Why I Am Not As Empathic As I Want to Be

Last year, my daughter Ellie, had her wisdom teeth out. It was horrible. It is a painful and unpleasant procedure and, to make matters worse, Ellie has a needle phobia. Ellie felt terrified but she hid it well and looked completely calm. This meant that I looked like a crazy, over-anxious mother insisting that my daughter wasn’t coping whilst Ellie appeared to be fine.

My worry for Ellie, combined with the difficulty in getting her the help she needed, was just horrible.

After the operation Ellie had a lot of pain and vomiting. I felt so bad for her. It was so distressing to see her in such discomfort.

Even now, when we talk about the operation, I have a tendency to get upset and hijack the conversation – suddenly I am going on about how I found the whole thing awful.

When my loved ones are in pain, I feel it so acutely that I struggle to be present and helpful. This is because I lack some key empathy skills.

Louise McHugh recently taught me that there are three aspects to empathy:

1. Perspective taking – Imagining how I would feel if I were you. Or, even better, if I was you, with your history and temperament and circumstances, how would I feel?

2. Being open to feel the painful emotions provoked by taking the other person’s perspective.

3. Handling those painful emotions effectively so as not to get so swamped and distressed that you can’t focus on supporting the other person. Strategies for handling painful emotions include mindfulness (getting present with your five senses; holding your pain with compassionate awareness) and connection to that still part of yourself that observes what is happening without being caught up in it.

If I am to become more empathic I need to work on the third aspect of empathy. When the feelings swamp me, I need to remember to breathe and get present. I need to connect to the part of me that can observe and transcend pain and difficulty. When a precious human being needs my help and support; I want to become better at giving them what they need.

How empathic are you? What gets in the way of empathy for you?

On Holding Our Feelings Gently

This post is based on some writing by Dr Hank Robb. Hank is a deeply wise psychologist based in Oregon. You can see a video of him here.

Sometimes, when we act to make something important in our lives, we experience painful emotions. And, we can choose to feel them willingly.

There are, really, two important aspects to that willingness. There is “willingness with your feet” and also “willingness with your heart.” If you think about “flight phobics” you see
 both kinds. Some won’t get on the airplane – they lack “willingness with their feet.” However, many who do get on the plane are then “white knuckleflyers” – they lack “willingness with their heart.” Both kinds of willingness are choices.

To give you a sense of “willingness with your heart”. Cup your hands. Imagine holding a feather in your cupped hands, it will be gentle. And, you can hold it gently. Now imagine putting the fruit of a prickly pear cactus in your cupped hands. It will not be gentle. And, you can still hold it gently. Willingness with your heart is holding gently whatever is there to be held.

Prickly Pear Cactus a kind of common vegetatio...
Prickly Pear Cactus a kind of common vegetation found in the hills of Balaghat Range (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whatever feelings turn up, you can choose to treat them with compassion and gentleness.

What would that be like? Which are the emotions that are hardest for you to hold with gentleness? For me anger is really tricky.

Can you catch yourself when you harden your heart against your pain…and soften?

The Benefits of Accepting Your Emotions and Treating Yourself Like A Child

Recently I was a bit upset. I was feeling sad, anxious and angry about a challenging situation in my life.

I am not good with anger. My natural tendency is to fight it. I try to fix the feeling. My mind grinds over and over whatever seems to have triggered the anger. Part of me believes that if I can just figure out how to solve the problem then I won’t have this bad feeling.

How does that work for me? Not real well!

So I caught myself in my old pattern. Ruminating on the problem in a doomed attempt to get rid of the anger. And then I made a different choice. I decided to observe the feelings with curiosity. To notice exactly where I could feel the emotions in my body and what they felt like?

Then I realised the extent of my foolishness. The feeling was actually only one part anger, the other three parts were probably illness. I was sore across my shoulders, the glands in my neck were aching, I had a headache. I wasn’t so much angry as sick!

When toddlers get irritable we ask them:

  • Are you thirsty?
  • Are you hungry?
  • Do you need a rest?

And in Derbyshire, the response to a particularly crabby and inconsolable child is often, ‘She is probably sickening for something‘ (which means ‘She is probably suffering the prodromal symptoms of a viral illness‘).

So next time a difficult emotion comes up, don’t make my mistake. View the feelings with a bit more curiosity and see if you need to show yourself some kindness…or perhaps just have a little rest.

How Promising Managers Sometimes Derail Their Careers…and How to Prevent It

According to The Centre for Creative Leadership almost 1 in 2 of the managers who have the makings of success fail to reach their potential. They ‘derail’ and are either demoted, fired, plateau or opt for early retirement (William A Gentry).

There seem to be some key problems that cause this derailment:

  • Failing to build effective interpersonal relationships
  • Showing poor team leadership
  • Having problems adapting to changes in the environment
  • Lacking growth and development in the face of the changing demands of their role
  • Failing to meet business objectives (due to either failing to follow through or being overambitious )
  • Maintaining a narrow focus, so that they aren’t able to supervise outside of their area of functional expertise

What seems to happen is that these managers are defensive in the face of challenging feedback, don’t learn from their mistakes and don’t identify and address their weaknesses.

Why do they do that?

I suspect that they lack self-compassion. Self-compassion makes it easier to be open to difficult feedback; learn from mistakes and admit failings. Self compassion can probably be increased*.

These managers also need to get better at noticing when their approach is ineffective and then quickly adjusting their behaviour. A starting point here may be to learn to become more mindful and psychologically flexible.

So, if you are a beginning manager, it might be good to focus on becoming more mindful, flexible and compassionate.

* For readers based in Brisbane, I am running a low cost public workshop on self-compassion on Sunday 6th May 2012.

Successful People Often Feel Bad Too

For most of my adult life I have worked in roles where people told me the truth about how they felt. This privilege has meant that I know an important secret. The secret is that most of us have good days and bad days; good weeks and bad weeks, sometimes even good days and bad months. When I worked as a psychiatrist I thought that only my clients and I felt like this. But then I moved into executive coaching and discovered it was also true of people who, on the outside, look very successful.

Most of us know that we have times when we feel happy and times when we feel sad, anxious or angry. However, we can tend to assume this isn’t true about other people. Other people look like they have got it together and so we assume that they have. Which leads me to the second secret – most of us hide it when we are feeling bad. We spend a miserable evening feeling like s*#t and the next day we do our best to act like everything is okay.

So when all of our efforts to become happy, secure and confident seem to only work in the short term. When over and over again our confidence disappears and we feel scared, sad or anxious, we assume that there is something wrong with us. That we are some how more broken than other people.

A woman dries her tears as she says goodbye to friends emigrating to New Zealand, 1953 (We can all relate to the pain of loss) (Flickr http://flic.kr/p/5uBE8s)

So we hide our pain. And what is worse than feeling heartbroken, sad or frightened? It is the feeling of being alone in that suffering. The feeling that everyone else is out having a good time – happy and successful – whilst Rachel, the loser, stays home alone feeling overwhelmed and scared.

Next time that you feel like howling into the wilderness (or even just feel a bit sad and forlorn) remember that you are not alone. Somewhere out there in the seething mass of humanity will be someone who, at this very moment, is feeling a very similar emotion. And, likely, just like you, they will get up tomorrow and go out into the world and when someone says ‘How are you’ they will smile and say, ‘I’m fine’.

It is a myth that most of us are happy most of the time and it is a cruel myth. The nature of being human is that we have a tendency to suffer. We suffer often and sometimes we suffer deeply. However, if, when emotional pain turns up, we choose to take an open, curious, compassionate approach to our pain; we then seem to get less hooked by the pain. This means that in the very next second, we might just find ourselves feeling content… at least for a moment.

If we stop seeing emotional pain as something to avoid then we can get our life moving. We can take bold and courageous emotional risks and give ourselves a chance to experience joy too.

