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?

Finding Meaning

Meaning in life is an important factor in human well being.

You probably won’t be surprised that research has shown that people who have a sense of meaning and purpose in their life are happier than those without that sense of meaning (Duh!).

However, more than that, people who have a sense of meaning and purpose seem to live longer, cope better with the losses and difficulties of life  and have greater sense of life satisfaction. Having a sense of purpose even seems to protect against cognitive decline as we age.

So if having a sense of meaning is a good thing. What do you do if you want to live a meaningful life?

The first step is to recognise that:

‘Meaning is not something you stumble across, like the answer to a riddle or the prize in a treasure hunt. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of …your affections and loyalties…out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you. If it does, then the particular balance of success or failure is of less account’ – John Gardner

Meaning doesn’t come from a search for some big sign that says ‘This is meaningful’.  Meaning is instead built gradually through the many small choices you make, through the values you choose to express.

‘Values are intentional qualities of action that join together a string of moments into a meaningful path’ Steve Hayes

(If you are uncertain about your values  – there are some good values clarification activities here.)

You can make a conscious decision to treat whatever you are doing as meaningful. An opportunity to live your values. For example, a hospital cleaner can choose to see themselves as an important part of the process of healing patients (which, of course, they are) and as a result express values of kindness or conscientiousness in their work.

However, if your work really doesn’t align with your values. If it genuinely feels meaningless, then you might want to start to work on a career change. It might just save your life!

If you are feeling a bit uncertain about what is meaningful for you, then I recommend ‘The Photojournalist’ activity described by Steger et al in Mindfulness, Acceptance and Positive Psychology. It is a great way of unearthing the meaning that is already present in your life.

Here is what you do:
Take 10-12 photos of “What makes (or could make) your life meaningful.” It is okay to take photos of places, people, things, mementos or even other photos. As you take the photos, keep a note of what each photo represents and how it contributes to your life’s meaning currently or how you hope it will contribute to meaning in your life in the future.

When you have done – notice what you photographed and what you wrote under the photographs. Notice what stands out. Notice any recurrent themes. Craft yourself a meaning statement.

I choose to make the following meaningful….

Now as you go through your day, notice when there is an opportunity to treat an event as meaningful and see what happens.

Here is one of my IMG_0159photojournalist images. The photo is of my partner fixing my chicken pen. A small moment but it has deep meaning for me. It is about relationships, caring, family tradition.

 

 

To learn more about the research on meaning, watch Michael Steger’s TEDx talk on What Makes Life Meaningful.

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.

(How to) Stay on The F*****G Bus

I recently came across Helsinki bus theory, an interesting metaphor by the photographer Arno Minkinnen which is usually applied to creativity.  Being a big fan of bus metaphors, I started using it with my coaching clients and it resonates, so let me explain:

In Helsinki all buses follow the same route at the start of their journey.  For at least 1 km all buses take the same route and make the same stops, irrespective of their number and eventual destination.

Helsinki 3

After this they diverge and the differently numbered buses start to separate into more distant and less familiar parts of Helsinki.

HelsinkiLet’s imagine that in the metaphor you are a new artist who wants to create innovative art.  Each bus stop represents one year of your life, so the third bus stop represents 3 years of learning your craft and trying new things out.

After 3 years people begin to notice your work but they start by comparing it to people who have done similar work before.  Being driven to do something unique, you feel discouraged at finding you’re following someone else’s path.   So what do you do?

You get off the bus, go back to the terminus and try another route.

This time you take a different number bus in the hope that it will lead to something different.

But the same thing happens.  You had the intention of changing to something new, but you get compared to others and feel discouraged.  So back to the terminus you go. As Minkinnen says “This goes on all your creative life: always showing new work, always being compared to others.”

So what’s the answer?

Well the advice offered by Minkinnen is simple:

Stay on the fucking bus.

Exactly!  Stay on the bus!  And this is true not just for creative endeavours, but for anything that requires persistence, including career, life or behaviour change.  As this HBR article makes clear, it is long term commitment to a direction which is often the key to success.

The Problem with Staying on the Bus

Unfortunately, most of us find staying on the bus very difficult, mainly because we are directed by our short term thoughts and feelings. Just as in the case of the artist, we feel as though nothing has really changed, that this is just the same as before, that maybe we should have taken a different route.

This is where we all need help to understand how to stay on the bus.

How to Stay on the Bus

The first step is to get clear on which bus you want to get on.  I suggest a combination of decision science, The Dip and values work for this.

But next we need to learn how to deal with the thoughts and emotions that come from staying on the bus.

