It's Wise Wednesdays!
Should you care what people think or be yourself? Four practices
It can be so confusing can’t it? Should you be tuning into and anticipating people’s needs or live more authentically and trust that everything falls into place?...
If you’re going for your dream job, should you try and please the boss, impress colleagues and gain favour from influencers or just go about doing what you can and relax?
The question is flawed of course. If you’re scientifically/rationally minded like me, you’ll want to examine the assumptions beneath the question…
First, it’s pretty much impossible for human beings not to care what others think. We’re social animals and have a natural need for belonging/connection which entails taking into account other people’s desires and actions one way or another.
At best, not caring what other people think means not being a people-pleaser i.e. having kind regard or respect for others without resorting to placating behaviours to survive.
Second, the idea of a self is flawed. The self is constantly changing. Who you are being at any moment changes according to context and over time and is influenced by the level of stress you’re under.
So who are you really beyond the superficial labels like daughter, son, doctor, expert, father, etc?
This is not the easiest concept to fathom but it’s possibly the most liberating.
Buddhism’s greatest contribution in psychology/philosophy is the insight that there is no such thing as a self that constitutes who you are. Your impression of a solid, immutable self is an illusion created by the mind linking disparate thoughts together and generating habits.
Who you think of as “you” is in fact a series of interlinked processes and data points in your mind. This seems to fit better with findings in neuroscience.
Daniel Goleman (of Emotional Intelligence fame) notes: “the Buddhist model of the self may turn out to fit the data far better than the notions that have dominated Psychological thinking for the last century.”
Now you know why all those personality tests can make you feel good in the moment but are ultimately unreliable.
The absence of a solid self called you is no cause for worry, though. You can still enjoy a sense of self as long as you don’t think it is real.
What’s more, the absence of a coherent persona has been found to be a hallmark of creative genius! The scientist who recognised and named the phenomenon of “being in flow” (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) noted that creative geniuses were more likely to display contradictory tendencies, in line with key studies.
It seems that creative geniuses are more interested in the variety of thought processes and experience available to them than fitting into a fixed personality. This gives them access to greater creative power.
So next time someone calls you moody or unpredictable, you could take it as a compliment! You might well be a creative genius.
SUCCESSFULLY CARVING OUT YOUR UNIQUE PATH
One thing some of the most socially successful people I’ve coached have in common is that they have an awareness of triggering others into a threat response i.e. occurring to others as a danger to their safety.
It doesn’t mean they walk on eggshells or suppress themselves. On the contrary, some of them are very well self-expressed. But they are tuned into interpersonal dynamics and how to navigate sensitive interactions.
If you think about it, look at how we prevent wars using diplomacy. It involves having very difficult conversations without causing offence or damaging the relationship. It involves tact i.e. the art of making a point without making an enemy!
Similarly, if you want to develop and become more effective at creating your dream job and finding purpose, more than finding the perfect job to fit your personality, cultivating personal qualities of kindness, compassion and wise understanding will be of great help to you in finding a way to express your unique gifts in the world.
But what does that mean in practice?
COMMUNICATION AND THREAT RESPONSE
Do you know people who tend to increase your stress levels? It’s likely that they somehow trigger your threat (or stress) response. Perhaps they remind you of an authoritarian parent, sibling or co-worker who upset you in the past. By the same token, you may unwittingly have a similar effect on other people…
Unfortunately, stress is contagious. Our mirror neurons pick it up - another reason to cultivate positive emotions and be aware of our communication. The good news is that one calm person can defuse an escalation of a threat response across a group.
Let’s look at a few practices.
Approximately 93% of body language is non-verbal. So in addition to paying attention to the words you use, you’ll need to pay attention to the tone and volume of your voice (is it loud and hammering or high pitched and fast?) as well as your non-vocal body language (do you stand with your hands on your hips in defiance or drop your shoulders in resignation?)
Here are 4 practices to reduce the frequency and intensity of threat responses:
Practise noticing the response you feel in your body when interacting and learn to relax yourself if you can when you start feeling tense around other people = become the master of your internal environment
Practise taking your time to respond in conversation e.g. after you’ve taken a deep breath rather than preparing what you’re going to say while the person is talking
Practise positive emotions: gratitude, kindness and compassion through specific meditations e.g. metta or mudita – they don’t have to take long
Slow down! Slow yourself down, ask others to slow down.
Not only will these practices help you feel better but they’ll also give you a more sophisticated understanding of your reality and how to be effective at work and in relationships.
CONTEXT, INTENTION AND FILTERS
Cultivating kindness compassion and wisdom doesn’t mean that you become a pushover.
It does mean that you become more masterful in action and decision-making (and less likely to trigger a threat response).
Because your understanding of how reality occurs to you, how it occurs to others and the cause-and-effect relationships of life deepens greatly.
You will have a much clearer idea of what it is that you want and why (= your intention); the context in which you are operating and the filters that others see you through.
Best of all you won’t have to use people-pleasing tactics that leave you feeling depleted because you’ll have a better sense of where lines can be drawn.
This amounts to better influence without compromising your own aspirations.
Interestingly, the neural networks involved in harnessing the diversity of thought processes our brain uses to engage with our inner-experience and understanding the world are the same as the ones engaged in compassion…
FROM JUDGMENT TO LOVING-KINDNESS AND COMPASSION:
So the one thing you needn’t care about is what people think of you as a person (because the person doesn’t exist). It’s much more scientific AND spiritual to deal with things as single moments of interdependence between you and others.
Something could go horribly wrong in a conversation, anger and tears might be involved, you’ll feel like indulging in judgment or succumbing to self-pity…
Entrenching a threat response over time and allowing unhelpful behaviours (either in yourself or others) to repeat themselves will create limiting habits and put you on a trajectory you don’t want.
Yet, letting go of it all makes the next moment a fresh opportunity to start again from scratch, with a beginner’s mind.
Taking a step back, letting the stress of the situation wash away and then reengaging with a deeper understanding of your own intention, the context of the situation and the other’s filters will be much more fruitful for you, your social world and your wider sphere of influence.
Compassion and kindness. For yourself…and others.
Have a good week,
p.s. Ah! Wise Wednesdays has been getting longer this month…Just in time: I’m creating some space for two weeks so you can digest recent materials. So no Wise Wednesdays for the coming two weeks. I’ll be using the time for reflection and creation preparing to deliver new material and transformational opportunities for you in 2018. See you in mid-December!
p.p.s. I’m excited to complete the final run of Autumn events I'm leading for 2017. Will report back. If they go well, I'll custom design one for the Wise Wednesdays community!
Monday 27th of November 1.30 to 4.30pm: “Boosting Your Research Through a Creativity Strategy” [for UCL research staff].
Monday 27th of November 6 to 9pm: Coaching Skills for Social Impact. Royal Society of Arts Coaching Network.