Thursday, July 12, 2012

This Blog Has Moved

Hi everybody. I just wanted to let you know that future posts on this blog can be found at

I imported everything from here, so it's over there too.

Thanks for reading, and I hope to see you on WordPress.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

We Teach Others How to Treat Us

            Once upon a time, I did a brief stint as a night-shift cab driver. Yes, I know, you'd never have believed it, wasn't I afraid, and did anyone ever try anything. It's true anyway, no, and twice but they failed. Anyway, one morning pre-dawn, I was returning the cab to the cage, and for whatever reason I wasn't in a great mood. I enjoyed the job, although not the hours so much, because I actually like driving, and especially when there's an Interceptor motor under the hood. And I'm usually very nice, even if I'm tired. But this just wasn't the morning for me to be nicely enjoying anything.
            When I walked in, some guy was sitting there sizing me up. I didn't know him, but I know the type - scungy eewww but thinks he's God's gift to women. And I knew that if I didn't shut him down, hard and immediately, he'd forever be a pain in the rear. I ignored him and conducted my business with the cashier, who gave me a warning glance at Mr. Wannabe Bad-Boy. When I was done, I turned to walk out. Hot Stuff couldn't believe I was immune to his charms and called out, "Hey, who are you?" I answered, very truthfully, "I am one of two female night-shift drivers. The other carries a .57. I don't need to. I am no one to be trifled with." And I walked out.

We teach others how to treat us. (Seems like a fitting concept for Independence Day.)

It's not a new concept. It's one practical application of the Golden Rule, which is known universally with only slight variations. It goes beyond just treating others the way we expect to be treated, though.

How do we do it? Mostly by making sure our actions back up our words. Walking the talk. 

It's easiest to explain by example:
  • If a tween girl chooses to allow herself to be put in the middle of tween-girl-drama between two friends, she's teaching them that she's okay with that position. On the other hand, if she tells them to leave her out of it, and removes herself from the drama, she's teaching them not to try to drag her into it.
  • If a young man stays in a relationship with a young woman who belittles him and flirts with his friends, he teaches her it's acceptable behavior.
  • If Mumsy always picks up Dad's shoes from the middle of the floor, she's teaching him that it's fine to leave them there. If she places them in the middle of his path from the bed to the bathroom where he'll trip over them in the middle of the night, she's teaching him that it's best if he finds an out-of-the-way place for them.
  • If a man can't gracefully accept a compliment and goes out of the way to avoid attention, he teaches others that he's not worth their attention.
  • If your best friend dodges your calls and has various reasons why he/she isn't available for three weeks at a time, and you accept that, you teach your friend that the lack of commitment and availability is fine. But if you call him/her on the avoidance behavior and indicate that you can't be friends with a ghost, you teach that you expect mutual effort in friendship.
  • Creepy examples: if a girl tells a guy she's not interested, but keeps flirting, she teaches him that what she says is meaningless. If she tells him she never wants to speak to him again, and he keeps calling, and finally on the 27th call she answers, she teaches him that "never" means a few pestering calls later.  
And so on. And by extension, we reinforce the lessons to ourselves. We teach ourselves how to treat ourselves - either nicely, or not. Which is where it all starts, anyway. Nobody will take you seriously until you take yourself seriously. Whatever it is you want, your task is to show the world that you're worthy of it. If you don't really want it, or really believe you deserve it, people will see through the act.

Your assignment today is to consider your own independence. You have the freedom to declare how you want to be treated ... so how do you want to be treated? Ponder that, and then walk the talk, baby! And if you need a coach to help you, you know how to reach me. 


Friday, June 29, 2012

Why Affirmations Don't Work

Affirmations can work. Don't get huffy with me just yet. Yes, they can, if they are worded and used in a way your brain accepts.

Ay, there's the rub, as Hamlet said. And that, my friends, is exactly why affirmations usually don't work. Let me explain.

Despite our affirmations, our brains have built-in bull$h!t detectors. We have a really hard time believing the lies we tell ourselves, which is why denial ends up being so bad for us. Telling ourselves the same lie over and over - unless we're all psychotic - tends not to work. And pictures of flowers or rainbows or the cosmos or a cactus aren't going to help, which is why motivational posters so often fail to motivate. And our doubts, the universe, attraction theories, or any secret you have to pay to read won't change any of that, because at the very core it's all about our brains.

A few things get in the way and cause problems:
·         Most people claim to be open-minded, but the reality is, about 4.8% of the population actually is. For the rest of the world, we only accept facts that support what we already believe. Illogical, but there you go. That's problem one. Affirmations, by definition, are simply true statements. And if the facts (truth) don't support what we already believe (not-necessarily-truth), we usually reject it. 
·         We are truly our own worst enemies. The way we think about ourselves - deep down - is nearly always more negative than reality, and we tend to be petty and mean with our self talk. And that self-perception is very strongly connected to our belief system. If those affirmations go against what we believe, we'll be just as unkind to the stupid affirmations.
·         You've heard of cognitive dissonance? That kicks in when what we observe doesn't match what we believe. Actions only speak louder than words when we're being rational. And at this point, since this isn't a rational part of the brain we're dealing with, guess which side we take! Yep, we ignore any facts we need to so we can cling to our beliefs. (Which, by the way, applies to more than just affirmations. It includes politics, religion, and sports.)

So what happens, when you latch onto an affirmation like "All is well in my life" is this:
1.      You already don't believe it, or you wouldn't have chosen the affirmation to try to force yourself to believe it.
2.      Your brain knows this, as well as all the things that are not well in your life.
3.      The more you say it, the more your brain will argue with you about how it's not true.
4.      Your brain will allow that certain things are well. "Your shoes look great with that outfit, oh yes, you have a fabulous sense of style." But it will also point out unwanted things. "Of course your style would look better if you lost 15 pounds. Maybe a different hair cut. Then people would like you more and you'd earn more money." Which, of course, may or may not be true but again, we're dealing with what you actually believe deep down. It may or may not be rational. 
And before it really got off the ground, your affirmation crashed and burned.

To create affirmations that have a fighting chance:
·         Word them in the present tense, but as actively happening now rather than as an achieved state. When you say that something is, and your brain knows better, it rebels, as explained above. Saying "I will ..." is fine with your brain, because someday maybe you will. But that doesn't generate much motivation. Better might be "Today I'm working on ..." or "Such-and-such is constantly improving...."
·         Be truthful. Saying "I am slim and fit" when they took a wall off your house yesterday to get you out isn't truthful. If it's a process, acknowledge it and phrase it that way. "I am becoming more slim and fit." If you took one tiny baby step toward that goal, that makes it true, and your brain will accept it.
·         Be flexible. Saying "I speak and think positively" doesn't give you any room for expressing negative emotions. Denying frustration, sadness, guilt, anger, or whatever can create a lot of stress, and that's not good. Instead, "I strive to see the positive every day" allows for progress while not being so inflexible that it forces you into denial.
·         Be less absolute. If you say "Everyone likes me" to build some self-esteem, what happens when someone doesn't? An alternative would be "I'm likable." It allows for the rare but inevitable exception.
·         Keep yourself in the affirmation. When you say "every problem has a solution," it's in the present tense, it might be technically true, but you also aren't relating it to your life. And once you do, it may cease to be true or general. Maybe you could say "I believe every problem has a solution, and I do my best to find it."

NOTE: there are those who say an affirmation should only be about the end result. For example, if you want to make more money, you should never say "I am getting rich" because it's still perceived as a negative, and you should only say "I am rich now." As an affirmation, it's doomed to fail. BUT, as part as a visualization exercise, it's perfectly fine! That's allowing a more primitive part of your brain to internalize concepts you want it to use and operate with. Visualizing what your goal achievement will be like is a great way to keep yourself working on it. Just don't confuse imagination with affirmation.

By the way, I'm here if you need a coach.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

New Habits: How Long Does It Really Take?

Conventional wisdom has been that it takes 21 days to make or break a habit. This "wisdom" is based on a few observations. The idea caught on, fueled by popularity and probably wishful thinking. Decide for yourself.

This doesn't have much to do with your habits. Unless you're this guy.

First, Dr. Maxwell Maltz observed amputees and found that it took (on average) 21 days for them to stop feeling phantom sensations in the missing limb. It took another 21 days to develop a new habit. This was huge in 1960, when his book Psycho-Cybernetics was published. Problems:
1. This was 1960. Over half a century ago, folks. I'd like to think we've learned a few things since then.
2. This wasn't even lab research. It was casual observations, based on physical healing from major trauma. And the subjects weren't "regular" people - they were recovering from ... yes, again, major trauma.
3. There wasn't any significant follow-up with the few subjects. Were they still maintaining their new habits years later? We'll never know.

This doesn't have much to do with your habits, either. Unless you're a chemist.

Second, a lot of lab research has found that rats and other critters are able to develop certain habits based on drug trials. Most of the habits formed at about the 21-day mark. Problems:
1. Clinical trials on animals are not the same as behavioral habits (sans drugs) of humans. We may as well say, well, it only takes once for a monkey to form a heroin addiction, so you should be able to form a new habit by doing something once. See the lack of logic?
2. Lots of these trials are 4 weeks long. So how impressive is it that by the third week, the animals acclimate?
3. Again with the follow-up. Since plenty of behaviors could be side-effects of drugs, it stands to reason that when the drugs stopped, at least some of the behaviors did, too.

It's time to toss this "21-day wisdom" out the window, because all it does is put unrealistic pressure on people.

Recent research (Lally, 2010) studied actual people doing actual behaviors with the intention of learning about creating new habits. Her study lasted 12 weeks. She found that the average amount of time it takes for people to form a habit is 66 days.

But that's not the whole story!

It depends on the behavior, first of all. Obviously some are simpler than others. People who chose to create an exercise habit took 1.5 times longer to make it a habit, compared to people who chose to make eating fruit at lunch a new habit. Most people, regardless of behavior, hit a plateau at some point. So even if you've jump-started a habit into high gear by day 21, it's entirely possible that on day 22, you're not going to be one day better at getting that new habit more strongly rooted. 

Also, it depends on the timeline. If people missed a day once in a while, it didn't have any real effect. So it's probably not worth beating yourself up if you don't do your yoga or drink your water or whatever once or twice a week. That doesn't mean you can skip it for three days in a row! So maybe you've been good at getting up and jogging every morning for 21 days, and it's sort of a habit, but your car is in the shop and you're carpooling, so you have to leave for work earlier and you don't have time to jog. You get your car back on day 25. Habit destroyed. 

What's this mean for you?

If you want to make a change, you have to allow realistic time for it. For small, simple changes to become habit, 21 days may turn out to be adequate. If you want a life-changing habit, prepare to invest at least a couple months before you think about slacking off.

Oh, and, if you're thinking about this kind of change, keep in mind that the first half the year is GONE at the end of the week. How are you doing on all those New Year's Resolutions? If you haven't achieved them, or you aren't at least halfway there, maybe it's time to think about a coach. Let's get some habits in place!

Lally, Phillippa,  van Jaarsveld, H., Potts, H., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998-1009.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Let. It. Go.

It's Saturday, June 23. Let It Go Day. 

Do we really need a day to remind us to let things go? Apparently at least some of us do. But what are we supposed to let go of? And why?

Really, now, you need me to answer that?

Let go of the negativity that clutters up your emotions and gets in the way of rational thought: judgment (which is usually some kind of fear in disguise), anxiety, frustration, shame, and anger. And for the hundredth time, it's okay to have those feelings, but the point is to experience them and then - you guessed it - let them go. Keeping them around simply isn't healthy.

But, the actual letting-go process - how complicated is it?

It depends. How complicated is it to let go of a wad of paper? Write down a bit about whatever you want to let go of on a sheet of paper. Crumple it up. Let it go, out of your hand and into the trash. Goodbye, garbage.

Or try something else:
  • Learn a new coping skill instead of relying on a dysfunctional one.
  • Have yourself a good cry and release built-up chemicals that are cluttering your system.
  • Whatever negative stuff you're telling yourself, start using a cartoon voice for it.
  • Do something positive right away to mentally shift gears.
  • Imagine a box in your head labeled "False Expectations." Every time you start to think shoulda/coulda/woulda, put it in the box and put the box up on a shelf.
  • Spend energy on something you can actually control. Clean up a little physical clutter. This increases your sense of control, decreases your stress, and is productive, all at the same time.
  • Take a step back and remember that by continuing to emotionally invest, you're living up to the definition of insanity - doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.
  • Take personal responsibility. Maybe a situation occurred that was not in your control, but your response is. Own it. Focus on what you could have done better to improve the outcome.
  • Incorporate a new stress management technique into your daily routine.
  • Laugh. Laughter soothes tension, eases pain, and improves your immune system. Plus, a good comedy is distracting and allows you to shift your focus.
  • If you just can't let it go, try a different means to a similar end. Letting something go doesn't mean you must forget all about it and never think of it again. It's like telling yourself "Don't think of a pink elephant." And having read that, what did you just think of? Right. That's not what letting go is. If it helps, change the words to "Let it be." It already is or has been, and none of your reaction is going to change that. So let it exist as it happened, but without maintaining your emotional connection.

Ultimately, you have three options: accept the situation gracefully (this doesn't mean huffing around saying "ok, but I still don't like it"), change the situation by being proactive, or - again, you guessed it - let it go.

Remember the monkey bars? At some point, you have to let go so you can move forward.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Really Lazy, Or Working Like Crazy?

Apparently, you can't judge activity by outward evidence.

Intuitively, it makes sense that we're willing to wait and do nothing than do something for no reason - it conserves energy. So sure, it's human nature to be lazy, unless there's a good reason to be active.

Imagine you're entering the line for a cool new ride at the amusement park. The line moves fast so you spend five minutes walking back and forth until you get to the ride. When you get there, you have to wait one minute for the cars to return to the station. How impatient do you feel as you wait, first in line to board? Not very, right? You've been active, making progress, and you have a pretty short wait. No big deal.

Now contrast that with this: you're entering the line for a cool new ride. Hardly anyone is there and it only takes a minute to get to the front of the line. But then you have to stand there waiting five minutes while a ride engineer checks a safety strap on a car that isn't being used. How impatient are you? You're stuck doing nothing, and you're a little irritated.

As it turns out, if time is available, we love to fill it with activity. Parkinson's Law (1955) says that "work expands so as to fill the time available for it's completion." But even at the oddest of times, when our bodies can't be active, our brains still are. During sleep, for example. 

Long ago in the dark ages (pretty much anything before the 70's or 80's), brain imaging showed that human brains weren't as active when their people were asleep as when they were awake. Well, those early studies weren't very extensive or accurate, as it turns out. Now we have fMRI. And with that, and EEG, we now know two things. First, the old stuff is true, sometimes. About five or six times a night, specifically. Our brains are indeed less active during REM sleep (when we're dreaming) than when we're awake. But second, our brains are more active during non-REM sleep - in several areas. (Cerebellum activity is highlighted in the above photo.)

These periods of brain activity are really busy. In fact, the level of activity is nearly the same as when we're awake and actively involved in some task. And it's during this time that our brains sort out garbage from important stuff, and file away the important stuff in long-term memory.

And how busy is busy? You can't accurately compare the human brain to a computer, in terms of processing speed, but this will give you some idea. The brain can process about ten one-million-point images per second from one retina. The brain itself has the neurons to handle 100,000 times that much information, so that works out to be roughly 100 million MIPS (Million computer Instructions Per Second). That's about like a 168,000 MHz  Pentium processor - or more than 20 times my quad core. Of course this is a rough comparison

Is this meeting really boring or really productive?

Mind working overtime? Maybe not.

Uh, never mind.

You know those mornings when you wake up and feel even more tired than when you went to bed? Maybe your brain had an incredibly busy night. Call work, tell them you'll be late, and go back to bed. I'll write you a note. :)

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Want To Be Happier? Breathe Deep & Don't Frown!

Has anyone ever tried to cheer you up and told you to turn that frown upside down?


Bear with me for a quick anatomy lesson. Your nervous system has three main parts. One, your parasympathetic nervous system, mostly handles normal, everyday tasks. Your sympathetic system hangs around, waiting for the tap out in times of stress or even danger. (It's the system that runs the whole "fight or flight" thing.) The third system is your autopilot, making sure you blink and digest food and stuff.

Now, if you're under chronic stress, your sympathetic nervous system gets a good workout - and gets over-stimulated to the point that you start to develop actual physical, mental, and emotional symptoms of stress. It gets stuck in the ON position, in other words.

We need to re-boot the system once in a while, and there are two easy ways to do that.

1.  Breathe!
Slow, mindful, deep breathing allows your brain to produce certain neurohormones. These counteract the stress-producing hormones your sympathetic nervous system has been demanding. Your parasympathetic nervous system starts to take over again. It decreases blood pressure and heart rate, so you can (finally) physically relax. Breathing exercises can be done any time, any place. Just sitting up straight and taking a slow, deep breath every so often through the day is good for you.

2.  Stop Frowning!
Recent studies (cited below) confirmed the idea that if you don't frown, you can't actually experience negative emotions. Actually, the studies found that Botox injections - which cause people to be unable to express emotion on their faces - kept people from feeling much emotion in the first place. Assuming you haven't had a Botox treatment lately and are capable of expressing emotion, the science still stands: if you don't do it, you don't feel it. So smile instead (since you can), and since your facial muscles are tied to your emotions, you'll pull your emotions into line with your expression!

Davis, Joshua Ian, Senghas, A., Brandt, F., & Ochsner, K. (2010). The effects of BOTOX injections on emotional experience. Emotion, 10(3), 433-440.
Havas, D. A., Glenberg, A. M., Gutowski, K. A., Lucarelli, M. J., & Davidson, R. J. (2010). Cosmetic use of botulinum toxin-A affects processing of emotional language. Psychological Science, 21(7), 895-900.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Consider The Audience: Color Psychology Depends on Culture, Context.

In other words, colors mean different things to different people in different situations.

From a business standpoint, this is one area where it really pays off to know your target customers, so you can understand what your color choices will mean to them. From your brick-and-mortar lobby to your website to your business cards, the wrong color choice could be an expensive mistake.

