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Confidence is a quality that many of us wish we could have more of—especially when we’re in a new place, or with a group of people that we don’t know very well. For some, confidence appears to come naturally. But what about the rest of us?
According to Andrew Horn, the founder of Dreams for Kids DC, much of confidence comes from our sense of presence.
“Presence is that embodied existence in the moment, it’s when you’re only responding and reacting to what’s happening right now,” Horn says. “There’s no story from the past, there’s no fear of the future, and it’s a magical thing when we can create that in conversation.”
Here’s how you can soothe social anxiety, and uncover your confidence:
Social anxiety: How to rewire your confidence and be a better communicator | Andrew Horn - YouTube
Understanding Shyness and Social Anxiety
Often, what stops us from participating in conversation or events is a simple case of shyness.
“One of the most common symptoms of starting out or being early in our career is shyness, is just these feelings of being intimidated, feeling unworthy,” Horn says.
These feelings of unworthiness often spring up from comparison: we look at someone with confidence and think, “I’ll never be as intelligent or well-spoken as them.” So we stay silent—and then because we stay silent, we criticize ourselves for not being outgoing and confident, further eroding our self-esteem.
“If we’re constantly comparing ourselves with other people, we’re not going to be able to enjoy the [conversation],” Horn says.
Self-doubt not only prevents us from partaking in conversation—by occupying our minds with worry and doubt, it also prevents us from being fully present in the moment. So what can we do about it?
Practice Naming and Taming Your Thoughts
“Our brains are really good at telling us what is going to go wrong in social situations,” Horn says. “It wants to keep us safe; it wants people to like us.”
In order to be less anxious in the moment, Horn recommends envisioning what may cause you to be anxious in a certain situation before the situation actually happens.
For example, if you’re attending a large work conference later in the month, you may already feel nervous about going. Instead of dreading the days leading up to the event, use that time to question what is driving your anxiety—it could be fear of saying the wrong thing, anxiety that no one you know will be there, or imposter syndrome telling you that you don’t belong there.
“Just by actually articulating the undesired state, you are naming it, and you’re taming it,” Horn says. “You’re going to be more aware when those undesired states manifest.”
By cultivating this sense of awareness, you will be able to notice your anxious thoughts when they surface and accept them for what they are. This will help keep you from getting sucked into them, so you can direct your attention back to where it needs to be in the moment.
Try It Out: Practice “Turning” the Conversation
A common anxiety many people have is that they believe they have nothing interesting to say, or will make a fool of themselves in conversation. Horn recommends overcoming this fear by practicing mindful listening.
“One of the easiest ways that we can practice active listening and avoid a conversation dead-end is to make sure that we are ‘turning’ the conversation more than we’re ‘taking’ it,” he says.
By this, he means consistently remembering that we are engaging with another person by turning the conversation back to them—not taking it all for ourselves.
For example, if someone says they ate at a new restaurant, we might respond with, “Oh, I went there last weekend and had the pasta. What did you try?” instead of, “Oh, I went there last weekend. It was ok.” “If we commit to turning the conversation back three and four times, we’re going to peel off those layers and get more depth out of our conversations,” Horn says.
Stephanie Domet: Barry, the idea that the world is not, as you say in your column in Mindful this month, “what you see is what you get” feels like it’s at the root of a lot of mindfulness practices, that a desire to get beyond or above or maybe it’s beneath what we can see, drives saw a lot of us to the cushion. Would you agree with that?
Barry Boyce: Well I think it’s a stress or pain. That is the immediate thing that drives a lot of us, we feel like you know it should be better than that, it shouldn’t feel this way. And I think as we get there and start to uncover a little bit, a part of what is causing stress is a disconnect between what we think ought to be going on in our minds, and then what’s actually going on in our minds.
Stephanie Domet: I remember when my now-husband and I were first dating long-distance and exchanging emails, and he had a quote from a singer-songwriter that he loved as his e-mail signature. And it was: “The world ain’t what you think it is, it’s just what it is.” And for me as like an outcome-oriented, narrative-driven creature that blew my tiny mind. The idea that it might not be just my perception, you know.
Barry Boyce: Yeah, yeah well I mean it’s a cliche but it’s like all cliches, it’s one that’s got a lot of truth in it. And you know, I mean I’m continually amazed as I have that insight thrown up in my face again. The persistence of our attachment to our version of the world—and you know we do, we’re making up a version of the world all the time.
Stephanie Domet: I assume this is a lesson that you probably learned for the first time decades ago, but you did recently bump up against it again while doing of all things a jigsaw puzzle. Tell us a little about that.
Barry Boyce: Yeah well as the story goes, I have two granddaughters, as readers of my column will have learned already. I’m very fond of them, they’re twins, they’re eight years old, and they live in a city far, far away from where my wife and I live now.
So we spent a month there during December, and we had them over for sleepovers a lot and we we wanted to have something that would occupy their time. My wife thought of the jigsaw puzzle. Historically, I hate jigsaw puzzles. I just look at them and I say “Oh my God why would anybody want to spend time doing this?” You know if you’ve done it, I mean like you have one that has ocean or sky, or God forbid ocean and sky, and all these weird little shapes and then when you’re done, all you have is the picture that you could see on the box in the first place. It just looked like, why the hell would you do it?
But I happen to know and my wife Judy knew too that they liked puzzles, and she likes puzzles and her family likes puzzles, and my kids seem to like puzzles, so I was in the minority. Anyway, when we got a puzzle and we decided to really go full bore and get a thousand piece puzzle, and that’s just an inconceivable number of pieces. My job was to set up the area and I was very good at that. I went out to various stores to try to find the right kind of table and and we set it in a sunroom that had plenty of light because, lights really important I learned, because your eyes go cross-eyed when you’re looking at it. And so in any case, I did a good job of setting it up and they were very eager players, we’d wake up in the morning they’d already be at it, my my twin granddaughters Evelyn and Isabella, and I was very impressed. And I have to say a little bit chastened, maybe a little bit embarrassed. So secretly when they weren’t there, I would try to find a piece and I wasn’t very good at it. But I found a couple.
Somewhere in the middle they said “Hey, oh man Grandma, Grandpa we’d like to have this framed.” And we’d learned that this is something you can do. You can frame a jigsaw puzzle, which gives a little more purpose. If that matters. As we got to the end, they were frustrated at not being able to find certain pieces. And it turns out that the puzzle was missing 10 pieces.
Stephanie Domet: 10?
Barry Boyce: 10 entire pieces. I was kind of not happy about this.
Stephanie Domet: Where was quality control?
Barry Boyce: Exactly, exactly. I had recently seen a joke sign, one of those internet memes: “You had one job,” and this is what I thought. You had one job. You just needed to make sure there were a thousand pieces. Of course you know, I’m always compassionate about anybody who has to do any kind of a job. I’ve already spoken on my relationship with puzzles and I don’t think I’d want to work in a in a puzzle factory, which I believe is also a term for awful place to work.
In any case, I called the place up and they very matter of factly told me, “Oh there’s a form you fill out.” I thoughts oh my god, this happens often enough that there’s a form you fill out. I mean you must be driving people in nursing homes crazy, because they love to do puzzles. They’re thinking oh my god, I’ve lost my mind. Where’s the pieces. So they said they’d send us an entirely new puzzle—but if we’d hoped that we could keep their existing puzzle intact and put in the pieces, they said well the pieces wouldn’t necessarily fit ,there can be slight differences. And it was running out of our time and we were not going to be in in Toronto anymore, where my daughters and granddaughters live. Finally we gave up, dismantled the puzzle and had the new puzzle pieces sent to my home. Chapter two follows soon.
Stephanie Domet: No granddaughters at your house to do the puzzle.
Barry Boyce: No granddaughters, only me and my wife here. So I couldn’t leave Judy to tackle this whole thing herself, having worked with the girls already painstakingly to create the puzzle the first time around, so I dutifully was helping out and then I got sucked in. I got sucked into puzzle world, and I felt like I just needed to find these few pieces and so I was staying up late at night looking for pieces, and feeling an incredible sense of elation when I found something. Also kind of marveling at how difficult it was. It started to eat up weekends and frankly some mornings when I should’ve been working, I got into work later than I should have. It’s like well I’ll just do this one, and then I would look up and an hour had passed.
So as the puzzle started to fill up and there were fewer pieces, I became convinced that there must be pieces missing. And at one point there was one piece I was looking for, and there were about 200 pieces left, and it was the part of the animals. It had three different colors in it and it was a particular shape. It was about 11:30 at night and I decided I’m going to handle every single piece systematically till I find this piece.
Stephanie Domet: Wow, you really got it bad.
Barry Boyce: Oh yeah. It’s bad. It taught me something about about how obsessive one can be. I didn’t think I could be that obsessive. I handled every single piece. Didn’t find the piece and declared to Judy the next morning, “Look, I looked for that piece in that guy’s eye, and it’s not there. We’re gonna have to accept the fact that this company screwed up again and the piece is simply not there.” And I was also kind of mad and we started composing letters and vowing that we would never buy a puzzle from that company again. Then we kept finding more and more pieces, and you know finally we have about 15 pieces left or something. And damn if that piece doesn’t show up.
Stephanie Domet: You had handled every single thing.
Barry Boyce: I’d handled every single piece.
Stephanie Domet: You knew what you were looking for.
Barry Boyce: I thought I knew what I was looking for. And I had realized already before that piece that something was going on in that when I would look at a piece I’d formulate in my mind what it was supposed to look like and then I would go and look for it and the image in my mind was really faulty. It was really, really faulty and my patience and tension and willingness to suspend my judgment and —this sounds woo-woo but— let the pieces talk to me, or let me actually see the pieces, it wasn’t as good as I thought. I was relying on finding out in the world the picture that I formed in my head.
And that’s when the light bulb went off again. “Oh, my god. I do this all the time.” I have an image of how somebody should be. I have an image of how a situation should be. I classify somebody as good, bad, part of my tribe, not part of my tribe, and you know I’m fitting people into boxes and I’m not seeing the world.
And that’s when the light bulb went off again. “Oh, my god. I do this all the time.” I have an image of how somebody should be. I have an image of how a situation should be. I classify somebody as good, bad, part of my tribe, not part of my tribe, and you know I’m fitting people into boxes and I’m not seeing the world. Clearly not the first time I’ve had that insight, but when you have it about something silly and simple like how you’re putting together a puzzle piece, you know it enabled me to see how persistent it is at the level of perception. Not just ideas, but the ideas I might have about people or things or the world. You know, I think of myself as open-minded and very progressive in terms of my ideas. But what happens at the level of perception is so ingrained. That’s what the puzzle was teaching me.
Stephanie Domet: You really got lucky in some ways. I mean a jigsaw puzzle is like a perfect metaphor. Columnist’s dream perhaps.
Barry Boyce: Yeah, exactly. I mean as a writer, I don’t know if you could say you look for those moments, but when you stumble into them you just feel oh, this is something I want to expand upon, because you then you can explore it through writing and the conversation that comes out of it.
Stephanie Domet: Totally, and for you, you were able to sort of liken your ideas about what that so-called missing piece must look like, and to our own preconceived constructs around difference in race and gender expression, economics, social standing maybe. Why do you think those pre-conceived constructs are so powerful, act on us so powerfully?
Barry Boyce: I think that it has to do with something very fundamental in how our cognition works. I had read some time ago that about top-down processing versus bottom-up processing in terms of perception. So top-down processing has to do with signals coming from within our brain that tell us what to see so to speak. So you come up with a conception of what a chair is, the ideal form of a chair, so that when you see this thing out in the world you can call it a chair, right. And when you have an artist who does something to confound, that kind of messes with you. That’s an example of where the bottom-up processing is messing with the top-down processing. So we have a lot of ingrained categories that are much juicier than chair or table, right. Like mine and theirs.
Stephanie Domet: Yeah us and them, even.
Barry Boyce: And you may have learned from people you grew up with, or inherited family bias, even if that bias loosened up over the course of your lifetime. It could still be kicking around in there because it’s at such a fundamental level of perception. I notice that you know, when you look at somebody on the street, a homeless person, it’s very common bias for my area that somehow they’re utterly responsible for their own fate. That there’s some kind of laziness there. You know that they’re a nuisance. That’s some sort of very deep processing and the fact that they may be afflicted with schizophrenia or any number of hundreds of mental or physical conditions or life circumstances, that immediate biased processing from the top-down is not informed by those kind of subtleties.
Stephanie Domet: Right.
Barry Boyce: And it comes real quick.
Stephanie Domet: Right, before you can even notice it.
Barry Boyce: Yeah and you may not even be conscious that it’s there in how you hold your body, or the expression that might come over your face, and people in those situations are used to perceiving that, right? They can see that the bias against them that emerges there because they’re being met with them all the time.
Stephanie Domet: Right. You note that it’s the same mechanism as imagination. It allows us to look at clouds for instance and see animals. But you also ask when we look at other people are we taking the time to really see them. It’s a good question. But doing that also requires imagination, doesn’t it?
Barry Boyce: Well looking at a cloud and seeing an animal, that aspect of imagination I don’t think of that as quite the top-down processing part, but that has to do more with the puzzle-making part, where we try to piece together a reality. And so we take a few bits of information and we piece together a reality, right. I mean, let’s say somebody it’s a little short with you. So you have one datum that they they answered your question a little curtly and so using that one datum, you’ve labeled them completely.
Stephanie Domet: Right, yeah.
Barry Boyce: And you don’t know what’s going on behind that circumstance. You don’t know what difficulty they may just have gone through, or how much of what’s causing this mood to pass through them. But you very quickly seize on it and decide that person is such and such, you know, choose your nasty word. And if you think of let’s say, you go to a party and you’re navigating and try to figure out who to talk to, we’re using this kind of thing all the time where we use little teeny bits of data to establish something and go toward what we’re used to. So the same thing that allows us to look at the world and piece it together in unique and creative and interesting ways, like artist do or like we do when we’re artful, we can also piece it together in very narrow ways, and very constricting ways. In ways that have an excess of fear and self-preservation, rather than exploration and play.
So the same thing that allows us to look at the world and piece it together in unique and creative and interesting ways…we can also piece it together in very narrow ways, and very constricting ways.
Stephanie Domet: Right. Why is that so hard, Barry. Why are we so fear-based?
Barry Boyce: I mean when when you figured that out Steph, you let me know.
Stephanie Domet: Yeah, maybe episode 10 of the podcast.
Barry Boyce: I mean, I think that I’m having less as the years go by. I’m having less luck with the why part of that question And a bit more luck with the fact of the matter. That yeah, I do a lot of stuff out of fear and self-preservation. That’s not the most accurate or the most skillful. But it is persistent. I mean that was the lesson again from the puzzle, that the persistence at the simplest possible level of the first thought emerging from your mind is one that’s clinging to a solidity and a certainty that isn’t there. I was convinced that the piece that fit in that spot was not there.
Stephanie Domet: Right. Even though you physically had hands and your eyes on each piece.
Barry Boyce: And I looked at it. I scrutinized it, wasn’t there, scrutinized it, I didn’t see it. So I think huh. Who am I looking at and not seeing.
Stephanie Domet: So can I harness my imagination to not just see animals and clouds, but also to see the best in people instead of the worst? Ir is seeing the best and worst in people not even the goal?
Barry Boyce: Well, I think a good goal is to see the best in people. Then to look for that, which some might call a positive bias. You know, that’s infecting things with a positive bias. I’m going to counteract my negative tendencies by looking for the best in people. That is a strategy. But even before that—you used the word harnessing—I would say you could start with interrupting the momentum of the reaching of conclusions.
Stephanie Domet: Interrupting the reaching of conclusions.
Barry Boyce: Yeah, how fast we reach a conclusion. You know, kind of having you can actually watch it taking place.
Stephanie Domet: Yeah.
Barry Boyce: This is where the non-judgmental part of meditation comes in, because these things happen so quick.
Stephanie Domet: Yeah.
Barry Boyce: So let’s say I see this homeless person, I have a negative thought about them, I have the benefit of noticing that negative thought and the first thing I spend my time doing it’s beating up on myself for doing it.
Stephanie Domet: Right. Why am I such a jerk.
Barry Boyce: Yeah. That actually doesn’t do much for the next interaction. You know it just gets you in this little fight with yourself. If you can let it be there a bit, ride it and then start to see more, that becomes more habitual. Then I think over time it lessens. That’s I think the benefit of awareness, because it’s like—if you look at sports as an interesting analogy, that people were trying to improve could be sports, it could be could be music, any kind of skill, you notice when you’re practicing the violin or shooting a three point shot in basketball, the percentage of times you get it right could be quite low. And if you’re just beating yourself up every time that’s not going to work.
You have to be patiently letting yourself go through those not as effective ways of doing something until over time it gets better, and I think we can actually work with our perception like that, It’s not something we’re used to thinking about. But when in mindfulness and we sit and practice, we give ourselves the time. We have no job to do, just gonna be with our mind and pay attention to the breath. So we’re sitting there and thoughts come up, we notice them, we come back to the breath when we notice them. We’re noticing the whole thought, we’re seeing it for what it is. So we’re taking the time to really perceive how we’re actually seeing the world.
When in mindfulness and we sit and practice, we give ourselves the time. We have no job to do, just gonna be with our mind and pay attention to the breath…We’re noticing the whole thought, we’re seeing it for what it is.
Stephanie Domet: OK.
Barry Boyce: So over time that develops with what they call metta awareness. You’re actually aware of how a thought is forming. So when we go out in the world, that can become a byproduct. So we notice how we’re actually forming our picture of things while still being able to get things done. You know, it’s not like we have to stop dead in our tracks, but…
Stephanie Domet: To notice our thoughts.
Barry Boyce: Yeah. Then we notice them. But I do think it means I’m being a little slower in many cases. I mean, not when you need to be fast at something, but you know it’s like slow food. It’s like “slow being,” you know I like to take the slow food thing and make it about being all together.
Stephanie Domet: Slowly being. I was thinking when you were talking about violin practice—it’s like it’s human practice.
Barry Boyce: Yeah. You’re practicing with the human instrument. The main instrument you’ve got, the one that has an affect on the world.
Stephanie Domet: It’s awfully unwieldy sometimes.
Barry Boyce: It sure is.
Stephanie Domet: Hard to play.
Barry Boyce: It’s a lot harder to play than a violin, and violin must be pretty damn hard. I’ve never tried it.
Stephanie Domet: How much of this is about an awareness of our biases in particular, and how much of it is simply that increased awareness is generally a benefit?
Barry Boyce: Oh I think it’s both. I mean, increased awareness is generally a benefit, because it helps us see patterns of mind and behavior that can lead to more pain for ourselves and for other people. So generally awareness is good. I think awareness of bias in particular is interesting, because bias is—and we haven’t really talked about this today—but bias is a necessary function of the mind, you know, we use biases. I have a bias toward the fact that if I sit down I go into this chair, it’s going to hold me up. Biases are shortcuts.
Stephanie Domet: That kind of fills in the gaps for us, for better and for worse.
Barry Boyce: Yeah for better and for worse. And being more aware of that helps us to work on the for worst part.
Stephanie Domet: OK. Yeah. Yeah. As we do our human practice.
Barry Boyce: Yeah. And as I said later on, I carried the analogy of the puzzle beyond just the perception of the pieces. But the fact that we’re puzzling a world together.
Stephanie Domet: Yeah, right.
Barry Boyce: You end up having a worldview. It’s like right now, many people, they’ve been economically disadvantaged or for whatever reason, have formed the notion that foreigners are taking jobs away. So that’s a puzzling together of the world. This is, you take some pieces and you form them into a picture.
Stephanie Domet: Whether they actually actually fit or not.
Barry Boyce: And we all do that. And you listen to the news and read the news. You see the news on television. You form a picture.
Stephanie Domet : Right.
Barry Boyce: And that is a necessary part of living and navigating the world, but it’s really helpful to have an understanding, as one of my meditation teachers..
There’s a lot of talk about making workplaces more mindful, but what does that really mean? Mindfulness is more than meditation. It’s just as much about how we communicate with those around us as it is about finding stillness within ourselves.
In the workplace, so much of what we accomplish, particularly as leaders, comes in the form of conversations. And when those conversations can be more mindful, we can develop a kinder, more compassionate culture, while still maintaining high standards of excellence. We can all think of a conversation or two (or five or 10) that we wouldn’t describe as mindful. But what really makes a conversation mindful?
The Benefits of Mindful Conversation
Karen Starns, Head of Advertising and Media Planning at Amazon, has had a 20-year career in technology, an industry where, after long hours under tight deadlines, anyone’s mindfulness could go right out the window.
For Starns, a mindful conversation is an opportunity to open people up to a broader view and take them to an unexpected place. “Having a mindful conversation means considering the whole person you’re engaging with—not just the project they’re leading, or the deliverable they owe you.” Signaling that you’re aware of how the work gets done (not just that it gets done) and how the person is doing helps you make a more positive connection.
Taking the time to “acknowledge an important personal milestone or to offer to juggle workload during a tough time can have an amplifying effect far beyond the situation at hand,” she says.
“Having a mindful conversation means considering the whole person you’re engaging with—not just the project they’re leading, or the deliverable they owe you.”
In other companies mindful communication is ingrained in the culture. At Vera Whole Health in 2008, Chief Visionary Officer Valerie Burlingame set out to build a company that embodies being “present and authentic.”
At Vera, they try to help their employees with “particularly challenging conversations, when there may be some resistance or conflict.” They teach them to search within themselves and identify their own “stories, feelings, and wants so that we can be responsible and aware of what we are bringing into interactions.” She goes on to say that this practice has helped the company be more effective at resolving conflict, and helped to foster an atmosphere of trust in external and internal relationships.
Mindfulness and Leadership
For those in leadership roles, a little bit of attention paid to mindful speaking can go a long way. Lisa Hufford, CEO of Simplicity Consulting, has conversations with nearly 100 consultants and clients each month. Her intention for each conversation is to, “Be aware of my own emotions and potential triggers so that I do not let them lead me.” She also encourages her team to, “Visualize what success looks like for the conversation you want to have before you have it.”
She feels that this approach not only helps to create a positive culture, it also directly affects the bottom line, because, “Mindful communication allows my team to cut through the clutter and the noise that can permeate organizations. Being clear about intentions helps us get to the heart of the issues quickly and unifies the group.”
Regardless of what industry you’re in, what your company values are, or what type of job you have, every one of us can be more mindful at work—especially in our conversations. For starters, you need to be clear about your intent at the outset, consider how you want to express it, choose the right time, and pay attention to what’s going on with the person on the other side of the conversation.
Sounds obvious and easy, right? But when we’re swimming in a sea of busyness, finding time to be intentional about how we enter into conversations can become a low priority. If we’re not careful, we’re practically barking.
Try It Out:
This month, make just one work conversation each day a bit more mindful. Set the intention to be present with the person (or people), get clear on your purpose, and remain engaged throughout the whole exchange. It’s possible to build mindfulness at work, one conversation at a time.
Fewer than half of teens today would rate their own mental health as “excellent” or “very good,” according to a recent survey by the American Psychological Association. And it doesn’t seem to get better as they get older; more than 90 percent of today’s 18 to 21 year olds experienced at least one physical or emotional symptom due to stress in the past month (this is very high compared to other adults). In addition to physical symptoms, other common symptoms of stress include feeling depressed or sad, showing a lack of interest in school or their daily lives, lacking motivation or energy, and feeling nervous or anxious.
What seems to be new about today’s teenagers is that they aren’t just stressed about what’s going on at home or at school or in their own lives—they’re stressed about the world they are living in. For example, three quarters say they are stressed about mass and school shootings. More than half feel stressed about the current political climate, and more than two-thirds feel significantly stressed about our nation’s future. About 60 percent are worried about the rise in suicide rates, about climate change and global warming, and about the separation and deportation of immigrant and migrant families. The list goes on and on and on.
It’s no wonder that our teens are suffering. Fortunately, there is a lot that we can do for our stressed-out teens. Professional help is always a great place to start.
1) First, just listen, and resist the urge to give advice.
Ask them to describe the difficult circumstance that is stressing them out. Maybe it is a problematic friendship; perhaps they didn’t make a team they really wanted to be on.
At this stage, acknowledge that their difficulties are real—even if they sorta seem dramatic or overblown or irrational. The key is not to deny what they are going through and how it is making them feel (e.g., by saying something like, “But you have so many friends!” when they say that they are lonely). Instead, have them simply give you the facts of the hard place they are in, and, in response, show calm curiosity about their experience. The goal is not to take away their pain. The goal is for them to feel seen and heard by you.
Second, help them identify how they are feeling in response to the stressor. “I’m feeling anxious right now,” they might say, or “I feel stressed and nervous.” This is the “name it to tame it” technique; research shows that when we label our emotions, we are better able to integrate them. If they start telling you a story that is making them more emotional, gently bring them back to what they are feeling. The task here is to identify WHAT they are feeling, not necessarily WHY they are feeling that way. This can be hard; we get attached to our narratives about why we are upset. It’s usually easier to stick to our story than it is to reveal how we are feeling. But again, the task here is to talk about the actual emotions, not the reasons for the emotions.
The task here is to identify WHAT they are feeling, not necessarily WHY they are feeling that way.
See if you can sum up their stressful experience or circumstance (the facts, not the story) and their feelings about the circumstance in a simple phrase or two. For example, “You didn’t know how to solve five questions on your math test today, and you are feeling really scared that your grade is going to drop in that class.” Throw in a little empathy if you feel like you need to say something else: “That’s so hard. I can remember some very difficult math tests when I was in high school, too. It’s awful.”
Again: Resist the urge to give advice, make suggestions for how they can fix the problem, or offer platitudes like “This too shall pass.” You do not need to offer reassurance. Really. Right now, teens need to feel heard, and if you say something along the lines of “Everything will be okay” or offer specific reassurance like “Even if you fail the test, you’ll still probably have an A- average,” they’ll notice that you’ve missed the main thing they are trying to communicate, which is that they are very stressed out.
The other goal here is to show them that you are not anxious about their anxiety; you accept it. This helps them drop their resistance to the stressor. Why? Because resisting the current reality doesn’t help us recover, learn, grow, or feel better—it just amplifies the difficult emotions we are feeling. There is real truth to the old aphorism that what we resist persists; weirdly, resistance prolongs our pain and difficulty.
The more our kids resist reality, the more likely it is that they will start showing signs of a dysregulated stress response. In other words, when kids aren’t managing stressful or difficult situations effectively, they tend to start having larger and larger stress responses to smaller and smaller stimuli.
2. Help your kids understand the cause of their stress without telling them outright.
We parents are most useful to our teenagers when we help them ask themselves: “What is the source of my stress?” and “Why am I anxious?” It might be obvious to you what is going on; the task here isn’t to hand them a diagnosis but, rather, to help them see for themselves what is going on more clearly.
We can help our kids identify causes of stress by looking for what might be new or changing in their life; looking for sources of unpredictability; identifying ways that their competence or safety is being threatened; and asking about the things in their lives that feel out of their control.
Help kids differentiate the kinds of stress they are experiencing. In addition to searching for sources of stress, it can be helpful for teens to classify the particular strain of stress they are experiencing: Is it related to a negative life event? Is it the result of cumulative day-to-day difficulties that are beyond the teen’s control?
Life-event stressors are things like the death of a loved one, or changing schools, or dealing with your parent’s divorce. The more change a life event requires a teen to make, the more stressful it will tend to be.
Chronic stress is when “basic life circumstances are persistently difficult,” according to Damour. Chronic stress is caused by things like living in poverty or living with a severely depressed parent, or having a chronic illness like cancer. I also suspect that many of today’s teens are experiencing a form of chronic stress caused by current events—global warming, rising suicide rates, mass shootings, etc. And social media is a source of chronic stress for many teens; nearly half say social media makes them feel judged, and more than a third report feeling bad about themselves as a result of social media use.
One study found that the number of daily hassles a teen faces can predict their emotional distress over time, and that daily hassles have a greater impact on teens’ well-being than other types of stress. Daily hassles are often related to negative life events and chronic stressors, of course—a death in the family, for example, can create a mountain of hassle.
Surprisingly, daily hassles tend to be more distressing for teens than negative life events or chronic stress. Knowing this, often we can help kids solve some of their daily hassles, even if we can’t change their circumstances.
Surprisingly, daily hassles tend to be more distressing for teens than negative life events or chronic stress.
For example, last year one of my teenage daughters was going through a really hard time at school socially, and she was having some minor but persistent health problems. She also had a daily hassle: getting home from school. She had to walk 1.2 miles to her bus stop, and she was often waiting, sometimes in the rain, for 40 minutes or more for the bus to come. This was precious homework time. She was super stressed and having a hard time keeping up in her classes. I couldn’t ease her social pain or fix her health (both chronic stressors), but we eliminated the daily hassle of getting her home from school—the straw that was breaking the camel’s back—by creating a carpool.
3. Finally, help them see the difference between stress and anxiety.
Stress is the tension or strain we feel when we are pushed outside of our comfort zones, according to Damour. Stress is healthy and helpful when it creates enough tension and strain to foster growth.
Think of a muscle that is stressed by weight training: It tenses up and even breaks down a little. The weight might be very hard to lift, and the muscle might be sore afterwards. But the stress of a heavy weight—so long as it isn’t so heavy it causes a significant injury—strengthens the muscle.
Stress can work the same way. School is supposed to be stressful in this way. A mountain of research shows that we learn and grow when we are out of our comfort zone—when we are exposed to novel challenges. Stress can act like a vaccine for future stress (researchers call this “stress inoculation.”) People who are able to weather stressful circumstances frequently go on to demonstrate above-average resilience.
Anxiety is the fear and dread and panic that can come up for us in the face of a stressor (or even just the mere thought of a stressor). Sometimes anxiety is an important warning system that we are in danger. It’s appropriate for us to feel anxious when we are a riding in a car where the driver is texting, for example. Legitimate anxiety makes us want to get the heck out of whatever situation we are in.
I once had a really nice-seeming neighbor who scared the bejeezus out of me. Every time he’d stop to chat, friendly and normal-seeming as he was, the hair on my neck would stand up, and my heart would start racing and thudding in my chest. It was all I could do to not run and hide from him. It turns out that my anxiety was legitimate: I later found out that he had spent a decade in a maximum-security prison for violent sex crimes.
And sometimes anxiety is more about excitement than it is a sign of danger. As Maria Shriver writes in And One More Thing Before You Go, often “anxiety is a glimpse of your own daring . . . part of your agitation is just excitement about what you’re getting ready to accomplish. Whatever you’re afraid of—that is the very thing you should try to do.”
More often than not, our anxiety isn’t helpful. Unhelpful anxiety makes us hesitate rather than bolt. We are afraid of looking stupid, and so we don’t ask a burning question. We fear failing, and so we don’t even try.
Two questions your teens can ask themselves if they are experiencing anxiety: We can help our teens figure out whether they are experiencing legitimate anxiety or unhelpful anxiety.
Do they have the desire to get the heck out of whatever situation is making them anxious and afraid? If so, their anxiety is likely legitimate. We can support them in getting out of that dangerous situation.
Is their anxiety is making them hesitate? If so, help them consider that their anxiety may be unfounded—and that it may be holding them back from rich experiences.
All of this requires trust. Trust that even if we don’t immediately fix everything, life will continue to unfold just as it’s meant to. Trust that even if it all goes to hell, even if other people make mistakes or do things differently than we would do them, our kids can deal with the outcome. Trust that they (and we) can handle all the difficult emotions that come up in response to what does or does not happen.
When we accept the reality of a stressful or scary situation and our limited control, it allows our kids to do the same. Importantly, our acceptance also frees them up to move forward, rather than remaining paralyzed by stress and anxiety.
The teen years are tumultuous, but as adolescents test boundaries and become a bit defiant, it also lays the groundwork for a sense of purpose and individuality. Here’s how parents can help teens thrive.
I didn’t fit in at my high school. I yearned for the admiration and embrace of my classmates, but always felt different and distant from them. Among my desperate attempts to fit in was the time I showed up to prom in a dress I hoped would bring me my Cinderella moment, when I would finally feel that I could hang with the cool kids. The reality? The same old me in a monstrosity of wispy mint that left me embarrassed and more alienated than ever. Would I ever belong?
Belonging is complicated. There are many places we can find belonging, that feeling of identifying with and being part of a group that’s bigger than we are: families, clubs, ethnicities, secret societies, political parties, and football teams, to name a few. Feeling that we are part of a wider group can give purpose and meaning to our lives, and research suggests that belonging to a community correlates to better mental and physical health. But even if your sense of belonging is strong in some arenas (say, your book club), what happens when you wind up in a place where you don’t feel you belong (such as, say, your job)?
Today, many of us venture beyond our places of birth and away from our families, carving out lives on our own terms. As a result, we lose access to some of the ready-made forms of belonging that we might have had if we stayed closer to the nest. At the same time, ironically, life appears even more connected thanks to our constant digital companion, the smartphone, with its real-time updates from the diaspora we tap into through social media.
Maintaining real, deeply personal connections over time and space, however, is hard, and reaching out to make future friends out of strangers isn’t easy for all of us. In our ever-more globalized, mobile world, we risk winding up lonely and disconnected in new and challenging ways.
Retaining a deeper sense of belonging, no matter where we are, starts with feeling at home within ourselves.
Retaining a deeper sense of belonging, no matter where we are, starts with feeling at home within ourselves. When we know and accept ourselves, we rely less on others to affirm our identity, which in turn allows us to shed some of the insecurities and fears (What if I get rejected? Or say something stupid? Or don’t fit in?) that hold us back from connecting with others. From there we can plant small seeds of belonging, like saying hello to a stranger who looks like they could use a little acknowledgment, or sending a kind note to a colleague. Friendliness helps everyone feel they belong. You never know how those seeds might sprout, grow, and bloom.
Decades after my prom disaster, I was one of a dozen fortunate guests invited to an exclusive retreat at a summer cottage. Most of the women were shy and unknown to one another, and our host graciously arranged activities to help ignite connection and belonging within the group. As the week went on, I didn’t always want to participate. I didn’t want to do yoga. Or dance. Or cook. Or go into town with the gang. Yet I still felt like I belonged.
Eventually it struck me that, thanks to my mindfulness practice, I belonged in my own skin. This allowed me to feel a sense of belonging with others, in the silences, the laughter, the one-on-one conversations. I belonged to a larger feeling of safety and connection.
When we are not quite sure if we belong, we might think that we have to dress a certain way, do particular things, or share the right views so we can be part of the water-cooler conversation. But with awareness, we can know that we belong to our own life—exactly as we find it. And our life is woven into the entire fabric of humanity. From there, it might be easier to reach out and say hello.
A Practice to Stop, Be, and Connect
When you find yourself feeling out of sync in your surroundings, or even in your own being, try this practice to bring you back to yourself:
Stop and take note of your emotions.
Be in the moment, noticing the space around you and whatever is unfolding in your presence. You don’t have to fix or change anything. Simply noticing can accomplish
Connect with your body. Take a few deep breaths and feel what physical sensations arise. Then, use your senses as tentacles to connect with your surroundings. You might see cars passing by, or hear birds chirping—things that link you to the world outside yourself. In this subtle way, you have found belonging
A star athlete misses a penalty shot in overtime. A famous singer bungles the national anthem. A great actor forgets their lines on stage.
We’ve all witnessed someone choke under pressure, and while it may seem like a high-profile phenomenon, it can also happen to us in everyday life—whether we’re trying to nail a job interview, pass an important exam, impress a new date, or give a successful presentation.
So why do we panic under pressure? And what can we do to stop it?
In this video from TED-Ed, educator Pen-Pen Chen explains why pressure causes us to panic, and how we can conquer it.
How to stay calm under pressure - Noa Kageyama and Pen-Pen Chen - YouTube
Choosing Where You Place Your Attention
One of our main enemies when struggling to keep it together under pressure is perhaps the most obvious: distraction.
“Performance suffers when the mind is preoccupied with worries, doubts, or fears, instead of focusing its attention on performing the task at hand,” Chen says.
The reason for this is deceptively simple. When we’re too busy focusing on our panicked thoughts—Did I arrive too early? What if I shouldn’t have said that? Do they like me? How much time do I have?—we can’t concentrate on more important things, like the speech we’ve memorized. We excel when we’re able to choose where we place our attention (or where we don’t place our attention).
“Performance suffers when the mind is preoccupied with worries, doubts, or fears, instead of focusing its attention on performing the task at hand.”
“When relevant and irrelevant thoughts compete for the same attention, something has to give. The brain can only process so much information at once,” Chen says.
Getting Out of Your Own Way
Another reason we panic is we’re constantly monitoring our progress during a task—in other words, we over-analyze.
“Tasks we do unconsciously seem to be most vulnerable to this kind of choking,” Chen says.
For example, one study looked the performance of competitive golfers, for whom putting is a skill they perform so regularly they don’t have to think about doing it. The study found that when told to consider the detailed mechanics of their putting stroke, the golfers performed worse than when they were simply instructed to hit the ball accurately.
“The logic goes that once a skill becomes automatic, thinking about its precise mechanics interferes with your ability to do it,” Chen says.
Three Ways to Keep Your Cool Under Pressure
Feeling nervous before a big event is often inevitable. But that doesn’t mean you’re destined to forget the words to your speech, or embarrass yourself in front of a date. Explore these three ways to keep your cool:
Learn to be with discomfort. If you know you have a high-stakes event coming up, one of the best things you lean into difficulty instead of pulling away from it. One way you can do this is by becoming familiar with feeling pressure, and learning to work through it. Need to give a presentation to coworkers? Rather than practicing on your own, try out your speech on a couple of friends. Do you have to write a qualifying examination in under an hour? Instead of studying cue cards, time yourself answering questions.
Establish a pre-performance routine. Whether it’s taking a few deep breaths, doing some light stretching, or having a quick phone call with someone you trust, spending your last few minutes doing something active before a big event will prevent you from spiralling into worry, so you can perform confidently.
Use mindfulness to focus your attention. To avoid over-analyzing your situation, try shifting your attention away from your worries and towards the task at hand. Mindfulness can help you regain a sense of calm and focus your attention, so you can avoid being caught off guard by your anxiety. You can see it for what it is, and choose to direct your attention elsewhere. Explore this nine-minute meditation to focus a busy mind in times of stress or overwhelm.
My name is Anne and I’m super thrilled you’re here. I’m the “new” editor of Mindful Magazine and I’d love to welcome you to the June issue….
Mindfulness in Action
On the cover is Shelly Tygielski (with her amazing boots). Shelly is a mindfulness teacher, grassroots, self-care activist who is “planting the seeds” of mindfulness to help people discover the power of pausing, breathing and holding space for themselves and others. You may recognize Shelly from her Self-Care series and Facebook meditations.
I love Shelly’s story because it shows the impact that mindfulness can make on a community, bringing people together—and bringing out their best—even in times of terrible trauma. As you will see, Shelly is a mindfulness teacher and practitioner who’s become a heartfelt supporter of the Parkland community in Florida and is helping to address healing from the trauma of gun violence. (Listen to the stories of Parkland survivors.)
Tune In to Your Body
Also in the June issue, we dive into the practice of “Deep Listening,” that is, how to tune in and really, truly listen to your body and mind…..so you can learn to allow yourself to let go of the deep tension that many of us carry around, without even realizing it.
Learning to tune in—and let go—of this tension helps us all find calm in the chaos.
Yoga, mindfulness and somatic awareness expert Jillian Pransky shares her story of living in a state of chronic go-go-go (bigger, faster, stronger, does that sound like a familiar drumbeat to you??). Jillian also shares how she learned to do the opposite. Unwind tension. De-stress the mind. Open her heart.
This body-appreciating approach to mindfulness will—I hope—help you melt your own tension and learn to experience the calm that awaits each of us inside. You can sample soft-belly breathing with Jillian here.
Personally, after practicing with Jillian, I became much more mindful of how often and unconsciously I hunch my shoulders throughout the day (and even at night!). Thanks to her insights, I now try to use these signs of tension as a mindful “tell,” to increase my self-awareness in the moment when something has been triggered. I really appreciate her approach to sharing ways to tune in, listen and let go. I hope you will too.
And so much more…
There’s so much more in this issue—in print and digital—whatever format you choose. We’re sharing a summer reading list and some of our favorite podcasts. There’s a mindful garden tour with master gardener Peter Good, just in time for being outside in whatever natural setting you call your home away from home.
Plus, on the back page, Editor-in-Chief Barry Boyce shares a few choice words about how we listen (or don’t) to others, often projecting our own expectations instead of really seeing things with fresh eyes.
Enjoy Every Moment
So, I hope you’re enjoying a lovely spring and summer, filled with plenty of moments in mindful awakeness. I’m looking forward to school letting out – a respite from our daily, manic school runs — and days taking on a slower, summery pace. My un-ambitious goals: to soak up time with my three teenagers, delighting in their energy and laughter, and spending time with our crazy extended furry family, including our rescue pygmy-ish goat Lilly Rose, pictured here.
At Mindful, we talk about the “me and we” of mindfulness, our connection to self and our interconnectedness with others and the world around us. So, from my heart to yours and to all of ours, may we find our own centers of calm and compassion, and may we find ways to extend that to all we meet.
Janice Marturano believes so deeply in the power of mindfulness to transform leadership, she once accosted colleagues in the hallway to tell them the good news.
Mindfulness wasn’t always on her leadership-training radar. In the early 2000s Marturano was a “twenty-first-century juggler” living the sandwich-generation nightmare: school-aged children, aging parents, a demanding job at a Fortune 200 company, and a high-stakes assignment overseeing an acquisition. During the eighteen months that assignment took, her parents died—first her mother, who’d been ill, then six months later, her father, who had not.
“I did what most professionals do. We keep going because that’s what we do. We’re still that juggler. We still have children to care for, and spouses, we still have our responsibilities at work, and that particular deal, if I wasn’t able to get that through the FTC, thousands of jobs would be lost, so I carried that as well.”
The deal went through, and when she didn’t bounce back as she thought she should, a friend urged her to spend a week at the spa. Marturano was reluctant, until she visited the facility’s website and saw one of its offerings. “’The power of mindfulness, an intensive retreat for executives and innovators.’ And at that moment, in my very warped brain, I said, well, maybe if it’s intensive, it’s okay to go to a spa.”
Connecting the Dots from Mindfulness to Leadership
It would be a game-changer for Marturano. “I met Jon Kabat Zinn. And that was my introduction to mindfulness.” The spa intensive led to years of practice and study with different teachers, and a deep dive into neuroscience research and the way cultures around the world have used mindfulness. As she studied, Marturano began to notice something. “There was overlap between contemplative practices and training the mind with what had been a passion of mine for decades, which is the development of leadership excellence.”
Once she made that connection she started spreading the word. “I would literally see a colleague in the hallway and say, hey can I tell you about something. And the most common response I got was, ‘Oh, that’s what’s been so different with you these last few years—That’s how you stay calm!’ The nature of the job I was doing, I was always in the middle of the chaos, the heated conversations, the crises. So, my colleagues were like, ‘Okay, I want some of what you’ve got.’”
“I would literally see a colleague in the hallway and say, hey can I tell you about something. And the most common response I got was, ‘Oh, that’s what’s been so different with you these last few years—That’s how you stay calm!’“
The first group that went on retreat with her was comprised entirely of women.
“Though this has been accepted by men and women equally, some of the tenets, the idea of listening to your own wisdom, making room to see if you can find that win-win-win, comes a little more naturally to women leaders, but I would also say that that’s been changing,” she said. “As more women are leading in that way and having good results, I think it’s being seen as a model—as any kind of new leadership avenue appeals to people when it’s successful, or beginning to affect the culture in a positive way, people wanna know about it.”
How Mindfulness Leads to Success at Work and Beyond
That “win-win-win” is a key feature of what Marturano calls “the leadership we need in the twenty-first century.” Leadership is about influence, she notes, so it’s important for leaders to look at how they’re having influence, whether at home, at work, or in society.
“We have an epidemic of people who are living on a kind of autopilot treadmill. They are so overloaded, overwhelmed, over-connected that we have autopilot leadership. So people are more likely to miss things, to react rather than respond. They don’t have the spaciousness to find what we call the win-win-win, the choices that we can make as individuals that are good for the organization, good for the employees, and also good for the community or the big picture. When we’re on autopilot, we don’t have clarity, we don’t have focus, we have very little space in our brains for creativity and innovation, and compassion is really a stretch.”
Compassion has to start at home, she says, with self-compassion—something that doesn’t come naturally to many leaders. “If compassion and self-compassion are anywhere on their to-do list, they’re at the bottom.”
She believes mindful leadership is a necessity for the way we live now. “It’s an absolute imperative if we want professionals to do the work we need them to do, both for themselves, for their organization, and for that big picture. Boy, do we need it. Government can’t do it. Non-profits don’t have enough money to do it. We need these folks to have the spaciousness to find the win-win-win.”
Mindfulness is all the rage these days, and for good reason. Focusing on the moment can improve our well-being, foster compassion, and help our relationships. What about going beyond the present moment? Yes, thinking about the future can trigger anxiety—but a growing body of research suggests that it can also make our lives more meaningful.
Humans aren’t alone in having some ability to consider the future, a process that scientists call “prospection.” After all, your dog gets excited when they see you holding a leash because they anticipate a walk is imminent; your cat may show similar excitement at the sound of a can being opened. There’s even evidence that some animals—like bonobos and ravens—can choose and save tools that they plan to use in the future.
But prospection’s unique benefits to humans extend beyond that of other animals. Not only do we fantasize about our next vacation or decide whether it would be better to take the stairs or the elevator, but our prospection can cast far into the future: We might save for our children’s education or plan for our retirement decades from now. We can make predictions about our own futures based on what we’ve learned about other people’s experiences and even from characters in books and movies. And we can consider multiple directions our futures might take.
It is this remarkable ability to simulate our possible futures that makes prospection special. Just like gold prospecting may literally make you rich, studies suggest that prospecting about your future can enrich your life in at least four ways.
1. Helps us make more prudent decisions
Perhaps one of the most fundamental and important functions of prospection is that it helps us decide how to act: Thinking about what the future likely holds helps us decide what course to take in the here-and-now. Several studies have examined how thinking about the future shapes our decision-making.
Researchers have been particularly interested in the psychology that drives our process of deciding between receiving something now versus receiving something of greater value later. In general, people tend to choose smaller but more immediate rewards over larger rewards that they have to wait for, a phenomenon known as “delay discounting.”
But they don’t always choose short-term rewards over long-run gains. For instance, studies have shown that present-day connection to a possible future event can counteract delay discounting. In one study from the United Kingdom, participants were told either to vividly imagine spending 35 pounds at a pub 180 days from now or to simply estimate what they thought could be purchased for 35 pounds. Participants in the former condition showed an increased willingness to wait for a larger future reward than the participants in the latter condition. In other words, visualizing a specific possible future counteracted the effects of delay discounting.
Another study showed that participants who felt closer to their future selves were more willing to wait for a larger reward than those who anticipated changing; the same was true when they were asked to make decisions on behalf of a fictional character who they knew would go through a life-changing event (like a religious conversion or returning home from war).
While interesting in its own right, this research could have important personal ramifications. If people could be made to feel a more immediate connection to their eventual retirement (and consequent drop in income), they may be more motivated to make prudent decisions.
In fact, one experiment found that manipulating how people think about the time until their retirement—in days rather than years—caused them to plan to start saving for retirement sooner, because the shift in time perspective made the participants feel more connected to their future selves. A 2014 study found that viewing realistic computer-generated images of what they may look like in the future decreased their discounting of future rewards and led them to contribute more to a hypothetical retirement account.
2. Motivates us to achieve our goals (if we do it right)
Prospection has another important application: It motivates us to achieve our goals. But the relationship here is not a simple one. Work by psychologist Gabriele Oettingen and colleagues shows that whether thinking about the future helps us actually reach our goals depends on how we think about the future.
In fact, research has found that positive thinking about our future can backfire. The more people positively fantasize about successfully reaching their goals, the less effort they actually put into realizing them. For example, in one study, the people who fantasized more about successfully losing weight actually lost less weight. Another study found that students who fantasized about their transition into a professional career were less successful in their job search and students who dreamed more about their crush were less likely to start a relationship with their crushee.
Importantly, both of these studies found the opposite effect for having positive expectations(“judging a desired future as likely”). People who expected to lose weight were more likely to actually lose weight; students who expected they would find a job were more likely to actually land one; and students who expected to enter a relationship with their crush were more likely to actually do so.
It makes sense that having positive expectations—optimism, essentially—could increase our ability to achieve our goals, but why might fantasizing about the future actually decrease the chance of achieving what we want? Because, write Oettingen and Klaus Michel Reininger, positive fantasies “lead people to mentally enjoy the desired future in the here and now, and thus curb investment and future success.”
But often our goals come from our fantasies. We want to excel at work, find Mr. or Mrs. Right, or run a marathon. How do we turn these fantasies into behaviors that can help us reach our goals? Research suggests that while optimism is important, it is also helpful to draw a contrast between our fantasies and our current reality, which allows us to see barriers that must be overcome.
Students who expected to do well in the program to commit themselves more, and those who expected to do poorly to commit themselves less—again pointing to the importance of optimistic expectations to success.
For example, one study asked students to mentally contrast their positive fantasies about benefiting from a vocational training program with aspects of the program that could impede their progress. This reflection caused students who expected to do well in the program to commit themselves more, and those who expected to do poorly to commit themselves less—again pointing to the importance of optimistic expectations to success. But the mental contrasting was also key: Positive expectations did not increase commitment in participants who were not assigned to compare their present situation with their future desires.
Results from a later study suggest that the effectiveness of mental contrasting is due to “energization”—meaning that, when people have high expectations for succeeding at something, considering what might impede their goals gives them energy to try to overcome those barriers. In other words, it helps to stress yourself out a little bit.
Mental contrasting, particularly when used in conjunction with “implementation intentions”—making plans to help move past potential barriers—has been shown to help people reach their goals. To describe this process, Oettingen and colleagues use the acronym WOOP: Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. In studies, WOOP-type interventions have helped people break a bad snacking habit, get more exercise, and improve academic performance.
Thus, research suggests that thinking about the future can motivate us to take the steps necessary to reach our goals—but only if we take obstacles into account.
3. Improves psychological well-being
Besides helping us make decisions and reach our goals, there is evidence that prospection may improve psychological health more generally. It might even help people who are struggling with depression and those recovering from trauma.
Indeed, some researchers pose a link between poor prospection and certain psychological disorders such as depression.
“We see faulty prospection as a core underlying process that drives depression,” write psychologists Martin Seligman and Anne Marie Roepke in the book Homo Prospectus. In particular, they note that people with depression imagine possible futures that are more negative than people without depression. Moreover, people with depression tend to overestimate risk and to have more pessimistic beliefs about the future.
That might be why research suggests that targeting negative beliefs about the future can be helpful. Some techniques used in cognitive behavioral therapy, for example, involve correcting how people think about the future, and some studies have shown that cognitive behavioral therapy can improveprospection. There is a 10-week program called “Future Directed Therapy” that induces participants to spend less time dwelling on the past or on current struggles. Instead, they are asked to spend more time thinking about what they want from the future, while developing skills to reach those future goals. A nonrandomized pilot studyfound that patients with major depressive disorder who completed this intervention showed significant improvements in depression, anxiety, and quality of life compared to patients who completed standard cognitive behavioral therapy.
For people recovering from trauma, a 2018 study suggests that writing optimistically about the future—an intervention called prospective writing—might encourage post-traumatic growth (that is, positive psychological growth following a traumatic life event). In this study, adults who had recently experienced trauma were randomly assigned to a prospective writing intervention group, a factual writing control group, or a no-writing control. Throughout the study, those in the prospective writing group showed greater improvement in surveys measuring aspects of post-traumatic growth, including relationship quality, meaning in life, life satisfaction, gratitude, and religiosity-spirituality. The other two groups did not show the same progress.
There’s another technique that may help anyone improve their psychological health: “anticipatory savoring.” Taking time to simulate and enjoy a positive experience in advance—whether it be an upcoming meal, visit with friends, or vacation—can allow you to derive benefits for the experience twice. One 2018 study found that taking the opportunity to savor an upcoming experience actually heightened people’s enjoyment both during the unfolding of the experience and when remembering it later.
One way to engage in anticipatory savoring, suggested by Roepke and Seligman in a recent review article, is to modify the “three good things” gratitude exercise. Instead of writing three good things that happened today, you can write three good things you anticipate happening tomorrow and what you can do to make it more likely that those things actually happen. For people who are struggling, they suggest also writing down three methods that could be used to mitigate disappointment if the good things do not actually happen. These could include coping strategies (exercise, reaching out to a friend, etc.) or alternative strategies to making the good thing happen (e.g., if a friend cancelled lunch, you could suggest lunch next week).
4. Makes us more kind and generous
How we think about the future doesn’t just influence our own lives. It can also influence how we treat other people.
In particular, picturing yourself helping someone in the future may make you more likely to actually do so. For instance, a 2018 study found that participants reported being more willing to help other people who needed help (such as a person who was locked out of their house or who lost their dog) if they had previously been asked to imagine helping a person in a similar scenario. People who were asked to imagine the helping scenario more vividly—by picturing the event occurring in a familiar location—were even more willing to help. One experiment even found that people who imagined helping actually gave more money to people in need when given the opportunity.
Another study found that when people think more broadly about the future consequences that could come from helping others, they might feel inspired to behave in more prosocial ways.
Another study found that when people think more broadly about the future consequences that could come from helping others, they might feel inspired to behave in more prosocial ways. In one experiment, researchers asked people who had volunteered for Hurricane Katrina relief efforts to imagine the meaning and consequences of their trip—or to think concretely about how they would be helping. Those who imagined the consequences of helping predicted that they would have a more rewarding trip than those who thought concretely about their actions. A second experiment replicated this finding: People predicted that giving money to someone they had never met would be more rewarding when they were asked to think about the more abstract meaning and consequences of their actions (e.g., how this decision fit in with their life’s past and future experience) than when they were asked to consider a more concrete perspective.
Could this abstract-versus-concrete effect have real-world consequences? The researchers think so:
“We believe that our results suggest an intervention that could be used to prompt and sustain prosocial behavior. To the extent that people avoid or cease prosocial actions because of concrete costs, inviting people to construe those actions abstractly could help them persist at prosocial actions that have enduring personal and social benefits.”
While there’s a lot left for researchers to discover about prospection, you don’t need to wait for their published studies. You can try your own experiments right now, to see if prospection helps you to live a more generous, happier, and more meaningful life.
Zindel Segal, the co-founder of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and author of The Mindful Way Through Depression, worked in the field of mood disorders for over 30 years.
He recounts how he has seen many different anti-depression treatments be developed over the course of his career—but meditation was never one of them.
There’s a reason for that, he points out: while traditional treatments help alleviate depression and allow patients to get their lives back on track, they often don’t address keeping patients from relapsing once their lives are on track.
“What we now understand about depression is that it is an episodic and recurrent disorder,” he says. “Getting well is half of the problem, staying well is the other half.”
He describes mindfulness as a way to allow patients “more room and more space” to handle their depression in this Tedx Talk.
The mindful way through depression: Zindel Segal at TEDxUTSC - YouTube
Understanding the Impact of Mindfulness on Depression
Segal partnered with two other researchers, Mark Williams and John Teasdale, to find a way to modify existing treatment to prevent relapse. They decided to focus on a specific trigger, such as sadness.
“But how do you work with a trigger of relapse like sadness, when sadness is also a feature of our universal human experience?” Segal asks. “We weren’t interested in trying to eliminate sadness, we weren’t interested in trying to get people not to feel sad. What we really needed to do was to help people develop a different relationship to their sadness.”
“We weren’t interested in trying to eliminate sadness, we weren’t interested in trying to get people not to feel sad. What we really needed to do was to help people develop a different relationship to their sadness.”
That’s where mindfulness comes in.
“Mindfulness is really the awareness that comes to mind, the awareness that arises when we pay attention in a particular way. We’re bringing our attention into the present moment and we’re not judging,” Segal explains.
“What we’re trying to get people to do is to anchor themselves in their experience so that when a negative emotion comes up in the mind, it can wash over them; it doesn’t totally destabilize,” Segal says. “Instead, they can find a different place for standing and working with these feelings, and as a result have much more of an option for selecting a response and influencing what happens next.”
Over time, those who have had mindfulness training can change their reaction to sadness. While someone without mindfulness training may feel overwhelmed, a person who has a mindfulness practice experiences a healthier, more substantial way of dealing with the emotion.
Studies in recent years have shown MBCT to be 43 per cent effective in reducing relapse in sufferers of depression—as effective as antidepressants. Segal says 75 to 80 per cent of patients continue the mindfulness practice following their training.
“It becomes less about a treatment, and more about a way of life and looking after themselves,” he concludes.