Helping Alpha Executives to Drop The Corporate Armour

According to Ludeman and Erlandson (2004). ‘Alpha’ executives make up 70% of senior executives. They are confident and intelligent, competitive and impatient. They like to be in charge.
‘Alpha’ executives don’t tend to listen well to others. They engage in dominance behaviours, (Schmid Mast and Hall 2009) such as:
Taking charge of the conversation
Interrupting others
Talking down to people
Expressing strong opinions
Tending to steamroll others into doing what they want (Schmid Mast and Hall 2003)

And unfortunately these behaviours seem to worsen as they get more power.

Senior alpha executives can find it hard to let others influence their decision making. (See, Morrison et al. 2011)
Alpha executives often have unrealistic expectations of themselves and others. This can lead to burnout, both in themselves and in members of their team. Alpha executives can be dismissive of others feelings and can fail to notice the negative impact that their competitive and aggressive approach has on others. Colleagues and direct reports can sometimes experience the aggressive alpha behaviour as bullying.

Alpha’s often achieve results in the short to medium term; they look confident; they speak up in meetings. They look like potential C-Suite material and they get promoted.

But once they reach higher levels of management, the need for cooperation and collaboration grows and their dominance behaviours start to hold them back and sometimes even derail them.

I often coach executives who exhibit some, if not all, of those alpha behaviours. I enjoy working with them. I like their intelligence, their focus on results and honesty. It can also feel intimidating. The curiosity and exploration that is central to good coaching can seem like a waste of time to these executives – and they let me know this assessment in no uncertain terms!

How does ACT help these executives to develop more effective leadership behaviours?

An ACT-informed coaching approach would likely include:
– Identifying workable and unworkable behaviours
Helping the executive to make better quality decisions
Choosing values and choosing how to convert those values into action
Developing compassion for self and others
Broadening behaviour and improving the criteria the executive uses to select their behaviour in a given situation.
Building psychological flexibility (of course!)
Uncovering unhelpful internal rules that are controlling behaviour

In this post, I want to explore the tricky topic of working with these executives and their emotions.

My observation is that many, but not all, of these executives have learnt to disconnect from their own emotions.  This disconnect is often contributing significantly to their insensitive and impatient behaviour.  The behaviour is, in a sense, a form of running away from unwanted thoughts and feelings.

Executives have often donned corporate armour, in order to protect themselves, in the sometimes hostile environment of organisations. Whilst this armour can be helpful, it does make it hard for them to be emotionally intelligent and agile.

In many, the armour was actually created early in life. It may well have been adopted in the school years, as a response to the harsh experiences that many of us have during childhood. This means that many of these executives have never learnt to really notice and label their emotions, a core skill of emotional intelligence.

Emotionally intelligent leaders can tease out the different grades of their own and others emotion, for example separating impatience from frustration or anger. Emotionally intelligent leaders can notice emotions that may be pulling them in different directions. They can pause, notice their emotions and notice the urges that result from these emotions, without having to act on those impulses. They can hear the wisdom their emotions often offer, perhaps about the risks in a situation or how others may be feeling about something.

The lack of emotional awareness that some alpha executives experience is often coupled with avoidance of many of the ‘softer’ emotions. This does not mean, however, that the executives are genuinely emotionless, the emotions will still be present and will often drive behaviour unconsciously.

The aim of coaching alpha executives can often be to help them to learn to engage with their own emotions with more curiosity and wisdom.

This work can be scary for executives, many of them have an emotion phobia; where approaching certain emotions, such as sadness or fear, can make them freeze or escape.  Just like with other exposure work, this needs to be done with the consent of the individual concerned and with gentleness and curiosity.

Often the most important thing that a coach can do in this situation is to help the executive to pause and notice. How does it feel in your body as you talk about this issue? And what does that tell you? And what do your values and the needs of the situation suggest you do next?

As people become more fluent with their own emotions, they become less driven by them and have a greater capacity to choose the most effective behaviour in a given moment.

As people become more open to their own emotions, they also become more aware and empathic towards others.

As emotions become welcome companions, the corporate armour becomes less necessary, vulnerability becomes possible and life becomes richer.

(For Australian Readers – I am running a workshop on this topic at the APS International Coaching Congress in Melbourne in November 13th to 15th)

Which 8 Practices Will Help You To Flourish?

