Yes/no or maybe. Which is it, or is it? Thinking in terms of either/or can be very useful. Binary thinking is a great way to compress information, it allows us to respond quickly to a dangerous situation. Compressing information helps us survive. It helps us to make quick decisions. Putting our thoughts into categories helps us begin to process our thoughts, it’s an important starting point. The operative words being starting point.
When we leave our thoughts in categories we are doing ourself and others a disservice, we are failing to see the entirety of the interaction. Cognitive distortions are good examples of binary thinking, should/should not, fair/unfair. Cognitive distortions are a great example of compressing information albeit a dysfunctional form of thinking. When we think in terms of good/bad, pretty/ugly, right/wrong, my way or the highway, etc, etc we are missing the nuance of life. This type of thinking does not allow us to think flexibly and makes our lives more difficult.
Flexible thinking is important because it allows you to calibrate your response to the situation at hand by seeing all the colors of the story. This in turn allows you to choose your response as opposed to reacting. So instead of basing your response on feelings or thoughts that might not be rooted in the moment flexible thinking allows you to see all your options and choose the most appropriate response. Flexible thinking makes life less difficult because by allowing you to respond appropriately to the situation at hand you are also enhancing your relationships.
How do you become a flexible thinker? I believe the best way is begin is to be curious. Why is this the way it is, why did that person say that, what does that mean? Being curious motivates you to understand the other person’s perspective. And seeing something from someone else’s perspective is the essence of flexible thinking and empathy. Make a list of as many other alternatives as you can think of. Another way to become a flexible thinker is to practice mindfulness. Taking a moment to react will give you the opportunity to respond effectively. There is something to be said for counting to ten.
By some accounts we spend half of our awake time talking to ourselves. This self-talk can be very helpful – when we practice a speech, work out a problem or memorize something, our self-talk is very valuable. Our self-talk becomes less valuable, even detrimental when it turns negative, when it becomes rumination – anxiety ridden images of the future or a compulsive rehashing of an incident, that doesn’t serve our best interest. When this type of self-talk takes over, when we become so wrapped up in our thoughts we lose perspective and begin to believe our thoughts are universal truths and we start to feel bad, it’s a sign we need to put some distance between our thoughts and our behavior.
Psychological distancing is the ability to see things from a different perspective. It’s the ability to be in the moment, be flexible and see our thoughts for what they are – beliefs we make real. Psychological distancing is the ability to see our thoughts as constructs of reality as opposed to reality itself. It’s the ability to distinguish between feeling bad and being bad, for example. Let’s say you bombed a presentation and you feel bad about it. When you are able to distance yourself from your thoughts you are able to say to yourself, “I feel badly about doing so poorly on that presentation, next time I will prepare more” you give yourself some time to feel bad and you are able to move on. The ability to place distance between your thoughts and your actions, to be able to see your thoughts for what they are, makes it easier to deal with difficult situations.
How do you get psychological distance? There are several ways, but first you must hear what you are saying to yourself. Once you can hear your self-talk you can say your name. Shifting from the first person, I, to the third person, Jane, automatically puts distance between you and your thoughts. It might sound awkward but it is a very quick and simple way to put distance. Another way is to ask yourself, “What would I say to a friend about this situation?” If a friend did poorly giving a presentation would you tell them to feel badly or would you encourage them to put it into perspective? These are just a few of the many ways there are to gain psychological distance and to become more resilient.
A person with a growth mindset believes they can grow their skills, intelligence and abilities with effort. A person with a fixed mindset believes they are who they are, their skills, intelligence and abilities are fixed. When you have a growth mindset constructive feedback is seen as an opportunity to grow and get better results, it is welcomed. When you have a fixed mindset however, you believe that no effort achievement proves how smart you are, feedback would imply effort. When you have a fixed mindset challenges, mistakes and corresponding feedback is perceived as a threat to the ego instead of as an opportunity to grow and improve.
What is constructive feedback? It is information about how a person is doing and what they can do to achieve a better outcome. Constructive feedback is not criticism because it is never about the person, it is about what the person is doing and how they can do better.
