Emotional intelligence is a concept that has been on the rise for a couple of decades. But it has existed as an idea since the 1960s. It promotes the idea of an alternative intelligence to IQ, creating the idea that book smarts and socially normative views of intelligence may not be all there is to our brains and life.
So, what is emotional intelligence? Is it important? Is it necessary? Can it be built? Do you have it, and if you do, what can you do with it? And if you don’t, is that a bad thing? Read on to find out what emotional intelligence is and three ways to use it!
WHAT IS EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE?
Let’s look at the hallmarks that define this concept.
1. DEFINING EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE
Emotional intelligence, often shortened to EQ or EI, refers to the ability to use, handle, perceive, manage, and understand different emotions. This idea applies to both yourself and others. Its use as a term surged in popularity in the mid-1990s. More recently, it has been touted as a highly positive and valid form of intelligence.
Someone with high EQ would presumably handle awkward situations, social environments, and interactions with others with grace. Someone with low EQ may struggle to understand why someone is sad, angry, or happy, even if the reasons seem perfectly obvious to others. This is a common experience of neurodivergent individuals who struggle with social cues or “normal” emotional affairs.
Having low EQ isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, most people do want to increase their emotional intelligence. Indeed, there are many positive things that research has associated with high emotional intelligence, such as:
Better job performance
Improved leadership skills
Higher levels of positive thinking
Better mental health
Positive influence over others
There has been a fair bit of controversy about emotional intelligence over the years, with questions about whether or not emotional intelligence is valid when compared to or used in tandem with the Big Five personality traits or standard IQ. Luckily, research has found that emotional intelligence maintains its validity even with those factors accounted for.
2. COMPONENTS OF EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE
Emotional intelligence seems like a pretty abstract concept, but there’s more theory behind it than you may think. Experts have even been able to properly identify emotional intelligence features across different people, leading to what we know about the composition of EQ.
Daniel Goleman is credited with coining the term “emotional intelligence,” and his book about his research and theories on the subject identified five components of emotional intelligence. Here are those components:
Self-regulation allows you to take note of your emotional responses to things and ensure that they are appropriate and proportionate to the inciting incident. It means being aware of the consequences of your actions, being able to pause before deciding on behavior, and pushing yourself to bring out your own best.
Emotional intelligence does have to make you focused on yourself and your actions, but that doesn’t mean it makes you self-centered. Those with high EQ can put themselves in the shoes of others and understand where they come from, even if they’ve never been in that situation before. You don’t judge people, using your own experiences as a guide.
Being aware of your motivations, patterns, and thoughts is a crucial part of emotional intelligence. It allows you to be mindful of how your actions affect the world and the people around you, as well as yourself. You know what you feel, you know how to understand what you think and their triggers, and you’re under no illusions about your strengths and weaknesses.
· SOCIAL SKILLS
You don’t need to be a social butterfly to have the social skills necessary for emotional intelligence. Mostly, this component means you can work with other people, are capable of conflict resolution, and develop positive communication techniques like active listening and welcoming body language. You would likely also know how to build relationships with others.
Emotional intelligence requires a degree of intrinsic motivation – a desire to do well and improve for yourself and your development. Your idea of success is defined by you and you alone, not by what other people try to push you into. You’re more likely to seek out goals that improve your personal growth over material goals, though there’s also nothing wrong with seeking material goals at the same time.
If you’re looking to build or increase your emotional intelligence, these are the five factors you’ll likely want to focus on improving the most. Although some people believe that emotional intelligence is innate and unchangeable, it can certainly be built and improved on, like any other skill or form of intelligence.
It is worth noting that – as is with all research and theories – there are some criticisms of Goleman’s explanation of these five components. As such, it is advised that you do some of your research or seek a professional opinion as you try to build your EQ!
THREE WAYS TO USE EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE
Here are three ways to put EI to work to improve your life.
1. STOP BEING REACTIVE
It’s easy to immediately follow an impulse to react to the situations unfolding around you, whether they’re positive or negative. In cases of conflict, adverse events, or unexpected life changes, you may jump straight to a defensive mode instead of pausing to think about things.
You can use your emotional intelligence to control these impulses. Instead of reacting to things, respond to them. Use your knowledge of actions and consequences, your empathy skills, and mindfulness of your emotions to take a pause and think of how to respond to different situations.
The goal of any adverse event is to resolve it. While you can’t always tackle these events with positive thinking, you can certainly think about how to best move forward instead of simply reacting based on your emotions. With your EQ, you can consciously adjust your response to fit the situation and work towards solving problems instead of responding to them and accidentally exacerbating them in the process.
2. LEARN ABOUT OTHERS
High emotional intelligence allows you to learn more about the people around you more quickly than those with low emotional intelligence. Better yet, the more you know about others, the more likely you are to develop even more emotional intelligence! Here are some ways to learn about others:
· UNDERSTAND WHAT OTHERS WANT AND EXPECT
Different people are driven by different things and want other things out of their world and goals. Understanding those driving forces and desires is crucial to gaining a complete picture of the people around you. It can show you how to best communicate with, relate to, and appeal to those individuals. If you’re in a leadership position, this will also help you work better with your team and cooperate with those around you!
· ASK ABOUT THEIR EXPERIENCES
Emotional intelligence can drive you to be genuinely curious about other people, their lives, and what they’ve been through. Use that to your advantage by showcasing your genuine interest and asking questions. Demonstrate that you’re genuinely interested in hearing about other people and what advice they have to share, and you’ll get to expand your horizons and impressively widen your worldview.
· PRACTICE ACTIVE LISTENING
If you want to get people to talk to you, you have to show that you’re engaged, and emotional intelligence equips you with the ability to be! But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go the extra mile to make people feel heard. Use open body language, turn towards the people that speak, make good eye contact, and indicate your understanding.
3. FOCUS ON “WE” INSTEAD OF “ME.”
As human beings, we’re all in the same boat – just trying to navigate life in the best way possible. Use emotional intelligence to keep that in mind as you go through your daily experiences and interact with the people around you.
When you connect to other people, it becomes evident that things aren’t really about you. Besides that, they’re certainly not about you versus them. Instead, there’s a collective sense that everyone in the world is in this life together.
People with low emotional intelligence may struggle to be there for other people or charitably view others because they consider their fate and life entirely isolated from those around them. Your EQ can remind you that this is not the case.
We’re all on a ship sailing through the tumultuous sea of life. If someone’s side of the ship gets damaged, you don’t shrug and say, “that’s your side, so I’m staying out of it.” Instead, you recognize that we all need to work together and keep each other afloat and healthy. Otherwise, we all go down!
This is, of course, not to say that you should feel responsible for other people and their decisions. Instead, it is a reminder to use your emotional intelligence to form team-like bonds with others instead of competing with the people around you or judging them for their struggles.
Of course, this also goes for accepting criticism. Many people struggle to accept criticism in their lives. Don’t let that be you! You can learn so much from the feedback that the people around you provide, so don’t react to any constructive statements that sound bad at first. Put on your positive thinking, absorb what’s being said, and use that information to improve.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON SOME WAYS TO USE EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE
Emotional intelligence is a valuable tool, and it can make your life, interactions, and career better in many ways. It’s a great skill to build and showcase, and it can help you build stronger, healthier relationships with others and feel more fulfilled with your situation.
If you have low emotional intelligence, don’t feel discouraged! People can improve their emotional intelligence to some degree, at least on a cognitive level, and you certainly can, too.
