ACTing On Mental Health: The Evidence

This week someone asked me for a meeting, so I looked at my diary….kept looking…and eventually came up with a date in early December.

It’s not just me – though of course I am terribly important.

I don’t know anyone who isn’t busy (and terribly important) and perhaps no surprise – many of us feel stressed as a result.

Some of the stress statistics would be shocking if they weren’t so familiar:

  • In the UK, work-related stress accounts for 37% of ill health and 45% of days lost (Health and Safety Executive, 2016).
  • 1 in 6 people in paid employment will suffer a common mental health issue this year (Mental Health Foundation, 2016).
  • The estimated cost of poor mental health is £74 – £99 billion p.a. (Stevenson & Farmer, 2017).

So what can be done?

Tackling Stress at Work

In a recent interview for the New Scientist (on behalf of one of my Fintech clients), I argued that interventions at both organisation and individual level were required.

But given that 75% of people suffering from a mental health issue will never receive any form of psychological support (Seymour & Grove, 2005), this places extra emphasis on other forms of support, such as workplace training, to help people deal with the demands of the modern workplace.  The trouble is, of course, that workplace training often gets a bad name.

 

 

 

 

 

And a lot of it lacks even that most basic criterion; evidence that it works.  Ideally there should also be evidence of how the training works too.

The Case for Using ACT to Improve Mental Health in the Workplace

As part of the preparation for the New Scientist interview (and prior to publishing a Systematic Review on the subject) I looked at some of the main evidence for ACT training.  Below I’ve listed five workplace studies which caught my eye.

1. Dahl, Wilson and Nilsson (Behavior Therapy, 2004)

This study gave an ACT intervention to a group of Swedish care workers selected as being at high risk of long term work disability due to stress and musculoskeletal pain.  An ACT group was compared to a group who received their respective medical treatment as usual (MTAU).

At post and 6-month followup, ACT participants showed fewer sick days and used fewer medical treatment resources than those in the MTAU condition, with a mean of 1 sick day versus a mean of 11.5 sick days for the MTAU condition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

2. Flaxman and Bond (Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 2010)

This study randomly assigned 311 local government employees them to either stress management training based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (n =177) or to a waitlist
control group (n =134). The ACT program consisted of three half-day training sessions.

Across a 6-month assessment period, the ACT training resulted in a significant reduction in employee distress for those who had been at high risk initially, as well as a significant reduction  compared to the waitlist group.  In fact, of these initially distressed SMT participants, 69% improved to a clinically significant degree, compared to 31% in the waitlist group.

3. Waters, Frude, Flaxman, Boyd, (British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 2017)

This study demonstrated that even a short, one-off training intervention can have positive effects.  A 1-day ACT workshop was offered to 17 care home workers in Wales, UK with a further 18 assigned to a waitlist control group.

At 3 months post-intervention, those in the ACT group reported a significantly lower level of psychological distress compared to the control group, with clinically significant change exhibited by 50% of ACT participants, compared to 0% in the control group. When the control group received the same ACT intervention, 69% went on to exhibit clinically significant change.

In keeping with ACT theory, the ACT intervention also resulted in significant improvements in psychological flexibility, but did not significantly reduce the frequency of negative cognitions.

4. Vilardaga et al., (Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 2011)

This was a cross-sectional survey with nearly 700 addiction counsellors working in substance abuse treatment centres in the USA.

Results indicated that burnout was more strongly associated with psychological flexibility than other well-known predictors of burnout e.g.  job control, supervisor support, salary etc.  The study concluded that a future approach to reduction of burnout among addiction counsellors should target psychological flexibility.

5. Lloyd, Bond and Flaxman (Journal of Work and Stress, 2013)

This study took 43 employees of a UK government department receiving an ACT workshop (3 half days over 2 months) aimed at increasing participants’ levels of psychological flexibility (PF), and 57 participants allocated to a waitlist control group. The study found significant reduction in burnout and strain in the ACT group.

Crucially the study was also able to show that it was higher levels of PF that mediated (or caused) the reduction of emotional exhaustion at follow up.  In other words, this study showed not only that ACT training works, but why it works.

Conclusion

Of course, training psychological flexibility is only a part of the solution to a complex problem.  We shouldn’t overstate the evidence, or see it as a standalone solution.  But increasingly it looks to be a critical part of our response to an increasingly demanding world of work.

