What is Anxiety Telling Me?

You know you are spending too much time researching decision making theory, when you cannot decide if the anxiety you are experiencing is the result of catastrophising, experiencing status quo bias,  the wise voice of your intuition speaking up, fear of regret or an unrealistic expectation of being able to control everything.

Sign, Direction, Kids, Cute, Paint, Png, Transparent

Type one thinking (the intuitive, emotional way that we make many decisions) gets a mixed press.  The limbic system (sometimes referred to as the mammalian brain) is responsible for a lot of our quick, automatic decisions.  It is responsible for all our auto-pilot actions, and also our sense of “gut feeling” or intuition. It gets us through the day by making all sorts of decisions from what to wear, how to get to work and how to do our routine tasks.

Daniel Kahneman, in his excellent book, “Thinking Fast and Slow” describes the limbic system as a bit lazy and prone to bias.  It will tend to prefer the familiar option or the status quo, which probably protected us from danger in days gone by, but may keep us stuck rather than moving us forward.  My anxiety could simply be my natural preference for things to stay the same making itself felt.

Apparently, we tend to have a magnified fear of regret, which is why we prefer a passive, non-decision over an active choice to do something different.  When we find it hard to decide, we tend to stick with the path we are on rather than risk regretting our decision later.  When I find myself hoping that the decision will be taken out of my hands, that is probably because I have a fear of making the wrong decision and then regretting it (for ever, of course).

On the other hand, many people credit intuition with providing deeper insights that our logical, rational brain cannot access.  Type one thinking occurs as a result of the brain quickly and subconsciously analysing all the similar situations we have been in, all the information we have right now and how important different aspects of the situation are to us.  It then sends us a message in the form of an urge to take action or an emotional response.  It can sift through far more information than our type two, logical thought process could ever hope to.  The more relevant experience we have to draw on, the wiser this intuitive response is likely to be.

Dina Glouberman has written extensively about the power of images and imagination to guide us wisely, since they can operate without being filtered through the prism of language and logic.  I think she might say that this anxiety is coming from a part of my brain that knows me better than my logical, analysing neocortex, and I should listen to it.  I need to explore what images come to mind as I feel this anxiety and what is lurking in my sub-conscious.

Indeed, scientists have fount that there is one specific part of our brains that carries on subconsciously analysing a problem while our conscious brain is working on something else, and finally gives us the answer when we are not expecting it.  This is why we sometimes get that “aha” moment while in shower or walking outside.

Aaron Beck, in developing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, described a series of “thinking traps” that people with anxious or overly pessimistic thought patterns tend to fall into.  One common one is “catastrophising” or imagining that the worst will happen and we won’t be able to cope with it.  I can quite easily catastrophise about all the options open to me and imagine them all ending in disaster, so that is probably not doing my anxiety levels any good!  How likely are these disasters really?  Well, they could happen, but I am probably more able to cope than I give myself credit for, and I am definitely spending more time focusing on potential disaster than potential joy.  This is type two (logical) thinking going into overdrive and not really making any progress at all.  There are just too many unknowns for type two to cope with.

And of course, the gurus of mindfulness (Thich Naht Han, Tara Brach, Jack Kornfield, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Danny Penman) would all say – just sit with it.  Notice the anxiety, notice the sensations in your body and just allow them to be.  Stop trying to solve it all!  If you sit quietly, and focus on the present moment, instead of letting your mind run wild with all the things that could happen, things will sort themselves out and the right path will become apparent in it’s own time.

Perhaps I am over-analysing things!  I have always liked a good theory, but I am not sure that they are really helping at the moment.  Maybe I just need a holiday…

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Love Your Job …or Is This Unrealistic?

IMG_0547.PNGIf you follow a lot of career coaches on social media, as I do, you will find that you are bombarded with messages about how you should chase your dreams, find work you love and not settle until you do.  Now, I am all for finding a way out of a job that makes you miserable, and doing what you can to reach your potential and find career satisfaction, but I’m not sure that all these messages are helpful (although they probably do generate business).

Is this expectation that we should all have a job we love unrealistic?  Are these messages just making anyone who does not have a job they love feel like a failure?

