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 a Country GP Can Teach You About Fame and Fortune

My father was a doctor. When he finished medical school, he planned to pursue a career with some prestige attached to it. He was going to become a surgeon or physician in some teaching hospital. He would work his way up the hierarchy until he was like Sir Lancelot Spratt, with a host of nurses, doctors, medical students and sundry allied health professionals traipsing after him, writing down his pronouncements and doing his bidding.

My mother had a different view of what sort of life would suit them and she persuaded my dad to instead become a country GP in a relatively poor part of Derbyshire. He spent much of his working life visiting patients in their cramped terraced houses or sitting in his surgery looking into the ears of snotty nosed children. He was not followed around by an entourage. His work was not with the rich or the famous and he didn’t become rich or famous himself. On the surface, he might seem like a relatively insignificant figure.

But if you walk into the local newsagent with my father, who has been retired for 14 years now, it is very likely that someone will rush up to him and say something like, ‘Oh Dr Collis, It is my lovely, lovely Dr Collis’.

In his small way, in this small village in the middle of England, my dad is famous. He is famous to these people because he was very, very kind and caring to them at a point in their life when they needed this more than anything. Because he listened to his patients with great interest, even if they were telling him about problems with endless green snotty noses. He started with the assumption that his patients mattered and their worries were important and that meant everything to them.

My mother is also ‘famous’ in this small village in Derbyshire. She is famous for her stalwart support of people through the tough times of life, for her capacity to be with people through the periods of grief, loneliness and overwhelmingly bad odds that visit us all. People often say to me, ‘I don’t know what we would have done without your Mum when…happened.’

My parents remind me of the wonderful poem, ‘Famous’  by Naomi Shihab Nye, here is an excerpt:

The river is famous to the fish
….
I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

There is so much written about how to become successful. But the success these articles describe is about fame and fortune rather than the gratitude of a middle aged lady in the local newsagent. And that is a problem.

It is a problem because chasing money and status sucks vitality out of life.

It is a problem because pursuing status is associated with less happiness; less satisfaction with life and also more anxiety.

It is a problem because chasing prestige leads you to focus energy on things that aren’t really important to you:

“What you should not do, I think, is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends. You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world…..Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like but what you’d like to like…Prestige is just fossilised inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious…

Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule to simply avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.’ Paul Graham

When you are in your late 70’s, as my father is. What will touch you most:

  • That you rose through the corporate ranks?
  • That you earned lots of money and drove a fancy car?
  • That you were, in your own world, a Lancelot Spratt?

Or,

  • That somewhere there is a person; someone who, like you, is insignificant in the scheme of things; and they remember how you treated them?
  • That somewhere there is a piece of work, something that was done really well…by you.

If you were famous in these small ways – what would you choose to be famous for?

How Mindfulness And Compassion Could Help You Do What Really Matters

The end of one year and the beginning of another is often an opportunity to torment ourselves with difficult questions:
Did I give enough energy to the things that really matter to me?
Did I give too much energy to things that aren’t important in the long term?
Did I live my values? (To get a visual picture of this, you might fill out Tobias Lundgren’s Values Bulls Eye.)

When you review the previous year, it is likely that you have done well in some areas of your life and have some regrets about others. We often don’t devote as much time and energy as we would like, to what really matters . We often don’t live our values as consistently as we want. We frequently waste time and energy on things that, it turns out, don’t really matter in the long run.

When you consider the aspects of life you neglected last year, you may notice that some are very familiar to you. They will have shown up for you many times over the course of your life. Perhaps there is some aspiration that is important to you, that just keeps being put to one side?

To give you an example.

Since I was 11, I have wanted to be a writer. I love reading and I wanted to be like the authors I admired. I wanted to be one of those people, the people that befriend strangers by sharing their thoughts in a book.
I have started many books but, despite this deep desire to be an author, I have never finished writing a book. This desire to write seems to matter a lot to me but each year goes by and I still don’t accomplish my goal.

