A Simple Technique for Dealing with Overwhelming Negative Thoughts and Feelings

Sometimes feelings and thoughts can overwhelm us. We might feel totally consumed by an emotion. The way we describe and give an account of these thoughts and emotions are important. However language is imprecise and doesn’t always do justice to the way we think or feel. In this post I offer a simple technique (that I use in my coaching practice) that may help when we feel encompassed by our thoughts and feelings. It’s based on appealing to the different parts of you. It won’t effect a miracle but it may help to usher in a little hope.

Broaden and Build

Book: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodIn times of stress we think in terms of absolutes. In the classic ‘fight or flight’ survival mode we draw on a limited range of options. If it feels like an emergency we don’t have time to consider all options. By contrast when we are more relaxed we are able to access a broader range of cognitions. This is the essence of Barbara Frederickson’s Broaden and Build theory of positive emotions. In everyday life we speak about ‘taking a deep breath’ before tackling a challenging task. This is the basis of meditations and mindfulness techniques that abound and something I discuss in greater depth in my book Unlock Your Confidence. However, I am concerned with linguistic techniques here.

Partitioning the emotion

One technique I use with my coaching clients, I borrowed from the theory and practice of focusing, initially created by Eugene Gendlin (and developed by Ann Weiser Cornellsee link below for her book). It’s a form of body-mind therapy that has the individual look inwards to listen to the messages the body gives us. Through the process, people describe the feeling and basically free associate. Part of the process involves naming the part of the body from which the feeling appears to emanate and use the phrase  ‘part of me’. So instead of ‘I’m angry’, you would say ‘part of me is angry’. This seems an accurate representation of what we often do when experiencing mixed emotions, especially in relation to relationships with loved ones. Yes we love them but part of us is sometimes infuriated by them.

Once you have partitioned the feeling, it immediately invites you to consider the part or parts of you that are not feeling a particular way.  In coaching sessions it helps the client consider their issues from a broader range of internal perspectives. Invariably the dialogue follows the pattern ‘You know, yes part of my is angry and rightly so and secretly part of me is relieved or delighted’ and so on. Using ‘part of me’ acknowledges that we are multi-faceted beings and that cannot be reduced to black and white, either-or states. It doesn’t deny the feeling. It acknowledges it  in a way that allows other aspects of your experience to have a voice too. It helps to provide a useful platform from which you can move forward. Together with other solution-focused principles it can help break the stronghold of overwhelm. As with any technique, it becomes more effective if you make it a habit, not use it when you need it. It’s a way in which our language shape our thoughts and build our confidence (and esteem) by revealing all aspects of ourselves.

If you found this post useful:

Also, check out these similar posts:

Links:

  • If you want to find out more about focusing, check out Ann Weiser Cornell’s excellent book: The Power of Focusing (see on Amazon UK or Amazon.com

___________

About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Gary is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He also offers coaching through Skype. Contact Gary to see how his solution focused (life) coaching approach would benefit you or your organization.

Advertisements

A Short Exercise in Self-Belief (and banishing self-doubt)

Most people at some time are plagued by self-doubt. Many people struggle to accept compliments and praise. A key factor is practice. Certainly, in Britain there’s a saying that self-praise is no praise at all. I’d like to counter that with the adage that ‘charity begins at home’ and offer a short exercise in self-belief.

Book: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodThe feedback I’ve had from a number of people in my workshops is that they find the self-compliment exercise from my book (Unlock Your Confidence) is particularly hard to do. All I ask that you look in the mirror, look yourself in the eye pay yourself a compliment. I consider this to be a litmus test of confidence and esteem. And true, it also transgresses the social more of never having anything nice to say about yourself.

What kind of a rule is that? It’s certainly not a basis for greater self-assurance or self-efficacy – the sense that we are effective agents in the world.

Instead, try this:

  • Recently, I’ve adapted this idea and ask people to set a stopwatch for just 60 seconds.
  • Close your eyes and compliment yourself against the clock. See how many compliments and things to praise yourself about that you can cram in to 60 seconds. It does matter if you repeat yourself, just keep going for the full minute.
  • When you’ve mastered that, try it for two minutes and work your way up to three minutes.
  • Now try 60 seconds in front of a mirror with eyes open.

As with any skill, you get better as your practice, so build it into part of your daily routine. Before you get out of bed each morning, close your eyes and praise yourself for 60 seconds. Use the technique before challenging tasks too.

This technique helps to balance out the cultural bias towards negative self-talk. In my confidence building workshops people describe themselves as feeling ‘lighter’, ‘more energized’ and ‘more optimistic’. Of course I’ve tried it out myself, and indeed there is a shift in my energy and posture. So try it yourself (for a month) and let me know how you get on. What impact does it have on self-doubt, self-belief and self-efficacy?

Combine this with my Getting the Gratitude Attitude Exercise ( with Free PDF Diary Sheet)

Links:

If you found this post useful:

__________

About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Contact Gary to see how his solution focused (life) coaching approach would benefit you or your organization.

