Groundhog Day

When flicking through Linkedin and twitter do you ever get the feeling that you are being bombarded with the same message over and over again? I do. It struck me first when I was doing my business masters many years ago. I felt like the theories were repeating themselves while being vaguely morphed and renamed to suit the current context. The fact that philosophers such as Lao Tzu uttered words regarding leadership thousands of years ago (e.g. 600BC) that have stood the test of time is case in point:

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

A few years later when I did my MSc in psychology I got the same feeling. While the theories we were learning were adapted and updated the words that resonated centuries before still make sense. Take for example:

 “Ignorance is the root and stem of all evil.” Plato

 “Time is the wisest counselor of all.” Pericles

 And the one perhaps most relevant to today:

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” Socrates

It makes sense that these still make sense. After all people are people and the human brain has evolved very little (if at all) over the centuries, so the fundamentals of good leadership, behaviour, citizenship remain largely unchanged. What threatened people centuries ago will threaten today, what motivated then will motivate today. The difference in 2019 is the environment we live in. The rate of change itself  and the volume of data we have to deal with is increasing exponentially. As a result those fundamentals of behaviour once central to people’s way of life are getting lost in an onslaught of fads and surface level demands

What the 21st century also brings is the ability to research what works and what doesn’t, an improving capability to look at the brain (which often helpfully confirms what we have thought to be true and dismisses the theories sitting on the peripheries) and centuries of experience on which to draw. And yet we don’t.

Surely we should return to those fundamentals that have been uttered over thousands of years, resisting the need to continually rename and reframe which simply leads to  concepts becoming diluted into a myriad of un-actionable ideas. Shouldn’t we instead refine and build on what has been ‘evidenced’ to be true, adapting only in order to meet the demands of the world we live in. It’s a bit like remodelling a house to keep it up to date, rather than knocking it down and building it from scratch every few years. When it comes to behaviour taking this approach would allow us to advance our understanding both as individuals in order to really leverage our potential, and as a society.

What could you do to help this and to help yourself?

  • Check your sources. Is the information you’re taking on board from a well-meaning idea junky or something that’s properly tried and tested through either the passage of time or scientific research. What do I mean? Well take meditation – a technique that has been passed down through generations with benefits now backed by scientific research. Today we have hundreds of mindfulness apps to choose from. Some are based on proper research and knowledge (e.g. Headspace) which help people to actually learn how to meditate and progress their mental robustness.  Others are just nice to listen to but really don’t do much. It’s really important to find out whether what you are using works otherwise it’s just like throwing mud at the wall to see what sticks.

 

  • Understand what’s core to who you are as a human (i.e. here the same philosophical texts and the functioning of the brain is true for all of us). Everyone is trying to come up with something new, a different angle to try and get themselves heard – but if you capture the key principles, you can filter the information coming at you. This will allow you to pull out what is truly useful (using the techniques above), what is actually new and what will really help underpin a positive life.

 

  • Capture what’s core to you as a unique individual. While your preferences, goals, and areas for growth will morph and evolve through your life – your values, personality, natural strengths, narrative and purpose will remain more stable and consistent. So, it’s worth capturing these. You may think that they’re obvious but we forget them and without having them front of mind it’s easy to lose our way and impossible to perform at our best.

 

My book Defining You is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

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Image source: petponder.com

Climate Change – What’s Psychology Got to Do With It?

Last summer we drove from Yosemite to Santa Monica through acres and acres of smouldering forest, the smell of charcoal and smoke filling the air, the landscape black and barren. This week fires have raged through Northern and Southern California, killing 44 as I write, with an expectation of the death toll rising. But sadly, California is not alone – Somalia, Kenya, and other East African countries have experienced below average rainfall since the late 1990s, contributing to a 30% reduction in crop yields and famines. We’re also seeing an increase in the number of hurricanes and destructive weather events across the world. Even the UK is having longer hotter summers. The UN recently issued a report warning that we only have 12 years to stop the ‘irreversible damage to the Earth.’ We should surely be harnessing any means possible to prevent this furious catastrophe from happening, yet psychology is often overlooked.

What’s psychology got to do with it?

Dr Gifford at the University of Victoria B.C. is among psychologists beginning to shout louder about the potential of the field when it comes to mitigating these issues saying:

“Climate change is a human problem. It’s the result of 7.6 billion people making decisions every single day.” But we don’t fully realise that “makes it a psychological problem.”

It really is that straight forward. This month’s Monitor on Psychology published by the APA (American Psychological Association) talks about the part psychology should be playing and how it has to date been applied in a patchy and ad hoc manner. The cynic in me would say that our use of ‘applied psychology’ is focussed more heavily on how to get consumers to buy things and engage with tech. Ironically the job of psychologists is made harder from the intensity of the technology in our environment and the human disconnect with the natural world. Put most simply – when we have our head stuck in answering e-mails, we’re unlikely to remember to turn the light off.