 

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Avoiding Stuckness With Values

[This is from a series of posts written by Rob Archer and Rachel Collis in reply to a reader who felt that values were actually keeping him stuck].

Right from the start, the ACT model made sense to me, and made so many things clearer.

Apart from the bit about values.

That bit left me confused, but I let it go, thinking it would all work out.

But it never did really.  I still get stuck on values really easily.  I think my mind loves the idea that I have a set of values, and jumps at the chance to know EXACTLY what I SHOULD be doing.  Finally!

Next thing I know I’m treating values like they are a real thing.  I conflate values (how I do things) with decisions (what I do).  I mix up values (how I want to be) with my own needs.   I look to values to tell me what the ‘right’ answer is, and when I get stuck, I blame values conflicts.

I don’t think it’s just me.  Values are brilliant for bringing vitality and purpose to life, especially when options are limited.  But in coaching we are often dealing with people with too many choices.  Values can add to this sense of overwhelm, at least in my experience.

Yet at the same time, I feel like values have changed my life.  How the hell did that happen?

How I understand values, when I understand values

The other day  my two-year old daughter told me her name was ‘Orla Archer’ and I simply burst with pride.  The words caught in my heart.  Orla Archer.

Up to the age of about 7 or 8 I was called Robert Davies.  Then my Step Dad arrived, married my Mum and on the day of the wedding they asked me whether I wanted to be called Robert Davies or Robert Archer.  I was never in doubt.

Since then I’ve always been proud of that name, without ever really knowing why.  Now I think it was all about choices.

I chose the name, but I also began to choose other things.  I chose all the best stuff; sport, Liverpool FC and of course, The Beatles.  I also chose organisation, determination, anger, softness, self-reliance.

As Robert Davies I’d never really chosen anything for myself.  I was in survival mode too often.  But from ‘Archer’ onwards, I started to choose things.

Crucially, I didn’t have to state in advance what my values were. If anyone had asked me whether I was ‘living my values’ I’d not have had a clue.  They weren’t the ‘right’ choices necessarily, or the easy choices.

But looking back, this choosing was the beginning of the essential ‘Archer-ness’ that feels like the most worthwhile bits of me, even today.

This is how I understand values.

Values help with hard choices

Values, therefore, are different from decisions, and from ethics and morals.  With values it is the choice that seems key.  What am I valuing rather than what are my values.

My favourite all-time TED talk is by Ruth Chang.  In it she argues that values are about ‘hard choices’; situations where there is no right answer.  Those situations are tough!  But from another perspective they can be liberating, because this is our one chance in life to properly choose stuff….

Avoiding stuckness with values

I still don’t really know what my values are.  Or at least if I cling to the idea that I have a stable set of values for all situations, then I quickly get stuck.

But if in a given situation you ask me what my ‘values move’ is, or how I would choose to respond to a situation, or how I behave when I feel like a version of myself I can be proud of – generally I can do that.

So right now, in this moment, I try to focus on the choosing.

And one day – perhaps long after I’ve gone – Orla Archer will tell you what my values were.

 

 

 

 

Traps to Avoid On the Path to Success – Or Why You Can’t Have it All

Do you want to be successful? If you are like me, then your response to that question is, ‘Hmm...It depends‘. It depends on what ‘being successful’ means.

We are surrounded by the message that success is about ‘having it all’. Over and over again, the world implies that if you are to truly consider yourself a success you need: love, money, a prestigious job, a wonderful family, happy kids, lots of friends, health, a beautiful body, a lovely home with a shiny kitchen, a fancy car…. Only when you have all of these things can you count yourself as successful.

How dispiriting!

Even worse, we are sold the myth that it is actually possible to have it all. A multitude of articles; books and courses promise, ‘if you just do x, then you will … lose weight, earn lots of money, get that promotion’ etc. We are encouraged to believe that if you keep following all of this advice, then, one day, you will have it all. You will know that you are successful. And, all will be well.

However for people like me (and perhaps you) this belief – that you can/should have it all – is exhausting and unhelpful.

In practical terms, when you pursue success, you come up against a tricky contradiction. Some of the things you need to do in order to achieve objective career success, actually make it harder to build meaningful relationships and be happy. For example, objective career success is linked to working long hours and moving for work. However, moving to a new city and working long hours both make it difficult to maintain meaningful relationships and are both associated with decreased happiness.

More than that, this isn’t a level playing field. When it comes to objective career success (salary and promotion), white men who live in developed countries have a head start.

