Jan 25

How Not to Change Your Life: Don’t Take Responsibility

Posted in Techniques

My wife’s neice, who lives with us at the moment, loves the TV show Cops. Personally I don’t enjoy it – I’ve never been into “gritty” – but as I’ve been passing by doing other things, I’ve picked up a pattern in the show.

Cop pulls a car over for some minor traffic infringement.

Cop: Anything I should know about in the car?

Offender: No.

Cop searches car, finds knife, drugs.

Offender: Those aren’t my drugs, they’re my friend’s drugs, I didn’t know they were there.


Traffic offense as before.

Car turns out to be stolen.

Offender: I don’t know anything about that, man, my friend just asked me to drive this car for him….

NYPD Snout
Creative Commons License photo credit: laverrue

Very rarely indeed have I seen anyone straightforwardly say, “Yes, those are my drugs, I stole this car, you got me.” If you ever watch fictional detective programs, people always confess when confronted with the evidence (though even then they will usually self-justify: “I had to do it, he knew too much, it would have ruined my life if that got out”). As far as I can tell this is not how real criminals act.

It is how a lot of real successful people act, though.

You have a problem. What do you do?

Famously, the first of the 12 Steps of recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous is to admit that you have a problem. Taking responsibility is another key theme in recovery. This is because the founders of AA were smart enough alcoholics to realise that they were never going to recover if they kept deflecting responsibility onto their past, the people around them, and the alcohol itself.

As long as you see your behaviour as conditioned by outside forces against which you’re powerless, you won’t change. You have the ideal excuse for not changing: You can’t. You have no power.

This is why – to get political for a minute – I have a problem with the approach to social justice that assumes that people who have problems are entirely conditioned victims who must be rescued by more enlightened and empowered government agency workers.

I absolutely have a problem with the opposite viewpoint too, though, which says that conditions don’t matter and anyone can easily change if they choose to. Difficult conditions make change hard. But they don’t make it impossible unless you shift responsibility onto those conditions and refuse to accept responsibility for your own actions and choices.

A personal example

I often talk about my experience, more than 20 years ago now, of stress breakdown. It was a formative time in my life.

There are a couple of ways I could have looked back on that experience. For example, I could have said, “I was pushed into something that didn’t suit me, placed in a living situation that made things worse, not given any support. It was bad leadership that caused the whole thing. In fact, any time I’m unhappy with my job or things don’t go well for me, bad leadership is to blame. It’s other people’s bad leadership that’s ruined my life – people making decisions for me that turned out not to be the right ones.”

Or I can say, “OK, I made some bad choices. I chose to pursue a particular course of action and handed over a lot of power to some people who didn’t use it well. I had some struggles and disappointments because of my unrealistic expectations. I then had a very powerful emotional reaction to the events and let that destroy my health. But at the end, I got myself out of the situation, I learned some valuable life lessons, I developed an interest in stress management (and a sense of compassion) that’s enabled me to help other people, and overall, although that was the worst time of my life, I’m better and stronger for it. If I hadn’t learned those lessons then I would have had them to learn later.”

I can’t blame other people for the choices I let them make for me, at least not without acknowledging that I let them make those choices.

How language helps us avoid responsibility

We have a useful thing in English called the “passive voice”. This is when you say, for example, “Mistakes were made.” You’re not attributing the mistakes to anyone in particular. The truth could be, and very likely is, that you made at least some of those mistakes, but you’re not admitting it. The passive voice is a favourite of politicians and bureaucrats for this reason.

Or you can make the agent in the sentence some abstract concept. The economy, climate change, the Invisible Hand of classical economics, the historical imperative, manifest destiny. There’s a beautiful, beautiful parody of this approach in C.S. Lewis’s novel Out of the Silent Planet, in which Ransom, the hero, is attempting to translate the imperialist Weston’s speech justifying why Earth should conquer Mars (Wikipedia has a small extract, though not my favourite part). This is a sophisticated version of not taking responsibility for our personal choices and actions.

Another classic tactic is to describe ourselves with some word that absolves us from responsibility.

“Well, I’m an INTJ on the Myers-Briggs classification, so you can’t expect me to consider people’s feelings all the time.”

“I’m of Scottish descent, we don’t like to spend money.”

“I’m a ‘hard gainer’, I can’t put on weight so there’s no point in me exercising.”

(All three examples are categories I fall into.)

To think about further

What change have you ruled out because you feel helpless to achieve it?

What happens if you change your language about it?

What responsibility can you take?

What actions are available to you now that you didn’t see before?

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Jan 18

How Not to Change Your Life: Talk in Jargon

Posted in Techniques
This entry is part of 1 in the series How Not to Change Your Life

Because my degree is in English, I’m especially alert to language. So I’m kicking off my How Not to Change Your Life series by looking at a way we often avoid changing: by obscuring our language in the hope that nobody will notice. (Often including us.)

To recap briefly, this series arose out of a conversation with a friend about how resources for change can be used to avoid change – resources like self-help books, therapy, and spiritual practice.

Often, the avoiders speak the language of the activity even more fluently than the changers. They know the practices inside and out. They may even be teachers or supposedly advanced practitioners (therapists, personal development gurus, religious leaders), because in order to avoid change by using a method for change, you need to know it inside and out. And nothing makes you look like a guru more than mastering (and even adding to) the language of your field.

I’m not just talking about the marriage therapist who has affairs with their clients or the preacher against homosexuality who meets rent-boys in cheap motels. That’s just ordinary hypocrisy. I’m specifically talking about using the language of change methods in order to hold onto the way you’ve always done things.

How to hide lack of change behind jargon

If you talk the talk often enough, fluently enough and emphatically enough, it’s possible to hide the fact that you’re not walking the walk (even from yourself). Businesspeople, especially, in my experience, HR and marketing people and people with management degrees, are classic for this, which is why Scott Adams’ Dilbert cartoons have been so popular for so long. If you talk enough about “operationalizing empowered synergies” it’s possible to ignore the fact that nobody’s achieving anything because they’re subtly punished for taking initiative or working together.

What I’ve noticed, in fact, is that avoiders are often incapable of using ordinary language about whatever they’re avoiding, presumably because that would reveal the fact that they’re avoiding it. If you can discuss what you’re doing in everyday language that anyone would understand, it leaves fewer places to hide. If you have an average amount of intelligence, you can probably see the problems and at least have some idea of what specific actions might solve them – and how that might be hard.

Difficult meeting
Creative Commons License photo credit: Simon Blackley

How to reinforce the current status with jargon

Cults use this jargon tactic too, of course. A friend recently sent me some disturbing material about a well-known religious leader in New Zealand. One of the things that was disturbing about it was a scan of a couple of pages from a manual which tells members of the group how to approach the leader (that in itself is a worry). He’s referred to throughout as “Bishop”. Any time I see a title used as a name, red flags immediately go up. (If you’re constantly reminding people of power relations, there is a problem right there.)

Groups also use jargon as a way of defining who’s “in” and who’s “out”. To take another example from the material I just mentioned, it uses the phrase, “Remember, honour is the principle of release“. To anyone outside the group, that sentence carries no meaning whatsoever (I have no clue what it means exactly, but I can guess from context that it’s saying that honouring the group’s leader is very much a good thing and it will bring you some positive outcome).

And the more jargon the group produces, the easier it gets to speak in prefabricated sentences which reinforce the group’s viewpoint, and the harder it gets to speak in everyday sentences about problems that exist within the group. Catchphrases and cliches take over, and it becomes mentally easier to trot out a catchphrase than to actually think about what needs to be done to solve a problem.

How to avoid criticism with jargon

Catchphrases and jargon are great ways to deny problems and shut down criticism, too. You can accuse someone of having a “negative spirit” or “negative mindset”, of “thinking inside the box”, of using “false mind”, of “not being a team player” – there are a thousand of them. By labelling the act of criticism using a negatively loaded jargon term, you can deflect the issue neatly, since it now becomes about the critic’s flaws and inadequacies instead. Religion, psychology and business all have well-developed, rich jargons for shutting down critics in this way.

I remember criticising a group I was a part of and being told I was using “convergent thinking” (thinking which channels into only one way of solving a problem). This was particularly amusing since what I was questioning was the organisation’s tendency to believe that there was only one correct way to do anything. And it wasn’t a leader who said this to me, either, but a fellow group member.

How to avoid responsibility with jargon

The other thing about jargon is that it tends to remove responsibility from specific people to take specific actions. Jargon and technical terminology is usually abstract and theoretical. If you say, “We need to socialise the paradigm shift”, everyone may nod wisely, but nobody has been given a task. You can’t tell when they’ve done it, and, equally significantly, you can’t tell when they haven’t done it.  I’ll talk about this more in a future post on avoiding responsibility.

A challenge

So here’s my challenge – to myself, of course, first, but also to you.

This year I will be talking a lot on this blog about change, self-development and self-improvement. I pledge to you that I will use ordinary language that’s easy to understand. I pledge to be specific and concrete, and more practical than theoretical. I pledge that if I run into problems in my own personal development challenges (which is entirely likely, since I’m being ambitious this year), I will talk about them frankly and look for ways to continue to change, not to avoid change.

If you see me not doing this, call me on it (privately, first of all, for preference – mikerm at hypno etc. is the email address).

And take a couple of minutes now to think through your life and reflect whether you’re avoiding change, especially by your use of personal-development or psychological jargon and your reading of personal-development blogs, books, courses and so forth.

If you are, I suggest you talk to someone about it in everyday language and see what they say.

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Jan 11

25 Ways Not to Change Your Life

Posted in Techniques

In January, we traditionally think about making changes in the coming year. But how many of those changes ever make it into February?

Creative Commons License photo credit: striatic

I was chatting with a friend the other day, and he was talking about someone we’ve both known for years who’s built up a very successful business. This man reads a lot of self-help books, and as my friend remarked, they’re obviously working. Then he said, “There seem to be two kinds of people who read self-help books. People who get it – whatever ‘it’ is – and make great progress to change their lives, and people who just read the books as a way to avoid actually making changes.”

“Yes,” I said. “There are two kinds of people who go into therapy, too. They’re the same two kinds.”

In fact, in any human activity where there’s potential for change – relationships, spiritual practice, coaching, even reality TV shows – you’ll see the same two kinds of people. There are people who use whatever it is in order to change, and there are people who use it in order to avoid changing.

That got me thinking about the many ways we have to avoid change. Avoiding change is helpful in some circumstances, because change brings a threat with it, the threat of the unknown. Avoiding change can be a useful skill, and that’s why we’re so good at it. But here I am blogging about how to change your life – and I thought I’d do a series on how not to change your life, as a kind of paradoxical advice in the tradition of Milton Erickson.

Here, in no particular order, are 25 ways I can think of to avoid changing your life:

  1. Talk in jargon.
  2. Don’t take responsibility.
  3. Think “All or Nothing”.
  4. Always be right.
  5. Promise emptily.
  6. Look for shortcuts.
  7. Pretend everything is fine.
  8. Resist actively.
  9. Keep determinedly doing the same things.
  10. Let your fear win.
  11. Look for reasons why not.
  12. Stay isolated and refuse help.
  13. Be bitter.
  14. Take yourself seriously.
  15. Learn without doing.
  16. Let the urgent override the important.
  17. Idealise the past.
  18. Shun discomfort.
  19. Cave in to pressure.
  20. Be terrified of failure.
  21. Shun success.
  22. Expect change to happen by itself.
  23. Stay ignorant.
  24. Become an expert.
  25. Try for too much too soon.

Well, that takes care of my blog topics for a good while, even if I combine a few. Stay tuned for the series! I’ll link to them as I go.

Let me know in the comments any others you can think of (especially if you’ve practiced them yourself), and I’ll add them into the series with credit to you.

And if you like the list, share it around on Twitter, Facebook and email. The more the merrier.

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Dec 28

How to Choose the Right Challenge for 2011

Posted in Techniques

A few weeks ago, in Conveniencing Ourselves to Death – or Challenging Ourselves to Life?, I wrote about how challenge is a third and better option alongside the usual two we go with in Western society: stress or convenience.

Like stress, challenge is difficult, but unlike stress, you have a sense of control, progress and achievement.

Like convenience, challenge is enjoyable, but unlike convenience, you are stretching yourself, growing, and making use of your existing strengths and abilities rather than allowing them to wither through disuse.

How to have a challenging year (in the best way)

In my guest post How to Set Yourself a Challenge on Goal Setting Guide, I gave a 5-step approach for deciding on and pursuing a challenge. I recommend you go and read the whole thing, but briefly:

  1. Have a desire for change,
  2. Believe you can change,
  3. Find a destination,
  4. Get a plan,
  5. Implement, implement, implement.

I’ve talked about having a desire for change (otherwise known as motivation) before too, and also about believing  you can change (otherwise known as self-efficacy). Today I’d like to expand on point 3 – finding a destination (or picking a challenge for yourself).

New Year is coming very soon, and while New Year’s resolutions are traditionally more honoured in the breach than the observance, that’s not because there’s anything wrong with the basic idea. It’s because most people don’t know how to carry their good intentions through. So, if you were thinking of setting yourself a challenge for 2011, here are some guidelines (and if you weren’t thinking of challenging yourself in 2011, I urge you to consider it – you’ll thank me later).

Let your heart guide you

A challenge for the sake of a challenge is empty.

What would make your life sing?

What would engage you deeply?

What would you push through pain to achieve?

What do you admire someone else for doing?

What would make you look at  yourself in a new way, with excitement and awe?

What have you dreamed of, but dismissed?

What would, in the words of the old comic book advertisements, Amaze Your Friends?

Creative Commons License photo credit: Berto Garcia

Let your gut guide you

In my How to Set Yourself a Challenge post, I quote Catherine Caine, and I’m going to do it again because I love this thought so much: “You should always try anything that makes you uncomfortable, and nothing that makes you uneasy.”

If the challenge you’re considering doesn’t scare you at least a little, you’re standing too far from the edge. Go scarier!

(If you think you’d respect yourself less for pulling it off, though, choose again.)

The thing about challenge is that you tend to underestimate yourself. I remember years ago when I had a very motivational team leader in my job at the time. He encouraged us to come up with a “big, hairy, audacious goal” for the team. We chose “we will implement X number of innovative solutions for our customers in the next 18 months.” (We had definitions for “implement”, “innovative” and “solution” so that it wasn’t just business gobbledegook.)

I remember our boss saying to us, “Is X really a challenging number? Do you feel comfortable that you could pull that off?”

We did.

“OK, what’s a challenging number, then?”

He talked us up to a number almost twice X.

And we beat that number with months to spare.

So: Go big, or go home.

Choose something that, even if you fail (and I don’t think you will), it will be magnificent.

Let your head guide you

Your heart sets the direction, your gut sets the intensity, but your head sets the measurement. How are you going to measure your achievement?

Some challenges are easy to measure. You’re on top of Everest, or you’re not. Others, not so easy. How do you measure kindness?

But one of the things that setting a measurement does is tie your challenge to observable things that you control. (That last part’s important. Don’t set yourself a challenge of winning a million dollars at the slot machines, please, because that can only happen through chance or criminal activity, and neither one is a good way of completing a challenge.)

Looking for measurements can feed back into deciding the direction and the intensity, of course. I haven’t numbered these subheadings (heart, head, gut) because they’re not sequential. They’re simultaneous.

An example: My Fighting Fit challenges

I’ll give you an example, because I always find examples make things a lot clearer.

One of my challenges next year relates to fitness. I’ve not been very fit for a long time, and I know I feel a lot better (and function a lot better in general) when I am. I’ve been doing the Hundred Pushups, which is great, and feeling the benefit – thanks to Steven Aitchison’s Advanced Early Riser program, which gave me time in my day for exercise. But I wanted to play a bigger game. Most of what I’ve done so far is also strength training, and I know I need some cardio to get some of the best fitness benefits.

I, for one, welcome our new Google overlords, so I searched for “standard fitness test”. A lot of the top results (including number 1) have to do with the US military’s fitness testing programs, and I started to read about them.

Now, not only am I not American, but I’m more or less a pacifist and have no interest in joining any military force anywhere in the world. But looking at that information, I thought, “That could be a good fitness challenge – get myself up to the standard for the various US military forces.” (Each service has its own test, and they differ in detail of how they measure and what the standard is, so you can arrange them in sequence and have an ascending set of challenges.) All of them combine a strength element and a cardio element.

Now, I’m 43 and have never been all that fit or strong. I could make excuses about physical issues that I have and why I can’t do those challenges, but really I can. It’ll involve focus and determination and a certain amount of discomfort, but it’ll be worth it. Because not only will I feel good physically (and benefit my body and mind both), but I’ll have a significant achievement to point to. “Yeah, I can do the US Marine Corps Physical Fitness Test, going for the Navy SEAL one next…”

It’s an expandable challenge, too, because as well as minimum levels and levels for your age, you can go for higher scores and try to get to the standard of a younger person. (I met a major in the NZ Army recently who’s recovering from a leg injury. He’s in, I would say, his 30s, and his goal is to be able to pass the physical fitness test that 18-year-old recruits must pass.)

I’ve put together a little online tracker for what I’m calling the Fighting Fit Challenges, but I want to use it myself for a while before I release it to the world and invite others to join me. (This is because I have a realistic view of my skill at programming.) It’s likely to be January’s free resource for the people on my mailing list.

So, what’s your challenge for 2011?

Happy New Year to all my readers. Let’s have a good one.

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Dec 22

How to Stop Smoking – New Online Course

Posted in Announcements

How to Stop SmokingI’ve just made my new stop-smoking online course, Smokefree Life, available on the courses page. I’m not doing a big launch like I did for the Stop Procrastinating, Start Succeeding course, partly because I suspect I have more readers who are procrastinators than who are smokers (am I right)?

I wanted to get it out now, though, because cigarette tax is going up again in New Zealand on 1 January, and people will be looking around for advice on how to stop smoking.

I’m not setting out to make my fortune from those unfortunates. In fact, I’ve decided that the ebook part of the course, How to Stop Smoking, will not only be free but Creative Commons-licensed (that means I’m encouraging you to share it with as many people as possible). Whether you buy the course or not, the ebook gives plenty of good advice on how to stop smoking, regardless of which of the many smoking cessation methods you use. It covers the health effects of smoking, benefits of giving up smoking (with a timeline), how to deal with quit smoking withdrawal symptoms, how to quit smoking without gaining weight, motivation to quit smoking and a few other popular topics.

What’s in the Smokefree Life course

If you do buy the course, you’ll naturally get extras over and above the ebook: half a dozen of my professional hypnotherapy MP3s to help you shift your thoughts, feelings and behaviours. They cover motivation, dealing with inner resistance, taking care of your body, and of course the process of quitting smoking.

For that I’m charging $19 (NZD). I settled on that number as roughly the price of a couple of packs of cigarettes, or less, in most countries. (Actually I think the NZ price will be not much less than that for one pack, in just a few days’ time.) It’s not the full worth of the course, but I wanted to strike a balance between being affordable and costing just enough that people would take it seriously.

I’ve developed these stop-smoking hypnosis tracks, and the ebook, from several years of working with clients face-to-face to help them stop smoking. You may remember my interview with Sarah James on how giving up smoking was a significant personal development move for her.

In that time I’ve learned a lot – I’ll do a more in-depth post in the New Year, pointing back to some of my previous posts on smoking as well. Smoking is a very complex behaviour, and the more resources you have when you’re giving up smoking, the better the outcome – so I’ve set out to give you as many resources as possible while still keeping it simple and clear.

So if you are thinking of giving up smoking, or know someone else who is, here’s the ebook: How to Stop Smoking.

And please share this post on Facebook and Twitter, or by email with anyone who would benefit from it.

Thanks. And Merry Christmas, if you celebrate it – my wife and I are going up to see my mother and sister at their new place and have a nice relaxed Christmas day.

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