Newsletter 640 – A thoughtful Football Story

Concussion 2If you follow American football you may be aware of a new book and motion picture each titled Concussion. They tell the true story of a Nigerian physician named Bennet Omalu who came to the United States, earned several additional degrees and became a renowned specialist in forensic neuropathology. One day Dr. Omalu “picked up a scalpel and made a discovery that would rattle America in ways he never intended…. The body on the slab in front of him belonged to a fifty-year-old…[football player], one of the greatest ever to play the game.” Prior to his death the football player had developed serious mental deterioration. Omalu discovered that this was caused by a brain disease resulting from “relentless blows to the head that could affect everyone playing the game.” The Concussion book and movie give a fascinating account about how others responded to this discovery and how the National Football League (NFL), “a multibillion-dollar colossus” tried to silence the doctor and discredit his work.

Why should you or I care? Here are two observations:

  • Be cautious about discrediting research that we dislike. The NFL is a huge corporation that tried to silence Omalu and produce research to disprove his results. This research was suspect from the start because it was NFL funded. But this is not limited to a football league. American politicians do something similar when they discredit research that appears to undermine their political agendas. Don’t theologians do something similar? What about academicians, advertisers, or public speakers who select or create research to support their positions and condemn or ignore the rest? If you do research, do it well. If you site research, be fair and try to site competent sources.
  • Be alert to the ways in which ideas, intellectual property and discoveries can be hijacked by others intent of gaining acclaim and money. Omalu’s discovery was claimed by others who took his ideas and built profitable organizations without acknowledging his contributions. When your dreams and accomplishments have been taken form you and used by others, it is difficult to trust again. Omalu struggled with this and withdrew, never expecting that the true story would be told. The book describes him as a man of courage. He also appears to be a man of integrity. That involves doing what is right regardless of whether anybody is watching.

Are these comments biased? Have I been unfair? Hopefully not! Even so, there’s value in pondering the stories of others and insuring that we’re not guilty of similar unethical actions. Please comment.

Newsletter 617 – Transition Fatigue: Handling Waves of Change

waves 3It crept up on me, not even noticed at the beginning. Unusual fatigue. A surprising lack of motivation and enthusiasm. Low drive in a guy who normally exudes boundless energy. Blood tests revealed nothing but a close friend was on to something when he mentioned the waves of change that have engulfed me in recent months. We’ve had three major moves, a change in residence, lifestyle, career direction, and transition into a new stage in life. Transition fatigue like this hits almost everybody at times, especially if it comes unexpectedly and calls for difficult changes. Coaches and counselors deal with it frequently in their clients but also in themselves.

But it’s even more widespread. A local church clearly is dysfunctional and dying even as the congregation refuses to make any changes. There are colleges like this (including lots of professors), organizations, businesses, and even whole professions. And consider politicians and government bureaucracies. Thriving and growing in a fast-changing world demands that individuals and groups both change. Do nothing and down goes energy, enthusiasm, effectiveness and even life. But there are ways to move forward.

  • Acknowledge what might be going on, including the start of a new season of life. This often involves loss and grief despite what’s ahead.
  • Admit the negatives in your situation but don’t dwell on these, rehearse them in your mind, or share them with everyone you meet. This can lead to self-pity, depression, cynicism or bitterness.
  • Look for what’s positive without denying what’s realistic. Expect positive outcomes instead of dwelling on worst-case scenarios.
  • Use verbal reframes. Example: “This is a retirement community, not an old peoples’ home.” The language you use can change your whole attitude and perspective.
  • Spend time with people and activities that lift your spirits, encourage and move you in directions where you want to go. Remember that negative people often pull us down.
  • Get extra rest, time away, and opportunities for uplifting diversions.
  • Cut out what you can cut. Set lower expectations for yourself at least temporarily. No one person can or is called to do everything.
  • Write down your observations and thoughts. Journaling lets you set new narratives for your life. Take steps to make these a reality.
  • Never forget the power of prayer and of divine guidance.

