Sometimes we take comfort in how easy and simple things are. We remind ourselves to zoom in on what matters and that brings us relief. Yet sometimes simplicity causes us to lose the nuance, to incarcerate ourselves in a black and white world. In those cases reminding ourselves how rich and complex a topic is can give us equal comfort, knowing that we might have been too myopic and that there’s more to the story. Comfort is not one or the other but the skillful switching between these two extremes.
Acceptance seems to be high-minded, something you can use if you are mature but yet not exactly worthy of mainstream attention. In a time when we’re after convenience it’s baffling that learning acceptance is not more widely practiced. Regardless of whether it’s high-minded or not, acceptance brings ease into life.
We hate boredom but we want to control the outcome of everything we do. We can’t win: either we succeed at controlling everything, which means we know exactly how things turn out which will be boring. Or we don’t succeed, in which case we are not bored but anxious because things are not going according to plan.
Instead let’s isolate the few things for which control is necessary and ease up on everything else. Or if letting go of control is a no-go well then befriend boredom.
The Olympian athlete trains before the competition. The fire-fighter before the fire happens. But when it comes to psychology most have it backwards: we ignore it until we’re in the middle of whatever mayhem makes us wish we had better psychological fitness. The body and mind are absolutely the same in this respect. So if you’re feeling good start training now. If you just got out of a crisis: start training now. If you’re in the middle of a battle: have patience with yourself.
Our ability to adapt is amazing. Things change and yet we are able to adapt after a while without doing anything consciously. It just happens. What’s the last change you got used to without having to get into action mode? How do you feel about it? Proud? Grateful?
As a kid during a soccer game I had been in energy saving mode for the most time so I could sprint and shoot the goal when it mattered. This strategy worked like a charm as a kid and as a teenager. It also made a lot of sense because despite playing lots of soccer I had no endurance to speak of.
Now after over a year of playing soccer on Mondays it occurred to me that I am holding back although something had changed. Actually now I have more endurance than I had as a kid and teenager because I am a runner, albeit a very very infrequent one. So I had been unconsciously holding back, although the reason I had held back in the past, zero endurance, didn’t exist anymore.
Every once in a while we should re-examine our own limitations. Do they still exist or are we merely continuing them out of a habit?
A lot of our responses have been automated. Our brain does this to save us energy and protect us from unnecessary decision-making. Automatic reactions are often so fast, that we can only catch the emotion they evoke but not what happened before that. In this context we often talk about negative reactions. Yet today I would like to look at automatic reactions which are helpful: catch yourself holding open the door for someone, genuinely smiling or letting someone go first. Acknowledge these positive automatic responses and be proud of them.
Throughout the day we have different guides. Sometimes we don’t even know we are following them yet we do. Here are a few things which guide your behaviour at any given moment:
- the need for speed
- energy saving minimalist
- need to belong
- need to be left alone
Let’s pause and check whether the guide we chose has anything to do with the destination we hope to get to.
We frequently encounter metaphors which help us to remember certain truths or lessons. For example the metaphor of sowing the seed, letting it rest in the earth for weeks or even months, caring for the plants and then harvesting reminds us that when we start doing things we usually don’t immediately reap the success of this particular action, but will have to give it some time, invest more work and then eventually we can reap the fruits of our labour before the cycle starts again.
Similarly when I get frustrated about not being able to do something quickly enough I can remind myself of the time and effort it takes to practice a new or even a rusty piece of music on the piano. There is no point in getting frustrated, when it doesn’t work it simply means my fingers need more practice.
So what can you do to ensure that the metaphors that work for you are safely in a place where you can remember them at crucial moments?
In a workshop with Robert Biswas-Diener he kept bringing up the topic of rushing to closure. This is about trying to come to conclusions and move on without givings ourselves and our clients enough time and consideration. This is not only applicable to coaching but also to daily life. We make snap judgments all the time and base many on our actions on them. Today let’s remind ourselves to not rush to closure but instead let things unfold fully.
Writing wise I am still trying to recover from my university years. Before I started with my undergrad my writing was about characters, plots and settings. Now it’s about conveying information as directly as possible. While that might be helpful for those in a rush who just want the information it doesn’t exactly help to make the information memorable and enjoyable. So I need to unlearn or at least box the kind of writing I learned at university in order to become a better writer. What do you have to unlearn to overcome barriers or become better at something that is important to you?
