Understanding the Real You

As a psychologist, many clients want me to help them understand themselves better. Who am I? Who is the ‘real’ me? How do I become more like the real me?

And because I am all seeing and knowing, I am able to tell them and their lives are transformed.

In particular, people going through a transition (for example a career change) are understandably keen to understand who they really are, because this will help guide them and inform their decisions.

It is very easy to believe that if we can just understand who we are, then we can be  liberated to be that person.  It is an alluring thought, as the pull to certainty always is.

The problem is that whilst the idea of a ‘core’ you; a fixed, immutable essence of you (that sounds like a brand of perfume: Immutable Essence of You by Chanel) is alluring, it is also dangerous.  It can lead people to see their lives from a narrow perspective, as the content of their history and experience. Then we create powerful stories of who we ‘really’ are – I am an introvert, I am bad at Maths, I am depressed. In ACT this is known as the self as content perspective.

Yet there is another perspective of the self which is where we are the context or the holder of our ever changing experiences.  This allows us to take a more fluid, flexible perspective of our selves. One exercise I like to do with people to explore this idea is to take their Myers Briggs ‘type’ and then list all the ways in which they regularly act against their type. It is easy to do, and helps loosen the power of the self as content perspective.

In this short video Julian Baggini explores exactly this idea, but what’s interesting is that he does this without any knowledge of ACT, thereby bringing a fresh perspective.  He asks whether the self is an illusion, and concludes that this is not a helpful question. It is more helpful to see the self as a process, rather than a thing.

It is this view of our self as a process which can liberate us. Instead of something fixed to discover, our selves become something we create.  Instead of ‘being’ depressed, I am someone who sometimes experiences feelings of depression.  What I like about this advert is that it takes just such a view – I have pain and my life is bigger than pain:


In turn this flexible, ‘context’ perspective helps us act more flexibly.  We are free to experiment, and to transcend narrow, fixed views of ourselves.

Instead of asking who we really are, we can begin to see that we are the person we create, one behaviour at a time.

High Five Mirror BW

(How to) Stay on The F*****G Bus

I recently came across Helsinki bus theory, an interesting metaphor by the photographer Arno Minkinnen which is usually applied to creativity.  Being a big fan of bus metaphors, I started using it with my coaching clients and it resonates, so let me explain:

In Helsinki all buses follow the same route at the start of their journey.  For at least 1 km all buses take the same route and make the same stops, irrespective of their number and eventual destination.

Helsinki 3

After this they diverge and the differently numbered buses start to separate into more distant and less familiar parts of Helsinki.

HelsinkiLet’s imagine that in the metaphor you are a new artist who wants to create innovative art.  Each bus stop represents one year of your life, so the third bus stop represents 3 years of learning your craft and trying new things out.

After 3 years people begin to notice your work but they start by comparing it to people who have done similar work before.  Being driven to do something unique, you feel discouraged at finding you’re following someone else’s path.   So what do you do?

You get off the bus, go back to the terminus and try another route.

This time you take a different number bus in the hope that it will lead to something different.

But the same thing happens.  You had the intention of changing to something new, but you get compared to others and feel discouraged.  So back to the terminus you go. As Minkinnen says “This goes on all your creative life: always showing new work, always being compared to others.”

So what’s the answer?

Well the advice offered by Minkinnen is simple:

Stay on the fucking bus.

Exactly!  Stay on the bus!  And this is true not just for creative endeavours, but for anything that requires persistence, including career, life or behaviour change.  As this HBR article makes clear, it is long term commitment to a direction which is often the key to success.

The Problem with Staying on the Bus

Unfortunately, most of us find staying on the bus very difficult, mainly because we are directed by our short term thoughts and feelings. Just as in the case of the artist, we feel as though nothing has really changed, that this is just the same as before, that maybe we should have taken a different route.

This is where we all need help to understand how to stay on the bus.

How to Stay on the Bus

The first step is to get clear on which bus you want to get on.  I suggest a combination of decision science, The Dip and values work for this.

But next we need to learn how to deal with the thoughts and emotions that come from staying on the bus.

