Imagine you are walking along the sidewalk down a familiar street. Then out of nowhere, you spot a long lost friend from school on the opposite side of the road walking toward you. As your old friend gets closer, you look over and for a brief moment the two of your eyes meet. You put up your hand to wave and your friend puts their head down and continues walking. How do you imagine feeling if this scenario really happened to you? Why would you feel that way? The diverse responses given by the mPEAK participants illustrate the impact that our story has on our experience.
- “I’d feel like a loser because I got left hanging”.
- “I’d feel OK, I’ve changed a lot over the years so they probably didn’t recognize me.”
- “I would feel totally bad because maybe they didn’t like me. Maybe I did something to hurt them and didn’t even know it!”
- “Maybe they’re depressed or sick. Maybe something bad happened to them or someone they loved died recently. I would feel concerned and run across the street to see if they were OK.”
There is no right answer. There is no way you’re supposed to react to this hypothetical situation. The point of the exercise is to show how quickly we all fill in the blanks by telling our own unique story about the same event. The most simple, objective truth is that someone was walking down the street –that’s it, you made up the rest.
Something that separates us from animals is that we have brains that can construct elaborate theories and explanations about what is happening in the world and why. As humans we have a deeply ingrained need to not only understand life's big questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What happens when we die? But also the day to day set backs. The better we can understand and explain challenging events such as relationship breakups, business failures, losing streaks or medical problems, the faster we will recover from them. Uncertainty is perceived as bad for survival, so we’ve become extremely proficient at explaining life’s events by making up stories in attempts to understand the great mystery of life.
The problem is that we interpret these events through the lens of our own limited, highly subjective belief systems and then call it “The Truth”. Take again the example of your old friend walking down the street. Whether you got mad, embarrassed or even felt worried would have been determined by your pre-existing fears, expectations and assumptions about the way people are and the way the world works. These personal projections are not likely to have much at all to do with “The Truth”.
Our belief systems develop over years of accumulating information and experiences such as: emotionally significant events with your family, friends, romances, schoolmates, teachers, work colleagues, interactions with strangers, and time spent in solitude. They can also be influenced culturally by the political and economic systems in which you have lived, as well as media influences from news and idolized images of heroes or cultural icons.
As a metaphor, think of your body as the hardware and your beliefs as the software. Your complex constellations of beliefs are like your own subconscious algorithm that interprets massive amounts of incoming data and variables from your environment, then weaves together a narrative that influences your hardware to take specific actions that supports your story. This is all fine and dandy, unless the story you’re telling about your potential is keeping you locked in fear rather than pursuing your purpose and thriving.
Positive Psychologists refer to our unique story telling capacity as our “Explanatory Style”, which is defined as “a psychological attribute that indicates how people explain to themselves why they experience a particular event, either positive or negative.” There are three main components involved in our explanatory style that are categorized as: Personal, Permanent and Pervasive.
People who tend to have a “Personal Explanatory Style” see themselves as the cause of the events that happen in their life rather than seeing external variables or other people as the cause. "I’m bad at paying my bills on time", opposed to "Those bills can sure sneak up on you". A “Permanent Explanatory Style” involves explaining the cause of the event as unchangeable or fixed rather than being temporary, flexible or evolving. Someone with this style will use the language of “always” and “never”, for example, “I’m always late to meetings” and “I never forget a face”. Finally, someone with a “Pervasive Explanatory Style” sees a situation as affecting all aspects of life rather than being limited to an isolated event. "I can't do anything right" or "Everything I touch seems to turn to gold".
When someone tends to tell stories about the causes of adverse, "Off PEAK" events as being personal, ("This is all my fault"), pervasive, ("This affects absolutely everything"), and permanent ("This isn't changeable"), they’re referred to as having a “Pessimistic Explanatory Style”. Conversely, people who generally tend to blame others or acts of nature for negative, "Off PEAK" events and who also believe that such events will end soon without impacting too many other aspects of their lives, display what is called an “Optimistic Explanatory Style”
How do our stories impact our performance you may ask. Well in one study on the difference between optimists and pessimists in sports, psychologist Martin Seligman asked swimmers to swim their best stroke and then told them their times were slightly slower than they actually were. When they swam again, swimmers with an optimistic self-explanatory style swam at approximately the same speed, whereas swimmers with a pessimistic self-explanatory style swam more slowly. When things are going well and our team is winning, for example—no difference in motivation or performance exists between optimists and pessimists. But when things are falling apart—when the team on which we’re playing is losing—pessimists often stop trying.
Limiting Performance Stories
As a competitive rower, Jason came to me for Life Coaching to improve his race time and get out of the rut he’d been in for months. In our first session he reported that he always starts strong and is leading in the first half. "But as soon as the first guy passes me, it all kind of falls apart”, he adds. “I’m just not a come from behind athlete.” What we figured out in his first session was that the moment he was passed, his “Inner Critical Coach” would start yelling at him and berating him for being a “weak loser”. He believed the story that once the first rower passed, everyone else would pass him too. This story pulled him out of his body –out of the moment, and brought him into his head where there was nothing but worry and panic. This emotional state quickly drained him of his rhythm and flow, causing him to indeed fall toward the back. Jason’s story about not being a come from behind rower became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
By repeatedly telling ourselves a limiting story about our challenges; that it’s our fault, it will always be this way and it will impact everything, we invariably do end up performing poorly. With each additional poor performance we’ve collected more data to reinforce our original limiting beliefs, hardwiring it as our fixed "truth”. If this pattern persists, all motivation disappears and we eventually fall into the trap that psychologists refer to as learned helplessness.
Learned helplessness is best illustrated in a study done by Martin Seligman where two dogs were put in separate cages, and only one could learn to press a lever to stop a shock. The second dog didn’t have a lever and received random shocks that it could not control. This second dog “learned” that he is helpless in the face of shocks. In a following experiment, both dogs are taught a new skill of how to avoid being shocked and both put in cages where they had equal opportunity to stop the shock. The first dog who was empowered by the confidence of being able to avoid shocks the first time, was able to again avoid the shocks. Although they both had the means to control the shock, the second dog that had not been able to control them the first time, gave up and suffered the shocks without trying to avoid them. It had learned to be helpless even under conditions where it did indeed have control.
Luckily for Jason and many others, Seligman’s work also shows that humans can pull out of helplessness and re-condition themselves to learn optimism. In essence, we have the power to change our story.
PEAK Performance Story
To make this practice more personally relevant to you and your life, try recalling the most recent occasion where you performed well in life, work or sport. Maybe you set a personal best at Cross Fit, kept up with your fastest friends during the weekend bike ride, nailed a presentation at work or mindfully defused a potential conflict with your significant other. Once you’re in touch with what we refer to in mPEAK as a “PEAK Performance Event”, the practice is to explore the thoughts and stories you told to explain this situation--the how and why of the event.
I offered this same practice to Cheryl, a client of mine who’s “PEAK Performance Events” crescendo was finally weighing herself after her first month of dietary changes to find she’d lost 8 pounds. The thoughts that immediately entered her mind were, “Wow, it’s working! All of my discipline at restaurants, mindful eating and the meal preparation is paying off. I think I might actually reach my goal a few months early and take myself on vacation”. Without intending to, Cheryl’s Performance Story displayed all the factors of an optimistic explanatory style. The results were within her control, the factors for her success were stable and her confidence in this area impacts her whole being. If Cheryl would have instead just chalked her success up to good luck or told the story that this was an easy month and her personal trainer was responsible for everything, she would have likely had a very different experience during month two. But the internal performance story Cheryl told about her experience improved her self-efficacy, the belief in her ability to succeed and she was able to keep her momentum of healthy behavior change. So how is it that our mental stories about events improve our performance and our odds of success? We don't quite know for sure so we just call it the "placebo effect"...
There are hundreds of studies that show how the “placebo effect”, or positive expectation about a treatment can significantly impact the patient’s experience of pain and their healing outcome. And what is the placebo effect if not the confidence in a belief –an optimistic story that everything is going to turn out OK.
Consider a study by Harvard's Ellen Langer that shows how the belief of how much exercise we are getting has an effect on how our bodies actually look. A group of very active maids who reportedly didn’t believe they got any exercise were divided into two groups. One group was told nothing and the other was informed that their daily cleaning activities met regular exercise recommendations. No other directions or interventions were given. A month later the group who now believed they were exercising had a drop in systolic blood pressure, weight, waist-to-hip ratio, and a 10 percent drop in blood pressure.
Another example is a study that showed how people’s beliefs about aging might contribute more to their health than the physiological factors doctors typically focus on. In a 20 year longitudinal studying of a group of 650 people lead by Becca Levy found that those who told a positive story about the aging process lived, on average, seven and a half years longer than those who were negative about it. To put that in perspective, improving cholesterol and blood pressure typically improves life span by four years and exercising, maintaining healthy weight and refraining from smoking will add only one to three.
Working With Your Performance Story
The distinctions between various explanatory styles can be useful in understanding our own patterns of story telling, but the point of the mPEAK curriculum isn’t necessarily to turn all pessimistic stories into optimistic ones. In another blog I discussed how our Character Strength could be our greatest weaknesses when overplayed. This can also be true of “blind optimism”. As the name implies, blindness, or lack of mindfulness can lead to optimists being overconfident, careless and even cause a reduction in effort if one believes their ability eliminates the need for practice.
The real point of mindfulness practice is to simply be more aware of the stories we tell ourselves about our successes and failures and to notice the impact these stories have on our experiences and outcomes. mPEAK participants are encouraged to see their story as just that –a story. Their practice then is to get curious about the conditioned beliefs and assumptions that underlie the stories and begin to see what’s really true for them in that moment. With this new awareness, participants have a greater capacity to detach from old stories and tell new stories that are authentic, realistic and more beneficial.
Here is an evidence-based method to shift perspectives and the dispute the beliefs behind limiting performance stories.
A. Adversity: Describe a recent “Off PEAK Performance Event”. Be specific, accurate and objective in your description.
B. Beliefs: Write down the internal story you were telling yourself in the midst of the Adversity. What was running through your mind?
C. Consequences: Record the Consequences of your Beliefs (what did you feel and what did you do?). Really feel and then list all of the emotions you experienced and as many reactions as you can identify.
D. Dispute: Generate evidence to point out the inaccuracy in your Beliefs by brainstorming several alternative beliefs about the adversity that could also be true. Be creative!
E. Energy: Try each new belief or perspective on and write a few sentences about how this new story has changed your energy. What happened to your mood and energy? What solutions did you see that you didn’t see before?