Category Archives: Psychology


Gloria Steinem was an iconic figure during my formative years. A pillar of second wave feminism, she made headlines as a speaker, writer, editor, advocate, and community organizer. She embodied the winning trifecta of bold, brilliant, and beautiful. It would never have occurred to me that she ever experienced self-doubt. Yet in Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem, she reminded me that even superachievers aren’t superhuman.

For each of us, the communities of which we are a part exert a profound influence on our sense of self. The dominant culture establishes social hierarchies and normative behavior based on race, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexual orientation. In particular, Western civilization teems with disempowering messages for women:

  • Aristotle’s Politics shaped gender relations for centuries with such assertions as: “A husband and father, we saw, rules over wife and children… For although there may be exceptions to the order of nature, the male is by nature fitter for command than the female, just as the elder and full-grown is superior to the younger and more immature.”
  • A majority of U.S.-based Christian churches continue to place women in a subordinate role by virtue of their interpretation of Genesis 2.
  • Our history books assign power and agency to men. Even today, there are relatively few female role models in positions of authority.
  • Women are regularly chided for being “subjective” or “emotional” in their commentary and analyses rather than “objective” and “rational.”
  • Women are encouraged to be gentle, nice, and agreeable, never bold, powerful, and decisive.

Given the power of these external influences, it’s easy to quash an inner spirit. We become some version of what society expects of us or face substantial headwinds when charting a different course. Gloria’s root thesis: “Systems of authority undermine our self-authority to secure obedience; thus, self-esteem becomes the root of revolution.”

Gloria makes a distinction between core self-esteem and situational self-esteem. Core self-esteem entails a conviction that we are loved and lovable, valued and valuable as we are, no matter what we do. Situational self-esteem ties to evidence of being good at something, praised for something, overcoming obstacles, achieving goals, and/or aligned with the “right people.” The former confers a sense of inner peace and equanimity with which to engage the outer world. The latter places the outer world in control and tells us that we are never enough.

self-esteemSo how does the revolution begin? Gloria encourages us to go on a journey of self-discovery through which we:

  • See through our own eyes rather than those of the dominant culture
  • Give voice to our deepest thoughts, dreams, secrets, and desires and recognize that there is nothing shameful in owning them
  • Call out attitudes and patterns of behavior that have been treated as normal and dare to set different expectations
  • Bond with others who share similar experiences and are traveling on the same path to enlightenment
  • Achieve empowerment and self-governance
  • Find a balance of independence and interdependence

When we come into our own, we gain new eyes with which to see ourselves and a new perspective when looking outward. We experience an inner energy that is ours alone yet connects us with everything else. Core self-esteem becomes a self-reinforcing fountainhead of positive action for one’s self, one’s friends and family, and the world.

As one who has lived for over six decades, I’m not the least bit surprised that this work emerged as Gloria entered her 60s. There’s something wonderful about having a lifetime of experiences when settling in to who and what one will become in the final chapters of life. One feels less of a need to prove anything to anyone else and more of a determination to be fully authentic and fully alive. For me, these parting thoughts say it all:

“Our brains are ever subject to improving, diversifying, and sharpening, if we will only believe in them enough to stimulate them… When our talents are required and rewarded, we can stretch our abilities, use the energy of self-esteem to activate the unique mix of universal human traits we each possess, and uncover a microcosm of the universe within ourselves.”

Watch Your Mouth!

I grew up in a household with zero tolerance for profanity. Dad may have used colorful language away from home, but it wasn’t countenanced within earshot of Mom. Of course, I still managed to add these terms to my vocabulary and have been known to use them from time to time. But I kept a lid on them in my mother’s presence to her dying day.

I just finished reading Dr. Benjamin K. Bergen’s book entitled What the F?: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves. Dr. Bergen teaches at UC San Diego and serves as the Director of its Language and Cognition Lab. He’s also the nephew of one of my brother’s closest high school friends.

watch your mouthThe book explores the cognitive and social science of swearing. Dr. Bergen tells us that profane word origins have their roots in religion (e.g., taking the Lord’s name in vain), sexual acts, other bodily functions, and insults/curses. Every culture has its own collective of taboo words that are deemed unsuited for polite company. Yet such words typically have synonyms and/or “sound alike” words which we feel free to use without reproach. Our “bad words” change over time. Some become so commonplace that they are no longer considered offensive. Erstwhile innocuous words can be transformed into something taboo. (I’ll forego the concrete examples and assume that you can use your imagination.)