If you mainly enjoy your job, find the rewards outweigh the benefits, can pay your bills and feel that your work sits comfortably with your values, surely, you are a success already!  You have achieved something pretty good there!

Of course, maybe you don’t wake up every Monday morning eager to get to work.  Maybe there some things about your job that irritate the hell out of you or even just bore you a little.  In the real world, very few jobs are perfect – that is just life!  It doesn’t necessarily mean that there is any problem in settling for a job that on the whole meets your needs.

Some people do, of course, feel inspired to make a dramatic change and re-train or set up their own little business that they truly do love.  A Career Coach can do a lot to help them analyse the options, do their research, make a plan and cope with setbacks.  But if, on balance, someone decides not to change, and to stick with their existing path, perhaps because it provides for their family, then this choice should be honoured too.

It’s a beautiful thing to be an ordinary human being, doing ordinary things – walking the dog, playing with the kids, getting your work done, hanging out with friends, dancing, singing, running, or whatever it is that you do.

Maybe we should be doing more as a society to honour the people who cook, clean, care, make things and provide services? They probably don’t love their jobs but where would we be without them?  A toilet cleaner  is often thought of as the lowest of job roles, yet at least they are making the world a better place.

The problem with setting your sights very high is that you are going to experience a lot of frustration along the way. Those of us who are happy to be ordinary are probably going to be more easily satisfied because we have set the bar low.

 

Meditation on Life Choices

This one is for you if you are sitting at life’s crossroads, wondering  which direction to take with your life.  Should it be the high street, the country lane or the overgrown path that few others have walked down?  Maybe you are trying to decide whether to stick out your secure job until retirement, or take a chance on a new direction.  You could retrain or do a further qualification.  Maybe you are going through a transition (leaving school, parenthood, moving house, graduation) and you are not sure what comes next.

Girl, Crossroads, Choice, Way, Direction

Whatever dilemma you face, using visualisation is a great way to get in touch with your intuition and the knowledge stored in your unconscious mind, created out of all your memories and experiences.  Sometimes when we relax and empty our mind, and just stop analysing everything for a moment, an image arises which contains some kind of message about how we really feel deep down.

This happened to me recently when at at the end of a particularly busy week of working, writing, yoga, family activities and cooking for guests, I sat down and invited my unconscious mind to offer to me an image.  The image that came to mind was of a blacksmith hammering something into shape.  I knew that it was me hammering myself –  forcing myself to achieve all the things I wanted to achieve.  When I allowed the image to change to reflect how I wanted things to be, the blacksmith stood back and allowed the metal to shape itself in its own time.  This felt like a clear message that what I needed was to allow things to unfold rather than drive myself so hard.

The following visualisation is has slightly different instructions and may help you to visualise several paths or options so you can explore how you feel about them.  To get started you will need a quiet room where you won’t be interrupted for ten or fifteen minutes.

  1. Lie down on your back if this is comfortable, or on your side if it is not.  You can put cushions under your knees and head if this makes you more comfortable.  If it is chilly, cover yourself with a blanket. Close your eyes.
  2. Take a few deep breaths or sighs, and breath out any tension.  Tense and relax each part of your body, including your shoulders, jaw and eyes.
  3. Breath into every part of your body.  If any part still feels tense, send it a gentle message to relax – “relax my shoulders, let my shoulders relax”.
  4. Set the intention to allow whatever images arise to arise, and accept them just as they are, even if they seem strange.
  5. Imagine yourself at a crossroads.  What kind of roads or paths are there?
  6. Take the road or path that seems most inviting and walk along it.  What do you see?  How does it feel to walk this way?  What is there along the road? Is there anyone else there?  Imagine you have walked five years down this road?  Now how does it feel?  What are you doing? Has anything changed?
  7. Once you have explored this road enough, go back to the crossroads and try another pathway.  What is this pathway like?  How do you feel?  Again, walk five years into the future down this pathway and see how it feels?
  8. If you want to, you can come back to the crossroads and try a third road.  You could also re-visit either of the first two roads.
  9. Once you have explored as many roads as you want to, allow your mind to relax again.  Take a bit of time to focus on your breath and just see if anything else emerges.  When you are ready, you can bring some movement back into your arms and legs, turn onto your side for a few minutes, and then open your eyes and get up.

