What Psychological Strategies Can Improve Your Sporting Performance the Most?

I’ve played a lot of sport in my lifetime. My first basketball game was on the Diamond Valley mini-courts in Victoria, Australia when I was six years old. My most recent game was this week at Wan Smol Bag in Port Vila, Vanuatu. That means I’ve been playing organised sport for over 27 years now.

Both of my parents were Physical Education teachers and excellent sports coaches, and they consistently encouraged my two siblings and me to play sports and be active. I’m not sure if my siblings felt this too, but there was a sense that we should take sport seriously, and it was essential to try your best and be an unselfish team player and a fair opponent.

For example, this Larry Bird Converse poster hung on the wall in our house when I was younger:

It makes me sick when I see a guy just watching it go out of bounds.” – Larry Bird

I was a super competitive kid, with the majority of my childhood consisting of competing against whoever I could find, but especially my brother and friends. I also tried to compete in anything I could, including board games, computer games, card games and multiple sports.

I’ve managed to have some success in several sports. I finished in the top 10 in the state in swimming in Primary (Elementary) School, the top 20 in discus throwing, and the top 30 in alpine skiing. In High School I made the State team in volleyball for three years in a row and the Victorian Institute of Sport and the Australian Youth Squad for volleyball. I then moved to the USA at 16 to play Varsity volleyball, basketball and tennis in California and Virginia. Later on, I won a State Championship in the top division in the Victorian Volleyball League at 25 and won a championship playing Semi-professional basketball when I was 27 in Australia.

Despite this modicum of success, I don’t think that I reached my potential.

I was a bit like Allen Iverson in his famous “practice” speech:

 

I loved to play, but I hated to practice. I was not overly goal-focused outside of turning up on game day, giving my all, and doing whatever I could to help my team win. When I was younger, I also had what is known as a ‘fixed mindset’, and thought that I could not change my athletic capabilities with deliberate effort.

It wasn’t until I started to learn psychology at university that I began to realise that I could mentally change how I approached the games that I played. I began to apply the psychological skills that I had learnt and developed a growth mindset rather than a fixed one. I became less afraid of losing, more able to learn from setbacks and mistakes, and more able to step up when the game was on the line. I also discovered how to bounce back after making a few mistakes, keep pushing and trying when we were losing, and perform at my best on a much more consistent basis.

I wish I could have had these skills earlier in my life, and I would like to be able to share them with you so that you can hopefully take your game to the next level too.

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How Strong is the Mental Side of Your Game?

The Athletic Coping Skills Inventory (ACSI) looks at seven sub-scales related to how you mentally approach sport and helps to highlight areas in which you might struggle:

Sub-scale #1: Coping with adversity – assesses if you remain positive and enthusiastic even when things are going badly. Also determines if you stay calm and controlled, and can quickly bounce back from mistakes and setbacks. 

  • Do you remain positive and enthusiastic during a competition, no matter how bad things are going?
  • When things are going badly, do you tell yourself to keep calm and does this work for you?
  • When you feel yourself getting too tense, can you quickly relax your body and calm yourself?
  • Can you maintain emotional control regardless of how things are going for you?

How often do you do these things – rarely, sometimes, often or almost always?

If you have said rarely or sometimes to most or all of these items, you currently are not coping as well as you could with adversity.

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TO IMPROVE HOW YOU COPE WITH ADVERSITY

  • If things are going bad during a competition, try cognitive restructuring. Tune in to what thoughts are going through your mind. Then ask yourself if they are realistic thoughts and if they are helpful thoughts to be having right now? If you are thinking about anything that is not what you are meant to be doing in the present, they are probably not helpful. If it’s the mistake you just made, let it go and move on. If it is worrying that you might keep making mistakes and lose, let it go and move on. Tell yourself “this isn’t helpful!” or ask yourself “what is a more helpful way to be thinking right now?” It might be “keep calm”, or it could be another mantra that you find helpful. Then stop focusing on your thoughts and focus on whatever is in your control in the present that will help you to get back on track. Then do it. 
  • If you are feeling overwhelmed or out of control during a competition, try deep breathing.  Tune into your breathing. Chances are, your breath is probably rapid and shallow if you feel overwhelmed, tense or out of control. Then, exhale and breathe out all of the air in your lungs. Slowly breathe deeply into your stomach, pause for a second or two, and then exhale all of the air out again. Keep breathing slowly and deeply and exhaling all your air until you feel a bit calmer and more in control. Then stop focusing on your breath and put your focus back to the main objective that you have that is in your power in the present.
  • If you feel too physically tense during a competition, try progressive muscle relaxation. Tune in to where you feel most tense, then pick one area to target first. Squeeze it as hard as possible, take a deep breath in, pause, breathe out and relax. Then repeat if needed or move onto another tense muscle area. If you can’t tense it because of the sport you are doing, try to breathe in and around the tight area and then see if you can relax it with the out-breath. Repeat as often as needed. Once you feel less tense, stop focusing on your body tenseness and put your focus back to whatever is in your control in the present that will help you to achieve your objectives.

Sub-scale #2: Coachability – assesses if you learn from coaches instructions and are open to accepting constructive criticism or advice without taking it personally or becoming upset:

  • Do you manage not to take it personally or feel upset when a coach tells you how to correct a mistake you’ve made?
  • When a coach criticises you, do you feel helped rather than upset?
  • If a coach criticises or yells at you, do you correct the mistake without getting upset about it?
  • Do you improve your skills by listening carefully to feedback and instructions from your coaches?

How often do you do these things – rarely, sometimes, often or almost always?

If you have said rarely or sometimes to most or all of these items, you currently are not very coachable. My dad said that I was uncoachable growing up, but it did improve by applying a few strategies.

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TO IMPROVE HOW YOU COACHABLE YOU ARE

  • When a coach criticises or yells at you, try not to take it personally. If it is a competition, the coach is likely to be on an emotional rollercoaster, just like you. They may care just as much or even more than you about winning, but they cannot control your behaviour on the field. They can merely make suggestions or sub you out, which may make them feel even more stressed or anxious than if they were out there performing. See if there is any merit in what they are saying to you regardless of how they have said it. If it is useful advice, take it on board. If it is not helpful, try to tune it out and re-focus on whatever it is that is within your control that will help you to achieve your objectives.
  • Develop a growth mindset and let go of your ego. When you make a mistake in practice, try to listen to feedback from coaches about what led to the error and how you can improve it. If they don’t give you any feedback, ask for it when it is appropriate. It is generally a lot easier for someone else to see what you are doing wrong and how you can improve it than it will be for you to view it. Asking someone in your coaching staff to film what you are doing can also help because then you can view what they see and can have a discussion with them about how to improve it. 
  • Listen carefully to the advice and instructions that your coaches have, especially during practice and before and after a game. The coach’s job is to help you perform at your best, so try to take on board what they suggest and give it a go before rejecting it as not helpful. Having a growth mindset sees mistakes and losses and failures as opportunities to reflect on what went wrong and how you can improve it. A coach can help with this, especially after a game and in practice. Asking questions to clarify what they said if you don’t understand can also help to ensure you are following or trying what they suggest. During a game, don’t overthink things too much, and get back to your game plan that you and your coach have established before the event.

Sub-scale #3: Concentration – reflects whether you become easily distracted and whether you can focus on the task at hand in both practice and game situations, even when adverse or unexpected conditions occur:

  • When you are playing sports, can you focus your attention and block out distractions?
  • Is it easy to keep distracting thoughts from interfering with something you are watching or listening?
  • Do you handle unexpected situations in your sport very well?
  • Is it easy to direct your attention and focus on a single object or person?

How often do you do these things – rarely, sometimes, often or almost always?

If you have said rarely or sometimes to most or all of these items, your ability to concentrate is not as good as it could be.

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TO IMPROVE YOUR CONCENTRATION LEVELS

  • Meditate regularly. It doesn’t matter which type of meditation you do, but practice it for at least 10 minutes a day. Developing a daily meditation routine will help you to improve your concentration levels on a game day more than anything else. I prefer mindfulness meditation the most, and the apps I would recommend the most to download if you want to have a guided meditation session daily are:
    • Smiling Mind
    • Insight Timer
    • Headspace
    • Calm
    • Waking Up
    • Ten Percent Happier
    • Buddhify
    • Balance
  • Avoid multitasking. Whatever you are doing throughout the day, try to focus on one thing at a time rather than attempting to do two or three things at once. It will be less tiring for you, and will also train your concentration. Just ask yourself, no matter what you are doing “What is most important right now?” and try to put all of your attention and focus on that one task. If your mind tries to distract you or get you to do something else, thank your mind and bring your attention back to whatever is most important at that moment.
  • Practice informal mindfulness. Formal mindfulness involves sitting down and doing mindfulness meditation for a set period. You can also approach any other task that you are doing mindfully, which is called informal mindfulness. To do this, no matter what you are doing, try to see if you can approach the task as if you have never done it before in an open, accepting, non-judgmental way without wishing for it to be any other way. Jon Kabat-Zinn calls these the attitudes of mindfulness, and when applied to sports, you are likely to have a sense of relaxed concentration that is the key to getting into the zone or a state of flow more regularly.

Sub-scale #4: Confidence and Achievement Motivation – measures whether you are confident and positively motivated. Also assesses if you consistently give 100% during practices and games, and work hard to improve your skills:

  • Do you get the most out of your talent and expertise?
  • Do you feel confident that you will play well?
  • Do you give 100% during practices and competition, and don’t have to be pushed to practice or play hard?
  • Do you try even harder when you fail to reach your goals?

How often do you do these things – rarely, sometimes, often or almost always?

If you have said rarely or sometimes to most or all of these items, you do not have high levels of confidence and achievement motivation.

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TO IMPROVE YOUR CONFIDENCE AND MOTIVATION FOR ACHIEVEMENT

  • Know your personality: Take the IPIP-NEO personality assessment to get a good sense of your personality and what is likely to motivate you. If you are an extrovert, you probably need to train with other people and need excitement and fun. You may not need as much rest, either. If you are an introvert, you may need some individual sessions to remain focused and motivated and plenty of time to reflect and recover between practices and competitions. If you are agreeable, you will enjoy co-operating with the plans of your coaches or other athletes and helping out others. If you are disagreeable, you will probably need to do things your way a bit more to stay motivated and confident.  If you are highly conscientious, you could have a consistent training schedule and pre-game routine, and you will be able to follow it and benefit from it. If you are low on conscientiousness, you will need a bit more flexibility and variety in your training and preparation and goals to stay on track. If you are highly neurotic, you will have more times that you feel down, anxious, angry, self-conscious, but developing skills to assist you with these emotions will help. If you are low on neuroticism, you are unlikely to be bothered by intense emotions or self-doubt and won’t need additional strategies. Lastly, if you are very open to experiences, you are likely to remain confident and motivated even if things don’t go according to plan and accept whatever is happening and make room for whatever feelings arise. If you are low on openness, you will probably need more contingency plans so that you will know what to do and feel less overwhelmed when things don’t go according to plan. 
  • Clarify your essential values: The values exercise that I have previously written about is a great way to identify and remember why you are playing sport and what you are hoping to get out of it — knowing our why can help us to be much more motivated to push through pain and challenges when things get hard. By figuring out which values are essential, quite important and not relevant to you, you can see if you have been living in line with your fundamental values or applying them in your sport. If you haven’t, setting some goals that are consistent with these values will increase your motivation and hopefully improve your confidence too.
  • Apply your character strengths to your sport: The VIA character strengths survey is a similar principle to values clarification, with the VIA standing for values in action. Take the survey, identify your top 5 key strengths and apply them more to your practice and competition. It could help your confidence and motivation a lot.

Sub-scale #5: Goal setting and mental preparation – assesses whether you set and work toward specific performance goals. It also determines if you plan and mentally prepare for competition, and if you have a “game plan” for performing well:

  • Do you set concrete goals to guide what you do in your sport on a daily or weekly basis?
  • Do you tend to do a lot of planning about how you will reach your goals?
  • Do you set your own performance goals for each practice?
  • Do you have your game plan worked out in your head long before the game begins?

How often do you do these things – rarely, sometimes, often or almost always?

If you have said rarely or sometimes to most or all of these items, you are currently not setting enough goals for yourself in your sport or preparing yourself mentally as much as you could be.

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TO IMPROVE YOUR GOAL SETTING AND MENTAL PREPARATION SKILLS

  • Get on the same page as your coach (and teammates if you have them) about your objectives in your sport and the steps that you will all need to take to achieve these objectives. By doing this, including having contingency plans for if things are not going well, your coach should be to help you stick to your plan and encourage you to switch to a contingency plan if things are not working as well as you both hoped. You can apply this for your training sessions, your weeks in the lead up to competition, before a game, during competition, and afterwards. If your coach changes the rules and goes off course, it is vital to be able to raise this and remind them of your overall objectives so that you can remain on track and make progress towards your long-term goals. 
  • Make sure the goals that you set are SMART goals. SMART means that your goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-framed. You will then know if you have achieved them or not in the time that you have set and can make adjustments as needed.
  • Have a consistent pre-game ritual to mentally and physically prepare yourself for the game. Maybe eat the same meal the night before a competition (carbo-loading), do things to wind down and switch off to ensure you don’t get to bed too late and obtain a good quality sleep. Wake up at a similar time in the morning if possible, and have the breakfast that your nutritionist has suggested is most helpful. Stay well hydrated. Have a game plan figured out with your coach well in advance before the competition and keep that fresh in your mind on game day. Get to the event place early enough to not have any unnecessary stress. Choose the location that allows you to get into the state you want to be when competition starts. If you can’t choose the room, bring noise-cancelling headphones or other things that can still help you to feel settled wherever you are. Then listen to music or motivational material as needed, warm up your body as required, visualise doing well or think back to times you have performed well in the past, and centre yourself before competition. Then go out there and enjoy it.

Sub-scale #6: Peaking under pressure – measures whether you are challenged rather than threatened by pressure situations and if you perform well under pressure — if you are a clutch performer:

  • Do you tend to play better under pressure because you think more clearly?
  • Do you enjoy the game more when there is more pressure during it?
  • Are pressure situations challenges that you welcome?
  • Do you make fewer mistakes when the pressure is on because you concentrate better?

How often do you do these things – rarely, sometimes, often or almost always?

If you have said rarely or sometimes to most or all of these items, you are currently not peaking under pressure or getting into the zone as much as you potentially could.

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TO PEAK UNDER A PRESSURE ON A MORE REGULAR BASIS

  • Try the seven steps of centering:
    1. Select a comfortable focal point in the distance that is below eye level.
    2. Form a clear intention in your mind of what you aim to do.
    3. Breathe slowly and deeply in a mindful way and breathe all the air out with each breath.
    4. Release your muscle tension by observing where you are most tense in your body, then release this tightness by first tensing it further and then letting go, or just trying to release it with each out-breath.
    5. Find your centre of gravity or “chi” and use that to help ground you where you are and with what you are doing.
    6. Repeat your process cue, or imagine what it sounds, feels and looks like to achieve what you are aiming to do in step 2. If there is a word that describes this, you can use it as your cue. Golfer Sam Snead would use the word “oily” to describe the smooth and effortless swing that he wanted.
    7. Channel your remaining energy into a dynamic and inspired performance. Trust that all the hard work that you have put in during training will pay off and help you to achieve your aim, and see if you can enjoy the competition and the peak performances that can come with this.
  • Develop your inner game. Timothy Gallwey wrote one of the best sports psychology books of all time with ‘The Inner Game of Tennis.’ The first step of the inner game is to observe what is happening in a non-judgmental way. The second step is to picture the desired outcome. The third step is to trust your body to be able to reach your desired outcome and don’t try to overthink it. The last step is to nonjudgmentally observe the change in your performance and results by doing this.
  • Get into a flow state. To increase your chances of getting into a flow state, you first need to try to remove or zone out from all potential distractions. It is also important that the task that you are aiming for strikes a good balance between your current skill level and the challenge you are facing. If the challenge is slightly greater than you perceive your current skills to be, flow is most likely to happen. If it is not challenging enough, you are likely to be bored. If it is too challenging you are likely to be anxious. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says that there are eight main characteristics of flow:
    1. you need to put all of your concentration on the task at hand.
    2. you need to be clear about your goals and be able to get immediate feedback about if you are on the right track.
    3. flow transforms time, and things feel like they are either speeding up or slowing down in a flow state.
    4. the experience must be intrinsically rewarding, or enjoyable in and of itself and not just a means to another end.
    5. your performance should feel effortless and easy in a flow state.
    6. there needs to be a good balance between challenge and skills, ideally the thing you are doing is both challenging and requires a lot of skill.
    7. your actions and awareness are merged, and you are no longer in your head thinking about what you are doing or worrying about your performance.
    8. you feel fully in control of what you are attempting to do in pursuit of your objectives.

Sub-scale # 7: Freedom from worry – assesses whether you put pressure on yourself by worrying about performing poorly or making mistakes. It also determines if you worry about what others will think if you perform poorly:

  • Do you worry quite a bit about what others think of your performance?
  • Do you put a lot of pressure on yourself by worrying about how you will perform?
  • While competing, do you worry about making mistakes or failing to come through?
  • Do you think about and imagine what will happen if you fail or screw up?

How often do you do these things – rarely, sometimes, often or almost always?

If you have said rarely or sometimes to most or all of these items, your worries are probably impairing your performance.

man in gray sleeveless shirt carrying white and brown spalding basketball

TO FEEL MORE FREE FROM YOUR WORRIES WHILE COMPETING

  • Try constructive worry. I don’t recommend this strategy during competition, but it is excellent to do before or after a game or when you are training for an upcoming event and are feeling worried. Create a table with three columns, and say what is worrying you in column one, what you can do to address the worry in column two, and when you can solve it in column three. It shouldn’t take much more than 5 minutes, and might look like this:

Worries/Concerns

What Can I do to address this?

When can I address this?

What if I lose?

Train hard, prepare well, try my best

Now and at the competition

What if I make mistakes or fail?

Mistakes help me to learn and improve. Remember the Michael Jordan quote about failure leading to success

Anytime I have a setback, try to have a growth rather than a fixed mindset and see what I can learn from it to get better

What if others judge me?

Try to care less about this and focus on what is in my control, which is training hard, preparing well and trying my best. Also, don’t forget to have fun. If others judge me for trying my best, that is more about them than it is about me

Now. I can put my energy into things that are within my control, which is my intention and my actions, and let go of everything else

  • Practice grounding yourself in the present. Ask yourself: “What are five things I can see right now?” “What are four things I can touch or feel right now?” “What are three things I can hear right now?” “What are two things I can smell right now?” “What is one thing I can taste right now?“. These questions help you to become fully grounded in the present, instead of worrying about things going wrong in the future or ruminating about a mistake you made in the past. Finally, ask yourself: “Am I safe?“. If there is no imminent physical danger, you do not need to be in ‘fight-or-flight’ mode, and your brain can relax while you take a few deep breaths and re-focus on what you need to do next to achieve your objective.
  • Defuse from unhelpful thoughts. Sometimes it is helpful to challenge our worries if we know they are unhelpful. If you instead think of something more useful to believe, it might eliminate your fears. If it does not, try to defuse from your worry instead and aim not to get too caught up in it. Thinking “I’m going to miss this shot” won’t help, so if it crosses your mind, imagine putting this worry on a leaf on a river and let it float downstream, or put it on a cloud and watch it float away, or put it in a box on a conveyor belt and let it speed away into the distance. There are many different defusion strategies to help you let go of worrying thoughts. Look them up, try them out when you are not competing, see which ones are most effective for you, and then apply the most effective ones during your next competition. The less you worry, and the more you focus on what you can do that is in your control, the better your performance is likely to be.

To answer the title question, the best psychological strategies to improve your sporting performance are the ones that work best for you. See which sub-scales you score the lowest on, try some of these strategies that I have recommended, and then let me know what worked and how much your performance improved. I look forward to hearing about your improvement and growth!

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

What Separates a Good Athlete From a Truly Great One?

Could You Be Like Mike?

Michael Jordan is potentially the greatest basketball player of all time. He is also thought to be the king of staying laser focused and composed under pressure, and consistently performing at his best. He holds the record of 866 straight games in the NBA scoring at least 10 points, and he scored over 20 points in all of his last 47 playoff games.

Jordan holds ten scoring titles for the most points scored in a season, as well as the highest career regular season scoring average (30.12 points per game) and career playoff average (33.45 ppg). He went to the NBA finals 6 times, and won 6 championships with the Chicago Bulls, alongside 6 NBA most valuable player (MVP) awards. Jordan also won the defensive player of the year award once, played in 14 all-star games, made ten all-NBA first teams and won five MVP awards. He was inducted into the basketball hall of fame in 2009, and was named ESPN’s greatest North American athlete of the 20th century. Not too bad a career.

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How did Jordan perform to such a high level so regularly, especially when the stakes were the highest? The stadiums were packed with media and screaming and jeering fans, and millions more watched on TV around the world, and yet he managed to consistently step up, night after night.

Maybe it was just was genes or natural talent. However, if this was the case, Jordan’s children should have also been great, and Jordan wouldn’t have been cut from his high school basketball team as a sophomore.

Maybe it was his physical conditioning. Again, this might be true, but there have been plenty of fit and athletic players in the NBA, and not all of them go on to become superstars.

There’s also the infamous ‘flu game’ in game 5 of the 1997 NBA finals against the Utah Jazz, where the commentator Marv Albert said this:

“The big story here tonight — the story concerning Michael Jordan’s physical condition. He is suffering from flu-like symptoms.”

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Because the series was tied at 2 all, Jordan didn’t want to let his physical state prevent him from playing. Jordan started slow, and later admitted that he felt weak, had really low energy and couldn’t breath properly. In spite of almost passing out and having to slump over with his hands on his knees whenever the game stopped, Jordan helped the Bulls fight back from a 16-point first quarter deficit to win 90-88 and then go onto win the series in 6 games. In the process, he scored 38 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, 1 block and the three-pointer that sealed the game with less than a minute to play.

What separated Michael Jordan from the rest and helped him to become one of the greatest athletes of all time was his mental fortitude and mindset. He never gave up, truly believed that great things were possible as long as he put in the work and tried his best, and he never backed down from a challenge.

Here are two of his most famous quotes that perfectly exemplify this:

Jordan didn’t care about making mistakes or failing in the eyes of others. What he really cared about was trying his absolute best, and not letting fear of failure hold him back from doing everything he could to help his team win. It could be that Michael Jordan is an anomaly here, but I don’t think he is.

If you look at all the greats, their mindset and mental strength played a huge role in their overall level of success. Let’s look at Simone Biles in gymnastics, who has now won 25 medals at the World Gymnastic Championships in her career, including 19 gold.

Here’s how she approaches training and competitions:

Biles believed in working harder than anyone else in practice to be the best, but also prioritized being confident in herself and her abilities, and knew that in order to do this, she needed to also ensure that she looked after her mental and emotional health.  

What about Michael Phelps, who is the most decorated Olympian of all-time with 28 Olympic medals in swimming, including 23 gold:

Phelps, like Biles, tried to train harder than anyone else to be the best. He also focused on building belief and confidence in himself and not listening to any doubters who tried to tell him that something couldn’t be done. Like Jordan, he did not view it as failure to try as hard as he could to achieve his goals, even if he fell short.

All three amazing athletes had incredible success when it mattered most. Their mental attitude towards themselves, setbacks, practice and competition was no doubt a huge factor in the results that they achieved.

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The Equation for Success

Some people may still try to put their success down to talent, but hopefully all of you know that this is wrong. Psychologist Angela Duckworth, in her book ‘Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance’ developed an equation for success based on her research into the area:

talent + effort = skill

skill + effort = achievement

This means that the amount of hard work and effort you put into your training and preparation is twice as important for success than your initial level of talent.

Duckworth doesn’t exactly say this in her book, but once the effort has been put in at training, I truly believe that the next most important predictor of success is your mindset and mental strength on the day of the competition.

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Finding Flow

Most professional athletes know what it is like to be “in the zone” or in a “peak experience” as Psychologist Abraham Maslow called it. It has also been commonly referred to as a “flow state”, which was initially coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and examined in detail in his book ‘Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience’.

Flow can be defined as:

“being so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The ego falls away. Your perception of time changes. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you are using your skills to the utmost, and those skills are significantly magnified. Physical skills, mental skills, psychological skills, social skills, creative skills, decision-making skills. Flow breaks boundaries. You are flow. It is you. There is no thought. You are fully immersed in your body and the moment. You experience profound mental clarity and a sense of oneness. Everything just works.”

I’ve never been to an Olympics before, but I can tell you that when I am confident and in the zone playing basketball or volleyball, I feel like no one can stop me, the game is so easy, things seem to move in slow motion and my level of performance astounds me. I am not exactly the best shooter in basketball, but I have had some games where making a basket was as easy as throwing a stone into the ocean from the edge of a pier.

If you don’t know what I mean, check out Klay Thompson’s shooting performance in only one quarter of basketball, smashing the previously held record:

Notice how it didn’t seem to matter where he was or who was defending him; he was in the zone, and he was going to shoot the ball as soon as he caught it, and those shots were going to go down.

The book ‘The Rise of Superman’ by Steven Kotler suggests that extreme and adventure sport athletes are the best at getting into flow states consistently and remaining there while competing. Because of the real risk of death and serious injury with mistakes, flow is not just a desired state to aim for but a necessity in these sports. Consequently, only the athletes that can consistently do it survive, both in the sport and in their lives.

Kotler tries to go beyond flow to explain unbelievable performances, such as pro-skater Danny Way jumping the great wall of China with a broken ankle:

Kotler says that every athlete has the capacity to get in the zone. Unbelievable performances are about experimenting with the impossible once you are in a flow state, pushing your limits, and seeing what you are truly capable of. 

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The opposite is also true. When I am not in a good headspace or my confidence is low, even the most basic moves feel difficult and scoring points can feel almost impossible. I’m going to guess that most of you have had similar experiences in your own sports too. When things just aren’t clicking. Where you start to doubt yourself. Where no matter what you try you just can’t get out of your head and you tense up. You start to miss free throws like Shaq:

What if you could be like Michael Jordan or Danny Way, and consistently perform at your best and reach your potential when it matters most? How would that feel, and how much would you pay to figure that out?

Fortunately, I won’t be charging you anything, but I do hope to help you unlock your own secrets to consistently great performance. In my next article, I’m going to teach you the mental skills and strategies to bounce back from adversity, take on helpful feedback from your coaches, and remain focused and composed even in highly stressful and distracting situations. I’m also going to help you to become more consistently confident and motivated, have clear objectives and be well prepared, perform at your best under pressure and not let your worries interfere with your game or prevent you from getting into a consistent state of flow. Stay tuned. 

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

What Values Do You Try to Live Your Life By?

Values are guiding principles for our lives that are endless pursuits. We cannot achieve a value in the same way we can accomplish a goal. However, at any point in time, you can connect with them, act in accordance to them, and receive the vitality, energy, improved self-worth, greater emotional well-being and happiness that are often the result of living consistently with our values.

To figure out your most important values, first write if each value in the list below is very important to you (V), quite important to you (Q), or not important to you (N).

It is essential that we choose the values that feel right to us, rather than pick the values that we think our parents or society might want us to follow.

people girl design happy

Then, for only your very important values, score from (0-10) how much you have been living according to this value over the past month, with:

0 = not following this value over the past month,

1 – 3 = following this value occasionally,

4 – 6 = following this value sometimes,

7 – 9 = following this value often, and

10 = always living by this value.

VALUES LIST

  1. Connecting with Nature: Importance of value to you (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency with value if it is very important to you (0-10?) = _________
  2. Gaining wisdom: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  3. Creating beauty (in any domain, including arts, dancing, gardening): Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  4. Promoting justice and caring for the weak: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  5. Being loyal to friends, family and/or my group: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  6. Being Honest: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  7. Helping others: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  8. Being sexually desirable: Importance (V, Q, N?) = _____, Consistency (0-10?) = ________
  9. Having genuine and close friends: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) = _____
  10. Having relationships involving love and affection: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  11. Being ambitious and hard working: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) = ____
  12. Being competent and effective: Importance (V, Q, N?) = _____, Consistency (0-10?) = ______
  13. Having a sense of accomplishment and making a lasting contribution: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  14. Having an exciting life: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  15. Having a life filled with adventure: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) = ______
  16. Having a life filled with novelty and change: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  17. Being physically fit: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  18. Eating healthy food: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  19. Engaging in sporting activities: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) = ______
  20. Acting consistently with my religious faith and beliefs: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  21. Being at one with God: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  22. Showing respect for tradition: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) = _____
  23. Being self-disciplined and resisting temptation: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  24. Showing respect to parents and elders: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) =____
  25. Meeting my obligations: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ______, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  26. Maintaining the safety and security of my loved ones: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  27. Making sure to repay favours and not be indebted to people: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ______, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  28. Being safe from danger: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ______, Consistency (0-10?) = _______
  29. Being wealthy: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  30. Having authority, being in charge: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) = ____
  31. Having influence over other people: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) = ____
  32. Having an enjoyable, leisurely life: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) = ____
  33. Enjoying food and drink: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ______, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  34. Being sexually active: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  35. Being creative: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  36. Being self-sufficient: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  37. Being curious, discovering new things: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ______, Consistency (0-10?) = ______
  38. Figuring things out, solving problems: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ______, Consistency (0-10?) =______
  39. Striving to be a better person: Importance (V, Q, N?) = _____, Consistency (0-10?) = ______
  40. Experiencing positive mood states: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) = ______
  41. Feeling good about myself: Importance (V, Q, N?) = _______, Consistency (0-10?) = ______
  42. Leading a stress-free life: Importance (V, Q, N?) = _______, Consistency (0-10?) = _______
  43. Enjoying music, art or drama: Importance (V, Q, N?) = _____, Consistency (0-10?) = ______
  44. Designing things: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  45. Teaching others: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  46. Resolving disputes: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  47. Building and repairing things: Importance (V, Q, N?) = _____, Consistency (0-10?) = ______
  48. Working with my hands: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = ______
  49. Organising things: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  50. Engaging in clearly defined work: Importance (V, Q, N?) = _____, Consistency (0-10?) =_____
  51. Researching things: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  52. Competing with others: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _______
  53. Being admired by many people: Importance (V, Q, N?) = _____, Consistency (0-10?) = _____
  54. Acting with courage: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  55. Caring for others: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  56. Accepting others as they are: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ____, Consistency (0-10?) = _______
  57. Working on practical tasks: Importance (V, Q, N?) = _____, Consistency (0-10?) = ________
  58. Seeking pleasure: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  59. Avoiding distress: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________
  60. Avoiding self-doubt: Importance (V, Q, N?) = ________, Consistency (0-10?) = _________

It will be difficult/impossible to always live by all of our very important values, because some values will come into conflict with each other. However, if you are have scored it a 5 or below in your consistency rating, then try to set a goal for the next month of how you can live more consistently with this value.

This is especially true with your top 5 values, so identify your top five values from this list if you can, and try to live according to these core values on a regular basis. If you manage this, you are much more likely to feel that you are on the right track and heading in the right direction in your life.

backlit beach clouds dawn

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

PLEASE NOTE: These value descriptions were taken from a values cards exercise that I did during my doctoral degree. I am not sure who developed it, but will happily give credit to them if anyone can let me know who did.

 

Straightforward Life Advice From a Successful CEO

Derek Sivers seems like a pretty cool guy. On his website, he calls himself a musician, producer, circus performer, entrepreneur, TED speaker, and book publisher. He started a company called CDBaby and made millions from this. He then gave the company to charity, resulting in millions of dollars subsequently being used to help up-and-coming musical artists who need some monetary support to try and realise their dreams.

Sivers also reads a lot of non-fiction books that are focused on psychology, self-help and self-improvement. He has little reviews of these books on his website and gives them a score out of 10, which is great if you are in need of a recommendation of what to read.

In 2016, Sivers tried to summarise all of the key points that he obtained from reading so many non-fiction books. These key points were put into “do this” directives for him as a personal guide to various aspects of life. The directives were first brought to the public’s attention in his episode of the hugely popular ‘Tim Ferriss Show’ podcast. Because of the demand for the remainder of these lists, they were shared on Derek’s website sivers.org. He also plans on doing more with these directives in the future, including potentially writing his own book.

Below are his directives, as well as my opinion of them. Directives that I completely agree with will be in green. Directives that I disagree with or that go against scientific research will be in red.

group hand fist bump

How to be useful to others:

Get famous

  • Do everything in public and for the public.
  • The more people you reach, the more useful you are.
  • The opposite is hiding, which is of no use to everyone.

Get rich

  • Money is neutral proof you’re adding value to people’s lives.
  • So, by getting rich, you’re being useful as a side effect.
  • Once rich, spend the money in ways that are even more useful to others.
  • Then, getting rich is double useful.

Share strong opinions

  • Strong opinions are very useful to others.
  • Those who were undecided or ambivalent can just adopt your stance.
  • But those who disagree can solidify their stance by arguing against yours.

Be expensive

  • People given a placebo pill were twice as likely to have their pain disappear when told the pill was expensive.
  • People who paid more for tickets were more likely to attend the performance.
  • People who spend more for a product or service value it more, and get more use out of it.

people taking group photo

WHAT I THINK: While there are a lot of famous and rich people who are useful to other people, there are many others who are not. What is true is that if you are famous and rich, you have the potential to have more influence on others and do more positive things, such as Bill and Melinda Gates. You also have the potential to negatively influence more people too, such as Donald Trump. What you do with that power and exposure is up to you.

You can also make a difference to others without being rich or famous. Don’t underestimate the difference you can make as a teacher or coach or parent or volunteer or community member or any other role where you interact with others on a regular basis. If you charge more, people will value your services more, you will earn more money and then have a greater chance to be useful to others.

Do try to be informed before sharing your opinions publicly. Look at all the damage Jenny McCarthy did by sharing her opinions on vaccines and autism.

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How to get rich:

Live where luck strikes

  • Live where everything is happening.
  • Live where the money is flowing.
  • Live where careers are being made.
  • Live where your role models live.
  • Once there, be as in the game as anyone can be.
  • Be right in the middle of everything.

Say yes to everything

  • Meet everyone.
  • Pursue every opportunity.
  • Nothing is too small. Do it all.
  • Like lottery tickets, you never know which one will win. So the more, the better.
  • Follow-up and keep in touch with everyone.

Learn the multiplying skills

  • Speaking, writing, psychology, design, conversation, 2nd language, persuasion, programming, meditation/focus.
  • Not pursued on their own, they’re skills that multiply the success of your main pursuit (e.g., A pilot who’s also a great writer and public speaker; A chef with a mastery of psychology, persuasion and design).
  • These skills multiply the results of your efforts, and give you an edge over others in your field.

Pursue market value, not personal value

  • Do what pays well.
  • Do not be the starving artist, working on things that have great personal value to you, but little market value.
  • Follow the money. It tells you where you’re most valuable.
  • Don’t try to make a career out of everything you love. For example, sex.

Shamelessly imitate success

  • Imitate the best strategies of your competitors.
  • The market doesn’t care about your personal need to be unique.
  • It’s selfless and humble to use the best ideas regardless of source, to create the best service or product for your clients.
  • Get great at executing other people’s ideas as well as your own.

Be the owner, not just the inventor

  • It’s tempting to try to be the ideas person, having someone else do the dirty work of making those ideas happen.
  • Ideas don’t make you rich. Great execution of ideas does.
  • A rule of capitalism: whoever takes the most financial risk gets the rewards.
  • The biggest rewards will always go to those that fund it and own it.
  • To get rich, be the owner. Own as close to 100% as possible.

Benefit from human nature

  • Instead of complaining about the downside of human nature, find ways to benefit from it.
  • Instead of complaining about the rules, just learn the game, then play it.

bitcoins and u s dollar bills

WHAT I THINK: To get rich, it is important to know how humans think and act, and to find ways to benefit from this instead of wishing for things to be different. It is useful to see what has worked for others, to learn how to do things in this way first, and then to adapt the best things so that what you are doing is authentically yours. It is important to try to own the product or service you are trying to sell. If you don’t do this, your earning potential will always be capped and will generally always be less than your bosses.

While it is true that people need to be willing to spend money in order to make money, it’s not just about taking financial risks. There are many broke people out there who have spent too much on bad ideas. Figure out how to test your ideas or products first to see how the market responds before investing too much in it, and don’t be afraid to make changes or start over again if a better opportunity presents itself. Ideally we aren’t just doing something for the money. If we love it, are good at it and it makes a lot, you will be much happier than doing something just because you know that it pays well.

While it is true that we don’t know which opportunities will necessarily work out, we also can’t make much progress if we are saying yes to everyone and everything. Meet and connect with the right people who are not just out for themselves until you find a great idea. Then pursue this project for a set period until you know if it is likely to make you rich or not. If not, jump ship as soon as you realise it and keep brainstorming and connecting and saying yes until you find your next great idea. Once you have this, learning how to prioritise and say no may be even more important than always saying yes. Same with being in the middle of everything. It’s good until you know which path you want to go down. Once you know, distance from others can be just as good until an idea has been executed.

The last bit of advice that isn’t here is don’t gamble or invest in get rich quick schemes. Use debit cards instead of credit cards. Don’t buy the most expensive insurance options. Do invest in index funds and other trustworthy stocks regularly and as early as you can and don’t change them around too much. Compounding interest will help you to gain a lot of money over time. But having heaps of money beyond what you need to meet your basic needs isn’t likely to make you a lot happier in the long run.

flight technology tools astronaut

How to thrive in an unknowable future:

Prepare for the worst

  • Since you have no idea what the future may bring, be open to the best and the worst.
  • But the best case scenario doesn’t need your preparation or your attention.
  • So mentally and financially prepare for the worst case, instead.
  • Like insurance, don’t obsess on it. Just prepare, then carry on appreciating the good times.

Expect disaster

  • Every biography of a successful person has that line, “And then, things took a turn for the worse.”
  • Fully expect that disaster to come to you at any time.
  • Completely assume it’s going to happen, and make your plans accordingly.
  • Not just money, but health, family, freedom. Expect it all to disappear.
  • Besides, you appreciate things more when you know this may be your last time seeing them.

Own as little as possible

  • Depend on even less.
  • The less you own, the less you’re affected by disaster.

Choose opportunity, not loyalty

  • Have no loyalty to location, corporation, or your past public statements.
  • Be an absolute opportunist, doing whatever is best for the future in the current situation, unbound by the past.
  • Have loyalty for only your most important human relationships.

Choose the plan with the most options

  • The best plan is the one that lets you change your plans.
  • Example: renting a house is buying the option to move at any time without losing money in a changing market.

Avoid planning

  • For maximum options, don’t plan at all.
  • Since you have no idea how the situation or your mood may change in the future, wait until the last moment to make each decision.

aerial view of city with lights during night

WHAT I THINK: It’s good to be creative, flexible, adaptable and open to change. These characteristics will become even more important in the future, because change is likely to continue to happen at an even faster and faster pace. People back in the 14th century kind of knew what to expect by the 15th century, but most people living now have no idea what life is likely to look like in the 22nd century. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t plan, and it definitely doesn’t mean that we should only plan for the worst. Life has continued to get better and better in so many ways, and it is likely to continue to get better in many ways too. It doesn’t mean it can’t get worse, but we shouldn’t all become doomsday preppers or not buy anything in case disaster strikes. Try to only buy the things you need that will help add value to your life.

Especially if you have kids, stability is good, so don’t be afraid to set up roots. Buy a house, start a business where you live, and develop friendships with other people in your neighbourhood. Some people may leave, businesses may collapse, marriages may crumble, but research still indicates that people have more satisfied relationships if they get married than if they live together but don’t get married. Married men are also both happier and healthier than single men. Divorce negatively impacts kids, especially if there is a lot of conflict, and learning how to overcome difficulties is better than always avoiding things or running away as soon as things get tough or another seemingly desirable option presents itself. We always think the grass is greener on the other side, but when we get there it’s often not as shiny or as different as we first thought (or better than we’ve previously had).

Essentially, having plans and making commitments is better than having none, as long as you are also open to making tweaks and even big changes if things really aren’t working out. Research indicates that having too many options makes it too hard to choose and not making a decision can be really stressful and both physically and emotionally draining. Research also indicates that we tend to become happier with our choices over time once we have made them, as long as we commit to our choices and don’t keep trying to doubt ourselves or leave all the other doors open too.

four women standing on mountain

How to like people:

Assume it’s their last day

  • Everyone talks about living like it’s your last day on earth.
  • Instead, to appreciate someone, live like it’s their last day on earth.
  • Treat them accordingly. Try to fulfill their dreams for the day.
  • Really listen to them. Learn from them.

Be who’d you’d be when alone

  • You could live in a crowd, pleasing only others.
  • You could live in solitude, pleasing only yourself.
  • But ideally, when in a crowd, be the same person you’d be when alone.

Assume men and women are the same

  • Men think women are so different from them.
  • Women think men are so different from them.
  • But the differences among men and differences among women are far greater than the differences between men and women.
  • So, counteract your tendency to exaggerate the differences.

Always make new friends

  • As you grow old and change, old friends and family will be unintentionally invested in maintaining you as you were before.
  • Let go of people that don’t welcome and encourage your change.

Avoid harming the relationship

  • For long-term relationship success, it’s more effective than seeking the positive.
  • A friendship that may take years to develop can be ruined by a single action.

Act calm and kind

  • Regardless of how you feel

Don’t try to change them

  • unless they asked you to.
  • Don’t teach a lesson.
  • Stop trying to change people who don’t think they have a problem.

Find wisdom in your opponents

  • Really engage with those who think opposite of you.
  • You already know the ideas common on your own side.

Purge the vampires

  • Get rid of people that drain you, that don’t make you feel good about yourself.
  • They make you hate all people.

men s white button up dress shirt

WHAT I THINK: It is great to really try to appreciate others, and understanding that some people may die soon is a helpful way to ensure that we don’t take others for granted. The Tail End by Tim Urban is an awesome blog post that nicely highlights how little time we actually have left with the important people in our lives. We should try to make the most of our time with them while we still have it so we don’t regret it later.

We can learn a lot from others if we ask them about their life and experiences and beliefs and really listen, even if they have different ways of looking at things to us. But we shouldn’t try to give advice or teach lessons to others unless someone has asked or agreed to it first (or they’re reading your blog post!).

While it is good to minimise how much time we spend with people that drain us or make us feel bad or don’t accept us for who we are, it is also important to try and maintain our old friendships too. Having both old friends and family to keep us grounded and new friends to help us learn and grow is having the best of both worlds.

Men and women are different in some ways, and it is important to understand how and why. Of course we should still see each other as individuals and not just a gender, but this is the same with people who come from a different culture, ethnicity, nationality, religion and any other group that is different to yours. If we can understand group norms, it can help us to understand others a little bit better, but we should also be willing to change our perceptions of others based on what they say and do, rather than hold onto rigid, unhelpful or even discriminatory stereotypes.

While it’s not possible to always be 100% ourselves around others, the more authentic we can be the more we will feel energised around others and connected with them. Similarly, we shouldn’t always act calm if we really are upset or angry or worried and need to express our feelings or what we need. What we can do is express this in a way that is still kind and considerate so that you don’t unnecessarily burn any bridges.

Thanks for reading! For more advice on a good life, feel free to check out some of my other articles, especially: Can We Develop Our Own Guide to Better Living?; 10 Bits of Advice I’d Give My 10-Year-Old Self; Ten Traits of Highly Successful People; 25 Ideas That Could Change Your Life.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Is it Better to be Completely Honest, a Strategic Truth-Teller or an Occasional Liar?

I used to lie a lot growing up. Not quite as bad as Holden Caulfield in ‘The Catcher in the Rye’:
I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s awful. If I’m on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable to say I’m going to the opera. It’s terrible.
J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
But still pretty bad.
atmosphere branch cold dark
I remember lying to my mum about cleaning my room so that I could go outside to play (instead pushing all the mess under the bed or throwing it in the wardrobe).
I remember lying about doing my homework so that I didn’t have to do it and could play video games, then lying about being sick the next day so that I could finish the assignment that I was meant to do the night before.
I remember lying about how many points I scored in basketball to friends, or about how many alcoholic drinks I had to my parents whenever they picked me up from a high school party.
I even remember lying to my brother’s friend about my surfing skills (I didn’t have any), and to a classmate about how many languages I spoke (I can say maybe 30 words in Indonesian, Spanish, and Italian, but not much more).
I think back to these moments, and I’m not proud of saying these things, but I can also understand why I did it.
I wish that I could have been a less lazy, more confident and self-assured kid who was always honest with his friends and strangers and did the right thing by his parents and teachers. But how realistic is that scenario, and is it even ideal?
The truth is always an insult or a joke. Lies are generally tastier. We love them. The nature of lies is to please. Truth has no concern for anyone’s comfort.
Katherine Dunn, Geek Love

person holding black dslr camera

Why Do People Lie?

We lie to:

  • fit in and pretend we are like others
  • stand out and pretend we are different to or better than others
  • seek approval from others
  • be seen as more loveable/desirable/acceptable
  • feel better about ourselves
  • avoid getting into trouble
  • protect other people’s feelings or avoid hurting them
  • be polite
  • avoid feeling hurt, sad, disappointed, guilty or ashamed
  • keep a secret
  • maintain confidentiality
  • be consistent with societal norms

I’m not upset that you lied to me, I’m upset that from now on I can’t believe you.
― Friedrich Nietzsche

What Happens if We Are 100% Honest?

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In the 1997 comedy ‘Liar Liar’, the main character is played by Jim Carrey. He’s a high flying lawyer who keeps disappointing his son Max by making promises to him that he can’t keep by always putting work as his first priority. After his dad doesn’t turn up to his birthday celebration, Max wishes for his dad to not be able to tell a lie, and the magic of movies makes this wish comes true.
What results is some hilarious situations in which Jim Carrey’s character gets himself into trouble for saying the whole truth when it would definitely be more polite to lie. This includes telling his secretary why he didn’t give her a pay rise, telling his boss that he has had better than her, and confessing to everyone in a crowded elevator that he was the one who did the smelly fart.
The moral of the story was two-fold:
  1. Sometimes it is necessary to lie, or at least not always be brutally honest and say everything that comes to your mind, and
  2. By trying to be as honest as possible whilst also being tactful, you may actually become a better person that upsets people less and has better quality and more authentic relationships.
One lie has the power to tarnish a thousand truths.
Al David

Radical Honesty

In 2007, A.J. Jacobs wrote an article for Esquire magazine about a month long experiment that he did on a small movement called Radical Honesty. It was titled ‘I Think You’re Fat‘ and is definitely worth a read. Much more than the 1995 book called ‘Radical Honesty’ by Brad Blanton that initially inspired the article:

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Blanton had worked as a psychotherapist for 35 years in Washington D.C. and ran 8-day workshops on Radical Honesty that retailed for $2,800 back in 2007. Blanton says his method works, although he may distort some of the positive benefits for personal and financial gain. He’s been married five times, and claims to have slept with more than 500 women and six men, including a “whole bunch of threesomes.” He also admits to lying sometimes.

She looks honestly upset, but then, I’ve learned that I can’t read her. The problem with a really excellent liar is that you have to just assume they’re always lying.
Holly Black, Black Heart

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I Think You’re Fat

In Jacobs article, he wasn’t overly positive about Blanton’s version of Radical Honesty either. If we didn’t have a filter between what we say and what we notice in the world, in our body and in our thoughts like Blanton advocates, the results would probably be less funny and more consequential than what happened to Jim Carrey in ‘Liar Liar’. Jacobs declares:

Without lies, marriages would crumble, workers would be fired, egos would be shattered, governments would collapse.” – A.J. Jacobs

Jacobs found it impossible to not tell a lie during his month long experiment, but did cut down his lying by at least 40%. He also scared a five year-old girl, offended numerous people, and spoke about sex and attraction to the point where he felt creepy.

On the positive, being radically honest did save Jacobs time, resulting in him having to talk less to the people he didn’t want to talk to and do less of the things he didn’t want to do. It saved him mental energy by not having to choose how much he would lie or massage the truth. It also meant that people were usually more honest with him in return, and he found out that his relationships could withstand more truth telling than he expected. So, similar to the ‘Liar Liar’ take-away message, Jacobs concluded:

  1. Being radically honest all the time and never having a filter is likely to be inappropriate in many settings and lead to more confrontations with others, and
  2. We could probably benefit by being more authentic, honest and truthful with others, especially in intimate relationships, as secrets tend to weigh us down.

There is beauty in truth, even if it’s painful. Those who lie, twist life so that it looks tasty to the lazy, brilliant to the ignorant, and powerful to the weak. But lies only strengthen our defects. They don’t teach anything, help anything, fix anything or cure anything. Nor do they develop one’s character, one’s mind, one’s heart or one’s soul.
José N. Harris

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What is a Lie?

In his interesting small book ‘Lying’, Sam Harris defines a lie as:

anything that is done to intentionally mislead others when they expect honest communication.” – Sam Harris

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Omission vs Commission

In ‘Lying’, Sam Harris distinguishes between lies of commission, where the person is active in their intent to deceive, and the more passive act of omission, where the person fails to do something or say something that they probably should. Both commission and omission are deceptive, in that they are both misleading to the audience or person who is the target of the action or lack of action.

Harris believes that lies of commission are a more serious violation of ethics and likely to be more harmful, just like pushing someone in front of a train is a more serious ethical violation than not saving someone who was hit by a train when you had a chance to do so.

Harris argues for people to stop all forms of commission, and says that we can enhance our world, build trust and improve relationships by always being honest in our communication. While he believes that omission is also lying, he does not believe that we can or should eliminate all forms of omission. He says that “skillful truth-telling” is sometimes required, so that we can be both honest and tactful in our words and avoid causing unnecessary harm.

Lets have a look at the following three examples to see the difference between radical honesty, lying and skillful truth-telling.

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SCENARIO ONE: Your husband asks if he looks fat in an outfit that you honestly believe it isn’t flattering for him. You could say:

A) “Yeah. You do look fat. I’d say about 10 pounds overweight. Maybe you should skip dessert for a while.”

B) “Not at all sweety. You look amazing!”

C) “You look nice, but I think I prefer the black jumper and blue jeans I bought you a few weeks ago. Want to try that on and see which one you feel better in?”

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SCENARIO TWO: Your sister and her family are in town for the week and decide to stay at your place for the whole time because they want to save money. You don’t dislike them, but also don’t feel like you have heaps in common, and you’d really prefer to be catching up on your work that you are behind on. On night four she notices that you are a little tense and asks if you mind them staying there. You could say:

A) “I kind of do. I wish you weren’t so tight and could have paid for a hotel if you were going to stay more than 3 nights. A week is really pushing it and I’d prefer you left.”

B) “Mind? Are you kidding? I love it. The more the merrier I always say! Stay for as long as you’d like.”

C) “It’s a busy week for me in terms of work, so it wasn’t ideal timing for me. If I seem a bit tense, I’m sorry. I do want to be able to help you guys out because family means a lot to me.”

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SCENARIO THREE: You’ve been unemployed for six months and get a job interview to wait tables at a restaurant in town. You’d ideally prefer an acting job. The boss of the restaurant asks what your career plans are, as they really want to hire someone who is going to stick around. You could say:

A) “Well, acting has always been my passion, so this is really just a stop-gap job to pay the bills and put food on the table. I couldn’t care less about the job or your restaurant. I just want a regular paycheck so that I can pay my rent and bills until I get a real job.”

B) “I’d love to become a professional waiter. I’ve always thought that to provide great service to people is my calling in life, and I plan on sticking around for at least five years and show everyone just how amazing your restaurant is. I’m in it for the long-haul.”

C) “I’m not too sure about what will happen with my career, but at this stage I’d really like to be able to work here. I am available seven days a week and will put in 100% effort whenever when I am on shift. I am also willing to learn whatever skills are required, and I can promise that I will give you as much notice as possible if my plans ever do change in the future.”

In each of these scenarios, A is the radically honest response, B is the active lying or commission response and C is the skillful truth-telling response. While no actual lies are being said in the C answers, not everything is being said, which is technically omission.

Many people still believe that omissions are a big no no:

When truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie.
Yevgeny Yevtushenko

A lie that is half-truth is the darkest of all lies.
Alfred Tennyson

At times to be silent is to lie. You will win because you have enough brute force. But you will not convince. For to convince you need to persuade. And in order to persuade you would need what you lack: Reason and Right.
Miguel de Unamuno

People think that a liar gains a victory over his victim. What I’ve learned is that a lie is an act of self-abdication, because one surrenders one’s reality to the person to whom one lies, making that person one’s master, condemning oneself from then on to faking the sort of reality that person’s view requires to be faked…The man who lies to the world, is the world’s slave from then on…There are no white lies, there is only the blackest of destruction, and a white lie is the blackest of all.
Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

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Is it Ever Helpful to Lie to Ourselves?

The short answer is yes. It has been found that it is psychologically healthier to be slightly optimistic than to be completely realistic. Research indicates that people with depression are often more realistic in their appraisals of situations and other people’s judgments of them than people without depression. Most “healthy people” believe that, in comparison to the average person, they are better drivers, more intelligent, better workers, better parents and better lovers.

The main reasons people lie to themselves is they like to feel that they are important and maybe a little bit more unique or special than they really are. To prove this point, how would you feel if someone told you that you were just “average”? People also like to see themselves as a good person who behaves in particular ways for good reasons. Even people that consistently cause harm to themselves or others.

Anyone with an unhealthy addiction becomes an expert at lying to both themselves and others. This secrecy and dishonesty only further fuels the sense of depression, shame and guilt that people with an addiction would feel, as long as they are actually in touch with the whole truth of the situation and the consequences of their actions. Most addicts are not however, thanks to in-built defense mechanisms.

Defense mechanisms are mostly subconscious or unconscious methods that we engage in to protect our ego or positive sense of self. Some of the more famous ones are denial, humour, repression, suppression, rationalisation, intellectualisation, projection, displacement, regression, and my personal favourite, reaction formation (click here for a full description of these defense mechanisms and how to identify yours). Most people will deny engaging in defense mechanisms if you ask them directly about it, but they’ll also be able to easily tell you that other people do. The reality is we all lie to ourselves at times, and maybe we need to in order to maintain a “healthy” outlook on ourselves, others, the world and our future.

The visionary lies to himself, the liar only to others.
Friedrich Nietzsche

I lie to myself all the time. But I never believe me.
S.E. Hinton, The Outsiders

The best lies about me are the ones I told.
Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

Anybody who says they are a good liar obviously is not, because any legitimately savvy liar would always insist they’re honest about everything.
Chuck Klosterman

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So What Can We Do?

The most accurate recommendations that I could find on lying were also some of the simplest:

If you don’t want to slip up tomorrow, speak the truth today.
Bruce Lee
If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.
Mark Twain

I tend to agree with Sam Harris that it is a worthwhile aim to try to never be actively dishonest. This approach is also consistent with one of Jordan Peterson’s better rules from his ’12 Rules for Life’ book – Rule #8: “Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie“.

The philosopher Robin Devenport wouldn’t agree with either Harris or Peterson. He states:

“it is impossible for anyone to be truly honest about many things, as long as he (or she) carries biased perspectives, hidden resentments, unresolved longings, unacknowledged insecurities, or a skewed view of self, to name just some inner human conditions… if absolute honesty is impossible, then we are all liars by nature, at least to a degree.”

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Dan Ariely also concludes in his excellent book ‘The Honest Truth about Dishonesty’ that we all tend to lie to everyone, especially ourselves. We lie only as much as we know we can get away with, but not so much that it becomes hard to keep seeing ourselves as a good person.

Devenport continues:

“Perhaps the best we can do, then, is only to lie in ways that are intended to promote another’s well-being or spare her unnecessary pain, and so further our integrity. The ‘noble liar’ is someone who tries to live by good intentions, even if that means intentionally lying to another person, if doing so is the lesser of two evils…Before we cast too harsh a judgment on the liar, let’s first understand what his motives are.” – Robin Devenport

We all need to try to be as honest as we can, especially with those that we love, and make sure that when we do lie, it is for a good reason. We also need to realise that it will never be possible to be 100% honest about everything to anyone, including ourselves, and that is okay. Other people won’t be 100% honest with you or themselves either, and that doesn’t make them bad people. It’s what we lie about and why that really matters. 
Dr Damon Ashworth
Clinical Psychologist

Our Environment Makes More of a Difference to Our Health and Mental State Than We Realise

It’s been over 9 months now since I moved to Vanuatu to volunteer as a Clinical Psychologist with the Port Vila Central Hospital and the Vanuatu Government’s Ministry of Health. That means that I am over a third of the way through my volunteer experience.

The first 1-2 months were challenging and a little overwhelming with so many new things to learn and new people to meet. I was also feeling a bit guilty about the people that I had left behind to have this experience. Especially my old jobs in private practice and the patients that I had there.

Once I settled in however, the following 7 months have been some of the best times of my life. I’m not pushing myself too hard anymore, am experiencing a great variety of opportunities with my volunteering work, helping people where I can, and developing some excellent friendships too.

About two months ago, I returned from a two-week trip to Australia to attend my sister’s wedding. It was my first time going back to Melbourne since moving to Port Vila, and I was really excited to go back, but also curious to see if things felt any different after not being there for the prior 8 months.

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Before I left Melbourne in August 2018, I was burning out. I had been highly productive and efficient with my work and was cramming a lot in to every day and every week, but I was also stressed out and exhausted, and my elevated blood pressure and constant fatigue were pretty solid indicators that the lifestyle that I had was not going to be sustainable forever. I was also beginning to feel more isolated and disconnected from others, and wondered if this was just a sign of the times, my age, or my environment.

Moving to Vanuatu for 2 years was the perfect way to find out. Port Vila is a really social place if you want it to be, as people are always willing to stop for a chat or a drink at one of the 400+ nakamals in town. Vanuatu is also said to run on “island time”, which means that Port Vila operates at a much more leisurely pace then Melbourne. This isn’t so great if you want your 3-on-3 basketball tournament to start on time, but pretty great for reducing stress as long as you don’t worry too much about things that are out of your control.

The first thing that highlighted to me how much more relaxed I am in Vila is that when it came time to wrap up work to fly to Australia for my sister’s wedding, I felt so refreshed already that I didn’t even feel like I needed to have the holiday. That had never happened to me before.

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The moment I arrived back in Melbourne however, I felt stressed again, and shortly after that, tired. I don’t know if it was staying in the city, but a lot of people were rushing and agitated both on the road and walking around. Everyone seemed to be on a personal mission to get from point A to point B as fast as they could because they had important things to do and important people to see. Even I began to get caught up in this way of thinking within a day or two, and it was hard to unwind and relax.

People in Melbourne also seemed to be off in their own world of headphones and smartphones, with very little interaction with anyone on the street. The few strangers that I did smile at or say hello to looked at me like I was weird, and I was like “oh, yeah…we don’t acknowledge other people here!”

Reverse cultural shock is a real thing. Sometimes it does take a while to adjust back, even longer than it takes to adjust to a new culture in a new place. People from Melbourne often expect Asia or South America or Africa to feel different when they first travel there. It is a much weirder experience for things to feel unusual in the place where you grew up.

My sister’s wedding was beautiful and heartwarming, and I couldn’t be happier for her and her new husband. It was amazing to see a lot of my friends and family again, and I do hope to stay in touch with all of the important people in my life from Melbourne.

I just don’t know if I still call Australia home.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Could You Develop Your Own Guide to Better Living?

The Making of a Genius?

In 1726, at the young age of 20, Benjamin Franklin came up with a list of thirteen virtues that he wanted to live his life by. He then carried around a small booklet so that he could track his daily and weekly progress against these virtues.

An example of this tracking system as well as a description of these virtues was included in ‘The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin’:

 

T = Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

S = Silence: Speak not but what benefits others or yourself. Avoid trifling conversation.

O = Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have it’s time.

R = Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

F = Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.

I = Industry: Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

S = Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and if you speak, speak accordingly.

J = Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.

M = Moderation: Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

C = Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes or habitation.

T = Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

C = Chastity: Never use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation

H = Humility: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

That’s a pretty intense list to try and follow, and Franklin never seemed to achieve them all on any day if you look at his chart above. Maybe he still improved more from striving towards living by these virtues than if he hadn’t, even if he didn’t achieve them? It’s hard to know.

