I love the above quote by Lao Tzu. It really highlights to me that all of the little choices we make in life are important, especially in the long run.
Not any one choice, or any particular action, unless it is unusually severe or unforgivable. I’m talking about the little things that we do on a regular basis which cumulatively build up over time and define the type of person that we are, and who others see us as.
This may be something like choosing to make your bed every morning or getting up to go the gym before work or having a veggie smoothie rather than a jam-filled doughnut and caramel macchiato for your 3pm work snack. Taking the easy or not so healthy option may not seem like such a big deal if it’s just the once, but what if this then becomes habitual over time?
Without even realising it, you may wake up one day and recognise that you have a severe sugar, junk food, caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, TV or smartphone dependency, and it’s no longer as easy to stop this behaviour as you may have hoped for or believed.
Most obese, unfit and unhealthy individuals probably didn’t expect that they would be where they are, but it didn’t just happen overnight either. They started with an initial thought, felt something, experienced an urge or craving, and made a choice to act in a certain way. The more they repeated this action in similar situations, the more the brain learnt that this is just what they needed and that this behaviour should be repeated whenever they thought or felt this way. Eventually, the action no longer felt like a choice, but a compulsion, where they may not have even realised what it was they were doing until it was too late, let alone be able to change it going forward.
William James said something similar, but offers a solution out of this trap:
I’m not sure if I agree with William James completely, because in my experience it is often easier to act ourselves into new ways of thinking, rather than think ourselves into new ways of acting. While how we think and feel about things is important, if we don’t also challenge and change our behaviour, it is going to be very difficult to make any type of positive long-term change. Change our behaviours first regardless of our thinking, however, and we will have more and more evidence that is contrary to the unhelpful thoughts or beliefs that we hold. In time, it then becomes more comfortable to shift these negative thoughts and perceptions, shaping your reality.
Why Bother Trying to Change?
Someone asked me the other day “will you ever just be satisfied with how you are, and eventually stop using questionnaires and other measures to keep trying to track and change your life?”
It seemed like a weird question to me, but it is consistent with how my father tends to view life too. He knows what makes him happy in life, and does it. He’s not too worried about changing or growing and just focuses on enjoying each day, even if it’s the same as yesterday.
That’s great for him, and on some level, it would be nice, but I just don’t think I’m built that way. Maybe it was because I was a pretty stressed out, anxious and sometimes unhappy child. Or perhaps I have seen how much I’ve been able to improve my life and my relationships with others through learning about psychology, reading a lot, going to therapy, making specific behavioural changes, and continuing to monitor and challenge myself over time.
A quote by Charles Bukowski probably sums it up better than I ever could:
Some Worrying Statistics
We’re meant to do at least 4 hours of moderately vigorous physical activity each week according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and yet researchers have found that the average American adult only does 17 minutes each day.
According to the 2017 OECD findings, more than 50% of adults and nearly one-in-six children are overweight or obese and this figure is projected to increase further by the year 2030.
The World Health Organisation says that 3 million people died worldwide in 2016 as a result of harmful alcohol use in 2016. Fortunately, the drinking of alcohol has continued to decrease in Australia since its peak in 1974-1975. However, regular teen consumption of alcohol is still the most significant risk factor for problematic drinking of alcohol in adulthood.
In 2014 in the US, 6.2 million people were reported to suffer from an illicit substance use disorder, and more than 115 people die every day from opioid abuse or misuse.
Social isolation and loneliness are becoming much bigger problems these days, with one-quarter of all Americans reporting in a survey that they have no one that they can discuss important matters with or call in case of an emergency. Both social isolation and loneliness are correlated with an increased risk of dying younger too.
The average American household was watching 8 hours and 55 minutes of TV a day in 2009-2010 (the peak), but this has only dropped down to 7 hours and 50 minutes per household in 2018, which is still an extremely high amount. Viewing time per household increased every decade since the 1950s, and now seems to be the thing that Americans do for leisure, as was brilliantly documented in Robert Putnam’s sociological book “Bowling Alone”.
59% of all Americans and (48% of Europeans) now play video games, including 97% of teenagers in the US. A 2016 study found that 6% of gamers worldwide could be considered to be addicted, and another study found that 7% were problematic gamers, who played at least 30 hours each week.
Lastly, smart-phone usage continues to increase around the world, with excessive social media and smartphone usage also being linked to adverse mental health outcomes. As I’ve previously mentioned in another blog post, Australia is now fourth in the world regarding smartphone usage. The average for all Australian mobile phone users is 2.5 hours a day, which adds up to 38 days per year. We check something on our phone 30 separate times each day, and 45% of Australians now say that they couldn’t live without their phones.
Putting all of these statistics together, it’s pretty easy to see the long-term consequences of our brains wanting to conserve energy, take the easy option, or avoid pain. These little, seemingly insignificant moments probably happen at least 20 times a day, and in each moment, as long as we are paying attention, we have a choice. We can stay on autopilot and do what is easy, or we can tune into our core values, ask ourselves what type of person we would like to become in the long-run, and then take the action that is consistent with this vision, even if it feels strange or different or outright uncomfortable.
Going to the gym will always hurt the first time you go, but the 20 minute walk that you choose to do today is better than the 10km run that you put off until next week. It may be tempting to say that you’ll start a new diet next Monday, but why put off making a healthy decision in the here-and-now if you don’t have to? It is these moments that will eventually define who you become, and you can begin to make a positive long-term change today…
But What Do We Do if We Want to Change?
So let me ask you the following three questions:
Is there anything in your life that you wish you could do more of?
Is there anything in your life that you wish you could do less of?
What is stopping you from making these changes?
If you answered YES to either question 1 or 2, and you don’t know the answer to number 3, it is worth exploring deeper…
In 2004, Tom Butler-Bowden, an Australian born author based in England, released the book ’50 Success Classics: Winning Wisdom for Work & Life from 50 Landmark Books’.
As well as summarising classic books such as Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’, and Napoleon Hill’s ‘Think and Get Rich’, Butler-Bowden also suggests his own list of 10 characteristics that successful people all have in the introduction to his book. Let’s see if there is any research to support his claims:
1. An optimistic outlook
In ‘Learned Optimism,’ Martin Seligman shows that having an optimistic mindset, or favourable expectations towards the future, leads to better mental and physical health. Optimistic individuals have better immune functioning and are less likely to develop depression (Carver et al., 2010). They are also more likely to persevere in tough challenges and are therefore more likely to experience psychological growth following a traumatic experience (Prati & Pietrantoni, 2009). Optimism can also reduce mortality rates over a four year (Galatzer-Levy & Bonanno, 2014) and forty year period (Brummett, Helms, Dahlstrom, & Siegler, 2006).
The good news is that an optimistic mindset can be taught and developed. A recent meta-analysis by Malouff and Schutte (2016) showed that across 29 studies, an individual’s optimism level does significantly increase with training. The most effective way to do this is with the ‘Best Possible Self’ intervention: “Imagine yourself in the future after everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded in accomplishing all the goals of your life …” – Boselie et al., 2014, p. 335
Optimism training works. However, you must keep it up as the benefits typically wane once the intervention has finished.
2. A definite aim, purpose, or vision
“The primary cause of success in life is the ability to set and achieve goals. That’s why the people who do not have goals are doomed forever to work for the people who do. You either work to achieve your own goals or work to achieve someone else’s.” — Brian Tracy
Although I like this quote, Stephen Covey provides a caveat to this when he says that there is no point exerting all of your energy climbing up a ladder that is leaning against the wrong wall. First, we must determine where it is that we would like to climb.
“The key to prospering and adapting in the coming decades amidst an ever-escalating rate of change is to first be clear about and resolutely dedicated to what you stand for and why that should never change. You must then be just as resolutely willing to change absolutely everything else.” — J.W. Marriott Jr.
Successful people are clear on what their values are and what they stand for before taking purposeful action. Values clarification and committed action are two of the six essential components of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT, with the other four elements focused on teaching clients mindfulness skills. According to the American Psychological Association, ACT has strong research support for chronic pain, and modest research support for depression, anxiety, OCD and psychosis.
An interesting study by Chase et al. (2013) found that goal setting alone had no effect on students grade point averages (GPAs) across a semester. However, it did when training in values clarification was provided alongside the goal setting. The clarifying of values before setting goals also significantly reduced the drop out rate of these students the following semester (Chase et al., 2013).
3. A willingness to work hard and persevere
“There is absolutely no limit to what plain, ordinary people can accomplish if they’re given the opportunity and the encouragement and the incentive to do their best. It takes risk, hard work, knowing where you want to go and being willing to do what it takes to get there.” — Sam Walton
Professor Angela Duckworth studied the students at West Point Military Academy over some years and tried to determine which ones made it through to graduation. She was aware that each cadet admitted to West Point was intelligent, physically fit and had excellent grades and test scores. She was also cognizant that nearly 6% of the cadets dropped out during the first seven weeks (Beast Barracks training), and one-fifth dropped out before graduation.
Eventually, Duckworth identified two qualities that were more predictive than anything else for determining which students made it to the end: 1. passion and 2. perseverance. Together, they make up a quality known as grit. People who score high in grit are much more likely to put in the effort required, do whatever it takes and persist until they succeed. She has since found that grit is a great predictor of success in other areas too.
“Often we are caught in a mental trap of seeing enormously successful people and thinking they are where they are because they have some special gift. Yet a closer look shows that the greatest gift that extraordinarily successful people have over the average person is their ability to get themselves to take action.” — Anthony Robbins
4. Discipline to consistently work until goals are achieved
“Undoubtedly, we become what we envisage… Genuine success requires both courage and character – patience, discipline and rationality.” — Claude Bristol
Duckworth and colleagues (2010) have also researched self-discipline, and show that this needs to be sustained for long-term goal commitment and implementation. Without this self-discipline, adolescents struggle to set long-term goals and strive towards them.
Fortunately, it can be improved using two strategies:
Mental contrasting – elaborate upon a future that you desire with the relevant obstacles that you currently face.
Implementation intentions – identify the action that you will take when an opportunity arises that is relevant to your goal.
In comparison to a control writing exercise, eleventh-grade students who spent 30-minutes writing on the above two strategies completed over 60% more practice questions in preparation for a high-stakes exam. This indicated a higher level of self-discipline in the pursuit of a meaningful goal (Duckworth et al., 2010), which over time could result in higher knowledge, deeper understanding, and better results and grades.
“The first step on the road to success is good character. The second is openness to new perspectives. The third is ensuring that daily action is shaped by higher aims, with the knowledge that you always reap what you sow.” — Stephen Covey
5. An integrated mind utilising both logic and intuition
In his excellent book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” Daniel Kahneman talks about our two systems of interpreting the world.
The first one, appropriately named ‘system one’ is perceived quickly, is instinctual and is generally our emotional reaction, or our intuition. ‘System two’ takes more effort and time to access but is also more rational and logical.
As Kahneman shows in his research, people typically use heuristics when making decisions or judgments, which are generally adequate but not optimal solutions to severe problems. This uses our first system and helps us to conserve brain power, but it is only accurate about 80% of the time.
Successful people are able to utilise both system one and system two. If the decision has minimal long-term consequences, such as what to have for dinner, system one is excellent. If the decision has potentially significant implications, however, such as whether or not to buy a house or change jobs, the more energy depleting and more accurate system two going to be better, even if it takes more time to come up with the right answer for you.
“Stroll through the open spaces of time to the center of opportunity. Wise hesitation ripens success and brings secrets to maturity. The crutch of time can do more than the steely club of Hercules.. Fortune gives large rewards to those who wait.” — Baltasar Gracian
6. Prolific reading
Reading fiction has been shown to be great for developing empathy towards others as it really does provide an opportunity to see inside the characters head and experience their internal world in a way that you often don’t get in movies or TV shows. It’s helpful for developing imagination, as the brain works to create the visual images that it reads in words on the page. 30 minutes of reading has also been shown to significantly reduce acute stress as indicated by lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure and lowered heart rate (Rizzolo, Zipp, Stiskal & Simpkins, 2009).
I love reading non-fiction because of how much I can learn from the experts in psychology and related fields for such a low cost. If I were to see them give a talk or book a one-on-one consult, I might be paying up to a $1000, and it would only be scratching the surface of all of the fantastic knowledge that they have accumulated in their lives. That is if I could even get a chance to see them. A book in comparison is $30 or less and contains the majority of their pearls of wisdom in one place. Sure, some books can take a while to get through. However, the value for money and knowledge gained is definitely worth it.
“The movers and the shakers of the world are often professional modelers – people who have mastered the art of learning everything they can by following other people’s experiences rather than their own.” — Anthony Robbins
7. The willingness to take risks
There is a big difference between always engaging in risky behaviour, and being willing to take risks when it is the sound decision to make. Someone like Sir Richard Branson has taken many chances with his Virgin empire, and if it weren’t for these risks, then he wouldn’t have been able to expand and grow at the level that he has. For optimal success, some degree of risk does need to be taken.
“People that don’t risk anything will inevitably find themselves behind those that do. You can lead a change or it can lead you.” — J.W. Marriott Jr.
However, recent research looking at female and male CEOs supports the notion that too much risk isn’t a good thing either. Faccio, Marchica and Mura (2016) found that firms run by male CEOs tend to make riskier decisions, with generally higher leverage and more volatile earnings than firms run by female CEOs. They are also less likely to remain in operation in comparison to firms run by female CEOs (Faccio et al., 2016). More significant risks may lead to higher growth, but also a higher risk of overall collapse.
8. Understanding the power of expectation
Successful people think big instead of small, and believe that they can achieve anything they set their mind to, even if it takes more effort, setbacks and time than they initially envisioned. If thinking big is combined with grit, a growth mindset, and the right timing, look out. There’s no saying how much someone could achieve.
“When our attitude toward ourselves is big, and our attitude towards others is generous and merciful, we attract big and generous portions of success.” –Napoleon Hill and W. Clement Stone
Research indicates that individuals who believe that they can improve are more likely to actually grow (Bergsma, 2008). Higher expectations have been shown to strengthen hope, increase determination and goal completion (Geraghty, Wood, & Hyland, 2010). Higher expectations of outcome can also improve distress tolerance (Williams, Thompson, & Andrews, 2013).
9. Developing mastery in what is most important to them
“The world does not dictate what you shall do, but it does require that you be a master in whatever you undertake.” — Orison Swett Marden
While it may be tempting to try to learn as many different things as possible, the saying “jack of all trades; master of none” often becomes the consequence for people that try to take on too many different projects or career paths all at once.
Warren Buffett has been quoted as once saying to his pilot that he should write down the top 25 things that he wanted to do in life, then circle his top 5 priorities, and finally label items 6-25 as “avoid at all costs” until items 1-5 were completed.
The reason for this is that to reach full mastery can take a long time. Up to 10,000 hours of deliberate practice in many cases, as proposed by Malcolm Gladwell and Anders Ericsson. This equates to nearly 7 hours a day of deliberate practice, every day, for four straight years. If we take these numbers seriously, it makes sense to not spread yourself too thin, unless you don’t want to develop mastery in anything.
“I believe the true road to pre-eminent success in any line is to make yourself master of that line. I have no faith in the policy of scattering one’s resources.” –Andrew Carnegie
10. Well-roundedness and balance
Developing proficiency and accumulating achievements in one area of your life isn’t going to mean much if you are not also a success as a person.
“No kind action is ever lost. You will be indebted to these trifles for some of the happiest attentions and the most pleasing incidents of (your) life.” — Andrew Carnegie
After watching ‘The Founder’ movie based on the life of Ray Kroc, I was appalled by how willing he was to trample on anyone in his way throughout the pursuit of wealth and power without a second thought. This included ignoring his first wife, poaching the wife of another business associate, not keeping his word, and screwing the initial founders of McDonald’s for millions of dollars annually.
“Systematic giving is a powerful practice that blesses every phase of our lives, as it keeps us attuned to the wealth of the universe.” — Catherine Ponder
Ray Kroc was a workaholic, with his famous catchphrase “if you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean” still repeated throughout McDonald’s franchises worldwide.
“Without time for recovery, our lives become a blur of doing unbalanced by much opportunity for being.” — Jim Loehr & Tony Schwartz
If no time is dedicated to personal growth, spiritual growth, health, relaxation, leisure, relationships and community, it becomes difficult to have the well-being, vitality, meaning and support required to achieve ongoing success.
My two cents
Remember, relationship warmth is the number one predictor of long-term health and happiness, not how much money you have in the bank, or how hard you have worked.
Focus on building genuine connection and a sense of belonging with others who embrace you for who you are. Don’t let old friendships go by if they give you these things.
“Various scientific studies have proven that if you learn how to deal with other people, you will have gone about 85% of the way down the road to success in any business, occupation, or profession, and about 99% of the way down the road to personal happiness.” -– Les Giblin
Try to be kind, compassionate, patient and accepting. To others, but mainly to yourself. No one is perfect, and we all fall into the same traps time and time again. If you can learn from these mistakes, you will improve and grow.
Lastly, try to accumulate positive experiences, not things. Materialism and consumerism are empty pursuits, void of meaning and purpose. Doing fun, new or helpful things alongside the people you love never is.
After writing this blog for just over three years now, I find it quite interesting to see what types of posts are immediately successful, and which articles continue to be successful over a long period of time.
Most posts tend to track like the typical movies being released at the cinema, or book at the book store, or song at the record store (back when they still existed). Their biggest week of views (or sales) tends to occur right near the start, and a lousy opening release indicates that the overall views (or sales) aren’t likely to be that great either. Very rarely, this isn’t the case.
At boxofficemojo.com, they even talk about and predict opening multipliers for films, or how much a movie will gross in comparison to its opening weekend takings. One of the most significant drops was the remake of ‘Friday the 13th’ in 2009. It grossed over $40 million in the first week, less than $8 million in the second week, and only $65 million all up on the US Box office. This was a multiplier of only 1.625, indicating that it had no staying power. Essentially, anyone who wanted to see it saw it as soon as it came out, and that was it.
At the opposite end of the spectrum you have ‘La La Land’, which started out with just over $9 million in ticket sales in the US in the first week, but over $12.5 million the second week and more than $151 million at the US box office all up. Good reviews and Oscar buzz must have played a bit of a role, as its overall take was nearly 17 times that of its opening weekend. In 2005, ‘Sideways’ produced a multiplier of nearly 30 times that of its opening weekend, and ‘Titanic’ and ‘E.T.’ remained at #1 at the US Box office for 15 and 16 weeks respectively.
Avatar is the highest grossing movie of all time worldwide. It stayed in release for 238 days and grossed nearly 2.8 billion dollars, or $600million more than Titanic, the second place movie of all time worldwide, also directed by James Cameron. Apparently, he knows how to make films that impact people.
In the U.K., Wet Wet Wet pulled their song ‘Love is All Around’ after 15 weeks at number 1 on the charts, and Gnarls Barkly did the same with their song ‘Crazy’ after 9 weeks at #1. While most bands would love nothing more than for their song to reach the top of the charts, sometimes other artists want to pull their song before everyone gets sick of it, worrying that they will become forever known as one-hit wonders otherwise (can anyone remember or name another Wet Wet Wet or Gnarls Barkly song?).
Other songs may not have even been that big at the time, but continue to be hits months and years after first being released. ‘Mr Brightside’ by the Killers, ‘Chasing Cars’ by Snow Patrol and ‘My Way’ by Frank Sinatra never even reached number 1 on the UK charts, but remained in the top 100 singles chart for 203, 166 and 133 weeks in total respectively.
With books, ‘The Alchemist’ by Paulo Coelho stands out like no other. Initially, sales were so slow when it was first published in Portuguese in 1988 that the rights of the book were given back to the author after a year. Since then, it has gone on to win over 100 international awards, been translated into 80 languages, and sold over 65 million. And most people already know that Harry Potter was rejected 12 times before it was finally accepted, and then sold 120 million.
So how is it that some movies, books and songs defy the odds and have seemingly miraculous staying power? I’m not sure if the exact reason is fully known, but it does seem to be that they all make an emotional impact on the audience and come out at the right place and the right time to have the effect that they do. One year earlier or later, and the same magic just may not be recreated. It’s why remakes often fail.
What if you could recreate that though? Are there certain elements that all big successes have? That helps things go viral? That lead to box office or New York Times bestselling gold?
Let’s find out what makes ideas genuinely stick, why relationships always seem to interest people and the most important thing you need to know if you want your relationship to endure and stand the test of time…
Looking at the above list of top ten videos on YouTube, are there any similarities that seem evident to you?
Yes, 9 out of the 10 are music videos, and all have been released since 2012. This indicates to me that YouTube is getting more and more popular as a platform to watch videos, and music videos have something about them that makes people want to watch them again and again. But what is it?
In their book ‘Made to Stick’, Chip and Dan Heath show that any idea that is successful has two essential qualities:
It is memorable, and
People are eager to pass it onwards
They also say that successful ideas all tend to have the following six elements, which they use the acronym SUCCES for. They are:
S – Simple: They manage to uncover the core of the idea, and don’t complicate it too much beyond that. Like a boy survives evil, but his parents don’t; gets rescued from an awful family; goes to wizard school, and is the one chosen to save the day.
U – Unexpected: They surprise people and grab their attention by doing something unexpected. ‘Gangnam Style’ definitely did this.
C – Concrete: They make sure an idea can be grasped and remembered later. Like this plot: Poor boy meets rich girl on a big boat; they fall in love; the ship hits iceberg and sinks; the rich girl doesn’t share the door; the poor boy dies.
C – Credible: They make an idea believable or give it credibility. Expert or celebrity testimonials in ads might be the best example of this.
E – Emotional: They help people to see the importance of an idea. Watch ‘Sugar’ by Maroon 5, and you’ll see that it has a clear emotional tone (surprise, joy), and the message is obvious (Having a famous band randomly turn up to play at your wedding would make a pretty cool story to tell the grandkids one day).
S – Story: They empower people to use an idea through the power of story. Think of how successful Marvel has been with their movies through the power of storytelling, and how DC hasn’t quite managed the same. ‘Batman vs Superman’ sucked.
Yes, I am aware that they didn’t include a final S in their acronym, but maybe that is the Heath’s way of being unexpected. I still find it annoying.
Why Does the Topic of Relationships Always Seem to Interest People?
As I was saying earlier, my most successful post looked at how dating has changed over the years, especially since the invention of online dating. The article does try to tell a story, is surprising for people to see how times have changed, and is broken down into small, simple, easy to digest parts. It is also credible because it’s based on a book by a celebrity and a Sociology researcher, and has some concrete do’s and don’t for texting in the courting phase of dating. This essentially means that the post was sticky, even though I didn’t realise at the time.
Having said that, people do seem to love learning or reading about relationships, and this may have played a bigger role than anything I wrote about or didn’t do in my other posts. Would ‘Titanic’ or ‘Avatar’ been as massively successful as they were if it weren’t for the central role that the relationships played in the movies. I highly doubt it.
Looking at any celebrity gossip magazines, a lot of them centre around who may or may not be getting together with each other or breaking up or cheating on one another. Even I have read far and wide on the topics of relationships, with ‘Mating in Captivity’ by Ester Perel and ‘Essays in Love’ and ‘The Course of Love’ by Alain de Botton being the three best books about relationships that I’ve read already in 2018.
Now that you know how to create something that can stand the test of time let’s look at how to make relationships last. The most important predictor, according to the most productive and scientific relationship researcher John Gottman, is something known as conflict style. He can predict with over 90% accuracy whether or not a couple will make it in the long-term after watching them discuss a contentious issue together for only 5 minutes. This is about how long it takes to get a good sense of what someone’s preferred conflict style is.
Conflict styles are something that exists on a spectrum, but there are three main points along the continuum:
At one end, we have an avoidant conflict style. These individuals will try to avoid conflict at all costs, and would rather focus on the good things in their relationship and sweep the bad stuff under the rug. Their motto may be “if it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it!” even if a vase has just broken in the living room.
At the other end, we have a volatile conflict style. These individuals don’t care what they say or how they say it, as long as everything that is on their mind is out in the open and the other person has heard it. Their motto may be “better out than in!” no matter who’s feelings get hurt.
In the middle, we have a validating conflict style. These individuals won’t bring up every little issue that they have in a relationship, but they will discuss the important stuff in a calm, rational manner until a nice compromise has been reached that works well for both parties. Their motto may be: “be honest AND respectful, and we can get through anything!”
Now most psychologists will say that the validating conflict style is ideal, but Gottman’s research actually suggests that all three approaches can lead to long and happy relationships – the key is whether or not your conflict style matches up with your partner or not.
If your ideal style is avoidant and your partner is volatile, then the four horsemen of the apocalypse will appear in the relationship sooner rather than later, and break-up town will be the destination. Same with avoidant-validating and validating-volatile relationships. Unless you can find common ground with how you want to deal with the inevitable disagreements that will occur, the connection cannot last. Not happily anyway.
If you found any of this information memorable or useful, please feel free to share it or pass it onto others. This post probably won’t be the next ‘Mr Brightside’, and that’s okay by me. I’m happy to compromise…
Life-traps are self-defeating ways of perceiving, feeling about and interacting with oneself, others and the world.
If you are wanting to get a sense of what your life-traps may be, the book ‘Reinventing your life’ by Jeffrey Young is an excellent place to start, as it goes into 11 different ones. If you want a more in-depth analysis, however, then do go and see a Psychologist who specialises in Schema Therapy.
A Psychologist has much more thorough and scientific questionnaires that can give you results on 18 schemas (life-traps), help you to identify your most common traps, and show you what you can do both in therapy and outside of it whenever you realise that you have fallen into a trap.
I have taken the Young Schema Questionnaire (YSQ-L3) three times now to help identify my main life-traps. The first time was at the beginning of 2014 when I was stuck in the middle of a complicated relationship while also trying to complete the last part of my Doctoral thesis and play basketball at a semi-professional level.
The second time was in April 2017, when I was in a Clinical Psychology job that I loved and a warm and supportive relationship. I had also stopped playing basketball at such an intense level, and was just playing with some friends (and without a coach) twice a week, which was way more fun.
The most recent time was August 2018, where I had just finished up my work in private practice in Melbourne, Australia and was about to leave my friends and family to volunteer for two years in Port Vila, Vanuatu as past of the Australian Volunteers Program (funded by the Australian Government).
I’d like to share these results with you to show you that:
context influences personality and how people view themselves, the world and others,
personality and ways of perceiving yourself, relationships and the world can change, and
even though it is possible to grow and improve over time, we all still fall into traps at times, and this is okay. It’s about trying to identify when you have fallen into a trap, and then knowing what you need to do to get out of it.
When looking at the results, a 100% score would mean that I have answered every item for that life-trap a 6, which means that they describe me perfectly. The higher the % score, the more likely it is that I will frequently fall into this life-trap.
By looking at the table above, the green items indicate an improvement in comparison to the prior assessment, meaning that these life-traps are a little bit less powerful for me. The yellow indicates no change since the last assessment, and the red indicates a worse score, meaning that these life-traps may have a more powerful sway over me.
From 2014 to 2017, 7 out of the initial top-10 life-traps had improved, one stayed the same, and two had worsened. Two additional traps not included in the initial top 10 had worsened and made the list (Negativity/Pessimism & Mistrust/Abuse).
From 2017 to 2018, 7 out of the 2017 top-10 life-traps had improved yet again, with one staying the same and two worsening. One additional trap (Vulnerability to harm/illness) had increased, but I believe this was due to the medical and safety briefings that I had been going through in the preparation of moving to Vanuatu for 2 years.
Overall, I am less likely to fall into any life-trap in 2018 than I was in 2014 and 2017. The average of my top ten in 2014 was 53.29%, whereas in 2017 it was 48.28% and in 2018 it was 46.13%.
I also rated 21 items a 6 (= describes me perfectly) in 2014, only five in 2017, and none in 2018. This means that I am much less likely to get completely pushed around by my life-traps, but they still do have some sway on me, especially the self-sacrifice and the emotional deprivation schemas, and to a lesser degree punitiveness and subjugation.
Here is Young’s description of these schemas:
SELF-SACRIFICE: Excessive focus on voluntarily meeting the needs of others in daily situations, at the expense of one’s own gratification. The most common reasons are: to prevent causing pain to others; to avoid guilt from feeling selfish; or to maintain the connection with others perceived as needy. Often results from an acute sensitivity to the pain of others. Sometimes leads to a sense that one’s own needs are not being adequately met and to resentment of those who are taken care of.
EMOTIONAL DEPRIVATION: Expectation that one’s desire for a normal degree of emotional support will not be adequately met by others. The three major forms of deprivation are:
Deprivation of Nurturance: Absence of attention, affection, warmth, or companionship.
Deprivation of Empathy: Absence of understanding, listening, self-disclosure, or mutual sharing of feelings from others.
Deprivation of Protection: Absence of strength, direction, or guidance from others.
SUBJUGATION: Excessive surrendering of control to others because one feels coerced – usually to avoid anger, retaliation, or abandonment. The two major forms of subjugation are:
1. Subjugation of Needs: Suppression of one’s preferences, decisions, and desires.
2. Subjugation of Emotions: Suppression of emotional expression, especially anger.
Subjugation usually involves the perception that one’s own desires, opinions, and feelings are not valid or important to others. Frequently presents as excessive compliance, combined with hypersensitivity to feeling trapped. Generally leads to a build up of anger, manifested in maladaptive symptoms (e.g., passive-aggressive behaviour, uncontrolled outbursts of temper, psychosomatic symptoms, withdrawal of affection, “acting out”, substance abuse).
PUNITIVENESS: The belief that people should be harshly punished for making mistakes. Involves the tendency to be angry, intolerant, punitive, and impatient with oneself for not meeting one’s expectations or standards. Usually includes difficulty forgiving mistakes in oneself, because of a reluctance to consider extenuating circumstances, allow for human imperfection, or empathize with one’s feelings.
Three out of my top four life-traps have improved since 2014, but emotional deprivation unfortunately continues to climb with each assessment. I’m not entirely sure why, but I do think that self-sacrifice, subjugation and emotional deprivation schemas may be common life-traps for people who decide to become psychologists. The therapeutic relationship is meant to be one sided, and focused on the patient or client’s needs, not the psychologist’s needs. It is for this reason that it is crucial for psychologists to get their relational needs met outside of their job, and to get their own therapy if needed to ensure that they can have a space that is about them too. I wonder how these life-traps will continue to evolve over the next two years while I am in Vanuatu…
How Can Life-traps Be Overcome?
The first step to changing anything is awareness. If you are not aware that you are falling into any traps, it means that you either don’t have any, or you are so enmeshed in your experience that you cannot see them.
Once you have an awareness of your traps, the next step is to try to understand them and why they occur for you. Most life-traps originate in childhood typically, which is why most psychologists and psychiatrists will ask about your upbringing and your relationship with your parents in particular.
Life-traps are actually considered to be adaptive ways of coping with maladaptive environments. What this means is that your life-traps were probably quite useful in the particular family dynamic that you had, or you wouldn’t have developed them in the first place. For example, my family often called me a martyr when I was younger, because I said that it didn’t matter what I wanted. In reality, it was just much more comfortable to let everyone else decide and take charge. Then if things didn’t work out, I couldn’t be blamed. I saw it as a win-win, but often didn’t get what I wanted, because I didn’t speak up, and then complained that my parents loved my siblings more, who were more than happy to speak up and ask for what they wanted.
Once you move out of the family home, however, these ways of coping are generally not as effective, and tend to become maladaptive ways of interacting with yourself, others or the world. If I keep playing martyr and refuse speak up as an adult, my needs still don’t get met. As a result, I may become excessively demanding of others as a counterattack measure (not likely for me), or I may try to escape from all relationships where I need to speak up about my needs. Either way, it keeps the life-trap going, and it isn’t helpful.
I need to realise that there are relationships out there where it is beneficial for me to speak up, as people then know what I want, and can then respond effectively to the situation at hand. It still doesn’t “feel right” when I think about telling others my wants or needs (and I’m not sure if it ever will), but I logically know that it is the best approach for me to take going forward. If I want to break free from my main life-traps, I have to learn to speak up, in a reasonable way, when it is important to me (and others). By doing this, eventually, the life-traps will become much less prevalent and less powerful too.
If you have been trying with therapy for a long time but don’t think that you are getting anywhere, please do seek out a Psychologist with experience in Schema Therapy. If you are stuck in a relationship where your needs aren’t being met, it could help too.
Learning about Schema Therapy and undergoing training in it has taught me more about my own personal life-traps than anything else that I have done before and really does give me a sense of what my most significant challenges are going forward. I’ve made a lot of progress so far, but there is still a long way to go, and that is okay. With acceptance, self-compassion, patience, reflection and perseverance I know that I will continue to improve, and I am confident that you can too!
I haven’t announced it on my blog until now, but there have been a lot of changes for me lately…
After an amazing five years of Clinical work at the Melbourne Sleep Disorders Centre and Victorian Counselling and Psychological Services, I have decided to finish up and take on a brand new and exciting challenge.
On August 16th, I left Melbourne, Australia, and flew to Port Vila Vanuatu, where I will be living for the next two years. I will be taking on a volunteer role as part of the Australian volunteers program, which is funded by the Australian government.
The title of the role is Mental Health Specialist (Clinical Psychologist), and I will be assisting the Ministry of Health in Vanuatu with the implementation of their National Mental Health Policy and Strategic Plan. While my exact role description still remains vague, already I’ve met some great people, given a talk to Police Academy cadets about mental health, substance abuse and self-care, and assisted in the facilitation of a five-day training with 60 health care professionals, service providers and community leaders from all over the Shefa province in Vanuatu.
I came over to Vanuatu hoping to put into place effective ways to increase mental health awareness, reduce stigma and increase access to effective psychological interventions for anyone who could benefit from them, and it looks like that process has already begun!
Finishing up with my clients and leaving behind my life in Australia has been hard, but it’s also helped me to really appreciate what I have in my life in a way that I maybe wouldn’t have been able to without making this move. It’s really led to me reflecting on my life, in particular my last five year and the challenges I’ve been through, the amazing experiences I’ve had, and the people I’ve met along the way. I’ve changed and grown in many ways I couldn’t have imagined, and for that reason I’ve decided to do a pre-departure assessment of where I am at on all of my favourite psychological assessments.
This article will focus on the changes to my character strengths over the last year. I’ve already compared them from 2013 to 2017. This looks at how they have changed since then. Positive psychologists believe that happiness can be sought out and fostered by discovering our natural character strengths and virtues, and then putting them into action on a more regular basis.
My Top Character Strengths
I will present my 2018 results from 24th through to 1st, with the description from the authentic happiness website and the core virtue from the VIA character website. I will then display my previous survey rankings under each description:
24: Spirituality, Sense of Purpose and Faith
Having coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of the universe; knowing where one fits within the larger scheme: having beliefs about the meaning of life that shape conduct and provide comfort.
Core Virtue: Transcendence
Average score = 23.5.
I do think that having a belief system about how things work in life is crucial to well-being, as is having a higher purpose and meaning in life. I just don’t tend to see my spiritual beliefs to be much of a strength.
23: Self-Regulation and Self-Control
You self-consciously regulate what you feel and what you do. You are a disciplined person. You are in control of your appetites and your emotions, not vice versa.
Core Virtue: Temperance
Average score = 23.5.
I do think that it is pointless to try to control my emotions, as accepting them and trying to understand them has been much more fruitful for me than trying to control them. Trying to control my appetite is a different story, however. I’d love to be able to do it.
22: Bravery and Valour
You are a courageous person who does not shrink from threat, challenge, difficulty, or pain. You speak up for what is right even if there is opposition. You act on your convictions.
Core Virtue: Courage
Average score = 22.
I wish that this was more of a strength for me, but it is something that I struggle with. I admire others who are consistently brave and courageous, and I continue to aspire towards it myself, but find myself to be more cautious than I would like to be.
21: Humility and Modesty
You do not seek the spotlight, preferring to let your accomplishments speak for themselves. You do not regard yourself as special, and others recognize and value your modesty.
Core Virtue: Temperance
Average score = 15.25. Overall rank = 19th
When I was younger, I struggled to be modest due to insecurities. This improved as I sought therapy and felt much more comfortable with myself. I try to be humble, but do believe that I have psychological skills and knowledge that can be useful to others.
20: Zest, Enthusiasm and Energy
Regardless of what you do, you approach it with excitement and energy. You never do anything halfway or halfheartedly. For you, life is an adventure.
Core Virtue: Courage
Average score = 20.
I would love it if this were a greater strength for me, but low energy has unfortunately been a long-term issue. Maybe this will change in Vanuatu!
19: Teamwork, Citizenship and Loyalty
You excel as a member of a group. You are a loyal and dedicated teammate, you always do your share, and you work hard for the success of your group.
Core Virtue: Justice
Average score = 20.
I have played competitive sports since the age of five, and I am always happy to do what is needed to be done to help the team win. Even though my agreeableness and co-operation are extremely high, I probably don’t always see this as a key strength.
18: Prudence, Caution and Discretion
You are a careful person, and your choices are consistently prudent ones. You do not say or do things that you might later regret.
Core Virtue: Temperance
Average score = 17.5.
My cautiousness levels are usually really high. Taking the risk of moving to Vanuatu is a big one, but I spoke to a lot of previous volunteers before I left, and they all seemed to love it here. So far, I do too.
17: Perspective Wisdom
Although you may not think of yourself as wise, your friends hold this view of you. They value your perspective on matters and turn to you for advice. You have a way of looking at the world that makes sense to others and to yourself.
Core Virtue: Wisdom
Average score = 14.5
This has gotten worse, but this could be related to me doubting how much I can pick up on how people are really feeling. I like to try and see things from others perspectives, but prefer to clarify what someone is thinking rather than assume that I already know.
16: Perseverance, Industry and Diligence
You work hard to finish what you start. No matter the project, you “get it out the door” in timely fashion. You do not get distracted when you work, and you take satisfaction in completing tasks.
Core Virtue: Courage
Average score = 13.
This has dropped a little. I do try to persevere with projects that are important to me, but my low energy and fatigue can get the better of me sometimes.
You are aware of the good things that happen to you, and you never take them for granted. Your friends and family members know that you are a grateful person because you always take the time to express your thanks.
Core Virtue: Transcendence
Average score = 13.25. Overall rank = 17th
My gratitude has dropped, but not because I don’t value it. Gratitude practice can do wonders for some people. For me, I try to do it whenever I am getting too caught up in all the little details of life or catastrophizing about something.
You excel at the tasks of leadership: encouraging a group to get things done and preserving harmony within the group by making everyone feel included. You do a good job organizing activities and seeing that they happen.
Core Virtue: Justice
Average score = 8.75. Overall rank = 5th
Leadership used to be a key strength back in the day, but now I try to work in a much more collaborative way and seek first to understand where others are coming from and what they want rather than just telling them what to do.
13: Hope, Optimism and Future-Mindedness
You expect the best in the future, and you work to achieve it. You believe that the future is something that you can control.
Core Virtue: Transcendence
Average score = 15.5.
I’m glad that this has improved as much as it has over the past 14 months. Optimists tend to take more risks in life and experience better health in general. Sometimes caution is good, but not if it stops you from doing the things you really want in life.
12: Capacity to Love and Be Loved
You value close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing and caring are reciprocated. The people to whom you feel most close are the same people who feel most close to you.
Core Virtue: Humanity
Average score = 9.
It’s interesting to see this drop so much over the last year. I wonder if it has to do with the guilt I felt at leaving clients and family and friends in Australia when moving to Vanuatu. I would like it to go back up next time.
11: Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence
You notice and appreciate beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in all domains of life, from nature to art to mathematics to science to everyday experience.
Core Virtue: Transcendence
Average score = 10.
I do try to appreciate the natural beauty of life, and love visiting national parks and going hiking. All the beaches and sunsets in Vanuatu are beautiful too, and it’s nice to sit on the balcony of where I live, and have a great view of the water.
10: Social intelligence
You are aware of the motives and feelings of other people. You know what to do to fit in to different social situations, and you know what to do to put others at ease.
Core Virtue: Humanity
Average score = 11.5.
This has improved too, but it is particularly tough stepping into a new culture with Ni-Vanuatu, French, Chinese, and many other people in Port Vila too. Engaging with them all on a regular basis without fully knowing what their cultural norms and mores are is challenging, and I’m sure I’ll offend people without meaning to, but hope to become more familiar with all of this over the next two years.
9: Honesty, Authentic and Genuineness
You are an honest person, not only by speaking the truth but by living your life in a genuine and authentic way. You are down to earth and without pretense; you are a “real” person.
Core Virtue: Courage
Average score = 8.5.
Authenticity is something that I value a lot. I strongly believe that more genuine and authentic people tend to live happier and more fulfilling lives, and being honest is so much easier than having to keep remembering what you said and who you said it to.
8: Forgiveness and Mercy
You forgive those who have done you wrong. You always give people a second chance. Your guiding principle is mercy and not revenge.
Core Virtue: Temperance
Average score = 11.
It’s nice that this has improved. I do want to be able to forgive those who have erred and have done wrong towards me, as I understand the benefits of this type of forgiveness.
7: Fairness, Equity and Justice
Treating all people fairly is one of your abiding principles. You do not let your personal feelings bias your decisions about other people. You give everyone a chance.
Core Virtue: Justice
Average score = 5.5.
Being a middle child influenced my focus on fairness and equality growing up, as I always felt my older brother could do more than me, and my younger sister never had to do anything. I remember creating rules to make sure that things were as fair as possible and have continued to stand up for people that are not given equal treatment or legal rights since then.
6: Creativity, Ingenuity and Originality
Thinking of new ways to do things is a crucial part of who you are. You are never content with doing something the conventional way if a better way is possible.
Core Virtue: Wisdom
Average score = 6.5.
Being original and non-conventional was quite important to me while growing up, but took a back seat when I got married and bought a house in the suburbs. I realised the traditional life was not right for me, and I strongly advocate for you to do what is right for you rather than just going along with familial or societal pressures.
5: Judgment, Critical Thinking and Open-Mindedness
Thinking things through and examining them from all sides are important aspects of who you are. You do not jump to conclusions, and you rely only on solid evidence to make your decisions. You are able to change your mind.
Core Virtue: Wisdom
Average score = 3.5.
This has decreased a little bit since 2017, but is ahead of where it was in 2013. I am glad that it is still in my top 5, as I do value being able to change my mind over time, especially when there is evidence contrary to what I previously believed.
4: Humour and Playfulness
You like to laugh and tease. Bringing smiles to other people is important to you. You try to see the light side of all situations.
Core Virtue: Transcendence
Average score = 9.5
I love stand up comedy and have always wished that I was a bit more playful than I have typically been. It’s so refreshing to see how much this has jumped over the past year, and how it is now one of my key character strengths.
3: Kindness and Generosity
You are kind and generous to others, and you are never too busy to do a favor. You enjoy doing good deeds for others, even if you do not know them well.
Core Virtue: Humanity
Average score = 4.
Doing the random acts of kindness challenge in January 2018 was a nice way to increase this. Volunteering is also a way to be kind and generous with my time and clinical skills.
2: Curiosity and Interest in the World
You are curious about everything. You are always asking questions, and you find all subjects and topics fascinating. You like exploration and discovery.
Core Virtue: Wisdom
Average score = 2.5
This has never been a key character strength for me until 2017. Over the past few years, I have become less concerned with my personal issues and much more interested in how I can make a lasting difference on a larger scale.
1: Love of Learning
You love learning new things, whether in a class or on your own. You have always loved school, reading, and museums-anywhere and everywhere there is an opportunity to learn.
Core Virtue: Wisdom
Average score = 1.
This was definitely NOT a strength of mine back in school. Up until 3rd grade, I loved learning new things. Then I stopped reading for fun and put my energy into sport and video games. Once I began studying my Doctorate in Clinical Psychology, I re-found my love of learning new things, and haven’t stopped since then!. I’ve read over 70 books already this year, and my thirst for new knowledge on how people can improve their mental health and overall well-being seems insatiable.
Can Our Key Strengths Change?
A key strength is what you would put in your top 5 strengths. Fairness, equity and justice has dropped out of my top 5, and humour and playfulness has climbed in. I became more hopeful, forgiving and socially intelligent over the past year too, although these are still not considered key strengths of mine. If all of this means I am getting back to being a little less serious and having some more fun over the past year, then I’m pretty happy with the changes I’ve made and the overall direction that I’m heading!
My Top Virtues
Based on my 2018 findings, my top virtues are as follows:
Courage – 9th, 16th, 20th, 22nd. Average score = 16.75
Temperance 8th, 18th, 21st, 23rd. Average score = 17.5
My transcendence scores improved the most, with my wisdom dropping slightly over the past year but still holding onto the top spot. I’d love for courage to improve more by the next time I do the test.
Does It Matter Which Strengths We Have?
Maybe. What is most important I think is that we are aware of what our individual key strengths are and that we can put these character strengths into action as often as possible.
Seeing that our strengths can change over time, however, it is worth looking at if some character strengths predict a higher level of well-being than others. In the excellent book ‘Curious: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life’, Dr Todd Kashdan (2009) found that curiosity was one of the five strengths most highly associated with:
satisfaction in one’s work, and
happiness in life.
In research conducted by Seligman and Peterson (2004), the only strengths that were rated higher than curiosity for being substantially related to satisfaction in life were hope, zest and gratitude. The other strength in the top 5 was capacity to love and be loved.
Only curiosity is in my top 5 (at #2), so either I try to build more hope, zest, gratitude or love in my life, or I accept that this is currently what my strengths are and aim to put them into practice on a more regular basis.
What do you think? Should we all try to have the same strengths that have been linked with increased life satisfaction on average, or should we put our own unique strengths into action more?
Even better, why don’t you find out what your key strengths are by taking the VIA Survey of Character Strengths at the VIA character website, and then let me know what your key character strengths are and if you would prefer for other items to be in your top 5!
I think of Kaizen as ‘continuous improvement’ or ‘continual change for the better, one small step at a time’, as this is how I first heard of the term.
A lot of the successful Japanese manufacturing companies in automobiles and technology have used this exact approach to obtain massive success over time.
What could you achieve if you just focused on taking one small step in the right direction today, and then another one every day after that?
2. BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE…
Gandhi did not say “Be the change you want to see in the world” even though it is often attributed to him. What he actually said was this:
“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” – Mahatma Gandhi
3. BE HERE NOW
If we are fully present in the moment and aware of what is going on both internally and externally, we have a choice in what we decide to do.
If you do not feel present, meditate, ground yourself, get outside, move and connect with your five senses in the moment and the world around you.
“Awareness is all about restoring your freedom to choose what you want instead of what your past imposes on you.” – Deepak Chopra
4. CHOICES DEFINE YOUR LEGACY
This happens through a lengthy process of choices becoming actions, actions becoming habits, and all of your habits informing your character and ultimate legacy. A quote along these lines has been attributed to a Mr Wiseman in 1856, and it tells us that whatever we sow, we must later reap.
It is therefore essential to engage in as many helpful actions as possible when we still have a choice and before they become habitual. The more engrained something is, the easier it is to do automatically, and the harder it can be to stop.
“Neurons that fire together, wire together.” – Donald Hebb
5. LIFE WASN’T MEANT TO BE EASY
We often don’t appreciate things that just fall into our lap, and we tend to value things much more when we put in some hard work to get it. Even people that build their own IKEA furniture rate the furniture as being more valuable than people who see that same furniture complete but haven’t made it themselves.
I know I’d be more proud of the $3million I built up through hard work than the equivalent amount of money won through a lottery. How about you?
“Anything in life worth having is worth working for.” – Andrew Carnegie
6. THE MAGIC HAPPENS OUTSIDE YOUR COMFORT ZONE
“Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new.” – Brian Tracy
So many people want a comfortable life and therefore stick to what feels safe. Unfortunately, if you are not willing to feel uncomfortable, your life will only get smaller over time.
When you first step out of your comfort zone, it will be scary, you will feel awkward, and it may even feel unsafe. But is it really, or does it just feel threatening because it is new? If at this moment, you run back to what you are used to, you won’t grow. However, if you can persist through the initial pain, it will only get more comfortable in time, and your comfort zone will continue to expand and grow.
7. RETHINK WHAT IT MEANS TO BE FREE
What is real freedom to you?
Doing whatever your parents, school, bosses or government wants you to do? UMM NO. This is called compliance.
Being a rebel and doing the exact opposite of what your parents, school, bosses and government told you to do? STILL NO. This is called counterpliance and is always defined by what you have been shown to do, which means that you are still part of the system. Plus you may end up grounded, expelled, fired or in prison, which doesn’t sound too free to me.
Just living for the moment and indulging in all of your passions and pleasures whenever you want, because YOLO, right? NOPE. This is called hedonism, and may feel great for a night, but not for a lifetime. It can have some pretty nasty side-effects too if you aren’t careful, including weight gain, disease, debt, dissatisfaction and even death.
True freedom must come from making the choice that is likely to be the best for you in the long-term, even if it denies you that last alcoholic drink or dessert, or the fun that happens after 2am, or that extra TV episode, or the added snooze time in the mornings. If we can’t get ourselves to do things that are difficult or painful in the short-term but beneficial in the long run, we can never honestly be free in the long-term. As a former NAVY SEAL famously said:
“Discipline equals freedom.” – Jocko Willink
8. GETTING STARTED IS ALWAYS THE HARDEST PART
“The secret of getting ahead is getting started” – Mark Twain.
In a book that I once read (the Willpower Instinct I think), I came across a 10-minute rule that I found surprisingly useful. Basically, if you are not sure if you are up for doing something, give it a go for 10 minutes, and if after 10 minutes you still don’t feel up to it, stop. I tried it a few times with going to the gym, and usually, once I get there and get into it, I’m fine, but my brain often tries to tell me that I am too tired before I go.
The reason the 10-minute strategy seems to work is that it is much easier to get our brain to do something for 10 minutes than it is for a considerable chunk of time. This is because it requires much less energy when we are forecasting our capacity to do the task. Human brains are cognitive misers, which means they are always trying to “help” by conserving energy. If you want to get started or you feel tired, think small. Also…
9. THE FIRST DRAFT OF ANYTHING IS RUBBISH
“Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it. I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. You’ve got to work it over. The first draft of anything is shit. When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he had read but something that happened to himself.” – Ernest Hemingway
This quote is fantastic because too often people think that the need to produce a masterpiece the first time they try or do something. If one of the most famous authors of all time produced crap on their first draft, why should we expect more on ours? The solution is to focus on the process, not the outcome, and just produce work before trying to edit, review or criticise what you have done.
10. DON’T PUT THINGS OFF TIL LATER
“If something takes less than 2 minutes to do, don’t write it down or add it to your to do list – do it now.” – David Allen, Getting Things Done
Most people have so much stuff to do at any one time that it is very difficult to ever get their to-do-list down to zero. This can cause anxiety and stress for some people, but the key is to have an excellent system to manage everything that comes in so that you don’t have to keep worrying and thinking about all of the things you need to do. Getting things done, or GTD is one such system. And the two-minute-rule from GTD says that small tasks should never go on your to-do-list if you can just get them done now. This rule alone means that my email inbox rarely has any unopened or unreplied emails.
11. BE YOURSELF; EVERYONE ELSE IS TAKEN
Some believe that Oscar Wilde first said this, but the fascinating quote investigator website said that they could not find it in any of his writings. Keith craft said something similar that I like better, in announcing that we all have a unique fingerprint and that we can, therefore “leave a unique imprint that no one else can leave.”
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
12. WE REGRET THE THINGS WE DON’T DO MORE THAN THE THINGS WE DO
When making a decision about the future, we tend to think about what we may lose if we take a risk. However, when reflecting on the past, we feel more regret about what we missed by not taking a chance. The question then becomes, do we:
Play it safe, and not put ourselves out there because people may judge us or criticise us for giving something a go and not succeeding? Or
Criticise others for being brave enough to try something that they believe in? Or
Throw caution to the wind and give it our best shot, knowing that we will learn and grow more from mistakes and setbacks than we ever would have by sitting back and criticising others?
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt
13. FEEL THE FEAR AND DO IT ANYWAY!
Susan Jeffers was my hero back when I read her top-selling self-help book. I couldn’t believe that I didn’t have to get rid of the fear before I acted fearlessly.
The Confidence Gap by Russ Harris then further highlighted to me that the action of confidence tends to come before the feeling of confidence, not the other way around.
Fear was designed to keep us safe as a hunter-gatherer but holds us back more in modern day life than it helps us sometimes. We need to instead assess the real level of risk whenever we feel fear, and go for it if the situation feels scary but is actually pretty safe. This could be horror movies, roller coaster rides, plane flights, or public speaking.
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” – FDR inaugural address, 1932
“What you see is all there is.” – Daniel Kahneman
How you are thinking and feeling in the moment is very much influenced by how you are thinking and feeling at the moment. If you feel on top of the world, you are likely to be feeling happy, thinking positively about yourself, others, the world and the future. Anything may feel possible. Then the next week you have a setback or get sick, and you start to feel depressed and hopeless and think negatively about yourself, others, the world and the future. Both can’t be true, if they are only a week apart, so it’s important to understand the power of WYSIATI.
Don’t think too big picture if you are feeling flat and down, and try not to shop if you’re too hungry. The choices you’ll make once you’ve picked up a bit and have eaten something are likely to be very different.
15. MEMENTO MORI
Latin: “Remember that you have to die.“
In many cultures around the world and through history, the acknowledging of our own mortality through prayer, meditation, reflection, ceremony, or celebration is much more common than it is in atheistic modern-day Western life.
The phrase memento mori helped people to consider the transient nature of earthly life, our goods and our pursuits and enabled them to become humble and clarify what was really important to them.
16. THINGS FADE; ALTERNATIVES EXCLUDE
Two things that are inevitable in life are:
1. no matter what we do, time passes and things erode over time (also known as the second law of thermodynamics), and
2. if we go down one path, we cannot go down another track at the same time.
– “Decisions are difficult for many reasons, some reaching down into the very socket of our being. John Gardner, in his novel Grendel, tells of a wise man who sums up his meditations on life’s mysteries in two simple but terrible postulates: “Things fade: alternatives exclude.” […] Decision invariably involves renunciation: for every yes there must be a no, each decision eliminating or killing other options (the root of the word decide means “slay,” as in homicide or suicide).” – Irvin Yalom (1991). Love’s executioner. p. 10. Penguin Books.
17. PARKINSON’S LAW
Ever wondered how on some days, when you are super busy, you manage to get way more work done. Then on quiet days, you don’t have much work to do, but struggle to get it all done. The reason for this is Parkinson’s law:
“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.“
The Stock–Sanford corollary to Parkinson’s rule is better in my opinion, and it is something I used a lot when studying at uni:
“If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.“
If productivity is what you are going for, give yourself a closer deadline and someone to hold you accountable if you don’t meet it, and voila, productivity and efficiency improve!
18. THE IMPORTANCE OF MEANING AND PURPOSE
“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
Nietzsche was a nihilist, which meant that he didn’t think the world had any meaning in it. Irvin Yalom said that even if the world is meaningless overall, it is still essential for each of us to find things that are personally meaningful to us, either as an individual or as a group. Viktor Frankl showed that in the concentration camps in WWII, those with some higher purpose beyond the camps were the ones who could manage to survive the horrible atrocities they faced every day.
What’s personally meaningful to you? Where could you find purpose?
19. DON’T LISTEN TO THE DOUBTERS
“Impossibility is not a fact – it’s an opinion.” – Muhammed Ali
Think of anyone who has done something groundbreaking or is still trying to do something pioneering today – Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Barack Obama, Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Bill Gates. I wonder how many of them were told to give up, grow up, stop being deluded or to think realistically? I’d say most of them.
Just because something hasn’t been done before, doesn’t mean it can’t be. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have had the massive amount of progression that we have had over the past 200 years.
20. CLARIFY YOUR VALUES AND MAKE DECISIONS BASED ON THESE
“(Some people spend)their lives doing work they detest to make money they don’t want to buy things they don’t need in order to impress people they dislike.” – Emile Gauvreau
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your life has to be a certain way just because everyone else is doing something a certain way and telling you that you should too.
By clarifying your own values first and building your own hierarchy, you can then see if what you are currently doing is consistent with what is really important for you. If not, what changes could you make, that you’d be willing to make, that would help you to start heading in the right direction? The earlier that you make these changes, or at least concrete plans to make them, the higher chance there is that you will be happy with the path that you are on.
21. RELATIONSHIP WARMTH IS THE NUMBER ONE PREDICTOR OF LONG-TERM HEALTH AND HAPPINESS
“Love people, use things. The opposite never works.” – Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus – The Minimalists
The minimalist movement has really picked up in the last 20 years in response to most of us in the Western world having way too much stuff and realising that it doesn’t make us any happier. If anything, it causes us more stress. Clothing used to be a scarce and valuable thing. Now wardrobes and houses are overflowing, and storage facilities are popping up everywhere to help clear some space.
What if we just bought fewer things, and focused more on what really matters: our connections with the important people in our lives. Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard study of Adult Development, found that in the end, close relationships are more critical to our health and happiness than anything else.
22. OCCAM’S RAZOR
“Given several possible explanations about something, the simplest one is probably right.“
Is the dog above trying to read, or is it merely sniffing the book?
Occam’s razor is why conspiracy theories are never likely to be true. Think about the moon landing, or 9/11, or the Illuminati, flat earth theories, or any other conspiracy out there. For the plot to be real, there are so many added levels that would have all had to run flawlessly for them to work out, and so many people would have had to keep this a secret for such an extended period of time without turning themselves in or trying to make money out of it in a tell-all. It’s much more likely that there is no conspiracy.
Occam’s razor can also be applied to losing weight, sleeping well, getting stronger, or improving any skill. Some people have complicated theories, but usually, the answer lies in relatively simple explanations. Doing too much, or complicating things beyond what is necessary often backfires.
Reduce things back to the bare essentials, and see what happens.
23. LAW OF DIMINISHING RETURNS
The law of diminishing returns says that each time we do something to receive a benefit, the benefit will be less and less.
Let’s say you order this massive stack of pancakes in the picture above. The first pancake may taste amazing, and the pleasure received is a 9 out of 10. Each bite is likely to be slightly less enjoyable than the one before, especially after you become full. If you somehow managed to get through the whole stack, the last bite could be a 1 out of 10 on the pleasure scale. Come back for pancakes again next month, however, and pleasure bounces back up to a 9 out of 10 again.
The solution is to wait for long enough between doing the same thing twice so that you enjoy it just as much the next time.
“Variety is the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavour.” – William Cowper
24. BE KIND
“If you’re kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.” – Mother Teresa
If you know why you are doing something, try not to worry about what others think. People who do not understand why you are doing what you are doing will choose to see it from their point of view. If they could not do what you are without getting something in return, they will assume the same intention is within you. But being kind is a reward within itself. If you can give just for the sake of it, do it. You can thank me later.
25. DESIGN YOUR OWN LIFE
“When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and (you should) just live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again“. – Steve Jobs
As far as I see the world, we only have one life to live. We can spend it doing what others expect of us, or we can spend it doing what is right for us. We can blame everyone else for how things turn out, or we can go our own way.
Regardless of what you decide, time passes, and eventually, you will either feel that you made the most of what you had, or you will accumulate regrets. I try to live my life with no regrets, and I wish the same for you too.
In April 2017, I looked at how my personality changed from 2011 to 2017 on the IPIP-NEO, my favourite free online personality test (see the website personality assessor and choose the IPIP-120 if you are interested in taking it). I wrote this up for the Deliberately Better article: Is it possible to change your personality?
Prior to April 2017, I had never really looked at how my personality changed over time – I was just looking at how I rated myself in comparison to other males of my age from Australia. I then recently read Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 rules for life, and my favourite rule was #4:
“Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today.”
After reading this book, I thought it would be a good time to go back and see how my personality has changed over the past 15 months since I last took the IPIP-120. I already know that my psychological, emotional, spiritual and workplace self-care have improved this year, but do these changes contribute to positive personality changes too? Let’s find out…
My Personality Assessment Results From April 2017 – August 2018
The IPIP-120 results shown underneath are from April 12th 2017 to August 1st 2018, with the description of each factor and facet written underneath it copied or paraphrased from the reports found at personality assessor.
The Factor or Facet will be presented first, followed by a series of …, then the 2017 percentile score results, which are surrounded by ( ), then the 2018 results, which are not in any brackets or parentheses.
Extraversion…………… (48) – 74
I am high in Extraversion. Extraverts are sociable and like to take risks and feel lots of positive emotions.
This change is interesting to me. I do agree that I have been focusing on connecting with others more and have been feeling more energetic recently, but I am still surprised to see this factor increase so much. I do find socialising with others quite tiring after a while, and often need to have time for myself to unwind and recharge.
The six facets of extraversion are:
Friendliness…………… (58) – 88
I’m very high in my desire to be around other people and show an interest in their lives.
This has increased a lot over the past 15 months. I value quality time more than quantity time when it comes to spending time with friends but have realised just how important connection and belonging is for overall health and well-being.
Gregariousness……… (42) – 77
I’m very high in flocking toward other people and being talkative and sociable around them.
I am much more comfortable in having downtime by myself or with one or two people these days, rather than going out to clubs or big parties or festivals. Even so, this increase over the past 15 months supports my resurgence towards being more sociable again like I was when I was younger.
Assertiveness………… (13) – 34
I’m more assertive than I used to be with others, but there is still a low chance that I’ll take charge and lead others.
I have begun to speak up more for myself and express my needs better over the past 15 months. I still prefer to help people be the person they want to be, rather than try to lead them or tell them who I think they should be.
Activity Level………… (79) – 90
I prefer very high levels of activity, such as being on the go and staying busy.
This has increased over the last 15 months and may indicate that I am feeling more energetic, or that I am currently rushing around too much and trying to do too many things all at once. I hope that if it is the latter that I do manage to slow down, relax more and be more mindful of this going forward.
Excitement-Seeking… (87) – 81
I like to seek very high levels of thrills.
This has decreased a little over the past 15 months, which indicates to me that I have increased the amount of excitement I have in my life and enjoy it when I experience it.
Cheerfulness………… (54) – 70
I experience high levels of happiness, joy, and other positive emotions.
This is a great improvement and indicates that the regular mindfulness, gratitude, savouring and reflective practices that I have been engaging in are making a positive difference for me. I am also finding it easier to express positive emotions with others, including love, hope and excitement.
Agreeableness…………… (89) – 90
I am very high in agreeableness. Highly agreeable people tend to do whatever it takes to have positive relationships with other people.
This hasn’t changed much over the past 15 months. I don’t think it needs to be any higher either, as there could be some negatives with being too agreeable all the time.
The six facets of agreeableness are:
Trust……………… (89) – 90
I’m very high in believing that other people are generally good and not out to harm others.
Given the choice, I’d always rather give people the benefit of doubt, to begin with, until I see evidence to the contrary. This is better than distrusting everyone except for those who prove themselves to me. I think if you believe others to be good and portray this in your dealings with them, it gives most people a reputation that they’ll want to uphold.
Morality………… (65) – 79
Sticking to the rules and treating everyone fairly is of a very high value to me these days.
Reading the essay “Lying” by Sam Harris really helped highlight the importance of being honest, or at least not lying to people. It’s also Jordan Peterson’s 8th rule for life. The more straightforward and congruent we can be with others, generally the better outcomes and connections we will have. Secrecy often creates a chasm that can be difficult to bridge, and having to remember which lies you told to which people is just too tiring.
Altruism………… (85) – 90
I am very high in wanting to be good to other people, including helping them when they need it.
This has continued to increase over time, which is great to see. The more people I can help with the time that I have, the better, as far as I can see. It could lead to burnout if I don’t look after myself too, but generally, kindness has more positive health benefits than negative in the long run.
Cooperation…… (99) – 99
There are extremely high chances that I’ll try to get along with other people.
This has remained as high as it can possibly be. That means that if you have an issue with me or something that I have written and want to try to sort it out, please do contact me. I will do my best to try to resolve it in whatever way I can.
Modesty………… (71) – 44
I have about average levels of modesty, which means that I don’t like to brag or show off too much, because these types of behaviours can be harmful to relationships.
Too high a modesty can sometimes mean low self-esteem, and the drop in this score indicates to me a greater level of self-confidence. I hope that it doesn’t swing too far, but it’s nice to not see myself as any better or worse than anyone else.
Sympathy………… (84) – 76
I have very high levels of sympathy for other people, which includes caring about them and wanting what’s best for them.
This has dropped a little bit over the last 15 months. I think it’s better to be empathetic (“I will try to feel and understand what you feel”) rather than sympathetic (“I feel bad or sorry for you”). I definitely care about others and want the best for others, but never want to come from a position of superiority.
Conscientiousness…………… (70) – 74
I am high in conscientiousness. Highly conscientious people are diligent, hard-working, and responsible.
This is the highest that my conscientiousness has been in the 6 times I have taken the test since 2011. In the book “The Longevity Project” which tracked individuals across 80 years to look at factors influencing healthy ageing, conscientiousness was the only personality variable associated with a longer and healthier life.
The six facets of conscientiousness are:
Self-Efficacy………… (62) – 77
When I need to do something, I have a very high level of belief that I can get it done and do it well.
This has increased quite a bit over the past 15 months, and has been boosted by the various challenges that I have taken on.
Orderliness……… (80) – 88
I prefer very high levels of cleanliness and order in my environment.
It wasn’t that I didn’t prefer this in 2011 and before that, but that I really struggled to stay organised with everything. Doing a Doctoral degree definitely helped with this, as did having a very organised partner in 2014 and reading the book ‘Getting Things Done’ by David Allen.
Dutifulness……… (27) – 28
I’m low in sticking to my word, keeping my promises, and upholding my obligations.
As bad as this description makes it sound, I am actually happy that I do fewer things out of a sense of duty or obligations these days. I am more likely to tune in and figure out if something is consistent with my values and my best long-term interests before committing to something or just saying yes and then later regretting it. It means that resentment is less likely to build up for me because I am doing what I want, not what others want me to do.
Achievement-Striving… (88) – 79
I have very high desires to work hard and get ahead.
This has dropped a little over the last 15 months, and this is because I now see just how important social connection and relationship warmth is for long term health and happiness.
Self-Discipline………. (49) – 69
I have above average self-discipline—which is the ability to get to work quickly, stay focused, and avoid distractions or procrastination.
I’m super happy that this has improved over the past 15 months. After putting off making videos for most of 2017, I have now created 31 videos for my youtube channel in 2018. I’ve also been able to stick with some of the challenges I have set for myself this year.
Cautiousness……… (89) – 88
The odds are extremely low that I’ll just jump into things without really thinking them through.
This hasn’t changed much over the years, and I continue to spend high amounts of time planning what to do. I probably would benefit by being a bit more spontaneous at times with less important things, as well as get into more productive action as soon as I know what the right path is for me to take.
Neuroticism…………… (29) – 13
I am very low in Neuroticism. This means that I experience low levels of negative emotions, like anger, fear, and stress.
The six facets of neuroticism are:
Anxiety…………… (25) – 6
Compared with other people, I have extremely low stress, fears, and worries about the future.
This is the lowest that my anxiety score has ever been. I now feel much more resilient, which means that no matter what comes my way in the future, I have a strong feeling that I’ll be okay and that I will be able to figure out how to get through it.
Anger………………… (7) – 8
My levels of anger and irritability are extremely low.
This has increased slightly over the years since 2011, which means that I am now more aware of when I feel resentful, irritable, frustrated, mad or angry. I basically never lose my cool, but am able to identify what does tick me off much more than I used to, which helps me to stand up for myself.
Depression……… (10) – 9
Compared with other people, I now feel extremely low amounts of sadness and like myself to a high degree.
This has continued to improve over the years’ thanks to much psychological therapy, better relationships and ongoing self-improvement.
Self-Consciousness… (71) – 50
I like to draw very low levels of attention to myself and feel high amounts of unease when interacting with others socially (especially strangers).
I have been drawing more attention to myself over the last few years through blogs, podcasts and videos, which does make me feel a bit self-conscious at times. If it helps even one person however, it is worth putting myself and my ideas out there, even if it is scary.
Immoderation…… (46) – 32
I have about average self-control when it comes to resisting temptations; there are about average chances that I’ll give into my desires and binge (on shopping, eating, drinking, or whatever my vices are).
This has decreased a bit over the past 15 months, which is consistent with my increase in self-discipline. I’ve been saving a lot more money lately and making less impulsive choices in what I buy. Having a mortgage to pay off now does help too, especially with an offset account that I put all my money into every month. It leads to a sensation of less disposable income that I have to waste on whatever I feel like in the moment.
Vulnerability…… (45) – 14
The chances that I’ll be overwhelmed by difficult circumstances are about average.
This has decreased heaps over the last year. Similar to the anxiety drop, I feel less under threat and more resilient no matter what occurs.
Openness to experience…… (93) – 95
I am extremely high in openness to experience, and increasingly so over the past seven years. Openness is a broad, diffuse personality dimension with many seemingly different facets. In general, highly open people like a variety of new experiences, whether physical, emotional, intellectual, or cultural.
The six facets of openness are:
Imagination………… (15) – 14
I have very low imagination and therefore tend not to use it too much to escape reality or daydream.
This has continued to decrease over time. I tend to stick more to the facts of a situation and how I can improve it than wistfully imagine that it will fix itself or that I will win the lottery.
Artistic Interests…… (69) – 71
I have high openness for art, music, culture and other aesthetic experiences.
This has been consistent over the years, especially my love of music, movies, good TV shows and reading.
Emotionality……… (89) – 90
My attunement to my own and others’ emotions are very high. Whereas cheerfulness and excitement seeking (facets of extraversion) capture my propensity to feel positive emotions and neuroticism capture my propensity to feel negative emotions, emotionality refers to my overall openness to/desire to truly feel emotions.
This has improved a lot since 2011, and regular mindfulness meditation has helped a lot.
Adventurousness…… (90) – 95
I prefer very high amounts of variety, and new experiences in my life and have a very high openness to new experiences.
This has increased even more over the last 15 months and comes out in my love of travel, learning new things, and taking on new challenges.
Intellect…………… (90) – 89
My desire to play with ideas, reflect on philosophical concepts, and have deep discussions is very high.
I love to read widely and am very willing to have interesting conversations with anyone about anything, even if they don’t agree with my viewpoint on things. Learning about different cultures and their different expectations and belief systems is especially interesting to me, and something I look forward to doing more of in the future.
Liberalism………… (97) – 97
My political liberalism is extremely high, and my political conservatism is extremely low. I desire progressive change.
I fully believe that everyone should be free to live the life that is right for them as long as it doesn’t do any harm to others. I believe that governments should help guide people to make healthier choices, but still give them the option to do what they want.
Which Areas Changed the Most?
The two factors that changed the most were extraversion (26 percentile point increase) and neuroticism (16 percentile point decrease) over the past 15 months. The biggest facet changes for extraversion were an improvement in gregariousness (35 point increase), friendliness (30 points) and assertiveness (21 points). The biggest facet changes for neuroticism were a reduction in vulnerability (31 point decrease), self-consciousness (21 points) and anxiousness (19 points).
I also became less modest (27 point decrease), more self-disciplined (20 point increase), more self-efficacious (15 points), and more moral (14 points).
Which Areas Stayed the Same?
The other three factors barely changed, including Conscientiousness (a 4 point increase) Openness to Experience (a 2 point increase) and Agreeableness (a 1 point increase).
Only two facets didn’t change at all – co-operation and liberalism (both very high). Trust, dutifulness, anger, depression, imagination, emotionality, and intellect only changed one percentile point, and four other facets changed less than five percentile points.
In all, 18 facets changed less than 10 percentile points from 15 months ago, and 12 changed more than 10 percentile points.
What I Recommend?
If you have been trying to change something for a long time and haven’t been able to, maybe it is worth seeing if you can accept and embrace this quality about yourself, or if you can at least see some of the positives that come with it.
If there are things about yourself that you would like to improve, seek out people who seem to do these things well, and learn from them what you can. If you don’t have anyone in your life who represents these qualities, a book, Youtube and many other online resources are now available to help give you the skills, knowledge, motivation, perseverance and ongoing support that is required for successful long-term change.
I’ve been able to either accept or change a lot of things about myself over the past seven years, and am now much happier with the person I am. I wish you all the same too.
I tried out a new personality test website the other day called 16 personalities. I came up as an Advocate, or an INFJ-A. This is a Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI) type personality test for those who aren’t familiar with the letters:
The I means I am an introvert (63%) more than an extrovert (37%), and can “get exhausted by social interactions”. It also means that I recharge my energy through solitary activities.
The N means I am intuitive (58%) rather than sensing or observant (42%), and that I am “very imaginative, open-minded and curious”. intuitive individuals “prefer novelty over stability and focus on hidden meanings and future possibilities”.
The F means that I am feeling (72%) rather than thinking (28%), and am “sensitive and emotionally expressive”. Feeling individuals are “more empathic and less competitive than thinking types, and focus on social harmony and co-operation”.
The J means that I am judging (60%) rather than perceiving or prospecting (40%). This means that I “approach work, planning and decision making” in a “decisive, thorough, and highly organised” way. Judging individuals “value clarity, predictability and closure, preferring structure and planning to spontaneity”.
The A means that I am assertive (65%) rather than turbulent (35%). Assertive individuals are “self-assured, even-tempered and resistant to stress. They refuse to worry too much and do not push themselves too hard when it comes to achieving goals”.
HOW HAS MY PERSONALITY CHANGED OVER THE YEARS?
What’s interesting is that I have taken the MBTI on several occasions and have achieved very different results. Way back before I sought any personal therapy, about 10 years ago, I was an ENTJ, which is a Commander. This does not seem to fit me at all any more, but did back then, when I was much more competitive and egotistical. I was young, and thought I had it all figured out. My father called me “un-coach-able”, and he was my basketball coach for at least 2 seasons, which isn’t great news. It might explain why I have one of the ugliest jump shots going around, and no range from outside the key.
I then became an ENFJ when I took the test about 5 years ago, which is sometimes referred to as a Protagonist. It meant that I was still an extrovert, but I had switched from a thinking to a feeling subtype. Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to fit me too much either anymore, as I really don’t try to lead others. I instead try to help them to understand themselves and become the person they want to be, not who I think they should be.
IS IT WORTH COMPLETING A PERSONALITY TEST?
Normally, I’ve been fairly dismissive of the MBTI, as it doesn’t have a lot of scientific evidence supporting it. However, the description of the Advocate personality type on the 16personalities website was creepily spot on in some regards for me, including:
“INFJs are not idle dreamers, but people capable of taking concrete steps to realize their goals and make a lasting positive impact.”
“INFJs tend to see helping others as their purpose in life, but while people with this personality type can be found engaging rescue efforts and doing charity work, their real passion is to get to the heart of the issue so that people need not be rescued at all.”
“It makes sense that their friends and colleagues will come to think of them as quiet Extraverted types, but they would all do well to remember that INFJs need time alone to decompress and recharge, and to not become too alarmed when they suddenly withdraw.”
“The passion of their convictions is perfectly capable of carrying them past their breaking point and if their zeal gets out of hand, they can find themselves exhausted, unhealthy and stressed.”
“One of the things INFJs find most important is establishing genuine, deep connections with the people they care about.”
“There is a running theme with INFJs, and that is a yearning for authenticity and sincerity – in their activities, their romantic relationships, and their friendships.”
“INFJs seek out people who share their passions, interests and ideologies, people with whom they can explore philosophies and subjects that they believe are truly meaningful.”
“people with the INFJ personality type make loyal and supportive companions, encouraging growth and life-enriching experiences with warmth, excitement and care.”
“INFJs don’t require a great deal of day-to-day attention – for them, quality trumps quantity every time.”
“First and foremost, INFJs need to find meaning in their work, to know that they are helping and connecting with people. This desire to help and connect makes careers in healthcare, especially the more holistic varieties, very rewarding for INFJs – roles as counselors, psychologists, doctors, life coaches and spiritual guides are all attractive options.”
“INFJs crave creativity too, the ability to use their insight to connect events and situations, effecting real change in others’ lives personally.”
“INFJs often pursue expressive careers such as writing, elegant communicators that they are, and author many popular blogs, stories and screenplays. Music, photography, design and art are viable options too, and they all can focus on deeper themes of personal growth, morality and spirituality.”
Other people may disagree with me, but these quotes were consistent with how I’d like to see myself, and the things that I truly value in life.
If you’ve never taken an MBTI personality test before, check it out at 16personalities.com and let me know if it was as accurate for you as it was for me. If you’ve already taken it, I’d love to hear about if it has changed over time, and if your description now feels more accurate than what you were defined as in the past?
Throughout my schooling years, I was a horrible procrastinator. I would leave everything to the last minute, sometimes even having to take a day off high school so that I could finish an assignment that was meant to be due that day.
Once I got to university, I couldn’t do this anymore, as the due date remained the same whether I went to classes or not. I would instead consume a lot of energy drinks the night before an assignment was due, and generally do the majority of the assignment in an anxious, tense and sleep-deprived state; printing it out and submitting it 20 minutes before the deadline.
Exams were the same. I’d miss classes, not pay attention when I was there, and then try to cram an entire semester’s contents into the last 4 days before an exam. I would lock myself in my room, and study up to 12 hours a day, only leaving for toilet breaks and something to eat until I was utterly exhausted. Luckily, I have a knack for remembering vast amounts of information in short periods of time, so I always passed, but it wasn’t easy, or fun.
I sometimes tried to start early, but never found this effective, as the negative consequences seemed so far away. Eventually, I figured I would just follow the mantra, “if you leave everything to the last minute, it only takes a minute’. This mantra actually helped me to fit a lot of things into my life by being more efficient, but it did have its limitations.
Once I got to my Doctorate of Clinical Psychology degree at Monash University, I was suddenly faced with the prospect of having to do a 70,000-word thesis that was meant to take 3.5 years to do. How could I possibly cram something so big, especially when it consisted of doing a research proposal, ethics application, recruiting participants, conducting a clinical trial, collating all the results, running data analysis and writing up the thesis and journal articles? It turns out I couldn’t.
The thesis ended up taking me 4 years to complete, and there wasn’t too much of it that I enjoyed. It required a direct challenging of my usual defence mechanisms, and this was no easy feat, especially because I didn’t know what they were. I knew that I had always procrastinated with my studies, but I was never entirely sure why.
What Are Your Defence Mechanisms?
Fortunately, there was a fun test over at personalityassessor.com on coping styles’ titled ‘How Do You Deal?’ that helped me to identify which defence mechanisms I typically used. If you are interested in knowing what yours are, I definitely recommend taking it.
It is a bit time consuming as there are 2 parts and over 200 questions, but the reason I like this questionnaire so much is that it is tough to fudge the test to get desirable results. This is because the survey doesn’t have face validity, and therefore doesn’t appear to measure how much someone engages in a particular defence mechanism. Two examples of questions are:
“I am bothered by stomach acid several times per week” or
“It is annoying to listen to a lecturer who cannot seem to make up his mind as to what he really believes“.
I’m not even sure which defence mechanisms these questions are tapping into or if the correct answer is true or false. However, previous research has shown that specific patterns of responses on the questionnaire are quite good at identifying people who regularly use 10 common defence mechanisms, including repression, displacement, denial, regression, projection, reaction formation, intellectualisation, rationalisation, isolation and doubt. My results were astonishing to me.
My Defence Mechanisms
I first took the ‘How Do You Deal?’ questionnaire in February 2013. I had just finished a year-long practical internship at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, and I found supporting individuals with cancer really rewarding and meaningful, but also quite challenging as I had lost a dear friend to cancer when I was 21. I was wanting to finish up my thesis by July but was falling way behind, and I was also a month away from getting married and moving in with my then fiancé. I had a lot of big changes coming up, and I was both stressed and scared with how everything was going to go.
Here are my February 2013 results, alongside the descriptions of these defence mechanisms given by the personality assessor website:
1. Denial – 94th percentile – extremely high
Denial is a defense mechanism where people avoid thinking about problems, or even pretend like their problems don’t exist. For example, someone might deny that they have a drug problem. Or someone might deny that they’re currently having conflict in their romantic relationship.
Since denial can be subconscious, people who use denial might honestly believe that their problems don’t exist!
2. Isolation – 91st percentile – extremely high
Isolation is a defense mechanism where people compartmentalize their thoughts and feelings so that their thoughts don’t affect their feelings.
Isolation differs from denial. Using denial, a person with a drug problem might refuse to even see that they have a drug problem. Using isolation, a person with a drug problem would acknowledge they have a problem, but would not let the fact they have a problem affect their feelings. If intellectualization is all about staying in your head to avoid your heart, isolation is about keeping your head and your heart separate.
3. Displacement – 81st percentile – very high
Displacement occurs when we “take out” our frustrations on someone/something else. For example, imagine that you hate your boss. It might have dire consequences if you expressed your hate toward your boss. So, if you displaced those feelings, you might go home and yell at your family.
This is different than projection. In projection, we don’t see our own feelings—we see them in other people (e.g., I am not angry, my boss is). In displacement, however, we still “own” our feelings (e.g., I am angry) but we “take out” those feelings on the wrong target (e.g., angry at boss, but kick dog instead of boss).
4. Regression – 73rd percentile – high
Regression is a defense mechanism where people essentially start acting or thinking like a child. The idea is that when life feels too overwhelming or our problems feel too big, that we regress to an earlier, easier time when other people (our parents) used to take care of us. As such, regression can include:
desiring for other people to take care of your problems for you
acting dependent on other people
acting like a child (e.g., temper tantrums)
refusing to take responsibility for your actions
5. Doubt – 72nd percentile – high
The defense mechanism of doubt occurs when people doubt their senses or thought processes when they encounter problems. For example, imagine a good friend tells you they don’t really like you. You might utilize the defense mechanism of doubt by thinking “I must have misunderstood what they meant.”
Doubt is kind of like a mixture of denial, intellectualization, and rationalization. Doubt lets us deny that our problems are real (or avoid making big decisions we’re afraid of) by questioning our ability to accurately see the world and make good decisions. In contrast to denial, when people use doubt, they are aware of their problems on some level.
6. Rationalization – 68th percentile – high
Rationalization is when people excuse their actions with usually irrational false explanations. For example, if someone binges and eats an entire large pizza, they might think “Well, the food was going to waste anyway! I might as well have eaten it.”
Rationalization is kind of like a mixture of denial and intellectualization. Essentially, rationalization allows people to “explain away” their problems (usually bad habits, personal flaws, etc.) with a superficially valid explanation. The biggest difference between rationalization and intellectualization is that intellectualization is used to avoid feelings, whereas rationalization is used to avoid seeing our own personal flaws.
7. Intellectualisation – 64th percentile – high
Intellectualization occurs when people avoid painful feelings by thinking oftentimes inappropriate impersonal thoughts. For example, if someone’s pet dies, they might think, “Pets die every day. Why should I be upset?”
Basically, the idea is that people who use intellectualization minimize their problems—or at least their feelings— and avoid the pain in their hearts by staying lodged solidly in their heads.
8. Projection – 47th percentile – about average
Projection occurs when we project our own thoughts and feelings onto other people. For example, you might really hate your boss. If you used the defense mechanism of projection, you might be unaware of your own feelings toward your boss, but instead think your boss hated you. This defense mechanism would allow you to deny your feelings and, in turn, believe that any conflict between you and your boss is your boss’s fault (not yours).
Projection basically lets us believe that are problems aren’t really ours—they’re someone else’s!
9. Repression – 37th percentile – low
Repression occurs when people push down or block-out memories or desires that they feel are threatening. For example, someone might repress painful childhood memories and try to not think about them. As another example, someone might repress their attraction to a friend that they fear wouldn’t reciprocate their interest.
Repression is similar to denial, but slightly different. Denial is about convincing yourself that your problems don’t exist. Repression is about blocking out part of yourself—memories or desires, usually—perhaps to avoid creating a problem!
10. Reaction formation – 15th percentile – very low
Reaction formation is a fascinating defense mechanism where we do the opposite of what we really want to do. For example, imagine you are very attracted to another person. If, for some reason that attraction is a problem (e.g., you are married, they are married, etc.), you might start to feel the opposite toward them—you may think they are disgusting and/or actively dislike them.
Reaction formation allows you to avoid your problems—and also creates a buffer to ensure you avoid your problems. In the example above, you’re not merely repressing your attraction toward the other person—you’re actually feeling negative feelings toward them. These negative feelings will ensure the attraction doesn’t resurface.
Seeing that my marriage ended up being far worse than I had predicted, I maybe should have paid attention to these results a bit more, especially my denial and doubt scores.
It did help with the writing up of my thesis, however, as I stopped trying to avoid the problem, started coming into the lab from 9am-5pm every weekday regardless of how I felt and began making some real and consistent progress without cramming for the first time in my life. I finished a full draft of my thesis by September 2013, started working as a Psychologist in private practice shortly after that, and submitted the final copy of my thesis for examination in February 2014.
Have My Defence Mechanisms Improved?
I retook the ‘How Do You Deal?’ questionnaire at the end of April 2017. I am living a life that is much more consistent with the experiences I want to have rather than what society says that I should be doing. I believe that I am a lot happier and in the best place that I have ever been psychological. But have my defence mechanisms actually changed?
As you can see, eight of my results had improved, with denial dropping 19 percentile points and losing its position as my most used defence mechanism. This is great, as I am now more aware of the issues that I have and can actually do something about them.
My most noticeable improvement was my reduction in intellectualising things, but I also repress things much less than I used to, rationalise my actions less, and doubt myself less too. This means that I am now turning into what I feel and need more, and not just remaining in my head. By understanding and accepting my emotions rather than avoiding them or explaining them away, it really does make it easier to know what action I need to take. Regular journaling, mindfulness and therapy have definitely helped me to create these changes. So has being more honest and authentic with others.
The two defence mechanism scores that have increased are projection and isolation. The increase in projection isn’t helpful, as this means I could be externalising some problems rather than taking responsibility for the role that I played in creating them. The high isolation score isn’t so bad though, as separating my head and heart is something that I have worked on to make sure that I am making decisions in line with my values and not my fears going forward. If this never changes, that will be fine by me.
Can We Change How We Deal With Problems?
It’s not possible to completely avoid engaging in defence mechanisms. We all have different ways of coping, and many of these coping styles are developed in childhood and modelled on what everyone else in our family did.
Some defence mechanisms are more helpful than others, however, and they can change in time with deliberate practice. Head researcher of the Grant longitudinal study, George Vaillant, has separated defence mechanisms into immature, intermediate and mature defences. Acting out, projection passive-aggressive behaviour, and denial is considered immature. Reaction formation, repression and displacement are intermediate defences. Mature defences include:
humour:seeing the funny side of things,
sublimation:channelling difficult emotions into something prosocial and constructive,
anticipation:planning ahead for upcoming situations that might be challenging,
suppression:not reacting to your feelings or letting them show if this would interfere with you achieving your goals, and
altruism:deriving pleasure from helping others.
A 2013 study by Malone and colleagues found that men who used more mature defence mechanisms between 47 and 63 years of age had better health between the ages of 70 and 80. This was mostly because the people who regularly engaged in more mature defence mechanisms had better social support and stronger interpersonal connections than individuals who used immature defence mechanisms (Malone et al., 2013).
If you want to build up healthier coping strategies, understanding which defences you currently use is a great place to start. The best ways to do this apart from taking the ‘How Do You Deal?’ questionnaire is consulting with a therapist, especially a psychologist or a psychiatrist trained in psychoanalysis or psychodynamic psychotherapy. Friends and family might be able to point out some potential defence mechanisms that you use, but I do think it is better to get this feedback from someone that is both professionally trained and impartial. They can then help you to replace these defences with more mature and adaptive coping strategies so that you too can have more supportive relationships and better long-term health and well-being.