At the turn of the year it's a fresh start for everyone. New Year's resolutions are common, but unfortunately, both research and practice show is that resolutions don't work. They don't actually lead to real and lasting change. But there is something that will work, without fail, every single time: Dedication to one, powerful, keystone habit.
As a life coach, I'm in the business of supporting people through the change process. I know from experience that it takes much more than a desire to make positive changes happen in your life. It certainly takes more than motivation, which always ebbs and flows. It even takes more than a plan.
A habit is a behavior or activity that you routinely do over and over again. So much so, that you begin to do it unconsciously. A powerful habit becomes so ingrained in you that it feels hard-wired — the way you cover your mouth when you cough, put on your right sock first, or answer the phone. You don't actually think about it at all.
It is also true that the arc, even the outcomes of our entire lives are built on the habits that we engage in every day — most of which are almost entirely subconscious. Think about it: Your life, as it is today, is simply the outcome of everything that you've done up until this point. A few macro-decisions have the potential impact our life to a significant degree, like who you marry, the job you take, moving to a new town.
But even then, the actual outcomes you experience in any of these scenarios have much less to do with the circumstances themselves, and more about what your daily “micro-habits” entail. Plenty of people get into Ivy League schools, and don't have the personal habits required to be successful. So they flunk out. Pretty much any relationship has the potential to be a good one or a bad one, depending on how people are in the habit of treating each other day-to-day. All success or failure is determined by your habitual behaviors.
When you think about the changes that you might want to make in your life, and resolve to “save money” or “lose weight” or “have a better relationship” or “expand your social circle” or “keep my house clean” — all of those are fantastic hopes. But they will remain hopes until you understand and learn how to utilize the habits that are creating your current reality, and swap them out for the ones that will allow you to create the life you want — hour by hour, day by day, and year by year.
What is a Keystone Habit?
A keystone habit is a very special habit. It's one, powerful habit that “touches” many other aspects of your life. If you find a single, great keystone habit, it can begin working it's magic on everything from the way you feel, to the way you think, to how much energy you have, to how easy it feels to do other healthy things (and interestingly, harder to engage in the bad habits you might be prone to).
Let's be real: If you think about ALL the habits you might need to change in order to achieve your goals, it can feel discouraging. It can be overwhelming to sit down and take stock of the all things in your life that aren't working, and all of the personal habits you'd have to change in order to create the kind of results you want. Even just having one goal of losing ten pounds requires a number of small daily habits to make that happen: tracking food, consciously choosing healthy lower calorie options, saying no to junk and sweets, minding portion size, getting yourself to exercise, being mindful of cravings and impulsivity, and having a plan to deal with special situations like holidays or outings.
It's probably exhausting just to read that one paragraph! When you tack on other personal goals / resolutions of things you aspire to, like saving money, having a better relationship, being more productive at work, etc, it's even worse. That's because when you start breaking down all the small action steps that achievement in those areas would entail, it's enough to make you want to eat ALL the donuts, isn't it?
I want you to be successful at creating the change you desire in this new year. So for that reason, today's episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast is all about how to find and lovingly cultivate one solid keystone habit that will carry you forward. I'll also be discussing how to make that new habit stick, so that this new year turns into a string of successes for you.
Specifically we're discussing:
How to find your keystone habit
How keystone habits work to effect change in many areas of your life
Habit loops, and how to make them work for you
Habit stacking, and how to cluster winning habits into a life-changing force
How long it takes to form a habit
How long does it take to break a bad habit? Why it may be easier than you think.
Some tips and tricks to help you stay on track with a new habit
How to avoid some common pitfalls that could knock your new keystone habit off course
All that, and more, on this episode.
I hope that this info helps you as you craft your path for this new year, and that it brings you only good things.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Listen & Subscribe to the Podcast
Keystone Habits: The Key to Changing Everything
by Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby | Love, Happiness & Success
You can apply this “matching” approach to choosing a partner, or a place to live, or a new hobby. It’s a handy paradigm for making decisions — but it’s not the only paradigm.
The “life design” or narrative approach to counseling and coaching starts with the assumption that you are an adaptable, malleable human being capable of tremendous growth and positive change in pursuit of your most important goals.
By approaching your life as a narrative that you’re actively constructing day by day, you become empowered to change your story about who you are and what you’re capable of.
Change Your Story
When you reflect on the story of your life, which plot points stand out to you as times when you were at your best, tapping into your potential, and truly sharing your gifts with the world?
These likely weren’t the most comfortable experiences of your life. In fact, they may have been incredibly challenging. But they gave you an opportunity to grow and adapt, and the result was increased self-confidence and a deeper sense of satisfaction and fulfillment.
If you can discover what it was about those experiences that put you in touch with your best self, you will have a North Star to guide you in the direction of meaningful, rewarding work that you love.
Starting a New Chapter In Life
“New beginnings are often disguised as painful endings.”
– Lao Tzu
If you’re feeling stuck in a rut, or have a nagging sense that you could do more and be more, that’s a sign that you’re ready to start a new chapter in life, at work or in another area.
Start by reflecting on how you got where you are. How did you choose your current path? Which decisions were really deliberative, and which just felt like the thing you were supposed to do, or the logical “next step?”
Your answers here will tell you a lot about the values, conscious or unconscious, that have been shaping your story up until this point. Once you have a clear sense of what your values have been, you can decide whether to carry them forward, or shed them for values that are more aligned with the new story you want to create.
When you’ve invested a lot of time (and money!) in education and training to break into a specific career, it’s not easy to admit to yourself or others that you’re unhappy.
To get unstuck, it helps to examine your expectations about how careers are “supposed” to go. If you’re like most people, you chose your career path as a young adult, and you likely expected to work in the same field until retirement.
But in reality, major career changes are incredibly common. If you’re unsatisfied — with your career, your relationship, or any other major life circumstance — are you really willing to endure your current path for another decade? Or three? This is the “sunk cost” fallacy at work. It’s a very human mindset, but it doesn’t lead to courageous, empowered decision-making based on the life you really want.
Instead of focusing on the investments you’ve already made that can’t be recovered, focus on the new insights you’ve gained about what you want out of life, and the opportunities you have here and now to begin creating it.
A New Chapter Begins
For many of us, the coronavirus crisis has been a time for re-examining how work fits into our lives.
We’re seeing the result of all that reflection in what some are calling the “Great Resignation,” an economic and labor trend in which tens of thousands of workers have left their jobs since the beginning of the pandemic.
While the labor shortage has caused serious stress for business owners, it’s a signal that our collective attitudes toward careers are shifting, and that people are beginning new chapters with new values in mind.
Writing My Next Chapter
When we’re unhappy with some area of our lives, we often feel an impulse to get away and start something new as quickly as possible. We may quit a job to pursue a shiny new opportunity, or leave a partner and immediately enter a new relationship, for example.
But it’s important to step back and think about your own role in creating whatever circumstances you’re eager to leave behind. If you skip that step before making a major change, you’re likely to find yourself in a similar situation again.
It’s not easy to take responsibility for a relationship, job, or any other pursuit that didn’t go as you’d hoped. But by looking at past patterns and recognizing your role in creating them, you become empowered to write an exciting new chapter.
A Fresh Start
The New Year is upon us, and so many of us are feeling energized to make major, positive changes.
What would you like to bring into your life in this New Year? What would you like to leave behind?
I hope our conversation gives you a chance to reflect on these questions, and some guidance on making real changes that stick. I’d love to hear your answers in the comments below.
Cheers to the next chapter,
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Music in this episode is by Wet Leg, with their song Chaise Longue.
You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://wetleg.bandcamp.com/ Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Start A New Chapter
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: Have you been feeling like it's time for a new chapter in life? A fresh start? A new beginning for your relationship? Or maybe it's time for a career change? Maybe it's time to change your story — the one you've been telling yourself about who you are, what you're worth, and what you can expect from the world because learning how to rewrite your story is one of the single most powerful things you can do, not just to change your life, but also how you experience it. That, my friend, is what we're going to learn how to do on today's show with the help of my expert guest, Dr. Lisa Severy.
Now, I am going to go ahead and give Dr. Lisa a proper introduction here because she is so incredibly modest that she would probably never tell you about what a big deal she really is if I gave her the opportunity. You should know that Dr. Lisa is not just an amazing therapist, not just an amazing career counselor and career coach, she is also a past president of both the National Career Development Association and the Colorado Career Development Association. She is the former Director of Career Services at the University of Colorado Boulder.
She is the author of numerous book chapters devoted to the art and science of career counseling and professional development counseling. Dr. Lisa does career counseling, executive coaching, life coaching, and therapy. She has a PhD in Counselor Education, and a master's degree in Mental Health Counseling. She currently serves on the boards of both the National Career Development Association and the American Counseling Association. I am so proud to call her my colleague here at our practice of Growing Self Counseling and Coaching.
Dr. Lisa, welcome.
Dr. Lisa Severy: Thank you so much. I love to hear that. Such a confidence booster as we lead right into this. Thank you so much.
Lisa Marie Bobby: It's so true. I don't know if I ever told you this, but when you first applied to join our practice, our colleague Rachel sent over your materials, and I looked over your CV, and I spit out my green tea a little bit. I was like, “Oh,” because you have just — seriously such an amazing career. You've been such a leader in the field of career counseling, but you are so modest about it. When we were working on your bio to put on our website, we were like, “No! You have to tell people about all of those things.” And you're like, “Oh, okay,” so nice about it. I mean, it's just amazing.
Here's the first interview question, Dr. Lisa. Why are the most genuinely accomplished people so humble, while kind of questionable and marginally qualified people are shouting to the world about how great they are. I think Sarah Silverman made a comment not too long ago, “One in five residents of the State of California are now some kind of self-anointed life coach or success coach of some kind.” They're happy to tell you all about it, but not the real deal. Inquiring minds would like to know, what do you make of that?
Lisa Severy: It’s probably funny because it probably has a lot to do with cliches about practicing what you preach. Of course, all the clients that I work with, that's a major part of searching for a new job, changing careers, reaching out to your network. There are introverted ways of doing that. But still, it's really hard to do partly because, I don't know about you, but for most of life, you just doing what you do. Something comes up, and you respond, and you do what you do. You don't usually think about it in that holistic way.
But I certainly do feel privileged to be a part of working with individual clients and then having conversations at the national and international level about everything that's happening with employment and unemployment, and professional practice things like licensure, and making sure people are practicing within their scope so that clients are protected. There's just a lot going on, and I love those conversations. It's a lot of fun for me. It's nice to have it framed in a nice package. But it really does just feel like — I just kind of do what I do each day and try to keep up with what's going on in the field, which is ever changing and a lot of fun.
Lisa Marie Bobby: That was awesome. Well, the world needs standard bearers such as yourself to make sure — but that's wonderful. Clearly, you love what you do, which is, I think, the goal of so many people. That's why I'm just so thrilled to get your perspective on our topic today because you are — I know you're a therapist, but you specialize in career counseling and career development, career coaching.
The reason why I really wanted to talk with you today is because you use a particular theory of change to help your clients figure themselves out, and create a meaningful, meaningful path forward. It is a narrative approach. If somebody is listening to this and is ready to create a new chapter — a fresh start to go in a different direction, perhaps with their career or another part of their life — Tell us a little bit about why that narrative approach is so powerful and important.
Lisa Severy: Yes, great. I'd love to. I think it might be helpful to start off how I came to become aware of this.
Lisa Marie Bobby: Tell us your story.
Lisa Severy: Exactly. Because when I was in graduate school — in my master's level program, I had a basic class in career development basically geared towards how to pass the National Counseling Exam, which is great. Of course, career makes up a big chunk of that, but it was very much focused on career development practice that had been since we launched. The National Association actually celebrated its 100th anniversary back in 2013. It's been around for a while. But it was, and appropriately at the time, when it came into being, it was a lot about matching. So matching —
Lisa Marie Bobby: You’re talking about the field of career counseling right now.
Lisa Severy: The field. The approach to career counseling was called person-to-position fit. The idea was if you test the heck out of the person and you characterize a position, or a place or a type of job, you just measure the heck out of these things, and then match them up. That was really the career development mode we used for most of the last 100 years. It worked very well, especially when large groups of people were returning to the workforce — like people coming back from war and those types of situations where we had to do it quick.
Lisa Marie Bobby: Electrician, plumber, right.
Lisa Severy: Exactly, “So here's what we know about you. Here's what we know about this world of work. Let's match up.” It worked, as I said, for a long time. I remember going to a conference and hearing a theorist talk about a different approach, which really is much more proactive, and it fits under two categories, I think. One is positive psychology; so it's very much focused on strengths and what people bring to the world. I mean, the world of work is really how we bring ourselves and our talents to other people. Otherwise, our family and friends know us, but the way we interact with the world is through work.
The question then became, “Does this really work?” I always think of the quote from Shrek, where he's trying to describe to Donkey that, “Life is like an onion. It has layers, and you just peel it back.” We kind of approached career like that. There is a deep calling. There's a career somewhere inside you, and we just have to find it. That's wonderful for those people it worked for.
For most of us, no, I don't really have a latent career in there that's waiting to be discovered. Why don't we design it? The whole function of life design, really, is in this group of theories called “constructivist theories,” which is basically, “Let's not just try to figure out something that's there. Let's kind of make it up as we go.” That might be kind of scary for a lot of people. I know it's scary for me, but at the same time, there's a lot of power there. In narrative career counseling, really, take a few steps back, and instead of assessing things like skills and personality type and values, it's kind of clustering it all together under the umbrella of themes.
What are your life themes? They could be positive or negative. I mean, all of us, but some have had awful things happen in their lives and in their careers. It becomes a part, I think, of the narrator — that voice in the back of your brain that is narrating your life. Sometimes those messages that are coming out, “You're strong. You can do this. You've survived a lot.” Others, quite frankly, not so helpful, right? “You're stupid. You can't do this.” Like all of those things that are negative too.
The idea behind the narrative career counseling is helping a client to develop, “Okay, these are the themes that I want. These are the themes that I want to keep moving forward here. The ones, maybe, I want to reframe, and rewrite. They, maybe, served a great purpose at the time, but they're not helping me anymore, and I need to reframe them and reuse them.” Then, figure out okay, “Now that I know my themes for my story, what do I want my next plot step to be?” Those things just go hand in hand.
What Is Your Story?
Lisa Marie Bobby: As you're talking, what I'm hearing through my framework — that themes are really those like values, and that, “What is most important to me in the whole world? What am I put here to do? What am I about?” This is wonderful. This is what I love about your work, and why I wanted to talk to you today is because of the depth that you bring to career counseling.
I think there are so many parallels to all kinds of different life changes. I know you're a coach and a therapist too. Just even the way you talk about career stuff, it's so holistic. I think that you still kind of think about that career counseling as being very cut and dry — like you go see a career counselor, and you take an assessment, and you get the results, “Okay, it looks like I should be a forest ranger. Now, I'm going to research national parks and put out a resume, and now I am standing in the Grand Canyon, swearing in Junior Rangers, and we're done.” Like that kind of thing.
What you're saying is, it's so much different. You're really cracking into who people are, what they are about on very fundamental levels, and where have you been, where are you going, what is meaningful, what is important, and not just with your job, but almost your entire existence. Now, let's talk about how that career path fits into that, which is a totally different thing. The truth is, I think a lot of people could actually do many different things successfully and well, and make a nice living. That's another form of paralysis, right? How do you even choose where you want to go next?
Lisa Severy: Absolutely. Well, it's always funny to me because so many people, still, will talk about work-life balance. I don't know what that looks like anymore. It's not that we leave work at work, especially as a result of the pandemic. I mean, look, right now. We're both in our houses, right? It's just a very funny thing. Because generally, our work and life are so enmeshed with each other, that it's funny that we still kind of talk about them separately.
I think in terms of that, really diving into the metaphor of storytelling, and thinking about not what the last chapter is going to be, but what your next chapter is going to be because I completely agree with you too. Most people would be happy and successful in a lot of different career fields. Interest is certainly a huge part of that. What is interesting enough to you that it will hold your attention for 40 hours plus a week? That's, of course, important.
But in terms of the things that are really reinforcing to you, that you do the things that you do well, and you're working with people that you like and enjoy, and feel a sense of teamwork, and a sense of community — all of those pieces are just as important as your actual work function that you do each day. I like to think of it — I think I've shared this with you before — but I think of two layers related to career and stories. If you think about it for a moment, maybe it's Lemony Snicket, I don't know.
Lisa Marie Bobby: I love that show!
Lisa Severy: If you think of your favorite story, and some people think iconic things — Gone With The Wind or whatever — just a really important story to use — Star Wars. Think about what's happening. There's generally things happening on two levels. One is the story itself, and that's the part that you get all excited, and you describe to a friend, hopefully with no spoilers. But you describe that to a friend, “This happened, this happened, this happened.” Then, if you ask them, “Okay, what's the underlying theme?” Most people will share something slightly different. Some things are universal, but some things touch each of us as individuals at a very different level, either personally or because you're at a certain period of your life that you just kind of attach yourself to a certain theme. That, to me, is the difference.
Things like a resume have been at this plot level, right? You outline, “I was at this job. I was at this job. I have this many supervisees, this many billable hours.” Whatever the case may be, but the theme underneath is really different for everybody. I think about that. Well, the interesting part is, whenever you ask someone to tell a story — does not matter the topic — they're going to tell you their themes. If I were to ask you, “Tell me about your very first memory.” Because we're humans, and we categorize things, you're going to tell me a story that has something to do with the themes in your life.
When I work with a client, that is my only goal at the beginning — is just to get them to tell stories about themselves. Not necessarily — it could be work related, but it doesn't necessarily have to be. An example I use is when I was in high school, I was part of the soccer team and part of the choir. Nobody else overlaps between those two. But I was the person on the team that wasn't “the party person” or whatever. But whenever anybody had a problem, I was the one that they came to — with family, boyfriends, whatever the case may be.
Lisa Marie Bobby: I could totally see that.
Lisa Severy: Now, I'm a counselor, right? That theme absolutely followed me throughout. Again, when I'm working with a client, regardless of what it is, I use a lot of various techniques, various questioning to get people to think about, what are their underlying themes, and how does that come out in the stories that they tell? How can we build that into their story moving forward?
Lisa Marie Bobby: Got it. Got it. Getting away from the facts, the circumstances — you had this job, and you had that job — and really thinking more about the things that feel important to you that are almost patterns that come up over and over and over again in your life, times when you felt flow, or sort of maybe were using your natural talents, or just taking pleasure. I bet it felt nice to you when people would come and talk to you.
Lisa Severy: Absolutely!
Making a Career Change
Lisa Marie Bobby: That sort of quasi-counselor role after soccer practice or whatever — because that was just what you are supposed to do. Without thinking about those times of… When was I being my — I hate to use such a corny phrase — but “best self”? You know what I mean? When was I just being my — this is so vital because I think what you're also shining a light down is the path towards having a career path and work in your life that is genuinely enjoyable and pleasurable, and fun.
I think that for so many people — which is crappy to think about — but getting hooked into jobs or careers, situations where they're just showing up, they're doing it, they're getting the paycheck, and their life is — it's almost like they're enduring their time. It's like you can actually love it. I mean, we all have days, but, I don't know about you, if I won the lottery tomorrow, I would come right back here, and be sitting at this desk and doing the same thing. Do you know what I mean? Because it's not connected to that for me. It's like I just like it.
Lisa Severy: I talked to some clients before about an 80-20 rule. I find in general, if you like it 80% of the time, there's always going to be stuff that you don't necessarily like. It's not all rosy types of careers. There are careers that are very necessary and very rewarding that are really difficult. One of one of my many career paths was working as a victim's advocate. That was very hard to do. It wasn't the content that was necessarily reinforcing but the ability to make a difference in the lives of those victims who'd been through some very traumatic things — of course that's rewarding.
Especially for some very high functioning folks who get sort of into traps. They're making a lot of money, or they’re in a very prestigious position, but it's not really connected to who they are. We all know people who are the opposite who absolutely adore their jobs — they do. Like leap out of bed to go do the work that they do because they're enjoying it so much. I know in various positions in my own past, I thought, “That's what I want to be like. I'm here because it's comfortable.” Comfortable might be a terrible word for us. We might want to just get rid of that level.
The thought is, “Can it be better?” When you improve, as with everything else, it bleeds into everything. You could say, “Well, I'm doing this job. I kind of hate it, but I'll keep doing it because I have a family to support, and I need the health insurance.” And whatever. All of those things are valid and true. That level of stress and anxiety is going home with you. Your general sense of not feeling engaged at all in what you're doing. Again, 40 plus hours a week — you can't really be a full healthy human if you're experiencing that, and we all deserve better than that.
Lisa Marie Bobby: I agree. It's such a devil's bargain in some ways. I'm just the parallel of just enduring a really terrible relationship. So much of your life energy is going into that as into a career that is just not compatible and not congruent with who you fundamentally are, and what your life is really about. That's a hard spot to be in, even if intellectually, it makes sense. Also, let's all just acknowledge that there's a lot of privilege involved in being able to do exactly what we want to do all the time. There's that.
Okay. This is super helpful. I know that we have people listening right now who would love to get some of your insights on how to launch this growth process inside of themselves. With your permission, I'm just going to pretend to be one of our listeners here for a minute. Let's say, I show up to see you for a first session with you, and I say:
“Dr. Lisa, I feel so stuck. I have a job. It's okay. I don't love it. I feel like there has to be more to life. I know that I can be more and do more, and feel more fulfilled. Not just by my career, but my whole life maybe, right? But I'm just having so much trouble getting a handle on what I should be doing instead. I think about things if I start to feel overwhelmed and paralyzed by all the options. I just don't, right? I managed to fill up my time with distractions. I keep trudging along in my little rut, and oh — look, another year has gone by, and here I am. Dr. Lisa, what do I do?”
Now, I know career counseling is a whole process, and you work with people for months — no, really — like months, helping them dig in and sort through all this stuff. A podcast is not the same as doing this with you. I mean, what advice would you give to a listener who is in that space and really eager to begin doing some of this deep existential work? Making contact with their themes, and trying to figure out like, “Where's my lighthouse? What should I move towards?” What are some questions you might ask, or things you might invite them to think more about, or ask themselves? I mean, I know everybody's different but —
Lisa Severy: Well, I think — as with a lot of counseling of course, my first part of the process is to ask way too many questions. I'm sure that's what it feels like as a client, right? Just like trying to get it everything. I think a starting point is really to ask people how they got where they are. Because most people don't start from, “Okay, I'm going to try to find a mediocre job that I can just slog through.” Sometimes, people's jobs have changed dramatically from when they started. It could be that they kept getting offered — again, self-disclosure. When I was the director of the career center, or even working in a career center, I kept getting offered jobs with more responsibility. Eventually I found myself as an administrator not working with clients. Bummer! It was all positive; that all worked.
