Getting emotionally fit — A workout for the soul

I turn once again to the work of Miriam Greenspan for inspiration for this week’s post.

“Befriending emotional energy is about focusing our attention on these sensations and reactions nonjudgmentally, allowing the body to feel what it feels, and the mind to think what it thinks, | while maintaining a witness consciousness—a mindful awareness of the stream of sensations and thoughts as they pass through our bodies.”
p. 77-78

If, as I discussed in The dark emotions: Food for the soul, you can let go of shame, doubt, analysis and condemnation, and listen attentively and non-judgmentally, the body can be a source of wisdom. Following Greenspan’s suggestion, try to be present to your experiences and the environment in which they are taking place. Whenever possible, replace negative interpretations and labels with neutral or even positive ones to increase the chances of deriving a more hopeful understanding of your feelings, sensations and thoughts. For example, when your gut is churning, your fists are clenched or you feel like you might faint, stop and try these reframes:

  • If treated the churning in my gut as though it were a good friend emboldening me to take the significant first step in a new direction, what could I learn?
  • If I imagined my clenched fists as though they were strong companions encouraging me speak my own truth, what could I learn?
  • If I listened to my spinning head and weakened knees as though they were calm advisors protecting me with their consoling words, what could I learn?

When you concern yourself with whatever is going on in your mind, your body and your immediate environment, you can hear the spirit speak. The trick is to determine what these broadcasts are saying: Are they warning you of danger, stiffening your resolve, empowering you to act, prompting you to defend your decisions, alerting you to a violation of your values? This sort of soul listening is hard work. The channel can be filled with static and the message can appear garbled.

“In the realm of physical exercise, most of us believe ‘no pain no gain,’ but when it comes to emotional exercise, we want the quickie route to emotional fitness. The fact is, as with the body, so with the emotions: no pain, no gain. You can’t be emotionally flabby and expect to come to a place of emotional transformation and spiritual power.”
p. 77

As with any exercise — be it in the gym or the classroom — the more you do it, the more skilled you become. This is not repetition solely for the sake of it, however. The key here is to exercise the emotional muscles with an open heart and without attachment. The goal is to achieve the “witness consciousness” that Greenspan describes. When you are prepared simply to listen to these dispatches from the soul, you can begin to integrate the wisdom of both your personal and the collective psyche. This is the self-awareness and self-appreciation advantage.


Miriam Greenspan. (2003). Healing through the dark emotions. The wisdom of grief, fear, and despair. Boston: Shambala.

 

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The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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Getting emotionally fit — A workout for the soul

Driving better decision making

Faced with difficult situations in our lives, especially those where we need to change course quickly, we can let ourselves fall into a reactive mode where we bypass the stage of trying to understand our situation and instead jump directly to action. When we rush to do something —wait, perhaps make that when we rush to do anything— rather than spending time thinking about what to do and how best to do it, we may end up solving the wrong problem, failing to anticipate the resistance we may meet or the hurdles we may face in implementation.

One concrete sort of occasion where we need to change course quickly is braking to avoid a hazard while driving. The graphic above shows the number of meters it takes for drivers to bring their vehicles to a halt at different driving speeds. What makes this graphic interesting in the context of decision making and behavior change is that it divides stopping distance into two activities: the number of meters needed to react and the number needed to brake. That is to say, coming to a stop requires a certain amount of thinking time and a certain amount of time to act upon that thinking

Drawing a parallel between the impact of speed on stopping time and the influence of an outcome’s significance on the decision making process, just as a more time is needed to stop at higher speeds, the more difficult and important a decision is, the more time we need both to get ready to decide and to put this solution into action.

But how should we use this additional thinking time? Russo and Shoemaker (with Hittleman, 2002) suggest using at least part of it to “decide how to decide.” They asked managers about how they spent their time during decision making and concluded that thinking time was not typically considered a key part of the process. However, when introduced to a model which explicitly called out framing and learning from experience — that is, thinking time before and after the stages of intelligence gathering and coming to conclusions — the participants in their study said they would alter their approach to decision making in order to allocate more thinking time.

