Coaching in the Age of Coronavirus

There are so many tips online these days for how to survive the pandemic or what to do during lockdown that I’ve been hesitant to add any, but since so many of us are stuck at home with time on our hands and a jumble in our heads, I thought I’d highlight a few things I’ve found helpful.

The first has been to set some goals: not big lofty goals or enormous challenges that will feel burdensome, but simple choices to focus on things I care about that will occupy my mind and keep me moving forward in a time when I might otherwise feel stuck – at home, in the limits of my life, and in the obsessive tendencies of my mind.

Have something you’re working toward:  learning a simple skill or craft or about a subject that interests you; a moderate physical challenge like a series of pushups or a weekly yoga practice; a book you’ve been curious about but never given yourself the time to read before. Do something simple and achievable that you can feel good about, and that’s different than just what you need to do to get by.

Various combinations of these have gotten me through these last few months, and though I still sometimes feel stir-crazy, my online painting class (thank you Art Students League) or Yoga with Adriene or Insight meditation Zoom sessions have been a huge help.

So has learning new coaching skills, like Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems model, or IFS. For use both in psychotherapy and in coaching, IFS is a way of understanding our own minds that I’ve found particularly helpful at a time when so many of us are spending more time isolated with our own minds than ever before. Living in lockdown can be a bit like being on your own home meditation retreat (or mandatory home confinement) without the guidance of a teacher or connection to a community, which makes it far more difficult to learn from the experience.

Schwartz’s IFS model is ultimately a way of making friends with our own minds – the good, the bad and the ugly. In his view, we all have different parts of ourselves that emerge and take over and lead us at various times — and often lead us astray. Like a family where different members play different roles in the system (Schwartz started out as a family therapist) we’ve each developed these internal voices or “parts” in response to various experiences in our lives. Each serves a different function, so has different goals and interests and means of conveying them. We may have an inner critic that tells us we’re stupid whenever we make a mistake, for example, or a part of us that’s afraid to try new things. Those parts might have developed because as children we got in trouble for making mistakes, or were shamed if we tried and failed at something. We’ve internalized those responses, and now those parts are battling other parts of ourselves that long for learning, growth or adventure. The critical or fearful voices aren’t bad: they developed for a good reason, to try to keep us from getting hurt. But by now, if they’ve become too dominant, they may be more destructive than helpful, keeping us stuck in internal turmoil.

The IFS model isn’t about banishing those internal voices, but about getting to know them, developing understanding and compassion for them, and ultimately, helping them channel their energies or interests more constructively. In Schwartz’s theory, while we all have these inner parts that often work against one another, we also all have a “true self” or core wisdom that we can access, which allows us to hear and accept the various voices, and learn from but not be ruled by them. Acting from our core wisdom or true self – in others words, self-leadership – is the goal of IFS therapy or coaching.

You can learn more about Schwartz’s model here or through his audiobook, Greater than the Sum of Our Parts. The model can be applied in various settings, including, when used carefully by a well-trained therapist, to situations of serious mental disturbance. But as a coaching method, IFS can help us all sort through some of the noise in our minds that keeps us feeling stuck and dissatisfied. Whether you’re trying to endure the isolation of a lockdown or having conflict in a relationship or feeling stuck in your career, it’s really helpful to identify and come to know the various parts of yourself that are rushing in and trying to tell you what to do. They’re often arguing with each other, so it can be hard to discern what each is saying above the cacophony. Schwartz’s model is all about doing just that:  disentangling the parts so we can hear, listen to and learn from each of them, and ultimately re-direct their energies and interests to guide us in more constructive ways.

If you’re feeling stuck, anxious, or just exhausted by the monotony of pandemic life, consider taking this opportunity to slow down and really listen: what are the different parts within you, and what are they saying? What might you ask them, and what could you learn? What do they want for you, and what do they need? And what can they teach you about how old patterns of thinking may be getting in your own way?

Self-Compassion It

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I was in a meeting at the Pentagon recently, seated at a table surrounded by uniformed military officers and dark-suited government officials. The meeting was tense, with the officials all insisting the Defense Department was doing the right thing and I and my colleagues from other human rights organizations pointing to our evidence that in many situations, it had not. We didn’t seem to be making any progress.

At some point I glanced down at my wrist and realized I was wearing a red rubber bracelet that said in prominent white letters: “Self-Compassion It.”  I’d been given the bracelet upon completing an eight-week training course in “Mindful Self-Compassion,” and had been wearing it as a reminder to use the tools I’d learned.

Nothing wrong with that, right? Still, in this buttoned-up professional setting, I was instantly embarrassed. I sheepishly tucked my hand under the table, slid the bracelet off and stuffed it into my handbag. The idea that I would be seen considering “self-compassion” in a meeting of senior warriors seemed absurd.

The idea of mindful self-compassion can sound silly, trivial and self-involved. But it’s actually anything but.  As Kristin Neff and Chris Germer, the psychologists who created the Mindful Self-Compassion course explain, self-compassion has been scientifically proven to be critical to well-being.

