Reacting versus Responding. How to hit your pause button.

I am the youngest of three siblings and the only girl. It seems I was the master of reaction growing up. Whether my brother turned the channel in the middle of the Brady Bunch, took the last cookie or crept over to my half of the back seat in our Country Squire station wagon; I was at the ready to scream, cry or be a tattle tale. It took very little to get a rise out of Cathy. It turns out that all this reacting was kind of bad for me. I was constantly turning on my Fight or Flight system which, it turns out, is really unhealthy. Reacting versus Responding.  How to hit your pause button.

I just finished Dan Harris‘ book, 10% Happier. Dan is a news anchor and reporter for ABC news. He was on high alert on a constant basis, especially when he was a foreign correspondent. He literally was in Fight or Flight mode in Iraq and Afghanistan. This takes a huge toll on your body. When you are stressed out, it depletes your adrenal glands and destroys your brain. As Mark Hyman wrote in Research, “It shrinks the hippocampus, the memory center of the brain; reduces serotonin; lowers BDNF (brain derived neutrophil factor), which acts like Miracle-Gro for your brain cells; increases inflammation; increases belly fat; lowers thyroid function; and much more.” So the last thing you want to do is turn on the stress switch when it’s not really necessary; like when your big brother takes the last cookie.

So here are some ideas on how to switch from reacting to responding. 6 ways to pause and spare your brain:

1. Rhythm. Try and maintain an even rhythm of breaths. This is kind of like a mini meditation. As in meditation, the focus is the breath. When you focus on breath, it brings equilibrium to everything in your body. It’s hard to get amped up when you are concentrating on your rhythmic breathing. As Hyman wrote, “Your vagus nerve is a very special part of your nervous system that helps you calm your mind and turn on a cascade of healing that can reverse depression and dementia and help sharpen your mind – making old brains young again. ” In, out, in, out, in, out, in, out. Rhythmic breathing helps turn on your vagus nerve and pause your reaction.

2. Aware. Breathing makes you aware of your body. As Dan described, “I feel burning in my chest, my ears are hot.” Make mental notes of awareness. When you label things, it’s much easier to be objective. Hmmm. My stomach is clenched. I feel tension in my shoulders. It keeps the adrenal gland at bay. Letting your mind run amok will do just the opposite. Bring your awareness back to your body. What’s the weather like in here? Is there a storm in your stomach? Is there lightning in your brain? Be aware.

3. Release. Now that you are aware of what is going on, release the tension. This might be difficult. OK. It will be difficult. If your boss just turned down your idea or someone just cut you off in traffic, trying to let go of tension might seem counter intuitive. I actually did this yesterday. There was a big truck on my tail who swerved around me to cut me off. I said to myself, “He must responding to an emergency.” I focused on my breathe, let off the gas, got in the right hand lane and let go of the tension. It’s not worth the adrenal jolt.

4. Silence. Accept silence. I have personally worked on this for years. When I first started interviewing applicants as a Human Resource Coordinator, I would frequently be completely uncomfortable with silence. I’d ask a question and if the response wasn’t immediate, I would rephrase the question, or interrupt and ask a completely different question or (worst of all) finish their sentence. I’ve made huge strides in this, largely through my coach training, I realize now that silence is the space where folks do their best thinking. So get comfortable with it. Create it and accept it.

5. Think. Now that you have your body under control and created some space for silence, you can think. As Dan referred to it, “it’s like getting behind a waterfall”. The water of rushing thoughts is the waterfall, and getting on the backside of that waterfall is where your space is to think without reacting. The adrenal gland is off, you are present in the moment, your body isn’t reacting. So now how do you respond? In a much more forward and solution based way. Instead of trying to steal the cookie back, I might ask my brother if we should bake some cookies and split them. Think through your response.

6. Respond. Bear in mind that sometimes a response is no response. Perhaps a smile and a nod. I learned this many years ago. Sometimes it’s best to be stoic. I learned that folks would deliberately try and get a rise out of me. Well, if I don’t react, they will back off. It’s like stimulus and reaction. If the reaction doesn’t happen, the stimulus will go somewhere else to find someone to fire up. It could also be a solution based response like, “Hey Rick, what do you say we go bake some more cookies?” There is not escalation, just a response.

