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.

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!

My not so secret shame

Many of us default to whingeing about our personal lives on facebook or twitter:

  • “ugh! crawling through peak hour traffic, why do I do this to myself?”
  • “sideswiped by 2 drivers on my ride today”
  • “bills, bills, and more bills”
  • “loud music blasting from next door at 3am, and now I have to get up and go to work”
  • “so tired today I can barely see straight”

… and on and on… Posting these complaints is easy, yet somehow appreciating the good stuff seems mawkish and faintly embarrassing.

Some time ago we introduced the Thankful Thing at our dinner table, to remind us of all the things we have to be thankful for – even on the bad days. It was a kind of antidote to all those first world problems that can seem overwhelming at times. And all the real problems that are nonetheless not the whole story of our lives. These days we have the thankful book, rather than scraps of paper, and we date the pages so that we can look back to a particular time, or just flick through and see what we appreciated on a random day.

It’s lovely to do, and always raises our spirits. It’s wonderful to look back on and remember those happy moments, but I do wish we did it more often. When you’re tired and grumpy, it can be hard to summon the energy to prioritise the Thankful Thing.

Sometimes I am thankful on facebook. It’s too easy to whine and grump about things that annoy or frustrate me, but I don’t want that to be the face I always turn to the world. I also don’t want them to be the things I focus on. I am exceptionally fortunate. I have amazing friends, a wonderful home life, and a job that is both thrilling and satisfying. Yet it’s still all too easy to slump in my chair and whine about all the things that aren’t perfect.

So I sometimes post something like this: “Today I am thankful for my students, past and present, who make my working life such a joy, and who have become part of my life in ways I could never have anticipated. I am thankful for my 11 year old, who has reached an age where we can talk and share on a level that is intensely satisfying. (Which is not to say we don’t scream and throw things at other times!) I am thankful for my bright, chirpy, intensely empathic miss 7. And I am deeply thankful for the night away I had with my beloved on Friday night, and to his parents for making it possible.”

These statuses tend to get lots of likes, yet I feel faintly uneasy posting them. It’s as though I am boasting, or being overly sentimental. And although my friends are quick to hit like, I don’t see it catching on. There isn’t a rash of thankful things spreading through my news feed, but sometimes it seems as though there’s an awful lot of complaints. And I get that – it’s great to get sympathy by posting about whatever is currently bugging you. I often find myself composing those updates in my head when something – or someone – gets on my nerves.

But I fear that this kind of social media usage is leading us to stress the negative, and focus on our irritations. Being publicly thankful is hard. It makes me feel a bit soppy, and a bit exposed and vulnerable. But I think it also helps me focus on the positives, rather than reinforcing the irritation of my gripe about politics, or environmental damage, or work frustrations.

Facebook recently got a lot of publicity when they announced that they had tampered with people’s news feeds, showing more positive or more negative statuses to see if it changed people’s posting habits. Lo and behold they found that both positive and negative statuses were contagious. The more negative updates you see, the more negative your own will be. And the same for positive.

Every time someone responds to a status I click to see which one it was, and every time I do that I get a small surge of the feelings associated with that status. So maybe it’s time we started tampering with our own status updates. Maybe we can emotionally manipulate ourselves byletting those frustrations drift away, rather than pinning them to our news feeds.

Goodness knows there’s enough to be frustrated and grumpy about in our daily lives. But there’s a lot to appreciate, too, and that’s really something to be grateful for.

Taken over by the fear

This morning I went snorkelling for the first time in years. I was a little anxious about it, because when I put on a snorkel and try to breathe through it, I usually get panicky and start to thrash about, which causes water to come in the top of the snorkel, which causes more panic, until I rip the damn thing out and vow I won’t do anything nearly so stupid as snorkel ever again.

This time, though, I had incentive. We were swimming with seals with Polperro Dolphin Swims. I was determined not to miss a moment of it, and that meant coming to terms with the snorkel. When it came to the splash, I had the usually panicky feelings as I started to breathe through that very strange device, but I forced myself to breathe slowly and deeply, and managed to keep my face in the water until I was distracted by a playful seal. From that point on I was so focused on the wonder of what I was seeing that the whole breathing business became a non-issue. Eventually I was distracted enough that I got water in the snorkel, and I simply tipped it out again, laughed at myself, and went straight back to gazing into the very large eyes of a passing fur seal.

We snorkeled twice more, sometimes hanging onto ropes attached to the back of the boat, and sometimes swimming free, and even when my mask filled with water it didn’t worry me. I had swum away from my fear and left it sinking to the bottom of the Bay.

Later that day we went kayaking in our little 1 person kayak. My 10 year old wanted to sit on the back and kick with her flippers while I paddled, which was not the most stable arrangement. Every time she wriggled (which was, in fact, more or less continuously), the kayak would give an almighty lurch, and so would my heart. The funny thing was that we were kayaking in shallow water, on the flattest of flat seas, and the worst that could have happened if we capsized is that we’d have got wet. Given that it was a 35 degree day, this was also the best that could have happened.

Unfortunately my fear wasn’t having any of this logical argument, and I tensed up every time we lurched, drastically over corrected and very nearly tipped us out, repeatedly. My fear was actually self-instantiating – it was making itself come true, like the most evil of wishes.

I have the same problem when I am riding my bike with my 7 year old on a tag along. When she wobbles, the whole setup lurches from side to side, causing me to develop a death grip on the handle bars, which in turn causes me to over steer, which makes us wobble more… you can probably spot the problem here.

Most of us spend a lot of time in fear. We fear the outcome of certain conversations. We fear change. We fear looking stupid. We fear falling over, making mistakes, or losing friendships. But like me on the bike and the kayak, when we get taken over by the fear, we risk bringing about the very fate that terrifies us. When we fear how a conversation will go, we approach it tense and defensive, and see attacks where none were intended, making things go downhill fast. When we fear looking stupid we scrutinize every possible word or act so hard that we wind up thoroughly tongue tied and paralyzed, and, yes, rather stupid.

I think hell is something you carry around with you. Not somewhere you go.”― Neil Gaiman, The Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists

Fear is an important emotion – it protects us from all kinds of catastrophes, like walking out into heavy traffic when the gap isn’t big enough to let us cross safely, jumping off buildings, and dropping our babies. But it’s all too easy to wind up being ruled by your fear, and this is a kind of hell. A self-fulfilling prophecy.

Sometimes the worst that could happen is pretty bad, but if you live your life trying to hide from every potential catastrophe, you can end up barely living. Instead you wait for the crisis, and completely miss out on the joy.

Sometimes we have to focus on the seal, in order to forget the snorkel. After all, what’s the worst that could happen?

How awesome are you?

If I walked up to you and said “how awesome are you?” what would you say?

If your boss came and said “tell me about the good stuff you have done recently?” how would you react?

If a friend said “you’re so talented!” what would you do?

I’ve been thinking about praise lately. Last week I was at a conference where I was unexpectedly publicly praised – I received an award and the presenter spent some time talking about how awesome my work is. It was quite overwhelming. And yet I know the project we were talking about is awesome. I am deeply proud of it. I do talk about it, at length, to my friends – generally raving about the students involved, the organisation who are partnering us in the enterprise, and the results we are getting. What I don’t usually mention is that it wouldn’t have happened without me. I saw the opportunity. I made the contacts. I built it into my course. I worked really hard to make it happen.

Even as I type that I am squirming uncomfortably. The project also wouldn’t have happened without the amazing students, the incredible partner organisation, and indeed the opportunity provided by the school to extend and develop the curriculum. It’s easy for me to praise my students, my partners, my colleagues, my school, and my friends. I can praise just about anyone (although I draw the line at Tony Abbott). But praising myself makes me squirm. Talking about my own achievements is something I am hugely uncomfortable with.

But why should I be?

“There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who, when presented with a glass that is exactly half full, say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty. The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What’s up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don’t think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass!”

Terry Pratchett, The Truth.

It seems to me that the world belongs to people who can self-promote. People who shout to the world about all the awesome things they are doing – even when those things aren’t all that awesome, or maybe are not even theirs to shout about. It’s the shouting that counts. It’s the image you present that is important, far and above the substance of what you actually do.

It’s very difficult to praise yourself. We tend to see people who sing their own praises as braggarts, show-offs and generally obnoxious people. Yet I think it’s important to be able to say “I did this, and I did it really well” or “this would not have happened without me” or “this is really important, and I made it happen” or simply “this is what I’m good at, and I’m proud of it.” There is a lot of space worth exploring between over-the-top self-promotion and not being proud of what you do, yet it is somehow more socially acceptable to fall on the extremely negative side of that space.

I am very proud of what I do, and I do lots of it really well. Not all of it – the day I start saying I know everything there is to know about teaching will be one day after I should have retired. There is always so much more to learn. But everyone has things they can be proud of, and few of us are willing or able to articulate them.

I think that’s a shame. It’s all very well to be modest and self-deprecating, but I believe that for our own self-esteem, and for the benefit of all the young people who are watching us and learning from us, we owe it to the world to stand up and say “this is what I’m good at, and I’m proud.”

So ask yourself tonight: How awesome are you?

The Successful Thing

The Thankful Thing is a powerful device. Taking the time to list the things we are thankful for forces us to notice the positives that happen, even on bad days – like “I’m thankful that Simon tried to cheer me up today, even though I didn’t let him,” and “I’m thankful that Will is funny”. When we’re really in the swing of things we come out with the big stuff, like “all the good friends and family I have that help me through the hard times” – which is one my 10 year old came up with tonight.

We fell out of the habit of doing the Thankful Thing for a while, and only restarted this week. Once again it worked its usual magic, making us all smile. We hit the sweet spot where both kids raced to find more and more positive things, and we all wound up laughing and cheerful as a result.

This time I added another device – the “Successful Thing”. After the thankful thing, we each had to name something we had achieved that day. I’ve become increasingly aware lately that I get very focused on all the things I haven’t achieved. Which is crazy because I’ve had some great feedback recently, and when I stop and think about it, I’m getting a lot done. It’s just that my aspirational to do list is longer than any one person can possibly achieve.

I don’t actually want to trash my to do list, though, because reaching further than I think I can manage is a way of pushing myself to achieve bigger and better things. I want to keep reaching for the stars. But the consequence has been that I berate myself for every star I fail to bring home, completely ignoring the magnificent constellation I have already collected.

So now, as well as noting the things I am thankful for, I note the things I have achieved today. From small things like “writing a good exam question” (which might not be something my students are thankful for!), to “keeping my temper under extreme provocation”. From “mastering a new rope trick” to “helping a student understand a tricky concept.”

Sometimes it’s achievements to do with balance, like “making time to go for a walk with Cath to get coffee”, or “spending half an hour playing the piano.” Sometimes it’s doing something nice for someone else. It might be getting an article published, or doing some volunteer work. Or it might be clearing a particularly feral patch of weeds from the garden. Anything that I can feel a sense of achievement about.

The first night we did it I was feeling impressively morose, and I doubted my ability to find even one thing to put on my list. But to encourage my girls I figured I should go first, and when I put my mind to it I discovered I had actually achieved a lot that day. My miserable mood was based on an entirely erroneous perception of how things had gone.

The kids found it hard at first, even a little embarrassing, but they soon got on a roll and started clamouring to tell us all the things they were proud of doing.

I sat down to that dinner feeling tired, dispirited and overwhelmed. But by the time we had finished both the thankful and successful things, I was feeling pretty good about my life.

Now that’s an achievement!

Ganging up

Once a week I start work at the start of the school day, rather than part way through, because my husband takes our kids to school. For weeks I have been trying to get to work extra early on that day so that I can make it to a mindfulness session that runs in the mornings, and until today I have never quite made it. This morning I was running on schedule for a change, and made it out the door in plenty of time to ride to work, park my bike and unpack my gear… except that as I stepped out the door I heard a rather raucous creaking noise from above, and I looked up into the large white cedar in our front yard and saw three gang gangs perched in the tree, happily munching on the remains of last year’s berries.

Gang gang

Male Gang gang eating last year’s White Cedar fruit

For a moment I hesitated. I could stay and admire the Gang gangs, who are infrequent visitors to our neighbourhood. They have always been particular favourites of mine for their dusty black plumage and the spectacular red crest of the boys. Or I could leap onto my bike and rush to make it in to work in time for the mindfulness session for a change. Then it dawned on me – there is nothing more mindful than pausing to admire birds in your own garden. This was a ready made, wing-delivered mindfulness session of my very own.

I called my family out to see, and we lingered for a while, watching them manoeuvre their way around the tree, sometimes flipping upside down to get to the best of the berries. It was a start to the day that left me smiling and peaceful. When I rode off around 10 minutes later, I figured I wasn’t going to make it to the session, so I resolved to be particularly mindful along the way. I concentrated on being aware of the traffic around me (always a wise idea!), and on feeling my feet on the pedals. I could feel the wind on my face and my hands on the handlebars. When the path around me was clear I noticed the birds and the cloud formations.

Rather than riding hard to get to work in a hurry, I cruised along simply enjoying the moment. Several pedestrians I passed going the other way smiled and said hello, which doesn’t often happen. I figured it was an indicator of my more relaxed and open attitude. And then something odd happened. As I neared work I looked at my watch and discovered that I had just ridden the fastest ride to work I’ve done in ages, and that I was in plenty of time to attend the mindfulness session.

Once I got to school I checked my watch against my phone, convinced it must have stopped. I couldn’t work out the logic of it. I wasn’t riding hard. I was more relaxed. And I got to work faster than usual. The phone confirmed the watch, and a look through my fitness tracking data showed that yes, this was the fastest ride in some time.

I think those Gang gangs served to teach me a valuable lesson. That stopping to enjoy the moment on offer, and relaxing into whatever you are doing, is far more effective than scrunching up both body and mind into a tangle of tension in an attempt to bulldoze your way through the day. That’s what I’ve been trying to do, with my coffee and my stress. I’ve been bulldozing and bludgeoning my body into getting through the day.

This morning I got my tense and wired mind out of my own way, and it was magic.

What do Gang gangs have to teach you?