Every colleague I have talked to recently looks tired. Maybe it’s the weather? Maybe it’s the flu virus going around. These winter months can be tough.

In fact, most of my conversations with teachers these days focus on their emotional states or moods. We talk less about instructional practice and more about resilience and well-being.

A few days ago, I was on a coaching call with a high school teacher, and it centered around a challenging moment in her classroom. She described an emotionally-charged incident when she felt that her students had really let her (and themselves) down.

When she learned that they weren’t at all prepared to lead a reading activity for younger students in the school, she was frustrated, disappointed, and downright angry. She needed to find a way to regroup with them, but she wasn’t sure how to communicate, in the moment, without losing it.

Sound familiar to you at all? If you are a manager or leader in your organization, no doubt you can relate.

The Emotional Brain: Six Dimensions

This conversation led me back to a great book called The Emotional Life of Your Brain.

After thirty years of research in the field of affective neuroscience, Richard Davidson published a user-friendly book about his findings. It’s all about understanding your own particular “emotional fingerprint” (or emotional style, as he calls it).

The book’s key purpose is to map out the six brain-based components of “emotional style.” According to his theory, Davidson claims that we can each place ourselves on a continuum relative to the following six dimensions:

  • Resilience: How long does it take you to bounce back after a struggle?
  • Outlook: How long are you able to sustain positive emotions when good things happen to you?
  • Social Intuition: How well do you pick up social signals and cues from others?
  • Self-Awareness: Are you able to recognize bodily sensations that signal emotions
  • Sensitivity to Context: How much is your ability to emotionally regulate dependent on your context?
  • Attention: How sharply and clearly can you focus?

Reflecting on the Six Dimensions

After my coaching client described the incident in her classroom, we drew on these six dimensions to conduct a sort of “post-mortem” analysis of her emotional response at the time:

  • How much did you let others’ lack of preparedness get you down?
  • Did this incident stick with you throughout the day or were you able to let it go?
  • Did you correctly perceive others’ “anxiety” in that moment? Or did you see something that wasn’t necessarily present?
  • What did you feel in your body during that moment of upset? (Did you use it as a cue to slow down or adjust your approach?)
  • Would this incident have been more or less challenging for you to manage in a small group vs. a large group context? In another classroom? With another group of individuals?
  • How clearly did you see what was happening in that moment? Were you able to step back and focus on others’ behaviors before getting caught up in the wave of emotion?

After digging into these questions, the teacher was able to pinpoint her desire to leverage self-awareness, attention, and social intuition more in the future. She realized that she could have benefitted from taking a moment to consciously step back. If she would have asked her students to problem solve around this dilemma in their journals, then she might have been better able to observe her students in that moment, assess her own emotional state, and anticipate possible next steps.

And for the rest of us—how might we take these six dimensions and use them as tools for processing and reflecting on our own specific challenges?

More broadly speaking, how might we learn to become more aware of how we function on each dimension? Davidson’s book includes self-assessments for all six emotional style components, and he offers a brief online assessment for the first of the six, resilience, here.

Perhaps, most importantly, Chapter 11 of his book outlines simple “neurally inspired” exercises for changing your emotional style over time. Examples include:

  • Gratitude practices
  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Body scans
  • Focused-attention meditation (centered on an object)
  • Cognitive reappraisal training,

If you are looking for further science-based strategies for enhancing resilience, in particular, check out this article.

This month consider focusing on one of the six dimensions of emotional style. Then choose one exercise for nurturing your emotional brain. The most commonly cited practice in his book is mindfulness meditation. Research demonstrates that it can enhance self-awareness, attention, and resilience.

If you would like to better understand the range of mindfulness practices out there, take a look at this piece from the Greater Good Science Center called “How to Choose a Type of Mindfulness Meditation.”

Winter is the perfect time to quietly focus on the proper care of our emotional brains.

“Being human is not about being any one particular way; it is about being as life creates you—with your own particular strengths and weaknesses, gifts and challenges, quirks and oddities.”
—Kristin Neff 

 

A few days ago I sat down for a coaching session with an anxious new teacher. As she discussed her initial teaching experiences, she wasn’t concerned about her content knowledge or her lack of preparation. She was caught up in cycles of nervousness and self-consciousness—in the midst of her instruction. “It’s not about what I’m doing; this is in me,” she explained. “My colleague says that she can sense my lack of confidence.”

As she described her childhood and her intense training as a musician, she pinpointed her ingrained need for perfection. And then, in a moment of recognition, we laughed together because anyone who has taught for more than a few hours knows that teaching requires on-your-toes flexibility and adaptability, in the moment, every day. Classrooms full of students are never perfect, and neither are teachers. Therein lies the challenge—and the fun. Then, I watched this new teacher burst the bubble of her anxiety: “What if I just tell myself, ‘It’s okay.’”

This new teacher’s struggle (which many of us undoubtedly understand) can be informed by Kristin Neff’s cutting edge self-compassion research. In her book, she describes the three components of self-compassion:

  • Self-kindness—the ability to be gentle and accepting rather than harsh or critical with ourselves
  • Common humanity—the recognition that we are not alone in our suffering—and that we can feel connected to others in the world who feel similar pain
  • Mindfulness—the ability to be balanced, present and aware of our experiences (rather than exaggerating them or running from them)

Self-compassion emphasizes acceptance while self-esteem relies on social comparison—being above average, distinctive and special. Regardless of this difference, Neff’s research findings indicate that individuals with high self-compassion and high self-esteem can actually experience similar benefits such as lower anxiety and depression as well as greater happiness, optimism, and positive emotions.

However, unlike self-compassion, self-esteem has its downsides. In several of Neff’s studies, participants with low self-compassion and high self-esteem really struggled, in the moment, when their abilities were challenged and their egos were threatened in some way. For example, in one study, participants who reported high self-compassion experienced less anxiety than those with low self-compassion when asked to discuss their weaknesses in a mock interview. On the other hand, the participants reporting both high and low levels of self-esteem experienced similar levels of anxiety. Regardless of self-esteem level, they appeared to be uncomfortable discussing their shortcomings.

In another study where participants were asked to imagine their reactions to potentially embarrassing situations (e.g., forgetting your lines in the middle of a play or being responsible for losing a big game), the more self-compassionate participants were less likely to feel humiliated and incompetent. Those with both low and high self-esteem, however, were significantly self-critical.

Some individuals initially express discomfort with the idea of self-compassion, associating it with something like self-indulgence or self-pity, which it is not. Further research by Neff and Vonk revealed that people with high self-esteem were more likely to demonstrate narcissism than those with low self-esteem, while self-compassion levels didn’t correlate with narcissism at all.

Bottom line, self-compassion is a good thing to practice—and it can be learned. (See Neff’s website for more information.) If we can 1) extend kindness to ourselves (e.g., telling ourselves “It’s okay” in those seemingly catastrophic moments), 2) remember that we aren’t alone in our struggles, and 3) practice a more balanced, non-judgmental, and accepting stance when we feel inadequate, we can begin to experience greater calm in our lives.

“I’m so worried!” “Are you stressed out”? Posts by frightened and frazzled humans flood the internet these days. The current political climate certainly isn’t fostering a general state of calm.

Is there anything new to say about stress—especially at this time? Well … yes, there is. A friend of mine recommended Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal’s book The Upside of Stress to me last year. Over the summer (when I was less “stressed”), I gobbled it up, and I found some of her key ideas to be quite provocative—and ultimately helpful. If you don’t have the time or energy right now to dive into The Upside of Stress, read on for some of the highlights, and check out her famous TED talk “How to Make Stress Your Friend” here.

McGonigal explains “how the science of stress was born” by describing Hans Selye’s (1936) experiments with rats and the levels of torture they experienced so that he could test “the response of the body to any demand made on it.” These rodents were not undergoing typical day-to-day stressors that many humans do—they were exposed to intense exercise with no rest; they were blasted with loud noises; their bodies were flooded with toxic drugs, and some even had their spinal cords partially severed. McGonigal claims that Selye’s extreme experiments unfortunately set the stage for our “modern terror about stress.” No wonder.

Believe it or not, McGonigal claims that stress may not be as bad for you as you think. Challenging Selye’s “The-Hunger-Games-for-rodents” approach, McGonigal shifts gears to define human stress much differently, as a “biological state designed to help you learn from experience.”

With a powerful focus on “mindset” as a frame her book, she draws on numerous research studies to explain that our response to daily stressors ultimately determines its effect on our bodies, our minds, and even our mortality rates. She challenges traditional understandings of the fight, flight or freeze response to imminent threats and points to the ways in which the stress response actually helps us. Here are several positive ways in which stress might be leveraged to invigorate us, enliven us—and ultimately enrich our lives.

Stress pushes us to “rise to the challenge.” Because stress can focus attention, increase motivation, and mobilize individuals to action, McGonigal suggests that we can benefit from more positive mindsets as we grapple with the generalized state of anxiety we might feel (after reading or watching the news, for example). If we can view our nervousness (and even fear) as feeding a more attentive, energized, and attuned state of mind, we may feel more capable of addressing challenges with greater confidence.

Stress helps us “connect with others.” Studies show that stress responses can heighten prosocial instincts and encourage social cognition. If we feel isolated and overwhelmed, it’s important to listen to that little voice telling us to “reach out” and ask for help. Social networks, support groups, and volunteer activities can create the contexts and conditions necessary to face adversity— in community. More can be accomplished in groups when expectations are high and a sense of group support is palpable.

Stress motivates us to “learn and grow.” With greater knowledge of neuroplasticity (the brain’s adaptability and potential for growth), the stress response, however intense it may feel, was designed to help us restore nervous system balance and integrate new experiences into our neural repertoire. With each new challenge, our brains can learn and develop.

If Kelly McGonigal is correct, and “stress is a biological state designed to help [us] learn from experience,” how might we best respond today, this week, this year?

I just finished reading a lean, practical, and user-friendly book to enhance my coaching, facilitation, and general “getting along”(?!) skills. In The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier describes what he calls the “TERA quotient” for increasing people’s level of engagement with you at work. Drawing from neuroscience, he claims that there are four factors driving every human being’s sense of engagement with others. I love his acronym for coaches and managers because it is highly relevant to teachers as well, and I see direct applications to working with 1) an individual student who appears apathetic, 2) an off-task group of students, 3) an entire classroom, and most certainly 4) a colleague or staff member you struggle to understand (and vice versa).

Underlying the TERA quotient, is recognition of the basic evolutionary drive to move toward rewards and away from risks in order to survive and thrive as humans. And, of course, moving away from risks is crucial in sustaining a much-needed sense of safety, which is a central consideration of this model.

As you read about the TERA quotient, note Stanier’s four key questions and consider just one person (or group of people) who may be challenging for you at this time. How might this student, colleague, or group of individuals respond to you if you made conscious adjustments relative to the four factors below?

T is for Tribe: “The brain is asking, ‘Are you with me, or are you against me’?”

How can you help students or colleagues feel a greater sense of belonging—as if they really are part of the group? Some strategies might include physical proximity (sitting or standing at the same level), a light, reassuring (and appropriate) touch on the arm (yay for oxytocin!), and the thoughtful use of language that moves away from “I” and toward “we.”

On a classroom level, key evidence-based strategies might include group generation of norms or a community agreement, highly structured cooperative learning activities with clear roles, shared materials, and structures for positive interdependence.

E is for Expectation: “The brain is figuring out, ‘Do I know the future or don’t I’?”

How might you alleviate any fears, confusion, or anxiety about what is going to happen next when approaching a charged discussion with a colleague or preparing students for a lesson or an assessment? In this case, the assumption is that too much uncertainty is disconcerting, so how can you prepare students or colleagues for what is to come? There is a fine line in instructional delivery, for sure (as you don’t want students to be too comfortable, and therefore, complacent). However, you can’t go wrong in providing a clear learning target and a detailed set of directions, verbally and visually. (And perhaps you might do that right after an intriguing inquiry activity or extended anticipatory set to whet their appetites.)

In terms of communicating expectations with a colleague or co-teacher, the more transparent the better. “I am hoping that we can discuss a detailed plan for tomorrow’s presentation, outline who is doing what, and how we might signal each other if we are going overtime or need to adjust our pacing? What are your needs and priorities for this meeting?” Clarity of intention alleviates the mystery and can burst the anxiety bubble.

R is for Rank: “Are you more important or less important than I am?”

Rank is not necessarily about someone’s actual title or formal position, but about how power dynamics are playing out in a given context and moment. If a colleague feels diminished or lower in status, he may also feel less safe and secure, and therefore less likely to risk engaging. If this is the case, consider how you might consciously attempt to adjust (or depress) your own status through humility, self-deprecation, and the practice of openly sharing your vulnerabilities. As a teacher, I find that those moments when I own my mistakes and joke about my quirks and foibles, my older students, in particular, are really with me.

There are also ways to help raise another person’s sense of rank or status. Note your physical position when talking with a student or colleague. At times it might be helpful to sit down while the other person stands, simply to shift the dynamic. Most importantly, ask good questions and engage in inquiry while deeply listening to indicate that you trust that another person or group of people can figure things out on their own. Step back, stop talking, get curious, and ask genuine questions.

A is for Autonomy: “Do I get a say or don’t I?”

Here again, questions are absolutely crucial in promoting a sense of voice and agency.

  • What are you hoping to get out of this meeting?
  • What is the most important topic to discuss right now?
  • What is the real challenge for you here?
  • What are you most excited to learn about in this unit?
  • If you could design a project to meet this target, what would you choose to do?
  • What was the most useful thing you learned today?

Apart from asking questions, offering options is equally important. Does the person in front of you feel like she has the opportunity to make any choices here? Or are you making all the choices? How can you adjust your joint goals for the conversation and/or lesson, so that there is some give and take?

The Four Big Questions

“Are you with me or against me? Do I know the future or don’t I? Are you more important or less important than I am? Do I get a say or don’t I?” As I appreciate how crucial these questions are to my own sense of safety in the workplace, I can also begin to grasp the significance of these questions for my colleagues (and students) as we negotiate a joint sense of safety and well-being together.

Consider focusing on one or two factors in the TERA quotient (Tribe, Expectation, Rank, or Autonomy) this week with that challenging colleague. Take note of any shifts in the quality of your interactions—and feel free to check in and comment below.

This [event] shouldn’t have happened, and…
• It’s terrible that it did, and…
• I can barely handle it, and…
• Somebody here needs to be called out or reprimanded because of it. Is it me? Is it you? What a screwed up world we live in that this should happen.

Can you think of a time when one of these thoughts passed through your mind? Last week? Yesterday? A few minutes ago? The phrases above represent common forms of irrational thinking identified and discussed by psychologists like Albert Ellis (Rational-Emotive Therapy) and Aaron Beck (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). In an article addressing teachers’ stress and their common reactions to student behaviors, John W. Maag (2008) references the following internal thought patterns:

• Demandingness: The use of the words “should/shouldn’t, have to, need to, must”
• Catastrophizing: The belief that a situation is worse than it is
• I-Can’t-Stand Its: Imagining one can’t tolerate situations or have any happiness if the situation persists
• Condemning and Damning: The tendency to be excessively critical of oneself, others, or the world

And there are many, many more. My personal defaults include “catastrophizing” (e.g., “This is a really horrible situation, and I just can’t believe that it’s happening”) and “personalizing.” Although only implicitly featured above with the “Is it me?” quote, personalizing assumes that somehow I’m primarily responsible for the behaviors and reactions of the people in my immediate circle. (My ego and I have learned that isn’t typically the case.)

Einstein says, “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” Our interpretations of events can aggravate, intensify, and sustain our perceived stress levels. Something happens; we feel it as chemicals surge through our bodies; we tell ourselves a story about it, and we react—not always in the best way. The key is finding a way to pause, notice, and interrupt the pattern so that we can rewire our brains.

This takes time. There is absolutely no simple way to do this, other than through consistent practice. Cognitive reappraisal, mentally shifting one’s interpretation of a situation, has proven to be one of the most effective, evidence-based methods for reducing anxiety, depression and/or stress (Hoffman et al., 2012).

For example, if a student yells at you when you ask her for her homework, you might initially think, “This is awful. I can’t believe she is screaming at me in front of everyone. I don’t deserve this!” However, if you reframe this incident by thinking, “That wasn’t fun, but it’s not about me,” you can begin to get curious about what is actually going on with your student today (rather than catastrophizing, personalizing, reacting angrily, and further escalating the situation).

To address your thought patterns and begin to rewire your brain, consider these three key steps:

  1. Record the repertoire of mental messages you send to yourself daily. Spend a week or two jotting down the common thoughts you have when you perceive a threat or potential conflict brewing (even those that seem fairly benign or innocuous).
  2. Do a content inventory of those thoughts. Do you notice any patterns? (Consult a list of common cognitive distortions.)
  3. If you are committed to digging in and making some long-term changes, do a post-mortem on your day-to day reactions. When a problematic event occurs, take the time that same day (or evening) to replay the situation with this “Testing your Thoughts” worksheet. If you practice using this tool 2-3 times a week (for a sustained period of time), you will likely increase your awareness of your thought patterns and begin to retrain your brain.

Believe in the power of neuroplasticity (i.e., your brain can change and rewire itself with practice), and take Pablo Picasso’s words to heart: “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”

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Marsha Linehan, the founder of dialectical behavior therapy, created an acronym to guide us through moments of distress—or “terrible, horrible, very bad” circumstances. The goal behind the acronym is to develop a skill set for tolerating events and challenging emotions when you cannot immediately change the fact that, for example … your boss continually reprimanded you in front of your colleagues during your morning meeting, your teenage daughter screamed at you through that closed door again, or you just discovered that your dear friend from college is struggling with an addiction.

When I first read Linehan’s claim that someone can “distract” herself through a series of options couched within a model called “ACCEPTS,” I remember smirking. Accept by distracting … oh really?! Yet a large part of the day-to-day human struggle, for me anyway, intensifies in my vigorous resistance to difficult situations, conflicts, and uncomfortable emotions that can feel overwhelming in a given moment.

Distracting with other constructive and worthwhile options is a step toward acceptance and tolerance. If I choose to occupy my mind and body with other activities, it doesn’t mean that I necessarily approve of the event that is making me so angry, sad, or fearful, but it is an opportunity to redirect my energies in a more productive and meaningful way because this thing [this divorce, this job toxicity, this disease my friend is battling] is a reality that I must inevitably bear. It IS, and so are the other possibilities below:

Distract with ACCEPTS*

1.    “With Activities – Engage in exercise or hobbies … call or visit a friend”
What are your go-to activities? Do you have a repertoire of options? Can you throw on your running shoes and take a quick jog? Pick up those knitting needles? Do you enjoy tending those plants on your balcony or window sill? Is it time for a Netflix night or a game night with the kids?

2.    “With Contributing – Contribute to someone; do volunteer work; give something to someone else”

Do you have a “cause”? Is there a way that you give back to your community or neighborhood beyond your traditional work day? In her famous TED Talk, Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal cites research indicating that people who manage stress best and have greater longevity are individuals who reach out, connect, and extend care to others.

3.    “With Comparisons – Compare yourself to people coping the same as you or less well than you”

Instead of the dangers of some social comparisons, which can lead to lowered levels of self-esteem, this form of comparison has the opposite effect. “This is not my worst moment. I’ve managed much more difficult circumstances than this.” The popular refrain, “This is a first-world problem” often helps me to put my minor frustrations in perspective as well.

4.    “With opposite Emotions – Be sure the event creates different emotions. Ideas: scary movies, joke books, comedies…”

What makes you laugh? Your goofy, slobbery dog? Your toddling two-year-old? An impromptu family dance party? A favorite TV show or stand-up comic? (Parks and Recreation is a favorite TV sitcom in my household!) What makes you joyful?

5.    “With Pushing away – Push the situation away by leaving it for a while”

This is a simple exercise in refraining from further rumination. Some suggest that designating a specified time for worrying (e.g., 30 minutes a day) is a better option. Otherwise, immerse yourself in other activities.

6.    “With other Thoughts” – Count to 10; count colors in a painting or tree … work puzzles”

Sometimes easier said than done, but there are multiple tools and methods for cognitive reappraisal (ways to practice re-framing and replacing thoughts) that can also be very beneficial.

7.    “With intense other Sensations – Hold ice in hand; squeeze a rubber ball very hard”

Lots of healthy and appealing options here, right? Sexual activity, loud music, an invigorating CrossFit workout, a super-hot shower.

All of these strategies offer alternatives to feeling bowled over by that “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”

*See Marsha Linehan’s website at www.linehaninstitute.org for additional resources related to dialectical behavioral therapy.

 

A pioneer of the positive psychology movement, Martin Seligman, claims: “Psychology should be just as concerned with building strength as with repairing damage.”

Seligman’s words ring true for educational professionals. A warm, strengths-based approach, promoting high expectations in the classroom, is the antidote to negative thinking about student outcomes. A primary focus on classroom challenges can quickly lead to teacher overwhelm, whack-a-mole efforts at damage control, and symptoms of burnout.

The good news is that Seligman’s 2011 book Flourish outlines the five key components of his well-being theory. These five research-based elements have direct relevance to classroom communities and provide a foundation for enlivening and re-invigorating teachers in their professional practice—and ultimately empowering students. The acronym PERMA points to the five factors that support greater happiness and well-being.

Positive Emotions (P):

Do students in your classroom feel safe, at ease, and basically happy when they walk in your door?

  • Welcome them in the hall by shaking their hands or giving them a high five.
  • Acknowledge students by name on a regular basis.
  • Leverage Barbara Frederickson’s  positivity ratio of 3 positive comments to every negative comment in your daily interactions.

Engagement (E):

Do students have voice, choice, and agency in your classroom?

  • Empower students as active participants in meaningful and relevant project-based learning opportunities.
  • Prompt students to propose and create learning experiences that build on unit objectives and learning targets.

Positive Relationships (R):

Do you foster healthy, supportive relationships in your classroom?

  • Invest significant and sufficient time in community building activities at the start of the year.
  • Jointly negotiate classroom norms/agreements and revisit them regularly.
  • Provide students with opportunities to engage in meaningful cooperative learning activities that are thoughtfully structured for positive interdependence and face-to-face interaction.

Meaning (M):

Do students believe that the work they do in your class is worthwhile and important?

  • Focus on students’ perceptions of the value behind your lessons and units.
  • Discuss the real-world relevance (every day) of the projects, learning activities, and learning targets you share.
  • Engage in service learning projects so your students can play a direct role in their community. Ask your students how they would like to contribute to improving local schools, parks, and neighborhoods.

Accomplishment (A):

Do students feel successful in your class?

  • Create ways to celebrate students’ successes.
  • Provide sufficient time for reflection on student learning.
  • Use formative assessments and metacognitive tools that focus on Dweck’s “growth” mindset—rather than a “fixed” mindset.
  • Support students and scaffold their learning activities so that they can set and meet personal learning goals.

There is incredible power in focusing on community well-being and leveraging individuals’ strengths. Translated here for educational purposes, Seligman’s five-factor PERMA model provides a basic map for positively influencing meaningful engagement in the classroom. Think about this five-pronged approach as you are building your classroom community, selecting lesson content, and structuring learning experiences. It isn’t explicitly described as a “motivational” theory, but as a tool, it has great potential for motivating you and your students in your work together.

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Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom. —Victor Frankl

Powerful, right? Although I sometimes have trouble accessing this elusive gap in time, I find this quote inspiring and motivating. It moves me to remember to literally pause when I feel my throat tighten, my heart rate escalate, and the heat rising up through my body. With practice, it IS possible to learn to notice physiological triggers and to breathe deeply into the self-created “space” that Frankl celebrates—rather than falling into my typical knee-jerk reaction.

When a person’s words or a challenging event triggers you, what happens next? Do you acknowledge your bodily response? How do you slow down the chemical surge, interrupt the narrative in your head, and gain access to reasonable next steps? How do you learn to respond rather than react?

Accept—then act. Whatever the present contains, accept it as if you have chosen it. Always work with it, not against it … This will miraculously change your whole life. —Eckhart Tolle

This quote became a mantra for me during a period of time I spent in an intensely toxic work environment. Tolle’s call to “accept” our circumstances may seem almost impossible to enact because humans are wired to respond to potential threats to our well-being. In my situation, acceptance seemed far from what should be the natural response to a difficult job situation that left me with a dark, heavy sense of dread every morning at 6 a.m. However, my ongoing resistance to the dysfunctional climate was certainly not helping either.

I found that accepting (however reluctantly) also opened my eyes to my options. I could stay; I could leave, or I could carefully devise my “Plan B.” I discovered that acceptance wasn’t really surrender or even forbearance. It prompted me to notice and explore alternatives more meaningfully and realistically—whether in my daily responses to colleagues or in the bigger picture of my career trajectory.

You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them. —Maya Angelou

As someone whose typical cognitive distortions involve “catastrophizing” (“I can’t believe this has happened!) and “personalizing” (“Is this all my fault? Did I bring this on myself?”), I appreciate being reminded that I actually don’t control everything. More importantly, Angelou’s words fuel resilience—the capacity to adapt and grow in the face of stress and trauma. When the going gets tough, there are many ways to respond and engage in what Anne Lamott calls “radical self-care.” Research-based strategies include engaging in physical exercise, reaching out for social support (online or in person), practicing mindfulness (www.mindful.org), employing strategies to foster distress tolerance (www.linehaninstitute.com), reappraising and reframing thoughts (www.beckinstitute.org), practicing self-compassion (www.self-compassion.org), and employing positive psychology practices to enhance daily well-being (www.greatergood.berkeley.edu).

No matter what daily strategy or tool you choose, the key is PRACTICING it regularly and consistently in order to capitalize on your brain’s plasticity—its ability to re-wire itself over time. Resilience is fueled by a commitment to yourself (not to be “reduced” by another person or event), but it grows and develops through the daily activities and practices you choose to put into action.

As a teacher educator, I have been preparing materials for a communication and conflict resolution workshop at the end of this month. My workshop curriculum has evolved over the years, and I am convinced that a primary focus on specific (and somewhat prescriptive) conflict resolution strategies isn’t always the best use of participants’ time. When someone is triggered during a conflict (and emotionally flooded), those nicely packaged and somewhat scripted tools, phrases, and strategies aren’t necessarily accessible—nor do they feel authentic to the speaker in a moment of upset.

My angle in this fall’s workshop is to focus more broadly on self-awareness and personal reflection so that participants can explore their personality preferences and patterns of relating relative to typically challenging workplace scenarios. If we know ourselves pretty well—our strengths, weaknesses, and default reactions, we may be more readily able to pause, take stock, calm our bodies, and reboot or redirect the trajectory of a difficult conversation at work. Further, if we are more broadly attuned to our skills and strengths, we may be more likely to approach our workplace with a greater sense of purpose and agency in the first place.

Tool #1:
Because my university no longer offers the popular MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) instrument for students, I have been reviewing free online tools that build on the work of Jung, Myers, and Briggs, and I found a very user-friendly, abbreviated, and reframed version of the formal MBTI measurement at http://www.16personalities.com/.

The researchers at this London-based company called Neris Analytics, use the acronym format introduced by Myers-Briggs, but they have renamed several traits from Jung’s model and added a fifth trait. The five independent scales below represent five aspects of personality outlined in the following categories:

  • Mind: How we interact with the environment (Introverted vs. Extroverted)
  • Energy: How we see the world and process (Observant vs. Intuitive)
  • Nature: How we make decisions and cope with emotions (Thinking vs. Feeling)
  • Tactics: How we approach work and planning (Prospecting vs. Judging)
  • Identity: Our confidence in our abilities and decisions (Assertive vs. Turbulent)

Survey results feature percentages relative to each scale, indicating the strength of each preference (rather than simply labeling you as a “type”). The website also provides free information about your profile relative to strengths, weaknesses, relationships, career paths, and workplace habits.