Here are just a few of the ways in which psychology can be used:

  • Help organisations to help employees. Organisations are a direct route to making hugely impactful changes, in part because of the number of people in employment. Making strategic use of knowledge when it comes to human drivers e.g. competition and peer pressure, can help us to foster sustainable behaviour even beyond the office. For example, one U.S. non-profit (Cool Choices) created a contest where teams of employees competed for points by engaging in sustainable behaviours at home. Simple activities such as installing low-flow showers and swapping bulbs for low energy LEDs. The results were analysed to find that employees reduced their household electricity use even 6 months after the ‘game’ had ended. This one small example shows the impacts of understanding psychology on sustainability both during and after the study took place (due to habituation).

 

  • Work with cities. Cities are another hub through which large and effective interventions can be introduced. Work with local policy makers and city councils can help leaders to understand how to reduce carbon footprint through using psychology. This may for example take on the form of educating people and then making it clear who else in communities understand the issues. What does this do? Engages peoples’ need to adhere to social norms – they then use what they’ve learnt and it becomes part of their everyday behaviour and a societal norm.

 

  • Carry out more research into when and why people engage in sustainable behaviour. Psychologist Dr. Suzanne Holt Ballard is co-founder of Future Cities Lab which collaborates with cities worldwide on issues relating to sustainability, citizen health and well-being. They are analysing data relating to air pollution, climate and human activity patterns in cities such as New York and Paris. They will then map the connections between urban design, human mobility and health research to allow future ‘smart cities’ to not only reduce the output of fossil fules but also encourage citizens to make healthy personal choices.

 

  • When and why they don’t –take for example the role of ‘fast fashion’. The BBC recently aired a documentary featuring presenter Stacey Dooley which highlighted the impact on the environment of, most surprisingly to me, cotton production. The huge volumes of water used to process cotton dry up local water sources and the pesticides damage ecosystems. Yet, when my daughter wants to get that t-shirt from H&M I will be as guilty as the next person of saying ‘OK’ rather than suggesting a more expensive and sustainable product. Why? Well that’s complicated and for another blog….

 

  • Use tech and AI –while on the one hand tech is part of the problem, leveraging psychological knowledge in the development of tech and AI could enable hugely impactful solutions. At the individual end of the scale simple there’s home tech like the ‘smart’ thermometers which can reduce energy usage. At the other end of the scale using ‘big data’ should allow psychologists to analyse far richer sets of information, collecting data at a scale and volume that without technology would just not be feasible. The outputs of this will help to generate more insightful and accurate answers on what works, for whom, where and why in order to focus on behaviour change interventions that really work.

The UN are beginning to understand the role of psychologists play enlisting their help writing the next report for 2021 (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). But we tend to forget how central the role of psychology and in this area which is in such dramatic need of attention it can only be a good thing.  Psychology seems to simple, so common sense but the subtleties involved really require people who are trained to understand in order to optimise their use. Psychology really can and should have a lot to do with addressing climate change. 

My book Defining You is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

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References and links:

BBC 3 – Stacey Dooley’s ‘Fashion’s Dirty Secrets’ https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0bn6034

Henderson, R. M., Reinert, S. A., Dekhtyar, P., & Migdal, A. (2015). Climate Change in 2018: Implications for Business. risk1.

Ro, M., Brauer, M., Kuntz, K., Shukla, R., & Bensch, I. (2017). Making Cool Choices for sustainability: Testing the effectiveness of a game-based approach to promoting pro-environmental behaviors. Journal of Environmental Psychology53, 20-30.

Weir, K. (2018) Building a Sustainable Future, 49 (5) 48. 

Weir, K (2018) Climate Change is Our Call to Acton, 49 (10) 43.

Photo taken in Mariposa, California

 

 

I feel little, oh so little……

Sometimes I feel so tiny that I could disappear into a crack in the floor. It’s a funny feeling, but not in the ha-ha kind of way –  insecurity, anxiety, disquiet (a colleague once said that I had ‘an unquiet mind’) all muddled up together. A feeling that I’m not quite good enough and that things would be so much better if I could just hide where no one could see me and I could have no responsibilities.

I may be an extreme example, but I think we all feel like this sometimes. My version comes in part from being mixed up (as a psychologist I may know many of the answers but that doesn’t mean I can apply them to myself) and so from within. Other ‘from within’ factors include things like comparing ourself to others, the way we talk to ourself and even chemical imbalances in our brain. But when it comes from outside, when it’s someone else who is ‘making’ us feel bad, it can knock even the most self-assured of us. For example:

The dinner party guest who drops quotes from Descartes then gives a detailed breakdown of why Marxism is more relevant to politics today than ever before. Things you know nothing about.

The colleague who points out that you can’t spell, and your grammar is appalling.

The friend who always has a better story to tell when you have exciting news to share.

While there are definitely some people who are just inherently ‘self-aggrandizing’ – these comments are generally not made to hurt. In fact, they are more likely to come from an unconscious need to show off. Why? So that that person feels accepted and secure. This reflects the irony of human behaviour. In an attempt to try and be liked and accepted we make other people feel insecure. They then strive harder to be accepted themselves making it likely that they will unintentionally create the same bad feeling in someone else.

My insecurity really is my problem (i.e. it’s mainly from within), but sometimes it’s heightened by other people. Many years ago I told a colleague about one remark (it’s helpful working with psychologists) who said ‘It really says more about them than it does you’. While this may seem obvious it’s one of those points that it’s really useful to have up your ‘mental sleeve’ when the moment strikes.

Other little things you can do to help:

  1. Avoid people you feel insecure around and spend time with those who make you feel good. This may sound obvious – but that doesn’t mean we do it. We’re sometimes compelled to spend time with the people who make us feel bad about ourselves because we desperately want to change the way they see us. So we waste our time with them rather than spending time with people who make us feel good. It’s worth being more conscious of how people make you feel and making a concerted effort to move toward the good and away from the bad.
  2. Change your posture. As Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy has shown through her research, holding yourself in a different way affects the chemicals released in your body and therefore impacts how you feel. Pull your shoulders back, chin up and (depending on where you are) take up more space by holding our your arms and legs. “When our body language is confident and open, other people respond in kind, unconsciously reinforcing not only their perception of us but also our perception of ourselves.”
  3. Pay someone a compliment. The joy of making someone else feel good, will in turn make you feel better whatever is getting you down.
  4. Remember it’s invisible. Most people think I’m confident. No one knows (until now) that I often feel utterly crap about myself. The same is probably true for you and it’s worth remembering. It gives a layer of protection at the very least.

 

Todays’ world is bad enough at eroding self-esteem with an environment littered by unrealistic comparison points. Where we can we should be kind to ourselves and to those around us. That takes a determined effort: to be self-aware, to see what we’re feeling and not project it onto other people, and to see what others are making us feel and try to step away from it if it’s not helpful.

Ultimately we all want the same thing – to feel good – so even if you can’t feel good yourself, try and make the effort to make someone else’s day a bit better.

As the brilliant Maya Angelou said:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

 

Links (more from Amy Cuddy):

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comparison is the Thief of Joy

On Saturday I had the pleasure of speaking at Red Smart Women’s Week. Having done my talk I took the opportunity to go along to a session on ‘feeling good about your use of social media’, hosted by Brigid Moss. Her guests were Katherine Ormerod and Lucy Sheridan who both have first-hand experience as social media influencers.

Lucy’s focus is comparison, an area that fascinates me from a professional standpoint. We all compare ourselves to others, but social media allows this to get out of hand. Lucy candidly spoke about her trials with “Jealousy and envy of other people” which stemmed from social media. From the outside what you see is a funny, humble, engaging and authentic lady, but we all know what goes on inside and what we see from outside are two entirely different things. She went through a period where she really struggled and says she has to keep herself in check with social media even today.

So, what is the psychological root of this envy we all feel – envy which is exacerbated by social media? Evolutionary psychologists explain that feelings such as envy enabled our ancient ancestors to evaluate status within a group. Having higher status meant access to better resources (e.g. food, sexual partners, social alliances, safety) and therefore better chances of survival. The negative emotions felt when comparing someone similar but who had ‘more’ was a motivation to readdress the balance. For example, if person ‘a’ had more food than person ‘b’, the envy felt by person ‘b’ would motivate them to find more food, meaning an equal chance of survival.

Then and now, this comparison is most significant amongst peers. Research carried out by neuroscientists Ramachandran and Jalal show that if we compare ourselves to someone such as our neighbour who happens to have more money than us and someone like Mark Zuckerberg whose net worth is $62 billion, most of us feel more envious of our neighbour. Why? Because our brain has evolved to think that there’s ‘no point in being envious of’ Zuckerberg. He’s off the scale either in ability or luck so no amount effort will result in us becoming the richest person in the world.But if our neighbour is more wealthy than us, someone who has a similar background, social status, opportunities etc., we feel envy to motivate us to have the same. The problem is that today the envy is not fuelling a life and death situation so becomes a far less helpful emotion.

This unhelpful emotion becomes even worse when we add in social media. Online everyone ‘seems’ closer to us than in reality they are so suddenly everyone becomes a peer. As a result we compare ourselves to and become envious of far more people which starts the negative downward spiral faced by comparison on social media. This is made worse because we’re often trying to close the gap on something unattainable a) because the person we are comparing ourselves to is not from a similar background to us (e.g. Hollywood star who grew up with film star parents in LA) b) because most images on social media do not display reality (i.e. a snapshot of perfection rather than the struggle, pain, failure and every day ugliness that goes on behind the scene). The more primitive areas of our brain don’t know that we’re striving for something that we cannot achieve or something that’s unrealistic, which greatly amplifies the negative emotions felt and in turn produces powerful feelings of inadequacy.

So what can you do when you feel envy:

  • Try to notice the envy – what or who you are envious of, observing the emotion rather than engaging with it (more on this technique in my book and books by Russ Harris). Being self-aware can help you to stop and put it down when it becomes too much rather than getting sucked in.
  • Try to limit your social media usage. Sounds obvious but it’s really important. To quote Arianne Huffington “Technology is amazing, but it needs to be put in its place, and we need to set boundaries so that we have time to connect with ourselves and to build deep connections with others.” Lucy and Katherine have more tips on this (websites below).
  • On that point – connect with others in real life. Make the effort to call a friend or to speak to someone in person and really concentrate on what they say. It will move you away from feelings of envy as well as bringing you back into the real world and evoking far more powerful and helpful emotions relating to the more advanced areas of the brain.

 

Read Lucy and Katherine’s websites for more on having a healthy relationship with social media.

Lucy’s website:

http://www.proofcoaching.com

Katherine’s website:

http://www.workworkwork.co

Defining You which is currently 99p on Amazon UK. It’s also available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

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References:

Harris, R. (2011). The happiness trap. ReadHowYouWant. com.

Ramachandran, V. S., & Jalal, B. (2017). The Evolutionary Psychology of Envy and Jealousy. Frontiers in Psychology8, 1619. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01619

Ekman P., Friesen W. V. (1971). Constants across cultures in the face and emotion. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 17 124–129

Ramachandran V. S. (1998). Why do gentlemen prefer blondes? Med. Hypotheses 48 19–20

Quote: Teddy Roosevelt

Picture: pexels.com

 

 

 

What’s the Point of You?

That may be a little harsh, really what I mean is what’s your purpose? It’s a hard question for anyone to answer and it can feel a bit like a slap in the face if you don’t know. But purpose, if you can find it, is so powerful that it has positive benefits both physically and mentally. Multiple research studies have shown the outcomes of having purpose to be quite astounding including: protecting against heart disease, diminishing the impacts of Alzheimer’s, improving our ability to handle pain, mitigating depression, curbing anxiety, and also lengthening our lives. One study which looked at over 6000 people across a 14 year period found that the people who had a sense of purpose had a 15% lower chance of dying – no matter what their age. Alongside this, meaning is a major component of well-being and life satisfaction.

Viktor Frankl, a neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor, gives a powerful example of how critical purpose is in his book The Search for Meaning. He recounts his experiences in a concentration camp and how finding meaning, in even the most brutal of experiences, kept him going and gave him a reason to live. He also interviewed hundreds of fellow prisoners, and found that those who survived the mistreatment and were able to fight back from illness all had a deeper meaning or purpose keeping them going. Frankl famously argued that within the context of normal life, people who lack meaning fill what he called the “resultant void” with hedonistic pleasures: power, materialism, obsessions, and compulsions—in other words, those things that we chase after that give us a short lived boost but which we gain no lasting satisfaction from.

So, it’s clear that purpose is critically important but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to work out. In the past, people relied on religion and culture to define their meaning. These provided a framework from which to operate, the bigger picture from which to see life. However, as the world changes some people are moving away from identifying so closely with religion and traditional cultures, and consequently purpose is no longer given to us on a plate—we have to define it for ourselves. This isn’t easy to do, and anyone who claims otherwise is misleading you.

I spoke to Jeff Weigh for his podcast ‘Perfect Imbalance’ last week and describing my own journey to discover my purpose. It’s messy a ride, it hasn’t been easy, it didn’t fall in my lap and I majorly diverted off course a few times before coming back to what I really love. I still wouldn’t say I have absolute clarity but I’m definitely along the right track. Psychological research shows that people can actually get very down looking for purpose because they have been set up to believe it should be easier to find than in reality it is. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but it does takes time, effort and reflection.

My favourite illustration (aside from Frankl) of someone who has lived his life with purpose is Sir David Attenborough. His whole career has been deeply anchored on his values, making use of his strengths and preferences, all of which are critical to our personal purpose. Attenborough’s life has been centered around his devotion to the natural world and a passionate desire to communicate and share that with the general population. Now in his 90s, Attenborough is still working and enthusiastically contributing to society’s understanding of the natural world and human impacts on it. But if you look at the course his life has taken you can see it’s not been a straight line, rather it has evolved and changed as he has, adapting to both his own experiences and the changes in the world around him. When he was 20 he wouldn’t have been able to have told you what he’d be doing when he was 50, 70 or 90 but he would have been able to articulate what ‘made his heart sing’.

Finding your purpose doesn’t mean that it won’t change and evolve as you go through life. Nor does it mean you won’t sometimes get knocked off course. But like a lot of things it starts with self-awareness, taking the time to reflect (not over analyse – that’s a bad route to go down) on who you are, what you love and are passionate about, what your values are – it’s up to you to put in the effort.* And it’s not a one off, you need to keep revisiting these facets that make up who you are and taking time to think. It made sound like a bit too much work, but it’s well worth the effort. Purpose provides the guiding light that helps you see why you do what you do. Having purpose reminds you of the more meaningful side of life when you (or I or any of us) get sucked into hedonism, worrying about superficial things or getting caught up in the daily grind. It provides you with the far reaching goal on the days where you just want to give up. Having a sense of meaning in your life literally gives you a reason to get up in the morning.

