You are driving in the dark. Thoughts of work are slowly disappearing as your favorite music takes over. You are only a few minutes from home when suddenly a drunk driver crosses the centre line at high speed. You brake hard, but the crash is inevitable. You regain consciousness two days later in hospital. You can no longer walk and you are convinced that your life is over.
Is the drunk responsible?
Clearly, he’s responsible for the accident. Would he be responsible for your failure to make the best of your new circumstances?
Let’s look at what’s useful. Blaming the drunk might give us some satisfaction, but it wouldn’t help us develop a positive outlook or help us ind new opportunities. Other people can help, but ultimately we must do it with or without them. It would surely take extraordinary willpower to do it, but it is the only positive choice.
Many people think it’s superficial to suggest that being successful or not is mostly a matter of choice. The debate may go something like this.
A: ‘What if I’m someone who has no confidence?’ B: ‘That’s a choice.’
A: No it’s not, it’s conditioning.’
B: ‘Possibly it began that way, but does it matter now? Sitting in the corner at a party, or not speaking up at a meeting, not taking a study course, not taking risks in business are all choices. You would be choosing to give in to your fear of failure.’
A: ‘It’s like you’re patronizing people with a simplistic solution. The way they are is a result of their upbringing and their opportunities in life and the genes they inherited. You’re making it sound like it’s their fault.’
Even to dismiss ‘choice’ as too simplistic is a choice. And we have an inescapable fact: Seeing choices where others don’t is an outstanding characteristic of successful people.
The rewards of knowing that we are in control and have choices are not just in motivation, but in better health, better relationships, more optimism, more resilience and less stress.1
Taking control means looking for choices in every situation. It means thinking carefully about our setbacks to see what we can learn, listing ways of recovering from them, choosing the best and putting them into action.
Let’s take an extreme example. The Austrian psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl made a choice: to write a book about his observations as a prisoner in four concentration camps including Auschwitz – not on reflection, but while he experienced it. Other prisoners were, naturally, preoccupied with staying alive and enduring the hardship from day-to-day. Viktor Frankl chose to document human reactions to extreme suffering. The stufed the manuscript into the lining of his coat and when one of the guards confiscated it, he started again. That was a choice too.
In a book he wrote just ater his release, Viktor Frankl recalls the prisoners who chose to focus, not on their suffering, but comforting others – some of them giving away their last piece of bread. It’s proof, he says that the guards could take from those prisoners every freedom but the last one – the freedom to choose their attitude, whatever the circumstances.
Man’s Search for Meaning sold nine million copies and Viktor Frankl went on to write many more books and found a school of psychotherapy. The died in 1997 at the age of 93.
Man’s Search for Meaning suggests the work of a thoughtful, detached observer, free of bitterness or anger. That’s a choice too. I oten think of Viktor Frankl and those men in the huts who chose to comfort others and give away their last piece of bread. They offer a new perspective to the stresses of a traic jam, a delayed light or forgetting to stop at the supermarket on the way home. We can’t change the events, but we can choose our response.
Just knowing you have the freedom to choose can have far-reaching effects on your life and could even extend it. Two American researchers randomly selected a group of residents from a nursing home and gave them the opportunity to make small choices, including the movies they wanted to watch and where they put their pot plants in their rooms. Another group continued to have everything decided for them. In the next 18 months those who had the power of choice were stronger, healthier, more sociable – and twice as likely to be alive.
Often we don’t exercise our power to choose because we don’t think we have any choices, but it can be an invigorating experience to seek them out, especially when we’ve encountered a setback or face a particularly testing challenge.
Of course, we all make choices every day, but let’s divide choices into three categories.
The most basic choice is whether to do what’s required to survive. It usually relies on needs so, for instance, we eat and sleep and avoid life-threatening situations, but we could choose not to.
The second level is broad. It ranges from the basic day-to-day choices: to go to work today, which breakfast cereal to buy, through to those that are more values-based, such as to hand in the money we found in the restaurant or to campaign for a noble cause.
Choices in the third category are also value-based, but their particular virtue is the power they give us to make the best use of our talents. I call them liberating choices. The most basic liberating choice is to take charge of our own lives.
Become the captain of your ship
Psychologists talk about our locus of control, meaning the extent to which we believe that our own behavior influences events in our lives. It’s a sliding scale and can vary from day-to-day and changes in our circumstances.
Choosing to take control of our own lives gives us an internal locus of control. We accept that success is up to us, that we have options and can overcome setbacks. It’s just a matter of inding the best way. People with a mostly internal locus of control are the captains of their own ships.
People who have an external locus of control believe that their success depends on luck, fate, powerful other people or other factors beyond their control. Externalizers are the ships – tossed around by the sea.
An externalizer may tell you that his business is suffering because of the government’s mis-handling of the economy, the exchange rate or bureaucracy, and simply sit and wait for something to change. An internaliser might be just as annoyed with the government, but would still believe that her success is up to her.
Our locus of control influences us throughout our lives. One review of 100 studies of students found that the internalizes significantly outperformed the others.3
Externalizes put their success down to having an effective teacher, or the teacher liking them or whether the tests of their achievement were easy or hard. One extensive American study found that children’s locus of control was a more reliable way to predict their academic success than the standard measure of their need to achieve, the qualities of their school and its teaching styles or their parents’ child-rearing practices.4
A move down the external end of the line between internal and external locus of control may simply reflect the reality of our changed circumstances. External locus of control increases in times of major social upheavals such as war or high unemployment.
Researchers have recognized for more than 25 years that the sense of control we have over our own lives has significant implications for our health. Andrew Steptoe and Jane Wardle from University College London collected data on the beliefs and behaviors of young adults in 18 countries. They found that those with an internal locus of control drank less alcohol, smoked less, exercised more, had a healthier diet and even brushed their teeth more oten.5 here’s also strong evidence that because internalizes are less prone to learned helplessness, they are more optimistic, more persistent, less inclined to suffer depression and more resistant to stress and anxiety.
We develop our locus of control early. The research shows that parents who emphasise the value of efort, learning, responsibility and thinking about choices, encourage a healthy internal locus of control. They also tend to model internal beliefs and deliver on any rewards they have promised for achievement.
Let’s call the decision to take charge of our own lives the Supreme Liberating Choice, because once we have made that choice, we can make others that liberate us to achieve more.
Literally, courage is the ability to face and endure danger, even being immune from fear. For most of us, courage means overcoming fear. Maybe that’s real courage – sensing or knowing the frightening possibilities and choosing to take action anyway.
It takes judgment to use courage effectively. Adopting a macho courage that drives us to strive for one unattainable goal after another suggests impaired judgment or slow learning. Even so, we’d have to acknowledge that some remarkable people persist long beyond the point where most of us would have decided the goal wasn’t worth the effort.
The most common effect of losing our courage is stagnation. We create comfortable habits: the same job, the same fixed opinions and the same interests. There’s something to be said for being resistant to change. It’s not as if all changes are for the better. But sometimes we are simply choosing the apparent security of stagnation. I meet many people who complain that their co-workers are reluctant to learn new computer software, can’t bear public speaking and resist new ideas with loty cynicism or eloquent silence. The people complaining are usually in training workshops. They’re ready to change and want to know how. Many of them find changing old habits and learning new skills daunting, but they’re doing it. That’s courage too.
It sounds easy enough, but it’s a demanding discipline to be constantly anticipating problems and acting before they develop. It can be as simple as preparing a wet weather and a dry weather plan for your picnic. It can be as complex as having plans to match all the ‘what ifs’ in a takeover battle – then acting on them appropriately.
Being proactive can take determination, energy and courage. If you sense that the share market is about to fall, or your teenager is becoming interested in illegal substances, it would be easy to wait to see what happens or deny the evidence.
As we’ll see when we look at handling stressful situations, people who take control are much more likely to emerge better for the experience. They also build their resilience for the next crisis. Less resilient people are inclined, not only to passivity and denial, but less robust mental and physical health.
Being constantly proactive reminds us that we have choices – that we are in control of our own lives.
One caution with choosing to be proactive: We can overdo it. We can become constantly anxious as we search for threats. Choosing to be proactive should mean facing reality and taking action before problems escalate.
- Choose Your Attitude In Any Circumstances
We can choose our attitude – always.
Viktor Frankl reports a television interview with a Polish cardiologist who showed how far we can take the notion of choosing our attitude.6 he cardiologist had helped organize the rebellion against the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto and the television interviewer was clearly impressed by his heroism.
‘Listen,’ replied the doctor, ‘to take a gun and shoot is no great thing, but if the SS leads you to a gas chamber or to a mass grave to execute you on the spot and you can’t do anything about it – except for going your way with dignity – you see, this is what I would call heroism’.
We can always choose to be positive and look for solutions, or at least to accept our situation in a positive way.
Choosing our attitude frequently allows us to preserve our valuable relationships. Lashing out with angry, contemptuous words is only satisfying for a moment. Successful people choose their attitude and express their anger in more constructive ways that preserve their relationships.
