Trigger Happy

The vast majority of us humans (if not all of us) get triggered.  We get triggered whether we notice and distinguish it or not.  A trigger is an automatic emotional response.  They feel like instincts, like involuntary reflexes that are outside of our control.  The most problematic ones tend to be negative emotions, that is, emotions that we probably wouldn’t consciously choose to experience.  Because of this and because they seem to happen to us rather than by us, we don’t tend to take ownership of them.  We say things like, “she made me angry” or “he made me feel guilty.”  Sometimes our triggered responses make sense to us as outside forces beyond our control and we incorporate them into the stories we tell ourselves.
Why do some people or situations trigger us, while others don’t? Some statements that are false about us or that we disagree with trigger us while some don’t.  Why? If someone were to say something to me like “Your blue hair is ugly,” I would not get triggered.  I know that I don’t have blue hair.   Someone’s saying this to me may pique my curiosity; but it wouldn’t threaten my beliefs about my worth.  On the other hand, if someone were to say something like “the outfit you’re wearing looks stupid,” I may get triggered rather than simply acknowledging the fact that people vary in their tastes in clothing.  So why does this trigger me?  This is where some judgment-free self-examination and curiosity is useful. Perhaps there is a part of me that agrees with them.  Maybe I shouldn’t trust my judgment.  What does this really mean about me and my worth?  It makes sense that a perceived threat would trigger a response.  The subtext may be something like I can’t even pick out the right clothes; what other “stupid” choices do I make?  And that narrative propagates and continues to threaten.   Alternatively, that triggered response could have a different source.  The unkind thing said to me could remind me of an unkind or judgmental remark I made in the past that I hadn’t apologized and/or forgiven myself for.  There are a number of possibilities; the point is that there is an opportunity for me to have a look, learn something, and choose to grow – choose to true up and align myself with my commitment to integrity.
It’s not always what someone says that triggers us.  It could be something they do or their way of being.  I remember recently being triggered by someone’s intensity and rigor, by what it seemed to me to be an arrogant, know-it-all attitude.  When I had a look at the facts of the situation– extricating them from my interpretation (my story), I realized that the person was only speaking powerfully and passionately about something they believed in.  I then asked myself if there was something in me that they were reminding me of that I hadn’t accepted or embraced.  I saw that this was the case.  Their behavior triggered my fear of being too much, of coming on too strong.  Because I had not fully embraced my own power, intensity, and passion, displays of those qualities by others triggered me.  Recognizing this gave me an opportunity to embrace my own power, intensity, and passion, which came with another gift: that individual no longer triggers me.  So triggers can be gifts if we practice noticing them and having an earnest, curious look.
We can learn to distinguish triggers by practicing mindful self-awareness, by intentionally inserting a space between stimulus and response.  Committed to my own freedom, to choosing rather than reacting, and to my own actualization, I try to practice this.  I see triggers as gifts.  Because of this, I suppose you could call me trigger happy.
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The Nuts and Bolts of Reaching Goals

Visualizing what you want and identifying why you want it is necessary, but usually not sufficient for actually achieving goals.  Getting clear and imagining what success looks, sounds, smells, and feels like is an essential part of motivation, setting the course, and recognizing when we’ve arrived; but it is only the first step.

The seminal work of Gabriele Oettingen, Rethinking Positive Thinking, explores the effect of visualization on the achievement of goals.  Data from the extensive studies she conducted show that not only is visualization not enough, but relying on it too much can actually lower the likelihood of achieving the goal visualized.  Not to worry, she also found that a technique she calls “Mental Contrasting,” when used in conjunction with visualization, dramatically increases the likelihood of goal achievement.  Mental Contrasting is the process of imagining the obstacles to achieving a goal; that is, the obstacles to carrying out a step or steps in the action plan put together for the purpose of the achieving said goal.  As an example, let’s start with a common goal: losing weight.  Study participants who spent time imagining obstacles to sticking with a diet after they visualized themselves having reached their weight loss goal and all the benefits they would enjoy as their new svelte selves without also spending time imagining obstacles actually were less likely to reach their weight loss goals.  In other words, those who visualized the desired result without also employing Mental Contrasting actually lowered their chances of losing weight.  Oettingen’s data show that visualizers who fail to also use Mental Contrasting would have actually been more likely to be successful if they hadn’t visualized their goal achievement at all.  It seems that the visualization is itself enough of a reward, and as such, not particularly motivating.  On the other hand, participants who spent the same amount of time and energy visualizing weight loss success and then visualized things like off-plan food temptation in the face of stress and fatigue drastically increased their chances for success.

The research of Peter Gollwitzer (Oettingen’s husband) revealed a strategy for overcoming obstacles he calls “Implementation Intention.” Employing this technique makes the chances for successful goal achievement even more likely.  Implementation intentions are proactive contingency plans.  They usually take the form of if-then constructs.  For example, if it is 8 a.m. and a week day, then I will write in my journal for one hour.  Another example:  if I am tempted to eat a piece of candy, then I will eat a piece of fruit or phone my sister for support.  Implementation Intentions are pre-commitments; they are decisions made ahead of time and as such, don’t tend deplete willpower, which, as research has shown us, is finite.

Mental Contrasting and Implementation Intentions are complementary techniques that, when used together, make goal achievement almost inevitable.  The process then becomes 1) Visualize the achievement of a goal as vividly as possible, magnifying the image and making it as sensorial as you can. 2) Create an action plan. 3) Employ Mental Contrasting by imagining the possible obstacles to executing your action plan. 4) Create implementation intentions to address those obstacles.

In a previous post titled “Hold Back to Leap Forward” I discuss the importance of imagining big, inspirational goals, but creating and executing plans that move you toward your goal incrementally. Darren Hardy, former publisher of Success magazine, writes extensively about this in The Compound Effect.  Small, incremental activities that support the achievement of a goal applied consistently over time works.  The tortoise consistently beats the hare.  Here’s one more tip to add to the recipe of goal achievement: once a goal has been defined and an action plan established it is better to focus on the process (each step in the action plan) than the result.  This helps prevent discouragement and often its result, giving up.  Defining success as executing an action plan and rewarding that execution helps us keep on keeping on.   Indeed, such persistence is typically what our biggest goals require.

Make the most of your efforts.  Take advantage of the wisdom born of extensive research.  In summary, to succeed in reaching your goals: 1) clearly define your goal and choose something that inspires and excites you; 2) visualize your desired results; 3) create an action plan that is incremental; 4) employ Mental Contrasting; 5) develop some Implementation Intentions to overcome the obstacles you identified as part of Mental Contrasting; and 6) focus on the process itself and reward yourself for executing your action plan.

 

 

Distinguish, Notice, Choose: The Path To True Freedom

Most of us make our way in our day-to-day lives going through the motions, reacting to the same or a variation of the same set of stimuli in the same way.   Most of our activities and actions are automatic and habitual.  This is not a bad thing; we wouldn’t be able to accomplish much if every moment took conscious choice – let’s see: left leg out, heel down, toe down … right, left, etc.  Wonderful things, our unconscious minds.  We intentionally and unintentionally feed things into them repeatedly (sometimes only once), and they take over for us; things that once took effort and concentration become second nature, and we are free to turn our conscious attention to something else.   We make it through a stressful, even traumatic, situation and our unconscious “remembers” how we got through it, even when our conscious minds don’t.  Our subsequent ways of coping with that sort of situation become automatic, even when they may no longer work or may even harm us.  (That’s a topic I’ll further explore in a future post).

Given the inherent limitations of our conscious minds we need to make things automatic (i.e. we need to “delegate” them to the unconscious).  We want to do things without thinking about what we are doing so that we can think about and do something else, so that we can move skills into mastery.  So operating “mindlessly” is useful and often serves us.  When we fully understand this, we can direct it better and intentionally create habits to our benefit.  When we take responsibility for our experience and develop the self-awareness required to see when our automatic ways are not serving us, we can exercise free will and take steps to change those ways.

Paradoxically our automatic (unconscious) ways of being both free and imprison us.  When something is unconscious, we can easily lose sight of its automaticity, whether it still works, and whether we would still choose it.  This is where practicing mindfulness comes into play.  Cultivating mindfulness as a practice has been an essential part of a number of contemplative spiritual and religious traditions.  These practices, or secular versions of them, are being embraced today as methods of dealing with stress and of developing greater focus and concentration (again, material for another post).  We don’t have to be an expert in one of these practices for them to benefit us.  Just slowing down our “automatics” so that we can observe them is the first step to perhaps deciding to choose something different.

When we decide to become mindful, to slow down enough to truly observe – invoking what Eckhart Tolle calls “the watcher”—we can distinguish.  Distinguishing (i.e. making a distinction) is the first step to true autonomy. In a previous post I discussed the power of distinguishing between demands and requests.  Many of us practice distinguishing real physiological hunger from something that is only masquerading as such. One I am starting to be able to see is the difference between being excited to contribute to a conversation and feeling that I must interject my thoughts.  The first comes from passion for life, the latter from a sense of scarcity—a sense that there isn’t enough air time to go around.   Another example that I am working on discerning is the distinction between an impulse and an intuition.  Using distinctions as a tool for self-awareness, for bringing the unconscious back into the realm of the conscious is a potent first step on the path to intentional self-determination.

Once we have made a distinction, we can practice noticing it.  Each distinction is like a prism through which we can fully identify the automatic and then choose whether to continue with it or to choose something different.  For example, when I distinguish that a given intense feeling of urgency is an impulse born of an emotional trigger, I may choose not to act upon it.  On the other hand, when I distinguish that it is an intuition, I can choose to take action in short order.  How did I make this distinction to begin with?  First, it is important to note that this can and will likely be different for every individual.  For me, I saw that certain emergent thoughts and behaviors led to stress and/or regret, while others were empowering and opened doors.  I began to look for and note the differences between them – their context as well as their physical and emotional qualities.  I experience my impulses as loud, jerky, and needy, like an imperative to assuage an addiction.  On the other hand, I experience my intuitions as authoritative, quiet, consistent and grounded directives that are free of stress.  If I wait a little while before acting on an intuition, its intensity or presence does not diminish.  The opposite is true of an impulse.  While there is a certain discipline involved in taking yourself off autopilot in service of greater freedom, it is well worth it.  Effectively using autopilot means developing the skill to know when it is appropriate and when it is not.  I encourage you to have a look and take the helm of your own life: distinguish, notice, and choose.

Holding Back to Leap Forward

It’s fun to imagine achieving big, ambitious, goals.  Such images stoke the flames of passion and motivation.  Realistic?  That’s not nearly as fun or inspiring.  As Tim Ferriss says in The Four-Hour Work Week: “Having an unusually large goal is an adrenaline infusion that provides the endurance to overcome the inevitable trials and tribulations that go along with any goal. Realistic goals, restricted to the average ambition level, are uninspiring and will only fuel you through the first or second problem, at which point you throw in the towel.”  The concept of realistic has both objective and subjective components.  The objective part deals with plausibility and probability.  The subjective component –the one I speak to here—is emotional and relative.  When it comes to determining realistic, one size doesn’t fit all.  One person’s realistic is another person’s exciting ambition, and yet another’s walk in the park.

Having big goals is exciting and motivating.  I have created, embraced, and gotten all fired up about such goals.  And that’s a good thing.  However, there is a challenge I keep encountering that has become a pattern and has actually repeatedly foiled my attempts at achieving my big goals.  The challenge is that I get fired up about an unrealistic goal and then set out on an unrealistic path to get there.  Unlike the goals themselves, unrealistic paths sabotage efforts.  This has been borne out in my experience.  For example, I have perennially set out to lose around 20 pounds, which seems like a big goal to me.  I create a strict (unrealistic) plan that requires lots of planning and a will of iron.  If I can somehow manage to adhere to the plan perfectly, I am bound to reach my goal.  But there’s the rub.  Rigorous research has yielded compelling and plentiful evidence that will power is a finite resource that fatigues much like a muscle does with use.  On a perfect day, when everything goes my way perfectly, I can adhere to my oh-so-noble, stringent plan.  However, as demands on my time and emotional, physical, and mental resources mount, my plan goes by the way side.  So I crash not too far into my grandiose plan — indeed, a perfect example of the perfect’s being the enemy of the good.  Each time this pattern happens, my own credibility with myself erodes a little more.  I know that putting together a more modest realistic plan that makes use of what I know about habit formation would make success more likely – a plan that slowly and steadily builds momentum.  It would take longer than following the stringent plan.  But since my efforts on the stringent plan always end up falling short, longer is better than never.  This is where the whole idea of kaizen (or continuous gradual improvement) comes into play.  As Darren Hardy writes in The Compound Effect,   small, smart choices consistently applied over time create huge results.

How do I apply kaizen to my goal of losing 20 pounds?  I would gradually add one tactic to my strategy at a time, not adding another one until the each preceding one is well established and easy.

It could look something like this:

  • Slow down eating (chewing 20 – 30 times per bite)
  • Refrain from eating at desk, in front of TV, or while driving
  • Log food intake, without measuring or tracking calories and/or carbohydrates
  • Plan and abide by menus with targeted carb counts
  • Plan and abide by menus with targeted carb and calorie counts
  • Gradually add more activity and adjust food intake as needed.

I encourage you to conceive a big, exciting and ‘unrealistic’ goal and then devise an incremental, gradual path to achieve it.

Honoring Time

What does it say about us when we schedule meetings adjacently such that attendees must arrive late and/or leave early? What does it say about the value of those first and/or last 5 to 10 minutes?  It could say that those minutes aren’t all that valuable — it’s okay to miss them, after all.  It could also mean that the attendance of all those invited to the meeting is not important.  If that is the case, why were invitees invited in the first place?  If my attending isn’t that valuable, why should I bother attending at all?  So what’s the big deal about 5 or 10 minutes?  Multiply that 5 to 10 minutes by the number of attendees (use 5 for the purpose of this illustration) and you get 25 to 50 minutes, which aren’t nominal chunks of time.  I don’t know about you, but I can get quite a bit done in those timeframes. 
Even if we could be on time (or more on time) for adjacent meetings (as in the case where those meetings are in the same room), it wouldn’t be a good idea schedule them without a time buffer.    Having no breaks between those two meetings means that we neither have time to at least begin to digest information from the previous one nor to prepare for the next. In school classes begin at the top of the hour and end in 50 minutes, leaving time to get to the next class, use the restroom, etc.  Classes that last longer than 50 minutes tend to have a scheduled break.  Plays, concerts, and the like have intermissions so that audience members don’t have to miss anything.  Why should meetings be any different?  Studies consistently show that we can focus for no more than 90 minutes at a time at best.  Assuming that all of the meeting (the content from the start to finish) is of value, all attendees should be fully present and attentive the entire time.  Limiting the length of the meeting makes this attentive presence possible.  Therefore, maximizing the value of a meeting dictates that attendees arrive on time, are prepared (mentally and otherwise), and do not leave until it is over.
My proposal: the default meeting length should be 45 minutes and should always start at the top of the hour, always leaving at least 15 minutes as a buffer.  People are more likely to be able to engage and concentrate for a 45-minute timeframe.  And a 15-minute buffer gives people time to get to or prepare for what’s next and to wrap up loose ends of the one just completed.  Having meetings start at the top of the hour helps with logistics and facilitates scheduling a groups of people.   If a meeting requires more time to meet its objectives, consecutive meetings can be scheduled.  Attendees can pick up where they left off after a nice 15-minute renewal break.  Let’s start respecting and protecting our time and that of others.
For more recommended practices for effective meetings, see my earlier post.  Creating and Conducting Purpose-Driven Meetings

Don a Persona for Greater Access

I’m a singer and love to perform, but have always struggled with stage fright.  Not unusual, I know.  Some folks say that anxiety makes for a better performance.  I couldn’t disagree more.  Preparation makes for good performance; and preparation coupled with a presence that is centered, energized, empowered, and relaxed makes for the best singing and a great performance.  So how does one get her proverbial butterflies to fly in formation?

One of the most incredible pianists I have worked with told me about the use of personas to overcome stage fright.  I have heard similar advice, but not the suggestion of developing a persona.  The advice I had heard that sounds something like this: if you want to do X, but are afraid, think of someone you admire and imagine how they would deal with the fear in that situation.  Hmm…as good and interesting as that sounds, for some reason it never worked for me, not for addressing emotional challenges anyway.

The idea of creating a persona intrigued me.  I really like reaching into myself, stirring up the juices of imagination, and creating.  Certainly well worth a try, creating a persona for my own use would be fun.  I began by asking myself about the qualities this persona should possess.  What I came up with is that she should be powerful, yet vulnerable; confident, but not condescending, completely and unapologetically at home in her own skin; fearless, but not foolhardy. Most of all she should courageously lead with and share her heart.  Ladies and gentlemen (drum roll), I present Angelique de la Force!  Because I “gave birth” to her, she is a part of me, an abiding and intimate ally. I can step into her; I can “be” her.  It’s really remarkable to me that this works.  Distinguishing Angelique as somehow separate from me, when she is in reality a part of me, has given access to more of myself.  Joy possesses all of Angelique’s traits, but they are somehow not as distilled or concentrated as they are in Angelique.  Angelique is not burdened by some of Joy’s other qualities, qualities that are positive and useful, but qualities whose presence tamp down those that are so prominent in Angelique. On stage I am Angelique.

I wonder how many other personas I could bring to life to aid in other aspects of my life.  How about you?

Build Yourself a Happiness Kit

The Declaration of Independence asserts that “the pursuit of happiness” is an inalienable right.  In spite of this as well as the mounting data from the fields of Applied Positive Psychology, Social Psychology, and Medicine extoling its benefits, few of us consciously and intentionally commit to our own happiness.  Sure, we love it when it happens; but for the most part I think we tend to be at its effect instead of the other way around.  Let’s start by distinguishing what happiness is not.  It is not a flat, homogeneous emotional state.  Happiness is not pleasure or comfort, though neither is necessarily antithetical to it.  The pursuit of happiness is not hedonism.  It is fuller, richer, and deeper than that.  In fact, happiness often requires that we stretch, that we lean into pain and discomfort in service of a goal.  Happiness enables perspective.  Indeed, when I am happy I sense that even though there are a lot of things wrong in the world, at some level it and my place in it all make sense.

Happiness is both intrinsically and extrinsically valuable.  Though the benefits that are born of happiness are too many to list, here are a few: happiness fuels the will to live, creativity, inspiration, generosity, ingenuity, and general wellbeing.  Happy people can see more opportunity, are healthier, and more productive.  Given all this, it is surprising that more people don’t truly commit to their own happiness—sometimes myself included. Perhaps we equate happiness with selfishness.  And no one wants to be thought of as selfish (which is an interesting topic in and of itself).  Perhaps we believe happiness is beyond our control.  Whatever the reason, it is clearly worth having a look.

I don’t advocate that we should always be happy or that it is wrong not to be.  Experiencing the full range of human emotion (both those considered positive and those considered negative) enriches, inspires, motivates, and makes genuine empathy possible.  What I do advocate is that we own and take responsibility for all of ourselves (including and especially all of our emotions) and that we exercise our freedom to choose our emotional states.

So what can we do to choose happiness for ourselves?  With all its benefits, choosing happiness should be among the most worthy of endeavors.  How do we create happiness when our current circumstances make it feel difficult (or maybe even a little crazy) to choose?

How about putting together a Happiness Kit?  Is there a piece of music that reliably lifts your spirits when you hear it?  Put that in your kit.  Is there a photograph that warms your heart?  Is there a scent that brings you delight?  What about that video that you received in email that had you laughing out loud?  That letter or card someone sent you?  Your list of wins?  That friend whose presence is like a balm to your heart?  That favorite walk you take?   You get the picture.

Just as we are often least likely to take vitamins when we need them, we are often less inclined to engage in happy-making activities when feeling low.  To address the vitamin situation we might do something like laying them out ahead of time or dispensing them using a special container that makes taking them easier.  To address the absence of happy-making activities, we can create a Happiness Kit.  Below are the steps to putting together your custom Happiness Kit. Do these when you are not experiencing a happiness deficit.

1)    Make a list of all the things that you know make you happy.  Incorporate as many senses as you can.

2)    Gather and co-locate physical and digital objects, making sure that they are noted on your list.

3)    Now make it a practice to notice more things that make you happy and add them to the list and/or appropriate location (in step 2).  Notice the times when you seem to be happy for no reason and open yourself up to what it could be that has you feeling that way.

4)    Start working out your happy-making muscles.  When you are in a neutral emotional space, reach into your Happiness Kit and see how quickly you can change your emotional state to one of happiness.

What’s belongs in your Happiness Kit?