We are experiencing a rapid increase in the incidence of ‘lifestyle’ disorders such as diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disorders, depression and anxiety.

statistic_id240883_number-of--us-americans-with-diabetes-1980-2015Number (in Millions) of Persons with Diagnosed Diabetes, United States, 1980–2011

Dr Kelly Wilson (who IMHO wrote one of the best books I have ever read on psychotherapy) is hoping that contextual behavioural science and evolutionary science can help us to work out what can be done to understand and reverse this trend.

At a recent workshop, Kelly reflected on the impact of the 24/7, hyper-connected yet socially isolated world many of us inhabit and he kept coming back to:
‘We aren’t that kind of a monkey’.

We aren’t the kind of monkey who does well in isolation. We aren’t the kind of monkey who can get away with less than 8hrs sleep a night.

Now Kelly knows we are hominids not monkeys, but ‘We aren’t that kind of hominid’ is a bit less catchy.

The hominid family includes humans and our close genetic relatives – gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orang-utans. Just sit with that for a moment – think about what our ‘cousins’ need to thrive…

A sense of belonging?….Lots of fresh fruit and vegetables?….Time to rest?

What if many of the problems that beset us are because we are ignoring our most basic ‘monkey’ needs?

Based on an extensive review of the literature, Kelly suggests that, in order to flourish, you probably need to:
Minimise your exposure to toxins (physical and social)
Eat real food
Move your body
Give yourself more sleep/rest opportunities
Engage in meaningful activity
Practice mindfulness
Cultivate your social network, and,
Cultivate self-compassion

You can learn more about his suggestions here.

Now Kelly isn’t saying that, if we do this, there will be no more illness or distress. What he is suggesting is, if we look after ourselves in these ways. Then, when stressors visit us, as they will, we will have a little more resilience. We won’t be living at the limit of our resources. We will be less vulnerable to those ‘lifestyle’ disorders.

And during less challenging times, perhaps we will be more likely to flourish?

Read that list again:

Minimise your exposure to toxins (physical and social)
Eat real food
Move your body
Give yourself more sleep/rest opportunities
Engage in meaningful activity
Practice mindfulness
Cultivate your social network, and,
Cultivate self-compassion

and ask yourself:

What would happen if I were to care for myself in these simple ways?

What would be one small step towards self care that I could take in just one of those areas?

Kelly travels the world delivering workshops. He currently in Australia teaching counselors and psychologists how to support their clients in making these simple but challenging changes. You can get details at his website. Highly recommended.

The Hard Thing about Hard Choices

Many times in Executive coaching the person I’m working with is facing a difficult choice.  Do I take job A or B?  Should I spend more time at work or with my family?  How can I work with a difficult colleague?

I am a fan of decision science, but more often than not, this does not actually help the person to decide.  That’s because they are wrestling with what Ruth Chang calls  ‘hard choices’ – there is no right or wrong answer.  However this is usually not what people want to hear.  They want certainty… and an answer!

How then should we choose?

The thing about hard choices, Chang argues, is that yes, they are hard; but that is what makes them  so liberating.  After all, if there were only ever choices between the ‘right’ choice and the ‘wrong’ choice, then life would be very dull.  In fact, there would be no real choice at all.

This is where the ACT distinction between choices and decisions is so useful:

Decisions can be “explained, justified and…supported by reasons”, whereas a choice

” is a selection among alternatives that may be made with reasons but not for reasons….”

In ACT, choices are where values can guide us.  Values are freely chosen; free in the sense of there being no coercion, no ‘having to’ or reason-giving driving the choice.  Therefore choices (or what Chang calls ‘hard choices’) are precious because unlike decisions, they are our chance to author our lives and to take a stand for something that we feel matters.

Instead of saying ‘A was better than B so I went with A’, we get to say ‘this is me, this is the choice I made and this is what I stand for’.

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.

Finding Focus in the Age of Distraction

As the amount of digital information increases tenfold every five years, a conservative estimate is that the amount of information we are exposed to daily has doubled over the last 20 years (1). Now, I don’t know if that is good or bad, because humans adapt.  But what  is happening now goes way beyond incremental growth, and this quantitative change may begin to make a qualitative difference. After all,  the human mind did not evolve to ignore new information…

Minds that ignored new information – that strange shadow over by the trees, the unfamiliar rustle in the undergrowth – were pretty rapidly rooted out of the gene pool.  The minds that survived were the ones that paid very close attention to the new and unfamiliar, and worried obsessively about it until they understood it.