Let’s be clear that it is not the feelings themselves that force us off the bus.  It is our interpretation of those feelings – our relationship to them – which leads us to get off early.

The Role of Psychological Flexibility

Psychological flexibility is the ability to see our immediate experience from different perspectives.  For example, instead of thinking about our immediate thoughts and emotions, we can consider our longer term values.  Instead of seeing emotions as reliable guides to behaviour, we can place them in a different context as the flipside of what really matters.   Instead of running away automatically from certain thoughts, we can see them as just learned behaviour and not something we necessarily need to listen to or struggle with.

With practice, we can become less influenced by our short term impulses (‘this is just the same as last time!’) and more by our long term values.

This can help us to stay on the bus, and to persist even when our immediate thoughts and emotions make persisting difficult.

Passengers on the bus

The Dangers of Language

“So, how do you feel?”

“I feel like I’m grinding through life, sort of like I’m pushing a heavy boulder uphill.  Every day I’m grinding forward, but it feels relentless.”

“So how does this feeling of ‘grinding’ actually show up in your body?”

Pause.  Interesting question.

I was receiving supervision from one of the most respected therapists within the ACBS and the question threw me for a moment.  I scanned my body as mindfully as I could.

“I notice I feel a bit tired.”  Pause.  “And I notice that I have some tension in my shoulders”.

“OK.  Anything else?”

“Hmmm.  Not really.  The tension is certainly there but it’s not that severe.  It’s actually pretty bearable.”

“OK.  So what would the person you want to be do next?”

Another long pause.

“I guess I would take a few more breaks, but other than that nothing, actually”.

And there we had it. For several weeks my mind had been telling me about the grind; how tough my life was and how relentless.  But on closer examination that story turned out to be based on feeling slightly tired and having slightly sore shoulders.  From where I was now – skillfully led to a different perspective – my life was actually going really well.  I was doing the work I wanted, with people I liked, whilst making my own small dent in the universe.  If this is a grind, then it is the kind of grind I would definitely have chosen.

This is a clue to one of the most powerful lessons within contextual behavioural science; that part of our lives (or ‘context’) is shaped by the words that we use to describe it.

If we get it wrong, language has the capacity to sell us a version of life that is not particularly accurate or helpful and which may leave us feeling shortchanged.  In my case this was certainly true as it was detracting from the joy and privilege I felt when doing my job.

This was a timely reminder that whilst language is incredibly useful and powerful, it should come with a warning.  Checking in on the accuracy of the metaphors we us  in everyday life is really useful (as the brilliant Yvonne Barnes Holmes makes clear in this talk about constructing effective metaphors).

But every now and again it also pays to connect to our actual ‘felt’ experience of life, and separate this from the language we use to describe it.


The Different Motivational Properties of Values and Goals

When committing to a new course of action it’s useful to distinguish between values and goals because they have different motivational properties.

  1. Goals can be achieved.  This is why they motivate – we enjoy the feeling of purpose and progress this brings.  Yet, once the goal is achieved what then?  Very often we revert to our previous behaviour.  This explains the diet industry.  And why it is hard to get a taxi in New York in the rain*.
  2. Goals can’t be achieved right now.  So they can be bad at motivating right now (when I need it).  For example, I have a SMART goal to lose a half stone in weight in the next 2 months.  The trouble is, I have had that goal for about 3 years….  The problem lies in the fact that whilst I cannot meet the goal today, what I can do is eat a piece of cake.  cakeSo, when I see a piece of cake a question arises in my mind; can I eat the cake and still meet my goal?  Then some uncertainty arises in my mind – maybe I can have both?  Minds hate uncertainty and they will do almost anything to get rid of it.  So what do you think I do to get rid of the uncertainty?
  3. Goals are powerful motivators. Humans are intrinsically goal oriented and our minds like the feeling of purpose which goals offer.  Yet goals can be set without us really examining why.  Once set, their gravitational pull can pull us away from the things we truly value.  Hence, for about 10 years I busied myself pursuing promotions which I did not really care about.  Whilst pursuing I felt busy and purposeful, but once achieved I felt empty and sad.  I worked so hard to climb the ladder, only to find the ladder leaning against the wrong wall.