Let’s be clear that it is not the feelings themselves that force us off the bus.  It is our interpretation of those feelings – our relationship to them – which leads us to get off early.

The Role of Psychological Flexibility

Psychological flexibility is the ability to see our immediate experience from different perspectives.  For example, instead of thinking about our immediate thoughts and emotions, we can consider our longer term values.  Instead of seeing emotions as reliable guides to behaviour, we can place them in a different context as the flipside of what really matters.   Instead of running away automatically from certain thoughts, we can see them as just learned behaviour and not something we necessarily need to listen to or struggle with.

With practice, we can become less influenced by our short term impulses (‘this is just the same as last time!’) and more by our long term values.

This can help us to stay on the bus, and to persist even when our immediate thoughts and emotions make persisting difficult.

Passengers on the bus

Noticing How Desire Can Pull You Away From Your Values

When does desire pull you away from your values?

It might be the impulse to buy more stuff that you don’t really need; watch TV instead of doing some exercise; let work dominate your  life; make poor choices that change your life forever…

In this TEDx talk, Kelly McGonigal explains that the urges provoked by desire (the promise of happiness) have a tendency to overpower current happiness and satisfaction.

Desire for something you don’t have, but would like (in my case, millions of dollars and to write a best selling book!) can create stronger impulses than the feelings of contentment associated with what you do have (for me now: love, health, safety, meaningful work that uses my strengths). Even though what you have now may be much more important to you than what you desire.

When we feel that experience of wanting something, we feel an urge to do something to get that desire met. If we are to handle this tricky emotion wisely then we need to be clear about who we want to be and what we want our life to stand for. We need to have chosen the values we want to live by. But knowing your values isn’t enough.

Last week, Paul suggested that mindfulness helps us to turn our values into action. When desire is moving you away from what really matters, mindfulness can help you to ride out the urges rather than mindlessly chase what you desire .

You can mindfully notice how feelings of wishing and wanting are pulling you in a particular direction and check if that would be a move towards your values. You can become aware when desire is in control of your behaviour, catch yourself and come back to what really matters to you in the long term – love? kindness? connection? your health? security?

I want to be clear here that I am not suggesting that you abandon your ‘big, hairy, audacious goals‘, what I am suggesting is that you also:

1. Compassionately notice when pursuit of those goals feels driven and addictive. Pause and breathe and see if you can ride those impulses like waves rather than act on them.

2. Keep checking in as to how the goals you are currently pursuing fit with your values and life purpose

3. Have the ‘willpower’ to spend some time paying attention to other important areas of your life even though you may feel the addictive pull of the desire for something ‘bigger and better’ calling to you. Your thoughts might whisper, ‘I’ll just send one more email; read/write one more blog post; sign up for that course that promises to make me rich.’ Can you have those thoughts and the feelings associated with them and still spend the afternoon in the garden with your loved ones? Can you have those thoughts and feelings and bring your attention back to this moment now with all its small pleasures and pains?

Kelly McGonigal suggests that the recurring difficulties we experience in handling our desire well is not a sign that there is:

Something uniquely wrong with us – but it is actually part of being human. it is not just you, it is all of us.

Oddly, for me, accepting this makes it easier to deal with. How about you?

[I am running a low cost, one day workshop on ACT at The Relaxation Centre of QLD on  Sun 3rd March.  All proceeds go to the centre. I would love to see you there.]

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!

How You Can Make 2013 A Successful Year

So here we are in 2013. What will it take for you to define this year as successful?

Let’s start by looking back on 2012. What did you achieve? What mistakes did you make? Where do you feel you failed?

measuring up
measuring up (Photo credit: woodleywonderworks)

Did you get a promotion or an increase in salary? Did you buy something important like a house or a car? Did you fail to get elected to serve as President of the USA?

It can be easy to focus on these external markers of success or failure. But what about your internal yard stick? How much were you the person you want to be? How often were you mindful or generous or brave or loving or …(insert your own values here).

How good were you at noticing the times when you weren’t living your values and then gently adjusting your behaviour so it aligned more closely with who you want to be?

‘Values are your heart’s deepest desires for how you want to behave as a human being. Values are not about what you want to get or achieve; they are about how you want to behave or act on an ongoing basis.’

Russ Harris  – The Happiness Trap

Measuring your life by what you achieve isn’t wrong but the research suggests that we over estimate the impact of these events. We think that if we get the good job and nice house we will be happy and so we conscientiously pursue those goals. Sometimes we are so busy striving that we neglect other important aspects of our life, like nurturing our health and our relationships, and we forget who we are and what we want to stand for.

