Resilience

I originally wrote this article in 2018. Since then, coaching for personal resilience and mental wellbeing has seen a surge of interest, with individuals and organisations both keen to find ways to reduce the toll of ever-increasing demands on their mental and physical health, increase their ability to adapt flexibly and positively to change, and start thriving rather than simply coping.

The extraordinariness of 2020 has brought this into even sharper focus. In the early weeks of the pandemic, many of us went into a heightened energy state of adaptation – described by Ann Masten as the ‘surge capacity’ we draw upon in short-term survival situations, rather like an emotional and physical power bank to help us navigate a crisis effectively. Except that, as the acute phase became chronic, our uncertainty over how long the uncertainty would last continued to stretch out, and we found ourselves with little opportunity to recharge through many of our usual means of self-care, we were all left significantly depleted. 

In the immediate crisis stage there is often increased clarity as people are forced to focus on a delimited set of priorities and they pull together more than ever before. Individually, however, the adaptation can often come at profound cost to our wellbeing as we try to prioritise performance. Crisis can bring out the best in us, but can also make us revert to a lower level of emotional function. 

I’ve read a lot of very well-written pieces in the past few months about finding new ways to be in this brave new world. There is so much in the resilience science to draw from and so much good advice out there about identifying your own set of primary resilience factors – certainly far too much to distil into one short article. I hope, however, that some of this will prove helpful to you. If you’re finding life particularly challenging right now, there are really just three things that I hope you will take from this: 

(1) You are not alone and there is plenty of support out there. 

(2) Be kind to yourself; there is no shame in struggling and feeling overwhelmed. 

(3) All you need to focus on is the next step. The rest can be something for another day.

———————

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

I bend, I don’t break.

I always bounce back.

Do you use any of these metaphors when you talk or think about resilience? Personally, I like the picture of resilience that’s summed up by this plant.

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It illustrates nicely the definition given by Carole Pemberton (2015) in Coaching for Resilience:

The capacity to remain flexible in our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours when faced by a life disruption, or extended periods of pressure, so that we emerge from difficulty stronger, wiser, and more able. 

In other words, resilience is gradual adaptation in the face of adversity. Being resilient doesn’t mean you have to be somehow invulnerable to life’s hard knocks – it’s all about learning and growth, and the ability to steer your way constructively through difficulty. I think the danger of the popular characterisation of ‘bouncing back’ is that it gives the impression that recovering from setbacks is as effortless and instantaneous as the rebound of a rubber ball. You just pick yourself up and carry on as you were, utterly unchanged by the event. Except you’re not.

Even if you’re of the true grit school of thought, it’s important to recognise that resilience isn’t a you’ve-either-got-it-or-you-don’t thing; it’s a continuum. Life continually tests us, and our ability to respond well to this can vary depending on context and domain. You may be able to cope very well with pressure in your professional life, but feel crushed by the breakdown of a personal relationship. You may historically have had no problems navigating the ups and downs of life, but find yourself unexpectedly and completely derailed after being made redundant. Our resilience can become overwhelmed in all sorts of different ways – and we will all respond differently, too.

I find it useful looking at this from the perspective of the three-factor model that combines the effects of genetics, external protective factors, and learning (diagram below adapted from Pemberton, 2015):

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What this tells us is that although some people may be more naturally resilient than others, resilience isn’t just a product of our personality. Research has also shown the important contributions made by the support networks around us (the availability of ‘secure attachment’) and what we learn from experience. That latter factor is probably most crucial for me. I love the way Masten puts it: resilience, she says, is ‘ordinary magic’: something we develop through the demands of living. It marks resilience out as something that can be available to all of us, even if we haven’t had the most fortunate start in life.

So how, then, can we cultivate resilience? It’s worth spending some time thinking about resilience factors – here are some that I think are particularly important, although resilience studies have identified dozens more: 

(1) Finding meaning

Purpose is a key factor in what drives us – the desire to connect to a greater and meaningful cause can give important direction and a reason to keep going. What purpose can you find in what you may be going through? What can you take from this experience that you can channel positively into something meaningful?

(2) Flexibility, Perspective and the Big Picture

Inflexible patterns of thinking stop us being able to see the larger picture and its possibilities for learning and growth. What can you learn from this adversity? How can you widen your perspective? What other ways are there to think about this situation? What can you control about this situation (conversely, are you expending energy in wrestling with what is actually outside of your control)? 

(3) Thinking Space 

It’s difficult to get perspective when you’re mired in the doing and the detail. What time are you taking to get the necessary headspace that will allow you to take a step back for a more objective evaluation? Resting from its incessant activity is what the brain needs to really harness its creativity and problem-solving capability. 

(4) Support

Resilience is not helped by social isolation. How can you reach out for help? What positive and mutually supportive relationships can you build? 

(5) Mindfulness

Pain is typically seen as a problem. Mindfulness helps us learn to detach from our negative thoughts and feelings in order to observe and accept them without becoming trapped in them – moving forward despite them, rather than trying to remove them from our lives. As Camus says, the human condition is absurd. But man’s freedom, and the opportunity to give life meaning, lies in the acceptance of absurdity.

(6) Proactivity

What action are you taking? Sometimes all we need to take back control is to take one small step at a time.

What someone needs in order to help them become more resilient will of course vary. In coaching, there are many tools that can be drawn upon, including mindfulness, cognitive-behavioural approaches, narrative coaching, and positive psychology. If you’re interested in how coaching can help you build your personal resilience, why not get in touch?

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass, Quiet Space Ltd

To Follow Your Heart

I posted the image above on my social media accounts a while ago and was amazed to find how much it resonated with people. Maybe you’re not tired, maybe you’re just doing too little of what makes you come alive. It’s a theme that has kept cropping up in my coaching sessions and in random conversations with people over these last couple of months, as well as something that has been particularly close to my heart this past year.  

I don’t know about you, but my energy typically comes in bursts – often in moments of palpable connection and chemistry when I find a kindred spirit, when I’m talking about things I care about a great deal, or when I’m completely absorbed in making a project that matters to me happen. It’s also a running joke in my family about my ability to sleep anywhere, at any time, and for rudely long periods. There are days when I’ve simply had no energy for anything at all, yet also others when I’ve been on fire. 

You have, most likely, experienced what it feels like to just get by in a job, your work environment or just life in general – your energy levels dip, motivation wanes and productivity suffers. I hope, however, that you will also have had moments of alchemy when everything seemed to be working out – when you believed yourself to be happy, you were surrounded by the hope of possibility, and your energy levels and motivation were correspondingly high. 

There’s a complex relationship between energy, motivation, productivity and happiness. I’ve written before about motivation and how we’re all driven to achieve three things: autonomy (the ability to behave with a sense of volition, endorsement, willingness and choice), competence (mastery of our environment), and relatedness through purpose (the ability to care about and connect to others and to a bigger cause). When those three conditions of autonomy, competence and purpose are in place, there’s a much higher chance that you’ll be able to find yourself in the zone of what positive psychologists call ‘flow’: the mental state of being completely immersed in what you’re doing, where your skill is equal to the challenge and you are enveloped in the focus of the present moment – a space for you to be more productive, creative, and yes, happy. Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi (credited with having popularised the concept of Flow) has described it thus:

(Flow is) being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” (Wired interview, 1996)

You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990)

You’ll see from the images above that Flow has a number of key characteristics, but I like a bit of simplification, so where all these concepts come together for me is in recognition of this one thing: tapping into what, for you, is the meaning that makes life worth living. 

Meaning, I think, is the ultimate intrinsic motivator.  We catalyse our own happiness when we have meaningful goals that challenge us, yet are within our grasp, and when we’re able to direct and control our own actions in pursuit of those goals. 

In coaching I sometimes find that people feel happiness to be quite elusive, mainly because they’re looking for it anywhere but right here, right now. The thing about the energy of happiness, however, is that – unlike many of the events and things around us – harnessing this energy is very much within our control.1 Rather than expending energy on places, people and things that drain us, we can choose to direct our energy and presence into the optimal experience and ease of pursuing mastery of an area we care deeply about.

So where do you start? When working with my coaching clients we often look at the question of values pretty early on. ‘Values’, in straightforward terms, are the things that we stand for and how we want to behave as we move through life – they’re not something to be achieved, but rather what we want our lives to be about. Your set of values is individual to you, and when you connect with and set goals based on those values, you become able to take your life in meaningful directions even when the going gets tough. 

It’s helpful to think of them as a compass, giving you direction and keeping you on track as you go through life, setting and achieving goals along the way. Or perhaps like a lighthouse, guiding you on your way – your goal never being to obtain the lighthouse itself. Valuing is about the process and the journey, rather than the destination. 

There are plenty of tools and techniques to help people identify and clarify values. With my clients I like working with values card sort exercises (e.g. Carriochi and Bailey’s (2008) Survey of Life Principles) and questionnaires like Crace and Brown’s (2002) Life Values Inventory, but you can also do this old-school with a pen and paper, thinking about what matters to you in your life – you can split your life into as many areas as you like, or you may want to keep it simple with just a few key domains: work and education, love and relationships, health and wellbeing, and leisure and recreation. The values you identify might be obvious to others, or deeply personal to you, and there are no right or wrong answers. Perhaps your list might contain connecting with nature or having a life filled with adventure, or being self-sufficient, working with your hands, and making a lasting contribution to this earth. And then, perhaps the trickiest part: once you’ve clarified your values, it’s time to take a good close look at them and think about whether the life you’re leading is one that aligns with what you care about. 

What really matters to me, deep down?
What kind of person do I want to be?
What personal strengths or qualities do I want to develop?
What legacy would I like to leave?
And what am I going to do with these answers?

Plenty of people think of success in terms of goal achievement. If you do, I invite you now to consider an alternative to this, and see how it changes your thinking: success is living by your values. No matter how far your goals reach into the future (and no matter whether you ever achieve them), just like how happiness can be right here for you in this moment, so too can you have success right now – all that is required of you is that you choose to commit to your values, and start to work in the service of what really matters to you.2

This isn’t always going to be easy. You may have heard the adage that ‘fear and desire are two sides of the same coin’. If something really matters to you, when there’s a lot riding on something, the more it also matters if you don’t get what you want: what you desire is also what you fear to lose. 

British theologian John Henry Newman said, “Fear not that thy life shall come to an end, but rather that it shall never have a beginning.” So ask yourself this question: Are you willing to face whatever comes when you’re heading in the direction you desire? Self-doubt, distress and anxiety are common when we’re seeking meaning. Willingness takes strength, but if you summon the strength to say ‘yes’ to overcome your fears, there is a whole world beyond what you think you already know, filled with possibility.   

And finally, that image I posted at the top of the article? This was the accompanying caption.

Life is fleeting. One day you may look back and see how you let time march on inexorably, passing you by. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Happiness doesn’t only come about through grand gestures; it is in the moment of unguarded laughter, finally learning to be who you are, the willingness to be vulnerable, the seeing of joy in the mundane, the purpose in the pain, and living out what really matters to you. Go big or small, as long as you go. 

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

References

Carriochi, J. & Bailey, A. (2008). A CBT practitioner’s guide to ACT: How to bridge the gap between cognitive behavioral therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Crace, R. K., & Brown, D. (2002). Life Values Inventory. Williamsburg, VA: Applied Psychology Resources. 

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.

Ambition: When you don’t want what they’ve got

This month I’ve written a guest article for clouds+dirt, an online platform that seeks to ‘redefine spirituality for the modern woman’. The article may ostensibly be written for women, but there is a message for everyone in there. If you’ve ever felt an unravelling of the path you’ve hitherto been following, and realised how vital it was for you to re-evaluate what matters to you in your life and career, then have a read – and let me know what you think.

http://www.cloudsanddirt.co/ambition/

Power struggles: the illusion of control

I’ve been thinking about manipulation, which as it turns out children are remarkably good at. A couple of weeks ago we’d had an exhausting day (involving an all-day visit to Universal Studios in Singapore, including literally running through downpours), and I had no energy or patience left when one of the kids was reading in his high bunk well past bedtime, having ignored my clear instruction to go to sleep. I asked that he stop – “two more pages!” came the cry, which I agreed to before going to brush my teeth.

When I returned he was still reading, so I told him in no uncertain terms to hand me the book. He groaned and eventually extended it, but when I held out my hand, he deliberately withdrew it just out of my reach. And smiled.

I suspect you won’t be surprised that I rather saw red, although I regretted it as soon as I’d left the room, and promptly spent some time thinking about how easily he’d made me lose my temper.

Except he didn’t.

Come again?

In cognitive behavioural coaching, we explain that it’s not events that cause our emotions, but how we interpret those events – in other words, how we think about or what meaning we give to the events*. He hadn’t made me angry; I was angry because his behaviour had triggered something in me that demanded control of the situation, and compliance from him. What kinds of things had been going through my mind? Perhaps You’ll do as I say. Children should listen to their parents. How dare you cheek me in that way. I think there was, too, spillover from some work frustrations that I’ve been experiencing lately, most notably a feeling of being ineffectual and not being able to enact necessary change.

The link between thoughts, emotions and behaviours is the cognitive triangle, and it can lead to a pretty vicious cycle. If my thoughts are anger-inducing, and lead me to fury, then I’m very likely to do something that, if unchallenged, will reinforce those thoughts and emotions.

We can look at this triangle alongside another way of conceptualising the thoughts we think: the cognitive pyramid. In a situation of stress, the negative thoughts that may surface automatically are underpinned by other, deeper thoughts that we may not hold quite as consciously. These comprise our mental rules, assumptions and attitudes, and our underlying core beliefs about ourselves, others and the world, which are often formed as part of our cognitive ‘blueprint’ early in life. When we’re stressed and tired, negative core beliefs can be activated – and they can present themselves, in that moment, as absolute truths.

The learning that we can take from this extends well beyond parenting; it’s a valuable lesson in all relationships, including the ones we cultivate at work. It’s also highly relevant in how we can choose to respond to situations.

We’ve all had that ‘difficult’ (choose your preferred adjective) colleague, boss or senior manager, where encounters have become something to endure. How much of them can you change? You might have various degrees of agency in the form of power, influence, negotiation or persuasion, all of which certainly help in getting people to behave in the ways you’d like them to, but fundamentally the answer to that question is, not a lot. If you lead in any capacity, do you lead by force and exertion of control (how’s that going in terms of getting the best out of your people)? Or have you learnt to take a step back and empower those who report to you by giving them the space and resource to fulfil their commitment and potential?

And as for situations? Well, let’s take an example beloved of British rail travellers everywhere – delays and replacement rail services. You’re late for your appointment, and it’s out of your control. Or maybe you’d like to put yourself into the shoes of a man I encountered over the weekend at my local gym, whose frustration had got the better of him over lack of parking and who was now swearing loudly at the staff about being a paying customer.

How would you like to respond, knowing that you can choose at any point to change your experience of this moment? As we become aware of our default reactions to situations of stress, we also have the ability to discard them in favour of new ways of responding when we find ourselves at the edge. Real change comes when we control the only things we have true control over – our own behaviours.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

*I last wrote about CBC in July last year – how time flies! If you’re interested you can check out that article here: https://quietspacecoaching.co.uk/2018/07/16/taking-psychological-responsibility/

Self-care isn’t selfish

I’ve always loved Scott Adams’ funny and astute observations about the working world in Dilbert and these delectable strips on work-life balance are no exception.

834b279dc09651a02b2437c22ab4bf0cwork-life-balance

Those of you who have come to one of my talks on this theme may remember me saying that I don’t really like calling it ‘work-life balance’. I think the trouble with the word ‘balance’ is that it seems to imply some sort of tradeoff between work and not-work, whereas life and work is usually much more tightly knitted than that. I prefer thinking of it in terms of integration instead. How do your work and the rest of your life fit and flex together in response to any given set of circumstances?

I often find that clients will come to coaching with a particular conundrum like ‘help me get a new job’ or ‘I want to make a career change’. Once we start exploring their situation, however, it quickly becomes apparent that the approach that needs to be taken is far more holistic in nature. Work may be the presenting challenge, but there are often issues relating to confidence and self-doubt, identity, relationships and clarity of focus all tied up in that. The nature of lots of work these days is that you can take it with you – which of course is a huge part of the problem, because thanks to mobile and cloud technology, you can now not only work from home, but everyone else’s home as well. Hurrah!

There will always be times in which you’ll actually need to work through an intense, demanding and stressful period at work. But many of us get into the habit of always being ‘on’, which never gives the mind and body a chance to recover. And typically what happens, because burnout builds slowly, is that the continual pressure goes unacknowledged until you experience some sort of crisis.

There are always signs that point the way to impending burnout – exhaustion, irritability and impatience, loss of perspective, emotional volatility, and a decline in physical health. The key thing is catching these well before you get to the tipping point.

When someone talks about ‘self-care’, what do you think about?

“Cancelling plans is ok. Staying home to cook is ok. Disappearing for a bit to get your life together is ok. Resurfacing in a foreign country with a new name 10 years later is ok. It’s called self-care.”
– A meme all over the Internet  

It seems to be a bit of a health buzzword these days, but I want to encourage you to look at it as something sustainable for the long haul, not some wellbeing fad, and especially not something that is intrinsically self-centred. I’ll tell you now – if you’re the kind of person to worry that self-care is selfish, it’s a fair bet that you probably aren’t selfish. And, funnily enough, you’re probably also not taking care of yourself.

It’s time to change that.

Get a paper and pen now, because we’re going to do a bit of work. Do you know what’s in your self-care recipe? By which I mean, do you know all the things that re-energise you and bring you peace? Take a moment now to reflect on that, and then make a list of ten of those things.

Done? Let’s take a look. Here’s my list.

  1. Solitude and quiet
  2. Allowing myself to not achieve
  3. Plenty of sleep
  4. Books, music and headphones
  5. Exercise
  6. Saying no
  7. Massage
  8. Remembering that not everyone has to like me
  9. Deep one-on-one conversations
  10. Not sweating the small stuff

What’s on your list? What are you doing well, and what are you not doing enough of? What changes are you going to make to rebalance your life?

Self-care isn’t selfish; it allows you to recalibrate and replenish yourself so that you can continue to give. It’s a bit like putting on your own oxygen mask first so that you can make sure you’re able to put on someone else’s later. You can say no (and still be a good and kind person), and it is absolutely fine to not always ‘live up to’ the expectations placed on you (both by yourself and by other people). Allow yourself the breathing space – you will find that you come back all the stronger for the rest.     

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

 

 

January and that New Year Resolution Jazz

We somehow appear to be over halfway through January. How’s your month going so far? Did you make New Year resolutions? And if you did, how far have you stuck with them?

Last week I came across a quote that said “January is the Monday of the year”. The analogy is fitting, I suppose, for that (often reluctant) return to work after an extended break – starting the engine from cold; pulling out the choke; jump starting the battery. Excuse the motoring metaphors; I’ve currently got my next car on the brain (the Suzuki Jimny, in Kinetic Yellow, but I digress).

You may have read the research that tells us why January, despite its standard 31 days, always feels like the longest month of the year. Yes, science has spoken. That, plus January’s often the longest month between paydays. So not only are you cold and grumpy, but now, to add insult to injury, you also don’t have any money.

RozChast©Roz Chast, The New Yorker

It’s interesting, therefore, that for that final January flourish, lots of us then place ourselves under pressure by setting resolutions that are unsustainable, not fully thought through, insufficiently specific, or have the wrong focus. You’re going to lose ten pounds, save more money, eat less sugar, stop drinking, and argue less with your partner. You’ll start with the best of intentions, and burn brightly for two weeks before life catches up. Indeed, some research conducted by Strava discovered that in 2018, 12 January was the day that most New Year resolutions ended up slinking guiltily into the shadows.

Where did my motivation go?

So what happened? According to Dr Raj Persaud in his book The Motivated Mind, the science of self-motivation helps us understand that there are only three reasons why people don’t achieve what they want: resource depletion, inadequate tracking, and goal conflict.

‘Resource depletion’ occurs when your resources are insufficient for the task. That might be in practical terms (for instance a genuine lack of time, or not enough funds), but more often than not it’s physical or emotional (lack of energy, low mood).

‘Inadequate tracking’ refers to when you fail to adequately monitor progress towards attaining your goal. Because steps towards goal achievement are often gradual and incremental, measuring your progress provides valuable feedback on how effectively you’re working and how close you are to your target. If you don’t know where you are, it’s difficult to see how to get to where you want to be.

Finally: ‘goal conflict’. This occurs when a goal that you set is incompatible with one or more other things that you set out to do. Maybe the last time you resolved to participate in Dry January, you lasted 10 days because you wanted to kick back and relax the weekend after returning to work. Often the conflict is between longer-term goals and shorter-term desires – psychological experiments have repeatedly shown that we have a predilection for valuable outcomes sooner rather than later.

Our inbuilt preference for earlier gratification means that we’re battling our biology every time we try to focus on that distant reward. And the thing about willpower is that generally it is quite an unreliable beast, so thinking that you’ll be strong enough to stick to your goals this time is, unfortunately, not a particularly effective strategy.

What to do?

Firstly, don’t abandon the desire for self-improvement; having New Year resolutions isn’t in itself a problem. The problem that lots of us have, even before we come to the question of motivation, is that we don’t set the right goals. Sometimes, in fact, we might not even really be ready for change.

Are you stuck in chronic contemplation?

TTM(The Transtheoretical Model of Change, Prochaska and DiClemente)

Studies of change have found that people move through a series of stages when intentionally modifying their behaviour. Change, in other words, is something that unfolds over time. I think the most pertinent stage to talk about here is that of Contemplation, where people intend to change, but aren’t quite ready – they know what the advantages of change will be, but they’re also highly aware of the drawbacks. This can produce significant ambivalence and procrastination, which often means that people stay stuck.

No surprise then that most resolutions, apparently, are repeated five years in a row!

If you’re stuck in chronic contemplation or are otherwise getting in your own way, you need to tackle this first. This is where psychological coaching can be really valuable, helping you to understand and modify unhelpful beliefs, tackle underlying cognitive rules and assumptions, and learn to develop greater self-belief and self-acceptance. For now, though, I’m going to assume that you’re ready for action.

Goal set, game on

Here’s where it all starts to happen. How do you set satisfying and achievable goals? When I work with my coaching clients on this, we go through a process that includes goal clarification, prioritisation, and design. The kinds of questions we might explore at each stage look somewhat like this:

Clarification: What’s the overarching goal? Why do I want this? How does it align with my needs and values? Is this goal short-term in nature or does it require motivation to be sustained over a longer period?

Prioritisation: How high a priority am I placing on this goal? Where does it sit in my overall goal hierarchy? How does it align with my other goals? How can I address any goal conflict?

Design: Am I setting dead person’s goals? How can my overarching goal be broken down into achievable steps?

During the process, we also pause to reflect on a few important things.

First things first: What the heck are dead person’s goals?

Well, simply put, they’re goals a dead person can achieve better than you.

Language is really important when it comes to goal-setting. Goals like “I want to stop drinking”, “I want to eat less sugar” or “I want to argue less with my partner” are all about doing less of something or stopping something (let’s face it, the dead person’s got that in the bag, and he’s way ahead of you).

Instead, think about how you can turn that around to aim for positive action. What you focus on you tend to create, so focus on the things you want, not the things you want to get rid of. Ask yourself: So if I stop this, or do less of this – how are things going to change? What will I start doing, or do more of? How will I behave differently?

Vagueness is not a goal-setting virtue

Remember inadequate tracking? It’s hard to know how close you are to your destination if you don’t know where you are – but even before that, it might have been Seneca who said “if a person doesn’t know to which port they sail, no wind is favourable”.

So be clear about what you want your end result to be. Be specific about what, how, and by when, and make sure too that what you’re aiming at is realistic and achievable within the parameters you’ve set yourself. And then don’t forget to check in with yourself on a regular basis to assess your progress and recalibrate if you’ve gone off-track. 

Daily commitment to action and consistency are key

Let’s assume you’ve set a great goal. You have a vision of what you want your end point to be. Now what? How do you get from here to there?

Here’s where we come to talk about a systems mindset. To read more about this, I highly recommend you pick up Scott Adams’ book How to Lose At Everything And Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life. In Adams’ words: “For our purposes, let’s say a goalis a specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future. A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run. If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal.”

Having a systems mindset means that, rather than being end-state and future-oriented, you become process and present-oriented. You can see the longer-term vision, but what you’re doing today is the thing that matters most. If your goal’s to run a marathon in September, and you start training now, you’re not going to see any difference tomorrow. But follow that training plan week in, week out, and come the marathon, you’ll be ready. You may not be able to tick that overarching goal off your list until September, but if you commit to consistent daily action, you’ll be winning each and every day.

So start breaking down that overarching goal into small, achievable daily ways of being that you can sustain over the longer term. Think micro-resolutions – commitment to a limited, specific and measurable change in behaviour or attitude that produces a tangible and immediate benefit. It taps into that predilection for immediate gratification and the positive feedback keeps us encouraged. And you know what else? One of the best cures for lack of motivation is taking action. Just do it.

And that’s it – I do like it when a plan comes together. One final parting thought before I go. You can do all this at any time. You don’t need to wait for a new year, a new month or even a new week to start working towards the change you want to see. So if you abandoned your 2019 New Year resolutions last week, here’s your next chance. It starts now. You’ve got this.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Walking in the rain

rainroom_sharjahThis is a photo of the Rain Room in Sharjah, taken by my friend Laura. This previously touring installation by Random International has found a permanent home in the desert and is a space of pouring rainfall that lets you experience up close and personal the sounds, humidity and visual experience of rainfall – except you don’t get wet. I’ve never experienced it personally – alas! – as I missed the exhibition, but I absolutely love the concept.

You may have heard the saying “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing”. Have you ever gone out in the pouring rain? You probably didn’t possess the wizardry required to walk through it without any protective clothing, keeping utterly dry and untouched. So perhaps you let yourself get drenched. Perhaps you changed your plans to avoid it. More likely, you groaned a bit and wished you could stop the rain, but then you got out your wellies and jacket or umbrella and got on with your day. Maybe you factored in a bit more time to get the bus instead of walking, or changed your route to a more sheltered one. In other words, you altered how you acted in relation to the rain.

I really like this as a metaphor for difficult thoughts or emotions, or the scary stories we tell ourselves. Do you ever have problems achieving your goals because your mind is keeping you stuck? Maybe you tell yourself I can’t do it. Or I’m freaking out. Or I’m going to fail spectacularly. Pick your own favourite. 

If this strikes a chord with you, try this short exercise (adapted from Blonna, 2010).

  1. Imagine you’re about to go out but it’s just started pouring with rain. You don’t want to change your plans, but neither do you want to get drenched, and you know you can’t control the rain. So you get out your umbrella and your wellies, and you head out, and you get to where you need to be and do what you need to do. All the while the rain keeps falling, but it’s ok, because you’re shielded and the rain is bouncing off your umbrella and puddling around your boots.
  2. Now imagine that the thoughts that your mind is giving you about this task are just like the rain. You feel the drops starting and you say to yourself, I’d better get out my umbrella and my wellies.
  3. You open your umbrella and instantly you are protected from these thoughts. Like the raindrops, they bounce off your umbrella and wellies, and don’t interfere with your doing what you need to do.
  4. As you continue ‘walking in the rain’, tell yourself: Just as I can use an umbrella to shield me from the rain, I can use my metaphorical umbrella to help me live the life I want even though I am experiencing unhelpful thoughts and feelings.

The fact is, most of us would prefer to live our lives without having to walk in rainstorms. Unfortunately, life will be full of lots of bad weather, which we cannot control or get rid of. All we can really do is accept it and be willing to live our lives in the middle of it. And just like we do with the rain, we can move forward with our difficult thoughts, observing and accepting that they are there, and that that’s normal.

Here’s some rain. Here’s some fear. There’s no need to judge it or control it. You can be, and do, despite.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Blonna, R. (2010). Maximize your coaching effectiveness with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

The problem of pain

I’ve been thinking about pain. A number of things have converged in recent weeks to cause this: my reinjured knee (currently waiting for MRI results and follow-up with the orthopod), my mother’s grief over the loss of her beloved cat, Viktor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning” (if you haven’t read this, I thoroughly recommend buying it), and the daily catalogue of unhappy news from around the world. (On a lighter note, also the individuation report that I idly signed up for a while ago that told me I thrived on suffering. Apparently I have a ‘strange appreciation for pain’, although they did go on to clarify that they didn’t mean masochistically, which was helpful.) It seemed quite fitting that while participating in a group guided meditation a couple of weeks ago, one of the messages that came into my head was ‘pain is a teacher.’

In my more philosophical moments, I have mulled over the ‘problem of pain’ and why God allows suffering to happen. I am no theologian or philosopher, but you see, I think pain is part of life in all its fullness.

A few questions occur to me. Is pain necessary? What would life be like without it? What happens when you fight or run from pain? I’ll be clear upfront – I have no definitive answers to any of these questions. But it strikes me that these are worthwhile things to consider.

Is pain necessary? What would life be like without it?

Whenever I mull over what a life without any pain would be like I’m reminded of two things. The first is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and its citizens getting high on soma, which, as Huxley comments, has “all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects”. Except does it? People blissed out on soma are dull and torpid. The second is the childhood memory of when I learnt about leprosy and discovered that because lepers don’t feel any pain they end up losing parts of their extremities because of repeated and unnoticed wounds and infections. Pain, then, is a natural signal to us to stop and take stock of our reality.

I think pain allows us to become fully human. Is pleasure all we want in our lives? How can you value happiness if you never know anything else? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think suffering is necessary in order to find meaning and happiness. Seeking it out would just be masochistic. I just think that if it does find you, you have to embrace it, and find out what it’s teaching you, and then discover that your joy, whenever it comes, is all the more precious because of the contrast.

The Indian poet Rumi said this: “Sorrow prepares you for joy. It violently sweeps everything out of your house, so that new joy can find space to enter.” And then there’s one of my favourite verses in Ecclesiastes: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…”

What happens when you fight or run from pain?

I think that often our first instinct, when confronted with pain, is to control or get rid of it somehow. Fight it, run from it, suppress it, avoid it. Sometimes this is reasonable and sensible to avoid unnecessary suffering, like anaesthesia during operations or pain relief in childbirth. Sometimes, though, it’s not so easy to figure out what control we have over our situation, or indeed whether we should be trying to exert control over it in the first place.

If you’re in an unhappy position, I think you first have to ask yourself: “Is there anything I can do to change the situation or get away from it?” If there is, however, there then comes a second question: “Does it help me to do so?” If the answers to both of these questions are yes, then you take the necessary and appropriate action. But what happens if either or both answers are no? I think the key word for what I want to talk about here is acceptance.

Eh? Acceptance?

I often tell my clients that acceptance is not the same thing as resignation. It’s not about some sort of reluctant acquiescence or passiveness in the face of defeat. Jon Kabat-Zinn, in “Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness”, phrases it beautifully: “Acceptance doesn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, mean passive resignation. Quite the opposite. It takes a huge amount of fortitude and motivation to accept what is – especially when you don’t like it – and then work wisely and effectively as best you possibly can with the circumstances you find yourself in and with the resources at your disposal, both inner and outer, to mitigate, heal, redirect, and change what can be changed.”

I also love the way Eckhart Tolle puts it: “When there is no way out, there is still always a way through.”

Surrendering like this – letting go of resistance and working with rather than against your situation – may not come naturally, but I think learning how to live in this way is so worth it. You start by acknowledging that you are resistant, and then step away from yourself to observe what’s going on in your mind and what the pain is like. Then you allow the pain and the resistance to just be there, rather than pushing it away or trying to escape.

Here’s a little exercise* to show you what I mean. Pick up a large book (the heavier the better) and imagine that it represents all the pain and tears and unhappy thoughts that you’re fighting. Now grip it as tightly as you can, as if you’re trying to stop someone taking it away from you. Hold it up in front of you, gripping tightly all the while, and keep doing that for three minutes.

Done?

Now, place it against the wall, and push the book away from you, as hard as you can. Just keep pushing away all that pain. You’re managing to keep the pain at arm’s length, great. How long do you think you’ll be able to keep going?

And if I were to ask you now, while you’re pushing hard, to have an important conversation, or hug someone you love, how easy would you find that?

Every time you push something away, it’s at a cost to you. It may seem that the situation you’re in is causing your pain – and this may well be true – but the truth is, your resistance (and fear, and resentment, and anger) is also making it worse.

If you’re hurting, and if I were to ask you what you were running from, what would you say? Our personal demons come in all shapes and sizes. The trouble with running is that as long as you are doing this, your demon has a much greater capacity to hurt you. The key is in changing your relationship with it, understanding that you don’t necessarily have to identify with it, fight it, or get rid of it. It’s part of life right now. It is what it is.

So face the demon, and be tender with it. Hold it lightly, acknowledging its presence, and then put it to one side. Think about all the things you can do after you stop gripping that book and simply place it gently on the table next to you. It’s there, in the background, like some soft soundtrack that no longer demands you listen to it.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

*adapted from ACT Made Simple, Russ Harris

Procrastination and perfectionism

Earlier this week I read an article on BBC News, which reported on a recent study that had provided physiological evidence of how the emotional centres of the brain can overwhelm a person’s ability for self-regulation (such as when you’re trying to keep on task), and how procrastination is a problem much more to do with managing emotions than it is to do with managing time. (Lots more information on this is available at procrastination.ca.)

I’m no scientist, but here’s a highly-simplified representation of your brain, so if you’re also a non-scientist you can visualise what I (hope I know I) am talking about.

three-brainsOne thing I found particularly interesting about the article was that the study showed that the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system and deals with motivation and emotion, was larger in procrastinators. It also showed that in these individuals, the connections between the amygdala and another part of the brain, the dorsal part of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), weren’t as good as in the non-procrastinators. (The ACC, which sits in between the ’emotional’ limbic system and the ‘cognitive’ prefrontal cortex (part of the neocortex), takes information from the amygdala and uses this to decide what action the body will take as a result. It helps keep us on task and on track by enabling us to filter out emotions and distractions.)

So what does this all mean? If your amygdala’s more active, and your brain isn’t filtering that information out effectively, your decision-making and task-management ability can suffer. In sum, how our brains are wired can determine whether we’re more likely to get on with a task or continually put it off.

All this made me start reflecting on the work I’ve done with clients who have wanted help with time management. Inevitably, the core issue has not in fact been to do with time management. Instead, the difficulty of completing tasks has been interwoven with feelings of overwhelm and not being good enough; avoidance of tasks that trigger feelings of anxiety; and a deep-seated fear of what the client views as failure. A lot of this often has its roots in patterns learnt in childhood – enter the loud inner critic and the continual need to prove oneself through doing everything well.

In job interviews, when asked to talk about one’s weaknesses, one answer that often gets used is “I’m a real perfectionist and have high standards, and this can mean I spend more time than necessary getting things just right.” The idea, of course, is to present a weakness that you don’t actually see as a weakness. The trouble with this (apart from the cliched answer – which I don’t recommend, by the way) is that I don’t think perfectionism really has anything to do with standards and with getting things right. Rather, it’s an inability to be happy with what you have achieved because there is always room for more improvement: “Good, better, best; never let it rest. Till your good is better, and your better best.” It’s not a pursuit of excellence, it’s an endless cycle of nothing you do ever being adequate. It’s the constant, unhappy refrain of “if I don’t do a stellar job then I am not good enough”. Perfectionism and low self-esteem are a great double-act, and have been shown to be associated with anxiety and depression. 

For the perfectionist, working drafts are often anathema – you want things to be just right straightaway. You dislike being a beginner; if you’re going to do something you want to be good at it from the get-go. You get bogged down in the details, crafting and re-crafting something to try and get it just-so. Instead of relaxing into and enjoying the process of learning and growth, you are constantly assessing your performance. You think you’ve failed if you haven’t driven yourself to deliver anything less than perfect.

The constant need to live up to what are actually quite unrealistic and unfair expectations of yourself can be an exhausting struggle. Far easier to avoid doing something, because then you also avoid the negative emotions associated with it. And that is precisely what happens: you put off doing things because they trigger your anxiety about inadequacy in some way. I can’t face that right now. There’s too much to think about. I need to have time to do it properly. Over time, this can lead to complete overwhelm.

How do you break this cycle? Let’s first be clear – like anything else that takes a lifetime to build up, these negative patterns will take time to fix. But the important thing is to recognise that they can be changed. I believe that that change starts with learning self-compassion. In self-compassion, acceptance is key: accepting what is, what was, who you are and how you think and feel, without judgment. I think an important aspect of self-compassion is also self-forgiveness – learning to let go of not just the past and its regrets, but also all the future possible somebodies or somebody elses you may feel you need to become, in order to allow yourself to come fully into the present.

I’ve written several previous posts about mindfulness and meditation and thoroughly recommend this as a valuable partner in the journey towards being kind to yourself. Briefly back to the science – research has shown that mindfulness meditation is related to shrinkage of the amygdala and expansion of the prefrontal cortex. Learning to love yourself, in other words, literally changes your brain.

If this article has struck a chord with you, and you’re looking for support in your journey, coaching can help. Do get in touch. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some short-term practical assistance: there are tools out there that can help you get to grips with tasks when you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed. I often use this action-priority matrix with clients:

Copy of Action-priority matrix-2

You may well have seen something similar – a common one is the ‘urgent vs. important’ matrix – but this particular rendition is a PICK chart (Plan-Implement-Consider-Kick Out) and the idea is that you categorise your tasks in terms of their relative impact vs. effort. So:

  • Low effort, high impact: Quick wins, go do them now. A complementary exercise I often use with clients is what I call “What One Thing (are you going to do today)?”   
  • Low effort, low impact: These are ‘time-fillers’ – consider doing them if you want to, but they shouldn’t be your go-to pile all the time.
  • High effort, low impact: (Don’t. Unless you have an actual obligation to do so.)
  • High effort, high impact: This is often where the procrastination comes in and, together with the Implement quadrant, is where clients typically need to focus. These are tasks that you need to do but can’t be done in one sitting. They require planning, and benefit from task breakdowns and micro-resolutions (small, achievable goals).

I hope you’ve found this useful. If you have, why not subscribe to my mailing list so you don’t miss future updates?

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Resilience

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
I bend, I don’t break.
I always bounce back.

Do you use any of these metaphors when you talk or think about resilience? Personally, I like the picture of resilience that’s summed up by this plant.

sprout-1147803_960_720

It illustrates nicely the definition given by Carole Pemberton (2015) in Coaching for Resilience:

The capacity to remain flexible in our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours when faced by a life disruption, or extended periods of pressure, so that we emerge from difficulty stronger, wiser, and more able. 

In other words, resilience is gradual adaptation in the face of adversity.  Being resilient doesn’t mean you have to be somehow invulnerable to life’s hard knocks – it’s all about learning and growth, and the ability to steer your way constructively through difficulty. I think the danger of the popular characterisation of ‘bouncing back’ is that it gives the impression that recovering from setbacks is as effortless and instantaneous as the rebound of a rubber ball. You just pick yourself up and carry on as you were, utterly unchanged by the event. Except you’re not.

Even if you’re of the true grit school of thought, it’s important to recognise that resilience isn’t a you’ve-either-got-it-or-you-don’t thing; it’s a continuum. Life continually tests us, and our ability to respond well to this can vary depending on context and domain. You may be able to cope very well with pressure in your professional life, but feel crushed by the breakdown of a personal relationship. You may historically have had no problems navigating the ups and downs of life, but find yourself unexpectedly and completely derailed after being made redundant. Our resilience can become overwhelmed in all sorts of different ways – and we will all respond differently, too.1,2

I find it useful looking at this from the perspective of the three-factor model that combines the effects of genetics, external protective factors, and learning (diagram below adapted from Pemberton, 2015):

3-factor model of resilience

What this tells us is that although some people may be more naturally resilient than others, resilience isn’t just a product of our personality. Research has also shown the important contributions made by the support networks around us (the availability of ‘secure attachment’) and what we learn from experience. That latter factor is probably most crucial for me. I love the way Ann Masten puts it: resilience, she says, is ‘ordinary magic’: something we develop through the demands of living. I love this because it marks it out as something that can be available to all of us, even if we haven’t had the most fortunate start in life.

So how, then, can we cultivate resilience? It’s worth spending some time thinking about these factors:

  1. Finding meaning
    I’ve written before about purpose as a key factor in what drives us – the desire to connect to a greater and meaningful cause. Purpose gives us direction and a reason to keep going. What purpose can you find in what you may be going through? What can you take from this experience that you can channel positively into something meaningful?
  2. Flexibility
    Fixed patterns of thinking stop us being able to see the larger picture and its possibilities for learning and growth. How can I widen my perspective? What other ways are there to think about this situation? What can I learn from this setback?(For more on this, I recommend Carol Dweck’s work on fixed and growth mindsets.)
  3. Support
    What company am I keeping? Resilience is not developed in social isolation. What positive and mutually supportive relationships can I build?
  4. Mindfulness
    Pain is typically seen as a problem. Mindfulness helps us learn to detach from our negative thoughts and feelings in order to observe and accept them without becoming trapped in them – moving forward despite them, rather than trying to remove them from our lives. As Camus says, the human condition is absurd. But man’s freedom, and the opportunity to give life meaning, lies in the acceptance of absurdity.
  5. Proactivity
    What action are you taking? Sometimes all we need to get ourselves out of a pit is to take back control – by taking one small step at a time.
  6. Perspective and taking responsibility
    Ask yourself these questions: What can you control about this situation? What contribution are you making to it?

What someone needs in order to help them become more resilient will of course vary. In coaching, there are many tools that can be drawn upon, including mindfulness, cognitive-behavioural approaches, narrative coaching, and positive psychology. If you’re interested in how coaching can help you build your resilience, why not get in touch?

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd


1I’ve previously written about how it’s not events in life that affect you, it’s the personal meaning that you attach to those events (typically because they’ve destabilised or taken away some core aspect of your sense of identity). It’s a little out of the scope of this article, though.

2It’s important to know that the loss of resilience is something that happens in response to normal life experiences. It is typically temporary. This needs to be distinguished from abnormal physical or psychological trauma, such as childhood abuse or involvement in a major road traffic accident. These kinds of traumatic life events are not part of our normal life experience, and any inability to cope with them is never any reflection on your capability. If this has happened to you, there is help out there. You may wish to read about PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) here.