I realize that accomplishing all 6 steps needs to happen in about 10 seconds. As Dan described, it’s OK if you can’t do this every time. Cut yourself some slack. If you combine this with a meditation practice, you will get better at it over time. How do you press the pause button?

How to Reset Your Happiness Set Point.

I wrote a post a few weeks ago about perfectionism. In the post, I brought up Hedonic Adaptation which involves a happiness “set point”, whereby humans generally maintain a constant level of happiness throughout their lives, despite events that occur in their environment. So whether it’s buying a new Mercedes or crashing your new Mercedes, your level of happiness resets to the same pre-event level. A reader asked that I expound on how I have tried to reset my happiness set point. Reset Your Happiness Set Point

So I’ve tried to reset my “set point” and it turns out there is some science behind it. I think I first became aware of this by reading “The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin. In the book, she chronicles twelve months of changing her approach and raising her happiness set point. By the end of the year she felt like she had a sustained increase in her happiness. In another article called “Making Happiness Last” by Katherine Jacobs Bao and Sonja Lyubomirsky, they posit it is possible to reverse the effects of the hedonic adaptation. So here is some advice:

  •      Gratitude. Start a gratitude journal. All the authors recommended this and studies have shown that this has a positive effect. I have had a gratitude journal for over 5 years. I have varied it from writing actual paragraphs, to four bullets to my current style which is just to list events and names that had a positive impact on me or I had a positive impact on them. I don’t have a limited number but generally it’s somewhere between 4 and 12. I’m not a big fan of rules, so I just go with what works for me. Count your blessings.
  •      Kindness. Perform random acts of kindness. Apparently it matters if the acts of kindness are varied. It makes sense. If I always buy my team a dozen donuts every Friday, after a while, it has diminishing returns. So you need to shake it up. Buy a stranger a cup of coffee, offer to help the mother with the toddler and infant at the airport, compliment the cashier on her earrings, volunteer at the local triathlon, or bring the mail to your elderly neighbor. I have done all of these. If it becomes rote, it’s not the same impact. Spread kindness.
  •      Intrinsic. The things you do for intrinsic reasons have a much greater impact than those for extrinsic reasons. So I write this blog to inspire others. It brings me joy. If I was writing this blog just to make money, it would not bring me joy. It would be drudgery. Find things that line up with your soul. Paint, sing, play the banjo, run a half marathon, write, cook, bake, raise chickens. Find something that feeds your soul and do it.
  •      Friend. If you can find some way to make your activities social, it will add to your happiness. I have to say that when I walk my dog instead of walking alone, I feel much better. Cooking with my son is more fun than cooking solo. Finding or making a friend while volunteering at a triathlon will multiply the results and the impact is tremendous. All these measures stave off the hedonic adaptation and keep your set point higher.
  •      Perspective. It’s important to remember where you started. Gretchen Rubin had a checklist where she kept track of what she did and didn’t do every day. I tried this but I just couldn’t work it into my routine. But I do remember where I started. Three years ago when I started this blog, I felt self-conscious, overwhelmed and resentful. Working on resetting my set point has made me happier and, I think, helped me live in the present. If you just look back a week, there may not be a big difference but when you look back to where you started, you will be able to see that your set point has changed and is much higher. So start now. Record or journal where you are today. A year from now, look back and see how far you have come.
  •      Self. It’s important that you are doing this for yourself. So don’t go pick up some paint and an easel because I or anyone else told you to. It won’t have the same effect. What is missing in your life? What’s not there right now that you want to have there? Only you can answer that. Maybe you want to raise goldfish or have always wanted to make homemade gnocchi or want to write a book or play the oboe. Whatever it is. Go do it. For you and you alone.
  •     Aware. You need to be aware of the strides you have made. I have the evidence of 154 blog posts (wow that’s a lot!). Studies have shown that if you can appreciate the changes you’ve made, you are keeping Hedonic adaptation at bay or keeping your set point higher. I know that in general, I have a more optimistic view of life. I know that stress and conflict roll off me more easily. I appreciate that my happiness set point is higher. Acknowledge the changes you have made.
  •     Help. Sometimes this is a great opportunity to get help. I think the biggest advantage a coach or therapist brings is the space to reflect and create insight. To see where you have come from and all that is possible. We get so caught up in striving that having someone give you the space to just stop and think is such a relief. You may be able to find this in a friend or partner but having an outside, unattached, viewpoint can be life changing.

Happiness can seem elusive if you have had a recent catastrophic event. But even these downward resets in happiness can be overcome with time. Hedonic adaptation eventually will buoy you up. The secret is to keep moving it up or at least maintaining at a new set point

Why Fear Doesn’t Work

I just got back from a conference by the NeuroLeadership Group on Results Based Coaching developed by David Rock and all I can say is, “Wow”.  Intimidation and fear have no place in the workplace; or in healthy relationships.  This may seem obvious but aren’t we all guilty of using ultimatums (eat your peas or else I’ll….)? I know I am.  We have this notion that we have to drive performance with the “whip”; much like the slave driver in the movie “The Ten Commandments”.  As Dan Pink has illustrated in his book “Drive”, unless it’s really the type of straight forward, non-thinking kind of work; threat will not drive performance. hebrew slaves building Rameses city_thumb

Paul McGinniss, an outstanding trainer for the NeuroLeadership Group, illustrated this in the training by suggesting that if the leader says “create or else”, you aren’t going to drive performance.  He also said that it takes five “towards or reward” feedback to counteract one “away or threat” responses.  So every time you criticize your employee or your child, it’s going to take five (yes, five) positive responses to get the limbic system back to equilibrium.  And you want that equilibrium.  If the brain of your direct report or spouse is in “fear” mode (when the limbic system is lit up), there ain’t no productive thinking happening.   When was the last time you made a meaningful decision when you were under stress or fear?  Yeah. right – I thought so.  Fear is not going to drive performance.

Here are some ideas on how to diminish fear in those around you:

1. Presence.  Are you aware of how your direct report is reacting or acting at this moment?  Is he tapping his foot with a furrowed brow?  He’s under stress.  If your spouse looks preoccupied; they probably are.  When your child is on the phone and takes a moment or two to reply or to answer a simple question; they might be in the “away” state.   You can’t move on.  We can’t move on, when one of us is in fear, preoccupied or as my husband says, “too many people on my stage” (the prefrontal cortex).  Being present makes you aware.

2. Esteem check.  It’s a good idea to maintain or boost other’s self-esteem (one of the Key Principles from DDI).   Criticizing and nit picking will not enhance performance.  Your teammate will not start picking up the pace or lend you a hand when they are on the defense.  Nagging your partner about mowing the lawn or asking your daughter if she’s gained weight; will not enhance either’s performance.  A thank you or specific positive feedback, on the other hand, will help bring them back to equilibrium.  If you want enhanced performance, make sure you are boosting self-esteem.

3. Steady.  Being steady or consistent is a tenet of emotional intelligence.  Be the same boss, mother, brother or team mate on Monday as on Friday.  Try to keep the team on a steady course as well.  If you are constantly changing directions or “flip flop” on decisions, you will have the team on the back of their heels waiting for the next shoe to drop.  There are times when this is impossible, and that’s OK, just remember that it isn’t the best time to introduce a new project or expect a breakthrough with the team.  Their limbic system is lit up and they are sitting in threat mode.  Wait till the storm passes and keep a steady course.

4. Justice. Hand in hand with being consistent is handing out equal justice.  The same way you need to show up and be the same person day to day, you need to treat Sam, Suzy and Old Joe the same as well.  I’m not suggesting you be a robot but handling situations with an even hand will build respect with the team.  Your family is likely to call foul on this immediately.  If I let my son take a car alone on a weekend trip and didn’t let my daughter (this actually almost happened), your child will educate you on the discrepancy.  Trust me.  Your teammates may not.  Reflect on the manner in which you dole out punishments, rewards and delegation.  Make sure you are using equal justice.

5. Let go the reins.  Let your children, your direct reports or your teammates call their own shots.  Keep your fingers out of the pie.  As I’ve written before, delegate the monkey and let the receiver of the monkey take it from there.  Self-mastery isn’t built under the direction of micro managers.  Delegate the project, figure out the available resources and let them loose.  At some point, you have to allow that 16 year old behind the wheel and Let. Them. Go.