What we do know is that Benjamin Franklin managed to do a lot in his lifetime, and he excelled at nearly everything that he put his mind to. Most people still know who Franklin is nearly 300 years later and his face remains on the US $100 bill, so he must have done a few things right.

12 Rules for Life?

By now, a lot of you have probably heard of Jordan B Peterson and his immensely popular self-help book ’12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos’.

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Here are his 12 rules, which make up the chapters of the book:

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back
  2. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you
  4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
  5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
  6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
  7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
  8. Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie
  9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
  10. Be precise in your speech
  11. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
  12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

I notice some overlap between Peterson’s rules and Franklin’s virtues. # 8 and 10 from Peterson is very similar to Sincerity and Silence from Franklin. # 2 and 7 from Peterson is similar to Industry and Resolution from Franklin. # 6 is similar to Order and Tranquility from Franklin. Franklin’s list is more personal and focused on self-discipline and resisting excess, whereas Peterson’s list mentions children and animals.

Looking at the two lists, I’d take Franklin’s virtues over Peterson’s rules any day if I had to choose between the two as my guiding principles for life.

People seem to love Peterson at the moment not because his rules are what we should all live by, but because he is well read, intelligent, articulate and confident. He is very sure of himself and not afraid to say things exactly how he sees it, which makes him a strong thought leader in a time of confusion and minimal external input into what a positive and meaningful life actually consists of.

But what if rather than trying to adopt Franklin’s or Peterson’s rules to our own lives, we could actually learn how to come up with our own principles and virtues for better living?

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How Do We Develop Our Own Guiding Principles in Life?

It is possible to develop your own guide to a better life in only three steps…

STEP ONE: Who am I?

In order to know what we want, we first need to figure out who we are (or more accurately, what we see ourselves to be).

STEP TWO: What do I care about?

Once we know who we are, we must then figure out what is important or meaningful to us (and what isn’t).

STEP THREE: How do I show that I care about these things?

We then need to figure out what actions we need to take and what systems or habits we can develop that will help us to live consistently by these values.

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STEP ONE

Our identity, or who we see ourselves to be, often consists of many factual things. It may include our name, our family, our nationality, our ethnicity or racial background, our culture, our class, our friends, our relationship status, our sexuality, our gender, our religious beliefs, where we live, where we work, what we do for work, what our interests and hobbies are, and what we like to do for fun or to relax. Most people can answer these questions fairly easily.

Different factors can shape the overall identity of one person much more than they do for others. A cisgender straight white male may not consider that his gender, race, sexuality or culture play a big role in his identity, but these factors could be huge for someone who is non-gender conforming or sexually fluid or from a minority cultural or religious group in the country that they live in and have suffered stigma or discrimination as a result.

1a. Take a personality test to help answer the question “Who am I?”

No matter what is important to you, it is important for everyone to construct a cohesive narrative or story about who they are. If you are getting stuck in describing what your personality is, there are a number of tests out there that can help you. Peterson and I both agree that the five-factor personality model is probably the best personality test for the average person who is trying to understand themselves better. It can be completed for free at this website.

An individual’s scores on Extroversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism and Openness to Experience are fairly consistent across their lives, so knowing where you sit on the spectrum of each one of these facets is a helpful way to get to know yourself better. It can also help you to work with who you are rather than against yourself when designing your own principles for better living.

Looking at my last IPIP-NEO results, here are my percentile scores on each of the five factors, ranked from highest to lowest:

  • Openness to Experience: 95th percentile
  • Agreeableness: 90th percentile
  • Extroversion: 74th percentile
  • Conscientiousness: 74th percentile
  • Neuroticism: 13th percentile

Here are all facets that I am in the top 11% in comparison to other males of my age from Australia:

  • Cooperation…… 99th percentile
  • Liberalism………… 97th percentile
  • Adventurousness…… 95th percentile
  • Emotionality……… 90th percentile
  • Altruism………… 90th percentile
  • Trust……………… 90th percentile
  • Activity Level………… 90th percentile
  • Intellect…………… 89th percentile

WHO AM I?

DESCRIPTIVE INFORMATION: I’m Damon Ashworth. I’m the middle child in my family, with an older brother and a younger sister. My parents are still happily married and we all get along fairly well. I am a dual citizen of Australia and the United States of America, but have spent the majority of my life in Melbourne, Australia. I am of Caucasian descent. My parents were both teachers, so that makes me from the middle class I guess. My friends are predominantly from Melbourne, but I’ve made some friends when I lived in the US for two years and some good friends since moving to Vanuatu too. I am currently volunteering in Vanuatu for two years as a Clinical Psychologist with the Ministry of Health and at the Vila Central Hospital. I identify as straight male and I am currently in a happy monogamous relationship with my girlfriend. I have been baptized as a Christian, but do not attend any religious services. I love reading non-fiction books, listening to podcasts, playing basketball, volleyball and tennis, being creative through my writing and making music and movies. I love hip hop and some mainstream music, horror and comedy movies, and stand up comedy. I also love to be active, get outside and visit new places on holidays, and travel and snow ski when I can afford it.

PERSONALITY PROFILE: I am extremely high in openness to a variety of experience, including cultural, intellectual, emotional, and physical. I am very high in agreeableness and tend to do whatever it takes to have positive relationships with other people. I will always try to co-operate with others if I can. I like to challenge convention and try to help bring about progressive change. I prefer a lot of variety in my life and like to go on adventures. I am highly attuned to my emotions and the emotions of others around me, and try to remain open to whatever it is that I am feeling. I enjoy helping others when they need it. I trust others easily, and strongly believe that most people are generally good and not out to harm others. I have lived a pretty fast paced life, and care about being both efficient and effective. I love to have in-depth discussions with others, and enjoy playing with ideas and reflecting on important aspects of life through meditative practices and my writing.

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STEP TWO

Finding out what you care about is through the process of clarifying your values. Values are guiding principles in life that we cannot achieve like a goal, but make a choice to live by each day. Someone who values honesty is not living in a way that is consistent with what matters to them the moment they tell a lie, but is being consistent as soon as they go back to telling the truth. By clarifying which values are most important to us, we can then know when we have gone off track, and what we need to do to get back on.

2a. Engage in thought experiments to elucidate what is most important to you

An interesting experiential method to help patient’s identify their top values if they aren’t sure what they are is to write their obituary. For this, they would write what they hope would be said about them if they were to die after a long and good life. Every time I think of writing my epitaph, all I come up with is “Here lies Damon. He tried his best.” This tells me that one of my core values is applying myself to be the best that I can be.

If writing your obituary seems too dark or morbid, try to imagine your birthday party at least 20 years from now (I choose my 70th birthday). All of your closest friends and family are there. The most important person in your life gets up and makes a speech about the type of person that you have been from today until then (over the past 20+ years). What do you want to hear them say? It can be a powerful exercise that often brings tears to people’s eyes, and helps them to realize the type of person that they most want to be going forward, both to themselves and to others.

2b. Take a strengths survey to identify your key strengths or top virtues

If neither of the above exercises interest you or help to highlight your core values, the Values In Action (VIA) Character Strengths Survey can. It ranks your strengths from 24th to 1st, and is quite useful in elucidating what you may want your guiding principles in life to be. It can be found at this website.

My Top Strengths

Based on my 2018 findings, my top nine strengths are as follows:

  • 9: Honesty, Authenticity and Genuineness 
  • 8: Forgiveness and Mercy
  • 7: Fairness, Equity and Justice
  • 6: Creativity, Ingenuity and Originality
  • 5: Judgment, Critical Thinking and Open-Mindedness
  • 4: Humour and Playfulness
  • 3: Kindness and Generosity 
  • 2: Curiosity and Interest in the World
  • 1: Love of Learning

My Top Virtues

Based on my 2018 findings, my top virtues are as follows:

  • Wisdom – Average score = 6.2
  • Humanity – Average score = 8.33
  • Justice – Average score = 13.33
  • Transcendence – Average score = 13.4

WHAT DO I CARE ABOUT?

I care about being an honest person. I care about living my life in an authentic and genuine way and being a “real” person with everyone that I interact with. I care about forgiveness and being compassionate to those who have wronged me. I care about trying to be fair to others, and not let my decisions or actions be biased by my feelings. I try to give everyone at least one chance, and sometimes more unless it is obvious that the other person does not want things to be equal or fair too. I care about challenging convention and thinking of new and more efficient or effective ways to do things. I care about not jumping to conclusions and looking at the evidence and things from multiple perspectives before deciding what the best thing is to do. I care about being able to say that I am sorry and that I was wrong or being open to changing my mind if evidence to the contrary is presented. I care about not always being serious, and being playful and having fun and laughing or smiling with others. I care about being generous and kind with others, and giving them my time and help and undivided attention if it is possible to do so. I care about learning new things and continuing to develop my knowledge and skills in a variety of subjects and topics. I care about maintaining my curiosity and awe, growing as a person and gaining wisdom, and using what I have learned to help out humanity where possible. This may be individually, or on a larger scale.

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STEP THREE

Finally, we need to assess how much we have been living consistently with our core values or key strengths. In other words, how much are you currently being the person you want to be, and what changes can you make to move more in the right direction going forward?

3a. Do the Bullseye Exercise to assess where you are currently at

The Bullseye exercise, first created by Swedish ACT Therapist Tobias Lundgren, is the best way to determine if you are living consistently with your values in four key areas of your life: 1. school or work, 2. leisure or recreation, 3. personal growth or health, and 4. relationships (including with friends and family).

Keep your core values or key strengths in mind and say whether you have been fully consistent with these values in this area of your life (a bullseye) or if you have lost touch with your values (all the way at the outer circle), or anywhere in between. A full worksheet can be downloaded here, or you can imagine placing an X somewhere in each quadrant in the picture below:

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3b. Set up some sustainable systems and/or goals that would make it so you are living more consistent with your core values and strengths in each key area of your life.

Once you have identified where you stand on each quadrant of the bullseye, ask yourself what you can do over the next 1-2 weeks (short-term), next 1-3 months (medium-term) or next 6-18 months (long-term) that would help you to feel like you are living more consistently with your core values or key strengths. This could be designing a new system of working, eating, sleeping, or it could be goals and targets.

If you do set goals, make sure that are SMART:

SMART-Goals

HOW DO I SHOW THAT I CARE?

Work is going really well for me, although it would help to set weekly goals for myself, and assess my progress against these goals to determine my efficiency and productivity. I will do this each Monday morning at 8am. For leisure, we have been visiting beaches more frequently recently, and I want to get to the beach at least once each weekend if possible with other people so that we can enjoy our time together. I want to see new beaches at least once a month if possible too so that I explore different parts of Vanuatu. For relationships, I want to schedule in time in my calendar each month that is just dedicated to keeping in touch with all my family and friends back in Australia. Lastly, for personal growth and health, I have not been as active as I would like to be, and my lower back has been sore as a result. I want to get back into swimming at least once a week, and stretch every time I go to the gym or play basketball too.

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As you take action towards achieving your goals or putting your systems into place, you are showing yourself and others that you know who you are and what is important to you. You will begin to feel that you are heading in the right direction towards a more personally meaningful and satisfying life. You will have created your own guide to better living!

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

10 Bits of Advice I’d Give My 10-Year-Old Self

When I was ten, I was in grade four at primary school. I was one of the tallest kids in the class, and fairly skinny and uncoordinated.

I loved sport and computer games. I enjoyed living where I did in the north-east suburbs of Melbourne and had some good friends that I spent a lot of time with.

I hated school, talking on the phone, doing chores around the house, and my little sister. I also tried to take sick days from school fairly regularly with a sore tummy that I only realised years later was actually anxiety. I’d had a horrible teacher the year before who really didn’t seem to like me, and had no idea how to cope.

Here are the first ten thoughts that come to mind that I would say to myself if I could go back in time and have a chat with my ten-year-old self:

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1. Before you do anything else, breathe

I know you worry a lot and stress yourself out by overthinking, but you don’t have to have all the answers yet, or maybe ever. Before you do something you may regret, stop, take ten slow, deep breaths into and out of your belly, and try to breathe out all the air with each breath. Then see how you feel and what you can do.

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2. Focus on one thing at a time

I know that you feel that you have too many things to do and not enough time. But multi-tasking is a myth and will just stress you out more. Determine whatever it is that is most important to you in any given moment, and then try to put all of your intention and effort into that until it is complete, or you need to take a break or have a rest or something more important comes along.

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3. Don’t always believe what your thoughts tell you

I know that you personalise things a lot and catastrophise or imagine the worst. Some things are your fault, but many things are not. You are not “bad” or “evil”, but you can do some pretty mean things if you want to. You’re also probably not going to die about the homework assignment that you forgot to save on your computer. Start meditating 10 minutes a day before you go to bed, and you will be successfully understanding your thoughts and managing your emotions in no time.

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4. Write things down

I know you feel that your mum and dad don’t always understand you, but you can learn to understand yourself through reflection. Write down 3 things that you are grateful for every day. Make a plan to address any concerns or worries that you have before they all build up and becoming overwhelming for you. If you spend 5-10 minutes every day writing in a journal, you won’t regret it.  Also, learn how to use a calendar or diary as soon as you can. Good organisational habits now will make life much easier for you later on.

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5. Don’t forget to have fun

I know that you are super competitive and hate to lose, but basketball, swimming, tennis, baseball or any other sport that you do is meant to be fun. Practice isn’t always fun as that’s focused on helping you to get better, but if you don’t enjoy competing or playing the games, find another sport that you think you will enjoy, and put more time into that. You are not going to be a professional athlete who gets paid, and that is okay. Sport is a very healthy hobby to have, and if you can enjoy it, it’s even better.

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6. It’s okay to make mistakes, get rejected or fail

I know that you struggle not being very good at something. Even though it doesn’t feel that good to be a novice or a beginner, the only way to become good at something is to first be okay at sucking at it. If you can persist through the sucking part, you will become a lot better over time, and not suck so much eventually, and probably even enjoy it. Keep playing and practicing guitar and trombone, keep drawing and being creative, and pay attention in Italian class. It’s pretty cool to be able to make art and speak multiple languages, and easier to learn when you are still young. Also, take French at high school, not Indonesian.

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7. Keep reading and learning outside of school

I know you don’t like school much at the moment, but don’t just let your teachers dictate to you what you should learn. If something interests you, explore it further. If you have questions that you want to answer, see if you can find the answers in books. There are a lot of wise people that have clarified their thoughts and written it down for you. Their words will help you a lot as you get older, and fostering curiousity and love of learning at your age is awesome. If mum wants to teach you how to cook, bake, clean, iron, sew, listen to her, watch what she does, try it and get feedback until you know what you are doing. Same goes with dad trying to teach you about sport, cars, gardening and making things with tools. You won’t regret having these skills once you move out on your own.

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8. Make time for friends and family

I know that playing video games is fun, but technology shouldn’t replace face-to-face contact with other people. Be interested in people more than you are in things. You will learn a lot from them, and it will make you happier if you are yourself and they appreciate you for it. Your family won’t always be around as much as they are now, so try to enjoy the time you have with them even though they can all be annoying at times. And be nice to your sister. It’s not her fault that she is cuter and more extraverted than you. She’ll actually turn out to be a pretty cool person and a good friend to you one day.

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9. Invest in index funds

I know that it is fun to spend money if you have it, but saving and investing doesn’t have to take much time and effort and is worth it. No matter how much money you earn or are given, put 10% aside and stick it into an index fund. The power of compounding interest means that you will be setting yourself up for your financial future, which will give you more freedom to do the things you want to do when you are older without having to worry about money. You probably won’t feel like you are sacrificing much, but the long-term benefit will be great.

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10. Try to be the best you that you can be; everyone else is taken

I know that you often compare yourself to others and don’t feel like you are as good or as lovable as them. The truth is you will never be as good as your brother at being your brother, so don’t even try. Rather than comparing yourself to who others are today, try to compare yourself to who you were yesterday. As long as you are striving to be a better person each day, that is all you can do, so be proud of yourself for who you are and for the effort that you put in. Although it doesn’t feel like it sometimes, know that mum and dad are proud of you and love you too, even if they don’t always show it in the way that you want them to. Your life is going to be pretty cool in the future, and it doesn’t just get harder and harder, so try not to worry about the future too much. Focus on what is in your control each day, and the future will take care of itself!

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

 

Why 18 is the New 15: The Negative Consequences of Always Wanting Our Children to Feel Special and Safe

Back in 1970, children were thought to be ready to enter Grade One at Primary or Elementary School when they could travel independently around their neighbourhood for 4-8 blocks from their house.

This included 6-year-olds being able to go to the shops and buy things by themselves, or walk or ride to school if it was close enough, and knowing how to explain to a police officer where they lived if they were asked.

These days, the police officer would probably arrest the parents for neglect if a 6-year-old child was found 4 blocks from home by themselves.

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Times have changed, but is this always a good thing for our children?

I remember having a lot of freedom growing up. My mother would let me and my siblings play down at the park by ourselves that was two blocks away from our house. I think my brother was 7 or 8, I was 5, and my sister was 2 or 3. We weren’t entirely alone. We had a pet Rottweiler watch over us too, and “she never would have let anyone hurt you kids!” according to my mother.

We rode or walked ourselves to and from school when my brother was in grade 5, I was in grade 3, and my sister was in grade 1. It wasn’t just a bike path either. We had to ride on roads, cross over a river and railway tracks, and not even at a designated crossing. Both my parents had to work though, so it was just what was done.

After school, we’d come home, open the door by ourselves, make a snack, and play some games or watch TV until our parents came back from work. We were “latch key kids”, and I don’t think we minded too much at all.

Growing up, we played outside unsupervised by adults all the time. Running around with the other kids on the street, playing a sport or making up games, having waterbomb fights during the day or playing spotlight at night. We’d ride to the milkbar whenever we felt like icecream or snack, and even did a paper round in the neighbourhood with my brother a few times well before we were old enough to legally work.

Granted, there were a few scraped knees, and maybe some storm drains that we shouldn’t have gone down. But I knew how to make my way all over town to all my friend’s places on a bike by my 10th birthday. To me, exploring places either by foot or on my bike with my friends and without any parents around were some of the best memories of my childhood.

boy riding of bicycle

Fast forward to 2019, and most children will have to wait until they leave their family home to get the same amount of unsupervised time outside that I had before I was a teenager. They spend less time hanging out with their friends in person, and any time that they do spend is likely to be supervised by their parents or done alongside them, even when they go to the local shopping mall.

In her excellent book, ‘iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood’, the author Jean Twenge says that as a result of the reduced freedom for our youth, the typical 18-year-old in 2019 is similar in maturity levels to what a 15-year-old was back in 1970.

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Children and Adolescents these days are less capable of living, socialising or working independently than the previous generations, and are suffering more psychologically as a result.

Depression, anxiety, narcissism and deliberate self-harm have all been increasing, and dramatically so since 2012. This also happens to coincide with the widespread proliferation of smartphones into our society.

If parents should be concerned about anything when it comes to the safety of their children, it is about what they are getting up to online. Adolescent girls appear to be particularly impacted by the introduction of the smartphone and the increased usage of social media that comes with this. Suicide rates among teenage girls have risen to the point where they are now similar to suicide rates in boys of the same age.

What would you prefer to instil in a child?

A. A conviction that they are amazing, just the way they are?

or

B. A belief that they can face and overcome most of the challenges that they face in life if they learn from setbacks and feedback and apply themselves?

Yoy may answer both, but if you had to choose one, what would it be?

Self-esteem (A), which is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as:

“a confidence and satisfaction in oneself”

or

Self-efficacy (B), which Psychologist Albert Bandura defined as:

“the belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the sources of action required to manage prospective situations.”

After decades of research, we now know that primarily focusing on building a child’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem (A) at the expense of improving their capacity and self-efficacy (B) in learning and doing things by themselves can have some adverse side effects.

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Research on Self-Esteem:

LOW SELF-ESTEEM IS NOT GREAT

  • Low self-esteem is linked with increased violence, teenage pregnancy, suicide, low academic achievement and increased rates of school dropout (Misetich & Delis-Abrams, 2003)
  • Living alone, being unemployed, having low socioeconomic status or having a disability is linked to lower self-esteem (von Soest, Wagner, Hansen & Gerstorf, 2018)
  • 70% of girls believe that they are not good enough or don’t measure up in some way (Dove Self-Esteem Fund, 2008)
  • Teenagers with low self-esteem have less resilience and a greater sense of hopelessness (Karatas, 2011)

HEALTHY LEVELS OF SELF-ESTEEM IS BENEFICIAL

  • People with healthy self-esteem are more resilient and able to respond helpfully and adaptively to disappointment, failure and obstacles (Allegiance Health, 2015)
  • In China, self-esteem significantly predicted life satisfaction (Chen, Cheung, Bond & Leung, 2006)
  • School programs that build self-esteem in primary school children also reduce problem behaviours and strengthen connections between the students (Park & Park, 2014)

HIGH SELF-ESTEEM ISN’T ALWAYS A POSITIVE

  • Abraham Maslow put self-esteem as a need in his hierarchy of needs pyramid. However, later in his career, he noted that individuals with high self-esteem are more apt to come late to appointments, be less respectful, more casual, more forward, more condescending, more likely to accept an offered cigarette, and much more willing to make themselves comfortable without bidding or invitation
  • Carl Rogers, another Humanistic Psychologist, got so sick of new staff coming into his Western Behavioural Sciences Institute with no desire or ability to work, that he once sent out a letter that said “less self-esteem please; more self-discipline!”
  • People with fragile or shallow high self-esteem are no better off than individuals with low self-esteem. They engage in exaggerated tendencies to protect, defend and enhance their feelings of self-worth (Kernis, 2008)
  • Academic performance is weakly related to self-esteem, with some students doing worse academically after their self-esteem increased (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger & Vohs, 2005)

Baumeister has looked extensively into the issues with some types of high self-esteem. He found that:

  • Students with high self-esteem tend to overestimate their abilities. They also like to boast to others about what they can do
  • High self-esteem doesn’t make people more attractive to others, it just makes the individual think they are more attractive
  • Bullies at school and work tend to have higher reported levels of self-esteem
  • People with high self-esteem are more likely to take risks and engage in unprotected sex. They have a tendency to be impulsive, and not think through the consequences of a decision before acting
  • People with high self-esteem are more likely to be prejudiced against others. They tend to be smug and superior when interacting with others
  • People with high self-esteem are less likely to work through and overcome relationship conflicts. They can be abusive in relationships, and assume their needs come first no matter what situation they are in
  • People with high self-esteem seem blind to their own faults and are less likely to learn from experience, change or improve themselves

Research on Self-Efficacy:

SELF-EFFICACY HELPS PEOPLE AT WORK

  • A meta-analysis of over 100 studies found a moderately strong correlation (.38) between self-efficacy and job performance (Stakjovic & Luthans, 1998)
  • Another meta-analysis found that high self-efficacy is related to better emotional stability and greater job satisfaction (Judge & Bono, 2001)
  • Greater self-efficacy leads to less burnout for teachers (Skaalvik & Skaalvik, 2007)
  • Increased self-efficacy in nurses can improve their work performance, reduce turnover rates and protect them from exhaustion (Fida, Laschinger & Leiter, 2018)

SELF-EFFICACY HELPS STUDENTS AT SCHOOL

  • High optimism and self-efficacy in students lead to better academic performance, greater coping with stress, better health, and more satisfaction with school (Chemers, Ju & Garcia, 2001)
  • Increased self-efficacy leads to more enthusiasm and commitment to learning in students who had previously been struggling to read (Margolis & McCabe, 2006)

SELF-EFFICACY CAN IMPROVE HEALTH OUTCOMES

  • Patients with cancer with high self-efficacy adjust to their diagnosis better and are more likely to adhere to their recommended treatment (Lev, 1997)
  • Patients with high self-efficacy who have joint replacement surgery exercise more frequently and improve their performance more after the surgery (Moon & Backer, 2000)
  • Improving self-efficacy can increase how much previously sedentary adults exercise, which then enhances their overall health (McAuley, 1992)
  • Parental self-efficacy can reduce the risk of postpartum depression in new mothers (Cutrona & Troutman, 1986)
  • Low self-efficacy is related to anxiety (including social anxiety and panic attacks) and depressive symptoms (Muris, 2002)

The Coddling of the American Mind

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This fascinating 2018 book by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt explains that we have fallen prey to three cognitive distortions that have made the children of the iGeneration less prepared for the real world, more narcissistic, and more likely to suffer from emotional and mental disorders.

The three cognitive biases are:

  1. What doesn’t kill us makes us weaker” – therefore we need to protect our children from everything and make sure that they are safe and free from emotional pain at all times,
  2. Always trust your feelings” – so if you feel something, it must be right, and if something offends or upsets you, it must be the other person’s fault, and
  3. The world is made up of good people and bad people” – therefore you must try to call out and take down anyone who has a different point of view because you are precisely right and they are clearly wrong.

We now try to protect children from all danger, monitor and structure all play so that children never get hurt or bullied, and avoid any type of criticism or activities that may dent their ego.

We tell them that whatever they think and feel must be right, and to believe in themselves. We say this even though Psychologists and Behavioural Economists know that there are nearly 100 different biases that the majority of humans fall into, including emotional reasoning, loss aversion, catastrophising and all-or-nothing thinking.

At schools, all children are made to feel like winners regardless of how they do, and they all receive participation awards or student of the week prizes at some point during the year so that no one feels left out or inferior. 40% more students now receive As for their subjects than they did in the 1970s, even though SAT scores have declined in this same timespan.

What Can We Do?

I’d rather have my children go to a school where teachers are more like Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. Here’s an excerpt from his excellent commencement address to his son’s year 9 graduating class in 2017:

From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice. I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty. Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted. I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either. And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then, your opponent will gloat over your failure. It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship. I hope you’ll be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion. Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.

I want our kids to learn life lessons that help them to gain the skills and knowledge required to function as an independent adult in the world.

I want children to be both physically and mentally healthy and suffer less from emotional and psychological disorders.

I want them to develop high self-efficacy and a belief that they can do something by trial-and-error and effort rather than assuming that they are great no matter what they are able to do.

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How Do We Build Self-Efficacy?

According to Bandura and Akhtar (2008), there are four main ways to build self-efficacy in our children’s lives. We can do this through:

  1. Mastery experiences: Ensure that your child has regular opportunities to take on and tackle new and challenging tasks that are just outside their current level of comfort and competence. By pushing themselves with these tasks, they will grow and gain in self-efficacy more than if they just keep repeating something that they already know how to do.
  2. Vicarious experiences: Ensure that your children have positive role models or mentors that they can observe doing the things you want to them to know how to do. This could be you, another family member, a friend of yours or a coach. Because you are likely to spend more time with them than other people, it is essential to model the behaviours, mindset and skills you want them to learn. If you do this, they can learn from you, emulate what you do, and then get feedback from you on how they are going and how they can keep improving these skills.
  3. Verbal persuasion: The type of words that are used in self-talk and with others can play a significant role in how much self-efficacy one feels that they have. Like Dr Carol Dweck says in promoting a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset, we need to praise effort and what children do (their actions and intentions) rather than who they are as a person or what the outcome was. This builds up a greater desire to want to take on more challenging tasks in the future instead of the fear of being wrong, not succeeding, or not being “smart enough”.
  4. Emotional and physiological states: We need to focus on the overall mental and physical health and well-being of children too. If they are sick, tired, sleepy, hungry, stressed, depressed or anxious, it will be more challenging for them to maintain a high level of self-efficacy, and belief in their ability to successfully tackle a challenge will decrease. By helping children to look after the other areas of their health, they are more likely to have the energy and confidence to take on whatever is in front of them, overcome setbacks, and persist until they have achieved their goals.

For more information and ideas on how to help kids to build resilience and self-efficacy, please visit the Let Grow website or learn more about the Free Range Kids’ Movement.

Crime rates are now at their lowest point since 1963. Thanks to a multitude of societal changes, your children are definitely safer than you were growing up, and yet they have way less freedom. Would you be willing to supervise your children a bit less and let them do more by themselves or with their friends if it helped them to grow into independent, resilient and capable adults?

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Why Bother Overcoming Fears?

Last weekend I managed to successfully complete my PADI Open Water SCUBA Diver Course:

PADI Temporary Card

Open Water Diver
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Name: Damon K. Ashworth

Diver No.: 1902AA8575
Cert Date: 16-Feb-2019
Instructor Number: 305944
Store/Resort Name:Big Blue
Store Number:36279
This person has satisfactorily met the standards for this certification level as set forth by PADI.
It was a pretty big challenge for me since I don’t really like being on boats and find it scary just swimming out in the middle of the ocean. I did it though because a close friend asked me if I would be her dive buddy for the course, and I thought that there would be no better opportunity than when I am already living in Vanuatu, home to some of the best dive sites in the world.
To get your Open Water Card, you need to pass a bunch of theory about diving, and you need to complete 24 skills in a pool and then replicate these skills out in the open water across four dives. During the open water dives, we saw a shipwreck, some amazing coral and sea life, and even a few small reef sharks.
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The scariest part to me was when I was up to 18 metres underwater, and knowing that I’d need to stop for 3 minutes at 5 metres on the way up and also ascend slowly to avoid decompression sickness. It meant that if for whatever reason I felt a bit anxious or panicky, I couldn’t just get out to the surface straight away and start gasping for air. I had to try to remain calm, breathe slowly and steadily using my regulator, put some confidence in my dive master who was guiding us through the training and focus on whatever was in my control instead of worrying about things that were out of it.
It’s done now, and I completed the dives and all the skills successfully. Some times were pretty cool, especially seeing the wreck and all the sea life on the coral reef. In general, though, I didn’t love it and was utterly exhausted and a little bit relieved once it was done.
So how do I know if it was worth it? Should I have bothered challenging myself to do something where I actually worried that I could have died if something went badly wrong?
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When Is It Worth Facing Your Fears?

The answer is it depends. It depends on:

  1. What you are afraid of?
  2. How afraid you are (on a scale from 0 = no anxiety at all to 10 = completely overwhelmed and having a panic attack)?
  3. How safe or dangerous the thing you are afraid of actually (or realistically) is? and
  4. How much of an impact it will have on your quality of life if you do not face up to your fear or try to overcome it?

If what you fear has a low risk of actually occurring AND the activity is quite safe even though it feels scary AND not doing it has a significant negative impact on your life, IT IS WORTH TRYING TO CHALLENGE YOURSELF AND FACE YOUR FEARS.

For me:

  1. I think the fear of SCUBA diving was dying.
  2. The thought of actually going SCUBA diving increased my anxiety to a 7/10, which is quite high but not quite at the panic stage.
  3. In terms of actual safety, the 2010 Diver’s Alert Network Workshop Report found that only one-in-211,864 dives end in a fatality. This makes diving more risky than flying in an aeroplane or riding a bike, but much less dangerous than driving a car, skydiving, or running a marathon. We’re even more likely to die from walking or falling down stairs than we are from SCUBA diving.

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4. If I never went SCUBA diving, I doubt that it would have reduced my quality of life in any way. I did it mostly because I wanted to spend time with my friend and I wanted to challenge myself to face my fears, as not being able to withstand my concerns would have a substantial negative impact on my quality of life.
Based on the above information, I am glad that I went and got my PADI Open Water Certificate. I’m not too sure if I will ever go again though. I could enjoy it more and become less anxious about diving over time, and that did happen even across my four open water dives. If I went again, my anxiety might be a 5 or a 6. In reality, though, I think I can enjoy snorkelling just as much without it lowering my quality of life in any way, and I’ll probably do that more than SCUBA diving in the future.

What Are the Most Common Fears?

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The top ten most common specific phobias are:

  1. Arachnophobia – fear of spiders
  2. Ophidiophobia – fear of snakes
  3. Acrophobia – fear of heights
  4. Agoraphobia – fear of crowds or open spaces
  5. Cynophobia – fear of dogs
  6. Astraphobia – fear of thunder and lightning
  7. Claustrophobia – fear of small spaces
  8. Mysophobia – fear of germs
  9. Aerophobia – fear of flying
  10. Trypanophobia – fear of injections

By looking at the above common phobias, they do all have some basis for why we may become afraid of them. Some spiders and snakes can kill, as can dogs (especially if they have rabies). Planes can crash, and falling from high up can be fatal. People can become trapped and suffocate in a small space or in crowds, and lightning strikes have killed people. Germs and bacteria spread disease too, and medical mishaps are the third most significant cause of death in the US according to the latest figures from the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The issue is that our brain is not very good at distinguishing things that are really dangerous versus things that feel dangerous but are actually pretty safe.

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How Do We Overcome Fears?

We overcome any fear through the dual process of gradual exposure and cognitive reappraisal after the exposure:

1. We determine what fear it is we would like to master. Preferably, this is something that you are currently avoiding that is negatively impacting your life, such as not going to the doctor or dentist because you are afraid of needles.

2. We develop an exposure hierarchy on this fear. This should have at least five different tasks that are ranked from least scary to most scary (scale from 0-10) tasks that you would like to challenge yourself with. For Arachnophobia this may be a 2/10 for looking at pictures of spiders, to 4/10 for watching videos of spiders, to 6/10 for looking at spiders in a an enclosure, to 8/10 for a spider being out in the open in front of you, to 10/10 for letting a spider crawl over your hand or up your arm.

3. We start with the least scary task first and stay in the situation for at least 10 minutes if possible. This should be long enough for the anxiety to peak and then reduce substantially during the exposure exercise. Specific behavioural and thinking skills can be taught by a psychologist to help lower stress levels during the exposure if it is not reducing at all.

4. We reflect on the exposure experience afterwards and try to change our previously held beliefs about what we fear. This is called cognitive reappraisal, and is done by asking ourselves “how did it go?“, “was it as bad as I thought it would be?“, and “how would I approach a similar situation in the future?

5. Once we are comfortable with that level of the exposure hierarchy, we repeat steps 3 and 4 with the next task on the exposure hierarchy. Once we become comfortable with the next step, we repeat this process again with the next task until we are successful with all tasks on the hierarchy. This would mean the fear has been overcome or mastered.

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What if What I Fear Really is Dangerous?

If you have Ophidiophobia and live in Australia, you’re probably not going to want to befriend a snake that you run into out in the bush. Australia is home to 21 out of the 25 most deadly snakes in the world. If you wanted to overcome this fear, you might want to instead learn how to distinguish between poisonous and non-poisonous snakes and get more comfortable only with deadly ones from behind solid glass panels at your local zoo. Or you could visit someone who owned a harmless pet snake so that you could get used to being around it and touching it and realising that you are safe.

If you’re afraid of heights, I wouldn’t suggest being like Alex Honnold and trying to free climb El Capitan in Yosemite, but trying out the edge experience at the Eureka tower in Melbourne or even riding on the amusement park ride The Giant Drop on the Gold Coast might be a pretty safe way to challenge your fears.

Facts can really help some people to challenge their beliefs about their fears, but nothing beats putting ourselves in a feared situation first, and then trying to challenge our beliefs afterwards.

For me, knowing that only 12 out of the 35,000 different varieties of spiders are harmful to humans makes me not worry every time I see a little one unless it is a whitetail or a redback spider.

It helps to know that flying is one of the safest forms of travel, with a one-in-12 million chance of crashing. Although I don’t try to stand in an open field with a metal pole during a storm, it does help to know that being killed by lightning is nearly as rare, with a one-in-10.5 million chance.

Even though I don’t like to watch it pierce my skin, needles don’t hurt nearly as much as I used to imagine, and the pain goes away almost immediately after the injection. Bacteria is absolutely everywhere so I couldn’t avoid germs entirely even if I tried, and getting exposed to a bit of dirt when we are young might also be good for the development of our immune system.

If I ever feel a bit trapped or panicky the next time I dive, it will help to remind myself that I have done it before. I have my open water certificate and the skills from this, and what I’m doing is actually pretty safe as long as I don’t panic and follow what I have been taught in my training.

Just because we are afraid of something, it doesn’t mean we have to avoid it for the rest of our lives. But we don’t have to face our fears every time either, especially if it is not harming our quality of life. If you determine it would be good to challenge yourself and try to overcome a fear, I hope the steps outlined above help, and I’d love to hear about any success stories in the comments below.

 

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist