Are You “Hooked”? Working through Thoughts, Emotions, and Stories that Hold You Back

What are “Hooks”?

Sometimes the stories we believe about ourselves or the world, or the thoughts emotions we experience, begin to dominate our actions, clouding our perspective and keeping us from moving toward what we value.  These are what psychologist Susan David calls hooks.  

Hooks…

  • Begin when we accept our thoughts as facts.
  • May trigger avoidance, rumination, or internal conflict with thoughts/emotions.  
  • May be tainted by criticism, judgment, comparison, or anxiety.   
  • Are similar to what are known as cognitive distortions

Four Common Hooks

  1. Thought-blaming:  Believing our actions/inactions are the direct result of our thoughts rather than recognizing that we have the power to control our choices.  For example, you may have the thought, “No one is interested in me”, accept it as fact, and blame that thought for your choice to avoid talking to anyone at a party.
  2. Monkey-mindedness:  Includes imagining the worst-case scenarios for interactions or events (e.g., thinking up all the ways a work presentation can go wrong), as well as “making too much of a minor problem”.  When you’re in “monkey mind”, the pain of the past and the fear of the future distract you from living effectively in the present.  Judgmental language (words like “must” and “should”) may dominate your thoughts.
  3. Old, Outgrown Ideas:  Mindsets or belief systems that were helpful in the past (e.g., protecting us) but that hinder us in our present circumstances.  Updating and adapting our ideas allows us to be more successful with our current goals, values, and challenges. 
  4. Wrongheaded Righteousness:  The need to be right and demonstrate our “rightness”, blinding us to the big picture and unnecessarily aggravating contention/misunderstandings.

Unhooking

Two common but ineffective ways of dealing with hooks or other uncomfortable emotions are what David calls bottling(trying to ignore difficult emotions and to force positivity) and brooding(fixating on an emotion, often with the good intention of “thinking it through”).  Both practices end up amplifying difficult emotions and impair our ability to problem-solve, make decisions, and engage with the world around us.

A more effective way of “unhooking” is approaching your thoughts, emotions, and stories – as uncomfortable as they may be – with compassion and curiosity, seeking to accurately label what you are experiencing, validating that experience without letting it control you, and then finding small ways to act in accordance with your values.  For example, if your spouse is inconsiderate, it may trigger unpleasant thoughts and emotions for you.  You can notice, “I am feeling hurt and irritated” and recognize that you value kindness and respect in relationships.  You can then choose to stay true to those values in your reaction, perhaps by letting the offense go or by asking your spouse if they are okay.

Working through and letting go of the hooks that come up most often for us isn’t easy – after all, some of them have been part of how we look at the world for a long time, perhaps since childhood.  But as we practice the process of acknowledging and working through difficult thoughts, emotions, and stories, we may gradually understand that they need not control us.  We can validate and learn from these experiences and step by step use them to find and move toward what really matters to us. 

References

David, S.  (2016). Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life.  New York, NY: Penguin Random House LLC.

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The Supreme Emotion

A few weeks ago we talked about the science of love and how to have more of it. We love often referred to as the “supreme emotion”. It is something that is as necessary for our well-being as anything else.

One more very encouraging fact about the “supreme emotion” is this: it is possible to increase your ability to love.  This can be done in a number of ways, and what works best for you may be different from what works for others.  Here are a few ideas to get started:

  • Practice a loving-kindness meditation several times a week.*
  • Every evening for at least a week, reflect on the three longest social interactions you had that day.  In a notebook or journal, reflect on how “in tune” and how close you felt to other people during these interactions.**
  • When others share good news with you, make eye contact; show positive emotion (e.g., smile); make enthusiastic, supportive comments, including about possible positive implications; and ask constructive questions about the event.  Be sincere and keep it simple, bearing in mind it may take some practice.*

In some ways, love is a small, fleeting thing, and in our fast-paced, competitive society, it may seem easier to plug in to distractions rather than to foster genuine connection. However, we may have more opportunities to experience this essential emotion in our daily lives than we think and making the most of these can bring a range of remarkable benefits for us and others over time.  Finding ways, big and small, to nourish love, these micro-moments of connection, with the people around you may stretch you and will take practice, but they will be worth every effort.

*See https://ggia.berkeley.edu/for these and other exercises to promote connection and compassion

**See tools available at http://positivityresonance.com/

References

Fredrickson, B. (2013)  Love 2.0: Creating Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection.  New York, NY: The Penguin Group.

Research by: Kayla Clawson Alva

Emotional Agility: A Key Skillset for Creating the Life You Want

It can be all too easy to be on “autopilot”, mindlessly filling our days with actions that aren’t aligned with the life we want to create or the person we want to become. One reason for this is an unhealthy relationship with our emotions, including a tendency to label them as “positive” or “negative”, as “good” or “bad”, which can lead to either trying to ignore or rationalize them away (a practice called bottling) or obsessing over them (brooding).  Psychologist and researcher Susan David teaches that developing what she calls emotional agilitycan make all the difference in successfully navigating the complexities of life to live with intention, be true to our values, and take steps toward a meaningful life.

Emotional agility is not about forcing positivity or trying to control our thoughts and emotions. Research has shown that these practices often backfire, actually making us feel worse.  Instead, emotional agility includes approaching your emotions with nonjudgmental curiosity, compassion, and the courage to make changes to live more aligned with your values.  David outlines four steps that can help this happen:

  1. Showing Up: Notice your thought/emotion without judging it or yourself (e.g., “I shouldn’t feel ____”) and without trying to suppress or fight it.  You can acknowledge thoughts without believing them as literally or entirely true, and you can recognize emotions without accepting them as hard directions.  
  2. Stepping Out: Put some mental distance between you and the thought/emotion so that you can gain perspective and understanding.  This might include saying such things as, “I notice I am feeling ____” rather than “I am____”.  Be curious about the thought, emotion, or story rather than letting it take over. What does it tell you about yourself and what matters to you? 
  3. Walking Your Why: Identify and act on your true values, which are freely chosen, active, and ongoing rather than fixed rules or goals.  Watch for choice points, forks in the road that offer opportunities to walk toward or away from what you really want, often in small but significant ways.
  4. Moving On: Making “tiny tweaks” in our mindset, motivations, and habits is more effective long-term than trying to drastically change overnight.  Experiment with small adjustments that are in line with your values. Lasting progress and meaningful change are most likely to be achieved when we “live at the edge or our ability”, challenging ourselves but not overwhelmed.

Having happiness be our main goal in life and trying to always “think positive” will likely lead to disappointment as well as unhealthy relationships with ourselves and those around us.  Our thoughts and emotions need not control our actions, but they are important, even if they are sometimes messy or difficult to work through.  We can start by allowing ourselves to acknowledge our emotional experiences with openness and compassion then exploring what they are telling us about our values.  From there, we can make “small, values-aligned shifts” in our daily choices that help us become our best and true selves.  

It’s not an easy process, and much of it will likely be uncomfortable – but then, as Susan David believes, “Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.”

References

David, S. (2016).  Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life.  New York, NY: Penguin Random House LLC.

Research by: Kayla Clawson Alva

12 Key Facts About the Science of Love

You may have heard love described as a choice – or, alternatively, as something that you can’t help falling into or out of.  You may think of it as the special bond between families or friends or as an intimate relationship.  However, researcher Barbara Fredrickson looks at love a bit differently.  Here are a few facts she’s explored about the scientific definition of love that may change how you think about and practice this key part of life: 

  1. Love is an emotion – that is, a temporary physical and mental state – that literally changes your mind, expanding your and enhancing your ability to feel connected to others.  Fredrickson calls it the “supreme emotion”.
  2. Love is essentially a “micro-moment of warmth and connection” that can happen with anyone.
  3. Love is a biological need, an “essential ingredient” of life.  Our bodies are designed to experience love.
  4. Love leads to improved resilience, higher life expectancy and quality, and personal growth.
  5. Love is fueled by your brain, the “love hormone” oxytocin, and the vagus nerve (which connects the brain to the heart) all working together.
  6. Your ability to love can increase over time, building resources such as physical health, personality traits, and social bonds.  These, in turn, improve your experience of love.  
  7. Love both createsand is fueled byexclusive bonds, commitment, desire, and trust.  
  8. The “positivity system”, which includes emotions such as serenity and joy, is sustained by love.
  9. Love enables you to “really see” the people around you, especially because it helps you be less focused on yourself.
  10. To experience love, you must first feel safe.
  11. Love occurs when there are shared positive emotions, when biology and/or behaviors are at least partially in sync, and when there is a sense of mutual care and concern.  These factors combine to create what Fredrickson calls positivity resonance.
  12. Love is strongest in someone’s physical presence, especially with eye contact.

Research by: Kayla Clawson Alva

Developing Grit to Meet Your Goals: Where Passion and Perseverance Meet

If you could do anything, develop any skill, what would it be?  We value hard work in American society, but we may secretly value more, which may contribute to many people giving up quickly when things get hard, wasting their potential.  What if they knew that research has shown that the combination of passion and perseverance may count more than talent?  If you don’t think you have much talent in something that matters to you, whether that be with a musical instrument or communicating clearly, you can still succeed as you develop grit.

 The first step toward being more “gritty” is recognizing where you are right now in relation to goals.  Grit is more than working hard; it involves working towardan important, inspiring top-level goal for a long time. What matters most to you or gives you purpose?  This can fuel and guide other, “lower” goals and actions. 

As you consider where you are and where you would like to go, keep in mind these four key assets for growing grit:

  1. Interest:Finding a passion takes time and interaction with the world around you.  You need to experiment and be patient.  You might not even notice at first that you’ve discovered something that can engage you for a lifetime.  Once an interest is triggered, it takes a lengthy, proactive period to develop it. 
  2. Practice:Seek continuous improvement of your passion through deliberate practice– that is, to have a clearly defined, personally stretching goal; fully focus on the task; seek feedback to shape more effective practice; and repeat.  What practice time and place work best for you? Make it a habit.  Finally, learn to embrace the challenge of difficulty rather than fearing it by practicing nonjudgmental self-awareness in each moment.  
  3. Purpose:Purpose takes the motivation for developing a skill from personal interest to using the skill to help other people.  It can be cultivated as you find small but meaningful ways make changes to connect your current work or situation to your core values and strengths.
  4. Hope:More than a feeling, hope involves recognizing that we can make a difference in our own lives and keep getting up with determination to make tomorrow better. Exercising hope involves updating our beliefs about our ability to change (recognizing realistic limitations but also progress and possibilities), practicing optimistic self-talk, and asking for help.  

Grit in itself doesn’t make for success, health, or happiness overall; it’s important to develop other dimensions of your life and your character.  However, grit can play an important part in what you are able to do in many areas of your life.  With grit, you can make the most of whatever talent you have to develop skills that matter to you; use those skills to benefit people around you; and find fulfillment as you make the most of your potential.  

References

Duckworthy, A. (2016).  Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.  New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Research by: Kayla Clawson Alva

25 Quick Connects For a Stronger Relationship

Relationships are built on connection. As our lives become busier it is easier to let go of the things that can connect us and harder to find time for them. Fortunately connection does not necessarily take a large time investment. Small connections can lead to big time relationship satisfaction. Try out one or all of these creative ideas:

  1. Make sure your kisses last at least six seconds. Every now and then go for a full minute.
  2. Write them a love note– on the mirror, in lunch box, purse or pocket, or text/e-mail it.
  3. Send funny and/or romantic cards by snail mail or e-mail. 
  4. Get silly with each other and laugh out loud together. 
  5. Grab your partner for a spontaneous dance when a favorite song comes on the radio or stereo. 
  6. Hold hands. 
  7. Send a funny photo on your phone. 
  8. Ask about each others’ days. 
  9. Listen with 100% attention—make eye contact when you talk. 
  10. Give a one-minute shoulder or foot massage. 
  11. Do something unexpected for your spouse. 
  12. Snuggle on the couch. 
  13. Touch each other with affection. 
  14. Notice and comment about something your spouse does that you like. 
  15. Say thank you and you’re welcome. 
  16. Be interested in what your spouse is doing. Offer to help.  
  17. Leave a flower or special treat. 
  18. Write a poem for your special someone—it’s ok if it’s silly! 
  19. Offer to cook dinner if you aren’t the one who usually cooks. 
  20. Post photos on the refrigerator or bathroom mirror that remind you of wonderful times you’ve shared. 
  21. Offer to take the kids out of the house for awhile and give the other parent some alone time. 
  22. At night, step outside together for five minutes and look at the stars. 
  23. Sing to each other. 
  24. Establish a weekly ritual that you faithfully observe. For example, watching a favorite television program, taking a walk after dinner, putting candles on the table. 
  25. Watch a sunrise or sunset together. 

Try this…

  • Make up your own list of things to do to quickly connect with your spouse. 
  • Make sure you do at least one thing from your list every day. 

More Information: Gottman, J.M. & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York: Crown Publishers

Research by: Naomi Brower

“Keep Your Eyes on Your Own Work”: Escaping the Bondage of Comparison

You may be familiar with the quote, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”  Research shows that this is more than a clever phrase: Comparing ourselves to others – whether looking “up” to people we see as better than us or “down” on those who seem worse – is associated with lower personal well-being (e.g., higher self-blame and lower mental health) and it makes it difficult for us to love. The distinctions and judgments we make of the people around us can trigger feelings such as fear, pity, irritation, envy, or self-pity, all of which put emotional distance between us. 

The trouble is, for many of us, such comparisons are almost instinctual – so what can we do?  Letting go of comparison takes intention and time, but these tips might help you get going in the right direction:

  1. Cultivate Compassion:Unlike pity, which includes an element of looking down on others, compassion puts us on equal ground with those around us.  In fact, the word comes from Latin words that mean “to suffer with.”  Rather than turning away from suffering, compassion turns towardit, tapping into our own experience to recognize the similarities between us, empathize, and offer genuine kindness.  It requires being willing to lean into discomfort and be vulnerable.  Practices such as compassion meditations* and celebrating others’ good fortune can be great steps toward developing compassion.   
  2. Practice Creativity:Before you protest that you’re not a “creative person,” consider that creativity has been described as “the power to connect the seemingly unconnected” and “the expression of our originality.”  Thus, creativity can look like anything from testing mathematical formulas to sculpting to planning events.  Try going beyond your comfort zone to take a class or to do something that scares you but that you’ve always been interested in.  It’s okay to be inspired by what others are doing, but “own and celebrate” the unique contribution youhave to offer and give yourself permission to enjoy the process of being creative.

Comparison is, paradoxically, about both conformity and competition, a combination that gets in the way of gratitude, authenticity, joy, and forging healthy connections with people around us.  It is something that often comes naturally to us, but with awareness and practice, cultivating compassion and creativity can help us recognize not only our own inherent worth but also that of those around us.  This, in turn, can provide conditions for nurturing what we may be actually seeking when we compare: self-acceptance, belonging, and love.

*See exercises found at https://ggia.berkeley.edu/#filters=compassionand http://positivityresonance.com/meditations.html

References

Brown, B. (2010).  The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.  Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing.  

David, S. (2016).  Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life.  New York, NY: Penguin Random House LLC.

Fredrickson, B. (2013) Love 2.0: Creating Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection.  New York, NY: The Penguin Group.

Research by: Kayla Clawson Alva