A further difficulty is that it is actually getting harder and harder for most people (even white men!) to achieve objective career success and this trend is likely to get worse rather than better.

The ‘having it all’ myth is also problematic because of how it can mess you up in other ways.

I notice that whenever I buy the ‘you can/should have it all’ myth, then I start to berate myself, because:

  • I spend too much time reading about Donald Trump and not enough time doing deep work
  • I eat too many biscuits and not enough kale
  • I am not a university professor and I haven’t written a best-selling book
  • I don’t earn a six figure income.

When I buy the ‘having it all’ myth, I run around trying to get everything right. I feel anxious about all the things I am not achieving. I feel exhausted and overwhelmed and my life passes me by as I pursue the ‘infinite more’.

When I buy the myth that I can have it all, I see myself and my life as problems to be solved. I fail to notice moments of joy and connection. I notice myself thinking, if I just try a little harder; If I read the right book; if I do all the right things; if I just become better or different in some ill-defined way;  then, everything will fall into place. Then, I will have it all and then…I can relax and enjoy this moment.

But what if you and I were to accept that we can’t actually do it all or have it all? What would that be like?

Instead of focusing on getting everything right, perhaps we could give our attention to being here now. To embracing this messy life with all of its imperfection. Whilst at the very same time, with courage and lots of self-compassion, we face up to the ways we need to change. Not in order to get the perfect life, with the fancy car and the posh job, but so that we give ourselves a fighting chance to achieve the things that really do matter, which probably include:

None of these are easy. All of these require an ongoing commitment to gently aligning moment to moment choices with these longer term goals. All of these become more likely if you practice certain behaviours – such as mindfulness and self-compassion.

In the end, I do need to eat less biscuits and more kale. But not so I can tick ‘perfect body’ off my ‘having it all’ list. (I am a middle-aged lady – I think that ship has sailed!) Instead, I choose to eat more kale because it is one way of caring for my precious body.

Perhaps we can’t have it all but, instead, over time, we can make choices that lead to a life that is rich and meaningful and that might just be better than having it all.

Is Meaningful Success Possible Within an Organisation?

Working in a twenty-first century organisation can feel pretty bleak. Many employees describe feeling increasingly discouraged, disconnected and disengaged. They struggle to feel a sense of meaning or joy in their work.

Do the harsh realities of the global economy make this inevitable? The situation can seem pretty depressing. But there is hope! New ways of running organisations may be about to change everything.

In his book, Reinventing Organizations, Frederik Laloux describes vibrant and meaningful workplaces that still deliver key outcomes. He calls these organisations ‘Teal organisations’.

in this approach, the organisation is considered to be a complex adaptive system, like a city or a forest. This is in contrast to the current dominant metaphor of the organisation as a machine. This change in metaphor is important. If an organisation is a machine, then people are seen as replaceable cogs. Whereas, in a complex adaptive system, all of the parts are important. Different parts interact in surprising ways and a small action by one element can create large, system wide changes.

In Teal organisations:

  • The usual hierarchies are dropped.
  • Individuals are given much more autonomy.
  • People often work in small, semi-autonomous groups that are nested together to create a larger system.
  • Everyone is seen as able to take on a leadership role whenever needed.
  • All employees are provided with training in the skills they need in order to navigate the complexity of this sometimes challenging environment.
  • Individual workers can make important decisions – as long as they seek advice from those who will be affected by the decision.
  • The CEO doesn’t decide on strategy or tell people what to do. The group agree a broad purpose, and then ‘the role of the leader is to listen for where this organisation naturally wants to go’ (Laloux). 

What I particularly like about Laloux’s perspective is that he doesn’t pretend this is easy. It is clearly challenging to implement this approach. If a Teal organisation is to flourish, appropriate processes and systems need to be put in place. For example, successful organisations adopting this new approach all have clear processes for dealing with conflict.

This model does give hope for the future. It suggests that grim and soulless workplaces may be replaced by something much better. Within a Teal organisation, it is highly likely that employees will experience a sense of meaningful success.

You probably don’t work in a Teal organisation at the moment, but it may be possible to start to shift the centre of gravity. In a complex adaptive system, small changes can lead to dramatic shifts. Just adopting some of the Teal daily organisation practices in your team could help build autonomy, meaning and a sense of community. Try picking one small change suggested on the Reinventing Organizations Wiki, implement it and see what happens.