If you struggle with some aspects of emotional intelligence, you can also communicate your difficulties with it; for example, difficulty comprehending social cues or emotions, as a symptom of neuro-divergence, is something that the people in your life can learn to accommodate.
The bottom line is that emotional intelligence, while necessary, doesn’t have to be something innate, and it’s okay if you have trouble with some of its components. Learning to work on the things you can change, especially with a therapist or similar professional, works wonders!
Researchers believe these daily habits will train your brain to achieve better overall well-being. (Worth a try, right?)
Researchers believe they’ve cracked the code when it comes to achieving overall emotional and mental wellness through four key pillars.
This past year has been an excruciating one for millions of North Americans, and our collective well-being has taken a serious hit. A majority of adults in the United States say their mental health is worse now than it was pre-pandemic. Feelings of isolation are up. A majority of North American adults report feeling overwhelmed by their current stress levels.
Against that bleak backdrop — and given that COVID-19 case numbers are still reaching record highs, even as vaccines have arrived— it seems silly, almost, to think about cultivating emotional well-being. Now? Really? And most importantly, how?!
A research paper recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences offers a mental training plan that its authors call the “how” of well-being. Their findings suggest there are four key behaviors that tend to contribute most to overall satisfaction. And they see their plan as a way in which people who already feel relatively healthy can cultivate mental wellness on a daily basis.
“It’s a more hopeful view of well-being,” study researcher Cortland Dahl of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Healthy Minds, a cross-disciplinary research institute, told HuffPost. “It’s the idea that you can take active steps that improve well-being, very much so in the way that you might take steps to improve physical health.”
Of course anyone grappling with severe stress, anxiety or other mental health concerns should absolutely reach out to a qualified mental health professional.
Looking to be more deliberate about training your brain to cultivate mental and emotional well-being? Here are the four basic pillars of the plan, and some simple steps you can start taking right away.
Step 1: Cultivate Awareness — And ‘Meta-awareness’
Awareness is a “heightened, flexible attentiveness to your environmental and internal cues,” according to the Center for Healthy Minds ― which basically means your surroundings as well as your thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations.
And studies do show that people with heightened awareness tend to have better overall well-being. Also, being distracted can lead to feelings of stress and unhappiness.
One simple tactic that will help you achieve this? Close your eyes and focus on the act of taking 10 breaths.
Another option? “One thing I like to do is when I’m doing dishes, I’ll notice the sounds, I’ll feel the sensations,” Dahl said.
The new Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences research — which pulls from a range of studies from the worlds of neuroscience, meditation traditions and more — suggests that “meta-awareness” is important, too. So it’s not only important to be aware; it’s also important to be aware that you’re being aware. Ultimately, cultivating meta-awareness helps you to deliberately direct and sustain your attention, the authors argue, rather than being pulled in by “distractors.”
Making a small effort to connect with friends, loved ones and colleagues via Zoom, email or text can help you tap into deeper feelings of kinship.
Step 2: Cultivate Connection
Forging and strengthening a sense of togetherness is certainly a difficult goal amid COVID-19. But making a small effort to connect with friends, loved ones and colleagues via Zoom, email or text can be enough to help you tap into deeper feelings of kinship as the pandemic continues.
The researchers also say that simply cultivating feelings of kindness toward others can be enough to help boost your sense of connection — regardless of whether the person on the receiving end even knows you’re thinking about them.
They cite several studies and pilot programs that suggest kindness meditation programs can lower feelings of distress and boost positive feelings. There is even some preliminary evidence that these types of practices may help lessen implicit bias.
“You can start with a simple appreciation practice,” Dahl said. That might entail bringing a friend or loved one into your mind, then consciously focusing on the things you really cherish about them.
Step 3: Practice Insight
The researchers define insight as having self-knowledge about how your own emotions, thoughts and beliefs shape your sense of who you think you are.
And working to develop this kind of insight can empower you to challenge the beliefs you’ve held about yourself that you may have thought were immutable, Dahl explained. He cited a personal example, describing how he used to be deeply unsettled by public speaking and believed this was just an unchangeable fact of who he was.
“Instead of having this kind of constant judgment, we can get curious about our own inner worlds,” Dahl said.
One practical, real-world way to to do that is to simply notice when a negative thought crops up, and be inquisitive, the researchers wrote. Stop and ask yourself: Where is this thought coming from? Is it based in any assumptions?
Make an effort to notice how even some of the most mundane activities you do every day are connected to your core values. For example, doing the dishes might be an act of generosity toward those you love.
Step 4: Connect With Your Purpose
You don’t have to try and orient every day toward some far-reaching sense of purpose with a “capital P,” Dahl said. But it can be worthwhile to spend time thinking about your deep core values. Then make an effort to notice how even some of the most mundane activities you do every day are connected to them.
For example, doing the dishes or cooking a meal at the end of a long day might be an act of generosity toward those you love. Signing on for your “fifth Zoom meeting of the day” may help connect you to a career that you find meaningful.
Research has shown that having a larger sense of purpose in life is linked to positive health outcomes ― from resilience in the face of trauma to overall lower risk of death.
And ultimately, these four habits should help provide a clearer framework for people looking to improve their mental well-being and wondering how to start. If connecting with your sense of purpose every day doesn’t necessarily click with you right off the bat, for example, try something else.
“We think of this as the ‘eat your fruits and vegetables of mental health,’” said Christy Wilson-Mendenhall, a scientist at the Center for Healthy Minds who was also a researcher on the new paper.
The goal is to find what really works for you and that — crucially — “becomes easy to integrate into everyday life,” she said.
It’s also a complete liar that constantly tries to convince us not to take actions we know are good for us, and stops many great changes in our lives.
I’ve had to learn to watch these rationalizations and excuses very carefully, in order to make the changes I’ve made in my life: a healthier diet, regular exercise, meditation, minimalism, writing daily, getting out of debt, quitting smoking, and so on.
If I hadn’t learned these excuses, and how to counter them, I would never have stuck to these changes. In fact, I failed many times before 2005 (when I started changing my life), because these excuses had complete power over me.
Let’s expose the cowardly mind’s excuses and rationalizations once and for all.
First, the main principle: the mind wants comfort, and is afraid of discomfort and change. The mind is used to its comfort cocoon, and anytime we try to push beyond that comfort zone very far or for very long, the mind tries desperately to get back into the cocoon. At any cost, including our long-term health and happiness.
OK, with that in mind, let’s go into the excuses:
1. I can’t do it.
It seems too hard, so we think we can’t stick to the change. We don’t believe in ourselves. This can be countered from the fact that many other people no more capable than us have done it. For example, Oprah ran a marathon a little before I started training for my first marathon, and so I told myself, “If Oprah can do it, so can I!” I was right.
2. He/she can do it, but that doesn’t apply to me.
Just because someone else can do it, doesn’t mean we can, right? We look for reasons they can do it but we can’t — maybe he can be a minimalist because he has no kids, or is a freelancer rather than someone with a real job. Maybe she’s way, way fitter than I am, so she can run a marathon. Maybe she doesn’t have all the obligations I have, or has a supportive spouse, or doesn’t have a crippling health condition. OK, fine, it’s easy to find excuses: but look at all the other people who have worse obstacles than you who’ve done it. I have 6 kids and still managed to change a lot of things in my life. Stories abound of people with disabilities or illnesses who overcame their obstacles to achieve amazing things. Your obstacles can be overcome.
3. I need my ___.
Fill in the blank: I need my coffee, my cheese, my soda, my TV shows, my car, my shoe collection … these are things we convince ourselves we can’t live without, so we can’t make a change like becoming vegan or eating healthier or unschooling our kids or simplifying our lives or going car-free. And I’ve made these excuses myself, but they all turned out to be lies. I didn’t need any of that. The only things you really need are basic food, water, clothing, shelter, and other people for social needs. Everything else is not a real need.
4. Life is meant to be enjoyed.
Sure, I agree with this statement (as many of us would) but the problem is this is used to justify all kinds of crappy behavior. Might as well scarf down those Doritos and Twinkies, because hey, life is meant to be enjoyed, right? No. You can do without junk food and still enjoy life. You can exercise and enjoy it. You can give up pretty much anything and still enjoy life, if you learn to see almost any activity as enjoyable.
5. I need comfort.
This might also be true, but we can push ourselves into more discomfort than we let ourselves believe. We can be a bit cold, instead of needing to be at the perfect comfortable temperature. We can do hard exercise, instead of needing to lay around on the couch. We can write that thing we’ve been procrastinating on — it might be hard, but we can push through that. When our minds seek comfort, don’t let them run — push a little bit outside the comfort zone, and begin to be OK with a bit of discomfort.
6. I don’t know how.
This is also true, but you can learn. Start with a little at a time, and learn how to deal with this new change. Do some research online. Watch some videos. Ask people online how they dealt with it. This is easily overcome with a little effort and practice. In fact, if you do it now, and learn a little at a time, then you’ll be able to do away with this pesky excuse.
7. I can do it later.
Sure, you can always do it later … but your later self will also feel the same way. Why should the later self be more disciplined than your current self? In fact, because you’re allowing yourself to slide now, you’re building a habit of procrastination and actually making is less likely that your future self will be more disciplined. Instead, do it now, unless there’s something more important that you need to do … don’t let yourself slide just because you don’t feel like it.
8. One time won’t hurt.
This is so tempting, because it’s kind of true — one time won’t hurt. Assuming, that is, that it’s only one time. One bite of chocolate cake, one missed workout, one time procrastinating instead of writing. Unfortunately, it’s never actually just one time. One time means your brain now knows it can get away with this excuse, and the next “one time” leads to another, until you’re not actually sticking to something. Make a rule: never ever believe the “one time” excuse. I did this with smoking (“Not One Puff Ever”) and it worked. If you’re going to allow yourself a bite or two of chocolate cake, decide beforehand and build it into your plan (“I will allow myself a fist-sized serving of sweets once every weekend”) and stick to that plan, rather than deciding on the fly, when your resistance is weak.
9. I don’t feel like it.
Well, true. You don’t feel like working hard. Who does? Letting the rule of “I’ll do it when feel like it” dictate your life means you’ll never write that book, never build that business, never create anything great, never have healthy habits. Create a plan that’s doable, and execute it. When the rationalizations like this come up, don’t believe them. Everyone is capable of doing a hard workout even when they’re not in the mood. Everyone can overcome their internal resistance.
10. I’m tired.
Yep, me too. I still did my heavy squat workout today. There is truth to needing rest, and resting when you need it (listen to your body) but this is usually the mind trying to weasel out of something uncomfortable. There’s a difference between being exhausted and needing some rest, and being the little tired we all feel every afternoon. Push through the latter.
11. I deserve a reward/break.
We all deserve that tasty treat, or a day off. I’m not saying you shouldn’t give yourself a reward or break. But if you make this rationalization your rule, you’ll always be on a break. You’ll always be giving yourself rewards, and never sticking to the original plan. Here’s what I do instead: I see sticking to my plan as the reward itself. Going on a run isn’t the thing I have to get through to get a reward — the run is the reward.
12. Wouldn’t it be nice to stop?
This again is our mind wanting to run from discomfort, and of course it’s true — it would be nice to stop if you’re pushing into a discomfort zone for too long. The thing is, the implication is that it would be better to stop, because it would be nice … but that’s a lie. It would be easier to stop, but often it’s better to continue pushing. This excuse almost beat me when I tried to run my 50-mile ultramarathon last December, because honestly it would have been much nicer to stop and not finish the race, especially in the last 10 miles or so. I pushed through, and found out I was tougher than I thought.
13. The result you’re going for isn’t important.
If you’re trying to run a marathon, this is phrased like, “It’s not that important that I finish this”. I’ve used this excuse for learning languages (it doesn’t matter if I learn this) or programming or any number of things I wanted to learn. I’ve used it for writing and exercise and eating healthy food. And while the result might not be that important, the truth is that the process is very important. If you stick with a process that will be better for you in the long run, then you will be better off. But if you let yourself go just because you are uncomfortable and at this moment care more for your comfort than the goal you set out for, you’ll have lots of problems. The goal isn’t important, but learning to stick to things when you’re uncomfortable is extremely important.
14. I’m afraid.
Now, this is the most honest excuse there is — most of us don’t want to admit we’re afraid to pursue something difficult. But it’s also a weaselly way out of discomfort — just because you’re afraid doesn’t mean you can’t do something. You can. I’ve done tons of things I’m afraid of — mostly creating things that I was worried I’d fail at. And while the fear sometimes came true — I didn’t do too well sometimes — the act of pushing through the fear was incredibly important and I learned a lot each time.
Awareness & Practice
I’ve used all of these excuses hundreds of times each, so don’t think I’ve overcome them all. And you can use them in the future too. There’s nothing wrong with giving in sometimes.
The key is to learn whether they’re true, and see your pattern. Here’s what I’ve done:
Notice the excuse. It has way more power if it works on you in the background.
Try to have an answer for the excuse beforehand — anticipate it.
If you give in, that’s OK, but recognize that you’re giving in to a lame excuse. Be aware of what you’re doing.
After giving in, see what the results are. Are you happier? Is your life better? Was it worth it giving in to discomfort?
Learn from those results. If you pushed through and are happy about it, remember that. If you gave in to excuses, and didn’t like the result, remember that.
If you consciously practice this process, you’ll get better at recognizing and not believing these lies. And then, bam, you’ve got your mind working for you instead of against you.
The National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that one in every five U.S. adults lives with a mental illness. This number adds up to nearly 50 million people. Sadly, these numbers likely underestimate the extent of the problem.
Why is mental health important? A bit of a rhetorical question, right?
Clearly, mental health directly affects the quality of our life. Our mental health determines our productivity, feelings of self-worth, confidence, and skillfulness in navigating life’s inevitable challenges. Good mental health maximizes all of these things; poor mental health minimizes them.
If we’re stricken with poor mental health, it becomes impossible to experience life optimally. Without proper treatment or guidance – medical or otherwise – most watch as their life takes a turn for the worst. That’s because the state of our mind impacts both our life – both personally and professionally.
Fortunately, we can improve our mental health. Better yet, we needn’t rely on copious amounts of pharmaceutical drugs to do so (as valuable as these can be at times.)
In this article, we’re going to discuss four habits that can lead to better mental health.
Let’s get to it!
POOR MENTAL HEALTH HAS ALWAYS BEEN A PROBLEM
“ADHD [attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder], anxiety, depression … can be thought of as problems that have existed – and been ignored – for years.” ~ Paul Hammerness, MD, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School
While the catalysts of mental illness have changed, poor mental health has probably been a thing since homo sapiens first walked the primordial Earth.
Whereas in days of yore humans were concerned about wild animal attacks and having enough food, today we’re fretting about time, money, family, and career. Most likely, a combination of all these things.
FIGHT OR FLIGHT
There is something that connects these two distinct periods, however: the brain.
Neuroscientists state that the structure of the human brain has remained mostly unchanged over the past 500,000 years. Ten thousand years ago, our brains actually shrank. The past century has resulted in a “brain size rebound,” a byproduct of better nutrition and less disease brought on by the industrial revolution.
We can attribute some of the more modern mental illnesses – anxiety and depression, mainly – to the brain’s relatively static development. The harsh living conditions of our distant ancestors required an ever-alert brain mechanism that could quickly respond to threatening stimuli.
Brain experts call this mechanism the Fight-or-Flight response. Others call it hyperarousal or acute stress response.
The ‘FoF’ response is critical to human survival, even now. If you’ve ever been in a situation of sudden, extreme danger – and had to take quick action to ensure your survival – then you’ve had first-hand experience with the FoF response.
The truth is that we’ve all had, to a greater or lesser degree, some experience with FoF. If you’ve ever suffered from an anxiety disorder, you felt the constant agitation. If you’ve ever had to act to avoid danger, you’ve felt the flood of adrenaline that accompanies FoF activation.
In all of these situations, you no doubt noticed an involuntary, unconscious state of arousal. That’s the FoF. Early humans, no doubt, also saw the unpleasantness associated with an overactive FoF response – which was passed along to us.
THE CAUSE OF MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES
While FoF plays a significant role in the state of our mental health, it’s far from the only influencer.
Neurotransmitters, chemicals that act as signaling molecules in the brain, also have a substantial effect on our mental health. While scientists posited this correlation a long time ago, it wasn’t until recently that SPECT imaging studies all but confirmed the relationship.
Any imbalance of the four primary neurotransmitters – serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline, and GABA – can lead to sub-optimal mental states, possibly mental illness.
4 HABITS THAT IMPROVE MENTAL HEALTH
“You have the power over your mind – not outside events.
Realize this, and you will find strength.”
~ Marcus Aurelius
1 – OBSERVE YOUR MIND
Metacognition is actively observing your mental processes and understanding habitual emotional reactive patterns. It’s also a crucial component of good mental health.
If you’ve ever sat back and wondered why in the heck your mind is making so much noise, then you know what metacognition is. You’ve also made a crucial and potentially life-changing discovery: you are not your mind or feelings.
Rather, you are the awareness behind the thoughts and feelings. When you recognize and embrace this fact, you can observe the activity of our mind at a distance – as a passive ‘witness.’ You may even start to get curious about the inner-workings of your mind, and it’s this attitude that will lead to a transformation.
While it’s possible to observe your mind amid daily life, it’s often difficult – especially at first. This is where a regular meditation practice can help.
Try taking 15-20 minutes at the start of each day to sit and allow your mind to become quiet.
2 – SLOW DOWN
“The soft overcomes the hard. The slow overcomes the fast.” ~ Lao-tzu
Okay, so this sounds like commonsensical gibberish nonsense. “What? Slow down? That’s it?”
Okay, then why do we fail at things repeatedly?
Reason #1: society has taught us that frenzied action is the same as productivity. Not only is this untrue, but it’s also potentially disastrous to our mental and physical health.
Slowing down – more specifically, not rushing – can have a powerful impact on our state of mind. Things still get accomplished, and with much less stress. Often, you’ll find that slowing down and focusing on one task at a time (see ‘Single-tasking’ next) not only improves the quality of your work but, ironically, can increase the pace at which things get done!
Practice performing one task a day slowly. Put all of your attention on the job – washing the dishes, showering, vacuuming, etc. – and while doing the activity gradually and deliberately.
3 – SINGLE TASK
“He did each single thing, as if he did nothing else.” ~ Charles Dickens
Few things have been more damaging to our state of mind than multitasking. How harmful is it? Well, per a study conducted by researchers at Michigan State University, participants who multitasked using multiple forms of entertainment media “showed symptoms of anxiety and depression” based on mental health surveys.
Did you get that? Multitasking – even with entertainment – causes symptoms that mimic those of anxiety and depression!
The truth of the matter is that not only is multitasking a myth; it’s also stress-inducing and harmful.
The human brain simply is not meant for multitasking. When we perform a job, our neural circuitry is concentrated around that task – and that task only. It is incapable of diverting mental resources to a secondary task.
Unless, say, we’re talking about chewing gum and walking at the same time.
Instead, make it a habit to focus your attention single-mindedly on each task. Not only is this a more effective way of living, but it’s also much more peaceful.
4 – BE COMPASSIONATE TOWARDS YOURSELF
“If compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.” ~ Jack Kornfield
Most people have good hearts. Although the media may try to convince you otherwise (their motto is “Bad news sells” after all) there is plenty of good happening in the world.
Since most people have good hearts, most of us are compassionate by nature. When someone is visibly hurting, we will often try to comfort and console.
But one problem that so many of us have is this: we don’t extend our compassionate nature to ourselves.
Indeed, each one of us is our own worst critic. We don’t even think about self-compassion. Many people live their entire lives without ever once practicing self-love or compassion.
To deny yourself some compassion is not only wrong; it is harmful to your mental wellbeing.
How do you practice self-compassion? Try picturing yourself as a child. If you have a picture of when you were a kid, take a good look at it.
Would you ever want this individual to suffer? Of course not. Talk to that inner child with compassion and love. How do you feel during and afterward?
FINAL THOUGHTS ON IMPROVING YOUR MENTAL HEALTH
In short, you hold the key to unlocking better mental health right there in your hand. All that’s left for you is to flick open that lock.
New research may provide an answer for why many people say life gets better with age. A new study by Australian investigators suggests this may be because older people have the wisdom and time to use mindfulness as a means to improve wellbeing.
Healthy aging researchers at Flinders University say certain characteristics of mindfulness seem more strongly evident in older people compared to younger people. The new findings may help people of all ages better deal with life circumstances.
Mindfulness refers to the natural human ability to be aware of one’s experiences and to pay attention to the present moment in a purposeful, receptive and non-judgmental way. Using mindful techniques can be instrumental in reducing stress and promoting positive psychological outcomes.
From middle age to old age, the Flinders University survey highlights the tendency to focus on the present-moment. The strategy to adopt a non-judgmental orientation may become especially important for well-being with advancing age.
“This suggests that mindfulness may naturally develop with time and life experience,” says behavioral scientist Associate Professor Tim Windsor. Windsor co-authored the study which was based on an online community survey of 623 participants, aged between 18 and 86 years.
The study, ‘Older and more mindful? Age differences in mindfulness components and well-being,’ appears online in Aging and Mental Health.
“The significance of mindfulness for wellbeing may also increase as we get older, in particular the ability to focus on the present moment and to approach experiences in a non-judgmental way.
“These characteristics are helpful in adapting to age-related challenges and in generating positive emotions.”
In one of the first age-related studies of its kind, the researchers assessed participants’ mindful qualities such as present-moment attention, acceptance, non-attachment and examined the relationships of these qualities with wellbeing more generally.
“The ability to appreciate the temporary nature of personal experiences may be particularly important for the way people manage their day-to-day goals across the second half of life,” says study lead author Leeann Mahlo. Mahlo is investigating mindfulness in older adulthood as part of her PhD research.
“We found that positive relationships between aspects of mindfulness and wellbeing became stronger from middle age onwards,” she says.“Our findings suggest that if mindfulness has particular benefits in later life, this could be translated into tailored training approaches to enhanced wellbeing in older populations.”
Mindfulness skills can help build wellbeing at any age, adds Mahlo. Tips to develop mindful techniques include:
• Becoming aware of our thoughts and surroundings and paying attention to the present moment in an open and nonjudgmental way. This can prevent us from focusing on the past or worrying about the future in unhelpful ways.
• Understanding that our thoughts, feelings and situations exist in the moment and will not last. This can help us to respond in flexible, more optimistic ways to challenging circumstances, including those that we are facing with concerns related to COVID-19.
• Finding out more about mindfulness via app-based programs such as Calm, Headspace, Insight Timer, Smiling Mind, and Stop, Breathe & Think. These are available for use on computers or smartphones and offer flexible ways of learning and practicing mindfulness — including for people now spending more time at home.
Mindfulness practice, at its core, is the opposite of an anxious mind.
What Is Mindfulness?
“There have been many tragedies in my life, but most of them have not happened.” —Mark Twain
Anxiety lives in fears of the future that haven’t happened yet. How often does what you worry about actually happen? Take a second to reflect on the last spiral of worry that took over you. While bad things do happen, the odds are that it was much worse in your mind than what happened or what may happen.
The truth is, most of what we worry about never happens. We’re hardwired to be perceiving and responding to threats. It’s what has kept us alive evolutionarily; other mammals can fight with fangs and claws, but we are “thinking mammals.” We can hardly spend a few moments without thinking. This makes sense, as it’s what has kept us alive. This often causes an emergency response, despite the veracity of the actual threat.
Fear (the core of anxiety, really) is our body’s ancient response to perceived peril, no matter how negligible it actually is. It can present itself as a stress-related physical symptom, making us desperate to get rid of it. This constant state of worry and threat-scanning and detection can wear us down. This can make us avoid any danger signs, even when they often are just signs.
Unfortunately, this is often a trap. What we constantly avoid, we strengthen (i.e., the confrontational conversation or passing by the area where you were robbed), reinforcing its danger, no matter how harmless it may be and usually is.
Our propensity to plan, especially when it stems from anxiety, can also easily become excessive and counterproductive, taking us away from the pleasure and richness of the moment, the only time we can actually feel joy, happiness, pleasure, and peace. We’re also conditioned by capitalism to look for the next thing, taking us away from the now, and everything is usually OK right now unless it’s an emergency or crisis. This is where mindfulness comes in.
Mindfulness practices rewire the brain toward savoring the present moment, instead of dwelling on anxiety, which is often living the state of perceived fears. In mindfulness practice, we learn the wisdom in prioritizing. Things that we’re worrying about often aren’t urgent.
It’s easy to forget you have time to deal with many of the stressors you chronically worry about, and you’ve dealt with them well your whole life! In fact, thinking about bad things happening is worse than just dealing with them! Showing up 20 minutes late to the event wasn’t that bad after all, right?
Worry can also, covertly, feel enjoyable; it’s easy to worry even when everything is OK now. I’m personally an expert at this. The mind can think that worry is what prevented something bad from happening, which can mistakenly reinforce it, despite its factual falseness. Worry often tricks us into thinking we’re “taking action” to prevent danger, when we may actually be reinforcing it.
Mindfulness practice helps you see and prevent these mental pitfalls from decreasing your unnecessary suffering and worrying. What can be better than that? When stuck in traffic, do you want to be fuming like everyone else, or kicking back, relaxing, at ease, savoring life’s blessings? Mindfulness reveals this choice for you, no matter how elusive it felt prior.
Jason Linder, MA, LMFT, is a licensed bilingual (Spanish-speaking) therapist and doctoral (PsyD) candidate at the California School of Professional Psychology in San Diego.
What is mindfulness?
The modern mindfulness is the brainchild of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, an American professor emeritus of medicine. He defines it as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”
In simpler terms, mindfulness helps sustain attention to feelings, emotions and thoughts in the present moment without getting carried away by them. Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism, and from an ancient tradition, it has evolved into a modern mind training. It is a quality that some people possess naturally, but it can also be trained and improved. Mindfulness is the bridge in between our mind and present moment that helps us understand and better react to stressful, overwhelming situations.
Benefits of mindfulness
Mindfulness is a powerful practice that can help with improving wellbeing in terms of physical and mental health. From the physical point of view, mindfulness training can help with stress relief, lowering blood pressure, reducing pain and improving sleep. Mindfulness gives people a larger perspective on life, clear thinking and patience. Our minds don’t have switch off buttons for unwanted thoughts; however, it is possible to train yourself to control them. Systematic training improves focus attention and concentration. It results in having more energy to become fully engaged in important activities of everyday life instead of getting carried away by worries and intrusive thoughts. Mindfulness meditation helps develop better resilience and can help people recover faster from tension and stress.
Research on mindfulness has been expanding rapidly in the last decades. The evidence for the benefits of mindfulness is promising and proven in several trials with clinical and social applications.
People have their mind wandering almost 50 percent of the time they are awake. That means their mind is not where their body is; instead, they’re thinking about things that happened in the past, could happen in the future or might never happen at all – all while being involved in many other daily tasks. Evidence suggests that a wandering mind leads to unhappiness.
However, the brain can be trained to sustain focus and attention in the present moment. Introducing mindfulness training in daily routines has the potential to improve mental and overall health treatment outcomes.
Clinical applications of the mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) have proven to be effective in several studies and trials. Researchers report that MBCT can decrease the severity of depression symptoms of currently depressed patients in just eight weeks. A number of trials show a positive effect of mindfulness on brain changes and immune responsivity, and even influence the healing process of skin diseases related to psychological stress. In the context of mental health, mindfulness encourages people to develop a more compassionate and accepting relationship with their own thoughts and feelings.
There are many mindfulness techniques, but all of them focus on the same: paying attention and accepting your thoughts on purpose, without judgement. You can practice mindfulness where and when you want; it doesn’t necessarily need to be a lengthy process and can take a couple of minutes – on your break from work, for example.
Mindfulness starts with posture. You can choose whether you want to sit comfortably, lay down or even walk, but you need to have your back straight. You continue with breathing exercises and scanning your body. By focusing on your physical sensations, you can switch to focusing on sensory aspects as sounds, smells and touches. It’s important to observe the feelings and thoughts you’re having without judgement and let them go.
This focusing exercise is just an example of many meditation techniques. Guided meditations are popular and can be easily accessed on many resources online.
Let’s imagine that you’re a reasonably healthy adult with all of your basic needs met, people who care about you in your life, and things you enjoy doing available to you … you should be pretty happy, right?
It turns out, even in this incredibly lucky scenario, most of us still struggle — stress, anxiety, frustration, overwhelm, letting ourselves and others down, disappointment, hurt feelings, anger, feeling like you’re always behind … it all creates a sense of unease that is not aligned with our fortunate circumstances.
So how do we go about enjoying life, finding a sense of peace and calm and purposeful focus?
I’ve found mindfulness practices to be the key. They’re not a magical solution to anything, but they do ease the suffering we experience in our lives.
Those of you who who have practiced meditation for awhile know what I’m talking about. Let’s look at a few ways to deepen into the practice, if you’re interested.
Step 1: Drop Into Direct Experience of the Moment
Most of us are caught up in our thoughts about our lives, ourselves, other people, the world around us … most of the time. We’re stuck in a movie in our minds, a storyline or narrative about the situation. This causes all of our trouble — frustration, disappointment, stress, anxiety, overwhelm, unhappiness.
The practice here is to drop into the direct experience of the moment. Not the thoughts about the moment (though those will come up), but the actual sensations happening in the moment.
You might notice the sensations present in different parts of your body, including how your breath feels, but also how your torso feels, seeing what you can notice in your neck and head, in your arms and legs. You might notice the sensation of air on your skin, or ground beneath your feet. You might notice sounds or light or colors or shapes.
Whenever you notice yourself caught up in thoughts or ideas, in a narrative or fantasies … drop back into the direct experience of the present moment. Experience everything with beginner’s mind, as if this were the first time you ever experienced this before.
This is a practice that you can get better at, returning again and again to direct experience. You move from concepts and thoughts and ideas and storylines, to direct experience. Just observe, just notice, just be curious.
If you’re feeling frustrated or stressed, try this and see if it shifts anything for you. See if you’re caught up less and present more.
Practice this for at least a month (though it’s really a lifetime practice).
Step 2: Bring a Sense of Friendliness Towards the Experience
After you’ve practiced dropping into direct experience … you might try a new way of relating to that direct experience.
Instead of just noticing as an impartial observer … see if you can bring a feeling of warmth, friendliness, gentleness, kindness, even love to your relating to this direct experience.
For example, if you see someone on the street, you can just notice that there’s a person there … or you can feel a friendliness towards them. Welcoming them into your experience like you would welcome someone warmly into your house.
In the same way, you can bring a friendliness and warmth and welcoming towards anything you notice in your direct experience. You notice the sensation of air on your skin, and you might feel friendly towards these sensations. The same with anything you hear, see, smell, touch. The same with how you notice nature all around you, or sensations in your body.
It’s a continuation of the practice of direct experience, but with a shift in how you relate — it’s unconditional friendliness to anything you bring your awareness towards.
Practice this for at least a month as well.
Step 3: Drop the Sense of Self, and Motivation from Gain & Loss
Once you’ve practiced the two steps above, you’ll be grounded in a view of reality that is much more free of conceptions and storylines, more open and unconstrained.
The next step is to notice that when you’re in direct experience, there is no self. I mean, there’s a body and brain, but it’s not separate from everything around it — it’s interconnected, not identifiable as something distinct from the world around it. Just as you might pick a drop of water in the ocean and say, “This is a separate drop of water!” … it’s only separate in our minds, in concept. In reality, it’s not separate but a part of everything around it.
This might sound pretty philosophical, but what is very real is noticing whether everything you do is motivated by a desire for gain or desire to avoid a loss. For example, you might want someone’s praise or affection (gain), or you might want to avoid them getting mad at you (loss). You might be scrolling through and posting in social media looking for validation (gain) or worried about missing out (loss). You might buy something because of how you think it will make you look or feel (gain) or because you’re feeling worried or insecure about a situation (loss).
All of these actions motivated by a sense of gain and loss are completely normal — we all do it. But they all come from a sense of separate self — we are trying to gain something for the self, trying to avoid a loss for the self. Helping this separate self get what it wants or avoid what it doesn’t want becomes our biggest activity and goal in life. It is what makes us frustrated or angry when we don’t get what we want, or hurt or sad when we get what we don’t want, or anxious or stressed when we might gain or lose something.
Being motivated by gain or loss is what causes our struggles in life. And that stems from the sense of separate self.
What’s another way? Dropping the sense of separate self. Just being present with direct experience. Feeling a friendliness and even love for everything and everyone around us. And then being motivated by that love — I act from a place of love and compassion for everyone around me (myself included, but not only myself).
Try it! It’s an incredible practice. Be directly with your experience, dropping your sense of self, of separateness from everything around you. Start to appreciate how connected you are to the world — you breathe in air from the world, eat food from the world, drink water and get information and heat and clothes and shelter and love from everything and everyone around you. You’re completely interconnected and interdependent. Dropping the conception of self, like you drop other concepts, return to direct experience.
And then watch your actions and see if they’re motivated by a desire for gain or desire to avoid loss. See if you can come from a place of love and compassion for everyone in the world, every living being. It’s a really powerful place to be moved from.
I’ve signed up to get emotionally attacked by my phone every day. Along with hundreds of thousands of people, I get a daily notification from the astrology app Co-Star. It sends an A.I.-generated nugget of wisdom based on what my horoscope and the message is usually ruthless.
“Who do you trust with your most intense feelings?” Co-Star asked me recently. The question stunned me so much that I had to sit down to think about it. When I could think of no one, I ended up booking my first therapist appointment in months.
“Taking the time to correct a friend’s behaviour is an act of love,” the app quipped. I realized that I was holding back from talking to an acquaintance about a hurtful remark they made because of how much I hate confrontation.
I’m no masochist and would be mortified if anyone talked to me like Co-Star does. But I won’t be deleting the app anytime soon. These regular roasts serve an important function in my life that little else can: they force me to self-reflect on my emotional blind spots that erode my relationships.
What is a blind spot?
Emotional blind spots cause life obstacles that aren’t visible to us, but are obvious to others. Maybe you never apologize authentically because accepting blame makes you feel bad. Or you could be a habitual people-pleaser, to the detriment of your stress levels. This hard-wired obliviousness is often due to our cognitive biases. Our brains are constantly filtering endless amounts of information, making them prone to decision-making shortcuts that are based on memories and emotions rather than rational thinking.
When it comes to uncomfortable situations or interactions, our cognitive biases are likely to kick in and lead to reactions that are unhealthy for us or the people we care about. But like rear-view mirrors, there are tools that can help us spot what obstructs our judgement.
Find a blind spot
Listen to how others describe you. Counsellor Kevin Beauchamp advises keeping an ear out for “the just factor:” it’s when your social circles use the word “just” before referring to you as an excuse for your behaviour.
“That’s just Paul, he gets angry … She doesn’t take feedback well, that’s just the way she is,” he gives as examples.
Mindfulness exercises can also unearth uncomfortable truths. Oprah Magazine recommends looking at patterns in bad relationships and listing what makes you unhappy in your current ones. If it seems like all your exes have the same negative quality, it might be time to question the common denominator. For example, if you blame former lovers for never knowing how you feel, it could be that you’re prone to shutting loved ones out.
Mood-tracking can also be revealing. Should certain encounters frequently make you feel unhappy or if certain statements about your life (from friends or astrology apps alike) cause you to double-take, you might be able to trace your mood to a warped line of thinking you regularly fall into.
OK, I know my personality flaw. How do I change it?
Counsellor and mental health journalist Kathleen Smith writes we should question some personal adages. These might look like:
I must be loved at all times.
I must avoid all conflict.
I must have control over everything.
If you find yourself agreeing with statements that support an “I must” mentality, it’s worth asking yourself why and work towards proving that statement wrong.
This can be easier said than done. But our personalities are a lot more flexible than we think.
University of Cambridge psychologist Brian R. Little studied the “personal projects” people undertake in the pursuit of changing themselves, such as getting over social anxiety by volunteering. Little found they could eventually change their personality traits permanently, as long as their project was something they really cared about.
You can do this by setting attainable goals related to your shortcomings. A 14-week long study suggests that participants who kept challenging themselves to change were more successful than those who just expressed a desire to be different.
For those who want to be less neurotic, study author and psychologist Nathan Hudson said activities like saying positive affirmations can directly intervene in one’s neurotic thought process.