6. Human.  People want to be recognized as human beings.  As Patrick Lencioni wrote in “3 Signs of a Miserable Job“, “People cannot be fulfilled in their work if they are not known”.  This is one of the signs of a miserable job, anonymity.  Know your teammates children’s names, if they play a sport, where their spouse works, what their hobbies are.  You don’t need to know what they had for dinner last night or when their last dental cleaning was, just be able to stay connected.  Make sure they know they are human; that they matter.

There is no need to get wrapped up in perfection with these ideas.  Don’t worry about conquering all 6 by Monday.  Try one out a week and see if you don’t get better performance around you.  One or two tweaks in your approach can go a long way.

Soothe your Inner Dictator

It’s difficult to control our inner dictator.  Most of us are trying to work on something.  Exercising more, spending less money, eating more fruits and vegetable, stopping procrastination…pick your poison.  The minute we derail, we beat ourselves up.  “Cathy, you lazy wench, why did you sleep in and not go for a run this morning?”, “Why did you go out to dinner when you said you would save money this month?”, “Dummy, you spent 2 hours on Facebook when you could have been doing homework.” “What is wrong with you?” Sound familiar?  Your dictator has taken over.

According to Dr. Kelly McGonigal and her book “The Willpower Instinct,” carrying around this guilt and reprimanding ourselves with this self talk is actually going to encourage more self defeating behaviors.  What?  Is she crazy?  I would be completely out of control if I didn’t reprimand myself.  My dictator is doing a great job of keeping me under wraps.  Really?

One of the studies in the book took place at Carlton University in Ottawa, Canada.  They tracked the procrastination habits of students over the course of the semester.  The ones who were self critical for the way they performed on the first exam were much more likely to make it a habit and procrastinate on subsequent exams.  Those who forgave themselves for procrastinating on the first exam, did far better and  improved their study habits.  Doesn’t it seem so much easier to have some self compassion and to soothe your inner dictator?

Here are some ways to calm your dictator:

1. Forgive.  Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Forgiveness is not an occasional act, it is a constant attitude.”  Let go of your grudges towards others.  If you can’t forgive them and their failures, how can you possible forgive yourself.  I was tormented by resentment of an ex for years.  It got me nowhere but more stressed out, paranoid and resentful (as I recounted all his sins against me and mankind).  It wasn’t hurting him, it was hurting me.  Release it and move on.

2. Self Compassion.  Once you have forgiven others, it should be easier to forgive yourself and your failures.  Try to imagine if you would say any of the things that you say to yourself, to a close friend or your child.  Imagine your best friend getting on a scale and you say to them “Hey fatso, that’s what you get for eating all that cake last night.”  Why would you talk to yourself with any less compassion as you would a friend.  Forgive yourself.

3. Escape.  Anticipate the feeling of giving in when you are stressed out and plan your escape.  So if I’m used to grabbing a glass of wine when I get home from a stressed out day at work, have an alternative escape plan.  A healthier option.  A walk, some yoga, praying, crotchet, reading, gardening, P90X.  What ever you enjoy that is counter to your normal unhealthy default escape. This will trip up your inner dictator.

4. Envision.  Envision being successful with a few bumps along the way.  This is what kills most New Year’s resolutions.  You join a gym and say you will go every day and then when the first bump in the road comes along (such as I couldn’t get a babysitter) you abandon the plan.  Resolution over.  Realize you are going to have set backs and keep on keeping on.  In the story of the tortoise and the hare, the tortoise always wins.

5. Awareness.  Watch how you talk about yourself to others.  I know several colleagues who constantly put themselves down or are down on life.  “I’m having a bad hair day.” “I’m overloaded.” “I’m tired.” “I’m sick.” First of all, do you want to be around someone who is such a downer?  Second, how can you possible have a good day when you are saying this out loud?  If you are feeling a little tired, say “I’m feeling great.” And add a smile.  It will turn your day around and others will be attracted to your energy.

This is a difficult process and it isn’t easily changed over night.  Your dictator has been in control for a long time so don’t plan a coup d’état.  Slowly but surely pacify your dictator’s power by reflecting on how you are viewing things and what you are letting your dictator control (and say).  Soothe your inner dictator.

What is your dictator saying?