This is an off-the-top-of-my-head list that I’ve been applying to myself. Perhaps like me, you or your clients have had these transition times before and come out stronger in the end. What would you add to the list? Please comment.

Newsletter 613 – New Perspectives on Burnout

burnout 2Can anything fresh be said about burnout? That was my reaction when I saw the May/June, 2015 issue of Psychotherapy Networker magazine. The PT editor calls burnout “that mélange of weariness, depression and apathy, seasoned with a tincture of cynicism [that] has become as persuasive as the common cold.” Originally the term described physical and psychological breakdown that came to counselors and other care-givers who had become overly burdened with the crises and stresses of their clients. Now the term can apply to anyone, including pastors, business people, homemakers, students, performers,  and overworked, overwhelmed people in any field or profession. Sometimes these individuals cling to the “exalted, if never quite admitted” belief in themselves as admirable individuals who never give up, consistently perform superbly, or believe that they have a duty to help everyone who appears with a need.

The proposed remedies tend to be similar, focused on self-care and work-life balance. This means more times for rest, reduced workloads, better time management, and various relaxation and meditation practices. An entire industry of books, videos, and seminars has arisen to help burned-out people do more of some things (like sleep, exercise or time management) and less of others. According to the lead PT article, however, “workplace initiatives on individual self-care and work-life balance are not only doomed to fail, but may make us worse.” Even among believers in such activities “the empirical evidence shows they make no difference” largely because burn out is a reaction to uncontrollable circumstances. Treating the symptoms fails to address burnout’s causes.

What matters most is not how demanding a job is, or the level of responsibility. What matters more is how much personal control and competence one has in performing the work. Research supports the conclusion that when we are fulfilled in our work, committed and able to do it better, we are less likely to burn out.

These observations are not intended to squelch traditional self-care measures. One PT writer argues that self-care does help, especially “targeted micro self-care” that involves mini-practices like short prayers, frequent deep-breathing, and brief exercises.

Have you ever wondered why Jesus never burned out despite the demands of his work and calling? Of course he rested and hung out with friends. But he also had clear purpose, direction, and boundaries that let him stay focused and in control. Do you agree? How have you prevented or handled burnout? Please comment.

Newsletter 607 – When Life and Goal-setting are Disrupted

Last December I took an on-line seminar that promised to make this my best year ever. The main message was about setting goals for the year along with deadlines and plans for achieving success. There was not much new in the presentations but the information was solid and similar to what coaches, teachers, and counselors urge for others and Detours1try to implement in themselves. Perhaps not surprising, the seminar seemed to assume that each of us is in control of our own lives and careers. Overlooked was the fact that goal-setting can fly out the window when we encounter the crises, unexpected health issues, career disruptions, or other unpredictable detours and roadblocks that are the reality of our lives.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (April 7, 2015) reported research studies showing how physical health and mental well-being are both impacted by the ways we frame life crises and shattered dreams. In one study adults were asked to tell their life stories. Each was evaluated in terms of several themes that emerged and were described with somewhat confusing academic titles. The first of these we might prefer to call sense of control in which subjects felt able to influence and respond to life events. The next, connection means how much people are in contact and association with others. Third, positive perspectives refer to the degree to which we can take negative experiences and find positive sides to our new realities. People with these characteristics had lower levels of depression, higher levels of life satisfaction, and greater psychological and social well-being when compared with those who focused on self-pity, bitterness, and whatever was negative.

This reframing is central to what have been called personal narratives: the stories we tell ourselves and try to live out, especially when our life-plans and goal-setting are barricaded. In addition to the sense of control, connection, and positive perspectives, other research found that personal narratives help most when we:

  • Openly acknowledge what has happened.
  • Accept the new realities,
  • Reframe the ways in which we view life circumstances and events (sometime bad things can have positive outcomes,)
  • Resist dwelling on the negative,
  • Determine to change whatever is changeable, and
  • Believe and live out our new life stories.

Have you or your associates had experiences where this applies? Where does God fit into this analysis? Please comment.

Newsletter 603 – The Mindfulness Explosion

Homepage_RotatorI read a number of magazines that expose me to information and trends that may be unfamiliar but that also can have relevance to my interests in counseling, coaching, leadership, ministry and futuristic issues. Psychotherapy Networker is one such publication. The current (January/February, 2015)  issue on mindfulness stretched and disturbed me but the best article is Mary Sykes Wylie’s lengthy overview on the popularity and perils of mindfulness. 

Wylie describes mindfulness as a “kind of stealth Buddhism,” popularized, westernized, and mass-marketed without the “bells, chants, prayers, and terms like dharma and karma.” From modest beginnings, interest in the mindfulness movement has exploded, making extravagant claims about its effectiveness. It permeates the health-care and mental health professions, the US military, numerous corporations, university courses, sports, and even churches. It has captivated and impacted “regular people—teachers, truck drivers, carpenters, business executives, stay-at-home mothers—trying to find the inner stillness beneath the turmoil of their lives.” Mindfulness is relentlessly marketed as a form of personal stress reduction, even though there is no accepted definition of what it is or how it is done.

 One leader defines mindfulness as a form of meditation that involves “paying attention on purpose in the present moment nonjudgmentally.” Thousands of scientific articles have studied mindfulness but one massive review concluded that the research is not very rigorous and gives limited evidence of its effectiveness. And as mindfulness has become a huge business and fad it also has produced a backlash of critics.

 What does this mean for you or me?

Be cautious. Mindfulness is Buddhist based and promotes techniques that may be inconsistent with many elements of Christianity and other non-Eastern ways of thinking. From her secular perspective Wylie writes, ”Mindfulness is an entire worldview and religion… entirely subjective and inherently unfriendly to the necessarily objective methods of empirical science….While it has been acclaimed and sold as a quick, no-risk, easily-mastered technique to achieve just about any desired goal….in fact it is a far-deeper…and less well-understood process than many people realize.”

·      Be open. Many practices are valuable, despite their origins, and consistent with our Christian and professional beliefs. Meditation, for example, is a biblical concept but with a focus that differs from mindfulness meditation.

Wylie’s article is worth reading. What do you think? Please comment.

Newsletter 598 – Depression and the Fear of Terrorism

PARIS EST CHARLIE 2One of my closest friends is Parisian. He has lived in Paris for most of his life and was there last week. Following the terrorist attacks he sent me an email message stating, in part: I’ve experienced the waves of terrorism in 1986 and 1995 in Paris. I’ve also experienced 9/11 in NYC. I know how to “protect” myself from these tragedies: I usually turn off the TV and limit my access to the media – non-stop media updates tend to format people’s minds and make them more anxious. I do not cut myself off but I deliberately watch less TV and listen more to the radio (to avoid the impact of images.) I listen a couple of times throughout the day – but do not keep the radio on all day long. The more we dwell on negative issues, the worse they get in our thinking and the more entrenched in our brains.

I thought of this when I read the November-December 2014 issue of Psychotherapy Networker magazine focusing on depression. The authors write that despite diverse therapeutic treatments and anti-depressant medications (most of which work about equally well,) depression is increasing and becoming “the most important public health issue in the world.”

Even so, the “entire mental health establishment still regards the condition as an individual problem, confined within an individual skull.” Without criticizing individual therapies and medications, the PT writers note the massive evidence showing that individual depression is in reality “a vast and cultural problem inextricably linked to the basic habits, mores and expectation of our era.” These include our relentless competition, determination to attain unrealistic goals, and “unflagging desire for more–more money, more status, more power, more stuff and more happiness–all of which can create conditions for chronic low mood.”

Just as an unending (media or other) focus on terrorism can train the brain to be fearful, so too can brains be influenced and depression worsened by therapies that dwell on reciting symptoms or telling affected people that they have a solely genetic or brain disorder that is likely to persist. Maybe we need to get beyond the defect model, honor the strengths of depressed people, and help them learn how to get clear of the mood lowering impact of our changing social values and expectations.

It’s a paradigm change to view depression as a social as well as an individual and spiritual issue. What do you think? Please comment.

Newsletter 593 – Should You Become an Essentialist?

cover.essentialism-230x345There are two books in my mind that I am passionate about and itching to write. One is roughly half finished. So which one should be done first? Several friends that I don’t want to disappoint, are urging me to go in different directions. Experience has taught me that good writing (including the writing of reports, term papers, and even newsletters) usually takes a lot longer than we expect. Even so I’ve concluded that I don’t need to chose which book to do. I can do both.

Not a good idea, suggests Greg McKeown’s thought-provoking and very practical new book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. McKeown defines the nonessentialist as a person who tries to do everything, acquire as much as possible, and please everybody. Often these people spend unwisely, never throw anything away, rarely say “no,” have a short-term perspective, and live under constant pressure. They feel overworked but underutilized, too often busy but not productive. “When we don’t purposefully and deliberately choose to focus our energies and time, other people will choose for us, and before long we’ll have lost sight of everything that is meaningful and important.” Sound familiar?

In contrast, essentialists learn to be selective in how they spend their time and money. They assume that “less is better,” that they can’t do it all or let others set their life agendas, that they need not accept every invitation or appeal to get involved. McKeown shows how even people with high-maintenance children, difficult bosses, demanding careers and inner insecurities can make wiser choices and choose to be different. At times the book may be a little idealistic and not applicable to everybody but the author intersperses questions that we all might ask ourselves or our clients even when life is mostly about survival. Examples:

  • Is what I am doing or asked to do the most important thing I should be doing with my time and resources right now?
  • What do I feel deeply inspired by?
  • What am I particularly talented at?
  • Of all that is before me, what has potential to meet the most significant need in this world?
  • If I could only do one thing right now what would it be?

As some of you know, every year I pick the most influential book of those I’ve read since January 1. Essentialism is my pick for 2014. Any comments?

Newsletter 578 – Moving

moving cartoonDepending on the survey you consult, moving is one of the most stressful experiences in life. Moving can involve major change, disruption, sad separations and uncertainty. Sometimes there is enthusiasm about the prospects of something new, but even then relocation can bring major anxiety and grief, especially when the move is unwanted, resisted, or long distance. These stresses apply to a variety of changes. Moving offices, businesses, churches or libraries are examples. Even moving from one job or career to another can be fraught with uncertainty and fear.

Usually this weekly post draws on some recent publication, but this time I’m commenting on something more personal. My wife and I are in the midst of a move that involves downsizing, getting rid of “stuff” that’s been accumulating for years, and moving from a house to an apartment. But moving has relevance beyond changing residences. At times everybody moves. Leaders often move their companies, both physically but also in terms of an organization’s direction, purposes, and missions. This can include urging people to move when change is needed but resisted. Sometimes the stress of staying where we are can ultimately be greater than the stress of going forward.

Here are conclusions that apply to most transitions and to the people we lead, counsel, mentor or coach:

Recognize that moving often takes more time, involves more stress, and costs more than you previously anticipated.

  • Expect vacillating emotions, depending in part, on your circumstances and personal coping competencies. Expect uncertainty, fear, sadness, excitement (sometimes), and a sense of being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the process.
  • Know that probably you’ll experience separation anxiety, doubts and questions about the wisdom of what you are doing. Add buyer’s remorse if you make a financial commitment to something new.
  • Accept help. Draw in your support network even if it is small. Don’t be reluctant to ask for assistance, even if you’re among those of us who like to be independent and do it all ourselves.
  • Keep God in the process. Last week I hit a low point. Then I read the words of Jesus preparing to move from his earthly ministry. His words (John 14:1, 27) can apply beyond the transitions that the disciples were facing: “Trust in me…. I leave you with a gift of peace…so don’t be troubled or afraid.”