When’s the last time you felt happy about a skill or something you create and didn’t want to change a thing?
Especially in self-development it’s common to always improve and want to be better. We often complain about the rat race the economy forces us into only to walk into a different kind of rat race: the skill and art rat race.
Yes people who have made meaningful contributions develop their craft. We should too. But not at the price where we can never enjoy it.
The princess is waiting for the prince to save her riding a white horse. Well that is dumb we say. But yet we all carry on this idea:
- in sitcoms where the protagonists get discovered and make money from their art or eloquence as a public speaker they never once trained to be
- when we wait for the salary increase to solve all our financial problems
- when we seriously believe the whole country to change once the current president is out of the White House
Wonderful miraculous things happen out of nowhere. But if all we do is grow our hair so that our prince can climb up the tower to save us we’ve got a problem.
The comedian Amy Poehler said that she decided early on that her currency would not be beauty. What makes you the most persuasive and what do you use to get ahead? Your looks, your intellect, your creativity or some mix?
The currencies we ignore is usually the stuff we can be pretty relaxed about, a bit like Korean money: if you don’t know it’s value and you are not going to Korea any time soon, you won’t pay attention to its banknotes.
But chances are that we can freak out if we feel our currency is being devalued in the eyes of others. And once we know that we can decide, whether we go through the process of increasing the value or switching currencies all together.
Sometimes we want to do something that is good for us but we know that ‘we are not the kind of person who does X or enjoys Y’. Self-knowledge is wonderful but we have to understand that exceptions exist. Yes I might find it hard to do most things every single day but that doesn’t mean I can’t give meditation or exercising a try. Because sometimes doing something that we usually don’t do is easy or at least not as hard as we imagined it would be.
‘What are your expectations?’
-Oh I don’t have any.
But then there’s disappointment. A feeling that sucks. Except that it does tell you something that you didn’t know before: that there is a part of your brain that created expectations without your conscious knowledge. But the feeling of not having these expectations met is very conscious. Once you follow that feeling the hidden expectation isn’t that hard to find. Next time you have a similar situation you will be prepared. And you might not be able to change what will unfold. But you will respond to it better.
I will be happier when:
- I have more money
- I am in a committed relationship
- I have kids
I can’t be happy when:
- the best times of of my life are over
- I will never make that dream come true
- the relationship has fallen apart
These are some of the myths of happiness that Sonya Lyubomirsky has identified. However I find the same kind of myths can be applied to almost anything:
- I will be more creative when I come back from vacation
- I will be relaxed when I have done everything on my to-do list
- I will love myself when someone else does
Let’s try to pay attention whenever we use I will + if/when and I can’t/won’t + if/when .
In Better than Before Gretchen Rubin talks about people who schedule time to worry. What sounds really strange seems to work well for some people. If you find yourself worrying more than you would like to why not give your full attention to the activity and then, when done, tell your worrier self that it can continue at the next scheduled meeting?
Is there anything weird you can schedule to free your mind?
Sometimes I find it hard to distinguish between accepting a situation, a person’s behaviour or my own and letting myself or others get away with things.
Acceptance is good in the long term, loopholes seem a good idea in the short term. But sometimes they seem to look very similar, almost like twins.
What I see in lots of people I talk to is that they are too harsh with themselves, seeing everything, even true acceptance as a loophole. Acceptance sets you free as clichéd as it sounds, whereas constantly choosing loopholes narrows down options.
If we want more control over the quality of our thoughts we need to learn to be vigilant. Thoughts which occur at the same time have a tendency to befriend each other and before you know it, you can’t think one thought without the other instantly appearing as well. This is a helpful mechanism if you associate good things with a person or a place. That association is likely to grow stronger and stronger over time.
However the same is true if you permit more problematic thoughts to be associated with people, activities or places you like or love. This can turn out to be problematic because as the connection between let’s say your friend Daniel and the emotion of guilt get stronger it might actually overpower everything else you feel for Daniel, unless you do something about it. With time even just reading the name Daniel is likely to invoke feelings of guilt, even if ‘your Daniel’ is not even concerned.
Does this mean that negative thoughts need to be eliminated immediately? Negative emotions often alert us to the fact that something is going wrong. But if we do nothing about it, it’s very likely that at some stage, we won’t be able to have a good friendship with Daniel anymore. So when our negative emotions alert us to a problem, we should act on it but not let the guilt or other negative emotions always tag along, when we think about a person, place or activity we care about.