Questions are a powerful and undervalued tool!
Let me give you an example. The other day I wasn’t feeling well and I noticed I kept asking myself, “Why aren’t I feeling well, why aren’t I feeling well?” This question got me no where, nothing changed with this question, I just kept feeling bad, it did nothing for me. However once I changed the question I was asking myself, I was able to take steps to make myself feel better. Once I changed the question from “Why aren’t I feeling well” to “How can I make myself feel better” I was able to take action to make myself feel better. And all I did was change the question.
Questions focus our attention, our attention rests on the questions we ask. Asking myself, “Why aren’t I feeling well” rested my attention on a question I really had no answer for and could do nothing about. However, asking myself, “How can I make myself feel better?” directed my attention to what actions I could take to do something for myself. A simple change of question made a big difference.
When you are feeling bad, when you are upset or bothered, what questions do you ask yourself? At this time it is even more important to be aware of the questions you are asking yourself. Are you asking questions that perpetuate the problem or will help to solve the problem, will your questions improve your life, keep it status quo or make it worse.
The same goes for the questions you ask others (if you even ask questions). For some people asking others questions is no easy task, it feels awkward and intrusive, some people even assume they already know the answer. The irony here is that when researchers from Harvard Business School began studying people’s conversations, they found that most people came away from a conversation feeling like they weren’t asked enough questions. When you find yourself engaged in a conversation with someone you care about ask yourself what you want from the relationship and then ask questions accordingly.
Starting today what can you do differently? First you might want to start by being more aware of the questions you ask. Than you might want to change the questions you ask yourself when you see you aren’t getting the results you want. Truth be told the same goes for the questions you ask of others. Before you ask another person a question ask yourself what do I want from this relationship, how do I want this relationship to go and then ask away.
How do we get along better with our fellow humans? One way is by asking ourselves, “From whereth cometh this person?”
I believe that if I want to be happy in this world and get along, it is in my best interest to understand a person’s context before I make any assumptions. In a few words I believe that understanding from whereth a person cometh allows me to understand the situation better and to react to it accordingly. And we don’t seem to talk about this enough, let alone do it enough. Understanding a person’s context gives us the opportunity to understand why the person thinks and does what they do.
If I say to you my daughter told me she hated me and there were no context, you might think, “well that wasn’t very nice, what a brat.” If I told you my daughter told me she hated me, after I told her she had to do something she didn’t want to and that she was a teenager, you might think, “well maybe saying I hate you is harsh but I understand.” If I told you my daughter told me she hated me with a mischievous smile on her face, after I told her she had to do something she didn’t want to and she’s a teenager, you might think, “well she was joking around” and I understand and that would be the end of it.
Context matters. Context gives you perspective and understanding and needless to say, understanding another person is really important. We don’t all think alike, as simplistic and obvious as that sounds I think we navigate through this world knowing we don’t all think alike but thinking that we do and should. But we don’t! When interacting with a person who thinks differently from you, do you ever stop and ask yourself, “why does this person think this way (from whereth cometh this person)?” Probably not. We don’t all think alike, so understanding a person’s context helps us understand the person and how they think and why they say and do what they do. This helps us navigate the world more effectively and harmoniously.
Starting today what can you do differently? Honestly I think the best answer to this question is to take a beat before you react to the other person. Taking a beat gives you the opportunity to respond instead of react. A good way to take a beat is to take a breath. Another way to take a beat is to ask yourself, “where is this person coming from, what does this person mean?”
Why is it so important to have realistic expectations?
As challenging as they can be, having realistic expectations makes you happier, the operative word being realistic expectations. All too often I hear people say, “It’s better not to have any expectations, that way I won’t be disappointed.” I believe that’s an unrealistic statement, it’s near impossible to not have expectations, I’d even venture to say that if you think you don’t have expectations you are probably fooling yourself. Why is it so hard to have realistic expectations?
First off, what is reality, well that’s probably a whole book in and of itself! According to the Cambridge Dictionary reality is defined as, “the state of things as they are, rather than as they are imagined to be.” I believe it’s really hard to see a situation for what it is for many reasons.
One reason being there is something called a confirmation bias. The term confirmation bias was first coined by English psychologist Peter Wason and is defined as the tendency to favor information that confirms a person’s beliefs or values. When making a decision, forming an opinion or deciding on an action we tend to hone in on the information that supports the beliefs we already have rather than seeing the whole picture and taking note of information that might challenge what we believe. If we don’t challenge what we already believe how do we get a realistic read on what we are facing. A very simple example of confirmation bias is ignoring news that contradicts your beliefs like watching or listening to one news source.
Another reason it’s so hard to have realistic expectations is because as Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert says we aren’t very good at predicting how we will feel in the future. So if we don’t know what will make us happy or unhappy how can we have realistic expectations?
Starting today what can you do differently in order to have realistic expectations? Well first, learn to be in the present. I’m a big believer in learning to breath. I also think it is really important to question your beliefs – what can you control, how do things HAVE to be done, this SHOULD happen, are important beliefs to be aware of and question. Truth be told just by starting to question your expectations you probably are beginning to set realistic expectations.
How often do you think about the questions you ask? Actually now that I think about it, the question I really want to ask is, How often do you ask questions bearing in mind the result you want?
Like I’ve said before questions create our reality, honestly they create the world we live in. What do I mean by this? Most of our actions and interactions are initiated by a question. Let me give you a few examples. When I woke up this morning one of my first questions to myself was do I want to exercise? (the answer is usually no, but I still ask the question) Sometimes I will then ask myself how can I motivate myself to do exercise. I then go on to ask myself a slew of other questions which will subsequently form my day.
An example of how questions initiate our interactions and subsequently create our reality is when parents ask children how their day was? The answer usually is a FINE and maybe an eye roll – not exactly the kind of interaction most parents hope for. Most parents tell me that the ensuing interaction is not very gratifying. Nevertheless parents still continue to ask the same question.
What I’m proposing is to start thinking about the outcomes you want and then formulating your question based on that. Let me give you an example. I know exercise is good for me, I usually feel good after I’ve exercised, so I would like to exercise. I’ve found that instead of asking myself do I want to exercise today, if I ask myself when am I going to exercise today, it is more likely that I will exercise. That small change in the question begets a different outcome. The same with asking your children how their day was. What do you really hope to get from that question? Do you want to bother your children (keep asking the same question), annoy yourself (again keep asking the same questions) or learn more about your children’s lives (“Which class did you find most interesting today?”), forge a closer relationship (“How was that test you studied so hard for last night?”), let them know you are interested in them (“Were you able to talk to Jane about the misunderstanding you had?”)? Bearing in mind the purpose of the question I suggest you change what you ask.
Starting today what can you do differently? Take time to think about what results you want when you ask a question and formulate your question based on that information. Do I want to know…(How was the presentation you gave?), do I want to have a laugh (What was the funniest part of your day?), do I want to know more about my child (Who did you have lunch with?) (Obviously this is all based on knowing your child and what is going on in their life). Remember the more specific and targeted your question the better the answer. The more you do this the easier it will become.
Starting today what will you do differently?
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 better because by allowing you to respond appropriately to the situation at hand you are also enhancing your relationships. You are enhancing your relationships because you are responding from a place of current experience.
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.
We all experience hardship and difficulty in life, what keeps some people upbeat and optimistic while others get down and pessimistic, is their explanatory style.
According to Dr. Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology and leading authority on optimism/pessimism, a person’s explanatory style can lead to optimism or pessimism. A person’s explanatory style refers to how a person explains to themselves the causes of events. A person’s explanatory style lies along three dimensions – permanent/temporary, pervasiveness/localized and personal/external. Pessimists explain negative events as permanent, pervasive and personal. Optimists explain negative events as temporary, localized and external. Let’s break this down.
Permanent refers to how reversible a negative event will be. Will the negative event last forever and/or happen over and over. Or is the negative event time bound and/or be a one shot deal. Let me give you an example. Let’s say you don’t get a promotion. You say to yourself, “I’ll never get promoted” (permanent) vs “I didn’t get promoted this time, thank heavens there’s another review in a few months” (temporary). Whereas the second explanation was temporary, I will have another chance, the first explanation is permanent, I will never get promoted. You went from not getting this promotion to never getting another promotion.
Pervasiveness refers to how many areas of a person’s life the negative event will bleed into or permeate. An example of pervasiveness is when the cake you are baking doesn’t turn out you say to yourself, “I give up I just can’t cook, I’m done” vs “This was a hard recipe, it didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to, but dinner sure was good.” Do you let the failed caked take all the joy out of every part of your cooking or do you realize that the failed cake means that this one time this one cake didn’t turn out well and has nothing to do with anything else in regard to your cooking.
Personalization refers to how much blame (not responsibility, blame, there’s a difference) a person takes for the negative event. In the failed cake examples above do you say, “I can’t do anything right!” vs “That was a hard recipe, it was a very confusing recipe.” Do you blame yourself or do you realistically acknowledge how hard the recipe was.
Being aware of what you say to yourself, your explanatory style, in the face of adversity is the first step towards becoming a more optimistic person.
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 gives us the ability to see things from a different perspective. It gives us 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.
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
Remember, resilience is not only the ability to overcome adversity, it’s the ability to accept what is beyond our control and make the best happen. There really isn’t much we can do about what life sends our way, but there is a whole lot we can do about how we deal with it.
During difficult times I can’t stress enough the importance of social support. I know, when social support is most elusive, it can be what we most crave. Social support comes in many forms. Remember social support is not defined by the quantity of people in our lives nor the physical presence of the person. Social support is defined by the quality of our relationships. You don’t have to be face to face with a person to have a quality relationship. And research is really clear, social support is correlated to well-being. In case you doubt the importance of social support this is a video on a very well known longitudinal study called the Harvard Study, it explains the importance of social support.
In case you still continue to doubt the importance of social support, this is a wonderful podcast (done at the beginning of the pandemic) on the research on social support and how to beat the sense of loneliness during these times. Dr. Laurie Santos is a Yale professor. In 2018 she offered Yale’s most popular class entitled Psychology and the Good Life.
So, in an effort to make the best happen, to help yourself be more resilient, difficult times can be an opportunity to build community, reach out to people. Call people, skype, zoom, facetime, conference call whatever you choose but reach out. Keep in contact. Be creative about reaching out and being in contact. And be flexible about your expectations.
I have spent countless hours teaching about the importance of a growth mindset and how to foster it. At the beginning of the pandemic I wrote about the importance of self-compassion. I just love the idea of self-compassion. As Kristin Neff says we are harder on ourselves than we are on anyone else. I believe we all could use a little more self-compassion nowadays. So how does a growth mindset and self-compassion relate? Well, I just read this article on how to silence your inner critic and learned how they relate.
The voice of our inner critic can be so loud that it makes it hard to hear our voice of self-compassion. Besides we really aren’t as well versed in self-compassion as we are in self criticizing and now is NOT the time to be criticizing ourselves (much less anyone else). One of the motivators for self criticism is when we feel we aren’t or haven’t been good enough – we fell short of a standard we held for ourselves. We yelled at the kids, didn’t help with schoolwork, had to cancel something, the list can be endless. During this difficult time, it’s very easy to not feel good enough.
I find the idea of holding ourselves and our loved ones to the standard of goodish as opposed to good a wonderful idea! Goodish gives us the room to grow, to learn, to improve, it rolls a growth mindset and self-compassion into one idea and makes us more resilient. Goodish implies we are on a learning curve, kind of like when we use yet in a growth mindset conversation. To me goodish means we have the desire to be good and the self-acceptance to acknowledge and allow that stuff can happen along the way. Goodish implies tolerance for being human, plus the hope that we will improve and become a better person. When we expect ourselves to be goodish we hold ourselves to a high standard knowing that there is always room to grow.
So…what does the world of goodish look like? Well, let’s say you’re on a business call (zoom, skype, facetime, you pick it) and despite the fact that you threatened your kids with their lives, your son comes running in yelling mommy, mommy. And of course you get very upset. Well that reaction would be from your old world of good. In your new world of goodish your reaction is different. Here are a few options:
If you are using self-compassion you could say to yourself, “Well that didn’t go the way I wanted it to go! I wish it had gone as I had expected it to go. The times are difficult, I did the best I could, I bet most parents have a story to tell about their kids disturbing their calls.” You might take a few breaths, treat yourself to something special (self-compassion) and share the story with a friend (social support).
You could take a moment to access your thoughts. Are you saying to yourself, “Well, that was awful, I’m so embarrassed. I don’t understand why it’s so hard for the kids to ever listen.” You could then challenge your thoughts. You could ask yourself, “Am I thinking in all or nothing terms (awful). Am I using “exaggerating” words, such as never, always, forever, need should, or must (ever listen).” You could try replacing “awful” with something like “not how I wanted it” and you could replace “hard for the kids to ever listen” with “they didn’t listen this time.”
Please note that in the examples you are using your ability to be flexible. Also please note we are looking for goodish, nothing more. We are looking to use the resilience skills that best work for you to go from miserable to less miserable. We aren’t looking to go from miserable to elation. Going from miserable to less miserable allows you to feel good enough to continue going, which is what will allow you to make sustainable change.
Welcome to the new world of goodish!