Fostering these changes will require a degree of psychological flexibility. You will need to be present, open and flexible. You will need a capacity to observe what is happening; take thoughtful action; notice the outcome and then take more action.

You can watch Laloux explaining his research in more detail in this talk:

Mindfulness 2.0 – The Future of Mindfulness

My Granny died last month, aged 97.  Good knock, Gran.

Granny 6

It wasn’t such a sad death really, as the real essence of Granny that we all knew and loved had long disappeared.

I wonder how much of our grief is like this; tiny portions of loss spread out across the days and weeks, regular downpayments helping to spread the cost. Well before she left Granny’s fingers had been prised away from the habits and routines that defined our lives.

Then once she was gone the routines of commemoration take over.  I had to read out some words from my Aussie family and then say some words of my own.  It was all very life affirming, as death can be.

I was struck by how we remembered Granny.  What she did, yes.  But also how she did it.  Granny could be quite formal, snooty even, but the Real Granny was also silly, curious and generous.

I mean, does this look like a woman who really cares whether your elbows are on the table?

Granny 1

Mindfulness

Comparing myself to Granny’s generation seldom goes well.

She and her friends fought a war for freedom with incredible modesty and courage.  I get annoyed with software updates on my smartphone.

I’m more caught up in my head, too.  Busy, but not always about important stuff.  Granny did stuff for her family and community.  If I’m not careful I do stuff on social media.

Of course this isn’t just me, and maybe this is why mindfulness has taken off.  This ancient practice has been seized upon as an antidote to the age of distraction, and there’s a lot of evidence suggesting it works too.

Yet at the same time there are problems with the mindfulness movement.  In his new book Carpe Diem Regained, Roman Krznaric highlights two:

First, the mindfulness movement focuses too much on the self, leaving it thin on moral foundations. 

Second, in placing so much emphasis on attending to the present moment, it overlooks how much human beings thrive on striving for meaningful goals. 

Krznaric also points out that studies suggest mindfulness may increase wellbeing, but not pro-social behaviour. (Author’s note: please see my comment below for an update on this).

So what is mindfulness really for, if all it does is help us bear these atomised, self-absorbed lives that would be so alien to Granny?

Mindfulness 2.0

Do you remember the early days of the web, when websites were static and focused on giving people information?  This was web 1.0, when the focus was all about spreading awareness and knowledge.

The next generation of websites were interactive.  Their focus was on changing the way we did things like communicating, finding jobs and looking at kittens. This was web 2.0.

The same leap is now happening with mindfulness – a movement away from simple awareness to using our awareness to do things.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is in the vanguard of this movement.  ACT combines hard-edged science with the ability to move people, literally and figuratively.  There are four reasons why ACT is the future of mindfulness:

ACT RCTs 2016

  1. Evidence. It includes all of the benefits of mindfulness – with over 180 randomised control trials now demonstrating its effectiveness in everything from depression, chronic pain, smoking cessation and weight control to workplace effectiveness.
  2. Practical.  It offers different ways to be mindful – making mindfulness more  accessible to more people than ever before.
  3. Clarity.  ACT is based on a clear and transparent philosophy of science which helps practitioners learn faster and explain concepts more clearly.  (Once I got this I never thought in the same way again).
  4. Behavioural.  The use of the acronym ‘ACT’ is deliberate, because ACT is a behavioural intervention which focuses less on peoples’ thoughts than on what they want to DO in life.  ACT  explicitly links mindfulness to values and action: it is mindfulness for a purpose.

ACT positions mindfulness as a call to action.  It links awareness to behaviour that can actually change the world for the better.

Isn’t this what the world really needs?

And isn’t it how we will be remembered?

Granny 2
Margaret West 1919 – 2017

Running from Depression

20170117_151236It was very sudden this time.

Suddenly, like an eclipse, gloom descended and the birds stopped chirping.

I shouldn’t have been surprised I suppose.  The end of a long-awaited holiday, dark January days, lots of travel, the death of my Step Father.  I should have expected the black dog’s appearance.

But these days I know what I have to do.  I reach for my trainers, and run.

I’ve learned that I can outrun depression, especially if I get a head start.

running-from-black-dog

 

 

 

I am not sure why running works.

I guess there’s the obvious physical effects – endorphines and the like.  But it feels more than that.

Running feels like an assertion of my values over my emotions.  I never want to run, but I run.  If that sounds easy, it isn’t.  When I’m running the battle can feel quite elemental, like I’m in a fight for the direction of my soul.  But if I can hang in there running starts to reconnect me with a version of me that I like, or at least find harder to hate.

This experience exactly mimics the latest research, which shows that committing to valued actions reduces suffering, but not the other way round.

In his seminal book ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’, Haruki Murakami says:

“Being active every day makes it easier to hear that inner voice.”

I think that’s true, even though my inner voice often says FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, STOP AND EAT CAKE!

But to have a thought and not be pushed around by it….running helps me know where to draw the line.  Over time my sense of self becomes defined less by what I think, and more by what I do.

It’s not just thoughts though. I also experience emotions more strongly when I run.  Today I found myself choking up mid-run to Time to Say Goodbye.

I felt a bit stupid, but it occurred to me that running is the only time I allow myself to properly feel my emotions.

Maybe this is the difference?

When I started to get depressed in my 30s, I really would run from my feelings.  But not by running – more often it was alcohol.

Today I run, but running doesn’t feel like running away from anything.  It’s more like running towards my emotions.  And even when sadness shows up – big gulps of it – I keep running towards them, like old friends greeting each other at a train station.

In this context sadness almost begins to feel like joy.  A kind of reconnection with the best part of me.

The depression gains no traction.

It is just me, running in a forest, taking care of the person who sometimes hates himself.

 

Using Values When You’re Somewhere You Don’t Want To Be

I am writing this whilst sitting comfortably on a plane, powering through a brilliant autumn sunset towards Helsinki.  I have everything I need, and the work will be great.20160126_152837

And I don’t really want to go.

This has nothing to do with Helsinki you understand.  Who couldn’t be excited by the land of sauna, summer cabins and err, Moomins?

Me.

I don’t want to go because it’s going to be hard work.  And lots of travel.  And above all I’m sad because I’m going to miss my family.  I feel like I just want to stop and go home.

Using Values When You’re Somewhere You Don’t Want To Be

This classic ACT move is easily forgotten, but when I remember it always helps:

  1. Ask the cabin attendant for an extra gin
  2. Take a moment to consider why I am making this trip in the first place:

What values are at the heart of my choice to be here?

This question tilts my attention towards the purpose of my being here.  And purpose is the great generator of meaning.

So, why did I choose to be here?

  1. Meaningful work.  I am here because the workshops I run often help people shift in a positive direction.  The data we’re collecting supports this.
  2. Learning.  I hope to learn something from the people I meet, and their reaction to the training.  And it’s exciting to learn something about the countries I visit; Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland.
  3. Security.  I want to provide for my family so that they have the stuff they need to thrive. It is not the sole purpose of being here, but it is a factor.
  4. Psychological Flexibility.  Deep down, I know that without moments like these, my capacity to experience joy in life would diminish. As Kelly Wilson said, happiness and sadness are twins that either grow strong together or die together.

ballon-2Tuning into my own values doesn’t get rid of the sadness, but it provides a different context for it.

It mixes something in with the sadness.  Something richer.

And now I’m flying in a different way.

I am not so consumed by thoughts of wanting to go home.

My sadness feels like it has been dignified somehow.

It is the admission price for a life I have chosen, and I am grateful for it.

 

 

What Can You Do When You Feel In Over Your Head?

Many leaders are feeling ‘in over their heads’. The organisational landscape has become volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) and it can often feel so challenging and overwhelming that we feel out of our depth and swamped.

The skills that led to success in the past, no longer seem to work.

There is so much change happening that we can’t keep up. Everything is interconnected and, as a result, less easy to predict or control. Your outputs are increasingly dependent on other teams. Their mistakes or delays are disastrous for you but no-one seems to think that is a reasonable explanation when, as a result, your deadlines blow out. The future is highly unpredictable, it is unclear what the next right action is.

In their excellent book, Simple Habits for Complex Times, Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston explain that many of the problems we are now grappling with are complex rather than complicated and that means they need to be handled differently.

In complicated situations, you create the outcome you want by working through things logically, defining the problem, breaking it down into it’s component parts, perhaps doing a root cause analysis and then making a step by step plan. It is hard, but manageable.