In contrast values have different motivational properties which can help us in many different ways.

  1. Values can never be achieved.  So values retain their motivational properties long after a goal’s have been ticked off.  Whilst my goal of losing half a stone could be achieved, acting in accordance with the value of health can never be.  Is it important or not?  If it is, then when will it cease to be so?
  2. Values can be lived in each moment.  So, although Viktor Frankl was not free inside Auschiwtz, he was able to make the value of freedom important by choosing his response to the tyranny he saw.  In this way, values can bring us powerfully into the present moment and, over time, can bring greater coherence to patterns of behaviour over far longer periods.  This builds a much more powerful sense of meaning in life.
  3. Values are what we most want to stand for in life.  They are how we want to be remembered and what we want to stand for in life.  When we act in line with our values we act authentically and in alignment with our deepest motivations and aspirations. Maybe (like me) you have spent much of your life pursuing meaningless goals before realising that life is a musical thing – and we are supposed to sing and dance whilst the music plays…

*They knock off earlier because they meet their daily goal earlier

Tackling Our Culture of Cruelty

A recent Panorama investigation found systematic abuse of elderly residents going on in a UK care home.  Some of the most vulnerable people in our society were being ritually abused by their so-called carers:

On the top floor of a special hospital, locked away from their families and friends, a group of men and women are subjected to a regime of physical assaults, systematic brutality, and torture by the very people supposed to be caring for them.  The victims are some of the most vulnerable in society – the learning disabled, the autistic, and the suicidal.

Sadly, this may be merely the tip of the iceberg.  In this week’s Sunday Times Minette Marin wrote of the terrible neglect of nurses that she witnessed first hand.  Similarly, the MP Ann Clwyd has told of her husband’s inhumane treatment at the hands of the NHS and asked whether cruelty is now normal in the NHS.  Today I listened to a phone in programme where one man described a ward of vulnerable geriatrics and simply said:

“Nobody seemed to care”.

How does this happen?  Presumably no nurse goes into that profession for any other reason than to care for others?  So what happens?

Organisational culture is clearly a factor and a number of systemic problems contribute –  poor job control, lack of autonomy, lack of a proper leadership.  But at some level cruelty is an individual choice.  We create our cultures, then they create us.  So what can we do about that?

I think this is a problem of experiential avoidance.  I propose that nurses dealing with ‘difficult’ or elderly patients are brought into contact with their own fears and insecurities about becoming old, infirm, or mentally impaired.  These fears – being intolerable – can only be dealt with by distancing themselves from the patients and dissociating from them.  And we don’t have to go far back in history to see the terrible, shaping effects of dissociation on human behaviour.

So what can be done?  Plenty, and we could start by not dissociating ourselves from the nurses.  The problem is that the alternative – empathy – is not the simple panacea that most people assume.  It takes real effort and psychological skill.  It is not something we can just do, any more than we can suddenly start sticking to diets or going to the gym five times a week.

The key to empathy is reducing experiential avoidance.  And we know how to do that.  Firstly train people – help them – to gently reconnect with what they care about.  Then help them to defuse empathy & experiential avoidancefrom the difficult thoughts and emotions that will arise from taking valued action.  We know we can’t get rid of those fears and demons, but we can respond to them differently, and in so doing shift the context for our behaviour.

People often talk about practicing empathy and practicing compassion.  That’s good, because these things do take practice.  But in order to practice we need to understand what prevents us from practicing.

In most cases, it is our own demons.  And we have been running from them for too long.

warning, this is a harrowing clip:

Find Your Passion At Work! (Just Don’t Expect to Feel Passionate About It When You Do)

One of the reasons I left consultancy is because I felt that the work was meaningless.  In meetings I would try not to fall asleep as people droned on about project dependencies and stakeholder management and at the weekend all I did was dread Mondays.

It wasn’t unpleasant exactly, it was the lack of something that bothered me.  I wanted to feel passion and meaning at work, instead I experienced a sense that I did not care about the low hanging fruit as much as other people seemed to.

Now, many years later, I have created a working life which I do feel passionate about.  Some nights I have to force myself to go to bed – like a child on Christmas day – because that will make the next day come faster.  Some days I work with a client and it will hit me: I love this.

So for all the people who write about finding your passion at work: good for you.  It is possible.  It is necessary.  Well done!

But your books are still at best horribly misleading and at worst, dangerous…


The thing about passion at work is that it is rarely characterised by feelings of passion.  It is, if anything, characterised by feelings of anxiety and doubt, particularly in the early days.  For me those years were filled with thoughts about whether this was really the right thing, whether I could do it, whether I was falling behind my peers.

Even today those moments where I feel  passionate about what I do are rare and fleeting.  Working with people who are stuck can be draining and usually I am assailed by doubts about my own ability to help, my mind telling me what a terrible psychologist I am.  Plus it can be very painful working with people who are themselves in pain.

Is this what I left consultancy to find?  Is this really passion at work?

Well, yes.  I am truly passionate about what I do and I am so thankful that I get to do it (well, most days).

But if I had not been show how to grow more willing to respond flexibly to painful thoughts and emotions, then I would have never have reached where I am now.

In short, if I had defined passion as feelings of passion then the journey would have stopped long, long ago.


Psychological Flexibility in Difficult Conversations

It struck me that psychological flexibility is very powerful in relationships, and particularly in having difficult conversations.  However, this is something I rarely talk about on this blog (Rachel maybe more so).  So I thought sharing a personal example of how psychological flexibility has helped me could be useful.

Earlier this year my Grandfather died and I wrote a bit about that at the time.  Having dreaded his death for much of my adult life I am grateful for the skills that psychological flexibility gave me because they helped shape my response to his decline.

In May 2011 I went home to Liverpool to visit my Grandfather, who was then aged 92.  He had been moved to a home, much to his disgust. He was grumpy because he felt he’d been locked in there against his will. He was surrounded by old women, many of them even grumpier, so we went outside for a cup of tea.

It was cold outside and windy. For some reason, we got onto talking about the gloomiest of subjects – unusual because we usually kept things light and jovial. But that day we both felt low. We talked about how he missed his daughter, Rowena, who died before I was born. It felt uncomfortable and sad.

It was sad. I felt like crying.

Some years ago I would have taken this discomfort as a sign to run away. I may have cracked a joke, or left a bit earlier, or hurriedly changed subjects.

But this time I sighed and stopped and just sat there. In the middle of the day, sitting with my Grandfather, sharing time, sharing life. I gave up the struggle with it, and just shared what was.

I look back now and am proud of what we did that day.  Above all, I’m so glad I didn’t just run away.

Psychological flexibility has not saved me from difficult conversations.  But it has lessened the struggle I have with my own thoughts and emotions during them.  That has given me more energy to focus on what matters and I have been more willing to ‘show up’ to what matters to me in everyday life.

Doesn’t the workplace need more of this?

About the same time as seeing my Grandfather I went to a workshop run by another hero of mine, Kelly Wilson.  He showed me this poem, and it means a lot.  But not as much as the difficult moments I shared with my Grandfather last year, drinking lukewarm tea in the cold.

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Naomi Shahib Nye, “Kindness”

Why Happiness Makes Me Grumpy (aka: The Limitations of Aiming for a Happy Workplace)

Most serious positive psychology researchers would agree with the idea that happiness should not be an objective.   But in my experience the message gets lost in translation, certainly among the many life coaches and pop psychologists who advocate the implementation of happiness strategies. 

Even with heavyweight researchers the message gets blurred, for example:

  • Organisations like Livehappier.com and Action for Happiness argue that happiness is “the eternal quest of every generation since the first human beings” and argue that we should therefore try to create happy workplaces.
  • On Barbara Fredrickson’s website she writes: “experiencing positive emotions in a 3-to-1 ratio with negative ones leads people to a tipping point beyond which they naturally become more resilient to adversity and effortlessly achieve what they once could only imagine“.
  • Professor Tim Sharp relentlessly tweets about happiness, for example: “Stop; slow down; reflect; just be…happy” and “Live longer with happiness!”

The message is that happiness is correlated with all sorts of benefits – from health to productivity – so we should logically seek to attain happiness, right?

Well, no.

Happiness as an objective (whether individual or organisational) is hugely problematic for a number of reasons:

  1. If we have happiness as our goal, then unhappiness has to be avoided.  In this way individuals are encouraged to ignore, change or avoid negative emotions rather than accepting them as normal.  This can lead to experiential avoidance – a psychological phenomena which has been linked to a huge number of mental health problems (Hayes and Masuda, 2004).
  2. Thoughts and emotions are not within our control.  As natural responses to the environment, there is very little evidence to suggest that negative thoughts can be avoided.  We also have an ability to manufacture great unhappiness from pleasant events, and happiness from disaster (Gilbert, 2006).
  3. Trying to be happier can backfire.   A study by Ng and Diener found that those high in neuroticism did not benefit from cognitive reappraisal strategies and Woods (2009) found that positive self-statements provoke contradictory thoughts in those with low self-esteem.
  4. Trying to be happy ignores context.  I am motivated more often by fear, anger, jealousy and even desperation than I am by happiness.  Is happiness the ‘right’ response to inequality or corruption?  I would argue that the world needs a focus on happiness no more than it does on anger.
  5. What drives happiness is often short term.  For example, my mind will be unhappy at the prospect of going for a run, or of receiving negative feedback.  Yet these are precisely the actions which drive longer term wellbeing, performance and meaning.
  6. Happiness only drives some aspects of performance.  Linking happiness with performance is like saying extraversion is good because it is associated with success in sales.  Happiness is indeed useful for creative tasks (Fredrickson, 2005) but it is less useful for tasks like risk management (García, Sabaté, Puente, 2010).
  7. Lack of theory.  There is no theoretical reason why happiness should be exalted above other emotions.  It does not tap into any theory of language or cognition which can explain how human minds work, and so no model can be empirically tested.

However, happiness sounds good and it correlates with some nice outcomes.  So let’s pump it out there and hope for the best!  I get grumpy about this for two reasons:

  1. By focusing on happiness we fail to equip people with the tools to live more vital, fulfilling lives in practice. Plus we risk adding a second source of stress when people fail to feel happy.
  2. It means the people I compete with get an easier sell than I do.  And that makes me grumpy!

By focusing on happiness, Positive Psychology reinforces (whether overtly or not) the idea that we must change something within ourselves before we can be successful, productive, and healthy.

If we buy that idea we set ourselves up for a battle we cannot win – and risk creating enemies of our own minds.

Why Psychological Flexibility Will be a Key Leadership Skill of the Future

Last year in the UK, a Panorama investigation uncovered systematic abuse of elderly care home residents who were ­being routinely pushed about, belittled and ­humiliated by their so-called carers. Worse, when whistleblowers drew attention to the abuse it was they themselves who were disciplined by senior management. It took Panorama for this to come to light and for action to be taken.

It was the latest in a long line of depressing stories of toxic leadership.  From MPs to journalists, bankers to CEOs of big pharma and oil, the modern era seems one where the very idea of leadership is being eroded and betrayed by the people we appoint, elect and follow.

Theorists like Bruce Avolio and Michael Brown have argued that we need a more authentic and ethical form of leadership, which connects leaders to what really matters to them. Given the crisis of leadership at least in the Western world, connecting leaders more powerfully with their values is surely long overdue. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this kind of ‘values-led’ or ‘authentic’ leadership also generates trust, hope and optimism in followers, which in turn is said to filter through into attitudes and behaviours.

There is really only one problem with these ‘authentic’ forms of leadership: they are bloody difficult to execute.  They get derailed by circumstance and expedience as well as by existing (often toxic) organisational cultures.  It takes a special kind of willingness and courage to execute values in practice.

Most modern leadership theories deal with leadership as though in a vacuum; as though all that remains after identifying our values is to get out there and do them.  Yet anyone who knows anything about ACT knows that understanding our values is really only half the battle.  Values have a flipside – an admission price which unless paid will bar the way forward.

What then can we teach our leaders to help them live their values and pursue a more authentic style of leadership?

Psychological flexibility is the key, and it is for this reason we should be teaching it in our business schools.  Psychological flexibility is psychology for the real world, or as Todd Kashdan puts it, the ‘messiness of human life’.