Personal project ideas for common blind spots
You don’t need to step completely out of your comfort zone to change your personality. Starting small and being consistent are key steps to making progress:
Trying to be less avoidant? Send a difficult message over text, instead of saying it in-person.
Want to be less self-critical? Say three compliments every time you have a negative thought about yourself.
Quick to anger in an argument? Before replying, slow down your breathing and consider the other person’s perspective.
Trying to listen more? Pay attention to how much others speak and ask questions about what they bring up.
20 Ideas For 2020 is our month-long series that explores easy ways to take action on the ideas and changes you may have already been thinking about.
Self-Care For Leaders: 2 Mindfulness Steps To Silence Your Inner Critic
“What will they think of me?,” “I’m not good enough,” “I am lazy,” “What if I fail?,” “I am overwhelmed at work.” “Everyone is more beautiful, smarter, stronger, thinner.” “I can never be a good leader.”
Our minds seem to have an infinite supply of critical comments. And those comments are hard to ignore. They distract us and they limit us and they even interfere with our ability to enjoy a peaceful sleep. To be clear, I am not talking about our ability to reflect on where we are in life, and assess our strengths and weaknesses so we can choose what we might want to change. That ability is fundamental to our growth as a human being.
The inner critic is different. It is not constructive and it does not deal with the facts. It is a story-teller. And when we feed the words of the inner critic, the story becomes a full-length feature film that keeps us frozen to the status quo. We begin to believe the criticisms. And those critical comments have the power to prevent us from following our dreams, or taking the chances needed to find happiness or love or success. They can also begin to make us feel sad or anxious.
So, how can mindfulness help?
Begin by calling to mind an example of an inner critic statement. As you do so, notice if other thoughts start to pop up to enhance the statement, or if you start feeling any sensations of discomfort in your body. Are they familiar? When else do you notice those thoughts or feelings?
Now see if you can meet those words and thoughts with this sentence: “This may or may not be true.” Once again pay attention to sensations and feelings that arise.
There is no need for you to try to deny the critical comment, it is enough to simply begin to generate some spaciousness around it. You are beginning to develop a different relationship to the words that pop into your head. And with that shift, some spaciousness begins to develop and some of the weightiness begins to lift. What decisions will you make now that all that chatter in your head is beginning to quiet down?
This post is the second in a series on Self Care. The first post looked at ways to get a better night’s sleep Self Care for Leaders.
There is simply no magic pill when it comes to becoming a more positive person. Everything behind what they do can be boiled down to one word: mindset.
To become more positive, especially in negative work environments that strip you of your joy and dignity, you have to engage the negative forces that surround you with three weapons of positivity.
1. Develop your self-awareness.
Self-awareness is a weapon used to protect you from yourself and your shortcomings. Remember to first inspect whether you’re the source of negative behavior. For example, are you a gossiper? If so, ask yourself three questions:
How does it make me feel when I spread rumors?
Why do I need to have this feeling?
What does the behavior of talking bad behind someone’s back reveal to others about my own attitude?
This is where a boost of self-awareness does wonders. If you’re like most people bent on becoming more positive, you’ll probably gain some insight into how you are perceived when spreading gossip.
While getting to the core of your attitude and why it influences your behavior isn’t a cure-all solution, it’s a great first step to positivity. It also helps to expose the things that you’ve been hiding from yourself.
2. Break down your negative support systems.
Now that you’ve gained self-awareness, your next weapon is used to scan the landscape to determine what support systems are in place that reinforce negative attitudes and behaviors.
In the workplace, you’ll often find pockets of people and outdated management practices (like micromanagement or controlling behaviors) that often support and feed a toxic work culture.
Sticking with the theme of gossip, a willingness to actively participate in it and listen to circles of gossip is an example of how you may be feeding into the negative support system that fuels toxicity.
One weapon of positivity to counter this type of stronghold is to outright reject any association with negative forces that don’t promote the values of respect, trust, and accountability.
Plan to attack negative behaviors at the spot where they’re weakest. For example, if you really want to stop being around gossip, put limits on those who do it. Turn down lunch invitations from gossiping peers and co-workers, and walk away from sidebar and parking lot conversations that are beckoning to suck you into the negativity.
3. Have positive substitutes for negative behaviors.
Finally, replace those negative support systems with positive options that will deliver better results. We’re talking here about intentionally seeking out work relationships with positive people who share the very values that lead to healthy collaboration, safe work engagement, and energizing productivity.
You’ll know these positive people after a while; they’re the ones who have strict boundaries themselves and never get sucked into negativity. They think ahead about how to improve a bad situation, take accountability for their actions, and move toward contributing to solutions to organizational problems with positive intent.
By Marcel Schwantes Principal and founder, Leadership From the Core@MarcelSchwantes
These tips can help you stop projecting your less-flattering traits onto other people.
Expert Source: Psychotherapist and clinical psychologist Joseph Burgo, PhD, author of Why Do I Do That? Psychological Defense Mechanisms and the Hidden Ways They Shape Our Lives.
Cranky existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote, “Hell is other people,” and we’ve all felt this way from time to time. Especially when the snide comments of a coworker, a friend’s constant complaining, or our sister’s endless bossiness annoy us to distraction. If only they would change, we think, we’d find some peace.
We’re often wrong about that. In a process psychologists call projection, we attribute traits we dislike in ourselves to other people. Then those people drive us crazy when they remind us of qualities that we’re trying to suppress.
“Parts of ourselves don’t simply disappear when we disown them,” explains psychotherapist Joseph Burgo, PhD, author of Why Do I Do That?
Shouting “I could never be like that!” in response to an annoying person helps deflect attention from the part of us that is actually like that. And even if the other person renounces his or her unpleasant behavior forevermore, someone else will come along and trip that trigger — at least until we accept that we’re rejecting it in ourselves. This process is part of what Burgo calls our “innate tendency toward integration.”
Learning to identify projection, Burgo says, is enough to stop it in its tracks — and prevent it from harming our relationships. He offers some tips on how to get a handle on this sneaky psychological defense mechanism.
Challenges to Overcome
• Ego. We tend to believe we’re mostly perfect, which has its drawbacks. “When we encounter something that challenges this idealized view of ourselves,” Burgo says, “we’re much more likely to blame it on other people than to own it.”
• Lack of awareness. The projection response is largely unconscious, he notes. Until we notice its signs in our mind and body — physical tension, mental obsession — we’ll be unaware that we’re doing it.
• Psychic resistance. The whole point of projection is to offload feelings that we don’t want to feel — usually aggression, sadness, shame — onto others. So, it’s natural that we resist owning up to our feelings and the role we are playing in a difficult relationship. “We’re not particularly interested in taking back the projections because they’re painful,” he says.
• Habit. If we’ve been projecting for years onto a person or group, the pattern may be so ingrained that it operates like a “built-in defense,” says Burgo.
• Exhaustion. We’re more likely to project our feelings onto others when we’re tired, tense, stressed, or feeling rundown.
• Our real shortcomings. “There are always ways in which we fall short,” Burgo notes, “so trying to maintain a sense of self-worth can be challenging. It’s much easier to blame other people than to struggle with our own feelings of shame or disappointment.”
• The real shortcomings of others. The people who bug us are not perfect either; they may well be displaying antisocial or inappropriate behavior. Distinguishing the difference between our “stuff” and theirs isn’t easy.
• Dehumanization. When we project, says Burgo, we turn the other person into a symbol: the Bossy Jerk or the Needy Wreck. “They become a personification of the thing you’re getting rid of. Rather than being a whole person with whom you might be able to empathize, they become a kind of caricature.”
