a tough stint but some one had to do it!).

Rob and I had a wonderful time working together and the session went well. The notes for that session can be found here.

Wish me luck!

What is Meaning in Work?

When I retrained to become a psychologist, my research centred on meaning in work.  That’s because my work to date (as a management consultant) had been pretty meaningless, but I did not reallyknow what to do about it.

So my research questions were:

  • What is meaning in work?
  • How can I find it?

I wanted to create and test a model of meaning which would be scientifically valid but which would also be usable for people who wanted to identify meaning in work for themselves.

In this post I want to deal with the first question, what is meaning in work?

There’s a lot of confusion even in academic circles about what meaning is, and I spent months sifting through these definitions.  Eventually however I came to a clear conclusion, via a brilliant psychologist called Eric Klinger, who argued (1998) that meaning can be seen from an evolutionary perspective.

Think about your ancestors.  What did their survival depend on?  Foraging for food?  Avoiding the woolly mammoth?  Right on.  Humans evolved problem solvers, moving and adapting to meet new challenges and goals.  We survived by being able to respond to our environment and meet a succession of context-dependent goals.  All of our goals relate to survival, at least at the genetic level.

The interesting bit comes when we consider how we evolved to do this.  The cognitive processes we developed (i.e. our senses, thoughts and emotions), all evolved to help us do one thing: understand the potential dangers and opportunities that come our way during the pursuit of our goals.  It is understanding that enables action to be taken in the pursuit of goals.  And successful pursuit of goals = survival.

Klinger argued that the role of human cognition is to manage the process of comprehension, working to sort out “the ambiguous or confusing stimuli…until they can be dismissed as irrelevant, or channelled into the emotional / motivation / action systems” (p31).

What does that mean?  It means that at the heart of the human operating system is an absolute imperative to understand the world around us.

This is not a ‘nice to have’.  Without understanding we feel uneasy (it’s not for nothing our greatest fear is the fear of the unknown).  Conversely, understanding brings relief.  Think about the ‘aha!’ moment when you figure a problem out. It is pleasant because this is a relief from the burden of not knowing, even if the news is unpleasant.  (Think about how a diagnosis of a mystery illness brings relief).  That’s because with understanding we are able to act with purpose.  Without it we are unsure and lack direction.

Meaning is therefore simple.  It is about comprehension, whether that be for small things (like comprehending a word in a sentence) or very large things (like the meaning of one’s work).  With meaning, we know how to respond in terms of both emotion and goal-directed action.  As Baumeister (1991) argued, meaning in life is therefore a process of sense-making which connects an individual’s existence to a wider understanding of the world.  When we have meaning we understand ourselves in context, and that has always been essential to our survival.

Today, meaning often is not linked to survival.  But the inate drive remains the same.  Without a sense of meaning our lives can feel as though they don’t make much sense.  Our life’s events do not seem to fit any narrative.  We begin to feel uneasy, and feel less and less agency over our place in the world. A pretty fair summation of my time as a management consultant!

Conversely, with meaning we understand ourselves and our place in the world. We know how to relate to others. Whilst wee still experience difficult emotions, we understand why we are experiencing them and we generally know what to do about them.  And that’s a fair summation of my life as a psychologist.

In the next post, I’ll explore how meaning differs from purpose and why it’s different to happiness, before going on to consider how to actually achieve meaning in work.