Unlike self-esteem, self-compassion isn’t based on pumping yourself up to believe you’re better than anyone else.  That keeps you in a judging mindset, so as soon as you screw up, you feel worthless again.  Self-compassion is instead having compassion for yourself — not for your accomplishments, but simply because you’re a human being, flawed like everyone else, and deserving of compassion nonetheless.  Once you acknowledge that you don’t have to be perfect to deserve compassion, you naturally start feeling compassion for the other less-than-perfect people around you. In other words, it’s helpful not only for yourself, but for everyone you encounter.

Neff’s book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, explains this all very well.  But most convincing to me was Neff’s story of how she’s applied it in her own life.

As a small child, her son was diagnosed with autism. She felt a huge range of emotions — including disappointment, sadness, grief and fear.  She had recently learned self-compassion techniques on a week-long mindfulness retreat. She describes how flooding herself with self-compassion allowed her to feel her full range of emotions — including the shame she felt at some of her reactions.  Only by accepting those emotions with compassion rather than judgment could she fully experience them, to the point where she could accept and then acknowledge that she was strong enough to handle the situation. Not that it was easy, but it gave her a critical tool to deal with the challenges.

After that, when her son would start acting out — screaming and flailing in public,  for example, as some autistic children do —  she would comfort herself for her feelings of confusion, shame, stress and helplessness. That calmed her enough so she could respond wisely and compassionately to her son, instead of lashing out in anger or wallowing in self-pity.

Neff’s experience illustrates why self-compassion is so valuable.  It allows us to face our situation, whatever it is, with compassion instead of judgment. That allows us to look at the situation more honestly and thoughtfully, and to choose more carefully how we want to respond.

If I’ve made a mistake, for example, instead of immediately criticizing myself as “stupid”, I can forgive myself for not being perfect, acknowledge the mistake, and look more closely to see what happened and what I’d want to do differently next time. Giving myself compassion instead of criticism allows me to move forward. On the other hand, if I immediately beat myself up and feel worthless, I’m going to try to hide from or forget the situation immediately and avoid looking at what I did at all.  And I’m more likely to repeat the same mistake again.

The feeling of compassion, much like the feeling of love, has positive physical effects on our bodies, too. Scientists have shown it increases oxytocin, which has a calming effect on our nervous systems; it improves vagal tone, which helps the body reduce inflammation; it improves relationships, which has an anti-ageing effect, and, well, it just feels good.

The feeling of judgment or self-hatred, on the other hand, creates anxiety, which has a decidedly negative impact.  Chronic self-doubt and anxiety harm the heart, immune and gastrointestinal systems. Plus they just make us feel lousy.

Compassion “involves the recognition and clear seeing of suffering,” writes Neff. “It also involves feelings of kindness for people who are suffering, so that the desire to help – to ameliorate suffering – emerges. Finally, compassion involves recognizing our shared human condition, flawed and fragile as it is.”

Self-compassion thus places us in the sea of common humanity and allows us to extend the same compassion to ourselves we would instinctively offer to a good friend, a small child, or favorite pet.  It allows us to acknowledge what’s happening, including our suffering, with kindness rather than with judgment.  For those of us who’ve allowed ourselves to be ruled by self-judgment, that’s a huge relief.

“Self-compassion provides an island of calm, a refuge from the stormy seas of endless positive and negative self-judgment, so that we can finally stop asking, “Am I as good as they are? Am I good enough?” writes Neff.

It’s hard to be a human being in a difficult world. Our social and professional settings can make us feel like we constantly have to prove ourselves, to measure up, to justify our worth. As obvious as it sounds, no one’s perfect: we all make mistakes, even if we’re trying our best, usually in less-than-ideal circumstances. The simple response of kindness – both for ourselves and for others – can go a long way.

Learning from Silence

images.pngThere’s nothing like a 7-day silent retreat to shut you up. I don’t mean just during the retreat, when, of course, you’re supposed to be quiet. But even after. I’ve found that since returning from a week-long meditation retreat in July, I’ve been reluctant to write. Not about public affairs, which I write about for my work, but about the experience of the retreat itself. Seven days of silence taught me not only the value of silence, but why it’s really worth evaluating more carefully what it is we have to say.

Being in a room with 100 other people in silence makes immediately clear how much anxiety underlies ordinary situations involving other people simply because we feel we should say something. Preferably it’s clever, witty, or welcoming, and always it feels like a reflection of us in the world. The worry, ‘How will I present myself?’ Is frequently an anxiety about ‘what will I say?’ It leads to a lot of unnecessary chatter, which in itself can provoke further anxiety.

What’s interesting about being in silence is you find you don’t really need to say much. There’s great peace in that.

Of course, your thoughts don’t stop. You’re just saying them to yourself. This presents a unique opportunity to observe what it is that you say to yourself all day, and its impact.

For example, I noticed that, when undistracted by chatter or radio or television or even reading or writing – all things taboo on a silent retreat – my mind tends to either ruminate about the past or plan for the future. It may be ruminating about why a past relationship went wrong or something I regret saying or doing yesterday or 20 years ago, or it may be planning my next vacation, or even my next meal. But it becomes instantly clear how hard it is to keep my mind in the present.