Tool #2:
The second tool I have been using regularly in my Resilient Teacher Workshop over the past year is the VIA Survey of Characters Strengths. This scientific survey was created under the direction of Dr. Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, and it has been used in hundreds of research studies in 190 countries. Although it is a very simple survey, it helps you to get a clearer picture of your best qualities and strengths so that you can make positive changes for yourself and your work team. The twenty-four character strengths (e.g., creativity, curiosity, humor, and perseverance) fall under six broader categories of virtues including: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence.

The creators of the survey propose that knowing your own particular constellation of character strengths is a step toward living a more authentic and happy life. In fact, Seligman and his team have conducted research on leveraging strengths that suggests long-term mental health benefits. Participants in his study took the VIA survey and selected one core character strength that was personally energizing and easy to use. Then, they brainstormed at least seven new ways to express that core strength each day for one week. Participants in this study reported experiencing higher levels of happiness and lower levels of depression (even six months after the week-long experiment).

Consider using both of these survey-based tools (simply as “indicators” rather than “labelers”) in order to foster personal growth, spark small group discussion, and/or cultivate a more positive, collaborative environment in your workplace.

I’m having a little trouble getting adjusted to this new season (and school year). My summer was simply too glorious, and I still feel like hanging out at home with the novel I’m reading (Euphoria by Lily King), a blueberry scone, and a cup of chamomile tea. There are also a few television shows on my Netflix list that are calling out to me. (I’m told that Stranger Things is a must-see, but I can’t vouch for it yet.)

Don’t get me wrong; I’m genuinely enjoying seeing my new graduate students; it’s just that some aspects of my university job don’t particularly inspire me today (e.g., committee assignments, institutional politics—and the national political climate, for that matter). Then there are those back-to-school day-long faculty meetings that are, strangely and ironically, called “retreats.”

Today I decided to remember one of my favorite author’s words. Anne Lamott calls for us humans to practice “radical self care” by “being exquisitely kind and gentle and patient with [ourselves], exactly as [we] would be with a friend.”  This is a directive worth embracing, particularly if you work in a helping profession.

So my mini-brain wave during a ho-hum morning was to respond to Lamott’s call on a simple, tangible level by refreshing a little “care package” I keep in my desk drawer—just for me. A small step today, perhaps, but surprisingly beneficial. I visualized the little things (both practical and personal) that make me feel most supported, inspired and nourished during long and emotionally tedious days.

Here are the items I included after raiding my kitchen drawers, bathroom, and hall closet (and followed up with a short trip to the local drug store at lunch):

  • Practical Necessities: A toothbrush and paste, floss, mouthwash, mints, gum, deodorant, nail clippers, nail file, lip balm, tissues, hand lotion, Band-Aids, ibuprofen, a few dollar bills, and a handful of change.
  • Psychological Support: Tea, tea, and more tea; my favorite quote; a book of favorite poems I love by Mary Oliver; a photo of my daughter at the beach; and my phone with its mindfulness apps. (See my website’s “resources” page at amyleva.com for further details on those apps.)
  • Physical Nourishment: nuts, protein bars, assorted snacks, a few dishes, utensils, cups, napkins, and a little chocolate.

As an educational psychologist, professor, and coach, I typically share “research-based” strategies for enhancing well-being. In this case, however, I can simply report, “After collecting and assembling the items above …  I genuinely feel better.” I am more relaxed, energized, and at ease this afternoon. My own coach, Meggin McIntosh, would likely call my little desk drawer refresh project a “calming the chaos” activity. She encourages her clients and workshop participants to devote a few minutes a day to “calming the chaos” (e.g., labeling hanging files, organizing a bookshelf, putting those inbox emails in the right folders.). I know she is onto something here.

What does (or might) your self-care desk drawer look like? What might it indicate about you and the little things that sustain you? Feel free to comment here if you dare to create your own personal desk drawer care package (or refresh it in some way). Would love to hear about it.