“Expert decision-makers…know that they must devote a portion of their time to making choices about the decision process itself—choices that are likely to determine the character of the entire effort—before plunging into Stage 1. In this preliminary stage, you will need to evaluate the nature of the decision, decide what it is that you need to decide, identify which stages of the decision process will be most critical, evaluate how much time to devote to each stage, and devise a plan for managing the decision, getting help, and so on…we call this preliminary assessment the ‘metadecision.’”
p. 9, Russo and Shoemaker, with Hittleman (2002)

And yet all too often, even when we do engage in a meta-decision making, we make a crucial misjudgment by imagining that stopping requires less effort than starting. When we are talking about things that we need to stop doing, we need to recognize that this will also involve thinking time, time to plan the most effective way to wean ourselves off these unproductive habits. We will likely also benefit by examining our past efforts at behavior change to learn from what worked well and where we were less successful (see The ironic truth about shedding bad habits for one possible reason our outcomes might be counter to our intentions).

Moreover, as I discussed in Unbundling the habits hindering us, we need to make an honest appraisal of the behaviors we have defined as “bad” in order to see them in a more nuanced fashion. If we continue to behave in a particular way, it is very likely that there is more than laziness or lack of awareness maintaining this behavior. When invest thinking time to get clear about what is keeping us stuck or what value we get from our current behaviors, we will find that the “breaking/braking distance” for our ineffective habits becomes that much shorter.


Russo, J. E., Shoemaker, P. J. H., with Hittleman, M. (2002). Winning decisions: Getting it right the first time. New York: Currency/Doubleday.

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The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

 

Driving better decision making

The dark emotions: Food for the soul

For this latest post inspired by Miriam Greenspan’s Healing Through the Dark Emotions, I’d like to talk about what she refers to as “affect tolerance” or our ability to feel our dark emotions, to experience them fully, and wherever possible, without judgment.

“To befriend the dark emotions, your intention must be to get close to what you want to run away from. You need to take your time and give yourself permission to let yourself feel whatever you’re feeling without shame, doubt, analysis, or condemnation.”
p. 77

How do we engage with the energy of the dark emotions long enough to learn and grow from the experience? As Greenspan suggests, when it comes to the dark emotions (and perhaps emotional energy more generally), we need to release our shame and our doubt, our need to analyze, and our tendency to condemnation.

Shame. As Brené Brown has highlighted we all battle shame in the effort to see ourselves as “[worthy] of love and belonging” (Supersoul Sunday – Shame is Lethal). To be mature, we are told, is to be free of certain emotions. We are socialized to present a façade which conceals our discomfort or pain when fear, despair and grief strike, not solely because the expression of these emotions could make other people uncomfortable, but also because of our should’s— we shouldn’t feel this way, we shouldn’t react this way, we shouldn’t express ourselves this way, if we want to be seen as a proper grown up people. These should’s keep us stuck in a sense that we are “never enough” (Supersoul Sunday – Shame is Lethal); and, until we let them go, we will find it difficult to absorb the lessons of the dark emotions.

Doubt. When we doubt, we deny the truth of our emotions. We call into question the their very existence. We get caught up in thinking that we are losing our sanity because no one else seems to feel despair, fear or grief. If we believe that we are alone in experiencing these feelings, we may come to question both the validity of our emotions and our right to feel them. Operating from this place of skepticism and distrust, these feelings will appear unreasonable or suspicious. Unless we can adopt a more open perspective that affirms the legitimacy of these feelings, we will struggle to benefit from the transformative power of our dark emotions.

Analysis. When we turn to analysis, we seek to hold back the rawness and the pain of the dark emotions by boxing them up neatly. Instead of despair, fear and grief, we have a problem that can be solved or a list of actions to be taken. Instead of feelings, we focus on facts. We examine the current situation, the wrongs from our past or our concerns about the future, neglecting the emotional and spiritual realm in favor the intellectual one. Yet without an emotional appraisal, we cannot be truly engaged and any solution we do find is likely to be lifeless and uninspiring.

Condemnation. We are brought up to see some emotions as dishonorable, disgusting or even wicked. With these labels comes the sense that we are these emotions incarnate, and, because they are bad, so are we. When we move from saying “I am afraid right now” to “I am a pathetic coward” or from “I am overwhelmed by despair right now” to “I am a pitiful loser,” we condemn ourselves to an understanding of self that is inflexible and limited (a fixed mindset in Carol Dweck’s terms). This mindset blocks our growing and changing through these experiences. Until we can recognize the invitation in our dark emotions— to do something different, to ask for help, to fail better the next time, to develop a richer model of who we are—we will wrestle with them fruitlessly. But when we take a welcoming and appreciative approach and sit with them patiently, full of wonder and curiosity, the dark emotions cease to make us feel as if we are destined to live in hell and instead can reveal a route to the divine.

In truth, we need to recognize that emotions simply are. To accept this idea, it may be helpful to think of them in terms of a physical process like digestion: You take something in and this sets off a cascade of processes where some of what you take in nourishes you and some must be released as waste. Everything deserves to be “chewed on,” however, because the more you can focus on maximizing the value you extract, the stronger you grow.

 


Miriam Greenspan. (2003). Healing through the dark emotions. The wisdom of grief, fear, and despair. Boston: Shambala.

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The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

The dark emotions: Food for the soul

The ironic truth about shedding bad habits

Imagine you have just taken part in a 360º feedback process and become aware that your references to “the girls down in sales” are reducing your credibility and degrading the level of trust within your team. With this feedback in hand, your goal is to stop using sexist language; however what should you be thinking about when in order to make this change? The answer will perhaps seem obvious to those of you who use Appreciative Inquiry in your practice: don’t think about what you want to do less of, instead find what’s working well and do more of it. The late Daniel Wegner’s theory of the ironic processes of mental control is one attempt to explain why trying to stop doing something can be so difficult:

“Humans are thwarted not just by a frequent inability to think, want, or feel what they desire but by the all-too-common discovery that their efforts to control these things go beyond failure to produce effects diametrically opposed to their original intent…It is not just that we cannot sleep, for instance, or that we cannot stop thinking about food when on a diet; the problem is that the more we want to sleep or to banish food thoughts the more we fail. We stay awake worrying that we cannot sleep, and we spend all day mentally in the refrigerator when we are hoping to diet. The agony of mental control is this oppositional quality that always seems to haunt attempts to direct our minds.”
Wegner, 1994 p. 34

“When capacity is reduced for some reason (such as distraction, cognitive load, stress, time pressure, and so on), however, the intended control does not merely de- cline to some uncontrolled baseline or zero level. Rather, mental control exerted during mental load will often produce ironic effects, resulting in mental states that go beyond “no change” to become the opposite of what is desired. Desired happiness becomes sadness, desired relaxation becomes anxiety, desired interest becomes boredom, desired love becomes hate, and so on.” [italics added]
Wegner, 1994 p.35

Knowing that your word choices have offended others seems very likely to be a condition which creates stress. In addition, the workplace is liable to create significant cognitive load and involve serious time pressure and frequent distractions. This is a recipe for an ironic or counterintentional effect: you plan to avoid terms like “girls” and with all of the other mental activity you have to juggle, this plan actually increases the frequency with which you use such terms. As I alluded to above, the existence of ironic processes of mental control suggests that if you want to stop doing one thing, you need to think about what other thing(s) you do want to do, instead of thinking about the thing that you don’t want to do.

Thus, in the example above, the best approach after learning that comments like “the girls down in sales” are undermining your effectiveness is to create a positive intention detailing what you want to do. If you are trying to coach yourself to form a new speech habit, you need to imagine and rehearse using inclusive and empowering language to refer to women, rather than expending energy thinking about how to prevent yourself making the offending comment again. Indeed, doing the latter, according to the research behind Wegner’s theory, has a good chance of producing the opposite outcome to that which you had hoped to achieve. In other words, to leave the ironic to the stand-up comedians, it is almost certain to be more helpful to devise ways to create new habits instead of focusing on breaking the bad ones.


 

Wegner, D. M. (1994). Ironic processes of mental control. Psychological Review, 101(1), 34-52.

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The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

The ironic truth about shedding bad habits

Developing our healing muscles

“When we polarize light and dark, our healing remains partial and obsessive, easily undone.” p. 27

I turn again this week to Miriam Greenspan’s work Healing Through the Dark Emotions. As this opening quote suggests, for true healing we need to do more than classify our emotions, experiences and thoughts into good and bad or positive and negative. Indeed, as Greenspan argues, failure to recognize that these are dynamic polarities can stymy our attempts to learn and grow.

What makes clinging to static, polarized categories unproductive? Why does such an approach slow or limit our healing? One key reason is that it keeps us stuck in a fixed mindset. As I’ve described in Do You Seek to Demonstrate or Develop Diversity, the fixed mindset keeps us reliant on external motivators such as tangible rewards or punishments and puts us at risk of only taking action when someone is compelling us to do so. This damages our chances for healing because typically you only gain the approbation of the external world if you get over your hurt quickly and move on with your life.

In line with the fixed mindset, the wider world is attuned to the demonstration of healing and considers it a one-time thing. Furthermore, the all-or-none outlook of the fixed mindset says that you are either well or ill, healed or still hurting. However, the work of learning from challenging feelings, events and ruminations occupies the liminal space between broken and healed rather than neatly falling into either of these two categories. As such, at the present moment there is little respect for such healing work and perhaps even less support for people trying to find their way to a broader-based sense of what is good and bad. Returning to wholeness, however, is a continuing process, one which requires you to construct a fuller and richer sense of your place in the world and the world’s within you. Embracing a growth mindset when it comes to healing means that one seeks to uncover the value in the pain, the good that not only can be recognized but also developed.

“When we can broaden the story of our suffering…emotional alchemy happens quite naturally. We learn that suffering | does not have to deaden; it can also enliven. It does not have to weaken, it can also strengthen. It does not have to diminish but can enlarge us. We go to ‘shrinks’ to reduce our suffering, when what we need is to open to it and let it expand us.” pp. 26-27

As I discussed in Educating Our Palates About Development, adopting a fixed mindset has another disadvantage: it can often mean giving up when the going gets tough. You see yourself as having only a fixed amount of strength or capacity to engage in the healing process. And when that process does not flow smoothly and easily, when you can’t cope perfectly with new or existing setbacks, you may decide that there is no way forward because something internal to you is eternally broken. From this position you cease to strive for clarity in terms of your emotions and beliefs and instead begin to process things through the lens of the passive victim. In this state, all of your energy and zest for life dissipates.

“Painful emotions challenge us to know the sacred in the broken; to develop an enlarged sense of self beyond the suffering ego, an awareness that comes from being mindful of life’s difficulties, rather than disengaging from them; to arrive at a wider and deeper perspective not limited by our pain but expanded by it.” p. 27

Because despair, fear and grief are a part of being human, so too is healing. When we face tough situations, be they ugly and unpleasant words and actions or major shifts that force us to reappraise our lives from the ground up, we are not powerless. We can use the lens of diversity and inclusion to build bridges that join the positive and the negative into a greater, healing whole rather than erecting walls that divide us from ourselves and others in our suffering world. That is the diversity dividend.

 

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The Diversity Dividend by Katherine W Hirsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

 


Miriam Greenspan. (2003). Healing through the dark emotions. The wisdom of grief, fear, and despair. Boston: Shambala.

Developing our healing muscles