So what? Well, for one thing, it means I’m missing out on whatever’s going on right now. Which is actually where I’m living my life. It means I’m not fully engaging with the experience I’m having, whether it’s pleasant or painful.

That also means I’m not learning from it. Paying attention to what brings us joy, for example, is really important. How else can you not only fully experience that joy, but know what it is you really want more of in your life?

Paying attention to what’s painful is harder, but also crucial. If I’m feeling bad about some past mistake I made yet again, I can recognize the pain in that and decide to respond to myself with compassion instead of blame. That makes it easier to see, consider and understand why I did what I did, and leaves me better able, when a similar situation arises again, to choose a different course. Over time, choosing to respond this way becomes a new habit. It’s ultimately a much less painful and more constructive way to move forward.

The other thing I realized is how much all these ruminations and plans are really about trying to solidify a sense of who I am: if I’m stewing over something hurtful I did or said, I’m not only regretting that act, I’m also hating myself for being the person who committed it. Identifying myself as a person who does hurtful things compounds the pain tremendously.

The same is true when thinking about other people. If I’m revisiting a wrong done to me, I’m usually not just upset about what happened. I’m also feeling angry toward the person who did it, and whom I’ve now labeled a bad person. And I’m identifying myself as a victim in the situation, which is inherently disempowering. I’ve just compounded the problem and seared into my memory these solid impressions of who everyone involved actually is.

What’s useful about silence is to see how these are all simply habits of mind. We habitually seek to create a sense of our own identity, and of the identity of others, based on partial memories, refracted images and imagined futures. That’s not only painful, but terribly limiting.

What we dwell upon becomes the shape of our minds. In our ordinary lives, we’re being constantly bombarded by stimuli that literally shape our minds, whether it’s the latest hateful thing Donald Trump said or an ad for some luxury item we don’t need and can’t afford. By recognizing this, we can begin to make the choice to focus on things that matter more to us, such as the people in our lives or a cause we really care about. That all requires paying attention to where our minds habitually stray, and setting an intention to direct them toward where we actually want them to go.

Silence helped me realize how much room we have to create our selves, and how much more charitably we can view other people — in far more helpful and responsible ways.

Coaching for “Wholeness”

imagesI have mixed feelings about social media, and often feel more assaulted than supported by what turns up on my Facebook and Twitter feeds. But there are always exceptions, and I’ve noticed that Maria Popova’s thoughtful and far-ranging blog Brainpickings is usually one of them.

Her post on The Elusive Art of Inner Wholeness and How to Stop Hiding Our Souls popped up on my Twitter page the other day, and maybe because it was the end of my work day I stopped to actually click on the link and read it.

“Do not despise your inner world,” she begins, quoting the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, and goes on to describe the 2004 book by Parker Palmer:  A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. Palmer observes that we tend to live split lives:  an internal life we rarely acknowledge or share, and an external life that often seems foreign to us.

He writes:

Afraid that our inner light will be extinguished or our inner darkness exposed, we hide our true identities from each other. In the process, we become separated from our own souls. We end up living divided lives, so far removed from the truth we hold within that we cannot know the “integrity that comes from being what you are.”

This struck me because it’s something I think about often; it also highlights beautifully the purpose of coaching and why I was drawn to it:  to help people see and bring together their inner and outer identities, to create a life that brings those inner and outer worlds into alignment, so instead of feeling divided, we feel, act and live as one unified whole.

Coaching isn’t about handing someone a key to “success” or self-improvement; it’s about acknowledging, accepting and flourishing with all of the various parts of ourselves.

As Parker writes: “Wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life. Knowing this gives me hope that human wholeness — mine, yours, ours — need not be a utopian dream, if we can use devastation as a seedbed for new life.”

Critical to creating that new life is understanding our own sense of integrity:  not an imposed set of ethics or standards, but what each of us as individuals actually cares about and values most.  The alternative is to chase other people’s imposed ideas of success and importance, and to feel dull, listless, and disconnected from our own lives.

“Not knowing who or what we are dealing with and feeling unsafe,” Parker writes, “we hunker down in a psychological foxhole and withhold the investment of our energy, commitment, and gifts … The perceived incongruity of inner and outer–the inauthenticity that we sense in others, or they in us — constantly undermines our morale, our relationships, and our capacity for good work.”

To me, reconnecting with our full selves in a way that allows us to crawl out of that foxhole and live a full and authentic life, and to thrive in that, is what coaching is all about. Of course, this is a lifelong process, not a simple problem to be “solved” in a few coaching sessions. And perhaps it’s impossible to achieve complete “wholeness,” for more than a few moments at a time, at least, because we’re always changing. But coaching sets that sort of inner and outer integration as a goal, and provides tools for navigating the journey, including ways to keep coming back to our own inner compass when we inevitably get lost along the way.

 

How To Deal With Annoying People

rackmultipart-18124-0_crop_340x234I was on a conference call the other day, when a familiar voice started talking. Within seconds, my blood started to boil. It wasn’t so much that the person was saying anything particularly wrong or offensive; what she was saying triggered me for all sorts of reasons that have little to do with her. In this case, I was annoyed because she was talking about her Herculean effort to do something that was taking her forever to accomplish, and that I’d essentially already done months earlier. In my view, all the work I had put into the project already was being ignored.

We all have people or situations that push our buttons, whether because those people represent something we don’t like, or those situations reflect an uncomfortable reality we’d rather not face. Maybe it’s someone’s tone of voice that you interpret as disrespectful, or a group dynamic that doesn’t seem to adequately acknowledge your contributions. Whatever it is, the knot in the stomach, the constriction in the throat, all those things that indicate anger arising are very real – yet often based on something we’re not completely aware of.

I’ve recently started dealing with this in a new way that’s been extremely helpful, and have been recommending this to my coaching clients. The New York Center for Nonviolent Communication, led by Thom Bond, calls it “The Exercise.” It’s a really effective way of connecting to and dissecting the emotions you’re feeling, and using those to help clarify the needs you have that are not being met. From there, you can figure out a more constructive way of meeting them.

I’ve summarized before the underlying premise of Nonviolent Communication, a method of improving communication and connection developed by the psychologist Marshall Rosenberg. His book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, is essential reading for anyone looking for healthier and more effective ways of dealing with anger and other strong emotions we tend to direct outwards.

Rosenberg’s idea, carried on now by Bond and many others through NVC centers around the world, is that underlying anger, frustration and related emotions are usually a host of other feelings we’re not aware of, such as fear, sadness, insecurity, etc. And those emotions are usually a signal that some basic human need of ours is not being met – say, a need for security, support, connection, or effectiveness. The NY center actually provides this very handy list of common feelings and needs here. It’s useful to refer to these, both to help clarify our own feelings and needs, to differentiate our own feelings from assumptions we may be making about others, and to help understand just how universal these basic feelings and needs really are.

The point of “The Exercise,” as explained more thoroughly here, is to practice stepping away from the strong emotion before you react to it, and consider (and actually write down) the full range of feelings coming up for you in that situation, and your underlying needs that are not being met.

In the situation of my conference call, for example, I was feeling frustrated, irritated, impatient, resentful, insecure, envious and even a bit ashamed. (It’s amazing how many emotions can underlie what at first just feels like anger, and how difficult it can be to acknowledge some of them.) My unmet needs included appreciation, belonging, respect, understanding, contribution, and effectiveness. (Also very surprising to see and difficult to acknowledge the broad range.)

The second part of the exercise involves writing down what you imagine were the feelings and needs of the other person, who in the particular situation had just pissed you off. The purpose of this part is to develop some empathy with that person: to realize that just like you, she has feelings and needs she’s trying to satisfy, and her actions or words, effective or not, are an attempt to meet those needs.

Of course, some situations require a fast response, and you can’t necessarily take the time to leave the room and go write down all your feelings and needs. But many situations where we get angry don’t require an immediate response. In fact, an immediate response, in the heat of anger, is usually not the most effective response, once you consider what your goals actually are. So one of the key things this exercise does it get you to stop and NOT react immediately.

I’ve found that when I do this, I’m able to acknowledge and experience my emotions, but also move through them and not get stuck there. As I consider what needs I have that are not being met, it usually becomes pretty clear why that is, and whether or not I should expect to get them met in this situation at all. If not, how else can I meet those needs? Now I’m on to developing a more constructive strategy for addressing the real problem.

Meanwhile, after imagining what the other person’s feelings and needs might be, my anger at that person usually dissipates. I still may not like her words or actions, but I don’t usually hate the person herself. And in imagining what she’s needing, I might find that I can help provide her at least some of that, in a way that circumvents this whole anger-producing process. And in the end, that’s a better situation for all of us.

Love and Activism

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A few years ago I was on a nonprofit leadership training retreat, when everyone had to go around the circle and declare their “purpose.” This was the sort of exercise I dreaded, so I scrambled to come up with something plausible I could say that wouldn’t be too embarrassing. Then I heard one of the retreat leaders announce that her purpose was “love.”

My eyes widened and it took all the energy I could muster to keep from rolling them. “Love?” I thought. “Really? And this is a professional leadership training?”

It’s easy to be cynical about the word “love.” It’s exploited to sell products and convince us we need lots of self-improvement to be worthy of it. In Hollywood movies or on TV, it’s mostly young beautiful women who find it (the movies are much more forgiving to men), prompting the rest of us to feel we should rush out and buy whatever we can be duped into thinking might allow us to make ourselves over into that image. The obsessive focus on the self that creates actually leads to the opposite of love: self-consciousness and self-loathing, as well as a cramped and defensive view of everyone else.

The popular view of nonromantic love, meanwhile, is the perfect immediate family, consisting of mother, father and several children, all happy, attractive, posing perfectly for their envy-inducing snapshot on Facebook.

