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

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.

 

 

A Letter to The Escape Tribe

For regular WWA readers, some context.  I’ve been working as one of the Faculty at the brilliant Escape School, in particular an amazing Tribe of 50 people who have been on a 3 month journey to get unstuck and do something more meaningful with their careers.  It was so enjoyable and moving that I wanted to write them a short letter…and I’m sharing it here because it is hopefully a good example of ACT being used in coaching (and getting into the water supply).

Dear Escape Tribe,

I can’t tell you my admiration for your courage to stand for something in your lives, even in the presence of your fears. It feels like a privilege to watch you and work with you; in many ways one of the highlights of my career. So I wanted to write you my own letter, perhaps because I was so moved by those you wrote to yourselves…

Get out of your mind and into your life

 This is a great book with a cheesy title, yet which captures a critical idea in psychology.

Society teaches us to think that if we can only get more confident, certain, less anxious etc, then all will be well. But it’s really the other way round. Thinking follows behaviour. From another great book:

“We think that the key to successful career change is knowing what we want to do next and then using that knowledge to guide our actions. But change usually happens the other way round. Doing comes first, knowing second”. 

Herminia Ibarra, Working Identity

Remember the anemone

When stuck, our minds often tell us that the action we must take has to be big and bold.

If that works for you then great, go for it.  But if it doesn’t, think of an anemone.

If you aren’t willing to open your whole self up to some big change, see if you can be willing to start by opening one tentacle out into the ocean; exploring and experimenting.

anemone

Experiential avoidance will always be an option….

Our minds can always find an excuse not to do difficult things. And that is normal.

But if avoidance becomes our objective, then it narrows our lives.  And over a lifetime this can lead us to feel trapped – trapped in prisons made only by the words in our minds.

Picture1

Values are about the here and now

Instead of seeing values as ‘out there’, a remote and distant pipe dream, remember that they are accessible to you right now.

You have a choice to tune into them and show up to them, right now.  What will you stand for in this moment?  Put enough of these moments together and you become a different person.

‘The road less travelled’ is less travelled for a reason

The irony of human existence is that if something feels important to us then it will have a flipside which feels scary.

If you dare greatly, you will feel fear. If you commit to love then you risk rejection.

Happiness and sadness are not exclusive, but intimately connected.  They grow weak together, or strong together.

Acceptance changes everything

Once you start those first few steps out in the real world, the feedback you receive may be mixed.  If avoiding pain is your objective then it is tempting to retreat into the narrow repertoires of behaviour that have trapped you.

But if you are willing to accept yourself – that is, the whole of yourself – then you will have pain and joy, anxiety and meaning.

Only if you can accept the thorn, do you get to keep the rose.

Don’t forget; the world needs you

Don’t be fooled into thinking there is nothing for you to do. The world is full of challenges which need you – your skills, talent and energy.

This may not be fighting great battles of justice or injustice, but contributing to the world in the best, most vital version of your self.

That is really what the world needs more than ever.

Therefore, for yourselves, but not only for yourselves, may you all find the courage to keep going.

And in so doing, may you all be ignited.

with huge thanks, admiration and hope for all of you,

Rob

What I have Learned So Far

Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I
not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,
looking into the shining world?

Because, properly
attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the
ideal, the sublime, the holy and yet commit
to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.

All summations have a beginning, all effect has a
story, all kindness begins with the sown seed.
The gospel of light is the crossroads of indolence, or action.

Be ignited, or be gone.

Finding Meaning

Meaning in life is an important factor in human well being.

You probably won’t be surprised that research has shown that people who have a sense of meaning and purpose in their life are happier than those without that sense of meaning (Duh!).

However, more than that, people who have a sense of meaning and purpose seem to live longer, cope better with the losses and difficulties of life  and have greater sense of life satisfaction. Having a sense of purpose even seems to protect against cognitive decline as we age.

So if having a sense of meaning is a good thing. What do you do if you want to live a meaningful life?