You may have quite a clear sense of what each path represents, but it may not be immediately obvious.  Perhaps one path feels riskier, but it’s not clear what risk you are contemplating.  It may be that further insights come to you some days later, or they may not come at all – you can’t force them, but you can invite them in by making quiet time to contemplate.

If you would like to read more about working with images, I recommend Dr Dina Glouberman’s book, “Life Choices Life Changes” which has many more activities using visualisation to support your decision-making.

Permission to Experiment on a Brave Group of Teenagers

Over the last couple of weeks, I have had the privilege of working with a fantastic group of teenagers who all volunteered to let me “experiment” on them with some creative career coaching techniques.  Armed with felt tips, post it notes, craft materials and our imaginations, we ventured into the world of images, metaphor, photographs, spider diagrams and visual planning.  Some things worked and some things didn’t, but that didn’t matter – we enjoyed ourselves and everyone went home feeling a bit more inspired and motivated.

Boy, Teenager, Teenage Boy, Young, Teen

Working in school, it can be hard to experiment.  The bell dictates the length of the session, and the clients that we see are mainly those at key transition points so there is a sense of urgency.  The temptation is to stick to the methods that I know will work, and be an efficient use of time.  Motivational Interviewing, Cognitive Behavioural Coaching, evaluating options, unpicking decision-making processes, eliciting skills and interests through discussion, teaching research skills – these are my comfort zone.  It’s a very linguistic approach to coaching, making good use of the more logical parts of our brains, but could more visual imagery strengthen this process?

Language shapes how we think.  We can only think about things if we have words to describe them.  Working with visual images can sometimes get under the skin of things in a different way, without all our thoughts having to be filtered through the prism of language.  This is why daydreaming can be powerful and our dreams can sometimes tell us things that have eluded our conscious thought-process.  I wanted to find a way to bring this into my career coaching practice.

And the result? Allowing our imaginations more of a free rein in this process certainly seemed to be really motivational and left the young people enthused about their next steps.

So Which Activities Worked Best?

Backwards action planning was a clear winner for those who were a year off a key a transition point.  They stood on a tile on the kitchen floor, which was designated “one year into the future”, closed their eyes and imagined how things would be if they had made good choices, were succeeding in their chosen course, had made new friends and settled into a new environment.  We took our time with this, and I asked them questions about what they were doing, what they were wearing, how they felt, what was going particularly well and so on.  Once the image seemed to be really strong, I asked them what steps they had taken to get there.  They called them out as they imagined them and I wrote down each action on a slip of paper.  After they had opened their eyes, they put the actions into the order that they needed to be done in, and photographed it with their phone.  Visualising a task uses the same neural pathways as actually doing a task, so imagining the process should actually strengthen the pathways needed to carry it out, which will make it easier.

For the younger teenagers, who, at fourteen, were two years off a key transition point, the winning activity was thinking about all the things they value and want for themselves in the future, and writing each thing down on a post it note.  I have done a similar activity in school when the client is thinking about which option to choose, but here we tackled the much bigger question of “What do I want my life to be like?” They talked about wanting to be able to change the world, the importance of being able to be themselves and speak truthfully, their interests in fashion and music, political views, being creative, care for the environment, wanting to be in the countryside, wanting to travel, as well as hobbies, school subjects and part-time jobs.  They then put these post it notes in order of how important they were and photographed the list.  As one of them said, “All these things were a clutter in my mind, but now they make sense.  I can see the connections.”  Identity and the big question of “Who am I? Where do I fit in?” is so important for teenagers, and this age they need to expand their career ideas rather than narrow them down.

The moral so far?  Don’t go anywhere without your post it notes, career coaches!

A new technique which had a more variable success rate was thinking of images that summed up how they felt about their lives at the moment.  I asked them to close their eyes, relax and see if an image, perhaps of a plant, animal or object, came to mind.  Some were able to think of images, but they did worry a lot about whether they were “doing it right” and needed a lot of reassurance.  They tended to come up with fairly sensible metaphors rather than wildly imaginative images.  Strangely, I think I found their images more useful when reflecting on the sessions than they did; these images did point to the high leverage issues to which we returned throughout.

Drawing pictures was also fun and relaxing, especially for the teenagers who told me they couldn’t draw.   A wonky picture of an Engineer with a spanner in her hand caused us some giggles, and then we had to add a computer and an office environment, since with a bit of thought, we both knew that Chartered Engineers don’t often go near a spanner.

So, I thank all these teenagers for letting me “experiment” with them, and wish them all the best.  Although I have known all of them since they were toddlers I got to know them better in that hour than in all the years I have been around them.  And I will definitely be repeating the experience.  It is so much easier to try new things out when freed from the constraints of the school environment or the knowledge that the client is paying for the service.

High Low Goals

A great goal is challenging enough to motivate us, but not so challenging that we expect to fail.  It should take us to the edge of our capabilities, but no further.

We like to be stretched (why else would we set goals?) but we are not great at persistence in the face of failure, so it’s best to avoid goals that we are unlikely to achieve.

People, Write, Notebook, Diary, Pages

It takes a strong person to pick themselves straight back up after failure and keep going, and the tendency is to give up the whole goal as a bad job as soon as we go off track.  How many times have you decided to give up biscuits, but then you slip up and eat one, and having eaten one, you carry on to eat half the packet?

For this reason, “high-low goals” can be more motivating than specific goals.  A “high-low” goal specifies a range, so examples include:

  • Do 20-40 minutes revision each night
  • Apply for 2-5 jobs per week
  • Practice yoga for 10-30 minutes every morning
  • Reduce consumption of biscuits to 1-3 per week/day

These goals can be more motivational because if you only make the bottom of the range (twenty minutes revision or two jobs), you can still feel positive and good about yourself for having achieved your goal.  You are more likely to continue to pursue the goal, because you feel you are succeeding and you are getting that little buzz of achievement each day.  Next day or week, you might achieve nearer the top of the range.

On another occasion, you may achieve the bottom of the range quite easily and feel encouraged to continue for a bit longer to achieve the top of the range.  So you may apply for two jobs, and then carry on applying for another three.  With a traditional specific goal, you might have just thought “job done” at two and stopped.

So with this in mind my goal for September is to write (or research) for 10-60 minutes per hour each day.  I can definitely manage ten minutes per day (that is only reading half a chapter or drafting a few paragraphs) but on a good day I might well manage an hour.  Knowing that I never have to do more than an hour is also a relief!

Intuition and Lazy Questions

Intuition is often touted as the best way to make a life changing decision. We need to tune in to our gut feelings, get in touch with our inner purpose and the direction to take will become clear. But is intuition always all it is cracked up to be?

Psychologists distinguish between two types of thinking, System One and System Two.   Daniel Kahneman, in his great book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”  describes them almost as two characters inhabiting the same person since they work quite independently of each other in different parts of the brain.

System One operates mainly beyond conscious awareness, scanning the environment, making connections between what is around us and our bank of stored memory.  It is on the look out for threats or stimuli that need a response.  System One comes up with quick intuitive judgements about all our every day decisions (and many of our larger decisions as well).  Once System One has decided on an opinion or course of action, it sends signals to the body through “gut feeling”, intuition, bodily sensations and emotions.  System One can sort through many memories and emotional connections in a very short space of time, which can lead to uncannily good intuitive decision-making in areas where we have expertise and experience to draw on.  We can, however, find ourselves following System One’s directions with very little conscious thought, sometimes entirely on autopilot.

System Two is our conscious, cognitive analysis.  If you are asked to calculate 34 x 16 you will need to use System Two to work it out.  You would also use System Two to work out which is the best type of stationary to order based on costs, quality, delivery times and features.  System Two would also be pretty good at helping you build a complex spreadsheet, based on the data analysis you will need to do.  System Two is pretty good at all this logical analysis but it does not do creative, intuitive leaps very well.

System Two is often lazy, and can be easily overloaded with complexity.  This leads to all sorts of cognitive bias as we then start to default to System One again.

When we ask System Two to perform a very complex analysis, such as what career would best suit me, what school I should choose for my children or what house I should buy, it sometimes gets overloaded and defers back to System One.  System One is not very good at logical analysis, but it is great at substituting an easier question for the difficult one.  If we ask System One what career would suit us, it might substitute the easier question of “What career do people like me tend to do?” and then start sifting through the memory banks for familiar careers that appear to be inhabited by similar people.

The Brexit referendum is a good example of a very complex question which most people probably answered using System One thinking.  We might have started out trying to use logic and reason to follow the complex arguments about the impact of Brexit on the economy, but since the arguments are so complex that even economists cannot agree, most of us probably defaulted to System One thinking and substituted the easier question of “How comfortable do I feel mixing with people from other European countries?”  Having come up with an answer in System One, we then looked for logical arguments to support this answer.

System, Network, News, Connection

Here are a couple of examples from my life to illustrate:

Yoga Teacher Training

I have been investigating yoga teacher training courses recently.  I’ve visited a variety of potential teachers in the last few months to explore my options and been to some interesting and varied classes. It’s a complex decision with many factors to weigh up – cost, time commitment, quality of training, success rate of graduates, likeability of tutors, curriculum, and the thorny question of which profession body to align with.

In the end, my System Two gave up and referred back to System One, which substituted the far easier question of “How did I feel when I was in each teacher’s class?”  Well, that made the answer obvious, and so the decision is made!  Of course, System Two is now justifying it with all sorts of rational arguments for why the chosen course is actually the best course for me – the residential weekends, the style of yoga, the experience of the teachers – even though none of these features had particularly jumped out at me when I simply looked at information on the website

How to Evaluate the Performance of Our Service

And here is a work-related issue for contrast.  We are currently grappling with the complex question of how we evaluate the performance of our teams in work.  There are many factors to consider.  What data and evidence should we use? How much resource should we invest?  What framework should we use? Who really needs to know the answer and what will they do with the information?  How will this drive improvement?

The questions are complex and the answers are not obvious.  System Two should be working hard to solve this!  However, since it is so complex, it is very tempting to let System One take over.  Now, System One will never be able to solve these problems, but it can substitute an easier question, which is “How much do I enjoy doing this sort of analysis?” Since the answer is that it is not really my favourite task, System One will send this message back, and System Two will pick it up and start to create a rational answer for the harder question based on my intuitive response. I am likely to argue the case, in all good faith, for putting less of my resource into this task, and genuinely believe my own rational arguments.

Being more aware of cognitive bias and the workings of System One and System Two can help us to recognise the times where System One thinking may not be doing a great job and we need to activate our System Two thinking, even though the analysis is tough.  It can also help us to recognise when System Two has reached it’s limits, perhaps because the problem is just too complex to analyse logically, and we need to let System One and our creativity and  intuition have a go.

The Downside of Following Your Gut

We are often told to follow our gut these days.  It’s not bad advice either!

I think some of the best decisions I have made were based on a strong intuitive sense that something was right for me.  After a lot of mulling over options and chronic indecision, my husband and I made up our minds to move to Wales quite suddenly, after spending a lovely afternoon in a garden in Wales.  We just had a flash of inspiration, and made the move within a few months.  An opportunity came up for a secondment at work, and it absolutely felt like the right thing to do; I didn’t need to analyse it.  I started writing again after a break of several years, after an insight that came to me while meditating; I stood up and knew that I needed to be doing something creative, and I started writing the next day.  All three of these decisions were absolutely right for me.

Gut feeling is the limbic brain’s signal to us, based on it’s subconscious analysis of the options open to us.  And true, listening to our own intuition can often help us to tune into what we really want, and develop a clearer sense of the right choice for us at this particular time.  Intuition has been shown to be just as effective a way to make a complex decision as rational analysis.

Psychology, Mind, Thoughts, Thought

However, psychologists have found a few cognitive biases that we are all prone to and we need to watch out for, especially when we are relying on intuitive decision making. The neural pathways in our brains develop in such a way that these biases are inevitable, as the more well used a pathway is, the easier it is for our brain to continue to use the same pathway. Simply being aware of these biases might help you to spot them in your own thinking patterns, and avoid falling into these common traps.

  1. The Familiar

We tend to favour the familiar over the unfamiliar.  We favour jobs that are quite similar to other jobs we have had.  We are more likely to take a job in place we know or take on a course with a college we have studied at previously.  If we are struggling with a problem at work, we will tend to favour the tried and tested solution rather than looking for a new way to solve it.  Sometimes, we just favour the status quo over making a change.  I know that I will certainly stay in a job unless I am pretty sure that the new job is considerably better than the old.  So, if you are struggling to make a decision, and one option is very familiar, while the other is less so, perhaps you should choose the unfamiliar option; your brain is has probably already overrated the familiar option and underrated the unfamiliar option when weighing them up.

2. The Default

We are also more likely to follow the “default” option.  If it is assumed that every employee will take out an occupational pension, unless they fill in a long form to say they do not want to, then the take-up will tend to be high.  If employees are assumed not to want a pension unless they fill in the form, then take-up will be lower.  If you find yourself clicking the button for the default option on your computer, or accepting the status quo rather than returning a form, just ask yourself – does the person or organisation who set up this default have your best interests at heart?  Do they know better than you do what the right option for you is?  (Sometimes, especially with computer programmes, the default genuinely is the best option for the average user; sometimes, however, the default option has been set up to suit someone who wants to sell us something or manipulate us).

3. The Crowd

If we do not have a strong opinion about something, we are very likely to simply follow the crowd.  This is not always a bad thing; after all, there are likely to be people in the crowd who know more about the options that you do, especially if you are pretty clueless.  But if you find yourself mindlessly following the crowd, do check in with yourself.  Is it likely that most of the crowd are able to make a better decision that you are in this situation, and that your needs are similar to most other people in the crowd?  If not, don’t follow them!

4.  The Plan

Simply asking people whether they intend to do something actually increases the likelihood that they will do it and getting them to think through how they will do it increase the chances of them doing it even more.  If you write down a plan for how you will find out about a course that you want to do, work out the route to the open day, think about what you will wear and what you will do when they get there, you are much more likely to follow through on your plan.  If you already have a plan to do something, make sure you are not over-committed.  Is this plan still the best option for you?

5. Confirmation

Once we think we know something, we look for information to confirm our beliefs and we discount other information.  If you already think you are no good at Maths, you will look for further evidence to corroborate this belief (maybe the test that went badly, or what a teacher said to you three years ago) rather than focusing on the evidence that might contradict your belief (the teacher that told you could pass with a little bit more work).  This is why people tend not to change their political or religious beliefs very often.  We often need to really work at being open to information that contradicts our beliefs.

6. Overconfidence

We usually tend towards optimism and overestimate our abilities and chances of success (unless we are prone to depression, in which case we tend to have a more accurate view).  Most of us find it hard to accurately assess our own potential and how likely we are to succeed.  Optimism can be very valuable in building resilience and the persistence to keep trying in the face of initial failure, but it doesn’t always lead to accurate predictions about the future.  When we are overconfident we may fail to take sensible preventative steps or develop contingency plans.  It’s great to be optimistic, persistent and resilient, but there is no harm in having a back up plan!

7. Loss

We hate loss.  And this tends to create inertia.  Psychologists have found that we are roughly twice as unhappy about losing something as we would be happy about gaining it.  Once we have something, we value it more than we would have done if we didn’t have it.  This is why free trials work so well; once we have that premium subscription to a service, we value it more and don’t want to cancel our subscription.  So, once you have been offered a job or a college place, you value it more than you did before the interview.  That is why it can be so hard to say no to a job offer.

8.  Short-Term

We are also very prone to valuing short-term gains over longer-term benefits (even more so if we are teenagers).  The short-term gain of earning some money to spend now often outweighs the longer term gain of studying for qualifications which may help us earn more money in the distant future.  Most of us could do with a little help to remind us to prioritise our longer-term goals – pensions, fitness, career development, savings, qualifications and so on.

For a bit more reading on this fascinating topic, try:

  • Thaler & Sunstein – Nudge
  • Malcolm Gladwell – Blink
  • Daniel Kahneman – Thinking Fast and Slow