Psychological flexibility is important in leadership for three reasons:

  1. It helps people clarifying and understand their values with a workable, behaviour-based definition which helps people understand what their values mean in practice and context.
  2. It helps leaders move towards what they value.  Psychological flexibility is a practical skill which helps people understand the cost of moving towards values (or the ‘flipside’ of valued-living).  By building willingness to have difficult thoughts and emotions, it reduces the natural human tendency to avoid them – experiential avoidance.  This is liberating and powerful because we become less beholden to short term thoughts and emotions which have the tendency to get us stuck or drag us away from our values.  We get to choose our behaviour more consciously.
  3. It helps people stay more aware of the present moment, which means that they are likely to be more open to others, empathetic, and engaged with other people.  It also tends to improve task focus, reducing distraction, which in turn improves task performance.  These are key factors in improving leadership, engagement, performance and productivity. It is also a significant factor in wellbeing.

Too many leadership training programmes focus on values and forget to train people in the skills that help them live their values.  For this reason it seems inevitable that the impact of ACT in the clinical area is soon to be felt far more widely in the occupational.

What it Feels Like to Make a Mistake

I don’t like making mistakes.  In fact most of my professional life has been spent in the service of not making a mistake, or being seen not to.

I am not alone; in fact a lot of the practical difficulty in culture change projects is created by people being (understandably) unwilling to move away from a no mistakes / ‘safety first’ style of thinking.

Whilst there’s nothing wrong with safety first, it is not always the most helpful approach to problem solving.  Sometimes we need to think creatively, try something new…and risk making a mistake.

Yet so much of the language in organisations is about not making a mistake.  Small mistakes are often cited in appraisals as evidence that someone did not have an outstanding year.  And in comparison to creative thinking,  ‘risk management’ sounds sensible, grown up and professional.  It is easy to pick holes in new ideas.

So a ‘safety first’ culture often prevails where creativity is seen as a luxury and mistakes are punished. This is fine for some kind of problems, but not those which require more than past experience to solve them (what Ron Heifetz calls ‘adaptive change‘).

Therefore, when attempting to help organisations deal with adaptive change, we need to pay attention to how mistakes are treated.  Clearly in this respect senior managers set the tone.

Yet so ingrained is our fear of making a mistake, the main barrier is how we ourselves feel when we make a mistake.  If making a mistake is the admission price for creativity:

What does it feel like to make a mistake?

I have made a number of mistakes recently, so I thought this would be an interesting experiment.  After all, if we are to encourage people to take risks and  accept their feelings about making a mistake, what exactly are those feelings?

In this case the mistake I made was sending an e-mail which contained factual errors.  Here’s what happened next:

  1. The first experience was a nasty, crackling sensation deep inside my stomach, which had a kind of shockwave effect, culminating most noticeably in a sort of pins and needles feeling in my hands, lasting about 5 seconds.
  2. The next moment brought a slight shortness of breath combined with a leaping heart and a racing mind to create a momentary sense of panic.
  3. The next feeling was a realisation that the mistake is real and this came (for me) with feelings of slight nausea lasting about a minute.
  4. Interestingly, my mind then immediately raced into self preservation (i.e. excuses) mode. Can I shift the blame?  Can I make an excuse? I was almost overwhelmed by these thoughts over the next 30 minutes – being aware of them did not seem to matter.
  5. The most noticeable feature was then my mind’s ongoing attempts to try and fix the problem.  Again these thoughts were almost overwhelming and impossible to stop.  (Incidentally this is where I often compound the initial mistake, so overpowering is the desire to fix it immediately).  This is also the period where my mind suggests a number of different lies which might get me off the hook.
  6. Finally I noticed how the mistake had a peculiar ability to haunt me.  For example, I can think about it and right now – sitting here at my comfortable desk – I can experience a kind of ‘after shock’ all over again, with a heart leap thrown in. It is as if my mind is saying ‘you need to remember this because we are not going to do that again!’

If we are to encourage new ways of thinking it seems to me that we need to help people recognise and accept what it feels like to actually make a mistake.  Though this won’t be easy, the alternative is a life lived in the service of not getting things wrong.