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.

 

Using the ACT Matrix to Help You to Be The Person You Want to Be…More Often

I use the ACT matrix a lot in my workshops and with my coaching clients… and on myself! It is a tool that helps to build mindfulness, self-awareness and valued living. It is based on contextual behavioural science and is very easy to use.

I have made a video explaining how I use it:

 

You can download a pdf handout of the ACT Matrix here.

Kevin Polk (who is one of the people who developed the ACT matrix) has lots of free resources relating to the ACT matrix at his website.

Learning To Step Over Coercion And Create The Workplace Culture That You Want

In his wonderful book, The Nurture Effect, Tony Biglan, states that ’the most important stressor we humans typically face comes in the form of coercive interactions with other humans.

Coercion is where people use unpleasant behaviour to influence you. If you do what they want, then the aversive behaviour will stop…at least for a while. Coercive behaviour in the workplace includes overt bullying and intimidation but it also can be more subtle – put downs, teasing, social exclusion etc. It can even involve using expressions of disappointment as a form of control.

Pause for a moment. What workplace situations have you found most stressful?

How much of your stress was because other humans were being coercive towards you?

My hunch is that coercion is an almost universal quality of deeply unhappy workplaces.

Sadly, some organisations have a culture which encourages coercive behaviour. These organisations are unpleasant places to work.

Biglan writes:

 ‘We need to replace all of this coercive behaviour with behaviour that calms, supports and teaches – the kind of behaviour that helps others thrive.’

What would that be like? Imagine a workplace where people ask directly for what they want in a calm way. Where they support each other to do well, to learn and to thrive.

Biglan suggests many empirically supported strategies for creating these nurturing environments. The one that has resonated most strongly with me is to make a personal commitment to this sort of calm, supportive and nurturing behaviour.

This is, of course, easier said than done. It is particularly hard to be calm, supportive and nurturing when others are being harsh and coercive towards you. Our impulse in these situations is to either respond with our own harsh, coercive behaviour or to just give in. The nature of coercion is that we want it to stop and we want it to stop quickly, so we tend to react to it in unhelpful ways.

If we want to create change, Biglan suggests that we need to learn forbearance. We need to step over our initial impulse to punish and coerce others and instead focus on responding with firm kindness. We need to be able to shift gear and respond in ways that build connection and foster growth.

Biglan quotes reams of research to support his suggestion that what the world needs now is for millions of us to just decide – ‘I want to step away from harsh and coercive treatment towards others, Instead I will nurture connection and growth. I will focus on creating environments where humans flourish.’

He also suggests empirically supported strategies for how to put this into practice.

These strategies include the behavioural analysis that Rob described in the previous post. Looking with openness and curiosity at what antecedents and consequences may be encouraging the damaging behaviour and also at what antecedents and consequences would encourage the desired behaviour.

Biglan also explores how ACT skills can be important in achieving this change to a more nurturing culture. As people become more mindful, practice acceptance of their emotions and are more connected to their values, they find it easier to change their behaviour.

I highly recommend The Nurture Effect to you. It is an important book. A book that explores how the science of human behaviour can improve human lives.

I want to live in a world where the majority of people are behaving in ways that nurture learning and growth. How about you? Shall we get started?

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?

How Science Can Help You to Use Words to Weave Magic

Photo Credit: Patrick Self Visuals
Photo Credit: Patrick Self Visuals

It was like he was performing some form of magic. He seemed to knows how to structure his questions and interactions in a way that freed people up. As I watched, I could tell that he was doing something extraordinary but I couldn’t work out how he was doing it. This was my first experience of Kelly Wilson. It was 2008 and I was at a workshop Kelly was running on applying mindfulness to psychotherapy. Kelly is a Professor of Psychology and an extraordinary therapist. He wrote the first ACT book with Steve Hayes and Kirk Strosahl.

As I watched Kelly, it was clear that he was incredibly compassionate and caring. That he was truly present in his interactions with people. That he was open to what turned up.  You knew you could tell Kelly your deepest darkest secret and he would turn to you with kindness and understanding.

And he was doing something more than that.

Something I didn’t understand.

When Kelly asked a question it was as though he was selecting the exact words and phrases deliberately, like a master chef who knows that the dish needs just a tiny pinch of nutmeg to turn pleasant into exquisite.I had no idea how he chose which words were the right ones but I wanted to discover what he was doing. I wanted to use those skills to help my coaching clients.

That desire took me on a long and arduous journey.

It was hard.

I felt lost a lot of the time. I felt stupid. But I knew that there was something important here. Over time, I saw other people doing the same extraordinary thing as Kelly.

Sitting in the cool marble foyer of a hotel in Parma, Italy in 2011, Jonathan Kanter said one sentence to me. When I heard it, pain that I had held tight since childhood simply unravelled. Years of therapy had barely dented this pain but Jonathan says this one sentence and it melts, never to return again (more on that in another post).

A few months later, I had a 1:1 Skype session with Benji Schoendorff. This kind Frenchman asked me a few simple questions and the anxiety I feel when I give a presentation changed from something bad to something that now makes me smile.

I was impressed. I wanted to be able to do what these people could do. To be able to use language to do magic.

Step by step, I discovered that what makes these people so extraordinarily effective is a deep understanding of something very nerdy and scientific – contextual behavioural science, in general and relational frame theory, in particular. (You can read the research support for this approach here.)

The reason contextual behavioural scientists can use words with the same precision a master chef uses spices is that they understand the impact each person’s learning history has on their current behaviour. They understand how everything we do is an attempt to get something – even if that something is just avoiding the voice inside that says, ‘You aren’t good enough’. Contextual behavioural scientists understand how metaphors work and why they are so powerful. They understand how each new piece of information we are given slots into the network of what we have learnt in the past. They know that ideas don’t stand alone, they are inextricably linked to thousands of other thoughts and memories.

Kelly, Benji, Jonathan and thousands of other ACT therapists and coaches use that knowledge to help people to move towards flourishing. Bit by bit I am slowly getting a sense of how to do this. These theories are very complex. We touch on them over and over again in this blog. So, in this post I just want to give you a bite sized portion.

I want to describe how ‘transformation of stimulus functions’ can help people to grow.

‘The transformation of stimulus functions is said to occur when the functions of one stimulus alter or transform the functions of another stimulus in accordance with the derived relation between the two, without additional training.’ Dymond & Rehfelt 2000

What does transformation of stimulus functions mean in practical language? A stimulus is an event that influences behaviour. A stimulus can serve a range of functions, which means that it can make certain behaviours (both in our body and our mind) more or less likely.
Our environment and the people around us teach us many of these responses (i.e. we learn the function a stimulus has in a particular situation). Once you have learnt a particular response it is very difficult to unlearn it, but you can change your response to the stimulus by linking it to something that has a different function. (for RFT folk reading this and judging me, I know this is a ridiculous oversimplification but you didn’t really expect me to explain this, did you?)

For example, when I stand in front of a group to give a presentation I often feel very anxious. That anxiety then triggers an urge to make myself small and stay safe by sticking to dry clever theory. I have discovered that if I give in to those urges then my speech tends to become boring!

In our Skype session, Benji, asked me some questions about the anxiety I feel when I give a speech. As we talked, I started to see how the anxiety turns up because I care deeply about being genuinely helpful to the people in the room. This sounds obvious but noticing that connection between my anxiety and what matters to me has meant that the stimulus of anxiety now acts as a reminder that I care very much about what I am doing. It tells me that now is the moment to speak from my heart, risking rejection and judgement because I genuinely care about the impact of my session. I find myself smiling with the joy of knowing that right here, right now I can do something meaningful. When I do that my speeches tend to become more interesting!

Benji used language to create something that felt like magic to me. The function of my anxiety changed, it was now linked to my values. Transformation happened!

I want to walk you through an example of how you could transform your relationship with a tricky stimulus in your life.

Using Words to Weave Your Own Magic

Firstly, consider what tends to trigger you to be safe and boring rather than courageous and impactful?

When you are in the grip of that trigger, exactly how do you feel? What thoughts tend to be there for you? How does it feel in your body?

Really sink into that question. How does it feel to be inside your skin at that moment?

Now pause and ask yourself, what do you care about deeply in this? Kelly Wilson says that suffering and values are poured from the same vessel. It is likely that this issue is causing you pain because it links to something you really care about. What is it?

Once you have got a sense of what is important to you here, ask yourself – If I was being the person I want to be, how would I respond to that trigger?

Next time you notice that trigger and the associated thoughts and feelings, ask yourself:

Am I willing to take a small step towards being the person I want to be?

What would that look like?

And how would it feel?

I hope that for at least some of you, the trigger now acts to remind you to live your values.

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If you are interested in learning how Benji uses RFT to transform people’s relationship with painful emotions then watch this presentation. (I particularly enjoy his gorgeous French accent and the cooing of his baby in the background)

If you want to know how Kelly weaves his magic then read this book and if you want to understand what Jonathan does then read this book.

And, if you are interested in learning how to apply ACT and RFT to workplace coaching and you are in Australia then check out this workshop. It would be great to see you there.

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?

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

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

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

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

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

Behavioural science has some suggestions.

How Behavioural Psychology Can Increase The Impact Of Gratitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So…

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

Thank you!

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

ACT and conscious evolution Part A: Why cant we get our act together to respond to global change?

We live on a planet completely transformed by humanity.  Our impacts upon the planet are so great that scientists have now coined a term for a new geological age – the Anthropocene.   We are changing the climate, the chemical balance of the oceans and soils, biodiversity and even the physical structure of the planet –humans move more sediment and rock than all natural processes combined.  Together this is referred to as ‘global change’.  Whether we like it or not, and whether we are conscious of it or not, we are designing the future of not just our species, but every other species on the planet.

In this blog and the next I argue that Contextual Behavioural Science is not just a tool for individual wellbeing, it is a tool for global transformation.  For future generations to live meaningfully, happily and sustainably, we must master our thinking and feeling at least as much as we have learned to master the physical world. We need to more consciously evolve our behaviour, choosing our evolutionary path instead of reacting unconsciously.

Getting better at choosing is critical for many of our most pressing problems, but nowhere is it more important than the choices we make about our treatment of the natural world. The natural world is the context for everything else: It is the cradle of our development as a species, the support system for our thriving today and the legacy we leave our children.

Evolution has provided us with great strategies for coping quickly with simple, short-term, and individual challenges, but these very strategies get in the way of coping with complex, long-term and collective challenges.  In this blog, I outline some of the reasons we seem to be so ineffective at collectively responding to anthropogenic changes to the natural world.  Next week I will explore some ways contextual behavioural science can help us to respond more effectively to such wicked problems.

Why cant we get our act together?

From a contextual behavioural perspective, human beings have at least six characteristics that get in the way of successfully responding to complex problems [1].   These characteristics served us well in old contexts, but might just be big problems for our ongoing survival.

Responding to reinforcement

a)      Immediate consequences outweigh delayed consequences – we might be concerned about the fate of our children, but we tend to act on our desire for that new car or second helping of food right now.

b)      Strongly unpleasant stimuli presented abruptly prompt action, but gradually increasing unpleasant stimuli do notThis is the story of the boiled frog. So long as global conditions worsen gradually, we will tolerate bad air, foul water, and species loss that would once have been considered intolerable.

Complexity and Accuracy of Thinking

c)       Simple, familiar ideas are often preferred over complex, alien ideas that are more correct. It is estimated that evolution, about as well-established a fact as it is possible to obtain in science, is rejected by 46% of the American population, one of the best educated populations on earth.  This figure doesn’t appear to be changing – there is a limit to the power of science and education, in part because…

d)      Coincidental events often strengthen ineffective behavior –  Short term weather events lead to claims that climate change isn’t happening. Our cognitive systems are tuned to use even random patterns as evidence supporting our beliefs.

e)      Thinking more complexly puts us in contact with uncertainty and paradox which can both feel aversive – As we learn language we are repeatedly rewarded for being coherent [2]: Parents discourage children for saying they like spinach one day and not the next.  Uncertainty, ignorance and inconsistent beliefs feel deeply aversive for most of us and thinking about complex environmental issues inevitably exposes us to these states.

Our relationships

f)       Consequences for the individual usually outweigh consequences for others although we can and do act altruistically, our primary concern is usually to protect ourselves and satisfy our own needs.

So what can we do about it?

This is a pretty depressing list. But actually these characteristics are just the products of human evolution.  Evolution has provided us with great strategies for coping quickly with simple, short-term, and individual challenges, but these very strategies get in the way of coping with complex, long-term and collective challenges.

But what makes human beings really interesting are the times when we act differently to the basic tendencies outlined above.  Next week I will explore how ACT and contextual behavioural science help us to make sense of what happens when we are at our best as a species – when we plan well for the future and act beyond our own self-interest.

Between now and then, you might like to see if you can notice examples of these evolved tendencies in action.  How do they serve you and how do they get in the way of living the life you want to live?  I would love to read about what you notice.

1. Chance, P. (2007). The ultimate challenge: prove B. F. Skinner wrong. The Behavior analyst, 30(2), 153-160.  Available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/pmc2203635/

2. Hughes, S., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Vahey, N. (2012). Holding On to Our Functional Roots When Exploring New Intellectual Islands: A Voyage through Implicit Cognition Research. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 1, 17-38. doi: 10.1016/j.jcbs.2012.09.003. Available at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2212144712000075

When Feeling Awkward Gets In The Way Of Change

Have you ever wanted to try something new but because it felt awkward you backed away from the change and went back to what felt more comfortable, even though part of you really wanted to persist with the change?

I have been struggling with such a difficulty.

I recently become aware of something small that could lessen the influence I potentially have in the world. It looks like this:

Dotty Rachel

When you look at that photo do you think – ‘There sits a credible executive coach and corporate facilitator?’ I didn’t think so!

Although I don’t actually turn up to meetings with clients looking this dishevelled and dotty (really I don’t!). I do have wild hair and a tendency to present myself a bit like a kindly lady doctor (as this is what I was for many years!).

However, I recently read this paper and also this one and realised that appearances do impact on whether others take us seriously. Then a dear friend, who is also a client, told me, ‘Rachel, one of the things I love about working with you is that you turn up to run a session and people don’t expect you to be so competent because you aren’t dressed in a sharp suit and you appear so unassuming and then you do amazing work and they are surprised‘.

And I became concerned. I want my work to have a significant impact on others. I want to play a part in helping people to have more vitality and meaning in their work. I don’t want something as simple as my appearance to mean I am starting at a disadvantage with new clients.

So I decided that I wanted to present myself in a way that is authentic but perhaps a little more skilful. Goffee and Jones call this: Be Yourself – More – with Skill.

What does that look like for me? Probably not a sharp suit but perhaps a little tidier?

So I ask my lovely daughter, Ellie, to teach me how to put my hair in a bun. I have found this new skill very hard to learn. I feel clumsy and awkward. My mind kicks into action telling me, ‘Why are you wasting time learning something so silly when you could be learning something useful and important like Relational Frame Theory‘. The bun falls out halfway through the day and my mind says, ‘Told you this was ridiculous’.  I start to wear a little more make up and my mind tells me ‘It is so superficial to focus on your appearance’ and ‘Everyone is judging you‘. I feel like a fraud. But part of me is excited about the possibility of who I could become.

In the presence of these conflicting thoughts and feelings I remind myself that the best values and actions are freely chosen. It is okay for something as small as learning how to put my hair in a bun to matter to me. I ask Ellie to help me again..and again. I write down her instructions and follow them carefully.Notes on how to make a french roll I am still rubbish at buns but I persist. One day I will be a lady who weaves beautiful buns, knots and french rolls. Hopefully, as a result, I will look a little less dotty and a little more competent and I will ‘be myself – more – with skill’.

If you were to ‘be yourself – more – with skill’ what would be different about how the world experiences you? Is there a change that you want to make but it feels awkward?Would the change be a move towards your values? If so, are you willing to persist with the change and have the feelings of awkwardness?

I hope so! Because:

‘It is never too late to be who you might have been’

George Elliot

I am going to be the lady who both knows Relational Frame Theory and wears a beautiful bun.

How about you? Who will you be?