Here are a few “fun facts” about the blue side of language.

Survey data suggests that Americans do not agree on what constitutes acceptable levels of swearing in common discourse, on the airwaves, or in other forms of media. We still regulate language usage via the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). Yet even these bodies do not have well-documented guidelines to govern how ratings get assigned to content.

Arguments for restrictive use of language focus on a supposed link to aggressive or violent behavior. Dr. Bergen discusses attempts at proving this thesis scientifically and notes that a definitive correlation cannot be asserted. Likewise, some argue that we encourage lazy use of language by tolerating profanity in public forums. The evidence does not support that thesis either. In fact, it would appear that masters of profanity have above average language skills across the board.

However much we disagree on the use of profanity, body scans reveal that we all seem to know which words are inbounds versus out-of-bounds. When we swear, our pores tend to open up and increase sweating. We evince an emotional response when we see a swear word. We also use extra brain cycles to self-monitor should we run the risk of blurting out some colorful tidbit when we feel it would be inappropriate. Thank you pre-frontal cortex!

Of course, if you bang your finger with a hammer, stub your toe, or watch yourself careening into another car while sitting behind the wheel, you may experience a lapse in linguistic control. Spontaneous eruptions of 4-letter words frequently occur when we are highly agitated, frustrated, angry, or in pain. Scientists deem such usage healthy in that it relieves tension and facilitates rapid recovery. Brain scans suggest that the limbic system (a.k.a., our “lizard brain”) may be a repository for foul language.

As a correlate to the excited profane utterance, persons who suffer brain damage to the primary language centers of the brain often retain use of swear words. Such words are the most difficult for persons with Tourette’s syndrome to control. And folks who suffer the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease may continue to retain access to excited utterances that are reactive, impulsive, and spontaneous.

Slurs fall into a separate category from other swear words, taking their place atop the offensiveness leaderboard. They aren’t merely crass language forms that could be represented by more genteel ones; they are built to hurt. They are used to dehumanize members of a race, ethnic group, class, gender, or sexual orientation. They’re intended to elevate the “in group” and force the defamed group out. Exposure to slurs carries adverse psychological, social, and financial consequences. They should not be used. Period.

I’ve been party to conversations where acquaintances attempt to defend their use of slurs because: (a) their intentions were honorable, (b) they didn’t realize that a word ruffled feathers, (c) the word never used to be a problem in the past, and/or (d) folks shouldn’t be so sensitive. It’s easy to espouse such claims when speaking from the dominant group. And, yes, language use changes over time, and it takes some effort to stay on top of things. My suggestion: Thank whomever brought it to your attention and update your language filter for next time. Why be defensive when you can choose to be respectful and gracious?

The Happiness Curve

the happiness curveHave you ever heard about the U-shaped curve that predicts your life satisfaction based on your age? If you’re old enough, you’ve likely experienced it. If not, researchers tell us that it exists across all cultures the world over. And apparently, it even affects other primates (though I can’t begin to know how they measure chimpanzee happiness!)

According to Jonathan Rauch in The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, our twenties start out full of promise, opportunity, and optimism. We’re overly rosy about our prospects for good health, professional success, marital bliss, and longevity. We think bad things happen to “the other guy.” We view our lives as fun, exciting, adventuresome, and full of possibilities.

Optimism wanes as we reach our forties and fifties. We take stock of our circumstances and become resigned to what we will (and will not) achieve and who we will (and will not) become. We may feel that we have peaked professionally and personally. We dwell on the past and feel regret for the mistakes we’ve made and the chances that we’ve missed. Our disappointment may be inflamed by comparisons with peers who seem to have made so much more of their lives. And we may be sandwiched between responsibilities to our children and our aging parents.

Our youth-oriented society may have predisposed us to thinking that our elder years would be less joyful. Paradoxically, they’re not. We get happier as we get older!