How can you offer constructive feedback? Constructive feedback first focuses on what the person did well, then on what can be improved and how they can improve. Much like effective praise constructive feedback needs to be process oriented, specific, timely (when possible) and kind. Remember, the goal of feedback is to help the person learn and improve, not to hurt their feelings. Constructive feedback entails offering small, constructive, specific steps that will improve performance.
An example of constructive feedback is, “You are on the right track, this is a really good beginning, you aren’t quite there yet. You need more information about the main character. How about reading more about the subject.” Remember constructive feedback is supportive, process oriented and specific.
I think it is pretty fair to say that when people fail they feel bad. Put plain and simply failure doesn’t feel good. Starting today I would like to propose a reconceptualization of failure!
First, failure is inevitable if you are going to stretch yourself, try new things, learn more, it is to be expected you won’t do everything well the first time around, you might fail. When you started to walk you probably fell down a bunch of times, it didn’t stop you from learning to walk, you had a growth mindset, you kept going and learned to walk. Can you imagine if you hadn’t had a growth mindset, you’d still be crawling around. What I’m getting at is that failure is inherent in learning anything new.
Starting today I’m encouraging parents to applaud their child’s EFFORTFUL failure. Effortful is in capital letters because I’m not suggesting children just go around failing, what I am suggesting is if your child tried something new, difficult, or challenging and failed, he/she should be celebrated. Actually if your child tried anything really hard that was new or not and failed, I’m suggesting that you applaud them. And then of course ask, “What did you learn?,” “Going forward what will you do differently?” Remember failure is information. It’s information about what we can do differently and better next time, it’s the only way to learn.
If we feel bad when our children fail and then make our children feel bad when they fail, we are sending the message that either 1) they should never try anything new or out of their comfort zone, they should only stick to doing things in their comfort zone or 2) they are expected to be perfect no matter what they do, they are put in a box labeled talented and shouldn’t do anything to dispel that.
A growth mindset means that you believe you can grow your intelligence, your abilities, or skills. It means you will make mistakes and know you will learn from those mistakes. So next time your child fails congratulate him/her and without judgment talk about the failure.
I believe one of the most important resilience skills is an awareness of our thoughts. Remember, in order to function in this world we need to make sense of it (and right now that’s no easy task). We make sense of it by explaining to ourselves why things happen. The more mentally flexible we are, the more accurate we can be in our explanations as to why a given situation took place. The more accurate we are in our explanations the more resilient we will be. Most of us have consistent ways of explaining why something happened, we have patterns of explanations. Within those patterns of explanations we all use what we call Cognitive Distortions or Irrational Beliefs.
Cognitive distortions are thoughts that cause people to see reality inaccurately. They are beliefs that are irrational and inaccurate and are usually associated with negative feelings. We all have cognitive distortions and we tend to use the same distortions repeatedly. The thing about these errors in thinking is they happen automatically, we don’t intentionally think inaccurately, but we do. And the thing about cognitive distortions is that we feel bad when we think distortedly. When we perceive an event distortedly or irrationally we are negatively impacting our well-being. Remember our thoughts drive our feelings and behavior. By thinking distortedly we are making ourselves feel worse than need be.
So for example, in the face of an upset, I can say to myself “Why am I always (over generalization) reacting this way?! I shouldn’t (should statements) feel this way, this is just terrible (catastrophizing.)” or I can say to myself, “Why am I reacting this way! I really wish I didn’t feel this way, but I do. I know it will pass soon.” The content of what I am saying to myself is very different in each case and will have a different effect on my subsequent feelings and behavior. Always, shouldn’t and terrible are cognitive distortions. If we can hear what we say to ourselves in our efforts to make sense of the world, especially the cognitive distortions we use, we can harness that ability in order to be more accurate and flexible in service of reframing our thoughts or challenging our beliefs
Resilience is the ability to overcome adversity. Actually, it’s not simply the ability to overcome adversity it’s the ability to overcome adversity effectively. It’s the ability to navigate through difficulty so as to come out of it as you were or even better. We can overcome adversity in many ways. According to Dr. Lucy Hone, a well-being and resilience expert and associate researcher at AUT University, there are three strategies to help you be more resilient.
1. Knowing that suffering is part of life. According to Dr. Hone, knowing that suffering is part of life staves off a sense of entitlement. It keeps us from asking, “Why me?” Asking why me tends to make us feel worse, by making the person feel alone. Implicit in the question why me is thinking the person suffering is the only one doing so. This idea reminds me of one of the components of self-compassion – common humanity vs. isolation. Knowing that suffering is part of life ties us to the shared human experience. While suffering is grueling, feeling bad for feeling bad makes it even more grueling. Thus, having a keen awareness that suffering is part of the human experience allows us to be resilient.
2. Carefully choosing where you direct your attention. We are the arbiters of where we place our attention. We can choose where we decide to shine our mental spotlight. As I’ve said many times, the negative calls to us, we are hardwired to focus on the negative. Having said that however, we also know that with effort we can focus our attention where we choose. Again, I’m not advocating for closing a blind eye to difficulty, much less feeling its effects. What I am advocating for is being proactive. I’m advocating for choosing what’s best for you and subsequently placing your attention there.
As Dr. Hone says, resilient people have a way of tuning in to the good around them. This is called benefit-finding or hunting the good or focusing on the positive. Benefit finding is defined as experiencing positive outcomes following adverse life events. This means we have to choose to find the good in order to experience those positive outcomes.
3. Ask yourself: “Is what I’m doing helping me or harming me?” What a simple but powerful question! We don’t always act intuitively in our own best interest. Asking yourself this question gives you the ability to act in your own best interest. Asking yourself this question gives you control over your actions. It allows you to respond rather than react. It gives you the opportunity to take a beat and proceed thoughtfully. When we respond to a situation, because we are in control, we tend to feel better about ourselves. Asking yourself if what you are doing is helping you or harming you can be applied to every context. Is what I’m thinking helping me? Is what I’m doing helping me? Is how I’m behaving helping me? “
In conclusion, when life gets tough I encourage you to try these strategies. I also encourage you to have realistic expectations about the effects these strategies will have. The only way real change happens is gradually.
This week I’ve been thinking about hope and optimism. Hope and optimism tend to be used interchangeably therefore I’m going to make life easy and stick to the word hope. Hope is defined as believing the future will be a brighter one and knowing how to make that happen. Research is really clear – hope and psychological well-being are correlated. And I believe that at a time like this, hope is of the utmost importance for our survival, let alone well-being. Having hope is what will get us through!
I want to make something very, very clear. When I talk about hope I’m not talking about blind hope and I’m not talking about ignoring the difficulties in life. This is not an either/or proposition it’s an and proposition. I’m talking about feeling the entire spectrum of feelings AND including hope. However, I’m talking about a realistic hope, one that acknowledges the reality of the situation, enables us to deal with it and looks forward to making the future brighter. Usually this kind of hope is called realistic optimism (remember I’m using the word hope just to make things easier). And has a lot to do with our thoughts (See last weeks posting).
I know these are uncertain times. What’s the future going to look like, will the virus come back, will there be enough testing, will the kids go back to school in the fall, what will that look like, and on and on the uncertainty goes. Even though the future is uncertain it doesn’t mean we can’t have hope. The beauty of hope is, irrespective of what is happening around you, if you are a hopeful person you will always find things to be hopeful about. The beauty of hope that it can happen during the tough times. Actually, at least for me, when things get tough, is when I am most hopeful. Hope is what gets me up in the morning after having had a bad day – the knowledge and excitement that I can make the new day a better one gives me hope. Remember a lot about being hopeful is what you tell yourself, your thoughts.
The beauty of hope is that since it is a belief in a brighter future and in one’s ability to achieve that future, hope prompts a person to action. And action fosters a sense of self-efficacy and self-control and when we feel self-efficacious and in control we feel good. In other words, put in very simple terms, when you are hopeful you act and when you act you tend to feel better.
So how do we have hope? There are many ways to help yourself be hopeful. Your Best Possible Future Exercise was developed by Laura King and has been proven to substantially increase hope. Hope researcher Shane Lopez says that the best way to be a hopeful person is to have hopeful people in your life, according to him hope is contagious. And last but not least, Action for Happiness does a monthly calendar on actions you can take everyday to increase happiness. Their Optimistic October calendar is full of hopeful ideas.
One of the most important resilience skills is an awareness of our thoughts. Remember our thoughts are just beliefs we make real. Unfortunately most of us are sorely unaware of what we are telling ourselves – what our thoughts are, which can be problematic especially during times of adversity. Theory tells us that anxiety comes from thinking about the future and depression from thinking about the past. So, for example, when you start to think about what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, or next fall, you will start to get anxious. When you start to think about what you should or should not have done, the regrets of the past, you will most likely start to get depressed. Where does that leave your thoughts, you ask? It leaves them in the present, in the moment, in the here and now. So when you find yourself feeling anxious or depressed the best way to help yourself out of those feelings is to pull your thoughts into the moment. How do you do this, well that’s where all the previous skills we’ve talked about come in as well as the title of this email. When you find yourself in need of diverting your thoughts, when you are anxious or depressed and don’t want to feel that way, use any one of the resilience skills you have learned about, to pull your thoughts into the present. Remember flexibility is critical to well-being and resilience.
So for example self-compassion is a great way to pull your thoughts into the present. When you are anxious or depressed being kind to yourself, as opposed to beating yourself up (which is what most of us tend to do), is a very effective way to bring your thoughts into the moment. Acknowledging your anxiety or depression, not judging yourself for feeling the way you do is a great beginning. Then instead of saying to yourself, “Why am I feeling this way!” saying to yourself, “I bet most people are(would be) feeling this way, I’m really not alone in how I’m feeling,” brings your thoughts further into the present. And finally being able to tell yourself I feel X right now but these feelings will not last forever, further brings your thoughts into the present.
Focusing on your character strengths is another great way to bring your thoughts into the present and to make good happen. So when you are feeling anxious or depressed deploy some of your signature strengths. Remember character strengths are the traits we all have which allow us to be at our best and being at our best makes us feel good and feeling good brings us into the present. So, when you are about to undertake anything, it doesn’t matter what, consciously channel some of your strengths to help you do it. Channeling a strength takes your mind off the past or future and brings it into the present, it allows you to attend to the activity at hand. So, for example, when I write these emails, sometimes I wonder, will this email be good, will it help, will it…, when I deploy humor, perseverance and kindness (some of my signature strengths) I am able to simply focus on writing the email at hand, no wondering about all the wills (the future) and I feel less anxious.
Now for gratitude. Gratitude is one of the most simple, elegant and effective ways to bring your thoughts into the present. Count your blessings, think about what life would be like without something wonderful, or just plain and simply give thanks to someone – phone a friend, grab an offspring, reach out to a family member, tell them how grateful you are to them for… Gratitude is an amazing way to bring your thoughts into the present, it’s a win/win for everyone.
So, in summary, when you feel anxious it is because you are probably thinking/worrying about the future. When you feel depressed it is because you are probably thinking about the past. If you drag your thoughts into the present, into the moment you will help yourself feel less anxious or depressed. Remember we aren’t going for elation we are going for less of what we are already feeling.
I believe one of the most important resilience skills is an awareness of our thoughts. Contrary to what most people think, in the face of difficulty, or any event for that matter, it is our thoughts not the event that cause us to feel and react. What we tell ourselves will either perpetuate adversity or stymie it. Our thoughts are our explanation as to why something happened. Our thoughts are our way of making sense of life, they are our way of understanding why X event took place. In order to effectively deal with life we must understand why things happen. For example, you have a fight with your best friend. How upset you get and what you subsequently do is based on what you tell yourself about that fight, how you make sense of it. Do you say to yourself, “Every close relationship has its ups and downs, I’ll just give it time. I think we were both in bad moods. I’ll call Jane tomorrow.” Or do you say, “Well there goes that relationship, she’ll never want to talk to me again and I don’t really want to talk to her. She is always getting mad. I’m never going to call her again.” If you explain the incident to yourself by saying every close relationship has its ups and downs as opposed to she is always getting mad and we’ll never talk to each other (both viable explanations) the subsequent behavior is very different. The results of these two different ways of thinking prompts two very different outcomes. Our explanations help us or hinder us. Our thoughts either allow us to deal effectively and go forward or not.