Sure, there's the whole "color psychology" thing, where red is stimulating and blue is calming, blah blah blah. But now that we've done actual research, we know that a) the effects of colors have been exaggerated, b) the effects are temporary, c) sometimes, long term effects are the negative extremes of what was intended, and d) the effects and meanings vary according to context and culture.

Let me address a, b, and c together by way of example. A blue room is supposed to be calming. And it is, compared to a more stimulating room, but not compared to an otherwise similar white room (the white one is more relaxing). If you just came from a more visually stimulating room, the moderate calming effect of the blue may last anywhere from a few minutes to a couple hours. After a few months of daily exposure, that blue tends to sink from simply "calming" to somewhere between "de-motivating" and downright "depressing" because of the lack of visual energy.

Takeaway: if you run a funeral home, a somber blue might be calming and ideal for viewings and eulogies, but - I can't resist - deadening in your office. On the other hand, the nearly cliche red-and-yellow theme of the nearest fast food joint is designed to be mildly irritating, so people eat and run, allowing for more customers. But it's also chronically irritating to the employees; is it any wonder they bicker and the drink station is always a mess?

Now, to discuss context, culture and color.

Traditionally, in many parts of Europe and North America, brides wear white as a symbol of purity. You're probably aware that in parts of Asia, white is the color of death! If you're considering colors in the context of global business, you obviously want to be cautious!

Gold is understood globally as a color of wealth and status. But the nouveau riche are much more likely to respond to it than people from "old money", who will consider excessive use as tacky, pretentious, and cheap. It may work in L.A., but limit it to an accent color in New England.

Green is often psychologically linked with money, which might stimulate spending. It's also psychologically linked to mold and toxins, which might not go over well in a restaurant. On the other hand, people may connect green to conservation, freshness and health. If you're designing a logo for a pest control company using organic products, your customers may perceive green as environmentally aware, or as highly toxic. The right hue might be a win-win.

And then there's black. In most Anglo-based cultures, black can be psychologically linked to evil and/or death (the ultimate in serious). Too much, the wrong way, can actually lead people to aggression, passive or otherwise. But when you add an equal share of fluorescent lime green, orange, or pink, you've turned it on its head and made it a fun, edgy, hip color.

Takeaway: even the right color can be wrong in certain contexts or cultures. This is one of those areas where it pays to really know your audience. Before you invest in a graphic designer, website developer, brick-and-mortar decorator, business cards, and company logo polo shirts, consider the cost if your color choice is misunderstood.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

To Stereotype is Human

categorizing an individual as a member of a certain group,
and inferring that the individual
shares the general characteristics of the group.

Did you ever watch Sesame Street as a kid? The whole "one of these things is not like the others" concept was designed to help young children notice differences and learn to organize.

Babies and young toddlers who are still learning words haven't grasped the finer points of categorizing and organizing yet. They know "cat" and think of "cat" in terms of "fur-covered, four-legged animal." That's it. And adults think it's cute when Babykins points to a cow or a dog and proudly declares, "Cat!" (Oh, come on, it is pretty cute.) And it shows the earliest of this kind of brain development.

If we don't already have a mental category for something, we'll create our own new one. We use our mental pigeon-holes, or schemas, as mental shortcuts when we have to deal with large amounts of information. (If you've been following along with this blog, you'll recall a few posts back when I mentioned that we can only handle about 128 bits of information at a time. A simple bit of small-talk can require as much as a third of that. Obviously "large" is a relative term!) Schemas help us make sense of what's going on so we don't get overwhelmed, but they also help us relate new information to stuff we already know. Doing that helps us remember better and retrieve the information from memory later. So schemas are incredibly handy brain processes.

By definition, stereotypes are schemas in action. Remember how Babykins called a cow a cat? If we don't intentionally interfere with the process, our brains prefer to be accurate (and it's worth a few mistakes to learn more). It's a natural human process.

Don't get the idea that forming schemas is a simple task! Remember that memory formation is affected by emotion. (Which is why aromatherapy can be effective - we form schemas that link certain smells with certain emotions.) This is where things get tricky.

When we're in a good mood, we're not as worried about accuracy, so we're more likely to rely on stereotypes. Mostly that's okay. As it turns out, ANY strong emotion keeps us from spending brain power on rational thought and making us more reliant on our schemas. That's mostly okay, too. In a crisis or a tragedy, there's a lot more to worry about. 

But here's where it gets tricky: if we form schemas about a certain group of people, for example, and along with the relatively small bit of information, we store the emotional context of when we gained that information, then the entire schema is biased from the beginning.

So if a schema is formed with an emotional atmosphere that's hostile or fearful, the schema is going to be negatively biased. On the other hand, if the schema is formed with a proud or joyful emotional atmosphere, the schema will be positively biased. Neither one is especially objectively accurate, both are prejudices. And not to nitpick or be a semantics cop, but prejudice is what's socially unacceptable and offensive, not schemas.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Can Your Company Afford Burnout?

(I've been reminded that I've been neglecting the corporate consulting topics. So, here.)

Managers, CEOs - this is your wake-up call.

Every business is different, so unless I'm working with you, I can't tell you what employee burnout is costing your company. I'm going out on a limb and guessing that if you're upper-level management, a) you don't really want to know, and b) it's more than you think. But I can guarantee it's costing you something.

Here are the ways burnout costs organizations:
  • Loss of productivity
  • Decrease in performance (especially for front-line workers)
  • Turnover and absenteeism (In March of this year, over 2 million U.S. employees quit their jobs. Yes, quit. Voluntarily. In fact, that number has been steadily increasing since June of 2009.)
  • Risk of substance abuse (Alcoholism costs U.S. employers about $20 billion per year.)
  • Stress and depression (Stress costs more than $300 billion every year, between the decrease in performance, absenteeism, turnover, medical and insurance costs, work-related accidents and worker's comp claims, legal fees, and PR damage control when things go really badly.)
  • Physical illness (as a result of stress) and higher insurance premiums
  • Decreased organizational commitment
  • Incompetent or unethical behavior (including the occasional case of corporate sabotage)
  • Major mental health compromises (threats, stalking, "going postal" in your office)
What causes burnout? Quite simply, your organization.

Plain old life stress seems to have hit an all-time high in the past four years. Stress is a vampire, and we're only human. We have a finite amount of resources to get through the day. On top of the stressors of daily life, there's an entire set of work-related stressors:
  • Some people are seriously underemployed and never given the opportunity to prove themselves.
  • Many people, worried about their jobs, have taken on too much responsibility and willingly spent too much time at work, and have been taken unfair advantage of.
  • Plenty of people take vacation so they can actually relax and replenish energy, but they feel guilty because their employers see vacation as a sign of lacking commitment.
  • Micro-management is a critical hit. Big Brother thinks it knows when people might need to stretch or go to the bathroom, and punishes unscheduled breaks.
  • Crowding and noise distractions keep people from focusing, which means lower performance, which they are keenly aware of.
  • Conflicting KPIs - a recurring issue - are also contributors to worker stress and burnout. But employees can't question them, because the organization's unspoken attitude is that if the worker can't figure it out, maybe it's not the right career path.
  • Hostile work environments are brutal. Everybody is under more stress, and some people get snarky or even downright sneaky, backstabby, and abusive. Something else employees don't dare mention, for fear that they'll be told to quit worrying about their social lives and focus on work.
  • Finally, being nickel-and-dimed or written up for time off to attend to family needs forces workers to choose only one. The corporate attitude seems to be "if family is so important, maybe you should just quit."
And valuable workers do just that. They leave. Maybe high turnover rates are the standard for your industry. But which costs more: tweaking the work environment or losing a golden goose? More to the point, can you afford to be wrong?

It's not just me saying this. Read these recent articles for more:


And read this older page, too about personal and organization responsibility for burnout:

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Cheshire Cat: The Epitome of Mental Health Coaching?

The Cheshire Cat is nearly the epitome of what mental health coaching is all about.

Regardless of which adaptation of Alice's adventures you're familiar with, you only meet him after you're getting comfortable in Wonderland, and then he's not at all what you've just learned to expect. His normalcy is unsettling. Okay, so is the manic grin. But that's just for show. Anyway, you aren't sure what to make of him because, by all appearances, he's just another Wonderland inhabitant. But there's something very off about him, compared to the rest.

I could go deep and say the Cheshire Cat is the Jungian archetype of mystery and tricks, but that analysis only loosely fits. (He's clever, but not deceptive, malicious, selfish, or "getting away with" anything.) Cheshire is:
  • straightforward, no sugar-coating
  • rational despite prevailing Wonderland madness
  • unthreatened by other creatures
  • a good advisor
  • capable of intelligent and clear conversation
  • the only character that actually listens to Alice
  • the only character that Alice can like and trust, despite appearances
  • consistent in following standard rules, as opposed to other Wonderland citizens who spontaneously create their own rules
He also doesn't stick around long. Long enough to listen, propose a sensible solution, and make sure Alice is all right. There really isn't that much mysterious about him. He's only there to be sure Alice is still on the track she wants to be on. He allows her to decide what's next. It's her dream, after all, not his.

A little madness is perfectly fine with him, and may, after all, be necessary for survival in Wonderland. Or even here.

The cat is a mental health pro, in any case. He makes perceptive observations:
  • Wonderland is mad. Alice is in Wonderland, therefore, she must be mad as well. He doesn't pull punches but presents a pretty objective diagnosis.
  • Wonderland's madness is greater than the sum of its parts. When surrounded by chaos, no single situation or person has especially strong influence, but the cumulative effect on one is more than the situations and people added together.
  • Alice's "normal" behavior is "mad" in the Wonderland context (for example, her curiosity). What may have been functional behavior once no longer serves one's best interests. But context matters; it determines whether the behavior needs to change or not.
Cheshire Cat is a great coach or counselor, plain and simple.

*  *  *  *  *

It's Adopt-A-Cat Month, folks. And cats can be great listeners, but they can also decide to go to sleep just when you get to the exciting part, or choose that moment to walk off to the food bowl, or clean their nether regions. We aren't in Wonderland, after all. But they are great stress relievers, when the general madness starts to creep in.

And when felines float off to dream about chasing white rabbits, I'm still here for ya! 

(Now the little avatar makes sense, doesn't it?)

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Tough, Strong, and ... Happy?

(Scene: a desert vista just before sunset, heat waves shimmering up from the ground, blurring the horizon. A lone figure on a horse rides steadily along toward a distant town. Camera zooms in so we see the rider is a rugged cowboy. He's slouching with eyes downcast, obviously weary but determined.)

How many scenes like that have we seen on TV or in the movies? Or updated, and it's a detective on the prowl, or a researcher at a computer. Appearances change, but the characters are pretty much the same. They aren't bulletproof or immune to grief, frustration, or disappointment, but they're tough.

We know people like this in real life, too. And chances are, they're happier than the general population.

Mental toughness - resilience - is a predictor of happiness and satisfaction in life. Resilience includes a bucket of mental behaviors, like empathy, the ability to regulate emotions and control impulses, and the tendency to do causal analysis rather than jump to conclusions. Resilience also signifies a very reduced tendency toward tunnel vision, over-personalizing a situation, over-generalizing a situation, or blowing things out of proportion.

A resilient person sees things more objectively. The more practice they have, the better they are at it. And since they aren't drama divas, they aren't at the mercy of negativity. They're free to enjoy all the positive emotions that come along. They think things through rather than assume the world hates them, so they can accept that a situation is unpleasant, but it doesn't define them or their entire day.

If you don't consider yourself especially tough-minded (or happy), try changing some of your thought processes:

  • In any situation, give yourself 60 seconds, and then evaluate your emotions. Are you reacting or responding? A clue to the less-appropriate behavior is in the root verb, act. Sometimes grief or shock or rage is appropriate, like if you just found out a dearly beloved family member has suddenly died, or you discover that your boss has been embezzling for years and the company is closing tomorrow and you're jobless, or you catch a puny burglar red-handed sneaking out of your house and he drops your flat-screen on your dog when he sees you. In most cases, a less extreme response is probably better, because focusing energy on reaction means you can't focus as much on the situation. Which creates a lovely segue to the next point.

