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Just Needing a Holiday or Burnt Out

The word burnout is one of the buzz words of 2021. I hear it from clients in coaching sessions. I hear it from organisations concerned at the demands COVID has placed on its’ people.  It is hardly surprising. COVID has placed people under multiple life pressures,  with boundaries between work and home broken, and no certainty about what will follow. The word signals that people are reaching their energy limits, but does it mean you are burnt out? You may be pressured; you may be stressed but are you burnout?

It was in 1974 that Dr Herbert Freudenberger coined the term. He saw it as a chronic affliction of the overachiever: people who are so driven to achieve that they work to the exclusion of other parts of their life, denying signs that their way of working is detrimental to their physical and mental health.  Tim Casserley, who himself burnt out whilst working for a global consultancy, concluded in his book, ‘Learning from Burnout’, that it is caused by a collision of individuals with high needs to achieve, being attracted to environments which make high demands and which reward excessive levels of commitment.  Are you that person?

Is Burnout Just Exhaustion?

Burnout is more than exhaustion, though this is often how people talk about themselves in relation to their work.  We can be exhausted by an intensive period of work, and recover through taking a holiday or working on a less demanding project. Burnout is more.

When the World Health Organisation defined burnout in 2019, it drew attention to 3 dimensions that need to be in place:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativity or cynicism related to one’s work.
  3. Reduced professional performance.

It is the coming together of all 3 that leads to burnout. Being overextended in one’s role can lead to exhaustion.  Being disengaged from one’s work can lead to cynicism. Being out of one’s depth leads to reduced performance. It is when all 3 come together that a red flag is waved.

The Body Control  If the Head Cannot

Those most at risk of burnout are often skilled in ignoring the signs that all is not well. The signs build slowly as the body recognising that the person is operating under stress,  engages the sympathetic nervous system to put the body into a state of fight or flight. The pituitary gland is signalled to send the hormone ACTH to the adrenal glands, which then allows for the release of adrenalin and cortisol. These provide the short-term stimulus the body needs to deal with the immediate stressor, but these hormones are only intended for short term use. They are not designed to be engaged day after day, week after week, month after month. Over time, the adrenal glands become exhausted and unable to respond. It is at that point that the physical signs of burn out start to appear:

  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability and anger
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Weight gain around the middle
  • Lowered immune system showing up in viruses and frequent colds
  • Headaches, stomach, digestive and bowel problems
  • Type 2 diabetes

All of these symptoms can be challenged by the use of drugs, alcohol, medication, eating sugar laden foods, withdrawing from contact with others, whilst continuing to work to the same pattern.

As the individual notices that they are finding it more difficult to concentrate or that they are achieving less, the solution stays the same – work harder.  As they notice that they are exhausted, the easy solution is to cut out anything which takes energy away from work. As they notice that they are feeling less connected to their work, the satisfaction that came from their efforts is taken away, so putting in that effort becomes more tiring.

Burnout often has to flare to an inferno before the body takes control forcing the individual to take a physical break, as their body protests that it can no longer support this way of living. In taking that break, the opportunity is given to re-evaluate and to make changes to how one engages with work. This can be a powerful wakeup call, as Dina Glouberman’s book, ‘The Joy of Burnout’, argues.   Some, once recovered, simply return to the same pattern, with the same results, and the cycle repeats itself

 

Are you at risk of burnout?

Dr Freudenberger suggested the following as signs of the risk of burnout. If you fear you may be at risk then ask yourself these questions:

  1. Are you tiring more easily?
  2. Do you feel fatigued rather than energised?
  3. Are people annoying you by commenting that you don’t look well?
  4. Are you working harder and accomplishing less?
  5. Are you increasingly cynical and disenchanted?
  6. Do you often experience unexplained sadness?
  7. Are you forgetting deadlines, appointments or personal possessions?
  8. Have you become more irritable?
  9. Are you more short tempered?
  10. Are you more disappointed with people around you?
  11. Are you seeing family members and close friends less often?
  12. Are you too busy to do routine things like make phone calls or stay in touch with friends?
  13. Are you experiencing increased physical complaints (aches, pains, headaches, lingering colds)?
  14. Is joy elusive?
  15. Does sex seem more trouble than its worth?
  16. Do you have very little to say to people?

If you find yourself answering ‘Yes’ to 5-7 of these then your stress is starting to show. If 7 or more then you are a candidate for burnout and it is a signal to take action.

Can Burnout Be Avoided?

So, is it inevitable that high achievers will burn out if they work in environments which reward intense effort? Of course, the organisation has a role in this, and some organisations are beginning to look at how their working norms contribute to either illness or the loss of staff through burnout.

Relying on an organisation to reduce workloads, to increase resources, or slow the pace of change will help, but it does not guarantee that the same person with the same drivers will not repeat the pattern unless they change their relationship with work.

The Place of Resilience in Preventing Burnout

Individuals need to be their own smoke alarms. To be able to recognise the signs of danger and to be able to respond in ways which enable them to stay engaged, energised and performing.  This is where resilience has a key role.

In a study in The Lancet in 2016, the authors concluded after looking at multiple studies on burnout in doctors that the key to combatting burnout was the cultivation of resilience that focussed on 3 key areas:

External Resources:  Having strong connections with friends, family and in their professional relationships.

