On Fear, Anxiety, and That Sense of Being Overwhelmed: Working Hard to be a Failure

I have been reflecting on a couple of therapy sessions I had today and upon the homework I’d given my clients. It all began when my first client revealed their feeling of being overwhelmed. Then, later, another client expressed the same feeling. To each I asked, “What are you afraid of?”

That feeling, what we call being “overwhelmed,” is the outward manifestation of two underlying emotions: Anxiety and Fear. Feeling overwhelmed is at base, an anxious response to fear. It is entirely appropriate, therefore, to ask of our clients and of ourselves, “What precisely are we afraid of?”

Well, just like you, I am afraid of failing.

I was overwhelmed as a graduate student, as a businessman, as a father. In fact, I was anxious about my performance in each of those roles. And, beneath that was the fear of failing. As I go about being a professional counselor, there are times when I feel overwhelmed. It is hard to make your way through a therapeutic day without such a response; and without feeling somehow anxious that you are failing.

But, really, truly, what are the chances that I will fail? I would have to do a lot of things wrong to be considered a failure as a therapist. And, as my Parish Priest was want to say, “these would have to be acts of commission, not omission.” Yes, omissions could get me disbarred from the profession as well, but there would have to be a lot of them. And at that, they would have to be seen as somehow negligent in their comission.

Anyway, the homework I gave my clients was to come up with a checklist of what they would have to do in order to guarantee failure. My intention was one of paradox. If I can show you how far away you are from really truly failing, perhaps the anxiety will remit. Perhaps you will see yourself as, well, succeeding!

Here then is what I would have to do to fail at being a therapist (and checklists can be useful even if you never check anything off):

  1. I would have to purposefully and willfully not show up for my client’s scheduled hour.
  2. I would have to actively disengage from the client and be doing something else altogether – like checking my phone for texts, clipping my fingernails, etc.
  3. I would have to repeatedly give advice and, at that, with wanton abandon.
  4. I would have to hit on my client, or worse, engage in sexual activity.
  5. I would have to maliciously do harm and carelessly inflict some kind of cruelty.
  6. I would have to unjustifiably refuse to treat my client or to try and force them to change.
  7. I would have to talk over them and make the session somehow all about me.
  8. I would have to deliberately and without motive whatsoever, engage in inculcating my clients to my values and beliefs.
  9. I would have to engage in provocative acts of any kind; for example, belittling my patients or by engaging in overwrought sarcasm.
  10. I would have to be truly judgmental and engage in a complete negative regard for my clients.

So, as this therapeutic day comes to a close, as I find myself worn out from teaching and counseling, at a time when I would most likely feel anxious and fearful of failure, how did I do?

The answer is, simply, “nothing, nothing on THAT list anyway.”

I have probably committed no small number of errors, of missteps, of omissions, but at no time was I willfully, intentionally, wantonly committing to failing my clients or myself. I may have been cruel, but not without some amount of intentionality and care.* I may have been judgmental, but never about my client, only about their behaviors. And so forth.

I can sleep tonight knowing that I have avoided failure by a country mile.

Whether I was successful or not, well that’s for another list. At least I didn’t fail.

When you feel overwhelmed, ask yourself, “What am I afraid of?” If the answer is failure, then know this: You have to work very hard to be a failure. 


* Cruelty is often in the eye of the beholder. I subscribe to the tenets of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, or REBT, which include techniques for the active disputing of my clients’ beliefs. This is often seen as cruel by the patient. After all, they have worked long and hard to hold such beliefs! But it is those same beliefs that are the source of so much trouble. Therefore, I dispute them. I question the client as Dr. Phil might, by asking, “how’s that working out for you?” If done with intentionality, if done with therapeutic care, the idea that I was somehow being cruel soon dissipates.
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22nd Street Road and Rail – the Journey

When we moved to Australia in 2012, I had to dismantle my amazing shelf-layout of model trains in Reno. The shelves ran throughout the second story of our home on Fescue Court. Taking about two years to build, the layout ran through walls, in and out of the attic, through bathrooms, and back into my home office. When my daughter lived with us, I used to wake her up in the mornings by parking a freight train in her room and blowing the whistle.

Computer-controlled, the gauge was “O” and I ran mostly Mike’s Train House trains (“MTH,” a competitor to Lionel Corporation). The trains went into storage for the time we were down under. At one point, I calculated about a $50,000 investment all told. I am down from that now, and they have probably depreciated even more, but such is a hobby!

Upon our return from Adelaide, and now with the new home and its HUGE basement, I have the chance to run them once again! This page will document the “journey” of my collection of 100+ cars, 25 or so locomotives, and a variety of structures and gadgets. Please revisit this page often for newly uploaded photos!

22nd Street Road and Rail Photo Log

Photo LogCommentary
I ordered my bench-work from www.mianne.com, who built it to my specifications. What I wanted, and got, was a hardwood I-beam design with hardwood legs, assembled with cams and cam-dowels much like what you get from Ikea. The entire 8' x 8' setup arrived in two boxes, each weighing about 40 pounds. Amazing!
In this picture, you can see the legs with the levelers installed. You can also see part of the train collection gathering dust along the southern wall of our basement. The levelers were very easy to install, using the pre-drilled hole and then the leveler nut supplied by Mianne. To the right of the legs are the various 4 foot and 2 foot I-beams which, when connected together, will form the lattice of the bench-work itself. Note that the skeletal design and parts does not include the table top, which I will have to buy separately.
Alright, so here is a wider shot of the basement and the assembled cars and locos gathering dust. Among them are the various structures and gadgets that will be set amidst the track once that is laid. This spot in the basement is perfect for an 8x8 layout. It will allow for about 3 feet all around for walk-around train and layout management. The television is there on purpose: While I work away this winter I can catch up on television shows!
I turned around and took this picture of the "other end," the northern end, of the basement, crowded with everything that was moved from the southern end. Stay tuned. We have ordered a super-duper treadmill for that space and will organize the weights accordingly. Along the walls are the books we have decided are "keepers" from 50 years of accumulation by two old academics.
The I-Beams prior to cam insertion. Note the pre-drilled hole. The cam goes into the hole aligned in such a way as to receive the cam dowels (see next picture). Then, they are tightened to achieve a fit that is far better than screw-and-glue, and removable to boot!
Here are three of about 35 I-Beams with the cams installed. In the next picture you will see the leg assemblies with the cam dowels and guide pins installed, ready to connect to the I-Beams.
In this picture you can see the hundreds of parts involved with the bench-work shipped from Mianne. Remember, I had asked for a design that allowed me to take down the bench-work should we ever move again. The days of disposable train layouts are over!
Above I mentioned the cam-dowels. Here is a detail shot of a cam-dowel screwed into a leg, awaiting the guide pins and then the I-Beam connection. They are amazingly easy to screw in; in fact, I could do many of them by hand, with only a slight torque of a screw-driver (a number 3 Phillips head) to ensure a tight fit.
Okay, so here we see all the legs with cam-dowels and guide pins installed. Time for lunch! By the way, the entire thing took about 6 hours to put together, including time for a wonderful lunch provided by my bride.
Watching me all the while were Macy the Schnauzer, and Markie the Cat. "Supervising," I should say. Macy is over 9 years old and doing well. Markie is one year old this October.
Here is a leg with two, 2-foot I-Beams attached. It really is a simple matter of lining up the hole on the I-Beam with the cam-dowel and guide pins, sliding it on, then tightening with a Number 3 Phillips screwdriver. The strength is amazing. When done, I will be able to walk on the bench-work, even at my current "fighting weight" of 320 pounds!
Fast forward somewhat to an assembled table section. There will be two such section, one each in opposite corners of the overall table. In the next picture, I share with you the schematic of the overall table design. Note the combination of 2 foot and 4 foot I-Beams.
Mianne supply a color-coded schematic of the design ordered. Purple indicates the 4-foot I-Beams, while yellow is of the 2-footers. All made with a combination of poplar and MDF board. Poplar, by the way, is grown in managed forests both in the northeast and northwest of the USA (and probably Canada). The wood is hard but with a light grain and therefore highly resistant to splitting. Remarkable.
Halfway! In this picture you can see the juxtaposed tables mentioned above, with the furthest corner completely attached. You can also begin to get a sense for the walk-around space I'll have.
Almost done! I have only a couple of 4-foot I-Beams to add, and then the table is finished. BY the way, I specified an unusually high table - 45 inches high, to be exact - to allow me to work the trains with a minimal amount of bending over, to dissuade the "little ones" from jumping on the layout, and to provide for extra storage beneath. The ultimate table will feature curtain ruffles around the front and sides, with an open back. Curtains are better. You can part them and get under the table for eventual wiring and trouble-shooting.
And here it is! DONE! About 6 hours of relatively easy work. Playing the background was a YouTube video of Mianne's founder, Tim Foley, explaining various aspects of the design. It is without question, the nicest bench-work I have ever had for trains. The table top will be of 1/2 inch poplar plywood. I intend to use a sound-deadening material used by tile layers as the means of minimizing train noise. The exact track layout plan is still in development, but stay tuned. This log will be updated frequently.
And all of it was just in time. On Monday morning, we awoke to two inches of white stuff. No more lawns to mow! Let the winter hobby commence!
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Re-Reading Seneca

Glancing through a book I have on the life of Lucius Annaeus Seneca (or, most simply, Seneca), I am reminded of all that this great Stoic has to teach us in the modern day. Born nearly 2,000 years ago, this was a man of many contradictions but of considerable wisdom, from which we have much to learn.

Seneca and another famous stoic, Marcus Aurelius, used philosophy to live. They wanted to know how to use wisdom to navigate the inevitable pitfalls of life. The lessons you can draw from these works are timeless — that’s why we still read them today.

Here, then, some quotes, all of which I use in my practice as a therapist and as an executive mentor. And with them, my application:

A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials.

Think of that: as the pearl is born of friction, so too the man who wishes to reflect upon his living, his life, and his craft. What, you thought you’d get through this thing we call life alive and untouched? Not gonna happen. The friction of our lives are what grind us to a perfection of sorts.

Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness.

We must take the world as it is and hope for the best. Often, when we are confronted with evil, it is our projections that make it worse. Think of the worst person you know and then think of the trials and tribulations of their life.

We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.

Of course, this reminds me of what Epictetus had to say about “events” in life, and how we render them good or bad depending upon our view of them. Take a moment to look at a misfortune and consider its silver lining. I assure you that it has one. You are in charge of finding it.

A gift consists not in what is done or given, but in the intention of the giver or doer.

Intentionality is most nearly everything. Think here of the legal dictate, mens rea, and the requirement that the guilty actor have a criminal conscience. Websters defines mens rea as, “the intention or knowledge of wrongdoing that constitutes part of a crime, as opposed to the action or conduct of the accused.” I blow through red lights all the time, but most of the time it is not my intention to break the law. Not that simple.

All cruelty springs from weakness.

This one takes some time to truly “get,” insofar as we most often see cruelty as an act of strength. It is, in fact, an act of weakness, for when we think ourselves as weak, we act accordingly. The lesson? Do not ever give away your power.

As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.

Have you done good in life? Are you – today – doing good? This reminds me of the Eight Fold Noble Path of the Buddhists. Within that Path the idea that right thinking begets right action.

If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favorable.

In other words, do not rely upon the Gods for your sense of “true north,” rely not upon the wind. Set your course and the tiller and hold fast.

He suffers more than necessary, who suffers before it is necessary.

This goes to the notion of “anticipatory anxiety,” and the incessant worry about the future that we heap upon ourselves. I have thought myself a million times into problems, but never once out of them. Think about that.

Timendi causa est nescire – Ignorance is the cause of fear.

What do you fear? And what about that (whatever) do you not know? The less you know about something, the more you shall fear it. Pure and simple. If you cannot truly know, then do not fear it. ‘Tis a waste of time.

It does not matter what you bear, but how you bear it.

Seneca predates Jesus and the cross that he carried, and the class with which he bore it to Golgotha. How you carry your burdens in life says much about you.

The man who has anticipated the coming of troubles takes away their power when they arrive.

Bing Crosby used to day, “I anticipate the worst, hope for the best, and most often wind up in between.” If we reflect upon the trajectory of our lives and then upon those things which might go wrong, we are (as Grandma used to say) prepared. Forget luck, for luck is merely the intersection of preparation and opportunity. The key word is preparation.

And finally …

The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.

Yes, the whole of the future lay way out there. But as I write this, my future is slithering past me. If I live for the now, I am living in the now as it was just a few seconds ago. “Waste not time, for such is the stuff of life,” said our Benjamin Franklin.

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Smile and the Whole World Smiles Along

This post will be about smiling. You know – the opposite of frowning. In fact, I am smiling as I write this. My wife says I have an impish smile. I think she has a radiant smile. But I know people who cannot smile at all. And it elicits from me a frown. It is THAT contagious.

When people are “forced” to smile – that is, when they are asked to come up with their own version of a smile – they found it to be equally contagious and rather intoxicating.

Smiling is its own reward. But how can we force a smile in someone who cannot summon the energy it takes to smile. And make no mistake, it does take some amount of energy to force ourselves to something that isn’t a natural reflex.

You probably are familiar with the pencil technique. Here, I’ll show you: Stick a big, bad Number 2 Ticonderoga in your mouth, between your lips. I guarantee it will make you frown. But if, instead, you put it in your teeth, it will make you smile. Simple as that.

In moments of distress, I tell my clients to, “…turn to Ticonderoga!”

This is by no means an original thought on my part (sadly, not much is).  My own grandmother suggested it, and her grandmother before that. But can it really make a difference in how we feel?

Turns out, yes, it does.

In 1974, a Dr. Laird and his compatriots conducted two experiments in which they manipulated an independent variable (people’s facial expressions) through means not disclosed to the study participations. The participants were shown cartoons from the newspaper. Laird and Company attached wires, electrodes, to the participants’ faces at the eyebrows, on their jaws, and at the corners of their mouths. The participants were then asked to contract their facial muscles, as best they could, at these specific places. The hypothesis was that if an individual’s mouth was manipulated into the form of a smile, it would change their opinion of the cartoon strip. It was also done using humorous video clips. And, in fact, when smiling, their perception of humor in the cartoon or the clip rose, dramatically at times, but never decreased.

A Dr. Strack and his research buddies did something similar in 1988. They asked participants to hold a pencil between their teeth rating the degree of humor in a series of newspaper cartoons. Holding the pencil in the mouth this way forced the individuals to smile. Meanwhile, other study subjects were asked to hold the pencil between their lips without touching the pencil with their teeth. This forced the muscles to contract resulting in a frown. The hypothesis was that participants who were led to smile would judge the cartoons as funnier than participants who were led to frown. And, again, this is precisely what occurred, to dramatic effect.

Those, then, were the seminal studies. Since then, other researchers have looked at various sub-criteria of smiling, for example the so-called fake smile, the extent to which teeth are exposed in a smile or how much of the cheek is lifted or corners of the mouth raised. Those researchers have discovered that there is a greater effect on a person’s experience with positive events (funny video clips or cartoons) when such sub-criteria are forced.

The bottom line here is this: the bigger the smile, the greater the effect, and that smiling during brief periods of stress may help reduce the body’s stress response, regardless of whether the person actually feels happy or not.

Moreover, smiling does indeed get the world to smile along. Consider how smiling …

  1.  Makes Us Attractive to others There is an automatic attraction to people who smile.
  2. Changes our Mood. If you try, even when it’s difficult, to smile when you are not feeling good, there is a change it might improve your affect and change the way you are feeling.
  3. is Contagious. Others will want to be with you. You will be helping others feel good.
  4. Relieves Stress. It is tough to hide stress from coming out on our faces. When we smile, it can help us look better, less tired, less worn down.
  5. Boosts the Immune System. Smiling can stimulate your immune response by helping you relax.
  6. Lowers Blood Pressure When you smile, there is evidence that your blood pressure can decrease.
  7. Releases Endorphins and Serotonin. Research has reported that smiling releases endorphins, which are natural pain relievers, along with serotonin, which is also associated with feel good properties.

Remember, smiling doesn’t cost you anything, makes you infinitely more attractive, and makes the world a better place for all of us!

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Fair Fighting Rules

I am often asked, “What is fair in the fights my husband and I have?”

Let’s face it, every invention of man must carry some rules to help define it. Think of the operating manuals you get with the coffee maker or the new 60-inch Samsung flat screen, your new lawn edger, or even the iPhone X. Every organization, every sport, every endeavor we care to be a part of seems to have its own set of rules. They define the boundaries, of what is fair and unfair, expected and not expected, and render operations as somewhat more predictable.

In short, rules provide safety and structure. They ensure, or at least make it somewhat possible, for all participants to know what the hell is going on, to strategize, and to (ahem) resolve disagreements.

This applies to marriages as much as it applies to football or basketball or to how you would probably not use your iPhone to edge your lawn (although that cannot be too far off in the future!). Resolving conflict in marriages is hard work, complex, and sorely in need of an owner’s manual (they do exist, by the way – just check Amazon). Without rules, such resolution is fleeting and sure to be short-lived if achieved at all.

As the great therapist Nathan Cobb has said …

… conflict does not have to be unsafe, unpredictable and without purpose. When spouses are committed to following a set of rules, conflict can be an opportunity for couples to grow their “cooperation muscles.” Handling conflict constructively can even help couples develop greater closeness through achieving mutual understanding, learning to cooperate, taking each other’s perspective, and resolving problems together.

This post will outline ten rules for fair fighting. I would encourage you to print them out and put them up on the refrigerator. And, then, refer to them every time conflict looms like a thundercloud.

  1. No degrading language. Degradation occurs when we engage in name-calling, in insults, put-downs, and even swearing. When you are name-calling, you are eliciting in your partner the “fight or flight response.” It is a call to arms, a call to do whatever they need to do to protect themselves. Moreover, it is a function of attacking the sinner rather than the sin; of degrading the person rather than their behavior. It can and often does leave scar tissue.
  2.  No blaming.Think about it: blaming is a distraction and distances you from resolution. It is yet another invitation for your partner to engage in defensive talk and will surely escalate, rather than deescalate, the argument. It may feel good for a moment, but it too leaves scar tissue. It may even touch deep-seated fears that the other person may have about themselves. It is a close cousin to judgment, another of the results of putting the blame on someone else. Instead, I would invite you to stay focused on the relationship and to endeavor to keep it intact at all costs, and to find solutions rather than culprits.
  3.  No yelling. If you are a teacher, then you know that yelling at your students is counter-productive. They stop listening and they start reacting. The conversation, such as it was, is shut down. And, again, it may touch some deep-seated pain associated with raised voices. The bottom line is the message: if it cannot be delivered without yelling, then it is probably not the right message. Make a concerted effort to lower your voice. We know from research and just plain old common sense, that a lowered voice invites listeners into the conversation rather than shutting them out. And if you cannot lower your voice, then it’s clear that ‘now’ is the not the right time to be discussing the matter.
  4. No use of force. The threat of physical force, and the use of physical force itself, is at all times unacceptable. Period. Full stop. It accomplishes nothing except to render the relationship then, and into the foreseeable future, as an unsafe space. Even punching a hole in the stucco, or kicking the cat, will send that message. Each of us, especially in marriage, have a right to safety, to a home free of physical abuse. As with raised voices, I would suggest you remove yourself and go somewhere to cool down. You can have a fair fight without force. If you feel as if you cannot, then call and schedule a session with me.
  5. No talk of divorce or dissolution. Now we are into the manipulation that so many of us fear. We are talking here of “conditional love,” of the idea that it is “my way or the highway.” A threat such as that elicits in our partners deep-seated fears of abandonment and suggests a certain immaturity on the part of the other. It erodes trust. And it sorta sends the message that the problem is big, huge, and irresolvable. It isn’t.
  6. Talk about YOUR needs and wants, not your partner’s. As my couples clients will attest, one of the first questions I ask them when they present for couples therapy is: “Whose behavior can you control?” The answer is never anything but, “my own.” Instructing your partner on what THEY should want or need is patronizing, controlling, presumptuous and, frankly, immature. THEY get to decide what they want and need. Moreover, it is the epitome of wasted energy in a relationship to spend time analyzing your partner. In the alternative, spend the energy identifying your own wants, your unmet needs, and on constructing the approach to the matter (whatever it may be). YOU are the expert in YOUR world and no one else’s.
  7. Stay in the present, always. Resist the temptation to go back in time. At base, it is discouraging to be reminded of past transgression, especially when we have worked hard to resolve them, to make amends for them, and to grow from them. Besides, you cannot change the past! You can only change your behavior and contribute to a better today and tomorrow. Moreover, if you are forever dredging the past, the chances are that the past conflict was never satisfactorily resolved. Get therapy. And remember to discuss issues as they happen rather than allowing them to fester.
  8. Take turns speaking.One of my teachers from elementary school would calm an unruly class by reminding everyone that she had a “talking stick” and wasn’t afraid to use it. Her rule was simple: one speaker at a time. And, in a marriage, that means one listener at a time. Think of how frustrating it is to you to have someone forever interrupting you, or talking on top of you. Remember that feeling and apply it to fair marital fights. Oh, and don’t go using your “listening time” to compose your come-back, your rebuttal. REALLY LISTEN.
  9. No stonewalling. This means being present in the moment, being committed to a resolution, and earnestly remaining committed to NOT kicking the can down the road. “Not now, honey,” is not a good refrain. There is no better time than now.
  10. And finally, if you need to, take a time-out.Think here of football and the battle that rages on the gridiron. Things are getting fired up, the teams are really engaged and hammering away, and then … the coach calls a time-out. WTF? Well, he (or she) may be seeing something you are not. He may be seeing too much passion and not enough discipline. By slowing things down, the coach is saying, “OK, we need to refocus. We need to keep a larger picture in mind.”If you find yourself violating any of the rules above, then it is time for a time-out. Pure and simple. You have lost sight of the goal. You have lost perspective.

    How long? Well, 30 minutes is good. It takes at least that long to return the body’s metabolism from “fight” to normal. It takes at least that long to lose the urge to react rather than respond. Thirty minutes, an hour, two hours, but never more than 24 hours. And, yes, it is dangerous to go to bed mad.

In conclusion, remember this: many partners grew up in households, in so-called families-of-origin, where yelling, blaming, name-calling and finger wagging was the norm. The fact is – no one “wins” such arguments. Not then, not now.

Or as my grandma used to say, “don’t fight like a pig in the mud. Everyone gets wet and messy but the pig loves it.”

 

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Enantiodromia – Moving to Extremes

Carl Jung

Enantiodromia – or, how to play on the see-saw all by yourself. This article examines a number of subjects including Carl Jung’s notion of enantiodromia, cognitive dissonance, with a little Rogerian incongruity thrown in for good measure. As always, let me know if it was useful to you – or not. I do enjoy hearing my many readers!

 

I use the term enantiodromia for the emergence of the unconscious opposite in the course of time. In the philosophy of Heraclitus it is used to designate the play of opposites in the course of events—the view that everything that exists turns into its opposite….

— C. G. Jung (1949)

In my practice as a therapist, I frequently refer to enantiodromia – as did one of my favorite professor s of all time, Dr. Christian Conte – when explaining the very human tendency to move from one extreme to its polar opposite.

It is a compound of two Greek words:  enantios (which in Greek can mean “opposite”), and dramein (“to run” from the Greek dromas, for “running”).  For example, in describing reactions to events, many of my clients will initially express anger, envy, or revulsion (certainly extremes) but quickly move, by dint of guilt perhaps or a sense of having overreacted, to shame and embarrassment at having had such thoughts (the other extreme). It is the emotional see-saw that can leave so many of us wrung-out.

What of this? Why is it a decidedly human response to our own thoughts? And what can be done about it?

In my view, this run to the opposite is a function of an overwrought sense of embarrassment at having taken such an extreme position. It is a function of shame arising from a profound psychic dissonance. Or, as Carl Rogers might have put it, an extreme sense of incongruity. We sense an imbalance and to correct that imbalance, as on a see-saw, we run to the other side. 

Of course, this amounts to playing see-saw all by ourselves. We cannot, by the laws of nature, achieve a balance of both sides without first getting off the see-saw and gingerly manipulating the bar to some sort of equilibrium.

This is where therapy or the willing ear of a good friend comes in. The ability, if you will, to get off the see-saw and to raise or lower the bar to its balancing point.

Can it be done by ourselves? Yes, but it takes practice and an understanding of the so-called ten cognitive distortions (of which I have written about before in this blog). Further, it takes the truly human insight that “dissonance happens.” We are confronted every day by our view of events which can leave us depleted, tired, and hungry. As the great Greek philosopher and stoic Epictetus said …

“Men are not disturbed by things, but by their view of things.”

Take for instance the very real human tendency to compare oneself to others. It is perhaps, the number one source of cognitive dissonance (aside from graduate studies!). With the advent of social media it has become a source of depressive thinking, anxiety, and downright worthlessness. The fact is, of course, that you can always find someone better off than yourself – someone with more money, better looks (or, so you think), a better body, a bigger house, a better looking girl- or boy-friend … the list is endless.

We know nothing about what is “really” happening with other people (remembering here the maxim that there are only two kinds of people in the world, those with issues and the dead). We can, however, safely assume that they are doing precisely the same thing – comparing themselves to others – but in differing degrees. It is a human tendency.

So, the dissonance which results from the comparison – that “gap” between the ideal of the comparator and our present condition – devolves into the aforementioned feelings of worthlessness, depression, anxiety … you name it.  The trick is to, first, acknowledge the gap in our thinking; that distance between what is real and what is ideal. Or, between that which is idealized and how I see myself.

It is important to recognize that there is always a gap, but the width is up to you. No two people are the same – therefore, there will be a gap between what you are and what they are. But it is the wild assumptions we make about people that contribute to the widening gaps and the dissonance which settles in that space.

Second, therefore, is the need to stop and dispute your assumptions. What do you really know about that other person? Probably not nearly as much as you think. And being pretty or handsome does not mean that they have the perfect life, worthy of your envy (not that anything is worthy of envy).

In fact, their lives may be every bit as miserable as you think yours is!

I want you also to dispute the assumptions you are making about yourself and the conclusion that “mine is a miserable life.” Oh yeah? Really? Tell you what, let’s fly down to Santiago, Chili, and as we land I will point out the slums at the north end of the runway. The acres of cardboard and tin shacks where running water happens only when it rains or as the snow melts. Or let’s run off to Dhaka, the Capital of Bangladesh, where a cardboard shack would be the equivalent of moving uptown!

No, your life is probably just fine.

Next step is to close the gap. And you do that by, (a) disputing your assumptions (See step 2), (b) imagining what life would be like were you not you as you are but as you would like to be, and (c), the means by which you would get there.

For example, I look at the guy who has just parked his gorgeous, new Mercedes next to my 10-year-old Ford truck, in our company’s parking lot. I begin imagining what a wonderful life he must have, his beautiful wife awaiting him at home, his well-adjusted children beavering away in the best schools, his solid career as a highly paid-something (I know not what), and an ever-appreciating trust fund just dripping with dividends and interest.

I have in one-fell-swoop created the Ideal, the Comparator. I have also, in so doing, depreciated my state of affairs. I referred to my truck, for example, as being ten years old, and therefore not new. And the difference between the Ideal, the Comparator, and me, will quickly fill with dissonance, like a mudslide.

Here is what I have learned with age:

  1. The Mercedes is overpriced and over-valued. It is without question a status symbol.
  2. It is usually not paid for and requires an investment every month just for insurance.
  3. It is quite possible that the guy is a Mercedes salesman and gets the car for free, while making a lot less than I do.
  4. His wife is far from beautiful and is in fact undeniably homely and caustic. The Mercedes is actually her’s and she ordered him to get the oil changed today.
  5. The children, one of whom is a delinquent and the other pregnant, wont make it out of high school.
  6. The trust fund is nonexistent; in fact, his in-laws, his wife’s mom and dad, are in a rest home and every extra dime goes toward the living expenses.

The list could go on. I have narrowed the gap. But what of my envy at having a shiny new Mercedes? This requires that I sit back and evaluate the many choices I’ve made in life, up to this point, and the many choices I am sure to have in the future. What am I prepared to do today and in the future to be able to buy that Mercedes? Am I ready to commit to those choices, to that path?

Given that the Mercedes Company is literally pushing their cars out the door, what with zero percent interest and all, I have no doubt that I could buy one. But what then? Will my life be any better? Will I have the financial freedom to do other things, or will I be constrained by a Mercedes payment for the foreseeable future? My questions are working to close the gap from the other side. Suddenly, given the choices I would have to make, the things I would have to give up, my little old, ten-year-old Ford truck doesn’t look so bad.

The nature of enantiodromia is this human tendency to rush toward that ideal, or to jump to conclusions (as Grandma used to say). Once there, however, and once we have worked to “close the gap,” we often bounce to the other extreme, one of self-recrimination and self-doubt. We actually get mad at ourselves for having been so silly.

Enantiodromia, in my view of the concept, is hard work and without any payoff whatsoever. It could be (and this is the case with so many of my clients) that the wild swings are of value, perversely so, and that they somehow work to keep oneself in balance.

Jung would say, “nonsense.” The emotional energy required for such swings is so significant that it creates a clinically significant fatigue.  Jung recognized the value of the concept in explicating the workings of the psyche. It is not just some relic of ancient philosophy but a psychological law which is unfailingly valid in personal affairs. And a complete waste of time.

Extreme one-sided thinking builds up a tension in our psyche, for which the eventual and unavoidable “conversion” is a rush to the opposite pole. Jung sought to encourage in his patients the living of a balanced live—not falling into one-sidedness—and the inevitable result that we won’t have to experience the overwhelment and lack of control that an enantiodromic experience involves.

Ask yourself, “What am I getting from these ceaseless comparisons?” “Have I forgotten to count my many blessings?”

If you find yourself angry, or stuck, or somehow conceiving of yourself as worthless, stop for a moment and reflect on how you may be playing a one-person game of see-saw. Crawl off the see-saw.

Or, in the words of Bob Newhart, the therapist, “stop it!”

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Depression Could be A Physical Reaction to Stress

Some theorists in psychotherapy have long held that depression is choice. To some extent, they are right insofar as attitude is a key determinant to overall mental health and well-being. William Glasser, pictured here, posited that depression could be recast as the verb “depressing,” and treated through his patented Choice Therapy.

But from a recent study, we are hearing that this may not be the case.

This is from a study recently published in a précis ahead of this years’ Academy of Medical Sciences Forum in London. I am reproducing it here for the benefit of my research class, as an example of cause and effect investigations. The actual article will be produced once available to me. Bear in mind that this has been written for a British audience. But it is no less applicable to an American one.

Depression could be treated using anti-inflammatory drugs, scientists now believe, after determining that it is a physical illness caused by a faulty immune system.

Around one in 13 people in Britain suffers from anxiety or depression and last year the NHS issued 64.7 million prescriptions for antidepressants, double the amount given out a decade ago.

Current treatment is largely centered around restoring mood-boosting chemicals in the brain, such as serotonin, but experts now think an overactive immune system triggers inflammation throughout the entire body, sparking feelings of hopelessness, unhappiness and fatigue.

It may be a symptom of the immune system failing to switch off after a trauma or illness, and is like the low mood people often experience when they are fighting a virus, like flu.

A raft of recent papers, and unexpected results from clinical trials, have shown that treating inflammation seems to alleviate depression.

Likewise, when doctors give drugs to boost the immune system to fight illness it is often accompanied by depressive mood – in the same way as how many people feel down after a vaccination.

Professor Ed Bullmore, Head of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, believes a new field of ‘immuno-neurology’ is on the horizon.

“It’s pretty clear that inflammation can cause depression,” he told a briefing in London to coincide with this week’s Academy of Medical Sciences FORUM annual lecture which has brought together government the NHS and academics to discuss the issue.

“In relation to mood, beyond reasonable doubt, there is a very robust association between inflammation and depressive symptoms. We give people a vaccination and they will become depressed. Vaccine clinics could always predict it, but they could never explain it.

“The question is does the inflammation drive the depression or vice versa or is it just a coincidence? In experimental medicine studies if you treat a healthy individual with an inflammatory drug, like interferon, a substantial percentage of those people will become depressed. So, we think there is good enough evidence for a causal effect.”

Scientists at Cambridge and the Wellcome Trust are hoping to begin trials next year to test whether anti-inflammatory drugs could switch off depression.

“There is evidence to suggest it should work,” added Prof Bullmore.

The immune system triggers an inflammatory response when it feels it is under threat, sparking wide-ranging changes in the body such as increasing red blood cells, in anticipation that it may need to heal a wound soon.

Scientists believe that associated depression may have brought an evolutionary benefit to our ancestors. If an ill or wounded tribal member became depressed and withdrawn it would prevent a disease being passed on.

However, a link has taken so long to establish because until recently scientists believed the brain was entirely cut off from the immune system, trapped behind a ‘Berlin Wall’ known as the blood brain barrier.

But recent studies have shown that nerve cells in the brain are linked to immune function and one can have an impact on the other. Around 60 per cent of people referred to cardiologists with chest pain do not have a heart problem but are suffering from anxiety.

Figures also show that around 30 per cent of people suffering from inflammatory diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis are depressed – more than four times higher than the normal population.

Likewise, people who are depressed after a heart attack are much more likely to suffer a second one, while the lifespan for people with cancer is hugely reduced for people with mental illness.

“You can’t separate the mind from the body,” said Prof Sir Robert Lechler, President of the Academy of Medical Sciences.
“The immune system does produce behavior. You’re not just a little bit miserable if you’ve got a long-term condition, there is a real mechanistic connection between the mind, the nervous system and the immune system.

“Our model of healthcare is outdated. We have a separation. Mental healthcare is delivered by mental health professionals, psychiatrists, mental health nurses and so on, often in separate premises from where physical health care is delivered and that is simply wrong, and we need to find ways to ever more closely integrate and train amphibious healthcare professionals who can straddle this divide.”

Research has also shown that people who have suffered severe emotional trauma in their past have inflammatory markers in their body, suggesting their immune system is constantly firing, as if always on guard against abuse.

Dr Alan Carson, Reader in Neuropsychiatry, at the University of Edinburgh, said: “All psychiatric and neurological disorders are based in brain and brain is not static but structurally and functionally responsive to a range of biological, psychological and social issues.

“Yet institutionally we use an outmoded code which separates brain disorders into psychiatric ‘f’ codes and neurological ‘g’ codes which holds back both scientific and clinical progress.”
Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at mental health charity Mind, said more research was vital to pick apart the various causes of depression and find new treatments.

“We must acknowledge a wide range of potential causes and treatments,” he said. “For many people, long term physical illness can cause mental health problems, such as depression. This could be because of the impact of living with the illness, the pain and discomfort or side effects of medication, among many other reasons.

“We also need to look at people’s broader experiences, their lives and other challenges they face – such as a lack of access to services, experience of abuse or trauma, poor housing and exclusion, to ensure everyone with a mental health problem gets the support they need.”

One promising treatment for depression on the horizon is the use of electrical stimulation to change the signals between the brain and the immune system.

Prof Kevin Tracey, President and CEO, of the American Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, discovered that the brain controls production of a deadly inflammatory chemical called TNF, which if released in high doses can be fatal, causing people to, literally, die of shock.

He has recently developed an electrical device which reproduces the connection and switches off the chemical. Three quarters of patients with rheumatoid arthritis recovered following trials.

“This is the tip of the iceberg of a new field called bio-electric medicine,” he said.

“This is a new way of thinking about medicine. We’re using electrons to replace drugs. This will not replace all drugs. But there will be many drugs that are either too expensive, too toxic which may be replaced by these devices.”

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Walk around naked at home? Do you swear? Turns out, you’re probably pretty smart!

Intelligent people are more likely to swear and walk around naked at home, according to a new study.

Quizzing about 1,000 people on 400 typical behaviors, researchers at the University of Rochester found that extroverts are prone to telling dirty jokes, while those with agreeable personalities are more likely to sing in the shower.

During the study, participants were asked if they performed each of the 400 behaviors, and how often. The results were then compared with their own personalities, with the aim being to identify signature behaviors for each of the main personality types.

The findings, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, revealed each personality had its own unique behaviors. People with higher intellects were more likely to curse, eat spicy breakfasts and lounge around the house naked, while extroverts were more likely to drive cars faster that 75 mph, gamble, and go to their local bar.

Agreeable people had behaviors that benefited others and conscientious people were focused on avoiding irresponsible behaviors.

These studies are interesting but probably not very revealing. Researchers are often trying to find correlations to predict human behavior. The trouble here is that they had to rely upon “self-report” from the participants. I’m a pretty smart guy but I don’t lounge around the house without any clothes on. But I DO cuss a lot. And I drive a LOT faster than 75 mph. So, then, what does that predict?

I don’t know, but the study was interesting nonetheless.

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:-) What? Are you stupid or something?

Smiling emoticons in work related e-mails portray low competence, according to a new study.

This was simply too good not to put up on my blog immediately.

The paper, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science on July 31st, also suggested such emojis could undermine information sharing and may not create a positive reaction regarding the communication.  The study was conducted by researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), Beer-Shiva, Israel; University of Haifa, Israel; and Amsterdam University, The Netherlands.

They conducted a series of experiments with 549 participants from 29 countries. Not a huge sample by any means, but the findings were apparently significant (in a statistical sense).

According to the study, while smiling during face-to-face communication was perceived as warm and indicated more competence with regards to the first impressions created, a text-based representation of a smile in computer-mediated communication did not have the same effect.

“Our findings provide first-time evidence that, contrary to actual smiles, smileys do not increase perceptions of warmth and actually decrease perceptions of competence,” said Ella Glikson, a post-doctorate fellow at the BGU Department of Management, Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business and Management, according to a news release.  “In formal business e-mails, a smiley is not a smile.”

In one of the three experiments conducted, participants were asked to read a work-related email and then assess the competence and warmth of the person. While the messages remained similar for all participants, some e-mails included smileys. The researchers found that unlike face-to-face communication, smileys did not have any effect on the perception of warmth, and in fact had a negative effect regarding perception of competence.

“The study also found that when the participants were asked to respond to e-mails on formal matters, their answers were more detailed and they included more content-related information when the e-mail did not include a smiley,” said Glikson. “We found that the perceptions of low competence if a smiley is included in turn undermined information sharing.”

“When you meet somebody for the first time, face to face, smiling is normal. Is a smiley or smile by email considered equivalent? No. Really no. It does not create that perception of warmth, of friendliness. It does not achieve that, whatever we might expect,” said Arik Cheshin of the University of Haifa’s Department of Human Services, a co-author of the study, according to a report by Haaretz (a news agency).

Another experiment saw the use of a smiley compared to a smiling or neutral photograph in a work-related email. This experiment found that the smiling sender was perceived as more competent and friendly than the neutral sender.

The study also contributed to the discussion of the role of gender with regards to use and interpretation of emoticons. When the gender of the sender was unknown, participants were more likely to assume the sender was a woman if it included a smiley. According to the news release, however, this had no influence on assessing competence and friendliness.

“People tend to assume that a smiley is a virtual smile, but the findings of this study show that in the case of the workplace, at least as far as initial ‘encounters’ are concerned, this is incorrect,” Glikson concluded. “For now, at least, a smiley can only replace a smile when you already know the other person. In initial interactions, it is better to avoid using smileys, regardless of age or gender.”

I really never liked emoticons. And as of today, I intend to stop using them altogether. 🙂

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Circles of Competence

In the professions of counseling and executive mentoring we often speak of our scope of competence. What that means is this: we know what we can do and work to expand that scope, but we also understand what we cannot do and work to refer our clients to others who have that (whatever it is) in their scope of competence.

Warren Buffet calls this the circle of competence. In business, it is often referred to as a firm’s “core competency.” Knowing what that is, and outsourcing the rest, is the key to sustainable business excellence.

As an aside, yesterday Cindy, Julietta, and I, were stuck in a traffic backup on Interstate 80. As we looked at the many large trucks idling around us, waiting as we were for the accident ahead to be cleared, Julietta asked about a truck’s insignia, parked next to us, which read: Logistics.

I am not sure when the term logistics took off. Surely, as a concept, it has been around for a long time. In brief, logistics companies do for you what you would rather not do for yourself. They do for you what you are not good at. They allow you to focus on those things that you do do well – your core competency.

What an investor needs is the ability to correctly evaluate selected businesses. Note that word “selected”: You don’t have to be an expert on every company, or even many. You only have to be able to evaluate companies within your circle of competence. The size of that circle is not very important; knowing its boundaries, however, is vital.

Thus began Warren Buffett in a shareholder letter of many years ago.  And the concept of a Circle of Competence is simple: Each of us, through experience or study, has built up useful knowledge on certain areas of the world. Some areas are understood by most of us, while some areas require a lot more specialty to evaluate.

For example, most of us have a basic understanding of the economics of a restaurant: You rent or buy space, spend money to outfit the place and then hire employees to seat, serve, cook, and clean. (And, if you don’t want to do it yourself, to manage.)

From there it’s a matter of generating enough traffic and setting the appropriate prices to generate a profit on the food and drinks you serve—after all of your operating expenses have been paid. Though the cuisine, atmosphere, and price points will vary by restaurant, they all have to follow the same economic formula.

That basic knowledge, along with some understanding of accounting and a little bit of study, would enable one to evaluate and invest in any number of restaurants and restaurant chains; public or private. It’s not all that complicated.

However, can most of us say we understand the workings of a microchip company or a biotech drug company at the same level? Perhaps not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But as Buffett so eloquently put it, we do not necessarily need to understand these more esoteric areas to invest capital. Far more important is to honestly define what we do know and stick to those areas. Our circle of competence can be widened, but only slowly and over time. Mistakes are most often made when straying from this discipline.

The essential question he sought to answer: Where should we devote our limited time in life, in order to achieve the most success? Here’s a simple prescription:

You have to figure out what your own aptitudes are. If you play games where other people have the aptitudes and you don’t, you’re going to lose. And that’s as close to certain as any prediction that you can make. You have to figure out where you’ve got an edge. And you’ve got to play within your own circle of competence.

If you want to be the best tennis player in the world, you may start out trying and soon find out that it’s hopeless—that other people blow right by you. However, if you want to become the best plumber in Pittsburgh, that is probably doable by two-thirds of you. It takes a will. It takes the intelligence. But after a while, you’d gradually know all about plumbing in Pittsburgh and master the art. That is an attainable objective, given enough discipline. And people who could never win a chess tournament or stand in center court in a respectable tennis tournament can rise quite high in life by slowly developing a circle of competence—which results partly from what they were born with and partly from what they slowly develop through work.

So, the simple takeaway here is clear. If you want to improve your odds of success in life and business then define the perimeter of your circle of competence, and operate inside. Over time, work to expand that circle but never fool yourself about where it stands today, and never be afraid to say “I don’t know.”

Or, as Dirty Harry has said, “A man’s GOT to know his limitations.”

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