Fast forward a million years and today we’re working away on our PC and up pops that little envelope and where does our attention go?

mail

Right there.  We attend to it immediately.  (Or is that just me?)

If we find it difficult to ignore new information and then the amount of information we deal with increases, what happens to the quality of our attention?  It has to become shallower and more fractured.  Again I am not arguing this is good or bad, simply that this must be the case.

The Costs of Distraction

Working in a distracted way certainly makes us feel busy.  But nearly all research shows that apart from some very routine tasks it is spectacularly bad for performance.  Effective multitasking is almost impossible with anything involving a cognitive load* – the brain is forced to refocus continuously as one switches between tasks, and this pause always costs time and accuracy.  So although we feel busy we rarely feel effective.  Is it any wonder about the explosion of the use of prescription drugs like Ritalin (“for better focus”)?

In fact if we attempt to multitask the effects are the same as if we were drunk (2).  In fact, it might even be better to turn up drunk, because at least that can be fun.

In the short term multitasking can make us feel busy and purposeful.  It can also make us feel needed and important.  It can be a badge of honour to say you are busy.  Being constantly distracted can also act as a barrier to dealing with difficult thoughts and emotions, so the emotional payoff can sometimes be even larger.

But what does the research say about longer term effects of distraction on our mental wellbeing?

Dan Gilbert’s lab ran a large study which is now an excellent TED talk by Matt Killingsworth.  Basically, he found that the times when we were least content is when we are most distracted.

This makes sense from a theoretical perspective.  High performance states involve intense focus on one thing.  Flow is the best known example, a state where we lose track of time because we are so absorbed in one task.Business Man Texting  This, clearly is the opposite of distraction.

When we also consider the effects of distraction on relationships, perhaps we can begin to understand why there is an explosion in work disengagement, as well as the rate of anxiety?  As Robert Leahy argues:

The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950’s.

So how can we find focus in the age of distraction?

Well I am assuming that no one is reading any more and is instead looking at videos of funny cats.  But if you are interested, I’ll post some ideas next time.

* your job involves a cognitive load

References

1. Institute of the Future

2. Strayer, David L., Frank A. Drews, and Dennis J. Crouch. “A Comparison of the Cell Phone Driver and the Drunk Driver.” Human Factors 48.2 (2006): 381–91.

Guest post: When Anger Strikes like a Bolt out of the Blue

One sunny morning around a year ago, I stormed into my office shaking with rage. In half an hour I was due to counsel someone.

My husband had driven me to work; he and the children were going on to soccer training. It had been a typical Saturday morning: coffee, croissants, music played probably a tad too loud and the children bounding around.

As we’d approached the office my husband had said something (I can’t even remember what it was), and I’d exploded with anger. My voice had sounded weird. Even as I’d glimpsed the thought “You need to keep it together,” every cell in my body steeled to fight ~ run, hit out, fix, prove ~ NOW. My eyes narrowed and hardened, and my heart felt like it was curling inwards.

I walked away, leaving my family, the people I hold most dear, sitting in the car shocked and still.

There was no turning back. I had to keep my feet moving, eyes dry; half an hour was all I had. The heavy glass doors were light as I pushed them open, fuming. Fragments of shame  ~ collided with the Imposter spectre that’d whooshed in ~ collided with phrases from ACT ~ bah!

Thanks to a few less dramatic bouts of anger over the preceding months, I had found a few things which helped…

By the time the session began I was feeling a bit bruised but otherwise fine. Guilt and apologies were tucked away to manage later.

If out-of-the-blue rage is something you struggle with, these are some things you could try:

In the heat of the moment,

  • Slow and deepen your breathing, eyes closed if possible. Do this by counting slowly, in… 2… 3…..pause….out… 2…3…. a few times.
  • Soften the muscles around your eyes, especially if a child is present. My dad had what we called “The Pirate Look” when angry, and it terrified us!
  • Rest your tongue gently on the back of your top teeth. This helps relax the jaw.
  • Run cold water over your wrists. Have a swig of cold water and notice how it feels as it moves down your throat.
  • Take note of the different parts of your experience: notice how it’s possible to unwind thoughts, feelings and impulses to act from the tangle of fury.
  • Open up: make room for discomfort. With anger it can be easy to be swept back into whirlpools of argument during this step. Loving-kindness, prayer or self-compassion offer guide-ropes which you can try using. I found this post particularly helpful, maybe because it was quite visual.
  • Picture: This will sound corny, but try softening your vision and seeing the person you are angry with at a time when you loved them to bits. This may be helpful in opening up and connecting with your values. Experiment and see what works for you. It could be a role model. Or a beloved pet. Or it could be yourself  that you see, managing the situation in a way that’s true to your values. (Assuming these are peaceful!)
  • Pursue your values: do what matters, with uncomfortable feelings in tow if need be.
  • Perspective & problem-solving: can be tricky in the eye of a storm, but do-able later on, and important. It’s tempting to get stuck in how right you are and how wrong they are..
  • Apologise (although it may feel easier to skip this step and move on.) Something we did later that Saturday which also helped, was talking about how anger had been managed in our families as children ~ and about how we wanted things to be different.

When you have calmed down somewhat,

  • Learn about anger. This is a gem, “ACT on life not on anger” by Eifert, McKay & Forsyth. Many posts on this blog may be helpful, for example, this one on touching fear and other difficult emotions.
  • Make a note in your diary when anger visits. See if there’s any pattern.
  • Get clear on the type of person/colleague etc you want to be, and the atmosphere and communication style you want in your home/office. Use this as motivation to make changes.

(Reading about values on this blog was, for me, like seeing colour TV for the first time. “Values”  till then had been abstract, dry and dull. So, Dig in! “Your Life on Purpose: How to Find What Matters and Create the Life You Want” by McKay, Forsyth and Eifert is also excellent.)

  • Get to know the triggers. This takes effort, especially if the anger seems to have no cause. Use them as alerts; to plan strategies and to problem-solve.
  • Become clever at spotting, and responding to, the earliest flush of anger possible.
  • Practice, practice, practice – even with minor annoyances.

The order is not important, nor do you need to do each step. In the service of self-compassion and workability, experiment, and see which tools work best for you.

I hauled myself off to the GP that week. She reassured me that it wasn’t Alzheimer’s, nor was it my dad’s fiery genes. Turns out it was medicine I’d been taking.

 

Catharina Belgraver is a counselling psychologist in Brisbane, Australia. After many years in the perinatal field, she is about to embark into health and wellbeing counselling, using ACT.  Follow her on Twitter at @Rina_Belgraver

2013 in review

We’ve been quiet but we’ve not gone away.

Here’s a review of last year on this blog.  Thank you for reading and commenting and getting involved and encouraging us.  It is very much appreciated.

Here’s to another year of taking ACT into organisations and getting our ideas into the water supply.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 36,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 13 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Learning to Touch Fear

Training Josie to TouchMy daughter, Ellie, is training her horse to touch an object. Ellie points at the object and says the word ‘touch’ and her horse, Josie, touches it with her nose. This seems like an odd skill to train. So I asked Ellie why she was doing this. She told me that if a horse sees something that is new, like a paper bag or a traffic cone, then their natural response is fear. Their focus narrows down to the thing that is frightening them, as if they were wearing blinders. Josie then becomes skittish and unpredictable and she ignores Ellie. But if she touches the threat, she realises that it is fine, settles down and opens up to Ellie’s instructions.

Of course horses aren’t the only ones that scare easily, and they aren’t the only ones that can learn to touch the fear. You and I can become skittish, unpredictable and cut off from what’s happening around us when we are afraid.

The big difference is, we aren’t usually spooked by paper bags and traffic cones, for most of us it’s our emotions that we’re afraid to touch.

When fear, anxiety, sadness or anger turn up, we can become both preoccupied by the feelings and also focussed on getting rid of them. We tend to treat internal discomfort as if it is the same as a real threat in the external world. In the grip of painful emotions, we find it difficult to focus on what is happening around us. We tend to ignore the suggestions of our wiser self and we make foolish or impulsive decisions.

What if we could learn how to respond differently to painful emotions? What if we could lightly touch the feelings that scare us? With time we might find that although they seem very threatening they can’t actually harm us.