Internal Resources:  Having coping mechanisms and stress management skills

Extrinsic Resources:  Being able to reflect on their experiences and to derive meaning from the work that they do

Burnout is too serious a condition to use the word simply to signal that a holiday would be welcome. It is a condition that impacts on the psychological and physical wellbeing of the talented to the detriment of themselves, their relationships, their ambitions and the organisations they work with.

Resilience building is a key component in ensuring that the desire to perform well is not undermined by lacking the resources to manage a healthy relationship with work.

 

References

Casserley, T and Megginson, D. Learning from Burnout: Developing Sustainable Leaders and Avoiding Career Derailment, 2009, Elsevier.

Freudenberger, H.J.,   Staff Burnout  Journal of Social Issues, Winter 1974 https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4560.1974.tb00706.x

Glouberman, D, The Joy of Burnout: How the End of the World Can Be a New Beginning, 2019, Skyros Books

Regehr, C et al, Interventions to Reduce the Consequences of Stress in Physicians, The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 2014, vol 202, 5, pp353-359

West, Colin P et al, Interventions to Prevent and Reduce Physician Burnout: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, The Lancet, vol 388, no 10057, 2016, pp2272-2281

 

The Four Months of COVID Living Resilience Questionnaire

The Four Months of COVID Living Resilience Questionnaire

 

It was March 23rd when the UK government put the country into its Stay Home lockdown. The day when we discovered the word ‘furlough’, and moved our social interactions into a world of multiple faces on screens.  What was once the plot line of a dystopian novel became our way of living.  Four months on as lockdown lurches into an uneven, confused reopening it is a good time to take stock of how your resilience is holding up.

You may have been fine during lockdown. Finding enjoyment in the extra time that not travelling provided. Adjusting to a new way of working with ease. Relieved at the reduction of social contact. Setting goals for this special time. Managing the dual demands of home and work.

It may not be lockdown that has tested you but the uncertain, wavering emergence from lockdown. An emergence that does not take us into a post-COVID world but into an uncertain COVID world, where a second wave may on the way, and the economic consequences  are likely to be severe.

You may find that feelings of unease are increasing as the world opens up. This is because it is often not the major life disruptions that unsettle us but the additive effect of small challenges.

  • Deciding who it is safe to see may feel more stressful than not being allowed to see anyone.
  • The cumulative effect of balancing home and life erodes patience and tolerance.
  • The cancelled wedding, holiday or celebration makes the world seem joyless.
  • Looking ahead into the unknowable future only evokes negative thoughts.
  • Financial concerns are wearing you down.
  • Worries about aging parents are a constant presence.

Together or separately these can stretch your resilience elastic to breaking point. While the elastic may have held during the first stage of COVID it may feel it is getting tighter as the virus extends its hold from weeks to months or even years.

Because the tightening builds slowly you may not even acknowledge its impact until the day you ‘blow’ over something which surprises you:

  • The Zoom call too many.
  • The length of a queue.
  • Another demand on you as a parent.
  • A deadline.
  • A news’ story.
  • The lack of social distancing when you venture out.
  • The cancellation of yet another looked forward to event.

We each have our own ‘blow’ moments when our usual resilience deserts us. So, as we move into a world where lockdown may be easing but we are not living in ease, it is a good time to take stock of how your resilience is holding up.

Ten Questions to Ask Yourself:

1. How fearful am I at going back into the world more fully?

     2.  When I look ahead are my thoughts largely negative?

      3. Have I lost a sense of purpose in the last few months?

      4.  Am I finding it difficult to make decisions about the future?

      5. Has my sense of humour diminished?

      6.  Am I anxious about what a return to work will ask of me?

      7.  Have my emotions become more unpredictable and uncontrollable?

      8.  Have I lost connection with people I would normally call on for support?

      9.  Have my responses to situations become rigid?

      10. Am giving less time to self-care?

 

In looking at your responses, notice any changes in how you are experiencing yourself compared to a few months ago.

Some of your concerns will have a basis in reality.  We do know that the economy will be seriously impacted, so it is rational to have thoughts about what that will mean for job and financial security.  However, if we only see the risks, we reduce the size of the lens we hold up to the world. That will also limit how we see our choices.

When we are resourceful, we are able to take a 360-degree view of an issue. We are be able to assess how great the risk is, and to see that we have choices. When we are less resilient, we have very particular ways of looking at situations which focus on what is not possible, and how little control we have.

 

Resilience comes from being able to look at a situation and recognise:

  • What is the truth of the situation I am in?
  • What options are available to me?
  • What capacities do I have that will help me deal with this situation?
  • What other supports can I call on?

Example

I cannot sleep for worrying about the future of my job

What is the truth of the situation?

My sector has been hard hit.

I have been incredibly busy during lockdown because my role is critical.

I am over 50.

I have been made redundant before.

My options

Continue to worry, waiting all the time for a phone call from HR.

Ask for a conversation with my boss about how they see things developing going forward so I have some data.

Work on building a cv that focuses on skills that could be transferred into other sectors.

Remind myself of the things I learnt from my last redundancy and how I can apply them to this situation.

Resources

I have had multiple careers so I know that I am adaptable and learn quickly whether that is adapting to how my current organisation restructures or going outside.

I am good at keeping in touch with people, so I do have a network outside my work.

I ensure I take care of myself physically even when things are tough as I know that helps my mental health.