Stress declines after age 50 just as our capacity to regulate our emotions improves. We feel far less regret, accepting what we can’t control and being grateful for the lessons that life has taught us. We focus on the here and now and direct our attention toward the positive aspects of life. We take criticism to heart intellectually but not emotionally. We know who we are and what we are capable of doing. A bump in the road is not a referendum of our worth.

In our senior years, we don’t narrate accomplishment in the language of achievement, competition, and keeping score. We’re far more oriented toward connection and community, investing our time and energy on issues and relationships that really matter to us. As Andrew Sullivan states: “The worldly ambition that I might have had I increasingly see as distractions from the life I really want to live.”

So, what do you do if you are in those dreaded middle years? Here’s Jonathan Rauch’s advice:

Recognize that you are not alone. We all experience a dip in life satisfaction during our middle years. It’s a natural and healthy transition from our youth to our elder years. Expect a measure of regret and disappointment. Feel what you feel without beating yourself over the head about it.

Interrupt the inner critics whether they’re taking you to task for your thoughts/behaviors or making you feel “less than” someone else. They’ll only drag you down at a time when you need to be lifted up.

Train yourself to live in the moment without judgment. Try meditation, tai chi, yoga, qigong, or the like to help quiet the mind and focus on the here and now.

Find a support group with whom you can enjoy fellowship and share your experience. Folks generally feel better when they have nonjudgmental, fact-based conversations about their midlife malaise. If you aren’t ready to take the plunge with friends, consider a trusted adviser or counselor. Avoid isolation!

Consider small steps to relieve your pressure points and let a little sunshine in. It turns out that we’re generally not good at understanding what makes us happy, and we’re rather bad at determining what’s making us unhappy. Move incrementally, logically, constructively to reduce the odds of impulsive mistakes. Change should be integrative, respecting your values, accumulated life experiences, and opportunities.

Be patient. Let time be on your side. Know that it will get better.

Finally, remember that the truest form of wealth is social, not material. Invest in life-affirming, support relationships and communities.

Healthy Differentiation Promotes Closer Ties

I happened upon notes today from Ronald W. Richardson’s Creating a Healthier Church: Family Systems Theory, Leadership, and Congregational Life. While I’m no longer involved in church leadership, the book provided some reflections on differentiation that merit discussion.

Each one of us experiences two primal forces: the need for togetherness and the need for individuality. We’re biologically wired to live in community. We need one another for fellowship, to survive physically and emotionally, and to ensure the perpetuation of our species. But we also relish our ability to act and think for ourselves. (Many view “rugged individualism” as a defining American trait!) So how do we balance these forces in our own thoughts and actions? And how do we navigate difference within community while still maintaining harmonious coexistence?


Individuals promote the balance of forces by striving for a state of healthy differentiation. Internally, they have the capacity to distinguish objective facts from subjective interpretations and emotions. This clarity gives them the ability to:

  • Perceive accurately what’s happening in any given situation; they don’t make mountains out of mole hills or create threats that aren’t there
  • Think clearly and wisely about available courses of action and the consequences of each
  • Identify and express their opinions and beliefs without the need for acceptance, understanding, affirmation, praise, or agreement to feel OK
  • Act flexibility in evolving situations, taking into account their own reactivity and the actions of others
  • Live their values and commitments in integrity

Differentiation empowers them to be in charge of themselves in the moment even when their history, emotions, and/or compatriots might otherwise motivate behaviors that are misaligned with who they really are. They know what they stand for and how they want to act in the world. They have clarity around their emotional junk and take responsibility for it. And they’re clear on the emotional baggage that lands outside their purview.

Why is differentiation so important? Because sometimes the togetherness force can be expressed as a call for everyone in a group to think, feel, and behave in the same way. The community may have difficulty tolerating and working through difference. It may view dissension as disloyal. It may put pressure on everyone to fill expected roles. In unhealthy systems, closeness gets conflated with sameness.

By contrast, healthy communities tolerate difference and conflict, treating them as normal and expected parts of being human. High differentiation in a group setting inhibits behavior acted out of the anxiety or tension of the moment. It slows things down. It allows time for reflection and dialog. It enables people to be more available and attuned to one another.