Strategies for Success
• Notice preoccupation. Projection has characteristics that distinguish it from mere irritation, says Burgo, and chief among these is an “inability to let go of our focus on the other person.” This comes with intense feelings and a conviction that you are not like that person or group at all. “It’s a kind of mental blaming and self-justification that can go on and on and on.”
• Look inward. Projection is, by definition, a turning outward. The first step in overcoming it, he says, is to make the shift to self-awareness. Take stock of how you’re feeling, how you’re breathing, and so on. This will help interrupt your obsessive focus on the “problem” person and redirect your attention to where it can do some good.
• Calm yourself. “Focus on your breathing to stop the word-chatter in your head that’s justifying the projections,” Burgo advises. Take a few breaths in on a count of four, and exhale on a count of eight. This is a simple and effective way to settle yourself down.
• Notice your body. When he senses he may be projecting, Burgo does a body scan, checking “my back and shoulders where I carry tension, around my eyes where I register fatigue and sadness, in my belly where I feel hunger and other kinds of longing.” He suggests noticing these sensations without trying to explain them in relation to someone else — which can be challenging.
• Get real. Burgo acknowledges that difficult people may well possess the same negative traits you disavow in yourself. “We often project into reality, meaning that if we’re a very critical person, we’ll project it onto someone who actually is critical,” he explains. “But they’re not only critical, and you need to try to see them in their full humanity. And if they are truly toxic, you need to shield yourself from them rather than making use of them to disown parts of yourself you don’t like.”
• Trade places with the other. Burgo suggests asking yourself, “How would I feel if I knew somebody else was thinking about me the way I’m thinking about X or Y?” This can help convert the other person from a symbol of what you don’t like (in yourself!) into a human being who, like you, is probably just doing the best he or she can.
This originally appeared as “Own Up” in the September 2017 print issue of Experience Life.
Jon Spayde is an Experience Life contributing editor.
How many times have you said to yourself, “I had a bad feeling about this. I just wish I had listened to my gut!” You don’t have to be a psychic to tune in to your inner voice, and it can help you make better decisions in every area of your life.
Are intuition and instinct the same thing?
“People who think intuition comes from the unconscious may be confusing it with instinct,” says Seana Moran, EdD, a developmental psychologist at Clark University. Dr. Moran gives the instinctive, fight-or-flight stress response as an example of the body’s inherent, instinctual responses. “As opposed to the instincts expressed through our bodies, intuition is our mind’s automated response to multiple situations. It is often based on learning a task so well that it becomes natural,” she explains. Instincts, like the fight-or-flight response, are often triggered by chemical responses in the nervous system. Here are some weird things which may trigger it.
So, if it’s not an instinct, what is intuition, exactly?
Many experts say that intuition is a type of sixth sense that can help steer you toward a good decision if you let it. It may sound airy-fairy intangible, but in reality, intuition is a fine-tuned muscle you can develop over time based on learning from your experiences and environmental clues. “Intuition is, ‘I just know.’ It’s involved in the ‘aha!’ moment when a good idea suddenly comes to mind,” says Dr. Moran, who thinks of intuition as a confident decision that does not result from conscious analysis, logic, or deliberate steps. “It’s involved in everyday behaviors that have been overlearned, and are done automatically, such as brushing teeth, or riding a bike,” she adds. She cites Nobel Laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who refers to intuition as fast thinking that we feel internally, as an immediate answer. Multiple studies, including a 2006 study at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences substantiate this claim.
Learning how to flex the intuition muscle
“I think like a lot of things, intuition takes practice,” says therapist Phoebe Farber, PhD. Dr. Farber thinks of intuition as a visceral sense that can aid in your decision-making if you pay attention to it. “Say you’re meeting someone for the first time,” she explains. “You pick up on something about them that doesn’t sit right with you but the person is friendly, so you stop thinking about your first reaction. Later on, you realize that something was wrong, after all, and that your inner voice was trying to tell you. I’ve had situations when I didn’t pay attention to that feeling and then, it wasn’t OK,” she explains. The more you use your intuition, the easier it gets. According to data from Civic Science, a marketing agency, the experiences you acquire over your lifetime also help. That’s why older individuals tend to “trust their gut” more often than young adults do. Civic Science’s main findings indicate that 84 percent of Americans believe in intuition, but that those who don’t believe in trusting that sixth sense are more likely to be under 18. The group also found that people who do believe in intuition are more likely to have kids, jobs, and a spouse. They’re also typically 35 to 54 years old.
Gut, mind, or muscle memory—where does intuition live?
Whether you think of your intuition as a gut instinct, or the accumulation of sensory input activating the median orbito-frontal cortex of the brain, intuition may be hard to identify, and even harder to grasp. There’s even some research indicating that intuition may reside in, or at least impact, the heart. No matter where you believe your intuition lives, it’s important that you learn how to work this all-important, albeit intangible, muscle.
Learning how to listen to that inner voice
Think about all the stimuli around you at all times. “So much is coming in—so much sensation—that we’re saturated with it, and this can create a level of unconsciousness about how we take in the world that we’re completely unaware of,” Dr. Farber explains. “That unconscious osmosis is really important because it gives us significant information we can use to guide our conscious decision-making.” Dr. Farber meditates daily, which helps her tune in to her intuitive thoughts and feelings. “Quieting the noise may be as simple as paying attention to your sensations, reactions, and feelings, so you can slow yourself down, and not go on automatic pilot,” she suggests. Practicing meditation, yoga, and deep breathing are all ways to help yourself quiet down. Exercise, saunas, and even hot steamy baths, may help. The less chaos you let affect you, the more you’re able to connect with your intuitive self.
I think, therefore I am (unable to tune into my intuition)
The biggest enemy of intuition is another bane of modern life—overthinking. “If we reasoned our way through every decision or behavior, our minds would gridlock on processing all the details that need to be coordinated,” Dr Moran says. “Take, for example, walking. We learned to walk as toddlers, and now our bodies know how, so we don’t consciously think about it anymore. Same with speaking or writing or eating. As a result, intuition could be considered the after-effect of overthinking, or over-learning.” Overthinking eliminates your ability to tap into intuition.
Can intuition make you more successful at work?
You know that person in the boardroom who always seems to be one step ahead of everyone else? A lot of that may be due to good old-fashioned elbow grease, but intuition, and the confidence it brings, are probably playing a big role. Huffingtonpost.com reported on the 10 things that highly intuitive people do differently than the average worker, and one of them is that they listen to their instincts. The article also quotes Steve Jobs as saying that intuition is more effective in business than intellect is. You’ve probably spent most of your life trying to learn as much as you can, with good results. Tapping into your intuitive sense, however, in addition to the knowledge and skills you’ve already acquired, may very well make you unstoppable. Here are some additional strategies successful people use at work every day.
Can intuition make you more successful at love?
What if there really is such a thing as love at first sight? Could it be that your inner voice can identify the person who will be good for you instantaneously? For some, the answer may be yes, and for others, not so much. But the next time you see that person across a crowded room, you might want to try trusting your gut instead of tuning it out and listening instead to the unending parade of thoughts that often accompany those meetings. Instinctual thought works the same way in all situations, by culling, instantaneously, your past experiences and environmental clues. Whether the person you’re meeting is a future boss or a future husband, your gut instinct has no choice but to operate on your behalf. Once you learn how to connect with it, it won’t steer you wrong.