Support

Reach out to my network to see what is happening in other sectors which may have new opportunities as a result of COVID.

Talk about my concerns to someone who could help me, rather than bottling them up.

 Resilience Outcome

Facing the truth, does not mean coming up with a happy ending or being caught in despair. It is about acknowledging a 360-degree view of truths, rather than the one truth which is often dominating our thoughts.

Paradoxically, when we face into truths rather than second guess them or hide from them, rather than being overwhelmed we become more resourceful.

For You

Identify the part of your resilience that is being most impacted by this next stage of COVID.

Ask yourself

  • What is the truth of the situation – aiming for multiple truths
  • What options emerge from those truths?
  • What personal resources do you have to bring to those options?
  • What other forms of support are available to you?

 Your conclusion

When you answer those questions. What do you notice about?

  • Your thoughts about yourself
  • The actions available to you

One final thought

Resilience is about learning from disruption. 2020 has been a year of seismic disruption. What have you learnt during this time that is going to help you deal with the next phase of this uncertain future we are all facing?

Loneliness Breaking the Taboo

Loneliness: A Taboo Word

 

My neighbour is a feisty, independent 80-year-old woman with strong views that give no truck to political correctness.  Our paths crossed rarely, as I was often away working, and I knew she had carers coming in regularly. When COVID arrived, I asked if she needed any shopping as she was not allowing carers into her home.  At first, she demurred, but some instinct made me ask again a few weeks later, and she owned she was missing the glass of Liebfraumilch she had every day with her lunch.  The supermarket delivery people were refusing to deliver alcohol, despite her calling them to complain.  And so started a weekly visit, where I get her shopping  which always starts with the bottles of wine, followed by a doorstep chat.  She was remarkably stoic despite having been grounded since March, but last week I sensed a change. For the first time she spoke of life getting her down, and she asked if I still wanted to do her shopping now that deliveries were easier. As I responded that I would do her shopping for as long as she wanted,  I saw her face relax. For the first time I saw that despite her bravado she is lonely.

 

Of course, it is no surprise that an 80-year-old with health issues, living alone should be lonely at times,but that denies the reality that loneliness is not the preserve of the old.  It can hit any of us at any time.  Despite this truth it is an issue not openly addressed. To admit to being lonely is to position oneself as sad, anxious, fearful. It can be seen as a source of shame.  To own loneliness is to make oneself vulnerable, but to deny one’s loneliness is to risk one’s mental health and the possibility of connection.

 

Loneliness is not social isolation. One can be alone and totally happy. Loneliness is when the quality and quantity of social relationships is mismatched with what we desire.  The introverts who have taken lockdown in their stride are helped by needing fewer social contacts, or by being with the people who matter most to them.  Those who have struggled either need more social contact or more meaningful social contact. Multiple stilted Zoom conversations does not do it, when what one really wants is a ‘proper chat’ over a drink with someone one can share one’s inner thoughts with.

 

We can also be lonely in different ways:

  • Socially – we do not have a network of friends and family.
  • Emotionally – we do not have a confidante or trusting loving relationship, even though we may have a strong social network.
  • Existentially – we feel separate from others, which often happens when we experience a traumatic event such as bereavement, divorce, job loss, ill health.

 

We all feel lonely at times, and recognising it can be a spur to take action and to make efforts to connect. However, when it becomes a longer-term chronic condition it leads us to withdraw from people. The longer our loneliness lasts the more difficult it is to contemplate being with others. The very thing that others would tell you to do, is the last thing you can imagine doing.

 

The Loneliness Downward Spiral

 

 

 

 

 It starts with a situation. It could be as small as an unintended slight or as momentous as a death of someone you love.

What follows are negative thoughts – our inimportance, our unlikeability or perhaps that life is now over.

Those thoughts lead to  actions – the refusal of social invitations, the avoidance of people we thought of as friends.

The action of inaction leads to a magnification of thoughts and feelings.

The behavioural changes  become  reinforced in more avoidance and withdrawal

The outcome is loneliness

The spiral develops without our recognising it, until one day our lives have changed.  We don’t acknowledge the thoughts that triggered the spiral as just passing thoughts, with lots of counter-balancing evidence. Being seen as unlikeable or friendless becomes the only ‘true’ thought. We don’t decide to turn down every invitation because there is a good reason to turn down that after work drink, that party, that catch up – but with every rejection it becomes more difficult to contemplate taking the risk of connecting with others. The more we turn away from others, the harder it becomes to engage and our loneliness increases. As it increases the negative thoughts that started the process are strengthened.

So how to get out of the loneliness spiral?

Research has shown that what affects our responses are two factors:

  1. Do we attribute events to us or the external situation?
  2. Do I see the situation as permanent or variable?

Attribution

Am I lonely because I am an unlikeable person, or because I have lost a friend that I gave more attention to than anyone else in my life, so I have reduced my friendship circle?

Am I lonely because no one cares about me in lockdown or because I refuse to engage in the video calls that my family are setting up?

 

Being able to apply attribution beyond the power or lack of power that we give ourselves allows for more options emerging.

 

Permanence

I am lonely because I am 30/40/50/60/70/80 and it will only get worse as I get older.

I am lonely because I am single and likely to stay that way.

 

Variability

I am lonely right now because I have moved to a new job in a new town.

I am lonely because I have lost one friendship that meant a lot to me.

 

Being able to differentiate between what is viewed as permanent and unchangeable, and what is the outcome of a particular situation impacting you at this moment in time, allows for the possibility that things can change.

 

The obvious solution

The obvious solution when feeling lonely is to ‘get our more’, to make connections, but that can feel like the hardest thing in the world to do.

So rather than starting on the outside with action, start by challenging the loneliness spiral.

 

The Loneliness Upward Spiral

 Allowing for the possibility of a different outcome starts with:

Noticing the thoughts and feelings you are carrying, rather than being  unconsciously controlled by them.

Testing – are they the absolute, undeniable truth, or is there any other evidence available to you. Even if there is some truth what else needs to be acknowledged.

Challenge Yourself – are there some other thoughts available to you, that does not mean polar opposite thoughts but thoughts which offer other possibilities.

Notice any Shift in feelings  when you produce alternative thoughts.

Magnify your attention on those new feelings and see if they allow for different behaviours being possible.

Find a Doable Action that follows from the shift in feelings.  An action that is within the boundaries of possibility for you at this time.

The outcome is a Reduction in the sense of loneliness on which you can build.

The power of the upward spiral is not that it asks you to do the things which a self-help book would tell you to do – and which will probably be obvious. Instead, it invites you to expand your lens so that you allow in more thoughts and feelings. When you allow in more data, it allows for the possibility that action is possible. It is then for you to decide the size of the action that is possible for you. Strengthening your loneliness upward spiral is a step by step process which starts with the smallest action you could imagine taking in the service of reducing your social or emotional loneliness. For my neighbour it was allowing me to do her shopping, so we could chat.

 

If you are feeling lonely right now work through both spirals to explore:

  • The thoughts and feelings which are contributing to your sense of loneliness and the behaviours that follow
  • The different thoughts and feelings that are available to you and the changed behaviour this will allow.
  • Step into taking a first  action in the service of reducing your loneliness.

With acknowledgement to The Psychology of Loneliness: Why It Matters and What We Can Do published by the Campaign to End Loneliness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So How is Your Resilience After Three Months of Lockdown?

 

 

Now is a good time to do a check in on how your resilience is holding up. At the beginning you may have focused on it as a 3-week break, then a 6-week hiatus from normality. Then the weeks turned into months and the reality of a pandemic became clearer in health, economic, social and psychological terms. At the beginning the challenges were those of adjusting to home working, to furlough, to home schooling and of seeing plans for the coming months disappear.  The cruel realities of not being able to be with loved ones when they died or to celebrate their life in a way that offered comfort to those they had left.

Now we are living with a sense that life may not return to what we once assumed was normality. Work patterns have been catalysed by COVID but without working through how to balance task delivery with social connection.  Physical closeness has been redefined as dangerous.  Being in social spaces with others is now tinged with a sense of risk.  How long this will go on we don’t know.

 

At the beginning of lockdown, I focussed on the importance of recognising that as humans we are resilient. We have the ability to bend in response to circumstances and to be creative in our responses.  I saw it in the goals for self-improvement which people set themselves, the explosion of activity on social media, the intention to use this time purposely.  Three months in it may feel very different.  When COVID was seen as an event with a beginning and an end, it was easier to remain resilient. When it is seen as a disruption without end, and with seismic economic consequences feelings change.

So, to help you get a sense of where you are at this point in the pandemic, ask yourself the following questions:

To what degree have I:

  • Struggled to adapt to the changes that COVID has asked of my life.
  • Lost confidence in myself as the weeks have gone by.
  • Missed the social support of colleagues and friends.
  • Found it difficult to keep perspective on the reality of how COVID is impacting on my life.
  • Lost my sense of humour as the pandemic continues.
  • Found it difficult to be proactive when things are not demanded of me.
  • Struggled to change my pattern of working even though circumstances have changed.
  • Avoided thinking about what could follow from COVID because it feels too difficult.
  • Lost a sense of meaning and connection with what I am doing.
  • Felt I have lost control of my emotions.
  • Found myself having catastrophic thoughts about the future.
  • Stopped doing things which normally I would do as part of my self-care.

So how are you doing?

Resilience Has Been Impacted by COVID

It is likely that you will have seen some changes in how you are managing yourself, your emotions, your thought processes and your behaviours. That is normal.  When we know that a disruption has an end date we can keep going because we see an end in sight.  However, the risk is that if the end date does not appear, and you are uncertain when you can go back to work, when schools will reopen, when it will be OK to go to a sports event or when you can get married, our resources drain.

Instead the evidence is from those who have lived in challenging circumstances with no end date, such as prisoners of war is that it is better for mental and physical health to focus on how the best can be made of whatever circumstances we are in, rather than focusing on a time when the hope is, that things will be different.

Focus on the Controllable

In thinking about what that means it is helpful to focus on what is within your control. The Serenity Prayer expresses it simply, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”.

Consider what is within your control and then identify something you do have the courage to act on, no matter how small.

Any one change you make will have an impact on your whole system. For example, deciding to tell your colleagues that you would welcome more contact because you are finding it difficult working remotely for so long, allows them to own their own feelings about distanced working.

Deciding to stand back back from daily irritations and consider how important these will look with the distance of days or weeks will help to quieten emotions.  Go back to the exercise regime you started with enthusiasm and then abandoned and identify why you gave up.  This will allow you to find a regime that works for you, and to reconnect with the physical and mental benefits it offers. Look for what is possible rather than focussing on what is being denied.