The second way of measuring your life – Did I live my values? Was I the person I want to be? – is both more likely to create richness and meaning and will tend to support you in making those moment to moment choices that determine the direction of your life.

So as you review 2012 and before you set yourself some goals for 2013, spend a few moments revisiting your values.  Lundgren’s Bull’s Eye activity is a cool way of doing this.

How Moments of Joy and Pain Can Help You Work Out What Really Matters To You

In this noisy world, where we are bombarded with messages telling us what to think and do, it can be hard to work out what is really important to us.

In this Big Think Interview, Steve Hayes gives two suggestions for how to connect with your values:

1. Take a moment to focus on what causes you emotional pain. What upsets, saddens or angers you? Then ask yourself, ‘What do I care deeply about here?’.

‘Look where the pain is. Flip it over; you’ll find that’s where the values are.’

This approach of looking for what our pain is telling us about what really matters can protect us from responding to pain in a way that narrow down our life. For example:

‘most people are hurt deeply by betrayals in relationships. And what your mind tells you to do is, don’t be so vulnerable; don’t be so silly; don’t open yourself up; don’t be so trusting; you can be betrayed. In fact, the reason why you hurt so much is that you want relationships that are loving, committed, intimate; you want trust. And what your mind is telling you to do in a way is, don’t care about that so much so that you won’t be hurt so much. It might be better to really get up against and sort of contact that caring, and maybe take a more loving stance even with your own pain, and keep your feet moving towards what you really want, because the cost in terms of intimacy and connection and caring that comes when you try not to be vulnerable, when you’re constantly looking out for betrayals of trust, is too great. It makes it very hard to have relationships of the kind that you really want.’

2. Notice what brings you joy and ask yourself, ‘What does this tell me about what matters to me? About who I want to be in the world?’

‘Think of the times that you’ve felt most with yourself, most connected, most vital, most energized, most flowing, natural. And if you take some of these specific memories and you walk inside them, you’re going to find that there’s things in there that you care about. There’s things in there that, when it’s really working well, are kind of a lighthouse, like a beacon in the distance, that you can move towards.’

‘Go inside the sweetness of life, catch the places where you genuinely were moved by or connected with life, and you’ll find in there kind of a light that can direct you when the cacophony gets very noisy and you get confused and lost, that can direct you towards what you care about.’

According to Steve, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is about:

‘living in accord with your values and in a way that is more open and accepting of your history as it echoes into the present, that’s more self-affirming, self-validating and values-based.’

…and it is based on science!

(For Brisbane based readers: I am running a session on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy at The Relaxation Centre of QLD on Sunday 16th December. We will be doing both of the activities above plus a lot of others – I am very much looking forward to it! If you are in Brisbane and you happen to be free it would be lovely to see you there. All proceeds go to the centre.)

 

If You Can’t Have It All, What Can You Have?

I believe that we have been sold a myth. A myth that tells us ‘If you try really, really hard then you can have it all’ – love; money; success; a wonderful family; happy kids; health; a beautiful body; a lovely home…

This myth can exhaust us. We run around trying to get everything right. Feeling anxious about all we haven’t done.

My messy garden. I decided to grow some veggies – then I neglected them and they died

The messy garden; the plump belly; the distracted attention we give to our partner. The job list at work that never seems to get any shorter. The school tuck shop duty we didn’t do.

We think that if we were just more organised, smarter, better in some ill-defined way; then we would be doing all of these things with grace and flair.

But what if we were to accept that we can’t actually do it all or have it all? What would that be like?

Instead of focussing on getting everything right, perhaps we could give our attention to becoming more and more like our ideal self. We could focus on living our values.

Perhaps you can’t have it all but instead over time you can become a better version of yourself.

In order to become more like your ideal self, you have to decide what you want that person to be like. Rob has gathered together some values clarification exercises here that might help you to decide who you want to be.

However, I need to give you a warning.

Knowing your values may not actually make your life easier. Moment by moment, again and again, you will still have to choose – do I give my attention and energy to my kids, my work, my partner, my health, the housework…?

And that choice is sometimes painful. At those moments, try asking yourself: What would the person I want to be do now? It might help you to make choices that lead to a life that is rich and meaningful And that might just be better than having it all.

What do you think? Can we have it all?

(This blog post has developed as a result of some conversations I am having with CEO’s and senior managers about their experiences of meaningful success. I would like to thank Jayne Gallagher, Manager Product and Market Development at Australian Seafood CRC and Tristan White, CEO of The Physio Co for exploring this topic with me.)