* I’ve been lucky to receive a lot of positive comments on my book but one 3 star review said it’s a bit “surface level”  The book isn’t supposed to give you the answers, it’s there to guide you to finding your own answers. However you search out your meaning, if you don’t dig deep and look you won’t find. 

(Dear reviewer – most of the tools in Defining You are backed by years of research by esteemed academics e.g. the tool you refer to after saying they are “surface level” is used by the US health protection agency and in hospitals across the States and UK).

 

Extracts taken from Defining You which is currently 99p on Amazon UK. It’s also available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

I’m talking about finding your purpose at Red Smart Women’s Week in London this Saturday 22nd September. Last day of ticket sales – 18th Sept 2018

https://hearstlive.co.uk/smartwomenweek/#1531407421503-a6e00f6d-754f

 

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References

Hill, P. L., & Turiano, N. A. (2014). Purpose in life as a predictor of mortality across adulthood. Psychological science25(7), 1482-1486.

Fiona Murden (2018). Defining You. How to profile yourself and unlock your full potential. Nicholas Brealey Publishing

Viktor E. Frankl (1984) Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy, New York: Simon & Schuster.

Image: pexels.com

What Does Confidence Mean?

Confidence is an elusive concept. Most of us lack it to some degree, and few would argue they don’t want to feel more confident, yet when it comes to defining how we could develop it we are at a loss. Having confidence rids us of the anxiety and doubts that hold us back from so many opportunities. It not only makes us feel better about ourselves, but also enables us to achieve more and inspire the conviction of others in our abilities.

Having said that, too much confidence is not a good thing. This is displayed in leadership, where an “overwhelming” self-assurance leads to something known as hubris syndrome. This acquired condition, which represents the extreme end of the scale, results in what Lord David Owen, a former MP and psychiatrist, defines as “disastrous leadership” that can “cause large-scale damage.” It is marked by behaviors such as “impetuosity, a refusal to listen to or take advice and a particular form of incompetence when impulsivity, recklessness and frequent inattention to detail predominate.” The same behaviors manifest in anyone who becomes too self-possessed. Consequently, you want to build your confidence to optimize your potential, but you also need to be careful not to take it too far.

There is a “sweet spot” you want to reach where your self-assurance is robust enough to allow you to take a balanced view on risks, make effective decisions, have influence, and effectively forge ahead with your purpose. Understanding what this means and where you are with it will form a strong platform from which you can move forward and fine-tune your own level of confidence. Psychologists consider confidence in terms of two broad concepts: self-confidence (known technically as self-efficacy) and self-esteem. Self-confidence is about how much faith you have in your ability to achieve a specific goal in a particular situation. As such, it’s not a given that being self-confident with one task means you’ll be equally self-confident with another. For example, you may be confident that you can cook a good meal or play a strong game of tennis, but still lack confidence when it comes to your ability to run a marathon or play a piece of music on the piano.

Although self-confidence is task specific, one person may have an overall higher level than another. Someone with higher levels of self-confidence will approach all new challenges in a more forthright way. For example, they might throw themselves down a mountain when learning to ski, confident that they’ll get the hang of it, and approach another task, say scuba diving for the first time, with the same vigor. On the other hand, another person who is less self-confident may be very fearful of any novel task.

Self-esteem differs, in that it is more internally focused than self-confidence. Rather than being based on the successful completion of tasks or challenges, it’s about how much you value yourself or how much you like and accept who you are. An easy way to assess your level of self-esteem is to listen to your internal dialogue. How do you speak to yourself: are you kind, accepting, and appreciative (e.g., well done, you did a great job with that), or harsh, cutting, and critical (e.g., you idiot, why did you do that again, when will you learn)?

People frequently strive to make themselves feel better by chasing the more tangible aspects that relate to self-confidence—external rewards such as awards, academic achievements, or sporting success—while neglecting to work on their self-esteem. Celebrities often fall into this category, looking to the outside world for reassurance about their self-worth and getting that by achieving public recognition, awards, or notoriety. However, they can often be the loneliest people, feeling empty because their higher-level needs are not being met, their ability to like and accept themselves. This leads to destructive behaviors such as taking drugs, drinking to excess, and overeating.

Both self-confidence and self-esteem are important to well-being and to the pursuit of your goals within the context of what makes you unique and special as a person. One without the other is not helpful. Once you’ve built your self-confidence and self-esteem, they need to be continually nurtured to enable optimal performance.

Extract taken from:

Defining You: Discover telling insights into your behaviour, motives and results to unlock your full potential by Fiona Murden – available at amazon.co.ukWaterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK.

From July 24th 2018 Defining You will also be available across the English speaking world e.g. amazon.comamazon.au, amazon.ca

Defining You gives access to an online psychometric test providing a full personalised professional report.

References

Owen, D., & Davidson, J. (2009). Hubris syndrome: An acquired personality disorder? A study of US Presidents and UK Prime Ministers over the last 100 years. Brain132(5), 1396-1406.

