If we stop thinking in "either or" terms, perhaps we CAN, together, have it all!
Updated: Jul 25
I've been watching "Devils" recently, and one of their epilogues caught my attention - they were explaining unemployment:
"Imagine you have 10 dogs and 8 bones. You send all the dogs in, and 2 dogs don't get bones. Those two dogs you take away from the pack, you give them extra training, and then you send all the dogs in again. Now those two dogs get bones.
But the problem is, two other dogs still don't have bones.
The secret to improving unemployment is not "more training", but more bones."
One of the criticisms that I have had levelled directly at me is that as a psychologist I only work on the person (ie. I'm the one providing the training - in this case to help ease the pressure on mental health services). This in turn alleviates the societal pressure to provide mental health support.
My response was that:
Yes, it is true I focus on the person, and it is because I believe that if we build our mental and emotional fortitude we are able to withstand the ever growing pressures
However, this is not mutually exclusive to making societal difference.
If you are emotionally strong, you have that little bit more fight in you to advance whatever cause you are passionate about
If you are mentally empowered, you find creative ways to get your message heard successfully (and the very act of trying raises awareness)
It is NOT a case of you or the world...I would never turn down help, I would never dismiss progress - but you can play an even more active role in advocacy when you feel powerful enough to do it.
Yes, I focus on building you up. It is where I am skilled and it is where I am of greatest benefit to others...it is up to you where you direct that energy once you have it.
Challenge the "either or" mindset
This wonderful quick read article gives a number of examples of "either or" thinking pervasive in our life. It includes:
Strength or Weakness
Demand or Support
Individual or Team
I would also add "Evolution or Revolution" (eg. slow or quick change).
Yet, when you think about it, there is no reason why we cannot have both - our strengths may, for example, help us achieve our goal, but our weaknesses may cause us to reach out for help forming a collaboration we might otherwise have missed. We can demand and instruct others when we have a clear vision, but at times we can do more if we ask for their opinions and ideas...and of course "there's no I in Team"...but if every individual cannot be relied on to play their part, the team will suffer...and there is a "me" if you look hard enough.
"Either or" statements are symptomatic of "black or white", "all or nothing" thinking which are common - and such extremes are also most noticeable in periods of stress. (As a coach I listen for "extremes" being used in language as it can be indicative of a depressive or anxious spiral.)
It is understandable why we use them - when we have so much to process already, the last thing we want to wade through are "shades of grey". It is so much more efficient to be able to make sweeping categorisation.
Efficient yes, effective? Maybe not. As I have said to many a class, the brain has evolved for efficiency rather than effectiveness. If efficiency is part of our habit, we - on the plus side - often can withstand greater demands...which can be beneficial in some circumstances, BUT it can mean that once we cross the threshold of "too much" (and that threshold is not easy to identify - especially when one has a habit of efficiency), our wisdom, our better judgment, is affected. Suddenly from being able to manage, we make rash choices and can risk sabotaging our good work. I call this the "Emotional Tailspin", most commonly seen in my "high-achieving" clients. It's my indication to help them press pause.
You can have "both"
Another problem with the "either or" is that it subconsciously leads you to believe that for you to gain another must lose (a bit like the dogs and bones). But the dog and bone analogy withstands only in a society where the dog is reliant on others to offer the bone. The human is more complex. There isn't a job available...? Why not create one? Trying to choose between evolution and revolution? Why not evolve some parts and revolutionise others?
Indulge me, and offer me your initial thoughts on this - I often teach that we have a preference to "Recharge or Relax" in order to get our strength back. Many people, like you will immediately say - but I like both. Can't I do both?
Again - yes of course you can - however, one eg recharging may work better when you are feeling down, and the other eg relaxing may be more effective when you are full of adrenaline. All you need to do is to decide which is best at which time.
The importance of clarity to manage "the grey areas"
However, while it is clear that it is precisely our handling of "the grey areas" that contributes to our effectiveness, it is not always easy to do when feeling overwhelmed. So try the following to help you press pause when you need to.
Here are some simple tips to build resilience and manage stress.
1. Remember what makes you happy and engage in it
Just because you have responsibilities and priorities doesn’t mean you cannot also enjoy life at the same time. Perhaps if you have not engaged in a hobby for a while, try it again and see if you can incorporate it into your life – maybe even inviting your family and friends to participate too. It is all too easy to become your “job role” or “mum/dad” or even “big sister/brother” (ie. “the reliable one”) – remember you were always more holistic than that, so give yourself permission to revisit you once in a while.
2. Learn to say no!
If you cannot say “no” directly, then work out and practice some statements which can buy you time such as “I’ll tell you a x o’clock.” If you say “yes” to everything, if we have spread ourselves too thinly not only does the quality of our work suffer, but we may begin to resent the people we originally wanted to help. It is not your job to “rescue” others, and if you don’t do it, they will find a way to make whatever it is work if they want it enough!
3. Practice mindful deep breathing
Meditation or simply focused deep breathing (in for a count of 4 through the nose, hold for 2, and out through the mouth for a count of 6) is recommended to build up internal resilience – with the very act of deep breathing promoting positive physiological changes in times of stress. Free guided meditations to support you can be found here:
However, if you have limited time to mediate – or simply do not enjoy it:
4. Find a moment to be informally mindful
Mindful practice does not always need to be formal - informal moments of being present can be just as conducive to good mental health and wellbeing eg:
- When out walking listen to birdsong or take a moment to feel the warmth of the sun
- When having a drink take a moment to appreciate the sensation as it quenches your thirst, or while eating take a moment to savour the taste – and see if you can recognise the multitude of flavours
- Treat yourself, just because (but be aware of your finances!)
o As a sub point, conduct a financial awareness audit – do you know how much you are spending? If so, you can make changes, or be pleased that when you treat yourself, there was a fund to do so
- Wear something that is uniquely expressive of you (even if it is not obviously displayed)
5. Keep evergreens – or use your other senses to support feelings of relaxation
Not only does pine smell lovely, but researchers at Kyoto university in Japan found that healthy volunteers who strolled through a pine forest for 15 minutes a day reported more positive ratings on a mood scale compared with those who did not. If this is not practical, inhaling lavender or rose oil dabbed on a cloth has been shown to have a relaxing effect.
AND NOW go out and do your best for others that you support!!
The key is to do what you do best for the benefit of all.
When you feel strong, you will take strong action. My work is not simply about helping you, but helping you help others. In turn, perhaps your work is about providing bones, or creating them! If I focus on what I do best, and that helps you focus on what you do best - everyone will benefit.
Be proud of what you do, and who you are; reach out for help if you need it; and if you exercise your strengths while building your weaknesses (ie with the support of others) - we might be able to do far more than either training the dogs, or finding the bones!
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience.