Sunday, November 13, 2011

From Life and Death Motivation to Joy: Changing Diet, Changing Life

I recently recieved the following letter from a reader. I wanted to share her letter and my response because it relates to my own life as well as the reasons I've been unable to post on this blog for some time.

Hi Bob Vance,

I was reading your blog today and wonder you could give me an opinion on a diet/fitness app I'm making right now?

For me, I think the problem with being healthy is motivation. It's an abstract, overwhelming goal. I think the best way to counter this is to have concrete, winnable games and small victories.

So, this app will makes living healthy, and fitness into a RPG game, where users earn points, and "level up' as they achieve their goals. Every time they eat something healthy like vegetables, they earn points. Every time they complete a workout, they earn points. Each level will present different challenges.

The challenges will follow a certain structure. First will come changing your environment such as getting rid of junk food. Then, reducing stress, as stress leads to eating comfort food. Then concrete goals like keeping track of everything you eat, or taking the stairs for a week. Small, concrete goals rather than abstract ones like “be healthy” or “exercise more”.

The whole point is to create a holistic framework/game so people will rely less on willpower, and more on fun, achievement, and changing our environment

What's your opinion on this idea? Would you want to know when I'm done with it? If this sounds too silly, or absurd, just ignore what I just said, hehe =)

Best, Christine



I appreciate your thinking of me for feedback on this project. It is interesting to be approached about this at this time in my life. In the past six months I have lost over 25 pounds. It has not seemed that difficult to do, even though I have worked on keeping my weight down for years, actually since I quit smoking over 27 years ago. Your query got me thinking about why it has seemed so much easier to change my relationship to food now than it has in the past.

I’ve never been horribly over weight and I have exercised regularly and vigorously for almost forty years. I carried my extra pounds quite well, but have known for many years that my family carries a kind of genetic cardiovascular predisposition for early illness and death. Both of my grandfathers died before they were 60. My mother died at 68. So I thought, rightly, that I had to try to get ahead of this issue while I had time. So far so good… until this past spring, when two days after my 57th birthday, while I was swimming my 1.5 mile lap routine, I developed an unusual pain in my chest and back that later that day sent me to the hospital.

Without going into a time consuming and overly detailed account of my heart attack (the result of a clot in my “widow maker” artery that was held back from a deadly course by two peaks of arterial plaque, but still blocked blood flow while I was exercising), I think, for me, your idea that the main obstacle toward developing better health and diet patterns is motivation is right on. That I survived a potentially fatal heart attack (and did so, according to my cardiologists, because I exercised and worked on diet) is, it occurs to me, the only motivation I’ve needed to fine tune my diet, lose the extra weight and improve my overall cardiovascular health as I go into my older age. The motivation I feel is a matter of believing, viscerally, that I MUST improve my diet, that I have no real choices if I want to stay alive. This has worked, so far for me (and really, with no real 100% assurances) because it is everything I can do.

Duplicating this kind of motivation for others who are not confronted so concretely with their mortality seems to me to be the kind of question you are dealing with. You are working on a formula that maneuvers people into flicking the switch of a kind of motivation that takes advantage of their knowledge of the importance of their diet and exercise in very deep and essential ways.

Beyond haranguing people who really do not have a concrete perspective concerning the nature of their own mortality… and haranguing people about the benefits of diet and the negatives of overeating I think usually only creates more motivation to continue to over eat… how can you engage their intellectual understanding of the need for weight loss and over all good health habits in a way that it creates a deeper sensory based motivation toward better diet, weight loss and health?

I think your idea about creating a system of small steps and rewards is a good one. And I think focusing on making it fun, in one way or another, is a good inclination. That being said, I also think you should consider enlarging the scope of what that means to the wide variety of people to whom you want to offer your program.

If you have a good understanding of the nature of individuation, you must also understand that each of your clients will need to be involved in the invention of their own system of steps and rewards, as well as, and perhaps most importantly, in the uncovering of their own particular keys to the kind of motivation that is necessary to make the changes that they have to make. How uncover each client’s will to change? How to help each client understand that their urge to be healthier is indeed a life or death process?

So my next question would be: How can you help your clients uncover their, very serious, will to lose weight and be healthier all while integrating their individual program with the also very serious but more ‘fun’ reasons they want to stay alive? What do they love about life that makes this such a serious “mission”? Each person’s answers may be different, but without integrating that passion for living into the reasons for wanting to be healthier in whatever way shape or form it occurs in each individual life, I doubt that it will be possible to find and add the weight of the motivation needed to make the changes that they want to make. And they really must be ready to find those reasons, make that change and do the work themselves.

Also: For me food is a one of those joys of living. I don’t doubt that I am in rather good and crowded company. Eating is fun and gratifying. It is a social adhesive and a daily reward for the trials of each hour of living. It adds spice to love and succor to sadness. Without recognizing that and including it in a diet and health plan I doubt that I, personally, would get anywhere. How can we integrate someone’s love of food into his or her motivation for needing to have less of it? When does wanting food change from a simple daily joy into an addiction? Is there a concretely defined line between joy and addiction, and if so how do we help clients find it for themselves? If there are only shades of grey, how do we help our clients find their own place of comfort and health in that fog?

So yes: go on with your program of short term goals and rewards, but I would ask that your process include giving most of the responsibility for inventing those goals, steps, rewards and the nature of their motivation toward change to your client. Have a menu, so to speak, of choices plus give them plenty of space and facilitation to discover their own choices. Have your framework ready (it already sounds like you have a good start on that) and facilitate your clients’ exploration of it and help them fill in the details of the tasks that lie ahead.

I hope this helps. You might do some research and reading in the area of Motivational Interviewing, a technique for facilitating behavioral change pioneered by Professor William R Miller, Ph.D. and Professor Stephen Rollnick, Ph.D.. There’s a lot of information on the Internet, and training modules and courses available. It’s a non-intrusive, non-confrontational method of interviewing and counseling that gives responsibility for change to the client through exploring their roadblocks and stagnating ambivalences. You might find it a good companion to your work.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

When the Norm becomes Sin

I am perplexed by the cultural habit of making something a sizeable proportion of the population does into sin. What part of who we are as individuals and as a culture demands that we continually pillory the very same people we set up to be our heroes and models and those who speak for us? Why are we so obsessed with behaviors that are common, a product of a wide range of personal preferences and, if done between consenting adults, harmless? Why are we less upset, even entertained, by footage of the bombing of cities than we are of some guy’s home movies of his underwear?

The Internet is full of video clips and picture-sharing opportunities. That we would expect people NOT to share sexually related information, tastes and titillations, with each other at least as much as they share the latest popular song, the inane circumstances and happenings in family and social relations, political agreements, arguments and passions, pictures of hopelessly cute children and pets, and too many people singing badly to count, is befuddling. Beyond some confused and conflicted, self-hating, shame about our own desires.

Sexual chat and sexual variety, real and virtual (can they be reasonably expected to be distinguished from one another? at least in terms of how the internet is a reflection of our concerns and what we think about?) are a normal and generally motivating part of life. As long as it does not interfere drastically with one's day-to-day survival and the respect for others that is a given in civil society(and often sex enhances survival in whatever form it is expressed) sex SHOULD in fact be sought after. The pathology is with and in those who are constantly working to repress and disappear their own and others' urges for sexual connection... because it doesn't usually work very well, and, as we have ample evidence, it is generally dishonest.

The ugliest part of these overly examined celebrity sex-bashing news cycles is in the nature of the mob mentality with which they are pursued, regardless of how intellectual some of the stone throwers may hope to sound. They are still throwing stones, and if the statistics and Internet content represent any truer picture of what we think about, lust after, and wish to do if only in our fantasy life, the houses they throw from are glass.

The cultural predilection for demonizing normal behavior is self-defeating, but worse it also assures that the collective "we" will always be able to be led over any cliff of public attention or lack of it that is handy when other, more heinous, collective behaviors, deserve our attention and our action. Can we really care that much about a fella's wiener in his tighty-whiteys? I mean, I am more concerned about those who are pre-occupied with puritanical and unmaintainable standards of pathological morality than those who display their goods to someone who asked to see them.

And as far as the lies are concerned: if the thought of being forced to be tied to the burn pile of public attention isn't enough to force such untruths, then the internalized shame such a pathological cultural approach to expressions of sexuality would be entirely expected. More Stones. More glass houses.

In the end, who cares? In the end, the sex other people have or don’t have is as inane as wedding pictures, or the ten-year-old’s first tap dance, at least to those who did not attend and/or have no personal connection to them.

In the end, how can we expect to find people who can authentically represent us and our hopes and dreams for this nation if we constantly tar and feather them for the acts we ourselves have indulged, fantasized, and frightened ourselves with? What is the force behind the velocity and anger with which we aim the stones that we throw? Do we really wish to turn our representative bodies and the lives of our cultural heroes into sterile, passionless and abnormally sexually single-focused Stepford droids?

Just as vehement gay-haters are often most likely to struggle with their deeply felt and deeply unresolved tenderness toward those of the same sex, so must our angst and rage at those who would post pictures of their parts and talk about their titillations be invested with our own shame and denial about our desires and repressions.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Complexity of Creative People

Creativity researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi includes descriptions of the multiple characteristics of creative people.

In a post of hers, Juliet Bruce, Ph.D. notes that Csikszentmihalyi wrote, “If there is one word that makes creative people different from others, it is the word complexity. Instead of being an individual, they are a multitude.”

“Like the color white that includes all colors, they tend to bring together the entire range of human possibilities within themselves. Creativity allows for paradox, light, shadow, inconsistency, even chaos –and creative people experience both extremes with equal intensity.”
Here are a few qualities he lists, as Bruce summarizes:

1) A great deal of physical energy alternating with a great need for quiet and rest.
2) Highly sexual, yet often celibate, especially when working.
3) Smart and naïve at the same time. A mix of wisdom and childishness. Emotional immaturity along with the deepest insights.
4) Convergent (rational, left brain, sound judgment) and divergent (intuitive, right brain, visionary) thinking…
5) Both extroverted and introverted, needing people and solitude equally.
6) Humble and proud, both painfully self-doubting and wildly self-confident.
7) May defy gender stereotypes, and are likely to have not only the strengths of their own gender but those of the other as well. A kind of psychic androgyny.

For more, see her post Understanding Creative People – and Csikszentmihalyi’s classic book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.

Do you relate to any of these qualities?

One of these intriguing areas is androgyny.
Tilda Swinton won an oscar for her role in “Michael Clayton.” Part of her power as an actor and many of her characters is in their androgynous looks and energies. Swinton has said she is fascinated by the question, “How do we identify ourselves, and how do we settle into other people’s expectations for our identity?” She once commented she is “very often referred to as ‘Sir’ in elevators and such” and that it “has to do with being this tall and not wearing much lipstick. I think people just can’t imagine I’d be a woman if I look like this.”

But androgyny is more than appearance. Kathleen Noble, PhD, a professor and psychotherapist who works with many gifted clients, said in our interview, “Gifted women tend to be highly androgynous… they tend to combine qualities that we tend to ascribe to both genders.

“So for instance, you get women who are highly sensitive and highly empathic and compassionate (which are all components of psychic ability), combined with high energy and high drive, high independence and autonomy, which are qualities that the culture rewards in men but not in women.”

Ellen Winner comments in her book Gifted Children: Myths and Realities, “Perhaps because gifted children reject mainstream values, they reject gender-stereotyped traits as well. … Csikszentmihalyi’s talented females scored highly on achievement motivation and dominance, two traits associated with males, and rejected traditional feminine values such as neatness.
“The gifted boys in his study scored highly on measures of sensitivity and aesthetic values, two traits typically associated with females, and rejected the stereotypical male trait of bravado.” [Winner was referring to his book: Talented Teenagers : The Roots of Success and Failure.]