I’ve since gotten to know that retreat leader better, and I don’t think she meant any of those things. I think she was talking about a far more expansive, and healthy, understanding of love, one that leads to the opposite of self-consciousness, narcissism, and envy; one that instead helps dissolve the boundaries between ourselves and the world around us, opening up greater possibilities for engagement, and for joy.

The research psychologist Barbara Fredrickson calls this “positivity resonance.” Fredrickson is a professor at the University of North Carolina and a leading researcher in the study of positive emotions. Her book, Love 2.0, offers an intriguing and I think really useful look at the whole concept of love: what it means, when it occurs, and the powerful physical and psychological effects it has on us – and its potential to connect us to a much broader range of people in the world.

Not surprisingly, Fredrickson finds that love is nothing like what we see in the movies. It’s not something you fall into or have unconditionally or need to find from that one special someone you’re searching for. It doesn’t require commitment or long-term bonding or even shared values, although those things can help create conditions that encourage it. But in itself, love is an often fleeting feeling you can have when you connect with almost anyone, including a complete stranger, under the right circumstances. It has a powerful impact on our bodies and our health, and literally synchronizes people as their brain functions mirror one another’s. Studies show the experience of this sort of love actually creates a broader perspective and understanding, of ourselves, of the other person, and of everything around us. What’s more, its quantity is unlimited; it’s an emotion we can develop and increase, regardless of our current relationship or family circumstances.

Obviously, this isn’t specifically romantic love, although that’s one form of it. But the kind of love I’m talking about doesn’t depend on finding any one perfect “soulmate” somewhere out there in the universe. It’s simply, as Fredrickson defines it, “that micro-moment of warmth and connection that you share with another living being, and is “perhaps the most essential emotional experience for thriving and health.”

What I like about this view is that it so clearly corresponds with actual human experience, and defies the silly cultural expectations that love be everlasting, unconditional, or limited to one person at a time. Rather, just as we experience it, love is an ever-shifting emotion that comes and goes, arises and fades away. It’s not exclusive. It’s not a unique feeling you reserve for one partner, or for immediate family or friends.

Positivity resonance is literally a “back and forth reverberation of positive energy.” Indeed, brain imaging studies done by Princeton professor Uri Hasson have shown that connection between two people actually creates synchronized changes in both people’s biochemistry. Hasson and his colleagues have shown that parts of people’s brains literally into sync during emotional moments – what Hasson calls “brain-to-brain coupling.” It’s how we understand each other.

The impact of this emotion on our bodies is astonishing. Love or positivity resonance strengthens the vagus nerve, which reaches from the brain down through the body to the abdomen, and touches most major organs along the way. The vagus nerve plays a key role in the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates the body’s stress level. A strong vagus nerve, or high vagal “tone,” as its measured, means the parasympathetic nervous system is working effectively to reduce the negative impact of stress on the body — slowing your heart rate after a frightening experience, for example. Scientists view vagal tone as a reflection of the strength of the immune system; a strong vagal tone make us more resistant to a broad range of diseases, including heart failure, stroke, arthritis, diabetes, and even some cancers.

Love also affects our bodies by increasing levels of the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin has long been known to be critical to mother-child bonding and sexual connection, but it’s also been found to increase during much more subtle emotional and social interactions. Oxytocin triggers the release of serotonin, which leads to increased feelings of happiness and reduces levels of stress. (Most anti-depressant medication similarly tries to increase the brain’s serotonin levels.)

The encouraging thing about all this is that it’s largely within our control. Increasing this sort of love is ultimately about letting yourself be open to it. Sure, there are formal practices designed to induce loving feelings, like lovingkindness meditations, or reflecting at the end of every day on the most positive interactions you had with other people, which can be very effective. (Fredrickson has studied these practices and finds that if done over time, they actually increase vagal tone.) So, too, can simply increasing awareness of the positive impact true connections can have.

Daily interactions, with colleagues at work or neighbors in the dog park, for example, can take on a new meaning. Instead of merely awkward small talk by the water-cooler or bleary-eyed encounters picking up dog poop in the morning, they become opportunities for increasing positivity resonance and better health.

Positivity resonance can support social activism as well. Instead of focusing only on achieving a particular outcome, which may be elusive, the possibility of connecting in a real way with others doing the same thing –- and experiencing the same frustrations — can give our advocacy work a whole other purpose.

This sort of “love” can help counter the burnout advocates so often feel in another way, too. Focusing on the problems of the world and seeing few easy solutions can quickly lead to pessimism, despair and depression. Focusing on positive feelings for those who you might benefit, on the other hand — what lovingkindness meditation does — can really lift the spirit.

Meditations on love and kindness or positive interactions with neighbors, colleagues or clients won’t stop wars or save the planet or directly help those suffering the consequences of those disasters. But if practiced regularly and sincerely, they can renew our sense of hope by changing how we feel towards other people, including those most harmed by the world’s problems. And that can help keep us motivated to do what we can to help.

Some Simple Career Advice

images-4I sometimes hear from recent college graduates struggling to start their careers. They want to know how they can get into human rights work, or journalism, or some combination of the two, and they think that because I’ve done both I’ll have the answer.

I don’t, of course. Career paths are rarely linear, and both public interest law and journalism have changed so much over the years that my own circuitous career path hardly seems relevant. Inevitably, I’m afraid, I end up dampening their enthusiasm with my cynicism about most jobs these days, particularly in law or journalism. Not that some aren’t great, but many people in their 20s have a lot of illusions about what they imagine to be their ideal careers, based on very little actual knowledge. The sooner they rid themselves of those the better.

There are really only two pieces of advice I end up giving: the first is to let yourself be drawn toward what you really enjoy. Try to shield yourself, at least somewhat, from other people’s expectations and your own insecurities, and think about what you really love to spend your time doing. Then go learn about what kind of work would allow you to do mostly that.

Once you’ve figured that out, try things out. You may really care about the environment, for example, but find that working at an environmental agency or advocacy organization is a total bore. You might really care about justice, but find that working at a law firm or even the social justice organization you admire most just keeps you stuck in front of a computer all day and feeling isolated. Don’t decide how you want to spend your life based on an abstract topic or issue: find out what the work entails doing all day. If that doesn’t inspire you, don’t do it.

These sounds like really obvious points. But it’s taken me many years to learn this myself; and I have to keep re-learning it.

I went to law school wanting to fight poverty and inequality; I ended up, seduced by the prestige of judicial clerkships and “impact litigation,” in a public interest job that sounded great on paper, but which I couldn’t stand.

I quit and went to journalism school. After that I did some interesting work that I’m proud of, and I took a lot of risks. But after ten years, the field had changed far more quickly than I’d expected and I was no longer excited about pitching stories to elite newspaper or magazine editors so they could pay me a pittance to do a lot of really hard work. My interests, my admiration for the field, and my tolerance for that level of insecurity, had all changed.

I’ve tried to combine the two fields of journalism and public interest law in my human rights work, and I’ve had some success doing that. But all work has its limitations, and I am still learning to appreciate what really interests me and the types of work I need to do to feel fulfilled. Coaching has been an important part of that.

All of which comes down to this really obvious but frequently-ignored advice: find a way to do the things you most enjoy and care about.

The psychologist Kenneth Sheldon and his co-authors Richard Ryan, Edward Deci and Tim Kasser flesh that out a bit, based on a wealth of psychological studies, including their own, about what makes people happy. They conclude:

“People seeking greater well-being would be well advised to focus on the pursuit of: a) goals involving growth, connection, and contribution rather than goals involving money, beauty and popularity; and b) goals that are interesting and personally important to them rather than goals they feel forced or pressured to pursue.”

My own 20 + years in the workforce certainly bears that out.

Don’t Tell Me What To Do

Since starting my training in Positive Psychology, I’ve been bombarded with all sorts of helpful suggestions about what I ought to do to make myself happier. “Make a daily list of five things you’re grateful for,” or “meditate every day,” or “exercise regularly,” or “clean your closets.” All good ideas, and I’m sure if I did them all I’d be a happier person. But as soon as someone else tells me what to do, I find myself resisting it. I know I’m not alone in this, because I’ve noticed that when I try to tell other people what to do to be happier, they don’t follow my instructions, either.

I guess I’ve always been suspicious of adopting other people’s rituals, which remind me of religion, which reminds me of manipulation. And I’m equally suspicious of the self-help gurus and celebrities that promise a quick fix of all my problems if I’ll just follow their five steps. It all feels fake and simplistic to me.

Still, as I’ve delved deeper into the scientific studies of how people actually make lasting change, I’ve become convinced by the experts’ view that the best way to change old habits or create new ones is by establishing new rituals. According to psychologists and neuroscientists, by practicing something new over and over, we create new neuropathways that eventually turn that new behavior into a pattern — a new habit. At that point, it takes much less energy (what we often refer to as “willpower”) to keep doing it.

It turns out human beings have very limited amounts of willpower. It’s why most people give up pretty quickly on New Year’s resolutions and other promises to change. The psychologist Roy Baumeister has studied this extensively, and found that creating new habits is far more effective than attempting to muster enough willpower each day to do something new. (His findings are explained in an excellent book he co-authored with journalist John Tierney called Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.)

So while I’ve resisted adopting other people’s rituals, I realized recently during a week-long Positive Psychology training immersion that to get the benefits, I don’t have to follow someone else’s practice; I can create my own. In fact, I’m much more likely to adopt a new habit if it’s something I came up with that suits my schedule and temperament than something someone else devised to suit theirs. In other words, I don’t have to clean my closets or make daily gratitude lists or write in a journal if I don’t want to. But if there’s something I do want to change – whether it’s developing certain qualities or dropping bad habits – I’m far more likely to be successful if I establish a daily practice that moves me in that direction. And I can use the wealth of evidence about the effectiveness of rituals to create a ritual that feels not like I’m fulfilling some external obligation imposed upon me, but one that I’ve chosen and created to help me pursue my own goals.