Generally speaking, after “How can I be helpful?” My second question when somebody is in that place of, “I don't know what I want, but I don't want this” is to really ask someone, “Okay, how did you get here?” To really be thoughtful about, not an elevator pitch, not what you tell someone in the seat next to on an airplane, but how did you get where you are, and which pieces were very deliberative in your decision-making, and which things kind of — you were speaking about privilege earlier — which things were sort of, you did them because you were supposed to do them next, but they weren't necessarily part of your process of making meaning out of your life and your career. That would be my starting point, is to really look at the career path, career trauma that has happened because all of us have had that, some horrible supervisor or everybody gets laid off.
Man, the pandemic caused trauma for a whole lot of people work related. I love reading articles right now about the “Great Resignation,” as a lot of people are saying, “No, it's not worth it.” Now that I've seen what life is like in a different way, not going back. Whatever that process was will tell both of us a great deal about your story and your themes up to this point, and how you got to the place where you made the proactive decision to go find help. Listen to a podcast, have a session with a career counselor.
Even talking to family and friends about it because once you start to talk about your story with family and friends, they'll tell you from their perspective what your story is. You can decide which pieces fit for you and which don't. Like if you were writing a novel, you need to do all of that background research and figure out all of your characters. Every hero has a backstory. What is your backstory? Where do you want to, sort of as a starting point, moving forward from here?
Rewrite Your Story
Lisa Marie Bobby: Wow, gosh! This is so good and so helpful. I'm so glad that we're talking about this because it's so authentic. You have to get radically honest — but I tell you because I've actually done some of — not related to career specifically so much, but I've done things in my life that I've regretted and felt bad about afterwards. I think that kind of work that you're talking about that, “What was my motivation at the time? What were my intentions?”
There's also so much, I think, self-compassion that can come out of that because when you really go back and put yourself as that person in the past, and just making the best decisions you could at the time, it's a very healing process I think in some ways. I think people can release a lot of the shame and the regret because hindsight is always that 20/20. With so many things in life, it's okay to say, “I'm a different person now five years ago when I moved to Delaware, or took this job, or started this relationship. Like this is what made sense. When I think about how I got to this place, it makes sense to me. But I also know that I don't want to stay here.” That's that empowering piece.
Lisa Severy: Hopefully building in a sense of hope around various pieces because I really think — you used a great word earlier that I hear often, and that's stuck. What is it that is the stuck part? Is it not wanting to — I don't have a resume that I've done in the last 30 years, and I really don't want to do that. Or is it again, the financial piece that you're stuck? Is it benefits? Why? Why are you stuck? Do you not want to tell someone that maybe you have a position that's prestigious? You want to do something totally different? Some of the career fields that people go into and leave the most are things like dentistry and law. Those require a huge amount of school and investment of tuition money, and time and all of those pieces that somebody's like, “I can't leave that now. I've invested too much of it.”
There's this Economics 101 of diminishing returns. But do you see yourself doing this until the day you finally get to retire because you really don't like what you're doing? Or is it time to, “Okay, but don't wait another five years. I'll change eventually.” That's the other one. You've earned it, in other words, you've earned the chance to change. I think about the fact that historically, our — well, maybe in the last 100 years — that the trajectory has been very much, “You go to school for however long that period of time is. Then, you work for however long that period of time. Then, you retire and you have a period of leisure.” That's not the way we exist anymore.
Students take a gap year before they go to college, or maybe after college. Before they start work, they go back to school after years of being in one career. Maybe they want to advance. Maybe they want to change fields entirely — whatever. Same thing. Maybe you take a year off to do that. Now, we're doing, I think, more, which is very fun — fun to work with folks who are willing to, “Well, let's shake that up!” That very linear kind of timeline of school, work, leisure. What if we mix that all up and took leisure when we were healthy, and could travel the world? All of those sorts of questions, and a sense as exactly as you were talking about — giving ourselves — we'll do it for friends — but giving ourselves permission to let go of some of those “shoulds.”
“I've reached here, how could I possibly leave?” Whatever the case may be. And it does, it happens in relationships — relationships with people, relationships with work. It's very similar. How do you sort out what's working and what's not? As you said, give yourself permission to make a dramatic change. You can do that in a very calculated way so it’s not as risky as it feels. Baby steps are okay too. Some people just want to leap, and that's fine as well. But working through those pieces so that there's a comfort level in change, not just a comfort level in stuckness.
Lisa Marie Bobby: Right. I'm just sitting here thinking about the — going back to that idea that we first started talking about the narrative, about the story. Until you are able to change that internal story that you're telling yourself, you can't change the external circumstances — that plotline. It's like doing that internal work around the “shoulds,” and the, “Do I actually have to do what I've been taught I should do? No! I don't,” being able to write new mythologies, so to speak, like the world according to me.
Lisa Severy: I just love all of these superhero movies in the last 20 years or so. As they said, they all have this origin story. Clark Kent, who's working in journalism — doing very well at that, and all of those things working — “Okay, so now I'm going to go save the world.” Okay! Maybe you're going to miss a deadline here or there with your story. Obviously, not everybody is going to develop superpowers.
Lisa Marie Bobby: I was thinking that he probably would have taken an aptitude test, pointed him in the — I mean, he can fly and throw cars. That's fairly specific. You have to wear the tights, and the underpants on the outside if you have that thing.
Lisa Severy: I can't think of that showing up on any norm referenced test though. Very first question on some of those like, “Would you like to be a dentist, or no?” And it just goes through career by career, by career. I don't know that superheroes are on it — but it should be. It absolutely should be. Because how can you contribute to the world?
Lisa Marie Bobby: I think we all have a superpower.
Lisa Severy: I think so too. Absolutely, I do! So, discovering what that is. A lot of people who come into counseling or coaching with career, they do know. They do know what their superpowers are. Some don't. That's a fun process of discovery. Often, they do. What's interesting to me is half the time, they're not doing any work related to it. That's like a side kind of occupation, if you will. Talk about integrating those things. It's wonderful if you have your act together, and you can do that at 18. I don't know many people who do or did.
Lisa Marie Bobby: I couldn’t. I could barely be a waitress. Like I wasn't even a good waitress — forget stuff, sell things on people. Can we just go back briefly to a thing that you started to mention a couple of minutes ago when we were talking? You are mentioning this sort of new movement in the world, which I think is fantastic. People feeling empowered to leave their jobs. I was kind of curious to know, what you make of this? I mean, I think you just alluded to it. As people were sort of more in their actual lives maybe, and less in this inhabiting a work world all the time, they were like, “Wait a minute, I like my life. I want to do more of that.” Do you think that's what it's about, or is there something else going on?
Lisa Severy: That's a really good question. I think there's a mixture of a lot of different things. I think a lot of people reached a realization where they said, “You know, this isn't worth it.” Whatever they're having to give up — whether it's safety, or safety of family and friends, kids, parents — that whole piece, and really thinking about the fact that we all have time, treasure and talent that we bring to the world. A lot of people feel like, for the first time, they're having that realization, “I don't think that people I'm working for right now value that in the slightest. They don't value my health. They don't value my well-being, what's happening in my life.”
As more and more news stories get written about how employers can't hire — I'm going to go find someone who can. On one hand, it's not particularly great for a lot of employers, especially small businesses, and they're struggling. At the same time, I do feel like there's this sense of empowerment. There's so much going on with the world that you as an employer have to show me that this endeavor is worth it which is a very different sense of — I think in the past, people have just felt like, their employer — they owe something to their employer as if they've given them some gift of a job.
There's just been this fundamental shift in terms of the way that people think about things of, “No, I bring this to you. In return, you give me a salary and benefits.” And really thinking about that equation, and am I on the positive side of that equation? A lot of people are coming to the, “No, I don't think so. I feel like I'm getting used.” So, bye! Again, it’s great, especially if you don't have something else to go to. That to me, I have a lot of admiration for that.
Lisa Marie Bobby: Take this job and shove it. But I love this, and this is so interesting because like there's this emotional component. It's almost like people have been trying to have almost a one-sided relationship, and coming to the conclusion, “These people don't care about me. They don't have empathy for me. They don't value me. I'm going to find somebody who does.”
Lisa Severy: I think the flip side of employers is also customers. That's been a challenge as well. Certain industries — like talk to a flight attendant right now about how abused they are. It's not always just employers, and I get that. You could have phenomenal people to work for. Again, if you don't find any meaning and purpose in working in a career that you're in, and knowing that there are options out there now, especially in things like customer service, that people are saying, “Okay, I'm going to go find something else.” I think it's great. It's scary, but it's great.
Lisa Marie Bobby: Yeah! Well, I think — and changing the system truly, like with our — back 100 years ago, there were unions, and people unionized, and they changed the big systems. Now, we're sort of still doing it collectively, but just in a different way. I’m so curious to see what happens.
Lisa Severy: Me too. I mean, we've worked for so long to try through legilation and things — to change the minimum wage. Now supply and demand is — okay, nobody will work for minimum wage where I am in the world. It's not necessarily everywhere. That's driven it up. So it's interesting — you're right — to see how those dynamics are going to play out, that circumstance. The world went upside down for sure. Back to normal, it's not something I even talk about because, “No, no! We want to go forward to normal, and really create something new and just full circle.” I think that's what's so fun about working with narrative career things is that you're really writing it and creating it. It's not like you're going to take somebody else's script, and start reading off of that one.
Maybe that's how you've always felt. Let's start from here. I can help you as an editor, consultant, advisor, write the next chapter of what your life looks like. But it's you. You're the one that's going to do it, and take ownership of it. You really should never let, in any circumstance, nobody else should write your story. You should write it yourself, and you have lots of people to support and help you do that. I love working with clients who are doing that. Front and center; you are the author of your own story.
Starting a New Chapter
Lisa Marie Bobby: I'm just sitting here thinking about how important it is to do that work. Maybe this is not an accurate parallel, but when you were talking about people jumping ship to try something better — because you're a career person, and I am a relationship person, American Family Therapist.
It's really common for people to feel those feelings in a relationship. They feel unhappy. They feel uncared for. “I'm not compatible.” “There's somebody better for me,” so they abandon ship. They ended. They jump out of the plane, and they parachute down. Sometimes, I see this a lot. My relationship work — there's almost this reflexive reaction. It's like wanting to get away from an unhappy situation that they don't know how to fix. But with people in relationships, they end their relationship, they think, “Problem solved.” Because of that, they don't always do their own personal growth work in that kind of time in between, so it's very easy to hop into a new relationship with a different person — but you're still the same you. You have your baggage, your patterns, your ways of relating and communicating, and attachment styles, and dealing with conflict, and all the things that you might not always consciously be aware of.
What you often see is that people will, over time, start to just almost energetically elicit the same kinds of reactions from their new partners that their old partners are having to them, and the relationship starts to feel familiar in not a great way. I'm wondering if there's ever that — do you see that with your career coaching clients, like leaving a job because there are new opportunities available, and so they kind of jump into the next one without really thinking about it or doing that deep work that you're describing that, “Okay. What happened? How did I get here? What do I want next? What do I want to do differently next time?” Do you find them sort of vulnerable to recreating the same patterns if they're not fully self-aware before they make an actual change, or is it different?
Lisa Severy: No, I think absolutely. I think you're right. I think pattern is the right word to use, which is really funny because, again, it's easy to see in other people but really difficult to see in yourself like, “Well, I'm just attracted to the bad boy.” Hold on a second! The one consistent in all of your relationships has been you. I think because we are naturally sort of comfort seekers, so we'll seek out a similar environment to what we had before. If I'm trying to get away from a supervisor that is not supportive or whatever, but then I get into a new supervisory relationship. Somehow, I set the same patterns and end up with a similar thing. Am I just unlucky, and I've always had bad supervisors, or do I need to be more thoughtful about how I establish a relationship with a supervisor? How I nurture a relationship with a supervisor? Maybe doing things I've never thought to do before — like finding an external mentor who can help me process some of the things that I used to unload on a supervisor.
Just unpacking all of those stories and again, seeing what patterns are repeating that maybe I don't want to include moving forward. “I really want to do that in a new way.” I absolutely think the relationship parallels are there because we talk about work as if it's this inanimate object, but really, it's a series of people doing a series of tasks. It's not all that different. It is funny the things that repeat like, “I stayed in for the children.” That can certainly describe a marriage or a job you don't really like that has great benefits and a great salary, those things.
I think that pieces are relatable, which again, you described it as holistic earlier. I completely agree because, as I said, if you're in a bad work situation, it’s going to impact your relationships elsewhere and all of those pieces. How do you kind of unpack — I mean, in the counseling textbooks, we talked about it — the locus of control, right? I don't want to feel lucky when things go well, and unlucky when things don't go well. You have to take more ownership and more power than that. How do I make things go well, or how do I set myself up to be in a situation that things are more likely to go well? Because obviously, we can't control everything. But how we respond to the things that are happening to us is everything. It’s the difference between being satisfied and successful at work, versus just sort of sailing along. It’s how much ownership and control, so that we're not — to extend that metaphor — drifting all over the place, but rowing in a particular direction.
I do just meet a lot of people that I think, “Of course you can decide that.” Whatever the question is, or if somebody says, “Well, I can't do this.” Who told you that? Like those types of questions that really, oftentimes, that's what I love about the coaching aspect. You have these skills, get in the game and use them, which sometimes again, people just need that a little bit of extra external validation to go do. Maybe they have a few tools that aren't quite there yet, so we need to work on those. Once you can get them together — but you do have to have your own sense of agency that you can write the next chapter, and you can do these things. You don't have to wait for that lucky break.
Lisa Marie Bobby: To be the author of your own story, and write your next chapter where you're the hero, and you do have superpowers, and you can actually do anything you want.
Lisa Severy: Absolutely.
Lisa Marie Bobby: I love it. What a nice and empowering note for us to end on. Is there anything else that you'd like to share with our listeners who might be feeling like they're on the cusp of a new chapter and ready to go? Actually, let me ask you more directly. If I were to ask you to tell us a story, maybe about somebody that you worked with who did this work and did go on that amazing hero's journey, and did start writing their own story — of course not identifying details or anything — but what have you seen happen?
Lisa Severy: That's a really — that's a good question. That, to me, is the reward of the work as well. I do remember, I was working with a group of people, and we were using collages. Back to kindergarten, we're going to cut stuff out of a magazine, and there's a lot of pieces that really fit the narrative piece in that. Sometimes, what happens if you are to just flat out ask people, “okay, so tell me what are your life themes?” It’s very difficult.
Lisa Marie Bobby: I don’t know.
Lisa Severy: “I don't know.” But again, if you ask them, “Okay, what sort of magazines do you read?” Or watching people as they go through a magazine. Some people pull out words to use that are very meaningful to them. Some people pull up pictures. It's just this process, and you don't have to think about it very much, which is great. I was watching somebody, and they laid out all these beautiful pictures of things that they liked and used very empowering words, which are great, out of magazines, and all of those pieces. There was this giant white space in the middle. We went around in the group, and people were sharing various aspects of their collages, and other people were giving them feedback.
Then, he kept deferring — like, no, no. Somebody else should go. Finally, like, “Okay, your last. That’s it, you have to share.” So, he described the whole thing, and then held it up, and he was like, “But I don't know what goes here.” Then, there was this giant pause, and he said, “I don't know what goes here. I need to figure out what goes here.” There was just this — nobody even said a thing. He realized that he may have a lot of, “These are the things I kind of want, but what is my essential sort of totally ‘blank’ slate.” And that was very scary to think about a blank slate, but also incredibly empowering for him to start to do the work, “I need to figure out what's right here.” And I thought, “Couldn't have said it better myself.” It was great.