Our explanations of an event are based on a multitude of factors. However, simply put, our thoughts are just beliefs that we make real. If this weren’t the case then we would all hold the same beliefs and behave in the same way. If this weren’t the case we would all have the same explanation for the same event. But we don’t. Furthermore, more often than not, we usually aren’t aware of our explanations of events. For many, a large portion of their explanations reside in the realm of the unconscious. And therein lies the challenge to resilience. The more aware we are of what we say to ourselves in the face of adversity, the easier it is to be resilient. If we can hear our thoughts then we can make ourselves more resilient.
The beauty of this idea is, much like life, you can’t control the event however, you CAN control the thoughts that arise as a result of the event. So, if you are aware of what you are saying to yourself, let’s say for example during this difficult time, and what you are saying is not conducive to resilience then you can challenge your thoughts to help yourself become more resilient. This is not always an easy task, but it is one well worth the while.
In summary, when you find yourself feeling off, bothered, or just plain upset, search for your thoughts. Ask yourself, “What am I saying to myself?” Once you become aware of what you are saying to yourself, take those thoughts, one by one and challenge them. Ask yourself, “Are these thoughts accurate, would a jury of 12 of my peers say the same things, would my best friend say this?” Use any technique that works for you to break up the counterproductive thoughts. Remember our thoughts are just beliefs we make real. You can replace one thought for another one. Remember, you are not going to change radically, you are not going from upset to elated, you are going to go from upset to a little less upset.
Last week I wrote about character strengths and how they make us resilient. This week I’ve been thinking about the character strength of gratitude. I always love seeing gratitude in action, it warms my heart.
So what is gratitude? Gratitude is the action of noticing and acknowledging the good in one’s life. Gratitude is the act of affirming the good things in your life that come from outside yourself. Gratitude is the ability to notice and relish little pleasures. It’s the recognition that you have been the recipient of a benefit, of something good. Gratitude is not only the action of giving thanks, there’s so much more to gratitude than saying thank you.
There are two types of gratitude – dispositional gratitude and state gratitude. For dispositionally grateful people gratitude comes naturally, it is a stable characteristic of their personality. An attitude of gratitude comes naturally to a dispositionally grateful person, it’s the way they interface with the world. Dispositionally grateful people find ways to be grateful for the ordinary experiences of daily living. For other people, gratitude is experienced as a state. Something happens and they feel grateful. In this case gratitude isn’t a stable characteristic of their personality, it’s induced by an event. Either way, research is very clear, being grateful increases happiness and well-being. And the beauty of gratitude is that it is a learnable skill.
Practicing gratitude has many benefits. One benefit is that it allows us to be in the present. When we are grateful we are aware of the good that is happening to us in the moment. Also gratitude blocks negative emotions, actually it pulls our attention away from the negative. It’s very difficult to express gratitude and experience a negative emotion at the same time. Gratitude tends to cancel out negative emotions. Also, gratitude is a social emotion, it strengthens our relationships. When we feel gratitude we are acknowledging the other people in our lives. Gratitude makes us aware of other people and their kindness. Also gratitude makes us more likable, gratitude makes us nicer to the people around us.
According to Dr. Robert Emmons, one of the world’s leading researchers in gratitude, practicing gratitude during difficult times is essential. It might be harder to practice gratitude during hardship, however, the benefits make the effort well worth your while. Remember, gratitude increases happiness and well-being. According to research practicing gratitude helps us cope with stress more effectively and regulate negative emotions.
So, what are you grateful for? I’ll go first. I’m grateful for many things during this difficult time. First and foremost, I’m grateful for my family and friends, I’m grateful for my health, I’m grateful for Instacart, I’m grateful for so many things both big and small. What about you?