The first step is to recognise that:

‘Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of …your affections and loyalties…out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account’ – John Gardner

Meaning doesn’t come from a search for some big sign that says ‘This is meaningful’.  Meaning is instead built gradually through the many small choices you make, through the values you choose to express.

‘Values are intentional qualities of action that join together a string of moments into a meaningful path’ Steve Hayes

(If you are uncertain about your values  – there are some good values clarification activities here.)

You can make a conscious decision to treat whatever you are doing as meaningful. An opportunity to live your values. For example, a hospital cleaner can choose to see themselves as an important part of the process of healing patients (which, of course, they are) and as a result express values of kindness or conscientiousness in their work.

However, if your work really doesn’t align with your values. If it genuinely feels meaningless, then you might want to start to work on a career change. It might just save your life!

If you are feeling a bit uncertain about what is meaningful for you, then I recommend ‘The Photojournalist’ activity described by Steger et al in Mindfulness, Acceptance and Positive Psychology. It is a great way of unearthing the meaning that is already present in your life.

Here is what you do:
Take 10-12 photos of “What makes (or could make) your life meaningful.” It is okay to take photos of places, people, things, mementos or even other photos. As you take the photos, keep a note of what each photo represents and how it contributes to your life’s meaning currently or how you hope it will contribute to meaning in your life in the future.

When you have done – notice what you photographed and what you wrote under the photographs. Notice what stands out. Notice any recurrent themes. Craft yourself a meaning statement.

I choose to make the following meaningful….

Now as you go through your day, notice when there is an opportunity to treat an event as meaningful and see what happens.

Here is one of my IMG_0159photojournalist images. The photo is of my partner fixing my chicken pen. A small moment but it has deep meaning for me. It is about relationships, caring, family tradition.

 

 

To learn more about the research on meaning, watch Michael Steger’s TEDx talk on What Makes Life Meaningful.

How ACT might change the story about addiction to fossil fuels

How can ACT help reduce excessive consumption of fossil fuels?  In this blog, the third and probably last in my series on ACT and environmental change, I want to critique an economist’s view of behavioural change and argue that ACT helps us understand how to tackle our addiction to consumption.

An Economists Perspective on Addiction to Fossil Fuel Use

So first to the economists’ view. In a fascinating article, Suranovic (2013) argues that addiction to fossil fuels use is a lot like addiction to cigarettes: In both cases, there are short-term reinforcers for continuing current behaviour and punishers for changing. And in both cases, people undervalue the long-term outcomes. Suranovic argues that:

“… an individual can break an addiction to fossil fuel only if two conditions are met. First the present value of the future costs of climate change, accounting for its likelihood of occurrence, must outweigh the current benefits of using fossil fuels. Second, this perceived net future benefit of preventing climate change must also exceed the adjustment costs borne by an individual switching to alternative energy sources.”

The problem is that human beings heavily discount the value of future outcomes. Just as smokers are likely to discount the negative effects of long-term illness from smoking, most of us in the developed world are excessively discounting the negative long-term effects of our consumption patterns.

In the end, Suranovic seems pessimistic. If it has taken us 50 years to deal with the relatively simple case of cigarette addiction, what hope do we have of bringing about behaviour change in the much more complex and interdependent case of addiction to fossil fuels?

While I do occasionally despair, I also find hope in watching how ACT can help people create real and sometimes rapid changes in problematic, repetitive behaviours.  In the next section, I explore how ACT could change some of the basic assumptions arising from economics.

An ACT Perspective: Changing our relationship to the stories we tell changes what and how we value

The view of people as utility optimisers is limited in at least two important ways: it doesn’t account for how we can change our relationship to what we value, and it ignores identity.

The stories we tell affect the value of events

For Suranovic, the extent to which we value different outcomes is relatively unchanging.  He treats utility as “exogenous” – it affects the system but cannot be affected by the system. But as we practice with ACT we know that we can change not only how much we value different aspects of our lives, we can also change the process of valuing itself.

One reason why mindfulness seems to help with smoking addiction is because it helps addicts reinterpret and accept the pain of withdrawal (e.g. Witkiewitz et al., 2012). Positive psychology has repeatedly demonstrated the power of reinterpreting aversive experience as an opportunity for learning and growth.  Psychological flexibility is about changing our responses to negative experience.  If reducing fossil fuel use is not happening in part because of the short-term ‘pain’ of change, then psychological flexibility can help us reinterpret and re-value the pain.

What is interesting here is that changes in meaning and valuing can occur instantaneously.  I remember standing in a line at a café growing increasingly annoyed at a sandwich maker who seemed to be taking forever to make each sandwich.  But then I heard him speak …. and I realised he was intellectually disabled.  As my perceptions shifted in an instant, so did my valuing of standing in line patiently.

Think of the 180 degree shift in perception we experience when we stop seeing a person as selfish, stubborn or lazy and instead choose to see them as an individual with needs and wants just like ours.  This type of change in meaning and valuing of a situation is not the linear, incremental change that Suranovic bases his argument upon. It is nonlinear – there is a tipping point as changes in one small meaning cascades to change the meaning of everything about the situation.

The stories we tell about who we are change the value of events

Often this sort of radical reappraisal of a situation involves a change in identity. We suddenly see that we are defending some belief about who we are or what we stand for. And this might also be true for dealing with addiction to fossil fuel. For many of us, our self-worth is entwined with our purchasing power.  My value as a parent sometimes feels proportional to the things I can give my children.  ACT helps us become more flexible about our identity, less defensive of any particular view of ourselves – and this makes change easier as we become more flexible and responsive to what is actually going on and not rules about how we should be.

I have tried to emphasise how change can occur not just in what we value or how much we value it, but in the way that we do valuing – in the way we make sense of our lives.  While this might be obvious to readers of this blog, it actually calls into question some of the most fundamental assumptions economists make about human behaviour. Relational frame theory provides an account of how changing the stories we tell ourselves changes the way we value our experiences.

I am excited about the possibilities of combining the tools of ACT with powerful tools from other disciplines such as scenario planning.  Vivid stories about possible futures, like those outlined in this wonderful paper by Bob Costanza, help us avoid the perils of excessive discounting of future outcomes. But these stories also help us reinterpret our experience now, and the tools of ACT help change our relationship to the pain of change so that we can act more in the direction of what really matters. This is making use of language at its best.

The Science of Gratitude (or What your Mother didn’t teach you about how to say ‘Thank You’)

Spring Bouquet 032909Saying thank you is important. Your parents probably spent hours drilling this into you. A polite ‘Thank you’ smooths social interaction and makes life a little kinder.

But what your Mum probably didn’t teach you, was how to express heartfelt gratitude in a way that enriches your relationships, has genuine meaningful impact on the other person and can also make you happier.

Expressing sincere appreciation is risky. The other person is often pleased but sometimes they seem uncomfortable and occasionally they seem to see it as an invitation to tell you how disappointing you are. Which can be unpleasant.

Is it possible to be more skilful in the way we express gratitude?

Behavioural science has some suggestions.

How Behavioural Psychology Can Increase The Impact Of Gratitude

In the new bookMindfulness, Acceptance and Positive Psychology,  Mairéad Foody et al analyse a positive psychology intervention called the gratitude visit.

This activity involves writing a letter of gratitude and delivering it in person.

Foody et al suggest that, in behavioural terms, gratitude involves a complex interplay between the thanker and thankee.

If you thank someone for something they don’t see as important or if your ‘thank you’ feels transactional, that you are doing it out of obligation or as a reward for good behaviour rather than as a genuine expression of what really matters to you, then the interaction can easily go awry.

So the first step is to ask yourself whether expressing gratitude is a behaviour that you value. Is it an expression of your best self?

If your answer to this is ‘Yes’ (and research would encourage you in this) then the next step is to realise that:

‘Gratitude requires complex levels of perspective taking, in terms of recognising what you value for yourself and how you perceive this should be … appreciated by others’

“Gratitude is an intimate expression of shared values that goes above and beyond what is felt’

Mairéad Foody, Yvonne Barnes-Holmes & Dermot Barnes-Holmes

This means that if you want your expression of gratitude to have the best chance of positively impacting on the other person, it would be wise to consider:

1. How does what happened link to the values of the other person? For example, ‘Thanks for signing my expenses form when I don’t have the receipts’ is unlikely to link to your manager’s values but ‘Thank you for trusting me enough to know I wouldn’t put in a false expenses claim. I promise to be more careful with my receipts next time’ might have more meaning for them.

2. How does what happened link to your own values? And where is the overlap between your values and theirs? It is in this shared space that deeper connection can form.

Taking a moment to think through these questions is likely to increase the chance that your expression of gratitude feels meaningful to the other person. And if, despite your best efforts at perspective taking, your thanks still don’t seem to have the positive impact you were hoping for – you will know that in that moment you were doing your best to be the person you want to be, which isn’t bad.

So…

I want to thank you for reading this blog post to the end; for trusting that I will do my best to write something helpful and meaningful that, in some small way, enriches your life.

Thank you!

PS For Brisbane based readers  – I am running another low-cost ‘Introduction to ACT’ session on May 26th. Details here.

Could It Be Helpful To Focus On Your Mistakes?

Do you have a tendency to focus on your mistakes? To notice the 5% of your presentation that wasn’t as good as it could be? To really remember and mentally grind over the times when your work was mediocre or even a bit rubbish?

I do.

English: Screenshot of Julie Andrews from the ...
English: Screenshot of Julie Andrews from the trailer for the film Mary Poppins (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was keen on challenging such ‘dysfunctional thoughts’, I would give myself a pep talk about it, ‘Now Rachel,  this is ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking. Just because you didn’t handle that question from the audience well, doesn’t mean it was terrible. Let’s remember what went well’.  It was like Mary Poppins lived inside my head. She meant well but she kind of irritated me. Do you know the voice I mean? The one that tries to help you think more positively?

When I discovered ACT, I started to respond differently to these thoughts. Instead of trying to change them, I worked on noticing them with curiosity.

Have you tried that approach? What did you notice? Perhaps you tend to be hardest on yourself when your behaviour doesn’t align with your values. You might also notice which feelings turn up when you don’t do as well as you had hoped – shame, guilt, embarrassment, disappointment?  What urges do you get when these thoughts and feelings turn up? Do you feel like you want to give up or do you want to try to do better next time?

This curiosity about your thoughts, feelings and impulses can be very useful. It makes it easier to become more flexible in responding to your thoughts and feelings and this can improve performance.

This curiosity might help you to notice those times when focussing on mistakes disheartens you and other times when it actually motivates you to improve.

When you are trying a new behaviour and you are worried that you won’t ever succeed then a self-critical stance can be de-motivating. Which is okay if the activity doesn’t relate to what is important to you. But if it does matter to you, if it is a move towards what you want your life to be about, then letting Mary Poppins give you a motivational pep talk might be helpful. ‘You can do it! Everyone messes up when they are starting out! This is really important to you. Keep going and you will get better at this. What is one small action you could take today that would move you forwards?‘ Note: The pep talk is best if it is realistic, links to your values and focusses on taking action.  Telling yourself you are doing wonderfully and are destined for stardom can be problematic.  You aren’t trying to get rid of the painful thoughts – that tends to be self-defeating.

However, if you notice that the self-critical thoughts encourage you to try harder then a different approach may be useful.  If you are highly motivated to achieve mastery at a behaviour and over time you have been becoming better with practice, then you may find it useful to focus on your mistakes. Focussing on the places where you have done poorly and working out how to improve are an important part of becoming an expert.

So next time you notice self-critical thoughts, you might want to try this approach:

  1. Pause – notice the thoughts, notice your feelings, notice your impulses
  2. Check in with your values – is this something that really matters to you? If it does, then consider either:
  3. Giving yourself a self compassionate, values driven pep talk and then take a small action to move yourself forwards, or,
  4. Really focussing on the mistake and working on improving your performance.

It is all about psychological flexibility!