Perhaps consciously expanding boundaries such as gender stereotypes can help people be more creatively expressive.

Douglas Eby, MA/Psychology, is a writer and researcher on the psychology of creative expression and personal growth. He is author of the Talent Development Resources series of sites. Also see his Facebook and Twitter pages.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Search for the Authentic Voice

“Your silence today is a pond where drowned things live
I want to see raised dripping and brought into the sun.
It is not my own face I see there, but other faces,
even your face at another age.
Whatever’s lost there is needed by both of us—”

-- Adrienne Rich

In the arts the idea of voice and “style” as highly individuated and highly sought after aspects of the creative process, and the product of that process, is paramount. One is expected to seek out and grow into one’s “voice” through a variety of approaches that are numerous and almost as difficult to pin point as the nature and attributes of that voice itself. The emergence of that voice or style as a recognizable attribute of one’s creative work is the evidence of what is real and accessible as it becomes an artistic experience that moves and transforms. It is in the making of one’s voice accessible to others that one’s voice can be transformed into art, a poem, a style of acting and singing or writing. Even this is a difficult and hard-to-pin-down process of self discovery within rules and directions that are almost completely reliant on the artists’ vision and honesty about how that vision is rendered.

In the helping professions, in work that is defined by verbal communication as its major tool, finding the authentic voice involves a similar process. We learn a variety of approaches and theories with which we hope to use to approach certain tasks of eliciting and/or imparting information to our “audience”, our clients and patients. Often the information we deal in, the stuff of our interactions, is of an essential, highly intimate and at best only partially discovered nature. We are given the authority and the responsibility of creating spaces for change and development in partnership with those who come to us for help through how we listen and how we speak about what we hear.

Just as the search for and maintenance of the authentic voice or style of an artist involves constant self-evaluation and observation of a full spectrum of aspects of the creative process, the ability of the helping professional to engage in listening and dialogue toward change and discovery is also charged with the responsibility of coming from some center of the authentic. Regardless of one’s proficiency in any number of communication and therapeutic techniques, the inability to engage genuinely with clients and patients will sabotage progress. The ability to authentically and somewhat fearlessly enter intimate relationship is the thing. Everything else can only become productive after the basis for real caring and trust has been established and can be maintained.

This may appear to be somewhat elementary. Trust-building and rapport are universally accepted, and perhaps taken for granted, as the foundation in most therapeutic and professional helping relationships. But while they are expected to exist, their nature and the skill of the caregiver to imbue them with the ability to tap into an authentic, deep and productive caring, without crossing over and sabotaging the process by crashing through professional and personal boundaries, remains less explored.

It is the nature of the authentic voice of trust and connection we are most interested in… the rather less-that-definable nature of communicating true concern and empathy from the heart of where it lives in oneself. I propose that this is the real work for any helping professional, and that without it active listening, support and guidance through change are at best a sluggish possibility if not impossible.

We’ve all been subjected to office and professional personnel, in any number of professional capacities in which we are the consumer, whose chosen manner of communicating concern and care is parental, patron- or matronizing, sometimes to such an extreme degree that we are automatically offended or alienated. In care scenarios in which our personal, emotional and often intimate physical well-being is being explored, our responses to this “style” might range from weary tolerance to open disdain. In any case, the lack of ability in which the helping professional has been able to convey an authentic concern, coupled with a solid area-specific skill set and aptitude, immediately affects our ability to enter into an honest exchange of information that lubricates and is essential to the dialogue that must take place in order that we get the best care and attention possible.

Missteps in communication by helping professionals are not often as apparent as this example. It is possible that many of the mistakes made are even more damaging but less immediately apparent. Tone of voice, pacing, ability to read the nature and preferences of the client’s own styles of communication in relationship to how they are best served through conversation are all important aspects of how to establish an authentic voice as a professional in a helping role. Measuring and assessing the various balances of need in these areas, while one is in the middle of establishing and taking care of a genuine trusting relationship, are among the most difficult and creative aspects of the process of building a productive therapeutic helping relationship. Skill and getting the information necessary to make good judgments in these areas are often a matter of practice and simply asking for the information one needs from the client or patient in question. But perhaps more essential, and most complicated, is the ability of the professional to access and use his or her real self, the authentic voice, both symbolically and literally.

Simple enough: as long as the professional is familiar with and knows what that true voice sounds like. If we consider that finding one’s authentic voice is much, much more than hearing the music and meaning of what comes out our mouths and what does not, and exists more along the lines of a deeper search and maintenance of a familiarity with oneself, at a very primary level, then we begin to recognize the true complexity of how to convey our connection to those who come to us for assistance in our role as helper.

And this isn’t about self-disclosure, or at least it is not about disclosing the facts and minutiae of our lives to those to whom we are entrusted to assist in any number of ways. While a certain amount of self-disclosure is probably in order depending on individual circumstances and professional roles, too much information disclosed about oneself could be a mistaken attempt to provide authentic connection that can and should be established in some other way. This can damage or short circuit your client or patient’s will to engage productively.

Remember, in many cases, your authenticity will encourage them to see you in the way that they need to in order that you can help them. Too much specific information prevents that from happening and does nothing to further the therapeutic alliance that is so essential. So much of how we establish firmly genuine professional interactional relations has so little to do with what we say and more about how and what we can elicit from our clients and patients out of their conviction that we are worthy of their trust. We can only be successful in this task if we are perceived to be coming from a place of truth and genuine non-judgmental concern for their well-being.

So how do we show our true selves to those who come to us for expertise, guidance and support? What is this process of discovery and maintenance of our authentic voice? Where do we start, and more, what will it look like as we are able to build a certain amount of skill? Are we somewhere along the path already? How do we open that pocket of genuine empathy and dole it out naturally and care-fully, all in the service of those who come to us for our expertise and support and as a catharsis toward their own change?

Here are some questions that might be helpful in that process of self discovery and “authenticity maintenance”. There are no right or wrong answers. These questions are provided as a tool for self evaluation and a way to explore and meditate on the location and creative disclosure of authentic voice.

1) Think of a professional, someone who helped you whom you hold in very high regard. Name five of their non verbal attributes that you were fond of or that helped you decide to trust them.
2) How comfortable are you with non-sexual intimacy in your own life? How does that translate to your professional life?
3) How do you speak about your clients and patients with other professionals in your field? How is it different from how you speak to your clients and patients? How do you rationalize any differences?
4) When talking about presenting your authentic self to your clients and patients what parts of your real self, which emotions and feelings, feel most vulnerable? How do you respond to clients and patients who express those same emotions and feelings?
5) In your life what has been the best response to you when you have been in great pain, grief or confusion?
6) In what situations have you felt you have been able to speak in a way that represented most who you are as a person and what is most important to you? What was the outcome? What created that opportunity?
7) When conversing with others what cues do you notice that say you have a person’s attention and concern? What cues say you have lost their attention and concern?
8) What kind of range of expression, from sadness to laughter, anger to joy, do you employ in your relationships with your clients and patients? What kind of a range do you think represents the authentic voice as we are speaking of it?
9) What practice do you employ to exercise and strengthen your ability to have and maintain authenticity-based relationships with your patients and clients? If you do not have one, where will you begin to look to find one? How will you know it is working?
10) Name five ways you can practice increasing your skills in accessing and maintaining your authentic voice.

Finding, developing and taking care of the authentic voice is a deep and creative process of unending discovery and uncovering, not unlike the one a painter or poet goes through to locate, translate and present central themes of their selves in the world. Our wish, as helping professionals, is to similarly make our selves accessible and in-common to others who have come to us for support and guidance and even a kind of love.

As the poet Adrienne Rich says in one of her Twenty One Love Poems, from her book “Dream of a Common Language”, our authenticity is the one way we have at our disposal to ask our clients and patients the same question they ask us, “…show me what I can do for you, who have made the unnameable nameable for others, even for me.”