Photo by Moose Photos from Pexels

The Myth of Sanity

Sanity is a myth, none of us are sane, yet insanity feels scary, foreign and a million miles from the life that most of us lead. Insanity conjures up images of mental asylums, white coats, sedated patients, a ‘one flew over the cuckoo’s nest’ hive of panic-stricken individuals. Our 19th and 20th century foray into locking up the clinically ill has only served to heighten a perception of mental illness as being a million miles away from normal. A black and white divide between those who are sane and those who are not. As a result, we’ve come to fear any sign that we may be less than 100% normal, deeply burying signs of ‘weakness’ and fearing the stigma of what it means to be mentally ill.

Why sanity is a myth!

In reality there is no divide between being OK and being insane, we all suffer from symptoms of one kind or another. It’s only when the volume gets turned up to a deafening or debilitating pitch that it gets labelled, but it’s always there. If any one of us were to pick up the DSMV (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) which lists out psychiatric conditions, we could pick out symptoms that we recognise in ourselves.  Just take a look at the list below which relates to GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder):

  1. Too much anxiety or worry over more than six months. This is present most of the time in regards to many activities.
  2. Inability to manage these symptoms
  3. At least three of the following occur:
    Note: Only one item is required in children.

    1. Restlessness
    2. Tires easily
    3. Problems concentrating
    4. Irritability
    5. Muscle tension.
    6. Problems with sleep
  4. Symptoms result in problems with functioning.
  5. Symptoms are not due to medications, drugs, other physical health problems
  6. Symptoms do not fit better with another psychiatric problem such as panic disorder

It’s the frequency and intensity (in italics) which tip these symptoms from everyday annoyances toward mental illness i.e. impaired cognition (thinking), emotions or behaviour. It’s easy to see how the tipping point is similar to physical illness. We don’t go to the doctor until the pain in our side has been there for 3 months, or the headaches have become so severe that we can’t go to work.

So what is mental health?

Earlier this year I spoke to Lord Stevenson about raising awareness of what’s normal and what’s not when it comes to mental health. Stevenson and Farmer put together an independent review of mental health in the workplace for the Prime Minister and they open their review by saying:

By mental health we do not mean “mental ill health”. We mean the mental health we all have, just as we all have physical health. The World Health Organisation defines good mental health as “A state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”

With that in mind I put together the diagram below to show the parallels between physical health and mental health and the comparative places in which we seek help. As always I emphasize the fact that a better understanding of psychology could help everyone at every stage of this continuum.

Picture1

Realising Our Own Potential

Bringing this into the world I work the focus lies on the peak performance end of the continuum. A large part of my job is to help exceptional people remain in or reach their place of peak performance – to keep them at their absolute optimum. They need to be there so that they can realise their own potential, cope with the stresses of life but in most cases make a significant ‘contribution to his or her community’. These people have a responsibility not just to themselves but to those who they lead or influence, it’s critical that they understand their tipping points and avoid falling off the edge.

In my book I refer to stress and peak performance within the context of the Human Function Curve developed by Cardiologist Peter Nixon. This model is useful because while developed in the context of physiological stress and performance it also readily applies to mental stress and performance bringing together the similarities between physical and mental health.

The model helpfully points out that stress on either the body or the mind isn’t always detrimental—we need a certain amount in order to perform at our optimum which is just as well because and in reality we cannot escape stress. Both stress on our body and our mind are part of the equilibrium that is life. The curve illustrates that there is a need for a balance of good and bad stress, with optimal stress and performance at the midpoint.

Picture2

Taken from Defining You

If you think of this in the context of an athlete training – they need to keep stretching their body out of their comfort zone in order to improve, but then allow time to rest in order to train again. That stress will cause physical discomfort when the athlete is training but also allow them to improve their performance. However too much time training without a rest will result in injury.

When it comes to our minds, at a low level of stress, we may feel bored or disinterested, finding it hard to get ourselves going.  As stress increases, so does our physiological and psychological arousal until it reaches an optimal level, enabling improved performance: for example, performing better in a presentation or exam, finding it easier to concentrate and get things done, or being more able to think on our feet. In the same way that the stress causes a degree of physical discomfort for the athlete training, the mental annoyances that personally bother us are turned up in volume as we move along the spectrum. I for example get really anxious in the run up to giving a big talk and as a result experience more of the items in list C above e.g. restlessness, irritability, muscle tension and problems with sleeping. They aren’t however sustained, once I’ve done the talk they subside. Too much stress, too many talks in one week or one month could however be crippling. In the same way as too much stress on an athletes body can cause a muscle or tendon to tear, too much stress on our mind can cause us to tip over the edge with a need to take time to recover. At this point our performance follows a downward trajectory, leading to negative emotions and overall cognitive decline, risking mental ill health.