Has mindfulness become a dirty word? And why it’s just really about connecting more fully with everyday life

Is mindfulness becoming a dirty word? Has it become the most over-used concept since Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? Judging from some of the comments I hear in coaching consultations and training, for some people it has taken on all the baggage that goes with the idea of meditation. It’s the idea that it’s all very impractical ‘head in the clouds, aerie-faerie nonsense’ that lacks meaning or relevance for everyday life. In this post I challenge some of these negative misconceptions by offering some down-to-earth examples of mindfulness in action.

How we define a concept shapes our attitudes towards it. Sometimes mindfulness is presented as something we need to add to our already-busy lives. However, it’s really just about ‘present moment awareness’. When you watch a sunrise or a sunset, your full attention is on the present.That’s mindfulness. When you become totally absorbed in your hobby (or goals), that’s mindfulness.

There are many things we do on ‘auto-pilot’. When we first learn a new skill we have to pay attention to the details. When the skill becomes automatic our minds can wonder. You might listen to two singers or musicians of equal technical ability both perform a piece and prefer one over the other. One you might describe as ‘really feeling it’ and the other as ‘just going through the motions’ or ‘phoning in the performance’.

Examples of everyday mindfulness

Food

Research has shown that mindfulness has a positive impact on the more mundane pleasures in life such as eating. This is a particular ‘hobby of mine and it’s been said that I’m often far too vocal about my appreciation of a good meal (although I stop short of a ‘When Harry Met Sally’ mment). When we really pay attention and appreciate the food we tend to eat fewer calories than when slumped in front of the TV shovelling in the food on autopilot. Think how much popcorn we consume at the cinema when our attention is elsewhere. So any healthy eating could start with actually making a conscious attempt to pay attention to the food. Food is best served with the lights on and the TV off.

Taking Up A Hobby

Who can forget the sight of Ozzy Osbourne sitting in his kitchen colouring-in (in the first season of The Osbournes reality TV show)? However recent research suggests that the ‘prince of darkness’ was on to something. Colouring-in can be good for us. In effect it puts us in a state of mindfulness as pay attention to the task of ‘not going over the lines’. Research published in the Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology, found that people who pursue creative activities outside the workplace deal with stress better and performance improves at work, even humble ‘colouring-in’.

In book Unlock Your Confidence I mention how a simple walk in nature can boost feelings of self-esteem. According to writer Richard Louw connecting with nature boosts creativity and health. Not surprisingly, research also shows that spending time gardening can also increase feelings of well-being. They ground us in the present moment.

This all fits in with the concept of ‘flow’ in positive psychology. Put simply ‘flow’ is the state of total absorption in a task or activity when we appear to lose all sense of time. According to positive psychologist, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced ‘Chick-sent-me-high’).spending time in ‘flow’ is a definition of happiness.

Mindfulness is about engaging more fully with life

Mindfulness doesn’t have to feel like an alien activity. You can connect with the present moment in very ordinary ways that support your everyday life. The difference is that you connect more fully with your life.

So next time you hear the world mindfulness in a training course, in a magazine, book or on TV, just take it as a prompt to ask ‘where’s my attention now? Is it on the activity in hand? If not, take it is a signal to reconnect and engage with what you are doing.

Links

If you found this post useful:

__________

About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Contact Gary to see how his solution focused coaching approach would benefit you or your organization.

Displacement Activities: How We Use Them to Maintain Confidence and How to Use Them for Problem Solving

Displacement activities are things we choose to do instead of doing the things we are supposed to be doing. Many of us have at sometime succumbed to the lure of de-scaling the kettle over the call of a pressing deadline. When I was writing Don’t Wait For Your Ship to Come in Swim Out to Meet It  I was struggling with one chapter and woke up one morning with the bright idea that the bathroom needed redecorating. Of course I justified it because of the water connection: bathrooms and ships are quite similar, and I did use a bit of blue paint to create a nautical theme. In this post, we’ll look at the reasons for choosing displacement activities as well as how they can actually be useful in problem solving.

We engage in displacement activity when tasks seem overwhelming, boring, or when we resent having to do them at all (negative attitude). Sometimes we do them when we feel stuck, figuring that doing something is better than doing nothing at all. Sometimes we’ll defend ourselves by arguing that what we are doing is essential to the main task.

Feeling overwhelmed, so doing something else instead

Overwhelming tasks and goals affect our confidence. When things seem too daunting the temptation is to do something else instead. Self-efficacy is the sense of how effectively we operate in the world. Choosing a simpler more manageable task helps maintain our sense that we can get things done, even though these tasks may have nothing to do with our main goals. The cornerstone of goal-setting is to break big goals down into smaller manageable chunks.

Preparation, preparation, preparation

Over the years of working with students, the ‘study timetable’ seems like essential preparation but often becomes a displacement activity. I’ve seen study time tables so beautifully illustrated it would put the illuminations of medieval monks to shame with the intricacy and sophistication of the designs. The timetables are often laminated although I have no idea why they need to be splash proof! Yes it’s important to prepare but it should not displace the main goal.

To prepare effectively for a task we first need to know what the task entails and what we are going to need to complete it. A good metaphor for goal setting is a recipe (or a scientific experiment). We need to clearly state what ingredients we need and the step-by-step procedure to get an end result.

How attitudes can move us forward or hold us back

When we judge a task to be boring, we’ll pretty much do anything else to avoid it. It’s another key theme I use in academic coaching with students. Sometimes we get a sense of overwhelm when the task ahead appears monotonous. Some students protest that studying for exams is plain boring. However, this is their choice. By finding more interesting ways to study and by incorporating all of our senses, we can take away some of the sense of overwhelm and change our attitude to the task. We process information more effectively if we approach the task with a positive attitude. After all if we have to do something then resenting it only makes it more painful. By finding a way to make a task more manageable and more interesting we can boost our sense of self efficacy.

Displacement activities and problem solving

Sometimes when trying to solve a problem we just get stuck. In this case, a bit of displacement (more accurately ‘distraction’) might actually help. Have you ever noticed when you have hit a block with a problem that the solution just seems to pop into your head when you’re doing something else? This is a recognised phenomenon in psychology. Our brains continue to work on the problem in the background. It’s known as incubation or as I call it ‘putting things in my cognitive slow cooker’. It works best when you have really tried to solve a problem as hard as you can. In essence you’ve already given it your best shot. Now admittedly my ‘decorating the bathroom’ was a bit extreme. However, I had been working on the book for more than fourteen hours a day for over a week. It got to the point where I just needed to do something else. So to get the most out of this psychological phenomenon pick something that uses a different set of skills to the main task, that is, create some variety/balance. Alternatively, just go for a walk in the park. Taking a break gives our brains a chance to absorb the information.

In Summary

When we are drawn to displacement activities at the start of a task it is the sign that we need to change our attitude, look for redeemable qualities in the task, use more of your skills and senses to make the task more interesting, break the task down into smaller milestones and just take action.

The sense of self-efficacy gained from displacement activities is just a quick fix. It deals with the negative emotions associated by the sense of overwhelm but it is by taking control of the situation that leads to lasting confidence.

__________

If you found this post useful:

About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Contact Gary to see how his solution focused coaching approach would benefit you or your organization.

Links:

Calmer – Confidence – Compassion Meditation (with Script) for Dealing With Difficult People

In psychology we know that the states of anxiety and relaxation cannot co-exist. This has become the mainstay of behavioural therapy for dealing with phobias and other anxiety disorders. We can also adapt this approach when dealing with ‘difficult people’. Some may argue that there’s no such thing as a ‘difficult person’ only ‘difficult behaviour’, However, when we are on the receiving end of someone whose habitual patterns of behaviour cause us distress, the distinction really doesn’t matter.

In the, Dhammapada, a collection of Buddhist sayings, there’s one that says ‘ Hatred cannot coexist with loving-kindness, and dissipates if supplanted with thoughts based on loving-kindness’. This saying was the inspiration for a the Loving-Kindness meditation that is used in the Broaden-and-Build in positive psychology. The idea is that we gain more by actively cultivating positive emotions rather than forever trying to ‘mop up’ negative feelings.

I’ve adapted the loving-kindness meditation for my confidence building approach which is based on our ability to feel comfortable in our skin, that is, to be able to relax. True inner confidence comes from stillness, whereas the busy ‘in your face’ over-confidence is often masking anxiety. Another key theme is in my approach is the concept of confidence-karma. This is the idea that we build confidence in ourselves as we build it in others. So this is how I devised the calmer-confidence-compassion meditation for my confidence building workshops. The idea that it helps to lay the foundations for positive interactions, even with the people we find objectionable.

The Calmer-Confidence-Compassion Basic Script

  • Begin with long, slow deep breaths to relax. As you breathe out, repeat the word ‘calmer’
  • Start directing feelings of calmness, confidence and compassion to yourself
  • Smile and mentally repeat the mantra ‘calmness, confidence and compassion’ for a few breaths
  • Reflect on your positive qualities, and make a positive statement about yourself
  • Continue to direct feelings of calmness, confidence and compassion to yourself
  • Now direct your attention to someone (not a family member or friend), who you admire and respect; it could be respected public figure or a spiritual leader
  • Direct feelings of calmness, confidence and compassion to them and see them smiling at you (and sending back feelings of calmness, confidence and compassion). Take a moment to experience the positive feelings.
  • Now imagine a close friend, a family member or a loved one and direct feelings of calmness, confidence and compassion to them.
  • See them smiling and redirecting the feelings back to you, taking a moment to experience the feelings
  • Now imagine a neutral person to whom you have no special feelings, such as a shop keeper or the person who delivers the post.
  • Direct feelings of calmness, confidence and compassion to them and see them smiling to you (and sending feelings of calmness, confidence and compassion back). Take a moment to experience the positive feelings.
  • Now consider a ‘difficult person in your life’, someone you are currently having issues with.
  • Direct feelings of calmness, confidence and compassion to them and see them smiling to you (and sending feelings of calmness, confidence and compassion back). Take a moment to experience these feelings.
  • Now bring your attention back to you and direct the feelings of calmness, confidence and compassion to yourself. Smile and repeat the mantra (‘calmness, confidence and compassion’).
  • After taking a few long, slow, deep breaths, open your eyes and return your awareness to your surroundings

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodThis is  an edited version and represents the first stage in a three stage process (The full version can be found in Unlock Your Confidence).