Differentiation helps people develop a sense of connection, intimacy, and mutual understanding without loss of self. Togetherness becomes a state of attraction and genuine interest rather than an attempt to satiate neediness. They can enjoy forthright communication, openness to ideas when facing challenges, and a higher level of cooperation in effecting resolution. And each takes responsibility for his or her own participation in the process.

Richardson asserts that differentiation is THE basic requirement for effective leadership. It calls leaders to define an emotionally separate self within relationship while still being deeply connected to others. It proceeds in love with full respect for the others’ individuality and desire to live in communion.

We’re accustomed to leaders being “take charge” individuals. But Richardson argues that one of their main jobs is to be a less anxious presence in emotionally charged circumstances. To do so, they must be:

  • Aware of their own levels of reactivity
  • Able to contain their own emotional reactions
  • Separate feelings and interpretations from facts
  • Act on the basis of their principled beliefs for the benefit of all
  • Stay calm and focused without getting caught up in others’ reactivity

An effective leader helps the group become more objective and rational. He or she creates the space for the group’s accumulated wisdom and experience to rise to the challenge and discern a way forward.

Effective leadership tactics: Be calm and soft-spoken. Ask questions and show interest to foster curiously. Listen attentively, restating others’ perspectives to ensure you’ve understood them. Be open to (and respectful of) differences of opinion. Look for common ground on which to build. Don’t let discomfort force a rush to judgment or quick solution.

Are You a Maximizer or a Satisficer?

In my last post, I chronicled various ways in which our decision-making strays from pure logic. In The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, Dr. Barry Schwartz looks at how our personalities impact the decision making process. He contrasts two opposing styles: maximizing and satisficing.

are you a maximizer or a satisficerMaximizers are driven to make THE best possible decision and secure THE best deal. They spend a lot of time shopping. They unearth a broad range of possibilities, perform detailed comparisons, and deliberate at length until they’ve arrived at their decisions. Yet having made that grand investment, they are vulnerable to buyer’s remorse and may ruminate on “hypotheticals” that might have landed them in more favorable positions. And if their decisions prove to have been unwise, they take a long time in recovery. Objectively speaking, they make better decisions than other types of buyers. However, they tend to be less happy, less satisfied, and less optimistic than their peers.

By contrast, satisficers seek options that are “good enough.” With an appropriate air of superiority, maximizers label satisficers’ choices “mediocre.” Yet satisficers may be quite discriminating and expend a good deal of energy in the decision process. But they are good to go with choices that get the job done and don’t waste time and effort worrying about the “absolute best” option that might have slipped their notice. Decision made. Move on.

Of course, we’re not all pure maximizers or pure satisficers. In fact, we’re likely to be maximizers in some areas, and satisficers in others. However, we all tend to be nudged toward maximizing behaviors when concerned about status or fearful that our choices are somehow unalterable or life-changing. And we are also increasingly nudged in that direction by a proliferation of options.

In today’s world, we are overrun with choices. The average supermarket has tens of thousands of products. Cable television has hundreds of channels and competes with a dizzying array of entertainment on the Internet. A simple phone is no longer a simple phone nor are all the service options that go with it. And on and on. It’s a nightmare for maximizers and a powerful magnet for even the most stalwart satisficer. The net result: Americans lead the citizens of the world in time spent shopping, and we’re increasingly less gratified by the fruits of our labors.

Dr. Schwartz reminds us that time spent shopping and ruminating about our choices is time taken away from being a good partner, family member, friend, congregant, team player, etc. It’s also time taken away from being joyful!

Here’s his prescription for maximizing happiness in a world rife with choice:

  1. Choose when to choose. Invest time and energy on things that really matter; shorten or eliminate deliberation on unimportant things.
  2. Minimize your maximizing tendencies. As much as possible, opt for being a satisficer.
  3. Stop thinking about the attractiveness of the choices you didn’t make.
  4. Make decisions non-reversible. Pour your energy into valuing what you have.
  5. Practice gratitude.
  6. Regret less. And remember: A different choice may not have turned out any better!
  7. Expect the natural loss of enthusiasm about purchases down the road. Nothing is quite as exciting once you’ve gotten used to it.
  8. Control expectations.
  9. Curtail social comparisons.
  10. Set sensible constraints and stick with them. By following self-imposed guidelines, you can liberate yourself from having to re-hash the same (minor) decisions over and over again.

When Rational Decision-Making Isn’t Rational

decision makingI like to think of myself as a rational decision maker. I define the scope of a given problem and the desired outcomes. I examine the available options and delineate the pros and cons. I weigh the options and then make the optimal choice. But I had my eyes opened years ago when my husband and I attended a seminar entitled The Emotional Side of Decision Making by the Stanford Business School’s Baba Shiv.

At the time, the prevailing wisdom on decision-making accounted for two factors: the hard data (e.g., size, style, price, performance) and “soft” factors (e.g., personal preferences, perceived status, one’s emotional state at the time). But Dr. Shiv’s research revealed that emotions are a separate – and crucial – element in decision making. In particular, at some point in the decision-making process, folks make emotional commitments to their choices. Thereafter, all further input runs through filters that support these subconsciously rendered “emotional decisions.” And this mechanism holds true for men and women.

While eye-opening, this phenomenon makes sense when we consider that the brain is fundamentally wired for keeping us alive. If we’re being chased by a wild beast intent on making us its dinner, we don’t want to spend a lot of time deliberating on the optimal path when arriving at a fork in the road. We want to commit and fully invest in the chosen direction.

Dr. Shiv also demonstrated that we make these “emotional decisions” relatively quickly. As a case in point, researchers took a close look at student evaluations of college-level courses. Such evaluations are routinely administered at the conclusion of the semester. But researchers decided to take a preliminary read on student satisfaction after one lecture, after 10 minutes of one lecture, and after a 10-minute video in which the volume was muted. It turned out that there was a very high correlation between all of these readings. In other words, professors have a really short amount of time to make a good impression!

In The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, Dr. Barry Schwartz offers some other surprising insights about decision-making:

  • We tend to give higher weight to a vivid personal story about a company’s offering than an independent analysis based on thousands and thousands of readers (a la Consumer Reports).
  • We judge the value of an item in relation to “anchor” items. An $800 suit will seem like a bargain in relation to $1500 suits, but overpriced when surrounded by $500 suits. Ergo, companies often create a high-priced model for which they may get few takers so that their lesser priced items will seem all the more attractive.
  • We love discounts and hate surcharges. Ergo, if we’re planning to spend $100 cash for an item, we’re happier being told that we’d get a $10 discount for cash from the regular $110 price than to find out that purchasers on credit will be assessed a $10 premium over the regular $100 price. Yet we’re still forking over the same $100!
  • We tend to be risk-averse with respect to potential gains and loss-averse with respect to potential losses. Apparently, we don’t get all that much incremental satisfaction from maximizing a potential payout. But if we stand to lose something, we’re much more likely to engage in risky behavior to avoid taking the hit.
  • In a similar vein, we don’t handle “sunk costs” very well. If we’ve paid money for something and it turns out to be a losing proposition, we’ll stick with it even if it causes us grief. This insight made me chuckle. It reminded me of a time when my husband and I went to a movie that we absolutely hated. I wanted to leave after the first hour; he wanted to get his money’s worth and stay to the end!
  • Once something has been given to us, we are disinclined to give it back or trade it for something else. It becomes “ours.” That’s why companies don’t worry so much about offering money-back guarantees; they know that few people will take advantage of them!

All of the foregoing suggests that we aren’t as rational in decision-making as we might think we are. My take-aways: I’m going to be a little more aware of how companies market their wares to me. I’m going to pay a bit more attention to the inner workings of my mind and challenge myself with the cold, hard facts of a given situation. If I’m especially insightful, I may just notice what my gut is telling me… and why. And if I’m not happy with a decision, I’ll encourage myself to move on!

Introduction to Family Systems Theory

hanging mobileI served as a chaplain years ago at Rex Healthcare in Cary, North Carolina while completing several units of clinical pastoral care curriculum. A major focus of study was a discipline referred to as family systems. Its basic premise is that nothing happens in isolation within a family. Should one member undergo a major shock or change, there is a ripple effect across the entire system. It’s a bit like a mobile – touch one element and the entire structure wiggles and wobbles until it reaches a new equilibrium.

