Archive | Understanding Emotions


Burnout is a common problem. When you “burn out,” you lose the motivation to do productive work that you have done in the past–and used to enjoy doing.

There are three common sources of motivation: a personally meaningful (selfish) purpose, an inspiring person, or an urgent priority.

The first of these is fundamental. If you don’t have selfish purpose in your life to set a direction and prioritize your commitments, other people and urgent priorities become a drain on your energy.

However, it is not enough to have a selfish purpose. I am wildly, first-handedly passionate about understanding how you grow your own mind. That hasn’t stopped me from burning out. From time to time, I notice that I have gone on strike. I have total resistance to doing work that in principle I want to do.

What I’ve learned is that it’s not enough to have a selfish goal: you need to learn to act selfishly in the moment, holding the full context. That means you need to learn how to choose in the moment based on values, not rules or feelings or any predetermined expectation of what the right thing to do is.

Your old thinking–that rule, automatized evaluation, or expectation–may be correct. But if you are feeling conflict, there is some value at stake that is not completely clear to you.

This has led to an important practice: whenever I feel I “have to” do something, I check my premises. I recognize I am trying to force myself to act on a past prediction of what is best for me right now. What I need is my best thinking on what is in fact best for me.

The truth is that the idea that I “have to” is wrong. You always have a choice–a metaphysically given choice. You may not like the choice, but you do have it.

The conflict means that there are values that need to be brought out to the light of day and factored into the decision. Logic requires that you hold the full context–of knowledge and values–before making the decision. You need to do a little due diligence to identify what is the value at stake.

Clarifying the values can be tricky when the resistance or temptation appears to be illogical. If the immediate explanation for why you don’t want to do something is irrational, like “I don’t wanna,” you might be tempted to dismiss it. In these cases it’s important to show respect for yourself. Take the time to identify the deeper rational value that is really at stake here–don’t settle for the superficial irrationality.

For example, a client I had once needed to write a grant proposal. She said she was procrastinating, and thought she should just jump in and start writing. But when she listened to her resistance to writing, she realized that she needed data to show that the earlier project was a success. She needed to send out a survey to past participants–urgently–so that she could get data to incorporate into the proposal. This had not been on her radar, until she examined the reasons for her resistance.

Going by “have to” is wrong. Just as it’s wrong to force another person, it is wrong to force yourself. If you use your willpower to force yourself to act against strong resistance, you will deny an important source of information about your work (the resistance), associate pain and suffering with the work, and eventually start hating it. That will cause burnout, no matter what the end.

Some people have have a rationalistic view of selfishness. They think that if they know that the overall goal is good, then any step toward it is madatory. But that is not the case. Both the end and the means need to be in your self-interest.

To be clear, I am not saying, “take the path of least resistance.” If you only take action that you “feel like” doing, you’ll never achieve your goals. The truth is, you need to exert your willpower effectively–on the small step that gives you leverage for gaining the big values over time. If you’re feeling resistance, you may be trying to take too big a step. You need to find a smaller step–maybe an uncomfortable or unpleasant step–that you are willing to take.

Another way to look at this–if you have a first-handed goal, and you are unmotivated, lack of motivation is not the problem. Unclarity is the problem.

Motivation is an effect, not a cause. If you are unmotivated to take an action you believe is in your best interest, your challenge is to get true clarity on the values at stake in this moment. That means–get clarity on your emotions.

Every emotion you feel is triggered by some value on your horizon. If your value is threatened, you will feel some kind of fear. If it is possible to gain a value of yours, you will feel some kind of desire.

When the thoughts seem irrational, they are a distorted attempt to achieve something rational. For example, an obsession with what other people think could be a distorted attempt to make a personal connection with others. Or it could be a distorted attempt to validate one’s own behavior. Similarly, apparent laziness could be motivated by a concern with health. Or it could be a way to avoid putting oneself to the test out of fear of failure. When the superficial reason for an emotion is irrational, you don’t really know what the motivation is until you introspect. The superficial explanation is just a rationalization.

You need to know. You need to know the deep value at stake before you can decide what is in your rational interest.

This doesn’t have to take a lot of time. In general, if you can’t resolve a conflict in three minutes, I recommend finding a step you’re willing to take despite the conflict, one that will help you resolve the conflict.

Just as you don’t make demands of other people-don’t make demands of yourself. Ask yourself, “am I willing” to take this step? If yes, it will take a little willpower to start. That’s an act of will.

If no, use your willpower to find the step you are willing and able to take.

To stop burning out, I needed to take seriously the idea that you cannot force a mind–not even your own. And that means forcing your action is never the answer. If you feel you need to force yourself, step back, understand the full value context, and choose a step toward your goals you can take willingly.


July 22, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

If you don’t have resources for self-awareness, you don’t have resources for anything

I had a call with a member of the Thinking Lab the other day. He was concerned that he was reverting to some old behavior. He had changed jobs, and as a result he was very busy ramping up his knowledge and activity in the new position.

He said it had occurred to him that he needed the self-awareness tools he had learned, which made a huge difference in his motivation, effectiveness, and clarity. But he felt like he didn’t have time to use them. He was scheduled without breaks from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.

He noticed that old ways seemed to be taking over–he was functioning more on a secondhanded premise and a duty premise. He was feeling pressured to go along with other people rather than stick to his independent judgment. He was “having to” just do the work, no matter what. He was concerned about this–when would the old duty premises and secondhandedness go away?

Two points are needed to put this in perspective: First, this is a common problem, not idiosyncratic to him. Second, it is a sign of success in his changing his premises that he could be this self-aware of the meta-problem.

Having said that, there is a mistaken assumption here–the idea that eventually he will never be pulled to go by duty or to go along with what others think. These are default conditions–and they will always be default conditions. This is not because people are inherently bad, or there is something wrong with him, or it’s impossible to change your premises. This is because, it’s not the action that is a problem per se, it’s that you make the decision to take the action that is a problem.

When you go by duty, you do something because you feel you have to, without having addressed contrary motivation. For example, you clear your email because you can’t stand all of those unread messages piling up–you just feel you have to, even though maybe you’re worried this will mess up your creative work. You shut out that feeling and “just do it.”

If you hold the context and address the contrary motivation, you can then find a step to take that does not require shutting down your mind. Sometimes it is exactly the same step you would have taken. For example, although email is a creativity killer, so is total distraction. Sometimes I make a conscious decision to clear email before creative work, because it’s clear that I won’t be able to concentrate anyway. There is a world of difference in how events unfold when you take an action by conscious choice rather than you are driven to take the same action. The only difference is whether you took the time to actively assess the conflict, or you short-circuited the process and chose based on the strongest feeling.

Similarly, sometimes you go along with another person’s opinion, and sometimes you won’t. The error of secondhandedness is taking the other person’s opinions as the standard, rather than making an objective decision yourself. Going along with the other person is one of the options that you validly should consider when you are engaged in some cooperative activity. If you are passive, it is often the choice, because the other person has been working to persuade you–to activate all of the reasons for going along. If you have not taken the time to activate the full context, of course you will go along with him.

In other words, if you are not self-aware, you will wind up making choices based on duty or secondhandedness, just by the logic of the situation.

Which brings us back to the presenting problem: My client felt he was too busy to take the time to make the decisions in a self-aware way.

Actually, there are three legitimate reasons you might feel you can’t take the steps to be self-aware: you’re overloaded, you’re tired, or you’re tense.

Self-awareness uses specific mental resources.

First of all, it takes mental “crow” space. If you are so overloaded you can’t think straight, you simply do not have the mental capacity for reflection. On the other hand, you don’t have the mental capacity for whatever it is you’re trying to do, either. The urgent need at that moment is to reduce the overload. Here, paper is your friend: make a list, do thinking on paper, organize your ideas. Do something to get the ideas out of your head and in front of you in writing so that you can get an overview and think about issues in crow-friendly bites.

Once you’ve cleared your crow, your best option is to make a conscious, self-aware choice of what your priority is.

Second, it takes energy to be self-aware. If you are tired, you will find the prospect of initiating self-awareness to be exhausting. You simply do not have the mental energy for reflection. On the other hand, you don’t have the mental energy for doing whatever it is you’re trying to do, either. The urgent need at that moment is to refuel. Music and mild exercise are your friends here: Making music, listening to music, taking a brisk walk–these can re-energize you. If these don’t do the trick, you may literally need sleep.

Once you’ve regained your energy, your best option is to make a conscious, self-aware choice of what your priority is.

Third, it takes access to your subconscious to be self-aware. If you are tense, or feeling pressured, you are suppressing feelings. Tensing your body is how you block awareness of feelings and other distractions. Saying “no, I can’t think about that” is the mental equivalent. If you are tensed up or feeling pressured, you simply do not have the free access to your subconscious databanks that you need for self-awareness. On the other hand, you don’t have the free access to your subconscious databanks for doing whatever it is you’re trying to do, either. The urgent need at that moment is to undo the tension. For this, I use the Alexander Technique and breathing techniques. Stretching and body relaxation techniques can also help. If these don’t do the trick, you may need a bath or a massage.

Once you’ve regained free access to your subconscious, you will instantly become overloaded. Nobody tenses up to keep distractions at bay unless there are a lot of distractions. Some of them are likely emotionally charged. Your best option is to do some kind of core dump of the issues on your mind. If they are emotional, you may need to do some introspection to turn the feelings into words in order to get back to a neutral state.

Once you are in a neutral state, your best option is to make a conscious, self-aware choice of what your priority is.

The bottom line: there will be times that you don’t have the mental resources for self-awareness. Treat this as a huge warning bell. It means you don’t have the mental resources for any significant work. Your urgent need is to regain the mental resources.

This fact–that you have been overloaded, fatigued, or pressured by the task–then needs to be factored into your choice of next step. This means that you have been working at the limits of your capacity. That is a prescription for struggle. You probably need to adjust your plan so that you can put in a sustainable effort. The way to do that is to make a self-aware choice of what your priority is right now.

April 15, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Getting More Emotional Impact from Good Things that Happen in Life

Some years ago I recommended the daily practice of identifying three good things that happen each day. This idea, which I got from Martin Seligman, helps you develop a more optimistic mindset. The original tip is still up on the Thinking Directions site.

In addition to making you more optimistic, identifying “three good things” also helps you understand your values. Over the years, I have used this simple exercise as a starting place for clarifying my own value hierarchy and deepening my appreciation for the values in my life.

Here are two more steps you can take to extract more value from the “good things” that happen to you.

1. Ask yourself, “What does this mean to me?”

I’ve often suggested asking “what does this mean to me?” to dig deeper into a negative emotion. It’s a question that can send you into tears when you’re feeling vulnerable. But it’s equally powerful for fleshing out why a “good thing” is good.

I figured this out one day, quite a while ago, when I was discouraged about the political situation. I had written my list of “good things,” but I still felt down. So I decided to try this extra step, and I was able to turn around my mood.

It wasn’t hard. One of the items on my “good things” list was that I had edited a piece of writing and sent it out. Its meaning for me was that I had fulfilled my commitment, and that I take pride in fulfilling my commitments. Another item on the list was that I completed an apparently trivial chore (bringing a necklace to be repaired). When I thought about the meaning to me of that chore, it had some personal symbolic significance.

None of these “good things” generated much positive emotion–until I thought about their meaning. In fact, I was amazed at how inspired I got from this extra step. I noticed that instead of feeling discouraged, I was energized.

2. Identify the deep rational values at stake

It’s not always easy to discover meaning yourself. An aid to this is to look specifically for “deep rational values.”

In Ayn Rand’s words, “a value is that which one acts to gain and/or keep.” A rational value is a value that is in fact good for you. A deep rational value is a fundamental one, a value that is closely related to meeting basic needs of human existence. You can see my list of deep rational values in my OFNR Quick Reference Sheet.

Every action you take is motivated in some way by your deepest values. This list can help you find that link.

For example, here are three good things that happened to me yesterday:

  • I caught up on sending out recordings to clients.
  • I played tennis with a “real” person.
  • My mother arrived for a visit.

I didn’t see sending out the recordings as deeply meaningful at first. It helped me clear my task list. But when I looked at the list of deep rational values, I saw that it helped me gain two mental values: “crow” space and closure. In addition, it was a contribution to the learning of the clients who got the recordings. It was also fulfilling a responsibility, and, an instance of productiveness–actually creating a material value.

On the other hand, playing tennis with a “real” person had obvious meaning to me. As background, you need to know that last October I decided to learn to play tennis, not knowing the rules of the game, nor how to throw a ball, hit a ball, or run. (That is a slight exaggeration, but only slight.) I have been taking lessons 4-5 times a month ever since. However, I had been playing only in lessons, because I wasn’t good enough to play with a “real” person, or at least not the real people I know. We would not have been able to maintain any kind of volley.

Well, I have now reached a minimum level of competence–so I and my opponent could both have some fun hitting the ball back and forth. It was meaningful to me that I have reached an objective level of mastery. This sport is turning into a bona fide source of playtime for me. I now have more freedom to play at will, instead of just in paid lessons.