The order is always the same:

  • begin with yourself
  • then focus on a famous figure whom you revere and you don’t know
  • then a family member, friend or loved one
  • then a neutral person – a casual acquaintance you know by sight
  • the difficult person
  • back to yourself

Practised regularly it will open up opportunities to take small, significant actions to boost and build confidence in others. It will also help to begin to change your perceptions of difficult people in your life. You may not see a dramatic transformation but you may well see a few glimmers of light.

________________________________

If you found this useful or interesting:

About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Contact Gary to see how his solution focused coaching approach would benefit you or your organization.

Links:

Self-Help, Personal Growth and the Reluctance to Take Action

You can have a bookcase full of self-help books and attend all the top personal development courses but if you don’t put them into practice then what is the point?

My approach to personal and professional development is solution focused and action oriented. It’s often said that if there ain’t goals then it ain’t coaching. Goals need action plans but to mean anything they have to be followed through. Of course many people get this. People approach me for coaching because they are fired up and ready to go. However, occasionally, I get inquiries from people who are more interested in how I can magically transform them and instill instant motivation and preferably just bring about change without ‘the pain’ of action. The short answer is ‘I’ll work with you and help you to achieve your goals but I won’t work against you!’

My first insight into the ‘transformation by reflection’ rather than action came in the review of my book Don’t Wait For Your Ship to Come In. . . Swim Out To Meet It’. Some bright spark reviewer on Amazon described it is an average self-help book because ‘you do need to apply the advice within if you are to gain something‘. At the time I was surprised at this review. Since this I have encountered similar sentiments in different arenas. I have had inquiries from potential coaching clients who state boldly that they know all about goal setting but ‘just lack motivation’ and don’t know why. When I mention values they usually reply that they know all about values too. Maybe some people are invested in being enigmas or maybe there is just a stronger motivator in their lives other than achieving their goals. Maybe some people feel the need to explore and analyse their feelings and delve into the past. That’s fine but it ain’t coaching.

In my confidence workshops, I use warm-up exercises. These are low threat opportunities to have a little fun and build group cohesion. Occasionally, someone will decide to ‘sit these out’ or on occasion pretend to go to the toilet and never return. For the majority of the people who do take a chance they usually reap the rewards. They feel connected to the group and usually have a good laugh in the process. There’s nothing like a laughter as the perfect platform for learning. Over-reflection and rumination are not the solution they are more likely to be the problem. We need to balance reflection with some action.

I was asked to run a staff development session on how to motivate other people. So I thought I’d offer some skills on motivational interviewing. However the word came back that they ‘don’t want motivational interviewing. We’ve already done that’. My immediate thought was ‘so why don’t you use it then?’ I soon found out why. Instead I offered to do solution-focused coaching skills. The word came back that this sounded fine as long as there was no role play, ‘they don’t like role play’. Role play is the mainstay of coaching and counselling training. I suspect that the motivational interviewing training didn’t contain any practical exercises. They never got to experience the techniques in action and so judged their efficacy on incomplete knowledge (just their thoughts and feelings). I don’t know anyone who ever learned to ride a bike by hearing about it and thinking about it. You have to get on the damn thing and fall off a few times!

Often the solution is to go against our pre-judgement (prejudice) and just try the techniques out anyway. It’s part of the approach of treating new learning experiences as personal experiments. It doesn’t matter if they don’t totally work for you. It’s just important to get some feedback. It’s true that we are not all the same but there are basic psychological principles that apply to us all. We discover our unique way of learning without a broad psychological framework. A key principle is that at some point we need to take action.

Coaching offers a tailor-made personal development programme and at the heart of it is co-operation. It’s a collaborative process. It shouldn’t be the coach working against the client. The coach is the co-pilot not a hostage negotiator! Most of my coaching training involved experiencing the techniques in training. I even went through coaching to support my training. I didn’t have to do it. I just seemed logical that I had to fully experience the process from the perspective of a client.

Much of coaching and training is about attitude change. The three components of attitudes are: feelings, thoughts and actions. Sometimes people focus too heavily on feelings and so avoid moving outside their comfort zone. However, it is only by taking action that we get to fully explore our feelings. Feelings and thoughts are internal. Actions are external. Actions represent fresh input to consider. They can help us to redefine our sense of ourselves. That’s when change can take place.

________________________________

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodIf you found this useful or interesting:

About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Contact Gary to see how his solution focused coaching approach would benefit you or your organization.

Links:

Do coaching and counselling mix?

