Running from Depression

20170117_151236It was very sudden this time.

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

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

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

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

running-from-black-dog

 

 

 

I am not sure why running works.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe this is the difference?

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

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

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

The depression gains no traction.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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

How to Clarify Your Values

Acceptance – here are some posts on handling painful emotions

Defusion Techniques

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

Simple Habits for Complex Times

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

A Framework for Understanding VUCA – Scott Berinato in HBR


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

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.

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!

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

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

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

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

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

Well, no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why 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?

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.

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.

Effective Decision Making

Sometimes we have to make important decisions where the ‘right’ answer is unclear. I would like to suggest this process for making for those tricker decisions:

1. Which of your values are relevant in this situation?

2. What are the key facts? In this step aim to see the world the way it really is rather than as your mind tells you it is.

3. What is the relationship between the facts – how do they interact?

4. Focus in depth on different parts of the problem (whilst keeping the whole in mind). Take different perspectives – how would others view this problem? How will you view this problem in 5 years time?

5. Consider that there may be a better alternative that you haven’t thought of. Ask for advice. Do some research. Brainstorm. Consider trialling different options and observing how they turn out.

6. Be prepared to sit either with the discomfort of not deciding or with the discomfort of deciding and possibly making the wrong decision. See if it possible to have those difficult thoughts and feelings without them pushing you around. 

7. Make a decision and then check it against your values – is this a move towards what you want your life to be about?

6. Observe the outcome and be prepared to make incremental adjustments. Again, work to see the world as it really is – rather than how your mind tells you it is.

This process draws on Roger Martin’s work on Integrative Thinking

I think he has developed a great model and adding in connection to values, defusion, perspective taking and acceptance make it that bit better!

Rob wrote a great post on the costs of making decisions without any connection to values.

How to Build Engagement and Vitality

Are you willing to invest energy in your work? Do you persist in the face of difficulty and give your full attention to your work when you are at work? Do you feel like your work matters? Do you care about doing a good job? If your answer is ‘yes‘ then you are engaged with your work.

Rob and I are highly engaged with this project – we hope that this comes through in our writing. I believe that applying ACT principles to this project has helped us to maintain our energy and enthusiasm.

In our experience, ACT builds workplace engagement in a number of ways:

  1. When people are connected to their values and are able to live their values in their work they have a deep sense of meaning and purpose. They experience vitality. Rob describes here what that looks like in practice. Here is the values statement Rob and I wrote when we started working together. We spent time on it because we knew that if we were to persist with this, if we were to give energy to this project when we have so many other competing priorities, then we would need to be clear about why it mattered to us.
  2. When people feel a deep connection between their work and their values they become more willing to persist in the face of difficulty. They care about the outcome. They want to do their best. This week I gave a talk to a group of senior managers and CEO’s (arranged by the lovely people at Arete Executive.) I was frankly terrified. I tried to wriggle out of my fear by minimising the importance.“I don’t need any more work. My consultancy is really busy. It doesn’t matter whether they like my talk” but Rob, bless his heart, wouldn’t let me do that. He reminded me that the purpose of my talk wasn’t to ‘sell’ my consulting services  or the training sessions that Rob and I offer together (although that would be nice!). It was to connect the audience to some information that might genuinely help them (and their employees) to have more vitality in their lives. I felt more anxious after this conversation (Thanks Rob!) but I also had a deep sense that it was worth it.
  3. When people become skilful at ‘defusing’* from their thoughts and accepting** their feelings, they have more energy and attention to give to their work as they aren’t wasting energy trying to get their thoughts and feelings ‘right’.
  4. When people are in contact with the present moment, they make better decisions and tend to respond more flexibly and effectively to their circumstances.

Both the research and our experience is suggesting that ACT will be central to future workplace engagement initiatives. I am excited!

Explaining the jargon:

*Defusion is an ACT term that means having some space between you and your thoughts. Rather than seeing the world through your thoughts, you see your thoughts as just thoughts.

**Acceptance is about the reality that when we take action in line with our values, then often painful emotions (like anxiety) turn up. If we want rich and meaningful lives, sometimes we need to make space for those painful emotions.