Staying in the Present

It also means focusing on what is true right now. Our resilience is undermined by the human gift of being able to imagine the future. Other animals are not able to imagine that a threat may be around the corner, that tomorrow you may not be there to care for them. They simply live in the present moment of feeling safe.  That ensures that they only engage their stress hormones when it is absolutely necessary because there is a real and present danger.  As humans that ability to imagine leads us to catastrophise, to imagine the worst and to let our body respond as though it is true.  Being able to stay in the present can be done through mindfulness practice. It can also be done by simply asking yourself:

  • What is true right now?
  • What is the danger I am facing right now?

Grounding yourself in the present is not to deny that bad things can happen but it focuses you on having the resources to deal with them when they do happen, rather than expending them in practising for a possible future which raises your stress levels.

Your Resilience Has Remained Strong During COVID

You may  have discovered that you are dealing well with this time, that you have accessed resources you never knew you had or that you have seen that things can be different and you are enjoying that difference. You may have found new purposes from having the time to stand back, or noticed that you like the person you are during lockdown more than the pre-lockdown person. You may have learnt that the quality of your life is improved by the changes it has demanded of you. You may have discovered aspects of yourself that were hidden when living and working in the ‘old normal’.

If you are in that space, then the power of resilience is in taking that learning forward.

What of this time do you want to ensure you hold onto because it will enable you to have a better life?

Before you forget (and we do when they become normalised) capture what has been good about this time that you want to hold onto and take forward.

  • In how you work
  • In how you communicate with others
  • In how you are with those who are important to you
  • In how you have managed your energy
  • In what you have discovered is important to you
  • In discovered new aspects of you

 

Resilience is not about bouncing back; it is about moving forward from difficulty with the learning that will increase your capacities and capabilities to deal with the next disruption.  3 ½ months in is a good time to take stock so that your learning can help you deal with whatever is going to emerge in the next 3 ½ months.

 

Week 2: Has Lockdown Become Your New Normal?

Days blur together. It is difficult to know if it is a Monday or a Saturday. We have been living this new life for less than 2 weeks and yet our normal ways of living are fast becoming memories. So how are you doing?  Of course, your reaction will be shaped by your income, whether you are working or furloughed, whether you have children to amuse whilst trying to work, whether you are alone, whether you have a home office or are trying to work from the kitchen table. Whether work has been an escape from home difficulties or the place you most want to come home to.

 However, whatever your situation there are stages which typically we will go through in coming to terms with how we are being asked to live.

 

Psychologists suggest that there are 4 stages that we move through in coming to an acceptance of what is.

Stage 1:  Uncertainty.

The weeks before lockdown was marked by that uncertainty. Would it happen?  What will it mean for me?  Do I need to do anything different, when it feels unreal? Are we like other countries or different?  It was a time for some to deny the looming reality in order to protect against feelings of anxiety.   It was also time when for others catastrophising came to the fore.  When watching the news and following social media leads to imagining the worst, and yet doing so is compulsive

 

Stage 2: Disruption

When what is required becomes real then strong emotions emerge. To have one’s wedding cancelled or not be able to visit a loved one in a care home or hospital. To not go on that holiday that had been long planned or have that big birthday celebration. To not be able to go out whenever one wants to. Disruptions to our lives bring out the big emotions: sadness, fear, anger. The fear of not being able to get medication makes a normally amiable soul become abusive with the pharmacist, a reasonable shopper becomes a self-protecting greedy stockpiler.  There are tears of disappointment that celebrations are denied, or even that an exam that had been dreaded, now will not happen.  The world seems unfair.

 

Stage 3:  Adaptation

In this stage there is some acceptance that something different is needed. If we cannot change the reality, we can adjust how we deal with it. It’s not just that technophobes have become Zoom zealots, it’s not just the many initiatives that people are using to raise our spirits, it’s learning how to be with each other in close confinement. It’s building new routines into our lives to break up the day, it’s discovering the upsides of a disruption.  It may even be discovering that work is not as important as you thought it was. It’s learning that not consuming can bring positive emotions.

Stage 4:  Normal

At the end of this you will have developed new norms, in how you live, how you work and how you connect. As much as you may initially rush back to what was familiar, you will do so with a sense that there are now other choices.  You will have internalised new norms which will shape how you choose to live and work.

So in less than two weeks in where are you in those 4 phases.

Struggling with Uncertainty

If you are still struggling with uncertainty, focus your mind on what is known right now.  When you look ahead you are inviting in the catastrophiser. Instead ask yourself:

  • What is true right now?
  • What thoughts and actions can help me to deal with the current truth?

Finding it Difficult to Deal with Disruption

  • What disruptions are you experiencing that are evoking strong emotions?
  • Which of those disruptions will look small in 6 months’ time?
  • Which of those disruptions will be less painful if you look at them through a lens of acceptance rather than resistance or guilt?
  • What is not being disrupted in your life?

Resisting Adaptation

  • What have you adapted in how you think, feel and behave without even noticing?
  • What fears do you have about making adaptations to how you live and work. When you hold them up to the light how real are, they?
  • What adaptations are adding to the quality of your life?
  • What adaptations are you or could you make that connect you to a bigger sense of purpose (your own or the wider community)

The New Normal

  • What have you adapted to or created that you want to continue into the future?
  • What are you learning in this time that you want to become a sustainable new normal?
  • How are you going to sustain the new normal when the old norms start to reappear?

 

 Whereever you are recognise that you will move constantly through the phases and it will not be linear. You can have a new normal day followed by one where you fall back into uncertainty.  That is human.  By noticing that our responses change regularly, you also know that tomorrow can be different even in the world of lockdown.

 

 

 

 

 

Repairing the Resilience Rupture

 

 

 

 

My current favourite podcast is author Elizabeth Day’s How to Fail. Each week she interviews visibly successful people about their failures. Not their humblebrag failures of ‘my greatest failure was to give too give too much of myself to my work on the way to becoming famous’ variety.   Rather the failures that were tough, but from which important learning came. The basic premise is that it is in our failures that our successes are born.  A recent interviewee psychotherapist Philippa Perry expressed it beautifully when she said, “life is about rupture and repair”.  In all of our lives there are moments of rupture, when what we have come to expect is torn away from us, whether that is a rupture of relationships, of health, of finances or of career.  The challenge then is how we repair, and what we learn in the process.

It is in the repair that we are asked to bring our resilience resources into play: to access the qualities that will allow us to find a new perspective and to integrate the failure into our narrative about ourselves.  I like the image of repair, because it allows for a mark being left. Rather than resilience being bounce back, with the aim of making the knock down invisible: like springing up quickly after a trip on the pavement, to protect our embarrassment, repair acknowledges that we are left with marks. There is no invisible repair, no matter how skilled the sewer. Those marks are a reminder to us of both the rupture and how we have dealt with it.

For each of us there are different approaches to repair dependent on our own resilience template. For some it will be through optimism, for others through finding a new purpose, taking care of our physical self or reaching out to others for support.

When I work with clients I am looking not just for what aspect of their resilience has been lost to them during the rupture, but also what they can call on to enable repair.

Both those approaches can be find in the questionnaire I have recently posted on my website.

www.coachingtosolutions.com. It is offered to help both acknowledge what needs attention, but also to enable the individual to recognise what is in their sewing box that will help them move forward.

If you are experiencing a rupture that needs repair take a look.

 

 

 

Brexit, VUCA and Resilience

Brexit is  a word engrained in the UK psyche, the term VUCA may be less familiar but it has entered the mainstream of business language. A mnemonic originally coined by a US military leader to describe the nature of change in modern warfare: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous has found resonance in non-military settings. As a nation we are seeing the Brexit negotiations, and the machinations of parliamentary process model VUCA on a daily basis. Those uncertainties fuel endless speculation and heated conversations, but what does VUCA mean when the lens moves from the macro level of what is happening in Westminster and Brussels to what it could mean to individual lives in a year’s time? Suddenly the sense of being an observer of events shifts to potentially becoming a victim of them.

Similarly, VUCA in a business context means dealing with the external challenges of markets, new entrants who are disrupting the market, the impact of technology, changes in how customers are wanting to shop or bank, but take VUCA down to the level of the individual and its meaning becomes sharper.

VUCA means:
• Not knowing if your job will exist in a few months’ time
• A choice of relocation or redundancy
• Promotion opportunities disappearing in a new structure
• Career promises being undeliverable
• Fighting for your existing job as a result of merger
• The scope of your role being dramatically extended with no negotiation
VUCA then becomes personal and the need for resilience increases. It becomes critical to manage yourself through disruption in ways which will help you move forward and adapt.
This focus on working through VUCA is central to a new book by Kathryn Jackson, based on the learning she gained by living through the major earthquake that destroyed much of Christchurch NZ in 2011. Kathryn was both a victim, in that her home and workplace were destroyed, but also a player in the city’s recovery: through her role in coaching those who were recruited to rebuild the city’s infrastructure in record time. It is the learning from that project which she offers in her book: Resilience at Work.
Central to the book is the model which was developed by SCIRT (Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team): a team of academic researchers and professionals brought together to support those doing the work. It was critical that those highly talented professionals were not undermined by the demands of an enormous project, when many were  living thousands of miles from their home country.
They recognised that turbulence at work, things happening with no obvious cause, an overwhelm of information, lack of precedent and complicated circumstances could fuel strong emotional responses, doubt and hesitation, frustration, unpredictable behaviour and resistance to taking risks, and of course endless speculation. Recognise any of these in your own organisation?

The model SCIRT developed to support individuals through VUCA has 4 key elements:
Emotional Honesty
Noticing and acknowledging the negative emotional impact of events on you, so that there is a possibility of managing them vs denying the impact of what is happening, or accepting it as inevitable.

Self-Care
Seeing looking after yourself as a valuable resource as critical to dealing with difficulty vs seeing it as a ‘nice to have’ when there is time.

Connecting
Building strong connections with people who you want to help and who will help you vs seeing yourself as isolated in dealing with the challenges of your work.

Learning
Looking at what you can learn both formally and informally that will be helpful to dealing with the current situation vs rather than denying the need to adapt.

Relating this to You
The model developed for the need for rapid response in the face of a natural disaster is equally relevant for individuals in less dramatic situations.
Consider:
The VUCA that is impacting on your work right now:
• At the macro-level (external pressures that are impacting on how the organisation is operating)
• At the micro-level, what that is meaning for you?

In responding to VUCA, ask yourself do I?

1. Notice  when I am getting negative and dispirited in my work and see it as a signal to do something to change my emotional response. (Emotional Honesty) Yes/No.
2. Recognise  when the pressures at work are changing how I am both with myself and with others. (Self-Care) Yes/No
3. Actively seek out people to talk with when things at work are challenging, because I know it helps me handle pressures more easily. (Connection) Yes/No.
4. Review  my career when circumstances change at work to identify how I need to develop in order to remain of value. (Learning) Yes/No
If you have answered No to any of those prompts then it is a signal that you need to consider how you can address your need to increase that pillar of resilience in order to stay resourced in a VUCA world.

Reference: Kathryn Jackson, Resilience at Work (Routledge).

John McCain Resilience and Getting Back on a Horse

 

 

 

 

In the obituaries for Senator John McCain, all commented on the courage he needed  to survive 5 years in captivity during the Vietnam War.  Even more courage was required when he refused to be released one year into his imprisonment because he understood it was his father’s appointment as Commander of the Pacific Forces that was driving the offer.  The North Vietnamese believed it would give them leverage.  He rejected the offer and said he would only accept his release when all other prisoners were released. His resilience was present in rejecting the offer because of strong principles, but even more so in surviving the torture of the subsequent years and his own suicide attempts.

 

That resilience, no doubt supported him in his many subsequent years in politics. It enabled him to speak ‘truth to power’ because of being clear on his values and principles, but it also influenced how he raised his children.

 

In her eulogy to her father, Meghan McCain said, “I was a small girl, thrown from a horse and crying from a busted collarbone. My dad picked me up. He took me to the doctor, he got me all fixed up. Then he immediately took me back home and made me get back on the same horse. I was furious at him as a child, but how I love him for it now.”  What she loved was that when she got back on the horse she saw the look of pride in his face and his words “nothing is going to break you”.

 

At a time when much is being said about both the greater need for resilience in a world of uncertainty, and the lack of resilience in children who have been parented to avoid risk or failure, many 21st century parents would not take McCain’s approach. However, what he was doing is what the brain needs to deal with difficulty and distress.  The hippocampus, that part of our brain which lays down memories embeds the memory over time.  The initial fall from the horse will initially be a fragile emotional memory of shock. If the parent responds by telling the child never to get back on a horse because it is dangerous, over time the encoded memory will be one of fear of horses and a deepening of the memory of the fall and the break.  If the parent responds by saying ‘now you are OK, let’s see you back on the horse again’, and celebrates our courage, the fragile memory gets overlaid by the experience of realising it is still enjoyable to ride a horse.

 

The same holds true beyond childhood. How often we use a single setback, disappointment or downright failure to lay down in our hippocampus the memory that we cannot, or we are not good enough, when if we can get back on the horse that has dismounted us we discover that we can succeed, we can learn to do better and we can deal with disappointment and move on.

 

So, the challenge to support your resilience  is:

  • What is it that has dismounted you recently?
  • What memory have you laid down in your hippocampus about that experience?
  • What do you need to do in order to challenge that memory?
  • What new emotional memory would that action embed?

Challenging the Tetris Effect

If you have ever played the computer game Tetris you will know it can become addictive.  A game as simple as lining up blocks of the same colour can consume hours of time.  That is why an invitation to university students to be paid to play Tetris as part of a research study was irresistible.  The study reported that even when the students stopped playing the game they saw Tetris blocks everywhere they went.  If they were shopping they were mentally lining up cartons of the same colour. If they were out running they were rearranging bricks on walls so that the colours matched.  Their brains had become wired in just a few days to see a world in which Tetris was the new reality.

 

The relevance of this to non computer game players is that it reflects how we operate in many spheres of our lives, if we give enough time to something, the way we view the world is shaped by that experience.  Test it for yourself: close your eyes for a few seconds and think of a colour. Open them and the colour you first see in your surroundings will be the colour you were thinking of.

 

Shawn Accor in his book The Happiness Advantage, translates this phenomena to the workplace; to show how lawyers trained to critically analyse evidence in court, found they applied the same techniques out of court, when questioning their children. Or, auditors with the ability to spot an error on a tax return would use the same skills to identify errors in their partner’s cooking. Unsurprisingly they did not receive a positive response for the use of their expertise; but all they were doing was continuing to scan the world for further evidence of their skills in action.

Once we have established our reality framework, we develop a spam filter which quickly puts into a junk folder anything which does not accord with what we have decided is our reality. If our filter is scepticism then any experience that confounds our scepticism, is more easily put into the junk folder than examined as contrary evidence.

This argument would seem to support the  ‘I am what I am’ school of thought, where once we establish a position it does not change.  That would be true if we could not move items out of the junk folder, but we can, and do.   Consider what happens when you buy a new car.   Suddenly every car on the road seems to be the same colour and model as the one you now own. Those cars were there all the time but when your framework was your previous car, they were invisible to you.

The importance of being able to challenge our established (and partial) reality, particularly if it is one shaped by an expectation of  difficulty and negativity becomes particularly important when we are under pressure.  Given that resilience is fuelled by adaptability, how can we adapt our thinking?

 

One answer lies in accessing the power of thinking more optimistically, through letting into our reality evidence that there are things in our life that are ‘good’ even when times are tough.  The idea of recording gratitude each day for the small things in our lives has been well established in the positive psychology literature, but the advice to write 3 gratitudes daily is often not backed up with the ‘why?’.  Psychologist Robert Emmons, whose research is behind this advice has shown that people who commit to the discipline of recording three things each day that they are grateful for, become more optimistic, feel more socially connected, enjoy better sleep and even have fewer headaches than control groups.  So gratitude makes you feel better about yourself, but beyond this, people who show up as more optimistic set themselves more challenging goals, persist in the face of difficulty and cope better in stress situations.  Optimism is valuable for achievement, determination and dealing better with the pressures of our lives.

To develop the practice of gratitude as a means of developing an optimistic mindset requires practice,  and we are often resistant to committing to developing new habits, when the old ones are familiar, but there is evidence it is worth the effort:

  • In scanning the day for 3 things that you are grateful for (no matter how small) you become more skilled at noticing, so your reality framework expands.  At the same time in noticing what has been good, what has been frustrating, annoying or disappointing changes its position in your reality.
  • Even doing gratitude for a week leads people to feel happier and less depressed at three month and six month follow up points according to a study by Professor Martin Seligman (the pioneer of positive psychology).
  • Once your brain has expanded its perception through the daily habit, you don’t need to write it down your brain will start doing the work for you, as part of how you see the world.
  • You can take the practice of gratitude further by writing about a positive experience. People often think of journaling at times of difficulty because there are well established health and psychological benefits from writing about strong emotions, but researchers Chad Burton and Laura King showed that happiness is increased by writing about positive experiences.

 

You may never have played Tetris. You may be immune to computer games, but it is likely that at times you are seeing the world through a view of reality shaped by particular experiences.  By increasing your access to alternative data  you will increase your resilience to deal with the demands on you.

 

 

Detoxifying Imposter Syndrome

There is a secret 70% of  us share.  Imagine:  you have just been promoted, or you have been recruited to a new organisation or you have received recognition for your achievements.  In response your phone is full of emails, texts and voicemails offering congratulations.  You thank them for their good wishes, and at the same time, you are thinking:

  • I am not ready for this
  • They will soon find out that I am not up to it
  • It was luck
  • It was a poor field otherwise they would not have chosen me
  • I am only there as a token

Welcome to the Imposter Syndrome Club.  It is a club that research suggests 70% of us belong to at some point in our lives, and yet we assume that it is ‘only us’ that is undeserving, has self doubt, or  is anxious about taking on a new challenge.  Because the original research, by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes  was solely conducted with women it is often suggested that it is a woman’s issue, and male colleagues live their working lives untouched by self doubt.   Sitting in on a coaching session would quickly dispel  that myth. It affects the successful as much as those aspiring to success, men as much as women.  Why?  Because Imposter Syndrome is part of the human condition.

 

Its roots are developed in childhood.  The reality that as a child we cannot do things as well as the people who matter most to us– our parents, begins the process of comparison.  Those feelings are magnified  by childhoods which bring trauma.  Growing up in a family where there are issues of addiction, abuse (mental and physical) or a pattern of hyper-criticism, fuels the need to show that we can be good enough, whilst still believing we never will be. It drives ambition and determination, but it does not bring the rewards which we seek. Instead it fuels, anxiety, fear of failure, perfectionism and self doubt.

So given, that 2/3 of us are walking around with internal dialogues telling us we could be exposed at any moment, why does it remain a hidden secret?  The answer may lie in the simple truth that we know what we think, but we only see what other people do.  You see the person standing on the stage receiving their Oscar, their sports award or their recognition for business success and you buy into their appearance.  They look confident, their success looks seamless and  based on a far greater talent than you could ever have.  What you don’t see is the journey that got them there.   You can’t hear their internal dialogue remembering the times they nearly gave up, how they only got the part by chance, or how they live in fear of the next competitor.

 

So if it is part of being human, does it have any value to us?  It can,  if we can turn it from a toxic internal  voice to a useful guide.  In a 2016 TedEx  talk Lou Solomons shared how she learnt in therapy to separate out the mean inner voice by giving it a name, and then creating a supportive countervailing voice.  Recognising when the mean friend  was showing up she then called on her strong friend’s  voice to outwit the internal bully.  Learning how to manage our thoughts  through being able to objectify them is extremely valuable, because it makes conscious, what is unconsciously ruling us, but it is not the only way.

 

If we accept that the Imposter Syndrome is part of being human, then we can consider what its value could be if we could detoxify its impact.

  • If we could take a leap of faith and accept that the person opposite us probably has the same thoughts and feelings as we do, then we would be more open about not having all the answers and look to offer and seek support more readily.
  • If we saw our limited knowledge, not as boundary to what we can achieve, but as a driver to our curiosity, then we would achieve more.
  • If we viewed ourselves not as a flawed professional but as a work in progress then we could be kinder to ourselves about not getting it right all the time.
  • If we accepted that when we take on something new we cannot be as good as those who have been doing it for years, but that motivation is the fuel for learning.
  • If we saw the thoughts and feelings of being an imposter as drivers to action, rather than brakes on our potential then we would risk more with less fear.

 

In the 17th century, the French philosopher wrote, “Kings and philosophers shit, so do ladies”. If we accept that not only do we all have the bodily functions regardless of our status or success, but that we all have similar internal thought processes regardless of our seniority,  we could move Imposter Syndrome from being our individual secret to a shared condition of being human.