  • Process situations to determine their cause. Did you get a flat tire because fate wanted you to be late, or because you failed to check your tire pressure recently, or because that semi full of nails tipped over on the freeway? (In which case, it's an inconvenience for you, but it's way worse for him.) And while you're looking at causes, don't stop at the first one you come to. You're irritated why? Because some guy cut you off in traffic. Take it one more step and ask why. Is he a jerk? Is he just a bad driver? Or might something be going on in his world right now that's causing him to drive that way? (Maybe he just got some horribly shocking news. Maybe his wife is delivering his first child and he's trying to get to the hospital.) You don't know. Which takes us to the next point.

  • Don't assume so much. You know what happens when you assume. And making assumptions without bothering to get all the facts is the same as jumping to conclusions. It's a bad habit. Same goes for mind-reading (unless you're an actual psychic). You might think you know, but odds are, you're wrong. At best, you only know a part. Don't believe me? Play a game with friends. Have them think of an event or situation going on in their lives, but ask them to tell you only half of the facts. You make your guess about the other half, and see how often you're right. The point is, it's not your life, so you can't even make educated guesses sometimes. And that takes us to the last point.

  • Remember that not everything is about you. Even if you are a diva, don't try to make it all about you. Empathy for others will help you be more aware of when things go well, and you'll appreciate those times more. And you'll be happier for others when they're happy. And when bad things do happen, you'll be better able to cope.

Developing your resilience is an ├╝ber-effective positive psychology technique. The really cool thing about it is, there's no end limit on how resilient (or happy) you can be.  

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Milk, Batteries, and Balance?

If you have a battery connected the wrong way, things may work, but not well, and only for a short time. For optimum results, your positive and negative have to be in the right places. If you haven't read my post, Don't Cry Over Spilled Milk (, it's a good place to start. Go ahead. I'll just refill my cuppa while you're there.

Things go wrong. Bad things happen. Negativity exists and you're certainly allowed to feel bad, sad, angry, frustrated, hurt, guilty, distrustful, or whatever, as long as your negative response is in context. AKA, don't over-dramatize. Acknowledging your (appropriate) negative feelings is healthy.

In other words, it's the nature of milk to spill. And it's perfectly okay to not like it. It's reasonable to prepare for the potential of spillage and not tap dance while carrying a full glass. You're on the diva side when - wonder of wonders - the milk actually spills and you let it ruin your day.

But wait, there's more:

As it turns out, negativity is a more intense experience. It's about twice as strong as positivity. If you have positivity in a 2:1 ratio, you're living with mediocrity and a LOT of dissatisfaction. There's as much positive as negative in your world. That's an average person.

We need positivity in a 3:1 ration to really thrive and succeed and feel good about anything.* That makes sense; at 3:1, positive finally outweighs negative.

How do we get there? One very concrete way is to intentionally track the 3:1. Acknowledge the positives and negatives, even if some days it seems like you have to get creative and spin an event. You know how we say that if you look for something bad, you'll find it? The reverse is also true.

Practicing looking for and acknowledging good stuff is good for you. First, it reduces your negativity bias. That makes the negatives in your life weaker, which means you can get by with the occasional 2:1 day and still be happy. Second, it increases your awareness of a wider range of thoughts and actions. You aren't jumping to conclusions and  automatically seeing (and judging) things as good or bad, so you have more choices about what you think or how you feel. 

(And just as a sidenote, jumping to conclusions isn't a great thing. It's handy, sometimes, to be able to make quick judgments - like in heavy traffic, for example. But in human interaction, it's not so useful. Leaping ahead without all the facts prevents you from paying attention so others feel unheard. It forces you to make assumptions ... and we all know what happens when you assume. And, in the human context, it's kind of an addicting behavior, which means you're increasingly likely to be wrong.)

Keep a journal or a tally sheet if it makes you happy. Or just take a half-second to allow yourself to think "yes, that was a good thing," when a positive happens. At the same time, work on reframing neutral events:
            "Oh no! There's milk all over the counter, what a mess, what a waste! I'm such a clutz, no one will ever want me and I'm going to die, sad and alone. And milk-less!"
            "Well, milk spills," (event neutralized) "but I've got a towel right here," (acknowledging positive aspect) "so it's no big deal."
And you can go on with your life, without making the jump to connect your love life, your eventual demise, or your grocery list. Because that's just weird.

This is NOT to say that things won't go wrong, or that you can never allow yourself to feel bad. It's only a recommendation to keep things in perspective, lest you lose it.

* Frederickson, B.L. (2009). Positivity. New York, NY: Crown Publishers.


Saturday, May 12, 2012

5 Reasons We Should Have Seen It Coming

Ever read much about Jeffrey Dahmer's childhood? If you only perceive him as an evil monster, you really should check it out. He wasn't always a psychopath. It's possible that for a while, he was a happy, normal, healthy, loved baby.

The cumulative traumas in his life led to anti-social personality disorder and tragedy. How much worse, considering the suffering of his victims and families, is the knowledge that it could have been prevented?

1.  His mother had a "difficult" pregnancy.
There aren't many details on what that meant. Maybe she was suffering from depression. That might have prevented her from bonding with the baby prior to birth. If she had post-partum depression, she may not have been able to bond with Jeffrey at all. Without any explanation of what "difficult" meant, it's hard to know how much this impacted Jeffrey. But since this gets trotted out - sans details - I have to wonder how much was fact and how much was hype from a mother who wanted more attention for herself.

A narcissistic parent is jealous of her child's increasing independence. She's incapable of meeting any emotional needs. She's selfish, critical, and abusive. If Jeffrey's mom was a narcissist, it would almost be a guarantee that there was no bonding, so he almost certainly would've developed an attachment disorder. It's the perfect set-up for a sociopath.

2.  He had surgery for a double hernia when he was just four.
That's understandably tough for a little kid. But add to that the fact that he was either unaware or was confused about the surgery. Imagine how you'd feel if you were in pain, and then all kinds of people in the hospital started touching and looking at your privates!

This kind of trauma can alter development of the central nervous system. In turn, that can change hormone production enough that it interferes with brain development. It would have been very difficult for him to understand personal boundaries.

3.  He was sexually abused when he was eight, by an older neighbor boy.
No details on this, either, but we know this kind of abuse has the potential to physically alter brain development. If you don't think this was a huge event in his life, look up the effects of childhood sexual abuse. Most kids who are victims of CSA go on to become abusers themselves.

If the earlier surgery trauma didn't do it, this was enough to seriously diminish serotonin. And where we see decreased serotonin function, we usually see impulsiveness and aggression, especially if there are also high cortisol levels, which go along with stress. Think this kid wasn't stressed? See #4.

4.  Since his birth, his parents (when his father wasn't isolating himself) fought bitterly.
Even when there's no physical violence, the sheer stress of witnessing intense marital discord psychologically impacts children. When he was a teenager and his parents finally divorced, they only argued about which parent his younger brother would live with. Wouldn't any kid feel a bit uncared for?

Going through life with parents demanding all the attention would do damage. Even if they didn't consciously do it for attention, who could ignore it? Jeffrey would've had to find some outlet for his natural aggressive impulses, since his feelings were first ignored, then repressed. Talk about adding fuel to the fire!

5.  After the divorce, he was abandoned by both parents.
His mother and brother moved out of state and he had no way to contact them. He wasn't even out of high school, but with his father gone most of the time (who had never been emotionally available, anyway, it seems), Jeff truly had to fend for himself, without food, money, or a working refrigerator.

And so how surprising is it that he started to experiment with alcohol? And alcoholism, combined with depression and personality disorder, really takes its toll on how well the frontal lobe functions. (Like, as in, pretty well destroys rational judgment.)

*  *  *  *  *

His father later wrote "I could not imagine how he had become such a ruined soul." Seriously? Let's see, we've created a child with an attachment disorder, meaning he'll never understand love or trust. He was traumatized and abused and never provided counseling, so he coped with tremendous stress, fear, and aggression with no outlet. He learned that bodies were for others to manipulate. He was forced to find alternative means of expression in order to survive and function, although - through alcohol abuse - he found a way to eliminate any shred of rational judgment he had.

Oh wait, let's add insult to injury. Jeffrey admitted to his crimes. Because he was reasonably intelligent, the court rejected his insanity plea. (Yeah, because a kid goes through a childhood like that, and has a human barbecue, but he's completely sane. Sure.) Yeah, okay, it was a little late to save the victims.

Might not have been too late to save Jeffrey, if only from his own demons. 


Thursday, May 10, 2012

It's Really Easy To Raise A Psychopath

(Technical note: psychopathy is sort of a subset of anti-social personality disorder. It's possible to have ASPD and not become a serial killer, however.)

Lots of child psychologists agree that most kids who go on to kill their families aren't diagnosed earlier because parents ignore the signs. And a lot of those signs are around as early as the pre-school years:
• An interest in fires or starting fires
• Cruelty to animals, or at least inappropriate handling (teasing, waking from sleep, holding too tightly, etc)
• Bed wetting that lasts longer than normal
(Those three are knows as the MacDonald Triad; they almost always occur together in ASPD kids)
• Total lack of conscience, empathy, or compassion for others
• Lying, manipulative and deceptive behavior like conning, especially by being charming, especially to avoid punishment or work, forging signatures
• Lack of remorse or indifference
• Avoiding intimacy such as hugs, although quick to grasp social norms of touching like handshakes, pats on the back, etc.
• Vandalism
• Bizarre or violent writings or drawings
• Preoccupied with violence
• Acting out in a sexually inappropriate manner
• Seeks immediate gratification of needs, no impulse control
• Diagnosable with conduct disorder by mid-teens
• School misbehavior - bullying, truancy, lack of concern for schoolwork
• Complete disregard for authority - running away from home, nonchalance about house rules
• Difficulty understanding cause-effect; difficulty planning ahead
• Little if any emotional control
• Easily bored, may lead to thrill-seeking behaviors, risky sex, and substance abuse

These kids sometimes (rarely) just happen: 
• Some babies are born with abnormalities in the frontal lobe (the part that controls judgment and a concept of needs balanced between the self and others), which keeps it from developing as it should.
• Some kids may sustain a frontal lobe injury or damage from disease, which may halt the development of the frontal lobe or simply prevent it from functioning as it should.

Often, these kids are created: 
• Overly harsh or inconsistent parenting
• Being in foster care
• Large family size
• Single parent
• Physical or sexual abuse
• Violence or domestic abuse (physical, verbal, emotional) in the home
• Poverty
• Other family members with antisocial personality disorder
• Substance abuse in the home
• Parents seen as uncaring, uninvolved, selfish
(These are only risk factors; there are other factors which would negate the risk from these. So just because you're a single parent, or have a big family, or you're a chain smoker, don't freak out!)

Are kids actually psychopaths? Not technically. It's a diagnosis reserved for adults, even though some kids meet the criteria for diagnosis. During pre-teen childhood, a lot of these kids might be diagnosed as having an attachment disorder. Anti-social personality disorder, especially with psychopathology, is cumulative and progressive, which is why paying attention is the most important thing adults can do.

Some psychologists strongly encourage assessments for antisocial behavior as early as age 4, or at least prior to starting school. With appropriate treatment - early - there's hope. Once this kind of child hits puberty, all anyone can do is pray he doesn't become violent. And most people with ASPD don't go on to become serial murderers.

But you never know.

Disclaimer: this is not meant as a diagnosis of any person, child or adult. Just because a child happens to exhibit one or even several characteristics listed does not mean the kid is a wacko about to go on a chainsaw spree at Walmart. It DOES mean, if you have ANY concerns, you need to get the kid in for a proper evaluation asap.


Sunday, May 6, 2012

Don't Panic, Be Happy!

It's National Anxiety and Depression Awareness Week. Why both? Because they like to show up together a lot more than we'd like. And many people may seek treatment for one, not realizing they should be dealing with both, and then feel worse when their treatment doesn't work.

 Anxiety is weird. It's pretty easy when it's you, because you know your emotional state. When it's a friend or loved one, it's not so simple. There are literally hundreds of possible symptoms, and only certain combinations would make you think of anxiety. Plus, most people don't like to admit they're feeling anything more than a little worried.