The Cyclical Nature of Mental Health

Over the years working with high performers, I have become acutely aware of the fine line between brilliance and denial, or talent and collapse. Individuals who are at the top of their game are vulnerable and can quickly face mental deterioration. This is not helped by the picture that has been painted of insanity. The most successful high achievers see nothing of themselves in people who fit this description, in fact they often fear this more than most – mental illness has also been branded as failure and failure is a long way from what they identify themselves with. Yet we only have to look at the list of those who have fallen prey to mental illness to see how close these two ends of the spectrum lie. From the brilliantly funny and talented Robin Williams who took his own life to Kurt Cobain, Ernest Hemmingway, Vincent Van Gogh and Virginia Woolf are just a few. In reality, peak performance is often knocking on the door of mental illness.

In this sense I see mental health as existing in a cyclical nature rather than on a continuum. We need to inhabit the right hand side of the cycle, moving back and forward from comfort zone, stretch zone and peak performance as we listen to our body and our mind, responding to the need to rest and refuel. Without this continual fine tune and awareness peak performance or even being stretched leads to the normal stresses of life becoming too much and tipping us over into mental illness. At this point it’s not so easy to pick up where we left off – we have to recover before we can perform at our peak again or even exist in our comfort zone. In the worst case, for those like Cobain and Williams, that recovery never happens.

The Cycle of Mental Health

Picture3

We all face immense pressures which we cannot just get rid of, but we can be more aware of both in ourselves and others. We don’t generally swing from OK to mentally ill. There aren’t just two ends of a spectrum – we all pass back and forward through the cycle. If we compare it to physical health, we are not in hospital or running a marathon, there are a whole host of physical states in between. With the brain, which is the most complex organ of the body, those states cover even more shades of grey.

I’m passionate about being a voice and joining other voices to move our societal understanding of mental health toward the richness and complexity that inhabits life. To help society understand that there is no sane or insane, rather a constantly changing state of mental states, influenced by a complex set of external and internal factors. At a personal level, we not only need to understand this but learn to understand our own mental tendencies and weak spots, how to refuel, how and when to ask for help. We need to improve everyone’s understanding of behaviour so that we can not only destigmatize mental illness but so that we can optimise mental health and realise human potential across the human race.

The Myth of Sanity – was a title borrowed from the brilliant US Clinical Psychologist Dr. Martha Stout the book is below.

For more from me –

Defining You: Discover telling insights into your behaviour, motives and results to unlock your full potential by Fiona Murden – available at amazon.co.uk, Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK.

From July 24th 2018 Defining You will also be available across the English speaking world e.g. amazon.com, amazon.au, amazon.ca

Defining You gives access to an online psychometric test providing a full personalised professional report.

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Links and references:

American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing

Murden, F (2018) Defining You: How to Profile Yourself to Unlock Your Full Potential

Stevenson, D and Famer, P (2017) Thriving at Work: The Stevenson / Farmer Review of mental health and employers

Stout, M (2002) The Myth of Sanity: Tales of Multiple Personality in Everyday Life

Image: Pexels.com

What’s Your Story?

A couple of hours ago I stood waiting to get off a flight, trapped in the no mans land of disembarking the plane, waiting impatiently for the “Cabin crew prepare doors for arrival”. I looked out at the sea of faces and wondered who all these people were. Perhaps a default position of being a psychologist – I look and wonder what’s that person’s story? Where did they grow up, what makes them laugh, what makes them cry, do they have a family, what are they passionate about, what do they do every day, do they like what they do? It always amazes me to see how many people there are in any given space and time, each with their own unique pattern.

Everyone has their own story, each one of us has experienced different things and lived life in a unique and personal way. Even though there are 7.4 billion people on the planet, by nature of our genes and individual interactions, the neuronal pathways in our brains – only you are you and only I am me.

So, what?

Everyone deserves respect. We know this – I mean we’re all good people with good intentions at the end of the day, right? But we can also easily forget. Caught up in our own world of busyness, of getting on to the next thing – our more primitive brain takes over and sees the faces around us as strangers and indicative of this word’s meaning as ‘strange’. (This incidentally is a natural human response that makes me feel defensive, annoyed, protective).

On my way to Zambia, in Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport I went to the bathroom. I walked past the toilet attendant and thought about how it must feel to be in that room with no windows all day: flushing loos, cleaning seats, seeing people rush in and out again on their exciting adventures. And I wondered how that lady got there, what was her life story, did she even have a choice of what job she did or was it anything that would pay enough to live? Did she ever have opportunities, prospects? How did she see the world? On my fleeting trip in and out of the bathroom all I could offer was a big smile, no time to sit and ask her about who she was and how she got there.

While we are all human and unique, we also by nature of our biology and default all too quickly forget. So, what should we do with these people all around us – in a world crowded with faces?

Try not to stereotype

I say try, because our brain works quickly to categorise and simplify as a survival mechanism still with us from our ancient ancestors. Friend or foe, like me or not like me, opportunity or threat. We have to consciously make the decision not to let the more basic and primitive areas of our brain take over. While it may be beneficial to use our survival instincts when we’re walking home alone in the dead of night that only makes up a small fraction of time in our daily lives.