- Choose to be unembarrassable
Think about the last time you were embarrassed and ask yourself what was achieved by it. Does fear of embarrassment make you less inclined to speak up at a meeting, sing a song you enjoy or be outgoing at parties? What would it do to your life if you were to choose to be unembarrassable?
Most people I’ve worked with have never thought about being unembarrassable. They’ve thought that being embarrassed was something that happened to you. ‘Nice idea,’ some would say, but ‘I’d just go red and prickly. When you are landed in what other people might see as an embarrassing situation, being embarrassed won’t change your circumstances. It can only make you feel worse. It’s a choice to give in to it. Choose not to. Avoiding potentially embarrassing situations might ease your fears, but it’s a cop-out.
If fear of embarrassment is holding you back, prepare a strategy so that if the worst happens you’ll know you can handle it.
Let’s say you are giving a presentation to 500 people. Your confidence is building to the point where you feel comfortable about leaving the lectern and your notes to step towards the audience a couple of meters. You are sensing the beginnings of a rapport. In the blur of faces you see people nodding, even smiling. They seem to be ignoring your nervousness, or even unaware of it. The words are lowing. You ad-lib a one-liner. They laugh. There’s a pause. Suddenly, you’ve lost it. Five hundred people are waiting for your next point and your mind is blank. How embarrassing is that? Try this: Choose not to be embarrassed and say, as if in a conversation with a friend, ‘Let me just check what I was going to mention next.’ Go calmly to your notes, take a moment to find your place and come back with energy, ‘Ah yes, I wanted to talk about the marketing strategy…’ Embarrassment wouldn’t have changed anything, just made you and your audience feels bad. Relaxing and recovering with energy will impress them with your confidence and enthusiasm for your message. Liberating isn’t it?
What if you were to speak up at a meeting and not a single colleague agreed with you? You might plan to say in a relaxed way, perhaps even with a smile, ‘I can see I’m not getting much support on this one, but I just want to make it clear where I stand.
There is some research on embarrassment and it’s reassuring. It suggests that we tend to overestimate the extent to which others even notice our embarrassing moments. If somebody makes unflattering comments about us in public or the security alarm in the library goes of because we forgot to check out a book, it’s natural to assume that everybody is noticing and will remember. But a research team using both those scenarios found that observers are much less focused on the embarrassing event than the person it happens to. The observers tend to be charitable through empathy, or because they can imagine doing something similar themselves.
Therapists encourage patients who have a high fear of embarrassment to try ‘decentering’ – which involves questioning whether other people really are evaluating them.8 We can also choose not to need the whole world’s acceptance or approval. We can choose not to be concerned if we don’t perform perfectly on every occasion and after all, we’re in control of our lives, not the people around us.
Some people tell me they are uncomfortable about the effect that unembarrassability might have on society generally. They fear that it will become a licence to embarrass other people simply to show how unembarrassable we are. Drunks do that at parties and it does nothing for their relationships. Being unembarrassable is simply about liberating ourselves from fear so that we can make the best use of our talents.
We can be unembarrassable and still say sorry – maybe oten. If we say something hurtful or inconvenience other people, we can apologies, make amends if necessary and decide not to make the same mistake again. Even so, we can move on from any embarrassment, especially that crippling, guilty embarrassment that drags us down weeks and months later. How could that help anyone?
Here’s a simple question. Which of these events, if they happened tomorrow, would make you happier a couple of years from now:
- winning a substantial prize in a lottery
- being disabled in an accident
- staying at home and reading a book?
It may seem a ridiculous question to ask, but the average outcome of those three events may surprise you. In 1978 Philip Brickman and his colleagues compared people who had won between $50,000 and a million dollars in the Illinois state lottery, people who had been disabled in accidents and ‘regular folks’ who had not had either experience.
The only real difference was that on average the regular folks were a little happier than the people who had been injured. Clearly, some lottery winners in that study were miserable and some accident victims happy. It is support for the notion that events are neutral and we choose our reaction to them.
There’s evidence that many people are born with ‘happiness genes’. It doesn’t mean that they drit through life in a euphoric haze, only that they have a pre-disposition to be happy.
Not having the genes doesn’t stop the rest of us being happy. Researchers are able to list ways that happy people view life and cope with setbacks, and they are all attitudes or skills we can choose to learn.
Happy people think more positively about themselves and have a network of supportive relationships. They recover from setbacks more quickly and have better problem-solving skills. They have a sense of humour, even when the going gets tough. (There’s more to come on that topic in Part Two of this series.)
Happy people are inclined to think of the positive side of negative events. Researchers report hearing, ‘My break-up reminded me of a Seinfeld episode’ and ‘Things are less tense now my folks are apart’. Unhappy people dwell on the negative, even with events that we could easily see as positive: ‘hat holiday put me behind with my work’.
Develop your happiness
We can choose the Buddhist approach to happiness: to find it in everyday events as simple as a smile, our children’s milestones, the first signs of spring, intimate moments with our partner or a calm sunny morning – rather than some pot of gold. You could say that all we would be doing is creating short-term pleasure from everyday things, and you would be right. It’s when it becomes a way of life and we look back over perhaps years, that we can say we are happy or happier.
Want a long-term focus for building happiness? Try eudemonia [you di mow nee a].
Aristotle used eudemonia to describe the happiness that comes from living a virtuous life. These days, psychologists have dropped the moral baggage and use eudemonia to describe the pleasures that come from adding meaning and purpose to our lives.
People with the most satisfying lives choose to focus on causes beyond themselves. For many, eudemonia comes from volunteering in the community. For others, it’s striving to be an excellent parent, friend, colleague or leader while living according to their values.
Let’s be realistic
Researchers have shown that happy people are able to appraise situations well and when the stakes are high, or their self-esteem is at stake they feel disappointment, sadness, anger, and frustration like everyone else.
Even if you make it to the top 10 percent on the happiness scale, it won’t be all bliss. Although happy people can see more positives in negative events, they oten need time to do it. Even so, their healthy reaction to negative events sets them apart from less happy people, more than anything else.
Ed Diener from the University of Illinois and Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania, studied university students in that top happiness range and reasoned that their bad days and low moods were simply confirmation that their emotional systems were in working order. Happiness is a way of life rather than a permanent state of mind.
- Choose to love unconditionally
Loving unconditionally makes love a git, not a deal. We expect nothing in return. In reality, we benefit too, but that benefit may be no more than believing that we are better people. More likely the love will be returned over time. The research tells us that in strong relationships people express love partly by contributing to a reservoir of goodwill, whether the other person is contributing or not.13
Loving unconditionally doesn’t mean tolerating unacceptable behavior. We can question, even object vehemently, to rudeness, selfishness or idleness and demand changes, but the love is never in question. We choose to believe that people are lovable, despite their faults.
Many relationships suffer because the partners react to bad behavior or criticism with contempt. They see the behavior not as a lapse, but an ingrained characteristic of someone who is no longer worthy of love or even respect. The response becomes an attack, not on the behavior, but the person: ‘That’s typical! You’re always looking ater number one. You’re a loser! That’s rich coming from someone who always…’ Contempt is a key feature of relationships that fail early. Even if the bad behaviour really is ingrained, someone who loves unconditionally still sees it as separate from the person.
Let’s acknowledge that we can’t love everyone, but if we see love as more than romance or love for our family, we could extend it to our friends, even colleagues or team mates. You and I might have different views of how far we can extend unconditional love. We might express a general love of humanity, because we like most people we meet, but to give all of humanity unconditional love is to choose the demanding path to sainthood.
- Choose to think and act independently
Imagine you are sitting at a table with six other people. In front of you are two cards and a researcher is asking everyone in turn which of the three vertical lines on one card is the same height as the single vertical line on the other card. It’s supposed to be an experiment in ‘visual judgment’. At first, it seems a pointless exercise. The researcher keeps introducing new pairs of cards and everyone agrees which line in each card is the same height. The answers are obvious.
After the sixth pair of cards something odd happens. You are near the end of the line and everyone else has given the wrong answer. Would you go along with them, or stay with the answer you know to be right? What about the next time and the time ater that?
Clearly, if you had made the choice to think and act independently, you would say what you believe, but when Solomon Asch tried that experiment in the 1950s, he found that more than one in three people would go along with the majority opinion. hat figure was probably conservative because the participants were students in what he describes diplomatically as ‘institutions of higher learning’, where we would expect them to be learning to think independently. Some persisted in siding with the majority even when the difference between the lines was almost 18 centimeters.14
Solomon Asch’s experiment provides us with some interesting insights, particularly the reasons the students gave for caving in to the responses of the stooges who made up the rest of the panel. Some came to disbelieve their own eyes, ‘I am wrong. They are right.’ Others thought it best to go along with the majority because they didn’t want to spoil the researchers’ results. Some thought the others were behaving like sheep – that the irst person made a mistake and the others simply followed. It seemed simpler to do the same.
Asch and his colleagues added another dimension, another stooge, but this one a ‘supporting partner’ briefed to give the correct answer when the majority was wrong. In the interviews later, the students talked about the inspiration and confidence their partners gave them to hold out and the warmth and closeness they felt towards them.
