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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. 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.

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.

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.

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.
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.

Why don’t we do what we say we are going to do?


You have probably long given up on New Year resolutions in the knowledge that they don’t work.  They don’t work because the old you does not metamorphosise on the stroke of midnight into the new you.  The new you  that is required to exert the necessary will power to give up smoking, eat healthier, exercise regularly,  be more considerate etc

However, that does not mean that for the rest of the year we don’t constantly give ourselves instructions on what we should be doing in order to live a better, more successful, more satisfying life.  Whether it is vowing to manage time better, achieve a better work-life balance, not answer emails at home or not look at the phone when with friends and family.   The desire for self improvement is constant, and the failure levels are disappointingly high.


Why is this?  It is not that that we are not convinced of the value of the behavioural change, and yet we find ourselves continuing to take on too much, abandoning activities which keep us balanced, looking at emails late at night and irresistibly drawn to that text that has just pinged in when we should be focussed on our child or partner.


The answer according to researchers Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, and the authors of ‘Immunity to Change’,  is that our behaviours make absolute sense if we acknowledge that we have the ability to create perfect logical systems which make us immune to acting on the changes we say we want.


Take this all to common example:

  • You are determined to leave work on time so that you can get in the exercise that you know helps you deal with the demands of your work.
  • What you do instead, is stay at work until you are too tired to exercise and all you want is to relax when you get home.

This abandonment of a desired activity, only makes sense if you ask the question, “what am I secretly more committed to?”

Your answer could be:

  • Getting the next promotion
  • Ensuring X does not get the next promotion
  • Having a friendly relationship with my boss
  • Not missing out on anything

Once we admit our secret commitment(s) then the actions make absolute sense, and in fact to leave work on time, makes no sense.

Underpinning that commitment are assumptions that hold the commitment firmly in place. They are like two pieces of Velcro that attach themselves firmly to each other.

Assumptions like:

  • The key decider on promotions is who is present most.
  • The only thing that separates X and me are the hours we work
  • My boss’s view of me is decided by the time I leave work
  • I can only know what matters by being present after normal working hours.


While the assumptions sit inside our heads, they maintain an unchallengeable logic, but once we bring them into the open, their limitations become clear. They hold us firmly where we are, and allow for no other behavioural option.  However, they are only assumptions, and we usually do not have unchallengeable data to confirm their truth.  The power of  an assumption is that it is an untested  thought  guiding our actions.   It is only when we own it as an assumption that we have the possibility of choosing another assumption that offers different possibilities.  For example:

  • There are other qualities than the ability to work long hours that decide who does best.
  • Exercising helps me be better  resourced to deal with the demands of work.
  • Being able to manage time well within the day can create a more positive impression than always working late.
  • Not everything is worth knowing, and no one can ever know everything.


So, if you are not doing what  your rational head tells you you need to do, then start by unearthing the commitments that are telling you to stay as you are.  Once you own up to those commitments, find  the assumptions which are driving them, and you then have the option of creating some new assumptions that will better support your aim.

Feeling Upset Write About It

I recently met a hero of mine, James Pennebaker.  You may not have heard of him, but he profoundly influenced my work, because he taught me the power of expressive writing.  30 years ago James Pennebaker, a Professor of Social Psychology made a discovery, which is both obvious and often not acknowledged : keeping secrets is bad for us.  What he learned is that writing about something, even if you do not talk about, it has health benefits.  He first made this discovery when he asked students to write about a trauma that had happened to them earlier in their life, but which they had not spoken about.  They wrote just 4 times for 15 minutes, but in the months that followed he was able to see that those who wrote had less visits to doctors and had fewer minor illnesses, He also found that immediately after writing our immune system is boosted. He concluded that confession is good for the body.  His pioneer work has been replicated in over 1,000 studies, and in populations across the world and the same findings emerge.  Writing is good for your health.

Why is this?

Firstly,when you write, you are often able to label your emotions in a way you may not feel comfortable doing if speaking out loud.  Writing that you are feeling angry, pissed off, jealous or shameful starts the process of being able to separate away from the emotion.

Writing helps to organise the experience. Putting it out there, puts some space between you and the event, which is not possible, when it is swirling repetitively around inside your  head. In creating that space, we begin to have new thoughts and emotions.

Thirdly, when we hold onto something, it impacts on our lives.  Holding onto rage against another person weeks, months or even years after the event does not impact them, but it does impact on us.  There is a Buddhist saying that holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else, but the person holding the coal is the one who gets burned.  When we hold onto anger we continue to hurt ourselves.

When we write about something which has emotional meaning for us, we improve our working memory for days and even weeks, and even more crucially, it helps us to break the pattern of going over the same event with the same thoughts (what psychologists call perseverative cognition).

Writing also  helps us to sleep better.  The NHS knows this.   In its’ advice on  managing stress, it advises people to write down worries for the next day before going to bed.  The  aim is  to acknowledge the concern but without the emotions and thoughts attached to them, invading our sleep pattern, so that we are not waking in the night with the distorted thinking that accompanies disrupted sleep.

So the evidence is strong, writing about things which are upsetting us, refusing to go away and dominating head space is a powerful way of helping yourself to better physical and mental health. It does not mean you have to write every day, even Pennebaker admits he only writes occasionally.  It does mean noticing when life is throwing you a curve ball that is affecting your emotionally, and allowing yourself to write to yourself for as long as it is takes before the emotional charge of the event shifts.


Grief: The Elephant in the Workplace


Sheryl Sandbergs new book ‘Option B’ has received wide attention because of her profile as COO of Facebook, but its’ real importance is that she has brought into the open a universal experience that receives little attention, that of grief at work. In a society that looks to massage grief into invisibility after the immediate aftermath of a death, she shares how the loss of her husband impacted on every part of her life: from suddenly  becoming a single parent, to  dealing with the demands of her role when her brain was overwhelmed with the weight of loss.  She shatters the myth that we pick up where we left off once the funeral is over, and speaks openly of her lack of focus, her frequent tears, and her memory lapses.  Her colleagues were generous in their support, often the bereaved perceive their colleagues as less than supportive.


They are silent for fear of saying the wrong thing.   They are embarrassed as to how they will deal with the emotions of a colleague so avoid the topic, or offer a mundane expression of empathy ‘I’m sorry for your loss”,  before moving onto business. They ask ‘how are you?’, as though there can be an authentic answer to describe the reality of what the person is experiencing.  As the saying goes, “Other than that, how was the play Mrs Lincoln?” The offer is made,”is there anything I can do?” putting the onus on the person  to define an appropriate  action, knowing the one action they want, the return of their loved one cannot be delivered.


This book will be read because of Sandberg’s career success, but her experience is no different from any other employee, so what can we all take from it to normalise both loss and responses to loss at work.

  • There is no way of knowing if you are saying the right thing, but it  is worth taking the risk of asking the person how they are today. It acknowledges that reactions change day to day, while the bland, ‘how are you?’, invites the platitude  ‘Fine’, that both parties know is a lie.
  • Not naming the elephant in the room of the death of a partner, parent, child or even pet, does not make it easier for the bereaved. It simply makes them feel there is something shameful in the death of someone they love.
  • Don’t ask if there is something you can do – offer to do something.
  • There is a fine balance between offering to take on work for a grieving colleague and their feeling diminished by the off.  Check  in if it would be welcome if you took on a meeting, delivered a presentation, took on an assignment to reduce their workload – or will simply compound their sense that their brain has deserted them.
  • Don’t offer reassurance ‘time is a great healer’, two years on you’ll have moved on or once you’ve worked through the  Kubler Ross grief cycle you’ll be fine.  Grief is not a  programme to be completed, it is a set of states  that the individual will revisit for as long as it takes.
  • Don’t assume your responses to loss will be theirs. Better to be interested in their response to their loss than to see yours as of interest to them (at least in the early stages it won’t be).
  • Give affirmation of what they are doing well at work, as they will be focussed on what feels strange or meaningless, what they have forgotten and when they could not focus.

Most centrally, treat them as the person you have always known. They do not  have a disease, but grief is a large hole in a person.  That hole will never disappear,  but  over time they will start wrapping layers of life around it.  Those layers are paper thin at the beginning, bu with  time they will become thick enough to protect them and to enable them to create a different life.

Sheryl Sandberg’s Option B: Facing Advertity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy  is published by  Penguin Random House