A couple of years ago, I turned 50 and I realised that time was running out. If I really want to be an author, I need to knuckle down and actually write a book. So I started another book. It is on a topic that matters to me (Meaningful Success). Sitting at my Mac trying to express my ideas with honesty and courage is hard and scary and wonderful. Two years later and I am still wading through this project. Trying to create something useful. Something that isn’t rubbish. In the process, I am discovering that this writing lark is harder than it looks!

But even though this matters deeply to me. Even though I love writing. Even though every thing I read about how to become a good writer starts with the advice – just write.
I often don’t write. My days are filled with other stuff. Stuff that isn’t writing.

How about you? What are the goals that really matter to you? The goals that year after year, you don’t quite manage to give enough time and energy to? It could be:

Creating a beautiful garden;
spending more time playing with the kids;
travelling to beautiful and exotic places;
learning to play an instrument or speak another language….
What is the goal that calls from your heart?

And …what gets in the way of you pursuing that goal?

There are lots of reasons why we don’t pursue these important goals with the necessary energy and passion. One reason that seems increasingly common is, ‘I am too busy.’

So what are we too busy doing?
If you analyse what you are too busy doing, you can divide your actions into:
1. Things that were genuinely, at that moment, a higher priority than the important but non urgent task.
For example: spending time with the people you love; caring for your fragile human body; doing meaningful work; earning enough money to pay the bills; volunteering for causes that matter to you…
These choices are valued actions. You are being the person you want to be. Life is full of conflicting priorities, can you notice these choices and be gentle to yourself about them?

2. Things that, at that moment, felt like they were a higher priority than the important but non urgent task but they actually weren’t.
For example: trying to impress or please people; trying to earn more money than you need; doing things just to get prestige or recognition; doing things to avoid unwanted feelings.
This is a recurring problem for many of us. I certainly keep getting hooked by these activities. I look back on my life and I have spent too much time focussing on things that seemed important at the time, but actually, from the perspective of a few months or years later, I realise didn’t really matter.

3. Things that, at that moment, didn’t even feel like they were a higher priority than the important but non urgent task.
This is basically all the things we do to procrastinate and avoid the harder stuff. It might be: watching inane TV or silly YouTube clips; checking in on Facebook; going shopping. (NB These activities can also be acts of self care – in which case they are category one activities – only you can decide this.)

At this point I could just tell you to make sure you focus your energy on the right things. But I don’t think that advice is very helpful. I know it doesn’t work for me.

So I want to encourage you to do something different. To start gently.

I want to suggest that mindfulness and compassion might be a better response.

Just start by noticing with curiosity what you are doing. In real time. Notice which category your behaviour is in. You might also notice if you tend to berate yourself for spending time on the ‘wrong’ things. How effective has this harshness been for you? What would happen if, instead, you responded with compassionate understanding of your human failings?

Instead of harshness, could you notice how each behaviour feels? Notice how it feels in your body as you take these various actions? What emotions are you feeling? Notice which circumstances seem to encourage you to do which types of behaviour. Are there any common themes?

For me the ‘category two’ activities – the ones that seem important at the time but actually aren’t important- are often associated with a scrabbly feeling, like I am desperately trying to get something. At those times, if I pause and notice what is going on inside me; I realise that I am often hooked by thoughts that I am not good enough in some way and/or there isn’t enough of what I think I need. The best response to this seems to be to pause and breathe. To turn to myself in kindness. To be willing to be with myself and the thoughts that I am not adequate or the world is not the way I want it to be.

‘Category three’ activities – the ones where I know I am frittering time away – sometimes feel to me like I am hiding out. Trying not to think about the scary task I am avoiding. At other times these activities are accompanied by a whiny voice – ‘I don’t want to…I am too tired…I deserve a break…It is too hard…’ It feels like when I was a kid and I used to put my fingers in my ears and loudly say ‘I can’t hear you…LA…LA…LA…I can’t hear you’.
If I am courageous enough to pause and check in. I notice the thoughts and feelings I am trying to avoid. Can I turn towards these feelings with compassion, knowing they are part of being human?

I want to encourage you to do the same. Instead of trying to get it right. Instead of fighting with yourself.

Just notice.

Notice whether what you are doing is moving you towards your values; towards what matters to you or whether it is taking you away.

Notice what is going on inside you at those moments.

Be mindful and curious.

Turn towards yourself with compassion.

And then notice what happens next.

It may be that you will make a small move towards what matters. It may be that you won’t.

Could you notice that with compassion and curiosity?

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.

McHugh, L., & Stewart, I. (2012). The Self and Perspective Taking: Contributions and Applications from Modern Behavioral Science: Context Press.

Neff, K. D., & Pommier, E. (2013). The Relationship between Self-compassion and Other-focused Concern among College Undergraduates, Community Adults, and Practicing Meditators. Self and Identity, 12(2), 160-176. doi: 10.1080/15298868.2011.649546

Williams, J. C., & Lynn, S. J. (2010). Acceptance: An Historical and Conceptual Review. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 30(1), 5-5.

Working in a harsh environment can mess you up more than you think…

Have you ever had to survive a harsh environment at work? This woman has…

Most of us have lived through an unpleasant time at work. When it ends, we sigh with relief and assume all will now be fine. Unfortunately things aren’t that simple.

The hostile environment changes us, we learn strategies to cope, to get our work done despite the difficulties. However, the very strategies that helped us to survive a dysfunctional workplace can be counterproductive in a more supportive environment. And in a cruel twist of fate, it is seems to be almost impossible to unlearn something that you learnt when you were scared or stressed. So we often continue to be defensive, aggressive or self-protective even when it is no longer needed.  We can’t seem to get rid of the mental junk we have acquired during our painful experiences.

A reader wrote to us about a problem she encountered when she moved from a hostile, aggressive environment to a much more harmonious workplace.

She was really happy in her new job and was doing well but she was given feedback that her communication skills needed work. This hadn’t been a problem for her in previous workplaces. She realised that she had learnt some unhelpful habits in her last role. Now she needed to relearn how to interact in more workable ways. She was worried that she didn’t know how to bring about this change.

So how do you let go of problematic interpersonal behaviour and start to behave in ways that work? Here are some tips:

1. Start with self-compassion. The less you beat yourself up for your failings, the more you will be able to notice the times when your behaviour isn’t working.

2. Get present. Mindfulness helps us to act on our good intentions. In this moment now, what is happening? Try to notice your behaviour moment to moment.

3. Do a self-assessment and get feedback from people you trust. There are some good questions about interpersonal functioning here that you could adapt to the workplace.

4. Don’t just change as a reaction to what others want. Spend some time thinking deeply about your values. Who do you want to be at work? How do you want others to experience you? Changing your behaviour is a hard slog, linking the change to your values will help you to keep going.

5. Aim to gradually evolve your behaviour rather than suddenly transforming yourself overnight. Just focus on one or two small changes and see if you can repeat those behaviours over and over until they are a habit. Then pick some more behaviours you would like to change.

6. Get really present in your interactions with people. Notice the impact of your behaviour on others. See if you can get out of your head and into this moment now.

7. Accept that when you feel threatened you are likely to revert to self-protective and unhelpful behaviours. Consider what might trigger that in you and make a plan to be particularly mindful and self-compassionate at those moment. Hold those feelings gently.

8. Seek feedback on your progress but accept that it may take people a while  to notice that you have changed. Our opinions of others are quickly formed and slow to change.

Becoming the person we want to be is hard. Facing those times where our behaviour isn’t in line with those ideals is painful. Can you turn to yourself in kindness?

Growing Compassion in Organisations

Hello!

I am so excited to be joining “Working with ACT” exactly two years to the day since Rob and Rachel started this wonderful blog. Working with mindfulness and values is a big part of my professional and personal life. My aim is to bring you interesting perspectives on ACT research.

By way of introduction, I thought I might briefly review one of my own papers written with Sharon Parker.  I promise I will focus on papers by other people in the future 🙂  Here is the citation from which you can link to the paper if you would like to read more.

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(3).

——————————————————————————————

“I don’t do emotions!”  This was a comment made by one of my students in reaction to an exercise exploring values and stressors at work. But in reality, we all “do emotions”. A growing body of evidence clearly shows that emotions are a major determinant of performance in all workplaces, including public sector organisations.  Emotions alert us to what matters, they allow us to communicate and make decisions that are effective.  Emotions are at the heart of thinking about how we wish to live and what we wish to create in society?

Becoming skilful at recognising and influencing emotions at work is a key facet of effective leadership and management. Such skill rests upon the quality of our awareness and perspective taking ability. We need to be able to take the perspective of others to act effectively. We need to be compassionate if we are to respond skilfully to our own and others emotions.

Compassion towards oneself and others is a critical part of building effective relationships and making good decisions at work. Think for example of how you handle situations where you or someone in your team fails to achieve important goals. What would it be like if people were more compassionate towards themselves and others at these times?

Compassion is not just a feeling.  It involves four stages:

  1. Noticing another is suffering,
  2. Making judgments about what is going on,
  3. Feeling empathy, and
  4. Taking action.

There are three judgments that can get in the way of compassion towards self or others.

First, we can fail to be compassionate because we judge that the person who is suffering is not deserving of our compassion. For example, we might judge that the person brought their suffering on themselves.

Second, we might judge that the person’s suffering is not relevant to us. Research shows we are much less likely to extend suffering to others who have different goals, or belong to groups with which we do not identify. If we make this judgment, we are more likely to feel disconnection rather than compassion.  One can easily see how this judgment is involved in the debate over immigration in this country.

Third, we make a judgment about our personal resources. If we don’t feel as though we can cope with being in the presence of another who is suffering in some way, we are more likely to feel distress rather than compassion.  The manager who cannot bear to be in the presence of a person crying is making this sort of judgment.  This judgment appears to be involved in the experience of burnout many people feel when they work in jobs that involve caring for others.

Of course, these judgments are sometimes justified.  Modern evolutionary theory suggests that such judgments are an important aspect of self-protection and effective group function.  Sometimes it is best not to feel compassion, or at least not to act upon it. Our argument is not that we should always feel more compassion. Our argument is that it is helpful to become more aware of the automatic reactions that drive our behaviour. To the extent that we can catch our reactions in motion, we can choose our responses more deliberately and improve our effectiveness.

So how might we learn to catch our automatic reactions, and act more in line with what really matters?

If you have been following this blog you will know that there are two aspects of effective training in emotional skills. First, we need to increase mindfulness. Being mindful means being aware of what is happening in each moment both within ourselves and in the world and bringing an attitude of openness to that experience. Second, we need to be clear about our values and the values of the organisation in which we work. There is no point developing awareness if we don’t know how we want to act in the world. Values act as a compass to guide our behaviour.

What has been your experience of compassion at work? Is it encouraged? Does it have a positive impact?

Having The Courage To Be Vulnerable

You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery, and I promise you, something great will come of it – Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) in ‘We Bought a Zoo’

When was the last time you committed an act of insane courage?

Emotional vulnerability takes a degree of fierce bravery. You might be hurt or criticised. You risk shame and humiliation. When it goes wrong you might feel like you want to run and hide. The events often play over and over in your mind as you try to work out how you could have avoided the pain.

But vulnerability can also help us to feel closer and more connected to others. We often find that when we share our pain, shame just melts away. We take a risk and ‘something great’ comes of it.

I want to suggest though that vulnerability just for the sake of it isn’t helpful. Vulnerability has to be in the service of something. It might be about love, belonging and joy. It might be part of doing extraordinary work or making a difference in the world. But it has to have a purpose.

Although the nature of vulnerability means that it is risky and takes courage, we can make it a little safer if we:

  • Make thoughtful choices about who to trust, when and with what aspects of our vulnerability.
  • Have clear boundaries and hold people accountable when they cross those boundaries.
  • Listen to our needs.
  • Respect the needs of others.
  • Stay connected to the people we are talking with. Notice their reaction.
  • Check assumptions about what they are thinking. They might be quiet because they are horrified but it could also be because they are deeply moved.
  • Increase resilience to the painful thoughts and emotions that come along with vulnerability. (You will be surprised to read that Acceptance and Commitment Training is helpful for this!)

I am running a low cost session on The Courage to Be Vulnerable at The Relaxation Centre of QLD on Sunday 16th September 2012 ( All proceeds go to the centre). If you happen to be in Brisbane on that day do come along. I would love to meet you.

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?

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.