When new clients approach me one of the first questions is whether coaching or counselling would be best suited to their needs. Getting the right sort of professional support from the outset is important. Coaches should be primarily concerned with goals not emotional distress. It doesn’t help as their seem to have sprung up a lot of coaches who deal with depression. Even more worrying is the proliferation of NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) practitioners who claim to deal with serious psychological issues and have also branched into coaching. The boundaries between coaching and counselling have become blurred. It all gets rather confusing for the prospective client. When people are troubled they don’t always seek out the most appropriate help, just the nearest one. In this post I’d like to address the main issues with these blurred lines.

Coaching, Counselling and Psychotherapy

Coaching differs from counselling and psychotherapy in that coaching is usually about the ‘here and now’ and the future. Counselling usually covers, past, present and future and includes an element of distress or psychological disturbance. Psychotherapy is often longer term and deals with more severe disturbances. In essence coaching is about goals.  It’s a commonly heard phrase that ‘if there ain’t goals, then it ain’t coaching‘. Coaches are not therapists and should refer clients on to suitably qualified professionals.

I work in a centre with counselling professionals and if I feel a client’s needs are best served by counselling then I refer them to a colleague, with an option to return to coaching, of course.

Crossover between coaching and counselling

Some coaching approaches are based on psychotherapy models such as Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT). I took a training course in SFBT to seeing  how I might apply it to coaching. I didn’t have to try very hard. Infact, many of the techniques translate so well into the coaching arena that they need little or no change. So we might say that SFBT has an element of coaching. The same can be said for CBT, with its emphasis on perceptual and behavioural change.

What about having coaching and counselling at the same time?

There are debates on whether coaching, counselling and therapy should be mixed in the same session. For SFBT and CBT they already are to some degree. So for counsellors and psychotherapists applying coaching skills might offer a useful bridge to focus on the future. I’d suggest that, ideally, counsellors or psychotherapists would refer a client on to a coach after addressing the emotional issues.

ask_about_coaching copyFor coaching clients even though the coach may have the skills, the focus of coaching should be goals and not dipping in and out of the past. To do so will only confuse the client. Yes, the coach may have to address emotional upset as issues ‘touch a nerve’ but it should not be the primary focus.

There is no reason why a client cannot attend counselling and coaching in the same time frame as long as the approaches complement each other as long as boundaries between the two remain clear.

__________________________________

If you want to explore coaching, I urge to read my earlier post: How to Find a Life Coach (and the questions you need to ask before hiring one). If you like to discuss my coaching services please contact me.

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodIf you found this useful or interesting:

About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Contact Gary to see how his solution focused coaching approach would benefit you or your organization.

Links:

How to Cope, Bounce Back and Thrive in Times of Change and Uncertainty

Some people seem to cope with change better than others, even though change is inevitable. Change is happening all the time. The ancient Chinese book of philosophy and guidance, The I Ching is known as ‘The Book of Change(s)’, recognizing that we are living in a state of potentiality. How we cope with change and how we bounce back is largely down to perception. Change can be a threat, an opportunity or a time for reflection. In this post we’ll look at some of the psychology behind change and consider a few tips for coping better adapting and thriving in the face of uncertainty.

Black and white categories and cognitive-economy

We make sense of the world, mainly through selective attention and simplification. We wouldn’t be able to cope if we had to process every bit of information that comes our way, so we run a sort of cognitive economy filter. One of the way we simplify is to carve the world up into black and white categories, just like those TV barristers who demand yes or no answers to their questions. These black and white categories are really a model of the world than an accurate representation of the world. Dealing with black-and-white thinking is a key theme in Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT). If we adhere to rigidly to these categories then emotional problems may occur. It’s one of the things I tackle in my confidence building workshops. Seeing confidence as an ‘either-or’, ‘have-or-have-not’ state is not very useful. Often there is a lot to be gained by considering the grey area, the excluded middle. This is often where real-life is live and where we can find solutions.

In/tolerance of Uncertainty

In psychology there are various concepts to describe a preference for black-and-white categories, such as Personal Need for Structure and Tolerance of Ambiguity. As with all aspects of psychology, the human experience inhabits a spectrum of difference. We all need structure to varying degrees, that same with our tolerance for ambiguity or uncertainty. Those who are more tolerant fare better in times of change. It’s tempting to use the ‘that’s just the way I am’ card, but it is possible to work our tolerances. We can adapt to change by changing our attitudes and perceptions. Again, this is a key theme in CBT.

Competing Needs: Novelty versus familiarity

If you’ve ever attended a training course, chances are you’ve encountered Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs pyramid. After our biological needs have been satisfied, one of the fundamental needs is our need for security. A key aspect of security is that things are familiar and predictable. However, just to mix things up, if you’ve ever observed a baby or a toddler you’ll know that they are drawn to new things. This doesn’t change as we age. Throughout our lives we balance novelty and familiarity. Often they are at odds with one another. We do a kind of mental accounting to assess whether we should play it safe and stick with what we know or take a chance.