In a complex environment this isn’t the case. In complex situations, causality isn’t linear or predictable. So a root cause analysis quickly becomes messy and unhelpful. In complexity, you can’t predict the future from what happened in the past. You can’t work out logically what actions will create the outcomes you want to achieve, as things are interconnected – a small change in one place has an unpredictable impact in another place. So your attempts to create and act on a plan don’t seem to work. It is easy to feel swamped, powerless and uncertain.

What are better strategies for complex situations? Garvey Berger and Johnston suggest the following:

  • Have a broad sense of the direction you want the system to head in but avoid rigid plans and goals that can’t adapt and take advantage of changes in the system. (e.g. ‘Better customer service’ is a broad direction whereas ‘answering customer calls within 2 minutes and resolving all questions within a further 2 minutes’ is a rigid goal).
  • Become very curious about the present
  • Listen very deeply to what others are saying – recognize that others may be making sense of things differently to you
  • Be interested in multiple perspectives on the situation – including the perspectives that people (including you!) may have in a year or 5 years.
  • Take a wider, more systemic view. Rather than looking for root causes – look for combinations of factors that interact to push the system in a particular direction.
  • Notice what is tending to happen already in the system and then try to amplify any current tendencies that are aligned with the desired direction.
  • Take actions designed to nudge the system in a positive direction.
  • Instead of making and executing a plan, use ‘safe to fail’ experiments to try to shift the system – learn from the outcome of each experiment and feed that learning into the next safe to fail experiment. NB For this to work, you need a culture where is okay to take risks and fail (with boundaries given for what are acceptable and unacceptable risks).

My hunch is that psychological flexibility is a key skill that leaders will need in order to enact these new and challenging skills.

Psychological flexibility is: “contacting the present moment fully as a conscious human being, and based on what the situation affords, changing or persisting in behavior in the service of chosen values” – Steve Hayes

It is composed of a number of processes that are highly relevant when leading in complexity:

Acceptance helps leaders to cope with ambiguity, uncertainty and the associated anxiety that comes with that.

Present moment awareness (or mindfulness) helps leaders to be better at observing what is really happening.

Values clarity helps leaders to behave more consistently in volatile contexts, so that followers can trust them, even though the direction is unclear and the leader can’t give them any sense of certainty about the future.

Defusion helps leaders to look at the world as it is in this moment, rather than how the mind is saying it is. This is a particularly important skill in an ambiguous environment, in ambiguity, we tend to have thoughts that tell us, ‘This is certain to turn out badly’. We need to be able to hold those thoughts lightly and see the situation as it is in this moment.

Perspective taking skills enable leaders to be mindful of and listen to the needs and views of many different stakeholder and also to see the broader system.

These skills seem to be key for leaders to thrive in the new industrial age.

And, often you wont feel like you are thriving, if you are like me then you will feel overwhelmed and swamped. At those times, please be very, very kind to yourself. This is genuinely hard. Some self-compassion is vital.


 

If you want to build your psychological flexibility, then these blog posts might be helpful:

How to Clarify Your Values

Acceptance – here are some posts on handling painful emotions

Defusion Techniques

If you want to read more about leading in VUCA environments, these resources are good:

Simple Habits for Complex Times

Complexity Leadership in Health Care (BMJ- 2001) – relevant for non-health care settings

A Framework for Understanding VUCA – Scott Berinato in HBR


And finally…if you are interested in learning more about Leading in Complexity – Queensland University Of Technology (where I teach) is offering a new online course for leaders on this very subject.

How can Behaviour Analysis Help in Coaching? (part 2!)

I’ve recently been travelling around Europe and the Middle East on a kind of values and defusion tour.  It’s been an amazing experience.

And no matter where I went I saw humans.  Lots of them!  Some in busy cities like Brussels or Munich; others miles from anywhere, in the wilds of Sweden, the deserts of the Middle East or quiet fishing villages in the Med. And everywhere you see how humans have adapted to their environment through different cultures, clothing and lifestyle.  Clever old things.

EMEA tour

But if humans are so good at adapting, why do we sometimes struggle to adapt to what life throws at us?

Funny you should ask, because this is where our second Very Exciting Idea from Behaviour Analysis comes in:

“Fusion can be thought of as a generalised reinforcer”.

And why is this such a big idea?

Because it is useful for clients who struggle to adapt and that turns out to be, erm…

ALL OF US!

So sit back, take the soft top down and put on some rock classics, as we explore why ‘fusion can be thought of as a generalised reinforcer’ is such a useful idea, especially in coaching.

relief

What is Fusion?