It may sound exhausting to have to do something new every day. (Another reason I’ve generally resisted it.) But making one decision in advance to do something and making it part of your daily routine drastically reduces the amount of mental energy involved. It would take far more willpower to re-convince yourself of the value of a new practice and to have to re-commit yourself each day to doing it.

And the truth is, we’re always practicing something. If we’re not consciously deciding what it is we want to practice, then we’re usually letting old habits decide for us. And often those aren’t taking us where we want to go.

Willpower, then, is not something that requires heroic strength. It’s simply a choice to use our awareness to make conscious choices. Creating a new ritual doesn’t have to demand Herculean effort. As Anthony Trollope, the prolific writer who never wrote more than three hours a day said: “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.” A new ritual can take all of five minutes to complete, depending on what it is and how you want to implement it. But it can make a big difference.

Don’t try to change too much at once, though. People who try to take on too many new behaviors at once often end up abandoning them all. Studies show that people who implement small changes, one or two at a time, are more likely to sustain them. Committing to them in the presence of someone else (such as a friend, spouse, coach, etc.), to whom you’ll feel accountable, also greatly improves your chances for success.

The biggest effort required is the decision to create and practice the new ritual itself. To overcome your inner skeptic’s resistance, make it your own.

 

 

“Killing People is Too Superficial”

images-3I love riding my bike, but lately I’ve noticed that within minutes of setting off on a ride in the city, I usually want to kill someone.

I love the feel of the breeze, and the ease of getting around far faster than walking and without waiting in lines of backed-up automobile traffic. But I find I’m also on hyper-alert for danger – a car parked in a bike lane, a spaced-out pedestrian crossing the street, a monster-sized SUV speeding up behind me.

That reaction is understandable, even necessary. But living with that kind of vigilance also gives me a warped view of the world around me, leaving me feeling like a victim of what seems like the city’s endlessly aggressive energy. It’s exhausting.

As psychologist Rick Hansen explains, “humans evolved to be fearful — since that helped keep our ancestors alive — so we are very vulnerable to being frightened and even intimidated by threats, both real ones and “paper tigers.’ ” This is part of our brain’s “negativity bias” – we react more intensely to negative stimuli than to equally strong positive ones. As Hansen puts it, “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”

So my intense reaction to someone making a wrong move – opening a car door without looking or swerving their truck into my bike lane – may be perfectly natural. But cursing out the careless driver or pedestrian, fantasizing that I had a rock to throw at his windshield, isn’t actually a very helpful response.  In fact, it can ruin my bike ride, or at least make it much more stressful than it needs to be, which also makes it more dangerous.

Plus, it can send me on a downward spiral: I start to feel like riding a bike in the city is just a lethal exercise. Then, I wonder, why do I live in a city where everyone is out to kill me?  Finally, I turn it inward, and I’m just angry at myself for living in this crazy place.

I think the key to anger and fear of any sort is perspective—stepping back to see what’s underlying it, and how our minds, caught up in those emotions, distort reality. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t let ourselves experience them. As psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar says, the only people who don’t experience painful emotions like fear and anger “are the psychopaths and the dead.” The key, it seems, is to let yourself experience the emotion, but to pause before reacting to it – or at least to question your reaction, if it’s automatic.

Marshal Rosenberg, a psychologist who created a powerful method of conflict resolution called Nonviolent Communication, talked about anger as a sign of unmet needs. If we can recognize the anger, pause, and identify our unmet needs, he explained, we can focus our energies on meeting those needs, rather than on judging or harming other people. That turns out to be far more productive.

“Killing people is too superficial,” Rosenberg wrote in his groundbreaking book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. The process he recommends “does not encourage us to ignore, squash or swallow anger, but rather to express the core of our anger fully and wholeheartedly.” That would be after figuring out what needs are underlying it.

In the case of riding my bike, of course, my need is for safety. And yelling at the person who just stepped in my way isn’t going to make me any safer. It may do the opposite. What will make me safer, and what I’m increasingly trying to do, is to just accept that there are some people on the road who will park or walk in the bike lane, and that they’re going to do it whether I fume at them or not. If I can accept that it will happen and be alert to but relaxed about it, I don’t have to get so angry.

My anger also compounds the problem by distorting my perception of the situation: most of these people aren’t actually trying to hurt me, they’re just not paying attention. In fact, if I think about it, far more people are actually complying with the traffic restrictions than aren’t. Cars are parked in a line all along one side of the bike lane, and the vast majority are not crossing it.  The same is true for the people driving the cars in the street; although some are careless, most actually don’t cross into the bike lane, or try to hit me when they pass me by. I rarely stop to think about that (that’s the Teflon at work), but keeping it in mind can help me relax and direct my anger at the transgressors a bit more skillfully.

The truth is, the anger that arises in these sorts of situations can be really useful, if understood and well-directed. Cyclists’ anger at the dangers posed by motor vehicle drivers has led to an impressive movement in New York City to support more, safer, and more visible bike lanes around the city. Transportation Alternatives is one of the advocacy groups leading that effort, and I think it’s done a great job harnessing and directing cyclists’ and pedestrians’ anger about the very real dangers on city streets, including calling attention to the deadly car crashes that happen on pretty much a daily basis.  It’s a great model for how to use anger to promote a common good.