We used Dr. Ronald Richardson’s Family Ties That Bind as a reference text. It’s well worth a read even if you never plan to provide pastoral care. It creates a framework through which you can better understand yourself and your relationship to folks in close orbit.

Richardson reminds us that every family and every relationship has rules – whether spoken or unspoken. When members play by the rules, the family experiences harmony and balance. (The “mobile” is steady.)

Young children learn the rules overtly or through punishment for transgression, the most effective of which is withdrawal of affection. Because children are so dependent on their parents, they’ll suppress the objectionable parts of themselves rather than risk alienation. Home-grown family members tend to assimilate the rules readily. Members by marriage may face significant challenges!

Of course, no two people can share an intimate relationship without unearthing substantive differences between them. Difference evokes anxiety to a greater or lesser degree; sameness feels comfortable and validating. So, it’s not uncommon to put forth subtle (or not so subtle) cues to try and get our partners to be more like us. Unfortunately, our partners’ responses may not be forwarding:

  • Compliant ones respond to the pressure by going along to get along. They stuff their personal predilections and behave as though there is no difference. While this approach creates the illusion of closeness, the parties never get the opportunity to know themselves or one another.
  • Rebels fear conformity yet lack the security to move forward independently. They remain stuck in conflict with the party or parties against whom they’re trying to take a stand. The gap between the parties widens. And while fighting against the “other,” rebels never set their own goals and pursue their own paths.
  • Isolationists withdraw – either physically or emotionally – because they cannot be close without experiencing a great deal of anxiety. They may feel powerless to change the dynamic and simply deny their need for connection.

As tensions escalate between a pair, one may attempt to establish a triangle with a third party, a group, or an issue. It allows for the formation of a coalition that brings further pressure on the “other.” It provides additional support and strength to the party who is feeling weak. Common family triangles include Father-Mother-Child (to control the child) and Grandparent-Child-Parent (to control the parent). The appropriate response to tension in relationship calls for doing the hard work of resolving outstanding issues one-on-one without bringing in third parties, outside issues, or so-called “experts.”

True intimacy challenges us to become well-differentiated, emotionally mature individuals. It means that we:

  • Gain clarity on our own beliefs and needs without being defensive about them
  • Maintain a sense of self when close to others and self-sufficiency when distant
  • Appreciate and enjoy difference between ourselves and others
  • Live by rules for relationship that make sense for us
  • Use facts and feelings to communicate effectively
  • Listen attentively and ask for clarification on others’ wants and intentions
  • Negotiate resolution to differences without creating “triangles”
  • Openly accept responsibility for our mistakes and make amends
  • Refuse to play the roles of persecutor, victim, or rescuer
  • Own our own upsets, distress, needs, etc. rather than blame others or circumstances for them
  • Develop healthy ways to cope with anxiety

Is Success All In Your Mind?

mindsetIn Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dr. Carol Dweck makes a powerful argument that the views we adopt for ourselves profoundly affect how we live our lives. In particular, her research demonstrates a positive and substantial advantage to those who live with a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset.

Here’s how she characterizes the two:



Core Belief Intelligence and competencies as innate endowments that are set at birth. Intelligence and competencies as qualities to be developed with passion, toil, and training.
Work Ethic Seeks to minimize effort and get by with natural talent; considers hard work fruitless. Views effort as a means of continuous improvement and the path to mastery.
Challenges Avoids trials; thrives when things are safely within their grasp. Seeks out challenges as a means to stretch themselves and learn new skills.
Failures Experienced as a haunting trauma for which they’ll either assign blame or make excuses. Recognized as a problem to be faced, processed, and learned from.
Self-Assessment Tends to be either overinflated to stroke their egos, or deflated in response to setbacks. Assesses their own abilities accurately – neither inflated or deflated.
Criticism Ignores constructive feedback and denigrates the source. Evaluates feedback and its source and learns from it.
Success of Others Feels threatened; wants to take them down. Finds lessons and inspiration; wants to emulate.