The buffering effect of Psychological Hardiness

When I was writing and researching Unlock Your Confidence, I happened upon the concept of psychological hardiness (like resilience) and how it provides a buffering effect for health and well-being when dealing with stressful life changes and times of uncertainty. Much of the research was carried out with people in stressful jobs, such front-line services fire-fighters and people in the military. Three key attitudes were found that help some people cope with uncertainty and change better than others. These are the three Cs of: commitment, control and challenge.

  •  Commitment is the attitude of taking a genuine interest in other people and having curiosity about the world and getting involved with people and activities. The opposite of commitment is alienation, which involves cutting yourself off and distancing yourself from other people.
  • Control is the tendency to hold the attitude that control is something that comes from the inside and act as if you can influence the events taking place around you by your own efforts. It is The opposite of control is powerlessness which includes the perception that your life is controlled by external forces (fate, government) and that you do not have the means or capabilities to meet your goals. Our sense of control is often based on perception and not objective facts.
  • Challenge is the attitude that change is the norm, as opposed to stability and that change offers opportunities for personal development and not threats. The opposite of challenge is security, and the need for everything to stay the familiar and predictable, allowing you to stay in your comfort zone

Keeping a journal to cope with challenges and change

Journaling is a simple and effect technique of coping with challenges and change. When stressed our focus and thoughts narrow to survival options. This means that we overlook past experiences that could be the key with coping with a current situation. Journaling helps on two ways: (i) It helps you to organize your thoughts as you are going through the situation, (ii) It provides a permanent record of your personal coping strategies. Keeping a journal is also one of my top three tips for getting the most out of a self-help book.

Cognitive tricks for coping in times of uncertainty

It’s tempting to write off techniques as mental tricks. I’ve heard people claim that such methods are just fooling ourselves and are not authentic. I’d argue that the exact opposite is true. We use mental tricks all the time to make sense of the world. We actively filter things out. Taking control of our lives is in part about being aware of how we structure our experience. It’s also about being more aware of the range of our experience. One trick that I used when I moved home and found it difficult to settle into a new routine was to pretend I was on holiday. So I set myself a time limit of two to three weeks and I’d be as flexible as I have to be on holiday. I’ve been island hopping in Greece a few time where you have to make the choice of : be flexible or have a lousy time. Part of being on holiday is exploring the surroundings, finding stuff you liked doing and tolerant things that ‘get on your nerves’. This change in attitude was all it took to help me to settle in. I’ve shared this idea with countless people (friends, family and clients) and it has worked for them too.

Another technique I use with clients is the personal experiment. When we agree a possible way forward or solution, I don’t ask clients to commit to it with every fibre of their being. It makes much more sense to treat it as an experiment and try it on for size. So we agree a time span and then after that we have a review and discuss how the experiment went. This removes an implicit sense of failure. At the end we are discussing the results as feedback, such as what didn’t work, what did work and what adjustments we can make.

Distraction is also a useful technique. When my parents moved house, my mother found it difficult to adjust. I’d tried for a few years trying to persuade her to do an evening course at college. They moved house in the middle of the summer and that year she decided to ‘take the plunge’ and sign up for a course in flowering arranging. It’s become her passion in life. Moving house became a blessing in disguise as it was her way to discover a passion and a new talent. Taking up a hobby is about choosing to do a newt hing. This sense of choice fits in with the psychological hardiness attitude of control.

Seeking Professional Help: Coach or Counsellor?

If you feel you can’t make a break through on your own then it maybe time to consider engaging the help of a professional. Obviously with something like a bereavement then a few cognitive tricks may not cut it. When the issue or problem sparks strong overwhelming emotions it may help to talk things over with a counsellor (or a psychotherapist). Keeping a journal is also useful as when things get better you will have a record of how you got through it.

When I get enquiries about (life) coaching this is one of the main things I discuss with you. Is it a general sense of dissatisfaction or is it overwhelm that reduces you to tears? Are the emotions making you want to press forward or is there a stronger need to talk through the emotions and make sense of them? There are really three ways to deal with this: (i) go ahead with counselling and consider coaching a later date when you have worked through the emotions: (ii) have separate coaching and counselling sessions (iii) have coaching. I work within a group of other professionals so am able to make referrals. I wouldn’t be doing you or myself any favours by always going down the coaching option. It’s about what is right for the client.

These are just a few insights and pointers to help you to turn again. However, there is not a one-size fits all approach. The beauty of coaching is that it’s a totally tailor-made personal development course. It’s not an off-the-peg experience. You bring the agenda and the coach (that’s me) provides the tools and techniques in a way that’s meaningful to you. I practice solution-focused coaching and in a typical session we would describe the issue for 20% of the time and for the other 80% we explore solutions. In this way, things start moving right from the first session. In fact, some people only need one or two sessions.

So review you life and write down some ways in which you have coped with change and uncertainty in the past that rely on your abilities, skills and strengths. These become your own personal toolbox in challenging and uncertain times. Coaching is a way to help you discover more ways in which you cope, adapt, bounce back and thrive.

If you want to explore coaching, I urge to read my earlier post: How to Find a Life Coach (and the questions you need to ask before hiring one). If you like to discuss my coaching services please contact me.