In ACT, fusion is a term for when we become fused with, or stuck to, our thoughts.

In a state of fusion it can be hard to separate ourselves from our thoughts. For example, if I am fused to the idea that ‘this is a hopeless blog post’, that is all I can see.   Yikes!

fusion (1)

From this perspective, it is easy to act as if the thought is true. So I might give up writing halfway through and see that the garden needs watering, or that the cat urgently needs stroking.  (And I don’t even have a cat).

If this becomes a pattern I might fuse to a new story: I am hopeless…

Hopeless_TCP_illo_2

Here there is no distance at all between me and the thought.

One recent example I had was with a manager at a construction firm who had received negative reviews about his ability to influence senior execs. His story was that as an ‘I’ on Myers Briggs and someone who hates small talk, there was little he could do to influence others.  He was simply “not cut out for senior management”.

It is easy to see how fusing to stories like this can hinder development. But why do people fuse so readily to such unhelpful stories about themselves?

Meaning as the Brain’s Priority

Klinger (1998) argued that humans survive primarily by being able to respond to their environment. The brain evolved to help us understand our environment during the pursuit of goals, working to sort out “ambiguous or confusing stimuli…until they can be dismissed as irrelevant, or channelled into action”.

Understanding the ‘meaning’ of things is therefore the brain’s top priority.  This is why the experience of not understanding something is associated with feelings of unease, because we do not know how to respond. Conversely, when something is subsequently understood, we experience the ‘aha!’ response, which is much more pleasant (King, Hicks, Krull, & Del Gaiso, 2006).

With language, meaning takes on a wider metaphorical significance, so humans start to consider the ‘meaning of life’. But the priority remains the same:

meaning is a matter of human understanding, regardless of whether we are talking about the meaning of someone’s life…or the meaning of a word or sentence” (Klinger, p29).

Meaning is constructed in context ,and for humans especially this means it becomes socially constructed:  “the meaning of a gesture by one organism is found in the response of another.” (Mead and Morris, 1967).  Gergen and Gergen (1988) suggest that coherent self-narratives are essential for establishing credibility and maintaining relationships.

When someone tells me that I am ‘making sense’ (a rare occurrence) then I experience it as a compliment. ‘I know what you mean’ is often greatly reassuring:

Provided that languaging is reinforced from an early age, coherence is also reinforced. As a result, coherence… becomes a generalized reinforcer for verbally competent human beings.” (Blackledge, Moran, & Ellis, 2008).

Aha! Why Fusion acts as a Reinforcer

One reason why fusion is reinforcing is that it can quickly provide a sense of coherence (i.e. meaning) to otherwise confusing or ambiguous information.

story

For example, if I receive a poor assessment of my influencing skills, I can make sense of this by fusing to a story that I am an introvert, or have never had any training in assertiveness, or am ‘not cut out for senior management’.

Perhaps it is no surprise that people cling to these stories as a means of control over their lives. My life is a mess and this is why.

Meaning trumps everything, including whether the story is helpful or not.

For example I often fuse to a story that certain aspects of my character and upbringing make me unable to hold down relationships, and this can be consoling at times.  The story makes sense of my experience – and relieves me of the responsibility to change.

And this is when fusion becomes truly problematic.

Because when we fuse to language our behaviour tends to ossify, which can reduce our capacity to adapt.

But if we can learn to hold language more lightly we retain our ability to adapt, and the world opens up before us once more.

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Sources:

  • Examining the Reinforcing Properties of Making Sense: A preliminary Investigation. Wray, Dougher, Hamilton & Guinther, The Psychological Record (2012).      
  • The Search for Meaning in Evolutionary Perspective and its Clinical Implications, Klinger, from The Human Quest for Meaning edited by Wong & Fry (1998)
  • Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviourist.  Mead and Morris (1967)

 

For more on using ACT in workplace and career coaching please follow The Career Psychologist blog.

Using the ACT Matrix to Help You to Be The Person You Want to Be…More Often

I use the ACT matrix a lot in my workshops and with my coaching clients… and on myself! It is a tool that helps to build mindfulness, self-awareness and valued living. It is based on contextual behavioural science and is very easy to use.

I have made a video explaining how I use it:

 

You can download a pdf handout of the ACT Matrix here.

Kevin Polk (who is one of the people who developed the ACT matrix) has lots of free resources relating to the ACT matrix at his website.