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/

Letting go

IMG_0996

Hello, 3am. I’ve been sleeping like a baby these past few weeks – waking up every two hours, that is. There’s a lot that’s been going on in one of the places that I work which is having a considerable impact on me and my team.

Many of you won’t share my faith (I’m a practising Catholic). Goodness knows I’ve been neglecting it myself. But it’s part and parcel of my blueprint, at 3am as much as it is any other time.

So I’m thinking about a few things that I talked about yesterday with a friend of mine. We find meaning in hindsight, even if we don’t like or completely understand what we’re going through in the present. I’m reminded of what I often discuss with coaching clients – finding the locus of what we can control and doing what we can with that, and realising that what we can’t control, we need to learn to respond to in a way that is constructive. My anxiety about things at 3am helps no one. I’m keeping in mind the saying “let go and let God”. We can’t always see the bigger picture. Pre-living potential futures through worrying what might happen is unhelpful. Do the best you can, and leave the rest to unfold as it will. Respond by making the best choices you can in the present. That is all any of us can do.

Whatever you find most helpful for you – prayer, meditation, running, yoga, getting outdoors – I hope that it will give you some peace this weekend. Take care of yourselves.

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

Hindsight is always 20:20

IMG_0945

I think we all need a reminder of this every so often. I was chatting with one of my best friends a few weeks ago about choices we’d made as teenagers and we got to musing about different life paths.

Ok, stop right there.

You see, a lot of the choices we make in life are made with the best information that we have at that point in time. Vision in hindsight is always 20:20. There is nothing – nothing – to guarantee that, had you made a different decision back then, you would be in a happier or more successful place right now. Don’t forget too that everything in our past has shaped us in ways that we can’t see.

Ruminating and speculating on ‘what-ifs’ are rarely helpful things to do. We are shaped by all that has passed, but the past is gone – learn from it by all means, but what matters is what you do with what you have in this moment. That’s yours for the taking.

– 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.

What is forgiveness?

Forgiveness

A little while ago, I had a coaching session in which a key theme was reconciliation. We talked about forgiveness and what that really meant. What was the motivation in seeking reconciliation? What outcomes were desired? Was it for the other person to apologise and admit they had been in the wrong? Or to say I value your friendship and I would very much like to make things ok between us again. Can we talk?

This is what I think forgiveness is about. You can’t control how other people will act, and if you allow their actions to dictate your responses, you can end up becoming resentful and bitter.

I think forgiveness is for your own peace, to allow yourself to move forward. If it’s conditional on the other person being sorry, what happens if they aren’t? If you make forgiveness a contract, you bind yourself to only being able to give if the other person does their bit. It doesn’t need to be reciprocal. It is, I think, fundamentally about saying: “I send you peace. I let go of this pain.”

– Written by Natalie Snodgrass Tan, Quiet Space Ltd

The Happiness Equation

IMG_8865

This is from @neilpasricha and The Happiness Equation which is all about learning to be happy. I’ve posted before about happiness being a choice and available to you right here, right now, regardless of what circumstances life is throwing at you. So how do you train yourself to choose happiness?

Pasricha writes about the Big Seven ways to gain happiness: positivity, gratitude, meditation, movement, flow, kindness, and regularly unplugging from the speed of the world. As Pasricha says, happy people don’t have the best of everything – they make the best of everything. So, be happy first.

What are your thoughts on this? What’s your personal recipe for happiness?

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.