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodIf you found this useful or interesting:

About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Contact Gary to see how his solution focused coaching approach would benefit you or your organization.

Links:

Why We Are All Trans-(binary)-gender and the Myth of Cisgender

In many ways, this post seems at odds with recent psychology and coaching posts. However it’s really just a piece about how we think about the world and our inherent need to classify. Over the past few years I’ve noticed the word cisgender (and its variants used) and for a while have thought how deeply unhelpful it is. It is a flow of consciousness and no doubt will change over time. Constructive comments and insights are most welcome.

Defining cisgender

Cisgender offers a complement to transgender. It refers to people whose gender assigned at birth matches their own experience and sense of identity. The problem with cisgender is that it introduces yet another binary into how we think about sex and gender. It should also be noted that gender is not assigned at birth. A peek at the genitals is not gender. It’s a biological classification. It’s sex. They are different things.

Binary categories

Dichotomous thinking tells us very little of what is happening in the real world. It obscures more than it illuminates.We take a whole continuum of experence, turn it into binary opposites and throw out the middle bit. We then proceed to argue and explain how we can push everything from the excuded middle into our artifical socially constructed categories.

Transgender and its assumptions

Transgender is a description of when our gender identity (and experience) doesn’t match that assigned at birth. The question is, whose does?  The assumption is that transgender refers to the minority and cisgender to the majority. This is unhelpful and inaccurate. I maintain that we are all transgender since we all deviate from the norm to differing degrees. There is a spectrum of non-conformity. Cisgender can only refer to the illusive few who embody the traditional gender stereotype appropriate to a given culture (and their comfort with it). Cisgender is also heteronormative, since ‘normal’ gender is straight! So I question whether gay or bi people can be cisgender.

Cisgender obscures the fact that many ‘normal’ people struggle with notions of gender identity and gender conformity.  Many people do not live up to gender expectations. Many have grown up being bullied because they don’t ‘make the grade’ but don’t necessarily want to ‘switch sides’. I know some apologists for the term will argue that it’s intended to be neutral. The problem is that labels are rarely neutral and rarely used in the way ‘intended’. Once you apply binary categories, the grey areas are lost and (unfavourable) comparisons are inevitable. We have experienced diatribes about white privilege, about (biological) sex privilege and now we have cisgender privilege. To a person supposedly from all privileged categories who is still struggling to put food on the table, aerie-faerie academic-speak isn’t very helpful. Binaries always over-simplify.

Sex and gender are not the same thing

In 2009 at the time of the Caster Semenya World Championship controversy I wrote Sex and Gender are NOT the Same Thing! All Gender is a Drag!   The newspapers at the time, even the ‘quality press’ wrote about gender testing, when there is no such thing. Gender, as we know, is the social interpretation of biological sex. There isn’t really a test for that unless you count Kate Bornstein‘s questionnaire in My Gender Workbook and I hardly think that sports bodies will use that. They are more interested in chromosomes and hormones and the like, that is, biologcal sex. I was relieved that after taking the Borthstein’s test that I was designated gender outlaw. I was disappointed that I never made it to gender freak. However, I am reassured that I am definitely not cisgender! Although Bornstein’s test is rather facetious and the questions are all loaded, it makes some very important points. On a many occasions I got my students to complete the test. The strength of feeling that it provoked, especially among mature students was surprising.  Once they got the idea that the test was deliberately provocative, it challenged more hidden assumptions about sex and gender better thab any formal lecture could. The debates afterwards were always highly spirited.

More than two genders

Kate Bornstein and Martine Rothblatt were among the most influential writers for my doctoral research, alongside Alfred Kinsey, anthropologist Mary Douglas, psychologist Else Frenkel-Brunswik and Mark Simpson, the man who coined the term metrosexual. These are not names you find together everyday. As I was examining gender stereotypes, it’s not surprising that I looked to the work of trans* writers (Bornstein and Rothblatt). Interestingly Kate Bornstein was a trans woman (that is, male to female). However, more recently ‘she’ has stopped referring to herself as a woman. So this means it difficult to write about ‘hir’, unless I use the third gender term coined by Rothblatt.

In Bortstein’s scheme, there are not two genders. There are multiple genders, since the social interpretation of sex has so many variables to consider: sexuality, race, age, nationality, culture, class and so on. There is no norm except an illusive stereotype and how many people conform perfectly to that? More importantly, how many people struggle TO conform?

Metrosexuality is all about gender

Mark Simpson’s notion of metrosexuality is interesting because it’s really all about gender. It is about ‘heterosexual’ men who adopt the fashions and stylings of the ‘modern’ ‘homosexual’.  David Beckham is the poster boy for the metrosexual whose career as football player (alpha-career) allows us to ‘forgive’ him sitting around, pouting in his underpants wearing nail polish. The average ‘normal’ traditional man working in as less glamorous job might not be so easily forgiven.