Try not to make assumptions

Once we’ve got past the point of stereotyping, the next rabbit hole our brain takes us down is stereotyping. We speak to someone at a party and find out that they’re a banker, our assumption could be that they are money and status driven and that could be the lens we then see everything they say through. For example they talk about when they were in Africa and we assume it was on some luxury safari. In actual fact it was as a volunteer helping children orphaned as a result of AIDS, and why? Because they care deeply about giving back. Even as a psychologist trained to step back from these assumptions, I can be as guilty as the next person once I’m out of work mode.

Ask questions and really really listen.

Try (again I say try because it’s not the way your brain will lead you) to remain completely open-minded, to listen with intent, to understand not to judge or think about what you are going to say next, listen to hear what that person has experienced, what they believe in, what nuances of their experience and perception makes them as unique as you and I.

What’s your experience of jumping to the wrong conclusion or being surprised by someone’s story? What have you learnt about people as you’ve gone through life? Do you have any tips on how to stop yourself from judging too quickly? I’d love to know because I really do think we can all learn from one another.

 

Explore your own story using:

Defining You: Discover telling insights into your behaviour, motives and results to unlock your full potential by Fiona Murden – available at amazon.co.uk, Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK.

From July 24th 2018 Defining You will also be available across the English speaking world e.g. amazon.com, amazon.au, amazon.ca

Defining You gives unique access to an online psychometric test providing a full personalised professional report.

Subscribe to our mailing list to get more news, tips and tools from Fiona

* indicates required




Be the change that you wish to see in the world….

The week before last I went to the House of Commons with eighty ‘game changing’ ladies. We discussed the need for women to put their message forward, to speak up, to put their hand up – however scared we may feel. But it’s really not easy……

Eleven years ago, I struggled into motherhood. The last couple of months of pregnancy when I was meant to be relaxing I nearly lost my Mum. Every day I sat watching her fighting for her life in intensive care. Then my beautiful baby girl came, 4 weeks early. I loved her dearly from the moment she opened her eyes, but although I desperately wanted to be a wholesome stay at home mum my over anxious brain, always trying to solve the next problem, quickly turned in on itself. The plan was to take at least a year off but the only solution to dealing with my unquiet mind was to occupy it (like distracting a small child). This was important not just for me but for my family – I was not a content, positive person to be around however much I tried. So, when my baby girl was about 7 months old I began working 2.5 days a week, riddled with guilt at leaving her. The rest of the week I struggled with feeling I didn’t quite fit anywhere in this new role or with other mums who seemed to be doing a far better job than me.

The next few years were not without hiccups – calls to travel several hundred miles to see Dad when he’d ‘once again’ ended up in hospital. Each time the fear of losing him engulfed me utterly. Another pregnancy – healthy and then a scan with no heartbeat. Pregnant again – healthy again and then a scan with no heartbeat. Investigation found I had something called Ashermans Syndrome. Another operation (I’d already had 2 with the above) to ‘fix’ things, followed by yet another miscarriage. Then, along came Polly – 6 weeks early. My pregnancy was far from straight forward and during the 2 weeks spent in hospital I became totally drowned by postnatal depression. To top it off not long after Dad died. So, I was feeling pretty vulnerable for those years.

Meanwhile I was trying to get on with a career while also protecting myself. I deliberately didn’t go out looking for work, just kept my own business modestly ticking along. But when my youngest recently started school I decided it was time to pursue my career with more purpose. To follow what I’m passionate about: helping empower people with what I know, giving access to psychology and understanding of behaviour to make a positive difference. To do this I had to put my head up and be heard. However, despite being feisty and determined I am also sensitive and fragile.

Since starting to put my work and thoughts out into the ether I have been knocked down a number of times and it’s hurt without fail. Today my book, an attempt to make academic psychology – rigorously evidence-based techniques something that’s accessible and user friendly, has been majorly cut down. A one-star rating on amazon and an embittered rage against what feels like me personally has left me feeling exposed, vulnerable and ready to throw in the towel. This isn’t how feedback is done in my line of work – instead, this is anonymous, faceless and without anything helpful.

Like the punch-drunk protagonist being knocked down in a brawl I will get up again. How can I make people’s lives better and share what I’ve learnt about psychology if I don’t stumble back into the fight? What’s the point of learning what I have if I can’t make use of it? I’m scared of being insulted, being critiqued and of being vulnerable. I know that putting my head up makes me so much more exposed but to make a difference that unfortunately comes with the territory. If it’s something I believe in (which it is) and equally whatever it is that you believe in – it matters to stand tall. And if you don’t want to put your head up to be shot down then support those who do, give them the reassurance and encouragement they need.

Shelley Zalis, an amazing, strong and inspiring lady who I was recently introduced to said “A woman alone has power, together we have impact.” She’s right, but imagine what men and women can do if we all hold each other up. Speak up with me. Don’t let me or anyone else stand alone.

 

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world”….Mahatma Ghandi

 

 

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My Vision, My Dream…

This is a short video I put together following the Game Changers event I went to at The House of Commons. It shares my vision.

 

The how comes in the form of working with other people which I aim to do via the dot-to-dot charity. Please let me know if you have any thoughts, ideas or want to collaborate in any way.

Fiona x

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