Let’s relate the experiment to the real world.
We need to acknowledge that going along with the majority makes sense much of the time. Clearly, it pays to drive on the same side of the road as everyone else and it’s essential to the democratic process that we accept a majority decision. There are conventions that seem reasonable to most of us. Dressing in your best for a wedding says, ‘I’m taking this seriously. I’m respecting the occasion’.
There are some conventions that don’t make much sense, but we might not think it worth the hassle of rebelling against them. Wearing a tie to work with our shirts buttoned to the throat makes little sense, beyond adding a little color, and wearing the same outfit on a tractor, as some men do in Britain, makes no sense at all. We could dye our hair green, but it’s an unusual statement of independence to do it.
Successful people choose to think and act independently when it liberates them to do more with their lives. They refuse to be controlled by what other people might think when it stops them achieving their goals and living their values. They can distinguish between conventional thinking and what they believe to be right, and they refuse to fulfill other people’s expectations when they conflict with their own values or aspirations.
- Choosing to be released from the past
It’s like driving by looking at the rear vision mirror, but very human. Past resentments, guilt, anger and destructive habits can be overwhelming. But releasing ourselves from the past is a choice we can make.
When Nelson Mandela emerged from prison after 26 years on South Africa’s notorious Robben Island, he had every reason to be bitter. Instead, he chose and advocated forgiveness. In his autobiography he says, that when he let prison he made it his mission to liberate both the oppressed and the oppressors, ‘…for to be free is not merely to cast of one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.’15
Letting go can be difficult, but a range of techniques can help. If it’s guilt over something you have done or not done, you may be able to put things right with an apology, an offer to make amends, or simply talking it over. If it’s anger or resentment holding you back, you may be able to resolve it with some assertiveness. If it’s embarrassment, remind yourself that you are human and that you choose not to need the world’s approval for everything you do.
If you can’t do anything about the cause, it’s time to put the events and the disruptive thoughts behind you because there is nothing to be gained by prolonging the guilt, anger or resentment.
Prepare a standard distraction you can use when you sense upsetting emotions welling up – perhaps a tune or favorite thoughts. Therapists who work with people with recurring disruptive thoughts recommend that they yell stop! or hit a desk or wall, the moment they sense the thoughts returning. That’s easy in a therapy room, but maybe at work or out shopping you’ll prefer their less public alternative – perhaps snapping a rubber band around your wrist. Whatever you choose, you’ll be interrupting the disruptive thought, which makes it easier to think about your favorite fishing spot or run the catchiest tune you can think of through your mind one more time.
Redefine your identity and tell yourself regularly. ‘I’m one of those people who never dwell in the past.’ or ‘I’m the kind of person who never harbours a grudge’.
Do the same with your other choices. ‘I’m someone who knows there’s always a choice’ or ‘I’m not someone who’s easily embarrassed. I’m an optimist. I’m a happy person who inds pleasure in everyday events’.
This section is about the most trainable part of your brain. It’s vital in achieving your goals, managing your emotions, building your relationships, leading, negotiating and any other way you might deine success.
My wife and I were on holiday in Vanuatu. One afternoon we discovered that our hotel golf course had an unusual feature: more than 18 holes. In fact there were more than we cared to count. The unofficial holes were on the fairways, all of them big enough to take a golf ball, but clearly not man-made.
We asked the hotel receptionist. ‘Snakes make them’, she said. ‘hey come out at night and move the stones.’ We were both doubtful. We don’t have snakes in New Zealand and we Kiwis ind them particularly unnerving, so I could have lived with my doubts. My wife could not, so that night two very nervous New Zealanders ventured out, walking very close together, whispering between anxious silences.
Suddenly, a shape, just outside the beam of the torch. I leapt – an instant panic reaction. It was the length of a small snake, and convincing enough in peripheral vision – but only a long, thin leaf.
The pattern is probably familiar: an initial strong emotion, followed by the calming inluence of new information or reason.
In its extreme form, the initial emotional response becomes an ‘emotional hijacking’. The brain’s limbic system takes over and any calming inluence can be very slow coming.
Many people have difficulty reacting in any other way to emotionally-charged situations. I know a chief executive of a very large organization who admits to striking another motorist in the middle of a city street. His anger had hijacked an intelligent brain, shutting out the possible consequences to his career and reputation.
Get to know your prefrontal cortex
Fortunately our brains have what we might call an executive centre that takes the raw emotion and says, ‘Hold on a moment, maybe there’s another way of interpreting and responding to this one.’ Your executive centre is in the prefrontal cortex and if your hand is on your forehead as you are reading this, you’re almost touching it.