A sprectrum of gender

In a previous post (Never Mind. . . the Great Procrustean Binary Gender Swindle) I referred to a trans woman blogger who had a lot of thought provoking things to say about binary gender. Unfortunately the blog was met with abuse from some trans people and it closed. She was saying pretty much the same Kate Bortstein is today. The main cut and thrust was that whereas many trans people decry the binary gender system, they are still advocates for it. If gender is a social interpretation of biological sex, how can you have surgery on your gender? Quite simply, you can’t. Is there not a third or fourth space we can occupy? Is there not a whole spectrum of gender?

All gender is a form of drag. It takes lots of plucking, posturing and preening and can be performed independently of genital arrangements. Many people have chosen to live as intersexed, third gender roles. None of this is a criticism (or judgement) of individual experiences. It is a criticism of how we construct sex and gender debates. These inform the many ‘hoops’ that trans people have to navigate in order to make a transition. Speaking recently to trans people they suggested that it is easier to get through the system if they present as ‘traditional types’. This trans men (female to male) wearing eyeliner get a tougher time than those in football tops.

The gender binary system is the epitome of idealism. For as long as we keep imposing binaries we obscure alternative viable options. I’ve analysed data from needs surveys for trans* people and worked with trans*people in coaching and workshops. What struck me most was the range of genders on display. Some more traditional and some more alternative with a spectrum of difference in between, From the needs analyses, it was sometimes difficult to summarise representative viewpoints. One of the overriding factors was individual experience. The commonalities were the need for respect, fairness, courtesy and acceptance. You don’t have to be transgender or cisgender to appreciate this.

Intolerance of ambiguity

Else Frenkel-Brunswik devised the concept of Intolerance of Ambiguity.  In essence it describes our varying need to apply binary categories and control for uncertainty. The critics wo say that we cannot function without labels are perhaps a little more intolerant of ambiguity. However in gender terms I fail to see how ‘he’ and ‘she’ or ‘transgender’ and ‘cisgender’ are helpful. What do these labels tell us? Yes, they allow us to point at things and name them out loud but what else? What of the ‘middle bit’ where the real people reside? Why should linguistic convenience override phenomenology. In gender terms, ambiguous means trans-normative.

Cisgender, no thanks.

As a term, cisgender came into being as an alternative for non-trans. Some writers prefer non-trans as it centres trans as the norm. Now while I agree that trans is the norm, I have a much broader definition of what trans means.I appreciate that we have to use linguistic devices to highlight the embedded assumptions in gender, it has merit but not at the expense of denying individual experience. Language frames our understanding of the world and we have to work within its limitations.However, I for one, deny that cisgender has anything meaningful to say about my experience. Give me ‘gender outlaw’ any day! Thank you Kate Bornstein.

________________________

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodIf you found this useful or interesting:

About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. His PhD was entiled ‘Attitudes to Sexuality, Gender Stereotypes and Intolerance of Ambuiguity. The ideas found their way into his first book Sex, Lies and Stereotypes.

Links:

A Celebration of Romance, Time to Feel Smug or the Time to Set Romantic Goals? St Valentine’s Day.

Undoubtedly there are mixed feelings about St Valentine’s Day. For some people it’s a celebration of their relationship and for others it’s a once-a-year wake-up call to do something romantic. For others it has nothing at all to do with love but just another opportunity for businesses to fleece us of our hard-earned cash through this annual, somewhat gaudy guilt trip. For many, currently not in a romantic relationship, it’s a time to feel ‘singled out’ for a bit of self-esteem battering. So what are we to make of it?

The 14th of February is a day just like any other to which we have attached meaning. Thankfully, it’s not a ‘one meaning fits all’ day. We buy out of the overly commercial aspects and create meaning of our own. We can have an alternative St Valentine’ Day. So it might be an oppotunity to expand your definition of love.

Self-Love on Valentine’s Day

There’s a lot more to love than the romantic kind. We can start with self-love. No, not in that sense, but if it that floats your boat, at least finish reading this post. What I’m taking about is being kind to yourself. If you happen to be single, then focus on the good things about being single. An arbitrary day shouldn’t make you feel bad about yourself. Do something nice for yourself today. Do something that maybe you have been putting off.

Love: Generally not Specifically

Love is more than buying your partner a greeting card. Think about all the people to whom you are connected. Think about something nice that you can do for them today. If you are single, then get together with single friends and celebrate friendship. Reconnect with a long lost friend and make a phone call. Give someone encouragement to follow an ambition or goal. Give someone a compliment or praise. Show gratitude and give thanks for what you have and the people in your life. Just do something that’s not about you but about other people.

First Day of the Romantic Year

Whether you are in a traditional relationship, an alternative relationship or single, use today as the first day of the romantic year and set some goals. How would you like things to be over the coming year? What would be the tiny steps that things have begin to change in line with your goals? What small step can you make today to make this start to happen? Sometimes we take ourselves for granted, take others for granted and take our current situations for granted. Maybe today is the day to stop this and to engage more. Here are links to all of my goal-setting posts.

If not of this helps then wear black and play Death Metal music all day. Whatever you do, have a good day.

________________________

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodIf you found this useful or interesting:

About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Contact Gary to see how his solution focused coaching approach would benefit you or your organization.

Links: