The expectation trap

I have come to realise that there are two types of people in the world. There are those who expect far more of others than they expect of themselves. And then there are the ones at risk of burnout: those who set a higher bar for themselves than they would ever dream of setting for someone else.

I’ve got nothing but contempt for the former, to be honest. I would never ask anything of anyone that I’m not willing to do myself. (Except for spider management, ok? I do expect somebody to deal with spiders, and it ain’t gonna be me. We all have our rubicons. Spiders are mine.)  But apart from spiders, I can’t see how you can reasonably expect anything that you’re not willing to give.

Going to expect students to do something? Learn it yourself. Going to demand punctuality? Be on time. Expect people to treat you with respect? That’s a two way street, sunshine.

I’ve worked with people who like to make themselves look good by trashing others. It’s catastrophically bad for an organisation, both in terms of morale and overall work quality.

I’ve also worked with people who focus quite deliberately on raising others up: building their self esteem, publicly acknowledging good work, and generally making a much bigger fuss about the achievements of everyone else than about their own work.

They are louder about success than about failure. They will help you learn from mistakes, but they will never, ever, make a big deal out of them.

These people are society’s anti-depressants. I count some as dear friends, and some as work colleagues, and they would probably never recognise themselves here, because they also tend to be breathtakingly humble.

This humility is endearing, but it’s also dangerous. It comes back to those expectations – those who accept fallibility in others are often brutally hard on it in themselves.

I find myself drawn these days to anything that contains compassion. Whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, art, work, or science, I look for the love, the compassion, and the beauty. Life has enough trauma, enough harshness, enough brutality. I have a massive nerd crush on Brian Cox because he speaks so passionately about the beauty and wondrous variation of all life, including mankind. In episode 1 of Forces of Nature, for example, he said, “we’re all made out of the same building blocks, but we’re all slightly & magnificently different because of the history of our construction.” In his extraordinary lyricality there is a huge amount of compassion. I can’t get enough of it.

It’s odd, though, that despite being irresistibly drawn to compassion, I am singularly challenged to apply it to myself. My class goes badly? I excoriate myself. Someone else’s class goes badly? I’ll empathise, point out mitigating factors, think about how the same problem could be avoided another time, and help them move on. For myself, there can’t be mitigating factors. Everything is my fault. I expect myself to be perfect, even though I would never ask it of anyone else.

“Do unto others as you would have done unto you” doesn’t go quite far enough, does it? For some the message “do unto yourself as you would do unto others” has a lot more significance. Compassion is a powerful and healing thing.

The really compelling argument for me is that the less compassionate I am to myself, the less compassion I have to spare for others. If I have spent the day brutalising myself for some perceived failing, when I get home to my kids I am likely to be impatient and grumpy with them. It also makes me a lot less resilient. When I’m being hard on myself I can’t cope with life being hard on me as well.

So I have decided to look up to my role models. To those awesome people who lift me up on the low days. The generous souls who are kind and compassionate to those around them. I’m going to ask myself what they would tell me. And I’m going to try to treat myself as I treat others. Maybe if I do that, I might just avoid burnout.

Judgement Day

Human beings are really good at making fast judgements, but not very good at making them accurate. Let’s face it, in an evolutionary sense running away from a potential sabre toothed tiger is almost always a good idea. Better to run away when it turns out not to be a tiger, than not to run away if it actually does have teeth, claws, and a big appetite.

But sometimes those snap judgements can land you in hot water. Like when you decide you can trust someone and turn out to be horribly wrong. Or when you assume the worst of someone based on a chance meeting on a bad day.

Most of us take the judgements of others to heart too, even when we know they’re not based on fact. When somebody talks you down endlessly, it’s pretty hard not to believe it. That can be countered by some positive feedback, but positive feedback isn’t always around right when you need it. We’re more inclined to complain, as a species, I think, than we are to praise. And the bad stuff is also much, much easier to believe. It has been suggested that the ideal ratio is 6 positive comments to 1 negative, and how often do we deliver that kind of ratio ourselves, much less hear it come back to us?

What fascinates me is the power that unfair judgements have to get under my skin. Even if they’re not public – say, sent in a grumpy email or made face to face – they sting. I feel a visceral need to correct them. To fight back. To find a way to somehow wipe my life free of this corrosive attack.

But lately I’ve been thinking about that. Because fighting back invariably leads to a whole new level of toxic interaction, so even if it is temporarily satisfying to lash out, it’s really not going to improve my life. And arguing, however calmly and carefully, with someone’s judgement of you is incredibly unlikely to produce a change in their opinion.

So what on earth can you do? Turning the other cheek may be the biblical solution, but having one cheek stinging and even bleeding already, I really don’t feel like offering the other up for the same treatment. There’s not much incentive to say “Oh yeah? YEAH? Well tell that to my other cheek!”

Maybe there’s a different way. Maybe what I need to think about is the sting itself.

One of the reasons I write is to form connections. When I wrote about Mum last week I got a lot of beautiful support from both friends and strangers. At work I was heading down to the tea room when a colleague called out to me. I stopped, and she caught up and gave me a huge hug. She knew something about me, from what I wrote, that she hadn’t known before, and it prompted her to reach out. It was a moment of beauty in a really tough week.

The interesting thing about those connections is that they can become support structures in the face of those unwanted judgements. I am my own harshest critic, so when others tear me down my first instinct is to agree, and to collapse into a pit of self-loathing. Now I take those moments of beauty and hold them up against the bad stuff.

I save any positive feedback I get at work. The lovely emails from students and their parents. The off-the-cuff comments that give me a lovely warm glow. They all go into my positive feedback file, which I then go and read when I need an antidote to negativity. And the moments of beauty like the responses to my blog – the hug on the stairs, the email from a friend, the comments on facebook – they are also things I can turn to, like a balm that relieves an insect bite, to take the sting out of judgements I know to be unjust.

It turns out that I don’t have to collapse under attack. If I can’t trust my own self-judgement, I can turn to the judgement of people I love, respect, and trust. I can ask myself “Is that what my loved ones would say?”

It’s not easy . When judgements are hurled at you like a knife, they do cut. But there are salves for those cuts. At those moments when we’re bleeding, it turns out we have a choice. We can keep opening the wounds, or we can choose to help them heal. After we stomp around a bit, shouting and swearing. Sometimes you have to scream and throw things before you can act like an adult.

Telling yourself stories

A long time ago in a galaxy… well… quite close actually, I taught a communication skills course to first year computer science students. Most lectures I bounced in, made a lot of eye contact, and taught a very interactive class. The first time I taught the public speaking lecture, though, I walked in, turned the lights off, looked down at the computer screen, and spoke in a monotone, trying to act as nervous as I could.

Obviously I was trying to make a point about public speaking styles, but I was shocked to discover that my heart rate skyrocketed, my breathing became shallow and rapid, and my hands began to shake. Pretending to be nervous had made me physically nervous, in just a few minutes. Once I turned the light back on and resumed my usual style, I calmed down very quickly.

In telling my students a story about how I was feeling, I was inadvertently persuading myself. Which suggests that I could just as easily tell myself a story about being confident.

In “A Hat Full of Sky”, by Terry Pratchett, Tiffany Aching learns a lesson about stories from Granny Weatherwax:

“For example, there was the Raddles’ privy. Miss Level had explained carefully to Mr. and Mrs. Raddle several times that it was far too close to the well, and so the drinking water was full of tiny, tiny creatures that were making their children sick. They’d listened very carefully, every time they heard the lecture, and still they never moved the privy. But Mistress Weatherwax told them it was caused by goblins who were attracted to the smell, and by the time they left the cottage, Mr. Raddle and three of his friends were already digging a new well at the other end of the garden.”

Tiffany is shocked, but this is how Granny explains herself:

“What I say is, you have to tell people a story they can understand. Right now I reckon you’d have to change quite a lot of the world, and maybe bang Mr Raddle’s stupid fat head against the wall a few times, before he’d believe that you can be sickened by drinking tiny invisible beasts. And while you’re doing that, those kids of theirs will get sicker. But goblins, now, they makes sense today. A story gets things done.”

Stories do, indeed, get things done. They are our most powerful way of communicating. We tell stories to remember history – and sometimes, in doing so, we change it. We tell stories to make sense of science. The plum pudding model of an atom was a story. It explained what we knew then. When we learnt more about the way electrons actually behave we needed a new story, so we went with electron shells in the Bohr model. When we knew more about electrons, we had to move on from the shells. At each stage, the stories were a powerful illustration of what we knew, but they were never quite the truth.

Studies have shown very clearly that facts don’t persuade people – in fact they often have the opposite effect. If you tell an anti-vaxxer that vaccines save lives, and show them all the stats, you will most likely succeed only in entrenching their belief that vaccines are dangerous. What’s more, they will tell you, with great passion, a story about this child they “heard about once” who became autistic after receiving a vaccine.

Likewise, if you tell a climate change denier that climate change is real and show them all the evidence, they will come back at you with ever more vehement arguments about conspiracies and warming pauses. They will tell you a persuasive, emotional story about deceit and manipulation. A story full of lies, but powerful nonetheless. Truth, despite all our intuitive, wishful beliefs to the contrary, is not a very powerful weapon.

A lie can run around the world before the truth has got its boots on.

Terry Pratchett, The Truth

Stories, though! Stories persuade us of all kinds of things. I’ve read a lot about rip currents over the years, but it took two people close to me getting caught in them to make me truly aware of them. Their stories are fixed in my emotional brain. If you tell me a story of someone having their chair pulled out from under them and becoming paraplegic, that sticks in my mind for years where all the stats facts and figures in the world get pushed out by the next thing to grab my attention.

Effective communication is about finding the right stories. Stories can change the world.  And it’s funny, because stories can change us as well. We tell ourselves stories all the time.

Stories like

  • It’s ok for me to break that road rule, because I’m in a hurry and there’s n0-one coming so it’s fine.
  • She hasn’t replied to my text and it’s been half an hour already – I must have offended her.
  • He would never have said that if he really cared. Obviously he doesn’t care. In fact he probably hates me.
  • I don’t have any real friends.
  • I’m no good at my job, and it’s only a matter of time before someone finds out. Ok, maybe I got some praise today, but they only saw one good moment. The rest of my work is awful. They only praised me because they don’t want to upset me, not because I’m good at my job.

Stories like this shape both our brains and our bodies. It’s very easy to get stuck in a particular story line. To tell yourself that the friendship is doomed, and interpret every subsequent contact in that light, and once you start thinking that way you might as well toss the friendship on the scrap heap. Or to tell yourself that you are no good at your job, and interpret every bit of praise as an aberration, and every criticism as confirmation. We trap ourselves in our own stories.

But the upside of that is that it’s also surprisingly easy to tell ourselves positive stories. Once you recognise the stories you tell yourself as just that – stories – you can start to reshape them. Give them a new moral, and a happier ending. The other day, feeling tired and unwell, I persuaded myself that I suck at my job.  I do that from time to time, when things are overwhelming. Especially when I am stepping out of my comfort zone, I find all kinds of specific reasons why I am no good, and why I should retreat back into a nice, safe cave.

But this time instead of giving in to it, I questioned it. I went back and looked through my positive feedback file, where I save many of the positive emails, cards, and comments from my students, and I ticked off each reason one by one. Every single thing my negative thinking tried to drag me down with was refuted somewhere in my feedback file.

Stories are very persuasive, and our own internal stories are the most persuasive of all. Fortunately there are ways to turn those stories around. Just like we need to tell the story of our scientific research in persuasive and compelling ways, we need to tell our own internal stories too, deliberately, to turn around those tough days. Keeping a positive feedback file is one technique that is hugely powerful. The Thankful Thing and The Successful Thing work too. Pick whatever technique works for you, or go with a mix. The trick is to tip the balance between positive and negative in your head.

I bet you’ve heard the saying that we need to give kids 5 positive comments for every criticism, but how powerful would it be if we could apply that to our own self-talk? How often do you actively praise yourself?

Maybe it’s time to start!

Letter to my teenage self

At 44 I’m still a work in progress. I had a pretty rough time socially, as a teen, although once I got to uni things improved dramatically. But there’s some stuff that took me so long to work out, it’s just embarrassing. Some of it I know intellectually but really struggle to apply, other bits I am still coming to grips with. So in writing to the teenage me, I’m also reminding a 44 year old who really needs to learn to stand up for herself. Maybe one day she’ll listen. This is a list of the stuff I wish someone had told me when I was a teenager. Or indeed anytime in the last 44 years.

  1. Being different, thinking differently, and acting differently are the things that are singling you out and getting you teased as a teen. But these same traits are huge advantages once you grow up. If you can think clearly about it (which I know is a challenge through the fog of shame, guilt, and anger that teasing makes of your brain), all those people who happily follow the herd aren’t going anywhere new or interesting. People who think so far outside the square that they don’t even know where the square is – those people will change the world. Outside the normal is where you find opportunities, new perspectives, and solutions. It’s where you want to be. It gets better here.
  2. Your own judgement of your actions is what matters. Don’t let anyone else dictate to you how you judge your own behaviour. Ask yourself whether you did what you believed was right, and treated people the way you would like to be treated. If you didn’t, then do your best to make amends. But if you did, then you have the right to defend yourself. Which brings me to point 3:
  3. Defending yourself assertively is not an act of aggression. There is a difference between calmly stating facts, and attacking someone else. Learn to defend yourself and make the truth clear. Sometimes this means taking a deep breath and thinking calmly about the situation before speaking. That’s ok. No-one has a stopwatch out, and one deep breath can completely change the outcome. Sitting quietly and allowing yourself to be slandered in the name of “not causing a fight” will not end well for you or for anyone else. Learning to speak out before you either explode or give up (or both) will make your life immeasurably happier and more successful in the long run. Even if it hurts like hell in the short term.
  4. Sort out your own behaviour. Don’t waste time judging other people’s actions, or wishing they treated you differently. You can’t change someone else, but you can certainly change yourself and how you respond to them. Look at how you handle situations, and consider how you could do better next time. There’s nothing more potent than learning from your mistakes. Fortunately there will be plenty of learning material in your life! Also, a little compassion goes a long way. Remember that you never know what’s going on in someone else’s life, so cut the people around you some slack.
  5. Admit it when you don’t know stuff, and value the stuff you do know. Trying to bluff your way through not knowing something only ends in embarrassment at best, disaster at worst. But when you do know stuff, be confident and stand up for yourself and your skills. They have worth. You have worth.
  6. Speaking of worth, it lies in what you do, what you know, and how you treat people. Never in how you look, what shape you are, or whether you shave your legs. Never. Wear what feels good and makes you happy, and damn the torpedoes.

I think that’s enough. If you can live by all of that, then things will mostly work out. But don’t forget that you’re not perfect, and also that there will be rough patches you can’t control. You are loved. Don’t forget to allow yourself to lean on that love. It will save your life.

 

Sharing the hate

Look, I loathe killing for sport with a white hot passion. Loving killing is bizarre to me. I do eat meat, but I don’t revel in killing, and I can’t imagine doing so. Guns are abhorrent.

And yet, I am deeply uneasy about the hate storm that surrounds the killing of Cecil the lion. Not because I don’t believe that what the dentist did was foul and disgusting. I believe that with my whole heart. But I worry about these hate storms. They are so easily triggered on the net. We leap into them with such vigour. Whether it’s a horrible sexist comment by a scientist, a racist comment by a PR person, or a photo of a killing, we are really keen to stick the boot in to people who we believe have transgressed.

I can understand the temptation – and I have tweeted and facebooked myself about things I believe are wrong and abhorrent (I’m looking at YOU Tony Abbott). It feels good to serve up some righteous indignation from time to time. But a while ago I began a conscious effort to comment less on the bad stuff (“Dear motorist, the bike lane is for BIKES, not for cars who wish to undertake the traffic. You nearly undertook me!”) and more on the positive, because I was concerned that my online presence was beginning to tarnish the world. To be a drain on our collective psyche, rather than an upwards force.

And hate storms are not just a small tarnish, they are eating away at our collective character like the most toxic of corrosive substances. They whip us up into a frenzy of negativity, of hatred, and of anger, and they achieve… what? Will this online frenzy stop people hunting and killing? I doubt it. Will it, in fact, polarise the two camps even further into hate-fuelled, vitriol spitting opposing lines with nothing but contempt for each other? Quite possibly.

And in the end, all that negative energy has to come out somewhere. The more we focus on our rage, the angrier our every day behaviour becomes, the less tolerant we are, and the less inclined to look behind the headline and find out whether there is actually any depth to the story.

We have got so keen to leap into the hateful fray that we rarely pause to find out the full story, to listen to the opposing view, and to consider whether the headlines might be wrong. The media loves a good hate storm, and feeds on it with gleeful abandon. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine them firing one up just to beef up a slow news day. And once it’s going, and hate storm is impossible to stop. The fallout remains as a glowing, radioactive footprint that will haunt that person for the rest of their lives. And while some may seem to deserve it, many don’t, and we are neither judge nor jury, and rarely in possession of all of the facts.

Of course we need to continue to call our politicians to account, and fight injustice wherever it occurs, but hate storms don’t seem to be about that. They seem to me to be more lynch mob than force for change. By all means campaign for an end to hunting. But there’s rarely a positive outcome from a public lynching.

So next time you are tempted to join the feeding frenzy, why not post a question instead? Try to clarify the issues rather than nuking from orbit and asking questions never. Or better still, don’t feed it at all. Take a deep breath and focus on the positive. You’ll be happier for it, I promise.

PS Since I wrote this I’ve been seeing a lot of calls for “justice for Cecil”. It’s too late for justice for Cecil. But we can stop it happening again, by campaigning for change. Which is different to campaigning for vengeance.

On the bright side

Term 2 is a brutal, ferocious term. This year it was 11 weeks long, but it doesn’t matter how long it is – it always feels at least two weeks longer than I can possibly manage. It is the term where people tend to lose perspective and say and do things they quickly regret. It’s a long, wintry term that gets darker and darker, both inside and out. It feels as though it should end with exams and reports, but No! There’s a whole two weeks of semester 2 to get through before we make it out the other side to collapse into a bed that it will take us at least two weeks to scrape ourselves out of again. If we’re lucky.

Every so often, as I hit the rock bottom of term 2, a student will say something so generously uplifting that it feels like the sun coming out after a week of drizzly Melbourne rain. So encouraging that I bask in their warmth. A line in an email, a bit of heartfelt praise during a yard duty chat, or an unexpectedly positive response on a feedback survey can be the difference between ending term 2 in pieces, or stumbling over the line intact. There’s no knowing when these bonus rainbows will appear. They can’t be conjured at will, or produced on demand. A couple of years ago it dawned on me that these comments were so precious I should frame them. So I began to hug them to myself in my “Positive Feedback File.”

Not for sharing, this file is my personal anti-depressant. It’s my bad day ambulance. My fire truck when my world is going down in flames. My “always available” hug when real hugs are few and far between.

Everything goes in there. From the email saying “You are amazing by the way,” To the parent who said “I just had to come and meet the person who inspires my daughter so much.” From the buoyant comments about my subject at the end of the year, to the heartfelt statement,”Your subject was the best thing I ever did,” years later during a Facebook chat.

There’s something incredibly powerful about being able to re-read this stuff on the really tough days. I can’t rely on receiving feedback like that right when I need it, so keeping a record of it for my own private pick-me-up makes a lot of sense. Yet recently I was chatting with a psychologist friend, and he was surprised to hear about my feedback file. “You’re the only other person I’ve ever heard of who does that!” he exclaimed. It turns out he has a feedback file too. Being a counsellor, his tough days can be extraordinarily tough. We all have moments when we doubt ourselves, or wonder if we’re really making a difference. Or when organisational politics becomes overwhelming, and we can’t help but ask whether it’s really worth it. Lifting ourselves out of these slumps can be a real challenge.

My feedback file is like a photo album of my best efforts. An abiding memory bank full of the moments when I knew it was all worthwhile. A reminder that, whatever today looks like, tomorrow has real potential, and yesterday really rocked. Even if you can only paraphrase the comment or roughly describe the moment, storing it away can make it a powerfully life-affirming treasure, instead of a transient source of warmth. I can’t help thinking it should be the number 1 tip in any teaching degree, and perhaps for life in general. Save those moments. They will save you.

A pause to reflect

I’ve often said that by the time you finish a PhD, having spent at least 3 years immersed in a single, intense, drawn out project, all you can see is the flaws in that work. It doesn’t matter if you get glowing examiners’ reports and win awards for your work: all you know about by the end of that time is the hundreds of little ways you could have done better if you started it all again. The kind of obsessive personality who can actually finish a PhD (I’m pretty sure obsessiveness is the primary requirement for graduation) generally has a perfectionist streak approximately as wide as the infinitely expanding universe.

I’ve found that I have a similar tendency in real life. I’ve just finished a marathon year, and I’m both exhausted and a little nauseous at the thought of everything I want to achieve next year. The majority of my brain is sitting in the corner, rocking, and gibbering quietly at the thought of another year like the one just past.

Facebook puts together naff little photostreams of “the year that was” for you, collecting a moderately random set of your posts from the year into a summary of 2014. Mine seems to consist largely of animals and photos from the far distant past, for reasons I can’t quite fathom. It’s a bit pointless, except that it has prompted me to consider what my 2014 really looked like. Rather than hyperventilating at the thought of the progress I still want to make, maybe there’s something to be said for stopping to consider how far I’ve come.

For a teacher it can be hard to quantify your year, especially if you don’t have year 12s. Year 12 students provide some kind of objective measure of your teaching, because their assessment is primarily external, but even then you can say “Oh, well the students were amazing, they’d have done well whoever taught them.” Which is what I tend to do when my students achieve extraordinary things – because they are invariably extraordinary kids, and it is exceptionally difficult to measure your own impact on a class full of kids with any kind of objectivity.

So you get to the end of the year having given your job everything you’ve got, and with nothing concrete to show for it. Sure, there are the amazing things your students have done, but how much of that was your doing, and how much was theirs? It’s no wonder it’s easy to be overwhelmed by how much you still need to do, and feel ill at the thought of starting it all again next year.

But research shows that spending time writing down and contemplating the things you have to be grateful for can dramatically improve your emotional well being and resilience, and my suspicion is that writing down your achievements could be even more powerful.

So this evening we spent some time writing our own “year in review”. Rather than leave it to Facebook to pick a random selection of images from our 2014, we went through the year, month by month, and listed the things we remembered. It was very powerful doing this as a family, because we each remembered and prioritized different things, and we came up with a very full list of things to be grateful for, as well as things, like my heart problems, that we have survived and often learnt from.

I’m going to write that list in to our little book of thankful things, and maybe in the future we will look back at 2014 and smile, remembering the events and the people who made it remarkable. But even if we never look at it again, the act of pausing and reflecting on how far we have come this year is a potent and positive reminder of what we have achieved.

A friend of mine posted a beautiful message on Facebook this afternoon about how today is the solstice (winter for him in New York, summer for us in Melbourne), and that this is “the moment of stillness and change,” which I found a very powerful thought. We tend to rush through life without a moment to pause and reflect, and the solstice, together with the approach of Christmas and the New Year, provides a trigger to stop and think about where we are and how far we have come.

It was a hugely positive thing to do as a family. When was the last time you paused to reflect on your life?