Researchers have known about the link between the front of the brain and emotions and personality since the middle of the 19th century.
In 1848, Phineas Gage entered the history of medical science and psychology professors around the world still tell his story. Gage was on a railway construction project in Vermont. The was the contracting company’s most able and efficient foreman, described as having a well-balanced mind and being a shrewd businessman.
September 14 was not his best day at work. As he was laying an explosive charge, it ignited and sent a tamping iron one metre long point-first into his let cheek bone, through the front of his skull and out again. It landed 10 metres away. It seems incredible, but he survived. The tamping iron had performed an accidental prefrontal lobotomy.
Months later Gage felt ready to return to work, but his personality had changed dramatically. The railway company described him as, ‘itful, irreverent and grossly profane, showing little deference for his fellows’. The was ‘impatient and obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating’, unable to settle on any of the plans he devised for his future action’.16 he tamping iron is now an exhibit at the Museum of the Medical College of Harvard University.
Typically, people with an impaired prefrontal cortex have diiculty forming strategies, even for simple tasks. They become irresponsible, lack emotion and have no concern for the present, let alone the future.17
It’s clear that the brain’s executive centre helps us make decisions, concentrate, plan and stick to our goals. It also gives us an emotional working memory which allows us to learn from our emotional experiences and anticipate how we might feel if the same thing happened again.
The prefrontal cortex helps explain some significant differences in the way people respond to emotional events and the time it takes to recover from events that generate fear or anger.
Most of the key emotional skills depend on our ability to respond in emotionally and socially appropriate ways, rather than react impulsively to anger, fear or want.
Some people have highly developed executive centers. I’ve been with taxi drivers as other motorists have cut them of and shut them out and heard them say in an unruled way things like, ‘Well, I guess it takes all sorts to make a world’.
Ready for some training?
Kirk Brown and Richard Ryan from the University of Rochester have been researching a simple strategy that seems to develop the power of the prefrontal cortex.
Mindfulness has become popular in the last few years and taught in businesses. It involves training ourselves to focus on what is happening right now. It’s a process with roots in Buddhism and other traditions.
When listening to our partner or child, we could increase our mindfulness by being particularly attentive to both the words and the subtle emotional content, without judgment. We could take a walk and pay attention to the range of sounds under our feet and around us. We could savour the taste of our morning coffee – perhaps identifying which parts of our tongue are affected most by the lingering lavour. We could focus on our emotions and put names to their subtle changes.
So, what’s the pay-of for increasing our mindfulness? According to Brown and Ryan’s research, better self-regulation, more positive emotions, less pre-occupation with negative emotions, less absorption with the past and fewer anxious fantasies about the future.
Socializing teaches most of us to resist impulsive behavior, but the research suggests that impulsive behavior is increasing.
The harm of impulsiveness
So how much damage does impulsiveness do to your life chances?
There are numerous examples in the research, but one from 2002 illustrates the point. Researchers at the State University of New York ofered high school students a fee for taking part in an experiment and the fee came with a choice: $7 now or $10 a week from now. Half the students said, ‘I’ll take the money now’. Those students were found to be smoking more cigarettes and marijuana and more likely to be drinking to excess. They had lower self-esteem and were performing below their academic ability.19 Other studies have produced similar results and also linked impulsive behaviour to poor relationships and violent, self-indulgent behaviour that persisted into adulthood.
Even those of us who generally cope well with life, battle with impulsiveness from time-to-time. A negotiator who reacts to a hostile comment with a single outburst of retaliation may ruin her chances of success. A leader who can’t resist an impulsive putdown comment may destroy the trust he has built with his team. The consumer who wants, but doesn’t need, a new car, house or suit may live to regret his tendency to buy on impulse.
Instead of acting on impulse, we can pause and focus on the long-term benefits of a considered response. At work, we might strive to be the consummate professional, at home, the model parent.
It sounds simple, but our ability to regulate our emotions, both positive and negative, and to learn from our experiences is at the heart of success in business, study, sport and relationships.
Training children to resist impulsive behavior has enormous rewards in their later lives. Psychologists have developed a scale for measuring the ability to ‘delay gratification’, which tells them how well pre- schoolers, for instance, are able to wait before devouring a marshmallow, chocolate or pretzel.
The research is showing a particularly strong link between children waiting, and their ability in adulthood to delay angry reactions long enough to develop some cooling strategies.20 Grabbing the chocolate bar is impulsive. So is the angry lashing out of the adult who feels frustrated or hurt by criticism in a meeting.