Dr. Dweck develops these concepts in the context of achievement in school, sports, business, and relationships. For example:

  • Great teachers believe in the growth of intellect and talent. They set high standards and teach a love of learning all the while nurturing achievement through purposeful effort.
  • Great athletes with a growth mindset: (i) find success in doing their best while learning and improving; (ii) use set-backs as “wake up” calls to redouble their efforts; and, (iii) take charge of the process that brings – and sustains – success.
  • Business leaders with a growth mindset constantly ask questions and confront the hard truths. They can look failure in the face while still maintaining faith in their organization’s ability to succeed.
  • People with a growth mindset can understand, forgive, and move on when confronted by disappointment in relationship. Their fixed mindset counterparts feel the sting of rejection/judgment and may seek revenge to even the score.

At the end of the day, mindsets are just beliefs. Just because some people can do things better than others with relatively little effort does not mean that others cannot acquire those skills. Even artistic skills can be cultivated, as amply demonstrated by self-portraits drawn by inexperienced artists before and after a mere 5 days of training. We simply need to develop practices that open our minds and give ourselves the requisite time for our potential to flower… with effort and coaching, of course.

One final note: While we may have a growth mindset in one area of our lives, we may fall into the trap of a fixed mindset in others! We need to recognize the qualities that help us success in one area and apply them elsewhere.

New Year, New Me?

The start of the new year feels like a clean slate on which I can architect a new me. And like ~40% of my fellow Americans, I’m drawn to the idea of making resolutions. Yet for all my good intentions, the data suggest that only 40% of resolutions last for 2 months, and a dismal 19% for 2 years.

I’ve written previously on the psychology of change, the science of habit formation, and the ADKAR system of change management. These posts are all worth a second look when contemplating lifestyle adjustments. I’m also a fan of Dr. BJ Fogg, a Behavior Scientist at Stanford University.

Fogg lists the Top 10 mistakes folks make when launching self-improvement initiatives:

  1. Relying on willpower for long term change.
    From other research, I’ve learned that willpower is like a muscle that can get fatigued by excess use. Reserves get depleted by too much stress, too little sleep, too much temptation, and the like. For long term success, you need to conserve this precious resource and consider ways in which to support it.
  2. Attempting big leaps instead of baby steps.
    Big changes require much higher motivation and a great deal more attention to behavioral triggers. While it can be done, it’s much easier to break big changes down to baby steps and build success upon success.
  3. Ignoring how environment shapes behavior.
    When leading the same old life with all the same old triggers, it’s likely that the same old behaviors will emerge. To change your life, you need to change the context in which you live.
  4. Trying to stop old behaviors instead of creating new ones.
    It’s hard to break free of entrenched habits. In fact, when the voice inside our heads says “don’t do X,” all we can think about is X! It’s much easier to groove a new pattern and think about doing it.
  5. Blaming failure on lack of motivation.
    There are a whole lot of reasons why we have trouble sustaining change. The secret to success lies in making new behaviors easier to do.
  6. Underestimating the power of triggers.
    Neuroscience tells us that triggers play a BIG role in the things we do. If we want to break bad habits – or forge new ones – we need to be attentive to triggers that set us in motion.
  7. Believing that information leads to action.
    The psychology of change tells us that information supports individuals when they are coming to awareness of the need for change or contemplating making a change. Thereafter, it doesn’t provide much of a behavioral boost.
  8. Focusing on abstract goals rather than concrete behaviors.
    Successful change starts with getting specific about the behaviors that will lead to desired outcomes. For example, it’s not enough to say, “I want to lose 10 pounds.” The plan needs to address how that weight loss will come about – e.g., cutting X number of calories out of daily consumption and/or increasing baseline metabolism by exercising vigorously Y number of minutes per week.
  9. Seeking to change behavior forever, not for a short time.
    “Forever” is a daunting word. It seems like an insurmountable goal that brooks little tolerance for slip-ups. Alcoholics Anonymous understands this concept. The organization has helped thousands of individuals loosen the grip of addiction by practicing sobriety “one day at a time.”
  10. Assuming that behavioral change is difficult.
    Fogg assures us that behavioral change isn’t hard when supported by the right process.

So how does BJ Fogg look at change?