The Flaw

I recently watched a brilliant film, called The Flaw which explored the global financial crisis and its causes.

Capitalism is a system which, through its invisible hand is able to benefit the many via the self interest of the few.  By trying to maximise their own gains in a free market, individuals benefit society, even without setting out to do so.

Yet as we look around the world it is clear that capitalism has another invisible hand, which is rather less benevolent.   This ‘flaw’ was identified by Alan Greenspan, who was making a relatively narrow point about economics and the self correcting power of free markets.

But I would argue that the flaw runs deeper than Greenspan thinks.  Capitalism – at least in its current form – is flawed in terms of psychology.  The way that work gets structured and organised tends to distance people from their values and sense of responsibility.  A combination of behavioural reinforcement, mindlessness (due to workload?) and a short term, inward focus encourages a kind of collective myopia and disconnect from our own values.

I found this myself when, as a consultant, my objective rapidly went from helping the public sector to improve its efficiency, to selling consultancy services into the public sector.

At one point in The Flaw individual bankers, traders and derivatives experts were asked whether they felt any direct responsibility for the financial disaster.  Most of them fell silent.  Not, I think, because they felt guilty, but more because they genuinely did not know the answer.  Such was the way their role had been structured they had lost contact with any kind of individual responsibility.  Their role had distanced them from their individual values without them even really being aware that that had happened.  No one was responsible.

It is this flaw which allows individual bankers to argue that they did nothing wrong, whilst millions cope with repossession, debts and unemployment.  It is this flaw that allows senior managers to sell packages of derivatives that no one truly understands.  It is this flaw that allows News International bosses to turn a blind eye to practices which were contrary to the ethics of their own profession.  It is this flaw that allows nurses and care home workers to treat the elderly and sick with cruelty and contempt.

I don’t think anyone deliberately set out to do this.  But we create our organisations, and then they create us.

What Can We Do to Address The Flaw?

Our organisations have created a version of us which too easily loses contact with individual accountability and values.  Instead, management focus on implementing organisational values.  The problem with this is that these are not really values – they are tracks and plys.

What then is the answer?  Better economic regulation is key, as are changes to governance practices that promote longer term thinking, flexible perspective taking and individual accountability.

But we also need to understand how and why people lose contact with their values at an individual level.  One of the major reasons is that staying in contact with our values is very difficult.  It requires psychological skills that are not innate or obvious.  It requires interventions that go far beyond merely promoting happiness or engagement.

It is interventions like ACT that have shown that people can be trained to deal with the psychological consequences of following their values.  Whilst this is not easy, we cannot fix the flaw simply by trying to build happiness or engagement or by legislating for transparency or fairness.  None of that addresses the reality of what it means to be a human.  But if we can teach willingness to experience difficult thoughts and feelings in pursuit of values, then we have much more of a chance.

If ACT can help reconnect even those lost in depression and chronic pain to their values and make a real difference to their experience, it does not take much imagination to think that maybe there are things we can learn which apply directly to organisational culture change.

There is a flaw.  We can fix it.  But we must listen to the science.

Self Compassion and Stress at Work

Next week I am giving a speech at the Queensland Nurse Leaders Conference on the topic of ‘Stressed Organisations, Distressed Staff’. One of the ideas I will be exploring is self-compassion. The evidence suggests that self-compassion can help when we are experiencing difficulty. Here is a table summarising some of the research on self-compassion and comparing it to self-esteem:

High Self Esteem but Low Self Compassion High Self Compassion
Lower depression and anxiety c.f. low self esteem Less painful emotions when distressing events occur
Defensive in the face of negative feedback React to negative feedback with more acceptance and with an orientation towards growth and the development of mastery
Fail to learn from mistakes More willing to make needed changes
May not always take responsibility for their actions Take more responsibility for their actions
Can be narcissistic More compassionate to others
Associated with more wisdom, more curiosity, more initiative, higher scores on agreeableness

One approach to increasing self-compassion is to imagine someone who is very compassionate – it could be someone you know, someone famous or an imaginary person – and then consider what they would want to communicate to you when you make mistakes or feel disappointed in yourself.

Handling Painful Thoughts and Feelings

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

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

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

Instead, Steve Hayes suggests:

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

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

Influencing our Thoughts and Feelings

We all have times when we want to get rid of painful thoughts or feelings. It would be odd if we didn’t – pain is unpleasant and wanting it to go away is sensible.

What strategies have you tried to get rid of unpleasant thoughts and feelings?

You might have tried:

  • Distracting yourself (focussing on something else or doing something useful);
  • Soothing yourself  (taking some slow, deep breaths; eating some chocolate; finding someone to reassure you)
  • Challenging the thoughts (Is it really true that I am lazy?)
  • Problem solving the issue that caused the pain (I am anxious because I am running late delivering this project so I will come up with a workable plan to get it finished on time).

Often these strategies are helpful BUT (yes, it is a big but!) they don’t work all the time and the times when they don’t work are often when we are most distressed. At those times nothing seems to stop our mind thrashing about. When we engage with those thoughts and try to make our mind see sense, we often actually increase how hooked we are. When we try to hold back or change the direction of the waves of emotional pain that are buffeting us, we just get exhausted.

The A in ACT stands for Acceptance. One of the things we may need to accept is that although we may be able to influence our thoughts and feelings, we can’t control them and sometimes in trying to control them we get actually get more hooked.

So what could we do instead? The best option seems to be to use mindfulness:

  • Observing our thoughts and feelings with curiosity and compassion
  • Allowing our feelings to rise and fall
  • Letting our thoughts come and go
  • Bringing our attention to this moment now – what we are experiencing through our five senses
  • Connecting with our valuesWho do I really want to be? And then,
  • Taking action based on our values.

The Smallest Step

Like many people, the need to take more exercise is a recurring theme for me. I have repeatedly set goals to do the ‘right’ thing – exercise for 30 minutes at least 5 times a week. And not once have I achieved this. Yes that is right ladies and gentlemen, not one single week. So now, when I resolve to take more exercise, my mind has a field day: ‘Yeh right. You won’t do that. It will be just like all the other times’. 

Russ Harris helped me with this at his Happiness Trap workshop. When he spoke about goal setting, he said:

  1. How does this issue relate to what is important to you? For me it is about wanting to do my best to continue to be a healthy partner, mother, friend, hopefully even a sprightly grandmother.
  2. This issue will likely keep turning up in your life. You will get older and wiser and sometime in the next 5 years you will notice that you have fallen back into your old self-defeating patterns … and again in 10 years…. and again in 15 years. Can you feel compassion for that future you? I found acknowledging that this issue keeps on turning up oddly reassuring. I do hope that in the future I will treat myself with compassion – beating myself up certainly hasn’t helped.
  3. Decide on a very small action you could take that would move you towards your value. I decided I would run up and down the stairs in my house twice a week.
  4. What thoughts, feelings, memories and urges are likely to turn up as you take that action?  Are you willing to experience them in the service of that value? Well if you put it like that…

And here I am not only running up my stairs but also standing at my laptop and meeting friends for a walk rather than a coffee.

In terms of behavioural change, Russ did some important things here. He:

  • Linked the behaviour change to values. This builds motivation.
  • Suggested that lapses are to be expected – and that the best way to deal with them is with self-compassion.
  • Encouraged some acceptance of the unpleasant thoughts, feelings and sensations that are likely to arise. Acceptance of unpleasant internal experiences (thoughts, feelings etc.) is associated with a tendency to persist in the face of difficulty.
  • Encouraged focussing on taking one small step forwards. Taking even a small action towards achieving a goal, builds motivation for more action.

When you are next working towards changing your own behaviour or perhaps coaching a member of your team to improve some aspect of their work – remember to work out how the action links to values, make the first step very small and respond to lapses with compassion.