But learning to respond to anger constructively isn’t easy. It takes conscious intention, effort and practice. Which is yet another reason to get out and ride.

The Power of Positive Psychology

istock_000005349409xsmall-300x299I’m taking a certification course in “positive psychology,” and I’ve realized lately that I feel a little sheepish telling people about it. There’s something about the idea of studying something so unabashedly “positive” that sounds a little silly, fake, Pollyannaish.

It also sounds very corporate, like the kind of thing they’d teach in business school so owners can convince employees that they’re really happy toiling away at meaningless jobs while they’re actually being exploited to make the owner huge profits.

Of course that’s not what “positive psychology” is really about, although it has become popular in the business world. It’s actually a growing branch of the field of psychology taught at such eminent universities as the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard.  Still, I’m realizing that I’ve so bought into the popular culture of cynicism that it feels like it takes an act of courage to admit I’m interested in what makes people happy. After all, given what’s going on in the world these days, (and especially what we see in the news), what right does anyone have to be happy?

As a therapeutic tool, the term “positive psychology” doesn’t inspire much confidence, either: it sounds like learning to sweep all the painful stuff under the rug and to just look at the bright side, which doesn’t seem like a very honest or effective strategy.

That’s not how the lead course instructor, psychologist and Harvard lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar, describes it. In his talks and books – some of which I’ve read and think are very good and not at all simplistic – he describes positive psychology as a sort of antidote to the field of psychology’s traditional focus on the negative – the pathologies and illness that make people suffer. He wants to focus on what works: what makes people happy, successful, and fulfilled.

But isn’t that just looking at the other side of the same coin? I wondered initially. People who aren’t happy, successful or fulfilled tend to be depressed, anxious and neurotic, right? So what difference does it make if we ask them why they’re depressed and anxious, as opposed to what makes them happy?

From what I can tell so far, the difference appears to be the focus. Let’s say I’m depressed and anxious because I hate my job, for example. I can focus on why I hate my job – because my boss is an idiot, or the work seems meaningless, or the hours are too long – and those would all be legitimate reasons to be miserable and want to quit. After all, it’s normal and even healthy to want our work to be fulfilling and in balance with the rest of our lives.

But I think a positive psychologist would first ask a few key questions. What do I like about my job? When do I enjoy it, or find my work interesting or fulfilling? The idea wouldn’t be to ignore my negative feelings, but if I can find and focus on the positive ones, that may lead me to a broader understanding of what’s going on, and to a wider range of options. Once I’ve identified what I like, I can consider how I might be able to increase those parts of my work. In the process, I can consider how I might decrease the parts I don’t like. For example, if a toxic boss is the problem, maybe I can limit contact with her, do the things that I know will satisfy her and get her off my back, or explore whether it might be possible to report to someone else. Now I have more options than just quitting, which may or may not solve my problem, since I don’t know what my next boss or colleagues or workplace situation will be like.

One advantage of positive psychology seems to be that it puts us in a position of power rather than leaving us stuck, feeling helpless. (Interestingly, the man considered the founder of the modern “positive psychology” movement, former American Psychological Association president Martin Seligman, is the same psychologist who coined the phrase “learned helplessness,” in which an animal or human being has learned she has no control over a bad or painful situation and therefore stops trying to change it.)

Positive psychology also reveals how much power we have to affect other people in a positive way. Rather than criticizing or focusing on what’s wrong with others, we can be the voice of encouragement, the one who finds the jewel in those around us and helps them polish it.

I was driving as I was thinking about this, returning home after a particularly grueling period of work, for which I was feeling generally unappreciated.  I turned on public radio. Terri Gross, host of the show “Fresh Air,” was interviewing country singer-songwriter Iris DeMent about her new album.

DeMent, who writes and sings soulful, plaintive songs in an oddly appealing high-pitched twang, was describing growing up as the youngest of 14 children in a religious Pentecostal Christian family. While music and singing were a big part of her upbringing, mostly connected to the church, school wasn’t, and she dropped out of high school by the 10th grade.

At 23, she decided to go back. DeMent had always loved writing stories, she said, and though she had little confidence in her writing ability, she enrolled in an English class at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. What she remembers about it was her teacher who, instead of commenting on the misspellings and bad grammar that littered her papers, would praise her imagination and creativity.

“She was so kind to me and so – just little, simple teacher notes, you know?” DeMent told Gross, her voice trembling as she recounted it. “But her red pen, you know, she’d say these really kind things and – you know, you have an imagination. You got the – and it encouraged me. She didn’t criticize what I didn’t know how to do.”

DeMent “sunk herself into that class,” she said, and then took another. She soon wrote her first song. From then on, she knew that was what she had to do.

From her telling of it, that one teacher, who saw and focused on the best in her, made all the difference. And that, from what I can tell, is the power of positive psychology.