 Anxiety disorders affect about 20% of the population every year. Without treatment, some turn to drugs and alcohol, some end up completely unable to function. Anxiety is relatively simple to treat, so there's no reason to try to tough it out.

 About 10% of the population is suffering from depression at any given time. It sucks if you're dealing with it, and it sucks if someone you care about is dealing with it. And the longer it goes untreated, the more miserable the person feels, the greater the risk of drug or alcohol abuse, and the greater the risk of suicide. If it's more than "the blues" or it lasts longer than a couple months - get help!

Common signs of anxiety
• restlessness or feeling edgy
• becoming tired easily
• trouble concentrating
• feeling as if the mind is going blank
• irritability
• muscle tension
• sleep problems (trouble falling / staying asleep / getting restful sleep)
• palpitations
• chest pain, chest tightness, feeling like you're having a heart attack
• shortness of breath or trouble breathing
• sweating of the palms
• nausea or pretty much any "tummy trouble"
• trembling or shaking
• men tend to have more mental problems (tension, irritability, a sense of doom) while women tend to have more physical problems (shortness of breath, nausea)

Common signs of depression:
• difficulty concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
• fatigue and decreased energy
• feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and/or helplessness
• feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism
• insomnia, early-morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping
• irritability, restlessness
• loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
• overeating or appetite loss
• persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment
• persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" feelings


Thursday, May 3, 2012

Going With The Flow ... To Where?

You may have been reading about flow lately. Or not. Thanks to NLP and relatively recent psychological research, it's getting some buzz. It's nothing new, though; you probably recognize an alias or two:
  • being in the zone
  • in the groove
  • centered
  • in the moment
  • fully present
  • on fire
  • tuned in

The word "flow" to describe the mental state came about in the late 60's, but whatever you want to call it, it's a cool thing to pursue.

For one thing, while most humans can kinda-sorta multi-task, we basically suck at it. Our brains can only handle a tiny fraction of the millions of bits of information available at any given second - about 126 bits. Just having a conversation takes about a third of that capacity. (Which is why a lot of people really need to hang up and drive.) With a limited capacity, we're pretty easily distracted. Flow helps us get completely focused.

But it's more than just focus. Focus = thinking - distraction. Flow = (thinking - distraction)2. Flow has been described as a self-induced hypnotic trance, but it's not. (You know how you can be driving along, and suddenly you realize you don't remember the last three miles? That's a self-induced hypnotic trance. You don't remember driving, nor what you were thinking about.) Flow may lower heart rate and blood pressure, but mental activity increases along with focus on the task at hand. Instead of being disconnected from driving, you're hyper-connected and able to lose yourself (or, your self) in the activity, while being completely aware of your activity.

Flow improves learning, performance, motivation, satisfaction, creativity, personal growth....  Plenty of ways it could take you to a better place.

But this is just a bunch of psychobabble, right?

Well, no. The brain is an electrochemical organ. That's how we can measure brain activity - by charting brain activity in terms of electrical amplitude:
  • Beta waves - 15 to 40 cycles per second. When you're thinking about stuff or in an active conversation, intentionally learning or reading (not for pleasure). It's intentional activity that requires some amount of mental effort.
  • Alpha waves - 9 to 14 cycles per second. This is somebody who's meditating, closing their eyes for a minute to breathe deeply, or something restful and not mentally stimulating. Kids who are pretty good students may cruise through school in high alpha rather than beta. But this is where most adults are when their heads are hitting the pillow at night.
  • Theta waves - 5 to 8 cycles per second. This is daydreaming, or that self-induced hypnotic state when you're driving and don't remember the last few miles. This is also dreamland and that sort of auto-pilot state when you're in the shower and get a brilliant idea.
  • Delta waves - the slowest: 1.5 to 4 cycles per second. (There's no 0, because that would indicate that you're brain dead!) This is deep sleep.  

Flow happens right around 10 cycles per second, right at the slow edge of alpha. Waaaaaay slower than you'd think would be required, considering the results! And yet, that's how it can do what it does. When you're in flow state, you don't think deeply or intently. You don't have to. You're humming along quite efficiently right here, without getting in your own way.

The catch is, you can't just decide it's going to happen. You have to be involved in something with a purpose and structure. There also has to be a decent balance between your perception of the task and your perception of your skills. And finally, the task has to provide clear, immediate feedback. (Meaning, you have to be able to see right away if what you're doing is working. The task or activity may not literally say "Hey, that was a smooth move, buddy, keep it up.")

For a practical application in any area of life, simply start setting high-quality goals. Flow is a self-sustaining form of motivation. You're better able to achieve when you're in flow, and you'll enjoy the challenge. And you'll find that to maintain flow, you'll have to keep challenging yourself.

Where could flow take you?

Monday, April 30, 2012

Just Ignore It, Maybe It'll Go Away

Everybody knows October is pink ribbon month for breast cancer awareness. Cancer is terrible. I'm all for awareness, early detection, treatment, and a cure. If you were reading last year, you know I donated all proceeds in October to the cause. Around 200,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. That's a lot.

 Just in the U.S. this year
• between 400,000 and 600,000 adult women will be raped (about 1 in 10)
and a little over half a million girls under 16 (about 1 in 5) will be sexually abused or assaulted
 • and at least 100,000 boys under 16 (about 1 in 8) will be sexually abused or assaulted, regardless of sexual orientation.

 We're talking over a million victims a year. (That's a 1, followed by 6 zeros.) That's a lot.

Statistics say, if you know three women, you know someone who has been sexually abused, even if you don't know who it is. Now, at least 90% of sexually abused people know their abusers. So you tell me: what are the odds that you know at least one abuser, even if you don't know who it is? Yep, you almost certainly do.

Breast cancer is terrible. So is the fact that a million people - mostly female, mostly children, are victims of sexual abuse. But how many people know that April is teal ribbon month for sexual assault awareness? Where were the ads and PSAs? The merchandise? The pro athletes with teal Nikes?

We teach others how to treat us. Where was the fuss from the general public to say we don't want abusers treating our daughters, friends, partners, and neighbors this way?

They say silence implies consent....