Happy New Year! I very much hope that you were able to take a break over the holidays, and that you and yours are happy and healthy. New Year was always a big deal when I was growing up – I wrote this description of Hogmanay and The New Year a few years ago, and updated it this morning, in case you’re interested—it’s all about my family tradition and nothing about coaching or leading.
I told a bunch of people that this Coaching Letter would be about Street Data, but I have not had the time to really think about that—plus, honestly, it didn’t feel like the topic matched the moment. So instead, this Coaching Letter is about happiness. I’ve been thinking and reading and listening to a lot on this topic lately, because it seems to me that we should be paying attention—right at the moment, it seems likely that we are facing another difficult few weeks, and so here’s my small attempt to be helpful.
The background on this: last semester, I heard so much discussion about how stressed, overwhelmed, and/or exhausted teachers and leaders were; and on top of that, so much disgruntlement at being told to practice self-care in the face of circumstances that seemed to make the idea of self-care like trying to beat back a hurricane with a tea towel. Teachers, especially, may feel that in the earlier months of the pandemic, they were granted “space and grace”, and that now there’s the sense that things ought to be “back to normal.” At the same time, leaders feel like they are doing their best to take care of their people, and that teachers, especially, are over-estimating the stressors and under-estimating their own resources.
I think this situation is complicated, and that we should take a moment to sort out the different forces at work. Because almost all of us are struggling at the moment, but we may not all be struggling for the same reason. Here are some common cases, but not an exhaustive list:
- We don’t like when we do not feel competent; when we are not up to the task in front of us; when we have a standard in our head for what good looks like that we are failing to meet. I certainly know what this feels like. There were big chunks of time early in my teaching career when I was completely at a loss as to what to do and how to do it, and it was a miserable experience. But then I got better, and so my image of myself and my own competence changed, and the thought of going back to a state where I didn’t have the knowledge or skill to be successful is unpleasant—but a lot of people are in that situation right now. This is stressful.
- We are doing a lot of emotional labor right now. We are having to make decisions we have never had to make before; manage our own emotions, stresses, fears and disappointments; navigate a great deal of uncertainty; and manage our relationships with others, including providing a great deal of support to others who are struggling. This is exhausting.
- We don’t like being judged, although frequently this more a fear than a reality. For example, if we think we are not being successful, we tend to think that others are looking at us, judging us, and finding us lacking. Nevertheless, the feeling of being under the gun is stressful.
- We are aware of all that we have lost: not being with family at what is now multiple birthdays and holidays; not being able to travel; significant moments that we can’t get back, like our children’s proms and graduations. Many of us have lost friends or family during the last two years and been unable to attend the funeral—a double dose of loss and grief.
In all of these cases, people’s expressions of feeling stressed and overwhelmed may sound the same. But it pays to spend some time figuring out what is underneath these emotions, because that may offer a path through and out. “If you can name it, you can tame it” is a well-established principle in psychology. If you’ve read Marc Brackett’s Permission to Feel, or been involved with RULER, you will know this already. If not, check out this TED article about the work of Lisa Feldman Barrett.
The basic idea here is that you construct your emotions; the way you think about what you are feeling, or what is happening, plus your own belief system, are the raw materials for emotions, not the emotions themselves. You are not embarrassed, for example, because something happens – you find out that you missed a meeting, or that you have spinach in your teeth, or (my personal favorite), you respond to an email thinking that the other person made a mistake, only to find out that you were the one who was wrong—you are embarrassed because you attach meaning to what happened (“I did something potentially embarrassing”) plus the other person(s) involved is going to judge you in some way (“Susie is going to be upset/think I’m an idiot/call my boss and complain”) plus you actually care. And that’s probably just the short version. In other words, it’s not the spinach in the teeth per se that’s embarrassing; there have got to be at least three other factors in play for you to actually feel embarrassment. And I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be embarrassed (sometimes only a cad wouldn’t be), just that it’s not inevitable. For more on this idea, watch Lisa Feldman Barrett’s TED Talk: You aren’t at the mercy of your emotions—your brain creates them.
The corollary of this, by the way, is that people can’t make you feel a certain way—any kind of way. They can’t embarrass you or insult you or offend you or make you angry or make you feel guilty or make you happy. You choose to feel those things, because of how you construe what they say, do, or don’t say or do. They can certainly try, and may be quite skilled at generating a certain emotional response, but the meaning you attach to what they do or say is what produces the emotion. For example, I’m always interested when someone says, “I was so insulted” because, honestly, I don’t actually know what that means. I mean, I know the definition, but to be insulted means that you have to care that someone is trying to treat you disrespectfully or with contempt, which is a lot of power to give to someone who is clearly not a very kind or respectful person. So I don’t understand why you would let someone like that take up space in your head—which itself is a concept that is familiar to fans of Glaser’s Reality Therapy. I don’t mean to sound like I’m some super-chill Zen master—I’m really not.
We can help ourselves, and others, by acknowledging that in every case in the bulleted list above, how we think about the situation contributes in some way to how we feel about it. If we can think differently, which is called framing, or reframing, then we can change the emotion we experience. Here are again are some examples, but not an exhaustive list. They are written in the second person, but you can apply these same ideas to others as well as yourself—in fact, many of the readers of the Coaching Letter are leaders who are already doing many of these things for others, so I give you permission to do them for yourself.
- If you feel inadequate or incompetent because you feel like you are not meeting a standard that you think you ought to be able to meet, change the goal. Substitute “I ought to be able to do XYZ and I can’t so I’m incompetent” with “I’m going to be strategic about learning how to do XYZ in these difficult and unprecedented circumstances.” This is replacing a performance goal with a learning goal—see Coaching Letter 21 for more on this research, and Coaching Letter 51 if you are a leader who has some influence on how people set goals.
- If you are stressed because you feel that others are judging you, it’s probably true—but you should try seeing the situation as you would if your roles were flipped: we believe that others are much harder on us than they are, and than we are with others; therefore, much of what we perceive as judgment is not real; we are, in other words, up the ladder of inference. So you can ask yourself, how would I see this if I were an observer looking on? And how can I shift my thinking, knowing that my perception is very likely skewed? I could also tell you to care less, but that rarely works.
- If you find yourself doing a great deal of emotional labor, you have choices to make. Coaches and leaders, in my experience, take on emotional labor that is well-intended but unnecessary and sometimes counter-productive: sometimes when people tell you their problems, they are not expecting you to solve them for them, and may feel patronized if you try to; sometimes if you provide reassurance, you may be reinforcing the perception that there is something bad going on; and so on. So save your strength, and think about where that labor has the greatest leverage—you may find yourself doing less talking, and more listening. Not surprisingly given what I do, I perform a great deal of emotional labor, and for me it is a point of pride; I gain more than I give, because people are grateful for the support and I feel good about that. But also, I don’t deal with anyone who takes my time for granted or who is interested only in admiring their problems—it’s useful to have coaching training, because I’m good at framing conversations so that they don’t tend to be unproductive.
- There is no antidote to loss, of course, and I am sorry for all that we have had to deal with, collectively and individually. I remember the day when I realized that I would not be able to travel to Edinburgh to see my dad last August after all, and sitting at a friend’s kitchen table drinking bourbon, angry and upset, and feeling really pretty miserable. But loss does not lead to unhappiness in the long run, in the same way that winning the lottery does not lead to happiness; for more on that, listen to Episode 2 of The Happiness Lab podcast, or read Dan Gilbert’s book, Stumbling on Happiness, which is really excellent and well worth reading. And here is Dan Gilbert’s TED Talk, on the science of happiness There are particular practices associated with happiness, and practicing gratitude is one of them; see David Steindl-Rast’s TED Talk, on the relationship between gratitude and happiness.
I know a lot of people who got a lot out of reading this NYT article on “languishing” by Adam Grant, because it sums up where a lot of us have landed emotionally: not quite depressed, but not thriving, either. Languishing may be bearable over the short term, but is not sustainable. Sometimes the acute becomes chronic, but sometimes the chronic becomes acute. It pays, then, to become a serious student of what makes us happy. Which is not always what we think—I cannot recommend highly enough Laurie Santos’ podcast The Happiness Lab—you can get to it through this website, where you can also sign up for her newsletter, but you can listen via any of the usual podcast apps. The website also provides links to all the resources mentioned in each episode—an amazing fund of information. Also, you can sign up for her Yale course for free on Coursera—another amazing resource and millions have taken advantage of it.
Of course, the practice of happiness is not an instant fix. For maximum benefit, we would work on being happy before our resilience was tested. Or, as Robert Redford says in my favorite spy movie, “When did Noah build the ark, Gladys? Before the rain. Before the rain.” Above all, happiness is not, as we tend to think of it, a side-effect of good things happening to us; rather, it is a product of work on our part, which is both good news and bad news. The good news: it is under our control more than we realize. The bad: it is work.
Here are some other resources you might find useful:
- Coaching Letter #50, about how positive emotions are contagious.
- Coaching Letter #45, about the upside of adversity.
- If you look at the 10 most watched TED talks, two of them are directly about happiness, although they’re both about lots of other things as well:
- Robert Waldinger on what makes a good life.
- Shawn Achor on happiness and productivity.
- And although BJ Miller’s talk doesn’t make the top 10 (only 14 million views) it’s one of my favorites.
As always, I would appreciate feedback on any or all of this Coaching Letter. And if there is anything I can do for you, please let me know—supporting people is my specialty. And if you think anyone else would benefit from the Coaching Letter, please feel free to pass it on. With very best wishes for the New Year, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
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Author with Jennie Weiner of
The Strategy Playbook for Educational Leaders:Principles and Practices, Routledge