Psychologists have found that pre-schoolers can learn to delay gratification with ‘fun thoughts’ (for example, what it was like when we went to the beach) or reframing (perhaps, imagining the marshmallows are rubber). Adults who refuse to give in to children who ‘want it and want it now’ are laying the foundations for a range of vital emotional skills.
Taking time to consider our responses, rather than reacting to our initial emotion is a major theme of the rest of this book. That self-regulation is, of course, a choice and based on the supreme liberating choice – to take control of our own lives.
In the next sections you’ll find many more ways of keeping your prefrontal cortex fully it.
Since 1963 researchers studying both adults and children have written more than 6,700 reports confirming the value of changing self-defeating thinking errors.
You might choose to work with a therapist, but the research shows that do-it-yourself therapy is efective. A review of 40 studies showed that it can work as well as seeing a counselor for therapy.50
Do-it-yourself, cognitive therapy is useful even for people who are not particularly troubled by everyday negative emotions or irrational thoughts because it provides a focus for healthy thinking in times of stress.
The challenge of self-therapy is to stay on track. As with dieting, it’s unrealistic to expect instant success. You’ll have short-term successes, but the real value comes from being dedicated to retraining yourself long-term.
We will look more closely at how you might apply your self-therapy to depression, anxiety, anger and stress soon, but first, we need to note the essential steps in cognitive therapy.
You can plan your day to help you break out of the cycle of depression. Making the plan tells you that you’re in control. Sticking to the plan underlines the point.
Before you go to bed, prepare a list of treats and pleasurable events for the next day. Don’t depend on thinking up your treats and events up as you go along or they probably won’t happen.
Plan to set the alarm for the usual time and get up immediately. Prepare to go to work, do the shopping and walk the dog because doing normal things works against your inclination to withdraw and dwell on the causes of your depression. They also serve as a distraction.
Schedule contact with people who are not depressed. Even contact on the internet seems to produce good results but ideally, create opportunities to have cheerful people around you. If you can help someone out, arrange to do that too.
Make sure that your plan includes exercise to raise your energy to a more normal state. Use your list of treats or pleasurable events to provide highlights. Space them out so that you can savour them. Make sure that you include a few easy, but satisfying goals. A sense of accomplishment challenges your inclination to see everything negatively.
And, of course, commit yourself to breaking the cycle of depressive thinking with some healthy scepticism and reframing.
Once you’ve made the plan, stick to it. Apply ‘choice therapy’. Giving in to self-talk such as, ‘I can’t be bothered’ and ‘I’m too depressed to do anything about it’, is a choice.
Anger is a difficult disruptive emotion to manage because it can take over in an instant and escalate quickly. Even so, the research reveals some techniques that work. The key is to slow down your response. Give yourself time to examine your beliefs and correct your thinking errors.
Psychologists and counselors around the world suggest a range of techniques which include these three simple steps. Stay focused on them when you feel angry.
- Breathe deep Make sure that you imagine the breath going down to your abdomen. Short breaths to your chest won’t help you relax.
- Repeat a calming word or sentences like a man Try, ‘Slow down’ or ‘Breathe easy. Relax’.
- Develop a strategy for handling the situation in a calm and reasoned
Get to know the symptoms and what sets of your anger. As you feel the symptoms coming on, focus on some healthy scepticism.
- Am I interpreting what the other person is doing or saying accurately?
- Is there another way of interpreting the same events or comments?
- Where’s this person coming from? Why is she saying that? (Empathy is particularly difficult when you are angry, but a very effective way to calm dow It’s worth the effort.)
- Ask the, ‘So what?’ So someone used the last of the milk? So what? So someone took my park at the supermarket? So what?
- What will happen if I lose my cool? What damage will it do to my relationship with this person?
The healthiest way to express anger is to be assertive. Recognize your symptoms as anger. Let’s say a colleague has, again, forgotten to pass on an essential message. Try the cooling down process, relax if you can, maybe leave it a while, then say something like, ‘When you forget to pass on messages, I get annoyed because it can have serious consequences for my clients, the company or me. Let’s work out a system now to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.’
Many people believe that being assertive is just the same as being aggressive, but it’s not. It’s a cool-headed way to express your needs and respect others, as well yourself. It also gets results.
Taking time out can be productive, provided you’re not using it as a way to avoid an argument. One of my trainees told me he and his wife used to get into big arguments that escalated until they both felt devastated.
Now they agree to put the issue on-hold for an hour to break the anger cycle. They have often come back together and wondered what all the fuss was about. Putting a time limit on the cooling down makes it clear that you are willing to talk, but you want to do it in a more productive frame of mind. Relaxation exercises should help you wind down even more.
Researchers at Colombia University have found some significant issues for intimate partners. Women who have a strong fear of rejection are more prone to anger and increased hostility. Men with rejection fears have a higher risk of becoming violent. The fear makes both sexes particularly sensitive and they tend to magnify negative or even ambiguous cues. That misreading and the angry reactions damage the relationship and set them up for more feelings of rejection.
Let’s dispel the myth. Punch bags don’t relieve anger. They make it worse. The same goes for anything like a punch bag – including shouting, screaming or furious gardening or shopping. You begin with your body highly aroused and the punch bag or the shouting just winds it up even more. Venting, or catharsis, can be quite satisfying and eventually, after you have stopped, your anger will dissipate, but it would have dissipated much faster without all the activity.
The authors of one study say, ‘Popular belief in the catharsis theory remains strong despite its dismal record in the research findings’.
The same team produced some worrying results when they did give people a punch bag. They found that many of those people were not just more aggressive at the end, but were directing that aggression towards other people who had nothing to do with their mood.71
People often say punching, shouting and the rest is like letting the steam out of the pot. Surely, it would be better to find some way to turn the element of.
Venting our anger at other people has another serious disadvantage: It leaves a battlefield of angry, resentful wounded, waiting for their chance to get back at us.
Incidentally, other researchers have shown that watching violence on television has no cathartic efect either. One says, the belief that observing violence gets rid of aggressive feelings ‘has virtually never been supported by research’.
Self-pity and anger
Venting anger isn’t always the issue. People who lock their anger in rather than find healthy, assertive ways of expressing it may be caught in the self-pity trap. Sandy defines self-pity as a combination of feeling that we are not in control of our lives and envy. They tell themselves, he says, ‘Bad things always happen to me’ and ask, ‘Why not them?’
Only aggression, withdrawing from contact with people and giving up rate as less-effective coping strategies.73 Self-pity is strongly linked with depression.
Stober reports that women are more likely to react to stress with self-pity and believes it may have to do with the way we raise girls. Certainly, in most cultures, boys have more freedom to express their anger.
When you can imagine the spider without your muscles tightening, it’s time to move to the next level and imagine, say, a dead spider in a display in your museum as you continue to relax in the comfortable chair.
Maybe next it will be a live and non-poisonous spider in the museum. Take your time and stay focused on the process. Work your way up through experiencing, rather than just imagining, your fearful situations. Therapists have been having success with systematic desensitization for decades.
As you’d expect, many counselors and therapists advocate deep breathing and other forms of relaxation. They also suggest keeping healthy with regular exercise, a balanced diet, not skipping meals and talking to supportive friends and family members about your stress. Finding interesting and absorbing hobbies to give some balance to our lives works too.
- Manage stressful situations
Let’s put in a good word for stress. Climbing rock faces is stressful, but you’d be struggling to talk some people out of it. It’s stressful competing at tennis or chess. Even watching your local football team in action can be very stressful. It’s good stress, called feustress. Imagine how dull life would be without it. We also need to feel at least slightly stressed when we are in danger – our survival may depend on it.
We can learn to manage stress effectively and people who do are not only less anxious, but less depressed, have lower blood pressure and are much less prone to emotional and personality disorders.
Believe it or not, it’s usually not our reactions to crises that make us ill. The evidence suggests that our bodies cope with the big problems well. It’s the on-going hassles, frustrations and the daily grind that do the damage. For instance, a study of police oicers in a tough part of Florida found that they were much more stressed by day-to-day paperwork, irritations with the media and the slow pace of the justice system than the possibility of a shoot-out or intervening in domestic battles night ater night.81
For the rest of us, the damage to our health comes from equivalent on-going events such as constant conflicts with teenagers, annoying neighbor’s day-after-day, and ‘leave your-brain-at-the-door’ jobs. We are especially stressed when we sense that we have no control over a stressful situation.
When you are stressed it’s too easy to exaggerate setbacks. Keep reminding yourself that setbacks are opportunities to learn and steps on the way to success. Ask some sceptical questions about the cause of your stress. What’s the worst that could happen? Is that likely?
Create a vivid image of yourself calm and in complete control, and then play that role of someone calm and in charge of the situation. Eventually, your body will believe it. Perhaps more important, in the meantime, you might have made some progress on finding a solution to your crisis.
If you are a leader, you’ll have to pretend anyway as part of your obligation to everyone else. Embellish your pretence. Show of a bit. Use it as a chance to show how cool you can be when things get hot. It’s a choice, ater all. If you can combine the pretence with a clear plan and a few early successes as you put the plan into action, you’ll begin to feel less stressed quite quickly.