In simple terms, Fogg tells us that we must Trigger the desired behavior when we are Motivated and Able to do it. All three factors must be factored into process design. He illustrates with a story.

baby stepsSuppose you wanted to lose a bit of weight and improve fitness. Unfortunately, this New Year’s resolution combined with a gym membership have never gotten it done. So instead of the big lofty goal, try a simple behavioral pattern: Every time you go to the bathroom, do 20 abdominal crunches. “Get-Fit-Lose Weight” provides the motivation, the trip to the restroom provides the trigger, and the 20 sit-ups requires a bit of floor space. Groove that into a pattern for a while, then bump the reps…

What tiny steps might put you on the path to change?

How Do We Get Rid of Bad Habits?

Popular software programs provide a feature that enables users to capture programming sequences that they use habitually. It saves time and improves accuracy on repetitive tasks.

As it turns out, our brains have a similar mechanism. It manages this function in our behalf automatically. In fact, a 2006 study by Duke University revealed that 40% of our daily activities take advantage of these stored sub-routines. Charles Duhigg explores this fascinating subject in his book in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

The brain’s basal ganglia provide the means to capture and store patterns of behavior, a process referred to as “chunking.” When chunks combine to form habits, our brains can process other thoughts, or simply enjoy a quiet moment.

Other members of the animal kingdom form habits. In fact, they’ve helped researchers figure out how habits work.

For example, scientists measured brain activity in rats as they learned to navigate a maze in search of cheese. During the learning phase, brain activity remained high from the time they entered the maze (their behavioral “cues”) until they reached their rewards (cheese). Once they’d mastered the routine, brain patterns were only elevated when encountering the initial cue and when reaping the fruits – or should I say, cheese – of their labors.

brain activity and habit formation

Of course, we don’t lock in on every pattern of behavior in which we’ve engaged. The reward must be sufficiently compelling to fuel anticipation for it. Craving powers the habit loop.

Once we’ve learned a habit, it remains in our memory banks indefinitely… or, at least, a really, really long time. Unfortunately, our brains don’t discern between “good habits” and “bad habits.” Even when we work hard at bypassing the latter, “bad habits” can re-emerge at any time.

So how can we reset our wiring so that we don’t get tripped up by our “bad habits”?

First and foremost, we need to amp up our awareness so that we don’t get caught operating on autopilot. We need to identify our “cues” – that is, the triggers that cause us to launch our bad habit loops. We also need to get crystal clear on the rewards that fuel these loops.

For example, suppose I find that I consistently break away from my home office at 3 pm to watch a little TV and nosh on whatever happens to be readily available in the refrigerator. I’d ask myself: What’s really going on at 3 pm that triggers this behavior? Am I bored? Fatigued? Restless? Tapped out? What payoff am I getting from watching TV? Am I simply looking for a way to give my mind a break? Or do I really think that I’m getting some form of creative input by my daily dose of Netflix? Moreover: Am I really hungry, or am I simply finding another avenue to relieve boredom?

After getting a handle on the cues (triggers) and cravings for reward, it’s easier to think creatively about launching different routines. For example, if my 3 pm date with the TV and the refrigerator reflects a need to take and break and clear my mind, I could simply take a short walk with my dog when the urge strikes.

Duhigg describes the Gold Rule of Habit Change as follows: Keep an old cue, deliver an old reward, but insert a new routine. A “competing response” disrupts an old habit. However, a new routine can only replace the old one when it is accompanied by faith that it will work – that is, faith that things will get better, and faith in one’s coping mechanisms when facing temptation, discomfort, or suffering.

When substantive lifestyle changes are at stake, it’s helpful to identify and strengthen keystone habits. When these habits shift, they have the power to dislodge and remake other patterns. For example, the keystone habit of regular exercise tends to make people eat better, smoke less, improve sleep patterns, experience higher productivity, and feel less stress. It creates a structure in which other forwarding habits flourish while delivering a series of self-reinforcing “small wins.”

Within the realm of keystone habits, willpower reigns supreme. Strengthen willpower in one area of your life, and you reap benefits in others. The bad news: Willpower is a bit like a muscle that can get fatigued by excess use. The good news: It is aided and abetted by tactics that conserve its energy – e.g., removing temptations, drawing attention away from triggers, consistently focusing on the prize.

Finally, as social creatures, we’re often helped (or sabotaged) by the company we keep. We increase our odds of success by placing ourselves within communities that support and reinforce habits that we hope to manifest every day.