Like all new skills, it is good to start small with less challenging emotions. Touch them gently and imagine yourself expanding to make room for them. If over and over again we practice the skill of turning towards emotional discomfort with curiosity, something important happens.

Eventually, when fear, anger or sadness turn up, instead of freaking out and being controlled by our emotions, we accept our feelings as signs that we are human and that we care. We are able to take actions based on both our values and what the situation affords and over time these wiser choices will help us to flourish.
So next time you feel yourself freaking out, take a breath and see if you could, just for a moment, touch your feelings with an attitude of kindness and curiosity. It might just change everything.

Are we more likely to be compassionate to others when we are compassionate to ourselves?

When you feel judgemental about yourself, do you also feel more judgemental about others? Or are you one of those people who speaks harshly to yourself in ways that you would never dare or care to speak to another?  What do you think is the relationship between self-compassion and compassion towards others?

These questions matter a lot. A strong relationship between self-compassion and compassion perhaps suggests common learning histories for the two behaviours. While ACT directly cultivates self-compassion through acceptance, it emphasises other-related compassion only indirectly. If we want to improve the ways we relate to one another in organisations and daily life, we need to know how and if changing our relationship to ourselves changes our relationship to others.

The evidence is mixed. Some research suggests we treat people very differently to ourselves, while other research suggests commonalities. Looking carefully at the differences between these studies may help us learn more about what is going on.

Evidence compassion towards self and others might be unrelated

There might be no relationship between self-compassion and other-directed compassion. As children, we learn to distinguish between “I” and “you”, and much of our early sociolinguistic experience teaches us that others have different perspectives, preferences, Two-girls-looking-at-each-othertraits and experiences to ourselves (McHugh & Stewart, 2012).  We can learn to behave quite differently towards ourselves than we do towards others.

Language can create powerful differences between how we behave towards ourselves and others. One example is the fundamental attribution error where, when someone acts badly, we overestimate the effect of personal characteristics and underestimate the effects of the situation as a cause of their behaviour.  Towards ourselves we are more likely to take account or circumstances influencing our behaviour.  For example, while we are quite happy to blame bad driving on someone else’s incompetence or malice, we are more likely to see our own poor driving as the result of situational factors like being late for work. This is a clear case where we behave quite differently in our judgements towards self and others.

Once we make an appraisal that a person is personally responsible for the situation in which they find themselves, we are less likely to experience empathic concern and more likely to experience non-compassionate emotions such as anger (Atkins & Parker, 2012).  And of course in Australia we have seen how it is perfectly acceptable to treat asylum seekers arriving on boats with their children in a very different way to how we would expect ourselves and our children to be treated.  The more we see the other as different to ourselves, the less likely we are to extend compassion towards them (Goetz, Keltner, & Simon-Thomas, 2010).

Society reinforces big differences between compassion towards self and others. It wasn’t that long ago that our society seemed to reinforce young women in particular for being kind to everyone except themselves.  Many older women in particular seem to feel badly about themselves unless they place others’ needs ahead of their own. So, if the distinction between self and other is seen as real, and the right social reinforcers are in place, it is entirely possible that self-compassion and other-directed compassion could be quite unrelated.

Evidence compassion towards self and others might be related

But, perhaps fortunately, there is also a growing body of evidence that emphasises the similarities between the ways we relate to ourselves and others.  Many of the psychological approaches developed during the 50’s and 60’s relied upon the assumption that self-acceptance was related to acceptance of others (Williams & Lynn, 2010).   More recently researchers have begun to test this idea empirically. Neff and Pommier (2013) recently found that self-compassion is positively related to compassion towards others.

Neff and Pommier (2013) studied three groups: college undergraduates, community adults and meditators.  They measured both self-compassion and different aspects of other-focused concern such as perspective taking, forgiveness, compassion, empathy and altruism.  Overall there was a significant positive relationship between self-compassion and other-focused concern.

Why might self-compassion and other-compassion be related?

Why did this relationship occur?  The factors that were consistently related to self-compassion across all groups were perspective taking, forgiveness and the capacity to manage personal distress.  Perhaps our capacity to stay present to our own difficult experiences helps us to stay present to the difficult experiences of others. Or perhaps our capacity to stand back and see our self-critical thoughts as thoughts and not necessarily the truth, is exactly the same skill as our capacity to stand back from our automatic stereotypes and judgements about others.  Perhaps learning to accept our own failings teaches us that we are all fallible. Or perhaps we acquire a deeper knowing that we are not, after all, ever separate from others, that we are all “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny” (Martin Luther King in his letter from Birmingham Jail).

However, Neff and Pommier’s study also revealed interesting differences in the strength of the relationships for different groups.

  • For meditators, there was a stronger link between self-compassion and other-focused concern – perhaps we can explicitly train people to break down barriers between self and others?
  • For women, there was a weaker link. Women are more likely to display higher levels of other-focused concern than men, but they are not more likely to display higher levels of self-compassion.  Perhaps that social training of young girls that I mentioned earlier is still alive and well.
  • Finally younger adults showed weaker links between compassion for self and others. Neff and Pommier argued that this might have been because young adults over-estimate their distinctiveness from others and they are still forming their own identities and understandings of others.

Neff and Pommier’s study has big limitations. It ignores individual differences and relies upon self-report measures.  We cannot tell whether the relationship between self-compassion and compassion for others really is weaker for women or whether this is just an artefact of women feeling more pressured to self-report compassion towards others.  What we really need are within-person studies using measures of behaviour and context.  Am I more likely to act compassionately towards others in circumstances that have primed me to act compassionately towards myself: e.g. when I have just meditated or been treated kindly by another?

And what life experiences strengthen or break down the distinction between self and other?  ACT is one experience that can build both self-compassion and compassion for others (Atkins & Parker, 2012). Perhaps other life experiences work the other way.

lawyers-arguingAs I have been writing this blog, I have been working with legal educators to design programs to enhance well-being and relationships among legal students and practitioners. In emphasising objectivity and the distinction between right and wrong, legal training seems to sometimes create almost impenetrable walls between thoughts and feelings, and between self and others. And legal students and practitioners are among the unhappiest people in Western society  (e.g. Kelk, Luscombe, Medlow, & Hickie, 2009).  Could lawyers perhaps be a canary in the coal mine for what happens when we let language excessively dominate our lived experience and we build the walls too high between ourselves and others?

Relational Frame Theory offers a very useful way of understanding what is going on here. Consider the two sentences:

  • I am less deserving
  • I am more deserving

The first thought might precede a lack of self-compassion, while the second might precede a lack of compassion towards another.  What is going on in these sentences? Our society generally focuses on the comparison words MORE or LESS, and so we have endless debates about who is more or less deserving of compassion. But by focusing on this comparison we ignore the more fundamental move contained in these sentences. The shared “I am” slips by unnoticed.  It is in these little words that the “truth” gets established that there is a separate “I” that has inherent qualities. And of course what these sentences really mean is “I am more or less deserving THAN YOU” so in making the claim that I have certain qualities I am implicitly and always making the simultaneous claim that YOU are separate and have certain qualities as well.

Macro-Water-Drops-Grass-GreenDifference and separation arise in language. We relate to ourselves and others differently only when we are caught up in the world of words, judgments and abstractions. Perhaps Neff and Pommier’s results point to what is left when the language of separation loses its hold just a little. In those moments we see that these divisions only exist in language not in the underlying reality. In the end we are drops of water, or bubbles rising in a pot.  What looks like difference and separation is really only a temporary expression of an unfolding process – and “I am” and “you are” become simply “IS”.

Of course, philosophers through the ages have come to the same view.  Rumi put it this way:

Out beyond our ideas
Of wrong doing
And right doing
There is a field.
I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass
The world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the words
You and me
Have no meaning.

– Jalaluddin Rumi

Taoism is a rich source of similar ideas. I would love to hear from you if you have other examples of similar quotes illustrating the power of language to create separation between self and other as this is an area I would like to explore further. Thank you.

 

References

Atkins, P. W. B., & Parker, S. K. (2012). Understanding individual compassion in organizations: the role of appraisals and psychological flexibility. Academy of Management Review, 37(4), 524-546.

Goetz, J., Keltner, D., & Simon-Thomas, E. (2010). Compassion: An Evolutionary Analysis and Empirical Review. Psychological Bulletin, 136(3), 351.

Kelk, N., Luscombe, G., Medlow, S., & Hickie, I. (2009). Courting the Blues: Attitudes towards depression in Australian law students and legal practitioners: Brain & Mind Research Institute: University of Sydney.

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