How have you helped yourself or others through a move? Please comment.

Newsletter 572 – Why Do People Helpers and Leaders Resist Help for Themselves?

Most people at work [including counselors, pastors and students]…divert considerable energy every day to a second job that no one has hired them to do: building and preserving their reputations, putting their best selves forward, and hiding their inadequacies from others and themselves. We believe this is the single biggest cause of wasted resources in nearly every company [and organization] today.

Helping 1This quotation is taken from a contemporary business magazine. The article argues that it is best for an organization and for individuals to face this reality and find ways to get help and even turn their struggles into growth opportunities. Set this against a major article in Monitor on Psychology (April 2014). Researchers focused on psychologists who spend their days helping others but neglect to care for themselves. The result is a high incidence of burnout, depression, vicarious traumatization and compassion fatigue. And that’s not limited to professional therapists and graduate students.

What deters people like you and me from getting needed help? The answers are not surprising: social stigma, fear of emotion, resistance to self-disclosure, and difficulty admitting personal distress. For some it is lack of time and resources, difficulty finding a therapist who will keep quiet, resistance to going to a colleague or former student, concerns lest revealing personal stress can adversely impact one’s professional reputation. There’s even a sense that getting help might not do any good.

Nevertheless, the Monitor researchers found that the outside help was effective and valued among most of those who’d had the courage to reach out. Getting help for personal problems benefits personal and professional effectiveness. Organizations, church boards and academic institutions can help by making resources available and encouraging growth through therapy and coaching. Some research even suggests that companies benefit when they encourage their employees to seek available assistance. For individuals it may be best to talk with a friend or mentor who can be trusted. When these resources are not available maybe you can find a helper who does not know you. Whatever we do, it rarely works to handle these things alone. The Bible emphases repeatedly that we need each other. Lone-rangers often self-destruct.

It would be good to  hear how others have benefited from counseling or coaching, or what you’ve learned about helping others get needed help. Please comment.

Newsletter 567 – Should You Care About Mindfulness?

If I tried choosing the two hottest emerging topics among mental health professionals these days, probably I’d select the focus on how the brain works (see last week’s newsletter) and the fascination with mindfulness. Two very different publications recently featured articles on Mindfulness. Time (February 3, 2014) suggests that “we’re in the midst of a popular obsession with mindfulness as the secret to health and happiness.” Harvard Business Review (March , 2014) describes “mindfulness in the age of complexity,” then shows that “by paying attention to what’s going on around us, instead of operating on autopilot, we can reduce stress, unlock creativity, and boost performance. Neither article has much depth but they show how mindfulness has become something of a fad in the places where we live, work, lead, teach and seek to impact others. Even the U.S. Air Force has a recruiting advertisement for clinical psychologists with these prominent words: Meditation, Relaxation. Deep Breathing. Your Arsenal is More Powerful than you Think. That suggests mindfulness. (American Psychologist, March-April, 2014, Back cover.)

Mindfulness 1Mindfulness is the process of focusing on the present moment, giving full attention to what you are doing in the present and being less caught up in what happened earlier or what’s to come. The HBR article mostly is a listing of all the magical implications and effects of meditation and other mindfulness methods. Time suggests that the popularity comes, in part, from those who promote and market the mindfulness revolution. But the movement keeps growing because an increasing body of respectable research, including studies of the brain, gives evidence that mindfulness does, indeed, live up to many of its claims.

Initially I shied away from mindfulness because of it’s Buddhist roots but then I thought of other apparently useful fields and methodologies that spring from humanism, secular research, and other foundations that in no way are Christian. Some of the mindfulness commentary on meditation sounds like biblical commands to meditate. But biblical writers tell us to meditate on God and his word whereas secular approaches have a different focus. We can use secular based approaches providing we keep aware of the reasons we use them. What are the Christian implications of all this, especially relating to counseling and to leadership? Please comment, including your recommendations for further study or reading.