Mastery, play, freedom: these are all deep rational values. Looking at my list, I realized another value was at stake here: celebration. There is value in pausing to mark important events. This is a value I hadn’t even thought about until checking the list–but I feel deeply satisfied to celebrate the occasion right now.

As for the meaning of my mother’s arrival–the value is mutual visibility. Having her visit means I can see how she is, hear how she’s doing. And in turn, I will be seen and heard.

Taking the time to identify deep rational values helps you develop the language of values. Soon you see deep values everywhere. This practice helps you maintain a benevolent world view.

I have used these extra steps when I am feeling sluggish and unmotivated to turn around my attitude. I just write down three good things that have happened, and what each one means to me, and what deep rational values are at stake. Each time I am a bit more inspired, and more eager to take action.

It’s a keeper: it’s easy and inviting to do, and there’s an immediate payoff.

April 1, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

How to say “That’s BS” in RCC

Each month in the Thinking Lab, I run sessions on “Rationally Connected Conversations” (RCC) an adaptation of Marshall Rosenberg’s “Nonviolent Communication” (NVC). In January, I hosted a session with Jeff Brown, a Certified Trainer in NVC, to discuss “How to say ‘That’s BS’ in RCC.”

I learned a lot–and thought I would work through one crucial lesson by concretizing it thoroughly.

But first I had to establish the logical and emotional foundation for the method. That’s what I’ve been doing in some recent newsletters. The three conclusions were:

  1. It takes quite a bit of evidence to conclude that someone is dishonest. The fact that someone stated a falsehood or ignored something obvious is not enough to establish dishonesty.
  2. Honesty is such a fundamental necessity in relationships, that any hint of dishonesty has the power to trigger strong emotions. If you suspect someone else is being dishonest, you are likely to become triggered emotionally by the apparent betrayal. If he suspects that you think he is being dishonest, he will become triggered emotionally, too. If he’s innocent, he’ll be angry at the apparent injustice. If he’s guilty, he’ll be fearful of consequences of his action.
  3. Given all of this, if you are tempted to confront someone about his apparent untruths, you need to proactively deal with your own emotions. You need to become emotionally grounded so you can make a fair assessment about the evidence and the values at stake. What actually matters most to you in this situation?

As I see it, this last is the key to figuring out what to say. You need to have completed the internal work so that you are emotionally grounded and you know your purpose. Then, to quote Jeff Brown, you can “express your needs by taking full responsibility for your thoughts, interpretations, and conclusions.”

Only if you believe there is at least a possibility that there is an innocent explanation does it make sense to engage. If you believe that is true, you can and should treat the person respectfully. Otherwise, you will unnecessarily alienate him. (If you are rationally convinced the person is dishonest, there is no reason to engage at all.)

You would engage differently, depending on your purpose. Let’s work this through, using the following real situation as a jumping off point:

A while ago, I submitted an application for a volunteer position that required computer skills. I got an email back from someone, call her Mary, telling me the application I had submitted online had come through blank, and asking if I could send her a copy by email.

I checked my copy of the application and discovered it was blank, too. After some sleuthing, I saw what happened. I had filled out the editable PDF online and then saved. Apparently that doesn’t work. You need to save a copy of the form, then fill it out locally in a PDF editor, then save using the PDF editor. I redid the application, doublechecked that it included my data, resubmitted it, and sent Mary a copy by email for good measure. Problem solved.

But suppose I hadn’t figured out what caused the problem? Suppose I had repeated the same failed process and sent her a blank copy? Supposed I was so sure that the save “should” work that I didn’t check the file before sending to her? Suppose I did this twice more?

Let’s make up someone–call him Bob–and say that’s what he did. Three times he wrote to Mary, saying “here’s my application.” And three times, what Mary got was blank.

Mary might have gotten miffed or worse with Bob. Adopt your most suspicious mindset, and imagine the worst interpretation possible: Was Bob too slipshod to be suitable for the role? Was Bob evading the need to check the file before sending it? Was Bob lying to try to get an extension on the deadline without asking for it?

When you suspect dishonesty, you need to get in touch with your own emotions and values, so you can decide whether there is at least a possibility that there is an innocent explanation and/or some positive foundation for connecting. That is necessary if you are going to engage. Here, there is a pretty clear possibility that Bob had a technical problem.

Let’s just speculate that there are many possible reasons Mary might want to engage with Bob, despite his submitting three blank applications. Here’s how she might engage using RCC in these three cases. (The letters O, F, N, & R stand for Observation, Feeling, Need, Request–the OFNR four step process that is used in several ways in both RCC and NVC.)

  1. Suppose Mary were frustrated and concerned about what this meant for their working relationship. Assume for this case that the application was a formality–she would be working with Bob. She wants to be able to trust what he says. She wants an open, frank conversation that could lead to their working together effectively. She might say:

O: When I heard you say you had checked the application before emailing it, I was hopeful. When I opened it, I saw it was blank like the other ones.

F: I’m concerned that there is something else going on here.

N: It’s important to me to have openness and trust in my working relationships so we can succeed together.

R: Is there any truth to my suspicion that there is something else going on here? If so, would you be willing to tell me what that is?

This is an example of leading in a relationship. She wants mutual openness, so she is being open. She wants mutual trust, so she is being trusting. She is taking the first step to a closer, better relationship.

  1. Suppose Mary had seen this problem before, and was genuinely curious about how it was happening. She wanted understanding so that the problem could be avoided in the future. She might say:

O: I’ve received three blank applications.

F: I’m genuinely curious and concerned about whether I or my organization is contributing to this problem

N: and wanting understanding of what is causing this problem.

R: Would you be willing to tell me what you see is happening?

This would likely start a conversation about the nitty gritty details, which could reveal that the website doesn’t save the data. It would get to problem-solving mode–completely sidestepping any question of “BS.”

  1. Suppose Mary had decided that Bob was unsuitable for the job, even if there were extenuating circumstances. She wanted to disengage. But since it was a volunteer organization, it was important to handle the situation respectfully. Then it might look like this:

O: I’ve gotten three applications from you, all blank.

F: I’m disappointed,

N: and am really needing support from someone who can figure out technical problems autonomously.

O: I thought about it and

F: I’m sad to say

N: I need freedom to look for another candidate.

R: Would you mind telling me how you feel about what I’m saying?

This language, in which Mary clearly owns the responsibility for meeting her own needs, is less likely to trigger defensiveness in Bob. By asking for his reaction, she can neutralize any negative reaction.

These openings do not guarantee an ideal conversation. For an ideal conversation, you need to be able to respond to anything the other person says–even if he gets very upset. But they do minimize the chance of triggering defenses in the other person.

They do this because you have taken ownership of meeting your own needs. You have taken responsibility for having the emotions you do, and making a conscious decision about what is most important to you in this moment. By doing so, you have become emotionally independent of him–you are not passively reacting to him, you are proactively requesting cooperation to help achieve your top value at the moment. This–your own emotional independence–is what lets you challenge another person’s “BS” without insulting an innocent person–and leaving open that this confrontation will actually strengthen the relationship rather than break it.

February 24, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Two Facts to Remember in Judging Honesty

The ideal relationship is open, honest, and equal. If you find that someone has lied to you or evaded, it puts the whole relationship in question.

But I’ve noticed that some people jump to the conclusion that another person is dishonest without establishing it logically. There are two key facts which are often ignored:

1. The fact that someone said something untrue does not mean per se that he lied.

Usually, people make false statements because they are mistaken, not because they are intending to deceive. To lie, a person needs to know the truth, and yet say something untrue with the intent to deceive another.

Here’s an example of saying something untrue without lying: A couple of times I’ve told someone that I had sent him an email, but later I was surprised to find the email in my drafts folder, fully written and unsent. I am, of course, apologetic about my goof when this happens. I suspect I get distracted before hitting send, or maybe sometimes there’s a technical problem. I remember that I had written the response, without realizing I hadn’t sent. There is no sense in which I lied. Misremembering is not lying. Making a mistake is not lying.

Lying is a serious issue. But to establish that someone lied, you need to know more than that he stated a falsehood. You need some evidence that he intended to deceive you.

2. The fact that someone ignores something that you believe is obvious does not mean per se that he evaded.

What is obvious to one person is not necessarily obvious to another person. There is such a thing as a blinder–a strong value or a mistaken premise that activates some information so strongly, that certain other facts or values don’t register clearly to you. Your attention is directed by the blinder, so you don’t notice all of the relevant facts.

Uncovering blinders is a large part of the work of logical thinking. Other people can help you identify your blinders, which is one reason many people like to use friends and colleagues as a sounding board.

I remember a surprising blinder I uncovered many years ago. I was participating in a 5-day workshop on personal growth at Farr Associates. On the last day, Friday, each person was scheduled to spend half an hour talking with Jerry, the presenter, about lessons learned and next steps.

On Thursday, other members of the class asked if we could change the schedule such that some of us would have our one-on-one sessions that afternoon, not the next day. I was concerned–I didn’t want to have mine that afternoon, because I hadn’t sat down and thought about what I wanted to talk about. When I voiced this concern, Jerry looked at me and said, “you could have yours tomorrow.”

I believe I laughed–a common reaction to seeing a problem dissolve before your eyes. And I remember being surprised that Jerry’s solution had not occurred to me. You may be wondering why it didn’t. The alternate solution seems obvious.

With the caveat that I am speculating many years later, here’s what I think happened: I think part of me wanted to be a “good” student who shows initiative. I usually volunteer early and often when I am in a class. Other things being equal, I would feel a strong urge to volunteer for one of the first slots. But in this particular case, I had already decided that I wanted to take an hour that evening to think deeply about my upcoming conversation with Jerry. I was in conflict and a little overloaded. Result: I had an emotional brain freeze, and I missed something obvious.  Duh. I could be one of the people the next day.

(Just FYI, catching and thawing emotional brain freezes during conversation is the main work of “Rationally Connected Conversations.”)

I doubt anyone in the class thought I was evading. But the same kind of thing can happen in trickier cases. It’s important not to assume that the person was being dishonest.

For example, I once had a long talk with a boyfriend about why he had not comforted me after a distressing incident which he had witnessed. He told me that he didn’t know that I was upset by it. I pointed out that I had been crying.

I’m happy to report that our conversation was constructive. As we discussed it, he gave me all of the comfort and support I could want.

But you might ask, given that I was crying, how could he have missed that I was upset? Wouldn’t that require evasion?

No. Not at all.

In our discussion, it came out that he didn’t think I should have been upset by the situation. Again, to speculate decades later in order to flesh out the example, he may have so disapproved of my crying, and been so ashamed by my behavior, that the fact that I was distressed didn’t even register. He was not lying when he said, “I didn’t know that you were upset.” He was just blinded by his own concerns and assumptions.

Which brings us back to the point that you can’t conclude that someone has evaded just because he is ignoring some fact which seems obvious to you. You need to know more about what is going on in his mind to reach that conclusion.

In the culture, there is a tremendous antipathy toward judging other people. But you need to judge other people if you want to surround yourself with fellow valuers. You need to judge other people if you want to find the best in the people you meet, so that you can connect with their best (and limit your exposure to their worst).

Unfortunately, people are horrible at judging other people fairly. They see a falsehood, and they assume the person lied. They see him make a false step, and they assume he evaded what seemed obvious. They jump to the conclusion that someone else is dishonest.

If that is your method of judgment, you might be better off in the short run by avoiding judging others. Perhaps that’s where some of the cultural antipathy to judging comes from.

But I do believe that in the long run, if you don’t judge the good and bad around you, you’ll become a victim of the worst that people have to offer.

January 29, 2018 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

You always have a choice

Whenever I hear myself or someone else saying, “I have no choice,” I challenge that idea. You always have a choice–and owning your power of choice has huge benefits.

When you think you have no choice, that just means you’ve ruled out the other options that you see. Here are some examples of how this comes up:

  • The boss insists you work late, and you have no choice unless you quit, which you’re not going to do.
  • You hate your nose, but you don’t have money for plastic surgery, so you conclude you have no choice but to live with it.
  • You’ve finished eating your meal at a restaurant, and since leaving without paying would be stealing, you have no choice but to pay for it.

In each of these cases, you do face a choice, but you believe there is nothing to think about. You believe the right answer is obvious.

Sometimes the best choice is obvious and there isn’t anything else to think about. For example, suppose your boss wants you to stay late to prepare another point for a 9:00 a.m. meeting. You also want to do that work tonight, because you see that this will help to ensure your most meaningful project gets funded next year. Your plans are flexible, so you make a few calls and stay late. No problem. It’s a no brainer.

There is a world of difference between saying “this choice is a no brainer” and “I have no choice.”

My observation is that people only say the words “I have no choice” when they mean, “this is a difficult, potentially painful choice with high stakes and I don’t like it but I already know what I have to do so I have to just suck it up and do it.”

Difficult, potentially painful choices with high stakes need more thinking, not less. But as soon as you say, “I have no choice” or “I have to,” your mind shuts down, your creative faculty goes into hibernation, and you respond emotionally like an animal being driven by a whip. This is the persona of the victim of external circumstances, who has no control over his destiny, rather than the ambitious person who consistently identifies the best possible way to move his life forward.

Rather than being a victim, the alternative is to reclaim your sovereignty by examining your options–and then making a choice based on which you prefer, based on the full context. Which of these options offers the bigger value to you, taking into account both the short and long term?

Looking at the options that you discarded out of hand helps you become clear on more of the relevant facts and more of the values at stake. You get clearer on the whole context for the decision.

For instance, let’s go back to the situation in which the boss wants you to work late, and you feel forced into it. The first thing to do is to look seriously at what happens if you don’t work late.

There are negatives–such as he could start a proceeding that would in fact get you fired within a short time, or you might feel guilty saying “no,” or an important project might get delayed or canceled, or a customer might be angry.

Presumably there would also be positives, such as you could engage in the evening activities you had scheduled, you’d get more sleep, and you wouldn’t feel resentful. And, maybe, if you’re lucky, the boss might learn that you have a life, which you take seriously, so that he needs to negotiate for overtime, not demand it.

I’m just speculating here, to concretize the kind of information that comes up.

I guarantee that one or more of the factors will trigger intense emotions. Perhaps you’re terrified of losing your job, because you are just barely feeding your family. Perhaps you feel despair that you will never learn to say “no,” because you feel like you’ve been a pushover. Perhaps you’re horrified at the thought of failing the customer, who you care about deeply.

The intense emotions are the reason that you feel you have “no choice.” The awfulness of that option is emotionally real to you, so it seems crazy to consider it.

But emotions just reflect past evaluations that may or may not be valid. Before acting, you need to understand the values at stake on both sides of the choice, and make a decision based on pursuing the biggest values, not avoiding the scariest feelings.

You may make the same choice.

Sometimes when you get at the deep values, the “no choice” becomes a “no brainer.”

Perhaps your staying at work tonight will help your customer break through on a critical problem–and that is deeply meaningful to you. Once you realize that’s the real issue, you choose to stay late, because that is truly what is most important to you.

Or you may realize that there is just some old baggage stopping you from making the forbidden choice.

Perhaps you’ve been actively learning how to “say no” better, and you realize that it’s only an old fear that is stopping you in this case. You decide to use your new skills and stand up to the boss.

Or maybe you realize there is a third way, a creative solution in which everyone gets what he wants. A virtual assistant in India can get the slide ready for the boss’s 9:00 a.m. meeting, so there’s no need for you to stay late.

When you examine the forbidden choice to see the values at stake, you re-conceive the issue as a “no brainer,” “old baggage,” or a false alternative. All of these free you to make a consciously life-promoting choice.

For example, in the case of “no money” for the plastic surgery, the decision might be a no-brainer. Maybe you don’t care about your nose that much, and you’d strongly prefer to save money for a vacation. Or maybe it’s old baggage–you were so embarrassed about your nose, that you repressed the pain, and really, really want the nose job. It’s worth saving for. Or maybe there’s a creative alternative–you could learn fashion and makeup and turn your nose into a part of your style.

Or in the case of “having to pay” for the dinner, the decision may very well become a no-brainer. If you value honesty, integrity, productiveness, independence, and justice, in most cases it would be clear that not paying would put you at war with the waiter and the whole establishment, besides turning you into a mooch. Paying your way is in your self-interest.

On the other hand, it could be that old baggage is getting in the way of seeing your options. Maybe the dinner was inedible, the service rude, and the table dirty. You don’t want to pay because you don’t believe you got the value that was promised, but you also are terrified of making a scene (that’s the old baggage) if you complain to the management and request that the bill be reduced or waived. Well, you do face a choice. You can hold your nose and pay, avoiding a scene. You can confront the manager even though it will be scary. Or conceivably you could leave without paying and accept all of the negative consequences of stiffing the restaurant–which might include your not being welcome at this restaurant, and possibly their taking you to small claims court. Dealing directly with old baggage is never fun, but it sure beats being driven by it.

Finally, you might realize there is a creative alternative. Suppose that you don’t want to pay because you don’t have enough cash. Your date walked out on you, and you only have enough money in your pocket either to pay the bill or to get home safely. Well, it won’t be the first time that management has heard a sob story and accepted someone’s promise to come back and pay later.

You probably noticed that in each of these cases, I painted a different scenario with radically different values at stake. I don’t know the real choices behind your “no choice”–and neither do you until you look.

I am not saying that you ought to choose differently in cases where you think you have “no choice.” Your “no choice” may actually be a “no brainer” when you look at it more carefully.

I am saying that it matters for your long-term happiness and sense of efficacy that when you think you have “no choice” you consider the option you’ve rejected out of hand, and make a conscious, considered decision based on all of the values at stake. Because you really do have a choice, and it matters for you that you know it.

December 13, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments


Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned in life is to treat struggle as an alarm that warrants your immediate, full attention. By “struggle,” I mean “to proceed with great difficulty and effort.” [Merriam-Webster] You struggle because the task is difficult enough that you don’t know how to do it. You try and fail. Failure saps your motivation (whereas success would have fed it). Keeping at the task takes more and more effort, as you drain your energy reserves.

Struggle indicates a problem that needs solving, urgently. Persevering with struggle is self-destructive.

This view is a total about face from my previous thinking. I used to view struggle almost as a badge of honor. I sought out problems to tackle that were extremely difficult. Hard problems were interesting, important problems. I considered struggle to be the price I paid for doing something worthwhile. When I started to struggle, I would just gird my loins and try harder. If I eventually broke through by sheer brute force effort, I felt validated. If I didn’t, I figured I hadn’t tried hard enough.

There is a sliver of truth in my old perspective. You struggle because you have come up against your own limits of knowledge, motivation, and energy.

If you never struggle, you will never identify your own limits. On the other hand, if you set ambitious goals, you will struggle at times. If you then give up when you start to struggle, you will learn to fear your limits. You need to persevere in the face of struggle in some way if you are to grow your skill, expand your capabilities, and achieve your wildly ambitious goals.

The question is, how should you persevere? If you simply accept the struggle and try harder, you create a vicious cycle. That’s because struggle is painful and demoralizing. If you persevere, you associate the pain and suffering with pursuing your most ambitious goals. You program conflict into your value system. The goals that should motivate you to jump out of bed in the morning become burdened with fear and resistance.

It took me a bout with Epstein-Barr about 10 years ago to figure out that trying harder despite struggle is disastrous. I saw that my attempts to keep working despite the illness were contributing to the illness. Since then, I have monitored carefully for struggle, but it’s sometimes been quite puzzling to figure out another way forward that isn’t just “try harder” with more of the same effort. I’ve finally found the general approach to take, and I am delighted to shave some time off of your learning curve by sharing it with you:

If you are struggling, you have misconceptualized your choices. You are acting like something is under your control that isn’t. Look for some fact you need to accept that will then change the decision calculus, and show you what your real choices are.

For example, the omnipresent fact that is worth reminding yourself to accept on a daily basis is: there is not enough time in the day for you to do everything you might want to do. If you fight this fact, you will rarely be productive. You’ll identify what you want to do, assume you can do it all, pick one task to begin with, and plunge in. Somewhere along the line, time will run out or a crisis will occur, and it’s likely that something important will slip through the cracks.

This fact–that there is more that you might want to do than you could possibly do–is a fact about the world. The world is filled with values of all kinds. At work, everywhere you turn there is a way to make the product or service better, a way to help the team work together more effectively, or an idea for how to expand what you’re doing to reach new customers or to create new products. In your personal life, everywhere you turn, there is something interesting to learn, another terrific person to meet, or a new way to enjoy your free time.

When you deeply accept the fact that you can’t do everything you’d like to do, you also see another fact clearly: there is time to do what you consider most important, if you take total ownership of that to do what’s most important first.

Accepting that you can’t do everything, but you can do the most important thing first will change the way you identify your choices. Not only will you think more about what’s most important, you will get better at factoring in time. Instead of feeling like a victim of circumstances, you see you are in charge of your life.

This same focus on facts can change how you deal with interpersonal issues, too. For example, a client was struggling with a family issue. His sister had been diagnosed with breast cancer, but she didn’t want to talk about it with him. He was both hurt and upset about her diagnosis, but he didn’t see that he could address his emotional turmoil without talking with her.

Now, there is a grain of truth in this, in that it would probably be faster and easier to work through this in conversation with her. But of course, it is possible to work through any emotional issue oneself.

However, because he believed his only reasonable choice was to wait until she was ready to talk. The issue festered for him for a month, sapping his motivation and making him miserable.

The crucial fact he needed to accept was: he could not control his sister. His sister may never be ready to talk about the issue. He had no evidence that she would change her mind about talking with him any time soon. The choice he was actually facing was: Wait for his sister and maybe never address the emotional issues, or work on them himself, despite the fact that will take considerable time and effort. These were the two choices under his direct control. “Talk with sister” was not one of the choices he actually faced.

Framed this way, the choice became easy. He had already used considerable time and effort in the waiting game. Devoting that time and effort to working the issue out himself could only make things better and reduce his overall distress. That was a way forward, where success was under his control, instead of out of his control.

Accepting the facts helps you see what choices you really face. It helps you see what is in fact under your volitional control. This helps you then determine a step that actually moves you forward to success–instead of leaving you struggling fighting to try to change an unpleasant fact of reality.

November 1, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Introspect So You Can Take Action

A member of the Thinking Lab came to a consult the other day to discuss a situation from work that was bothering him.

I blithely suggested he needed introspective work–meaning he needed to identify the deep rational values at stake underlying his feelings. I suspect he was a little frustrated by that response, because he had already introspected for that exact purpose. He had an excellent understanding of why the situation bothered him.

At the time, I sensed that there were other issues contributing to his frustration about the situation, and that more introspection would help. After talking briefly, we found three separate issues involved, one of which had not been on his radar. As we talked it through, we came to resolution on all of the issues.

I’ve seen this many times before. You often need to do more introspection than you think to address all of the emotionally charged issues. I thought I would write a newsletter explaining the need to do multiple passes of introspection.

However, as I wrote it up, I realized that the advice to introspect more thoroughly, though valid, was not sufficient. In truth, he had accurately identified the most important values at stake in the two biggest areas of concern. So what had we done in our discussion? We figured out the implications for action.

That last step–figuring out the implications for action–is what settled the issues for him and cleared the emotional decks. This is yet another case in which I now see that a process which is generally understood as helping with emotions is really a process for understanding, forming, and pursuing values.

So here’s what I understand happened, with 20:20 hindsight:

The background of the story is that this high-level engineer, call him Anthony, had made a fix to the company system that had had an unexpected effect on a handful of internal customers using a new feature. When the problem was reported to a low-level customer service person, that person assumed that a few hundred external customers using the new feature were also affected. So, the customer service person reset the new feature, affecting service for those few hundred external customers who had not actually had a problem. (Note: These external customers were less than 1% of the total number of external customers.) For our consult, he wanted to discuss how he could he make sure this never happened again. Actually, he stated it much more reasonably, but that was the gist.

The bottom line was that he had three emotional reactions: Guilt, annoyance, and concern.

He felt guilt, because he had made a mistake. He takes pride testing his work before releasing it. As he said, he’s the one fixing the bugs, not making them. Pride is the virtue of constant self-improvement. He wanted to determine how the mistake was made, so that he could consider how to avoid it in the future.

Interestingly, when I asked him what process he had used for testing, it became clear that he hadn’t made a mistake per se. He had made a plan for how to test the code before releasing it, and had discussed the plan with a colleague. Neither of them had any knowledge that the new feature could be affected. Nor was there any system documentation that they could have or should have referred to. In other words, there is nothing obvious he could have done differently to prevent the problem. He was experiencing unearned guilt.

Often, when you realize that the feeling you have is based on a mistake, the issue vanishes. In this case, it didn’t. Though the guilt was unearned, Anthony’s value–constant self-improvement–was still at stake, whether he was culpable or not.

However, by means of this introspection work, he’d gained clarity: the root cause of the problem was a systemic lack of documentation, which often happens at small companies.

It is unrealistic to expect engineers to be omniscient about systems. Things will slip through the cracks if you lack documentation. With his value of improvement in mind, he came up with a simple way he could start documenting the system with minimal overhead. (It used the “planned evolution” method that I teach.) The action plan resolved the guilt issue.

The same was true with Anthony’s annoyance. Anthony felt annoyed at the customer service person, who had jumped to the conclusion that the problem was more widespread than it actually was. Anthony had seen this before. He wanted better support for the customers. Again, the solution was not “they shouldn’t make mistakes.” The solution was to create a system to help the customer service people identify whether they had enough information to take an action that would impact external customers.

Finally, the last feeling Anthony had was concern — concern that a new feature would get a bad reputation for instability, which might make it harder to get users to adopt it. As an engineer, he values innovation. He wanted to protect that feature, and make it robust.

This was the value that had not been obvious to him before we talked. As we talked, he realized that this was the deeper reason he was still bothered by an incident that had had very little impact on very few customers. The incident was a concern, not because of the number of people affected, but because it could jeopardize adoption of a new feature. And he is an advocate of new features–and making them work so that customers will use them.

Seen in this light, both of the solutions we had already discussed gained value-significance. Both documentation and decision procedures would help make new features more reliable.

This is important, because at a small company, it can be difficult to get the staff on board for new quality control process. But Anthony is now deeply motivated–because he sees the documentation as a way to support the innovative features that he values.

Deeper introspection helps you understand why you feel what you feel. This is important for understanding what matters deeply to you about the situation.

But if you stop with identification of values, you don’t get the full benefit of introspection. The real payoff comes from identifying what you can or will do to gain and/or keep the values at stake. This is true even if there is no action possible. If you have achieved a value, it’s time to celebrate it. If you’ve lost one, it’s time to mourn it.

In all of these cases, it is following through with action that grounds you emotionally. Closure comes from action.

Emotions are signals that there is some value at stake, some value worthy of attention–and acting to gain and/or keep it. You are not through introspecting until you know both the value at stake, and what you’re going to do about it.

October 10, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Three Observations About Accepting Facts

Recently, I’ve done a lot of thinking about what it means to accept facts. I see this as a topic for psychology, which presupposes a particular philosophical point of view.

Realists point out that if you want to live in the world that exists, you need to accept facts. Idealists point out that you can change the world that exists–if you take the appropriate action. These two perspectives needn’t conflict. They can be integrated if you agree that you need to accept the facts now, in order to identify effective action to take now, which will change the situation in the future to more resemble your ideal. That is my view (which I got from Ayn Rand).

On the surface, it had always seemed obvious to me that you should accept facts–until I saw some situations in which it seemed I wasn’t doing so. For example, I would repeat a failed approach to persuading someone of my view, expecting a different result next time. Or I would acknowledge a specific lack of skill, without changing my approach to achieving goals in that area. Or I would find myself stewing over a fact that I wished weren’t true.

I now see all of these as examples of not accepting facts. I have a lot more thinking to do about this subject, but I thought I’d share three observations.

1. What does it mean to accept a fact?

Short answer: It means that you factor that information into your thinking, your expectations, and your planning.

For example, I have accepted the fact that I get sick more easily than most people, and that as a result, I need to maintain certain regimens of self-care involving diet, exercise, and sleep.

Let’s take sleep: I often need 8 hours of sleep, and my bare minimum is 7 hours in bed. If I get less than 7 hours in bed, or I get only 7 hours for several days in a row, I get sick with alarming predictability. The form of illness varies. I might catch a cold. I might be felled by a migraine. Or I might just be pinned in bed with vertigo. But the correlation between a short night of rest and lost work due to illness approaches 100%.

I’ve accepted this fact. I plan my life to ensure I get enough sleep. If I wake up too early, I stay lying flat in bed for at least 7 hours, even though I am awake, to guarantee I get 7 hours of bed rest. With this policy, I have radically improved my overall health.

If I had written this newsletter a month ago, I would say that this policy is an absolute, and I never make exceptions. But an exception happened last month.

With Hurricane Irma approaching, we had not expected to evacuate our home in Naples, Florida. But as the forecast got worse, and certain facts about staying became clearer, we concluded we should leave. This meant loading up the cats in the car and driving out the driveway at 9:15 p.m. to drive to Atlanta. Time was too tight. We could not wait until the next morning to leave.

It was clear I would not get my needed sleep that night, I knew I would sleep only for an hour or two at a time, taking breaks in driving. However, I went into the trip with my eyes open. I thought it likely that I would be sick for a couple of days afterwards and be unable to work. That was the price I would pay. It was more important to get to a safe place.

When I got to Atlanta, sleep was my priority. (I believe I slept for 15 hours.) I also took it easy for a couple of days, without expecting to work, because I knew I had reduced my reserves. I was pleasantly surprised that I did not get sick. But that was because I fully accepted the facts about how easily I get sick–I factored that information into my expectations and planning, and I was able to mitigate that risk.

2. What does it mean to refuse to accept a fact?

On the surface, it seems odd to think of not accepting a fact. What would that even mean? Facts are facts, independent of you. They are true, no matter what you do or say. They are facts, whether you “accept” them or not.

Here’s what failure to accept a fact looks like: You obsess about how you wish the fact weren’t true. You don’t want it to be true, and therefore you think about how bad it is, or how you wish something would change. You do this instead of factoring that information into your thinking, your expectations, and your planning.

This often happens in response to undesirable facts about other people. For example, there is more than one person in my life who is an advice-giver. Let’s make a composite and call him Sam–the paradigm advice-giver. He assumes that if I am unhappy or confused about something, I want advice. That is his go-to response to me, regardless of my intent. Indeed, sometimes he gets angry or frustrated, because he assumes I want him to solve my problems (which I don’t).

In fact, often I want only a sounding board–someone to ask me a few questions to help draw out my own thoughts. I might be unsure what the real problem was, or why I was feeling what I was feeling. In these situations, questions from a different point of view can be helpful. But this alternate purpose for the conversation just doesn’t occur to Sam. Ever.

I used to get frustrated and angry by Sam’s untimely advice, and even stew over how little visibility I got from him. I wanted him to be different. This is, of course, completely counterproductive. Other people are not under your control.

I finally accepted the fact that each of my “Sam’s” automatized response is to give advice, and I now factor that into my expectations and choices. Now when I want something other than advice, I make an explicit request. When I explain to a “Sam” that I’m not asking him to solve my problems, I’d just like to use him as a sounding board, he is quite willing to take on that role. As a result, what used to become an unhelpful, mutually frustrating conversation now becomes now mutually friendly–and very helpful.

Given that life is so much better when you accept facts about other people, what stops you from accepting them in the first place? I think that when you stew over an unpleasant fact about someone else, wishing it were different–though it is obviously out of your control–you are avoiding experiencing grief.

I would prefer to have confidentes who could anticipate my emotional needs all of the time. It would be a wonderful support to me, especially when I’m tired or stressed out. That’s when the extra energy needed to make my intentions clear can feel like a burden. I wish my “Sam’s” were more observant and sensitive in these situations. Having imagined what it would be like if Sam were different, I feel sad that I don’t have that support in those particular situations. I mourn the absence of that value.

Mourning the lack or the loss of a value can be quite painful. But it clarifies what matters to you, it resets you emotionally, and it leaves you free to find a different way to gain or keep that value that matters to you. That’s what accepting facts about other people helps you with.

3. What does it mean to accept yourself? Is self-acceptance a value?

This is a hard one–because although you can’t change other people, you can change yourself. I think “self-acceptance” means accepting your own mental state–which doesn’t mean you won’t change your mind in the future.

For example, one morning last week while in NYC, I found myself on the verge of tears for several hours, off and on. Clearly I was experiencing grief. The teariness was a loud warning bell that I had lost some value. I tried various emergency introspection techniques. These quick techniques often help to clarify the situation and bring me back to emotional center. In this case, they didn’t. I came up with a dozen or so hypotheses for why I was distressed, but none of them seemed to be “the reason” that brings clarity and closure in these situations.

Had I been at home, I would have dropped everything and worked through one of my in-depth introspection exercises to get to the bottom of the issue. These exercises are amazingly effective–they always lead to a significant insight. However, they take about 3 hours to complete. I was attending a workshop at the time, so I had neither the time nor the privacy to work through the steps. I kept trying the quick techniques, but I was getting nowhere.

Instead, I got increasingly upset that I was upset. I did not want to be on the verge of tears during the workshop–I was embarrassed to be so emotional. I knew that being upset with how I was feeling was a totally counterproductive vicious cycle.

At a break, I went outside so I could be alone to try to compose myself. It was while I was outside, wishing desperately that I could sort out my emotions, that it occured to me that I needed to accept my mental state.

Whatever was going on, it was not something that I could resolve during the time that I had available. I concluded that I must be facing a bigger and deeper issue than it seemed on the surface. It would need more time.

With this clarity, I immediately relaxed. I had a choice: I could leave the workshop and work it out, or I could put the issue aside, and come back to understand it at some time in the future. If I took this second option, I would need to recognize that I was emotionally vulnerable in the meantime, and be appropriately gentle with myself.

I chose the second option. By accepting my emotional state, I stopped trying to “calm down” and started noticing all of the little things that were triggering me. I didn’t take them too seriously, because I knew I was in an emotionally vulnerable state. I assumed that they were disproportionate responses. So, all I did was file them away mentally for future reference.

I still haven’t had a chance to sort out the deeper issue, but I have a mental file folder filled with relevant data. Sometime a similar issue will come up, and what I observed in this case will help me untangle both incidents at once.

In this case, accepting that I couldn’t change my emotional state at the moment helped me stop trying to do the  undoable. I could focus my attention on what I could do–and that cleared my mind and made me more effective.

The bottom line from these three observations: In each of these cases, the facts that I accepted were facts about consciousness–mine or another person’s. It’s not so hard to accept a fact like “the store closes at 11.” It’s hard to accept facts when it seems like they involve your power of choice–and you could change them to meet your needs. But we often overestimate what is in our power at a given moment.  But that is another topic for another time…

October 6, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

Empathy Bath

When you are chilled, a hot bath brings your temperature to normal. When you have a fever, a cold bath can bring it down. When you are tense, self-doubtful, jittery, or otherwise triggered, an “Empathy Bath” can bring your emotional state back to neutral.

“Empathy Bath” Tactic Overview

What: An “empathy bath” is a systematic process for introspecting the broad range of potentially conflicting emotions you are feeling, in order to regulate your emotional state.

When: Use it when you are tense, jittery, or otherwise emotionally triggered, and need a quick way to get emotionally centered.

How: For each family of emotions, speculate on why you might be feeling those feelings (both positive and negative). Give your reason in a full sentence.

Why: The 8 families of emotions cover all of the basic value-judgments that might be in play. By asking why you “might” be feeling each emotion, you can reveal not just acknowledged feelings, but also suppressed or slightly repressed feelings. By looking for both positive and negative versions of each family, you naturally balance disproportionate emotional responses.

Step-by-Step Instructions

1) Briefly describe the situation that has you emotionally upset.

2) For each of the following basic emotions, speculate on why you might be feeling this feeling in the current situation and why.

Anger: Who did what that they shouldn’t have?
Gratitude: Who did something nice for me?

Fear: What bad thing is going to happen?
Relief: What bad thing is no longer going to happen?

Despair: What good thing is never going to happen?
Hope: What good thing will happen eventually?

Guilt: What do I wish I had done differently? What regrets do I have?
Pride: What am I glad I did the way I did?

Frustration: What is giving me a lot of trouble?
Confidence: What am I doing with ease?

Desire: What am I longing for?
Aversion: What am I trying to get away from?

Joy: What have I succeeded in getting?
Grief: What have I lost?

Love: What person or thing or idea stands out as a true positive here?
Indifference: What don’t I care about at all here?

3) After you have finished naming all of the feelings, you may be grounded. If so, sum up your situation in a sentence.

If you are still feeling somewhat overloaded, I recommend you clarify the deep rational values at stake. To do this, first you may need to challenge first thoughts if any of your statements are false or exaggerated. In addition, go through each statement and identify any deep rational values at stake.  These are listed in the OFNR Quick Reference Sheet.


  • Write out each reason in a full sentence, so that you can judge whether it’s true or false.
  • For best results, check for the feelings in the order offered, which goes from easiest to hardest, most negative to most positive.
  • Don’t skip any feeling. Imagine why you might feel it, even if you don’t think you do.


Situation: Someone just cut me off making a turn.

Anger: He should look where he’s going.
Gratitude: I’m glad the guy behind me saw me brake.

Fear: I almost had an accident.
Relief: Thank goodness I was able to react in time.

Despair: These lousy drivers should be taken off the road.
Hope: Maybe defensive driving courses can help.

Guilt: I was a little bit distracted.
Pride: I’m glad I don’t text while driving!

Frustration: My heart is still pounding and I can’t seem to calm down.
Confidence: I’m glad that I have good reflexes.

Desire: I really need a little peace and quiet.
Aversion: I don’t want to discuss this with anyone.

Joy: I guess I feel good to be alive.
Grief: This reminds me of my friend who died in a car accident.

Love: I loved my friend.
Indifference: I don’t care what the other drivers think.

Summing Up: I need a little time to catch my breath and just appreciate that I’m okay.

Additional Comments

I developed this process for people who were inexperienced in introspection. It is not the fastest process–it takes 15-20 minutes to go through. If you are in a hurry, the AND List is the fastest way to calm down.

After using it, I discovered that it had the added benefit of revealing value-judgments that I would not have identified if I just introspected feelings I was already feeling. As a result, it is a great first aid process when you are emotionally overwhelmed.


References for Members of the Thinking Lab

  • For steps to challenge first thoughts, see the Three Pass Review
  • For steps to clarify your motivation, see   the Goal-Clarification process
  • You can give someone else an empathy bath, but then I recommend that you identify not just their feelings and the idea that seems to be behind it, but the deep rational value at stake. (See this discussion of  deep rational values aka universal values.) Otherwise you risk reinforcing their old baggage.

July 31, 2017 in | Permalink | Trackback | Comments

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