It was, as I said, everything that you described was in his own language, in his own words, using his own pictures. None of that came from me, which I think is sometimes the danger of, “Well, you're very articulate. I think you should do this.” No,no. It all should come from him. Just in talking about it, that he was the one that had that realization of the work that he needed to do. It was a great launching place then for the rest of the work of the group. It was really fun. I thought, “I hope you put this on your fridge and you look at it every morning so that you know what you're doing, and you know what you're working on.” That right now is enough. To know that you don't know is enough right now, and we'll work on it from there.
Lisa Marie Bobby: Do you know how that story ended, or was it a group that maybe he kept doing his own work after that’s ended?
Lisa Severy: That is sort of the, sometimes, the drawback. I mean, we did work on figuring out what that essential piece was, and got a lot of work done in that area. Last one, the group ended, he was still in the same position — just trying to figure out sort of what to do next.
Lisa Marie Bobby: Well, what a gift though that he got from his work with you, it was just that realization of I don't have a central theme. I don't have a meaningful anchor in the middle of my life to kind of hold all this stuff together. Just how cool that you were able to help him connect those dots experientially without somebody telling him that when he was like, “Wait a minute!” Everyone within the sound of our voices, get yourself a glue stick and start ripping up some magazines, and see what happens next.
Lisa Severy: Absolutely. It's a little bit harder to do online, but those types of activities where we can because so much of career stuff is in our brains. A lot of us overthink a lot of things. Sometimes, you need to stop thinking about something. It's like trying to think of a name. You can think of it as soon as you stop trying to think. Some of those types of exercises are when I'm asking people to tell me a story about their early childhood like, “What's the earliest thing you can remember?” You're not overthinking, “Should I take a manager or director position at that point.” You're way in a different space, and that allows for that creativity to come out.
Lisa Marie Bobby: Wow, that's yeah, people get trapped by their own minds, don't they?
Lisa Severy: Absolutely. And I do it all the time.
Lisa Marie Bobby: As I do, routinely — the human condition. Well, Dr. Lisa, this was such an amazing conversation. Thank you, on behalf of our listeners today, because I know that a lot of people listening to this got not just inspiring ideas, but also some actionable advice for things to start thinking about and asking themselves about. On behalf of them, thank you so much for being so generous and sharing that with us.
I would love to have you back on the show again sometime because one thing I didn't get to ask you more about — we ran out of time — you had talked about toxic or traumatic work experiences. We're going to plant a flag in that, and I'd like you to come back and talk to me about that again.
Lisa Severy: Yep, absolutely. That'd be great. Thank you for your time today. This is great.
Lisa Marie Bobby: This was wonderful. I'll see you soon. Lisa Severy: Thank you.
[Outro song: Wet Leg, “Chaise Longue”]
Music in this episode is by Wet Leg, with their song Chaise Longue.
You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://wetleg.bandcamp.com/ Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
Sometimes they're stuck in paralysis, not knowing which career move to make. Some (many, actually) of our clients feel stuck in a career that they don't really enjoy, but that is stable and fairly well-paying. They know it’s time for a career change, but they don't know how to pivot in their career without creating chaos in their lives.
Still, other career coaching clients are feeling stuck in work-related circumstances, like a toxic work environment, or in difficult relationships with co-workers. They don't necessarily want to quit their jobs, but they know something needs to change.
How to Find Your Career Passion
Can you relate? Feeling stuck in your career can be frustrating, stressful, and even paralyzing. Finding clarity and direction about your next move allows you to move forward fearlessly and find your career passion.
On this episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast, I'm speaking with Teena, a career development coach.
She and I met over tea to talk about the questions to ask yourself and the mindset to adopt when you’re ready to get unstuck, find your passion, and create a career that's in alignment with who you are.
Every “Mistake” Is a Step Closer to Finding Your Passion
So often, people fear making a “mistake” in their careers. Teena and I discussed how this type of Success-or-Failure thinking creates additional stress and pressure on your career decisions and contributes to a feeling of career paralysis.
You can — and should — learn as much as possible about a job or a career that interests you before you ever work a day in the field. But eventually, you’ll have to dive in and see what that career feels like, and it’s entirely possible that you’ll discover it’s not quite right for you.
That doesn’t mean you’re tethered to a bad-fit career until retirement, or that your time, energy, or education were all a big waste. It means you’ve learned something about what you enjoy, what you value, and what you’re good at, and now you can use that insight to bring yourself closer to finding your passion.
Listen for some great perspective to help you find valuable, meaningful life and work-related experience in all of your efforts, so you can avoid falling into a failure mindset and cultivate a growth mindset instead.
Find Your Passion
Many people reach out for career coaching when they're just starting out in their careers. Perhaps they've just graduated from college and are figuring out what to do with their degree… or finding that their true interest is not what they went to school for.
No one teaches you how to find your passion, so it makes sense that many of us need a little help.
We're sharing some excellent advice for helping people who are just getting started in their careers get clear about who they are, and about what type of career will be meaningful and enjoyable… as well as lucrative.
How to Love Your Work Again
So often, working professionals launch careers that they develop for years, only to find out that what they're doing for a living is not truly congruent with who they are.
Sometimes, people start careers out of what's available, or what's stable, or what's expected of them, rather than through a thoughtful self-discovery process. Over the years, as they become more aware of who they are and what they're really about, shifting their careers to match their true selves becomes an important part of their personal growth.
We have great advice to help you consider who you are at the most fundamental level, and how to use self-awareness as the key tool to finding work you love, or to learning to love your work again.
How to Do What You Love and Never Stop Growing
Your career story doesn’t end happily ever after once you land on the job that’s right for you. Professional development is an ongoing process of personal growth, and Teena and I discussed how that growth work happens.
We offer some great tips for continuing to develop yourself both personally and professionally so that you can tap your potential to the fullest as your life and career evolve.
Love Your Work — And Your Life
While we do spend a lot of time in our professional roles, a truly meaningful and satisfying career needs to fit in with your entire life. Teena shares her perspective around how to create a healthy work-life balance, how to balance your career and your relationships, and how to keep your professional success in perspective as just one aspect of your entire life.
We talk about some of the stress management skills and boundary-setting skills that she helps her career coaching and life coaching clients build, so they can stay in a good place physically, mentally, and emotionally — even when they have a lot going on.
Ready to Do What You Love?
Ready to find your career passion?
Pour yourself your own cup of tea and join a conversation about creating a career that is in alignment with your authentic self, breaking through career-related paralysis, and managing the anxiety that starts to bubble up around making big career changes.
Have you submitted a career-related question for the podcast lately? We're answering listener career questions, so be sure to listen for yours!
The holidays are upon us, which, for many, means spending time with our partner’s family. While family togetherness and holiday cheer can be beautiful, it can also be a time of stress, particularly when it comes to dealing with in-laws. If you’re worried about dealing with in-laws this holiday season, don’t worry — we’re here to help.
In-Law Problems? You’re Not Alone
If you have in-law problems, you’re not alone. In-law relationships can be difficult to navigate, especially if you come from a very different family of origin than your partner. You may not know how to deal with in-laws if they have different ways of resolving conflict than your family, or if they’re noisier about your parenting or your personal life than your family of origin tends to be, or if they hold political views that you find a bit…off-putting.
Holiday visits with children can be an especially fraught domain when in-laws get involved, especially if you have controlling in-laws, pushy in-laws, or in-laws with boundary issues. If you’re doing your best to parent your kids without losing your mind, while keeping your relationship strong after kids, any unsolicited parenting advice will sound a lot like criticism, no matter how well-intended.
Around the holidays, couples often get into arguments about how to deal with their in-laws: Whose family to visit? Which subjects to discuss, and which to avoid? How to respond when Uncle Bill takes his Facebook rants to the Thanksgiving table? What if you don’t want to spend time with in-laws?
Even outside of the holidays, many couples find dealing with in-laws difficult, and struggle to find a healthy middle ground that respects the integrity of their new family while also maintaining relationships with each other's “first family.” Overbearing mothers-in-law, judgmental fathers-in-law, or in-laws who simply don’t treat you like family are the stuff of holiday comedies for a reason — they’re tropes many of us can recognize in our own in-law experiences.
Help For Dealing With In-Laws
If you don’t want to spend time with your in-laws (and many people don’t), it can be incredibly hurtful to your partner and so it’s important to navigate these important relationships as best you can.
On this episode of the Love, Happiness & Success Podcast, I put together an “in-law survival guide” for you to not just handle in-laws with diplomacy and grace, but to come together as a couple around setting appropriate limits with each other's families, both now and in the future.
I'm sharing my best advice on how to strengthen the family you created together and come into each other's “first family” as a couple. We'll also talk about communication strategies, as well as tips to help you stay in a good place if you find yourself in a challenging interpersonal situation with your partner's family.
I hope that these ideas help you honor and respect each other, while also maintaining the extended family relationships that are so important to both of you.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
How to Deal with In-Laws
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Music Credits: “Nothing to Hide” byAllah-Las
How to Read People
Do you ever wonder how people really feel? Even if they’re saying something different? Learning how to read people can lead to greater happiness at work, in your love life, and improve your emotional intelligence. How can you tell what someone is truly feeling? Luckily, you have a window into their soul: their face.
Believe it or not, every thought and feeling that we have flashes across our face before we’re even aware of it. Most people learn, at an early age, how to put their “masks” back on quickly when unintended expressions slip through. But if you know how to read someone, you can still understand them — sometimes even better than they understand themselves.
Why are faces such a source of truth? Your face is the only place in your entire body where your muscles are attached directly to your skin. Fleeting feelings, stray thoughts, and even subconscious core beliefs will all reveal themselves through our facial expressions. The art of reading people is not just decoding body language, it’s learning how to decode facial expressions too.
Today’s podcast will help you learn how! My guest is author and researcher Dr. Dan Hill. Dr. Hill is the author of nine books, including “Emotionomics,” and a pioneer in the use of facial coding. Besides having spoken to audiences in over 25 countries, Dan has had media appearances ranging from ABC's Good Morning, America, to NBC's The Today Show, CNN, Fox, MSNBC, ESPN, and was also a regular guest on PBS’s Mental Engineering show. His advice has also been featured in The New York Times.
And today, he’s here to share his insights about reading people with you.
Listen to this episode to learn…
The science behind understanding emotions
The importance of understanding others in building relationships and connecting with others.
How to decipher emotions using facial coding — the beginning of knowing how to read people.
How to hone your emotional intelligence.
Tune in on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or listen right here. Show notes are below, and you’ll find a full transcript at the bottom of this post. Follow-up questions or comments for myself or Dr. Hill? Join the conversation in the comments section!
In our interview, Dr. Hill explained that 95 percent of our mental activity is not fully conscious. Because most of our brain activity is not known to us, it debunks the paradigm that we are in total control of the thoughts and emotions that pass through our heads. He added that our faces provide a wealth of information to other people, and that we’re constantly taking in data based on what we see in the faces of others.
These revelations are simultaneously humbling and liberating — they confirm that we don't need to pretend to be someone we aren't. “We are who we are, and accept it. Try to learn from it. Don't just give in to it necessarily,” Dan says. You might have emotional blind spots, but gaining awareness of them will help you learn how to read people better.
The Art of Reading People
Charles Darwin found that the face is the only human body part where the muscles attach directly to the skin. Interestingly, human beings have more facial muscles than any other species. While some triggers might differ based on cultural context, there are also some universalities. Dr. Hill observed these similarities in his travels around the world.
Dr. Paul Ekman conducted a study where he showed photographs to people in New Guinea and had them identify the emotions in their subjects. But emotions aren't that simple. There exist 23 expressions that reveal our seven basic emotions: happiness, surprise, anger, fear, sadness, disgust, and contempt. But photos can't capture the nuances of all of them. When it comes to the art of reading people, Dr. Hill says, “It’s simple, but it’s not that simple. Because to be that simple would be ridiculous.”
Out of the seven basic emotions, six are core emotions that serve as our fundamental emotional building blocks. So emotional intelligence has three steps:
Perceiving emotions in oneself and others
Understanding the emotions
Putting them together and managing the emotions
Emotional intelligence and understanding how to read people starts with perception. Often, we get so caught up in our own inner experiences, and fail to pick up on other people's emotions. Facial coding offers us a window into the emotional experiences of others so that we can understand how they’re feeling and respond appropriately.
Reading People: The Connection Between Words and Emotions
Reading people doesn't stop when you're able to surmise what a person is thinking or feeling. To understand why they're feeling specific emotions, it helps to ask questions and find behavioral patterns. Understanding facial expressions is not the end; it's merely a tool for reading people and connecting to what they're feeling. It can also help address what Dr. Hill calls the “feel gap,” or the chasm that opens up between ourselves and others when we feel one thing but say another. By becoming aware of it, we can better connect with people and help ourselves and others in becoming emotionally healthy.
In his research, Dr. Hill places the link between what people say and what they’re feeling into four possible categories:
What is said is what is felt.
What is said has some distance from what is felt.
What is said is not what is felt.
What is said is in complete contrast with what is felt.
Out of all the categories, the first one is the least common, according to Dr. Hill’s research. Understandably, some words don’t match up with emotions. We all work to get along with others and avoid conflicts, after all. Essentially, our motivations are to feel good about ourselves. We want to attract others romantically, platonically, and professionally, and sometimes that means “smoothing things over” by not expressing exactly how we feel.
How to Tell When Someone is Lying
In a cover story from National Geographic, Dr. Hill remembers that 40 percent of all people tell five lies per day. These aren't white lies either; they're deceptions with substance, with real consequences. Dan dislikes the implications of that statistic, but says, “…mostly I try to be intrigued by it and say, ‘How can I do better? How can I understand this? How can I accept my fundamental humanity and accept that of the people I'm talking to?” For more on this topic, check out “Being Honest With Yourself.”
Communication Tip: Don’t Confront Directly (h3)
When you learn how to read people by picking up on facial cues, you’ll begin to observe contradictions between what people say and what they seem to feel. Think carefully about what you do with this information, as approaching it head-on with the person might not be helpful. The person you're talking to might feel embarrassed when you point it out. They might be actively trying to hide it, or they may not even be aware of the contradiction.
On this point, Dr. Hill quotes Emily Dickinson: “Tell the truth, but tell it slant, lest everyone go blind.” It's best not to directly “call out” the person, or to push them to explore that emotion along with you. It's much better to let them connect the dots themselves, rather than tellingthem directly that their stated feelings don’t seem to match up with their expressions, which might seem like an attempt to tell them what they’re feeling.
People usually remember things tied to emotions. For example, when you hear something that hurts you, it sticks with you for a long time. Whether in personal or professional relationships, it's vital to understand how to read people's emotions, because there are real, long-lasting stakes.
When you know how to read people, you can pick up cues that could make or break relationships. For example, decoding a smirk of contempt can help people in the business industry know if they are respected. For married couples, a smirk of contempt can be an early warning sign that the relationship is in trouble.
These underlying emotions, when undetected and unaddressed, can even create financial headaches — contempt destroys respect and trust, which can erode business relationships over time. Ultimately, decoding those emotions leads you to be honest with yourself while forging stronger connections with others.
When coaching a CEO, Dr. Hill encourages vulnerability. It can sometimes feel risky, but the result is better relationships between leaders and employees.
While there are many success stories about the benefits of learning how to read people, decoding emotions isn't a sure-fire thing. As Dr. Hill states, “You don’t make a hit every time, and you do have to live with that.” Part of emotional intelligence is not beating yourself or the other party up when feelings get messy or difficult to decipher.
When we’re trying to read people, it’s easy to project our own feelings onto others, a habit that impedes understanding and can be corrosive to relationships. Dr. Hill suggests two paths to avoiding emotional projection.
First, ask yourself, “Am I making assumptions about other people’s behaviors?” Asking this question helps you avoid assumptions about someone else’s feelings.
Second, be open to new information. Even if someone has a habit of slipping into a particular emotional state, it does more harm than good to assume that an emotion or expression is a person's default and that it’s what is always going on under the surface. To break free from this habit, work on cultivating empathy and curiosity about others.
Controlling Your Own Facial Expressions
Dr. Hill says he doesn't consciously shift his facial expressions when he's talking to people. Once he entered this field, he decided he wouldn't review his tapes to preserve his emotional authenticity and avoid manipulation. Dan sees facial coding as a tool for reading people, and he wants to use it faithfully. He was also interested in restoring humanity to the business world and encouraging better treatment for employees, clients, and colleagues.
The Emotional Advantage
Cultivating emotional intelligence is more than an interesting hobby. It gives us real-world advantages at work, in romantic relationships, in friendships, and even with baristas or grocery store clerks. These little advantages add up to an improved quality of life, which Dr. Hill says, based on research, can actually be quantified as an overall six percent advantage. No kidding!
If six percent doesn’t sound like much, consider that sports stars like Serena Williams are only a percentage point or two better than other top competitors. When it makes the difference between winning and losing, six percent becomes a pretty meaningful advantage.
Unlike IQ, emotional intelligence isn't fixed; it’s a skill that we can improve over time, in part by learning how to read people. Being intelligent is fantastic, but unless IQ is paired with some EQ, it’s hard to leverage those smarts to make positive changes in the world.
While earning his Ph.D., Dr. Hill took a teaching course. He didn’t like that the course focused purely on IQ without any regard for EQ. It didn't teach him how to connect with students on an emotional level, a skill that would make any teacher far more effective than simply being smart.
As the teaching example illustrates, “soft skills” like the ability to read people often get ahead at work and beyond.
Resourcesfor How to Read People:
Get Dr. Dan Hill’s books, “Famous Faces Decoded” and “Blah, Blah, Blah” on his website.
The music in this episode is Nothing to Hide by Allah-Las from their album “Worship the Sun.” You can support them and their work by visiting their website.
Each portion of the music used in this episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act. Please refer to copyright.gov for more information.
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[Intro song: Nothing to Hide by Allah-Las]
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby, and you're listening to the Love, Happiness, and Success podcast. That’s Alla-Las with the song, “Nothing to Hide”. I thought this was a perfect setup for our topic today because on today's show, we're talking about how to read people, so that you can understand with accuracy how others are really feeling, sometimes even before they know it themselves. This is a huge component of emotional intelligence.
Emotional Intelligence is something that we have talked about numerous times on the show and the importance of it, the ability to be able to understand yourself, understand others, and then manage relationships with others and yourself accordingly, based on this awareness. I think many of our other episodes on the subject of emotional intelligence have really talked about your ability to understand and manage yourself.
Today's show is really all about how specifically, do we understand other people by using, what they're showing us about how they feel on their faces, in order to be able to decode their emotional experience accurately. Knowing how to do this gives you a huge advantage in any situation involving other humans, be it your personal relationships, your interactions with your partner, and even on the job. So I'm so excited that we're exploring this topic together today. My guest on today's show is a true expert on this subject.
On this episode of the podcast, I'm so thrilled to be speaking to Dr. Dan Hill, who is the author of nine books, including “Emotionomics”, and most recently, a book called “Blah, Blah, Blah: A Snarky Guide to Office Lingo”. He is an expert on – wait for it – understanding people's emotions by looking at their faces, among other things. He's done an enormous amount of research around the emotional impact of faces, the way we respond to art and photography. I'm so interested to get his insight into particularly his research into emotional intelligence and how you can use his ideas and what he's learned to help you be more confident and effective in all of your interpersonal relationships. I'm so pleased to be speaking with you today, Dan. Thank you for joining us.
Dr. Dan Hill: Oh, absolutely. Lisa, I'm so looking forward to it. I think it'll be a great conversation.
A Cosmic Joke
Dr. Lisa: Wonderful. Well, Dan, we have much to discuss. I mean, you do so many different things. You're an author. You're a researcher. You're a speaker. But why don't you if it's okay, let's just spend a couple of minutes and talk about, you know, how am I so interested to know like how you got interested in this field of study? And just tell us a little bit about your research?
Dan Hill: Sure. Well, I often joke that as a cosmic joke itself, that I would be an emotions expert, because I'm Scandinavian. And Scandinavians are not necessarily famous for being outgoing or emotional
Dr. Lisa: You do have a reputation.
Dan Hill: Yes, Gary Keillor, with his Prairie Home Companion show once said the joke about the Norwegian American man who loved his wife so dearly that he very nearly told her so. And I happen to be half Norwegian. The other cosmic joke here is that I have a PhD in English. Yet my specialty is not in that field. It's arguably in psychology, and it certainly in nonverbals, so we will converse in verbals. But yes, I rely a lot on what I learned about people from their facial expressions.
The way I got into this was someone I was working for a consulting firm, looking at the customer experience, trying to write a book for the company president. And he had me in contact with someone at IBM, who one day changed my life, sent over an article from a Cornell University publication called American demographics, talking about the breakthroughs in brain science, and how much we are intuitive, sensory emotional decision-makers with a killer statistic that the conservative estimation is that 95% of our mental activity is not fully conscious. which is actually probably about 98-99%.
That's what the science is kind of at these days.
Dr. Lisa: That’s so interesting.
A Scientific Approach to Emotions
Dan Hill: So I read the article, and yes, I had the same reaction. So interesting. My hands started trembling. I mean, literally started trembling, I went, “This is so cool”. I have no idea whether I can make a living at this. But it would be shameful if I didn't pursue it, because it's so striking. And so revolutionary, and the business world's not awake to the importance of emotions, and they're denying it. And I just have to go here, I decided to leave my job within five minutes of reading the article. That is an absolutely true story.
Dr. Lisa: Wow. That’s like psychologically being struck by lightning kind of experience? That is remarkable.
Dan Hill: That exactly what it was. I mean, I was transfixed with excitement. I mean, it just, I couldn't believe it. I mean, it just happened.
Dr. Lisa: That is so cool. I mean, I think, so many people long for that kind of experience where this is why I'm here – that passion, that purpose, and how amazing that you had that. And we're open to it.
Dan Hill: Well, and then the journey had to start. So then I had to stay open, because then the question was, okay, so emotions are really valid. I mean, of course they are. But then the question was, well, how am I going to research this or capture metrics, because my father was in charge of 3M post-it notes production, sales and marketing.
I grew up in a household where the word innovation, being a tagline for 3M was bandied about just a little bit, shall we say, but knowing that would be my higher target market audience, someone I would have to sell into is like, Oh, my God, I'm gonna have to have science, I'm going to have a methodology, I'm going to have to have metrics. I can't show up and say emotions matter. They're going to call that “woowoo” and soft. And so what, and everything else under the sun.
That started the hunt. And the great thing is, I had a second bolt of lightning, a second Eureka. Because first, a friend blew me up, and was actually a favor. I spent half a year almost developing a methodology, sent it to my friend, Joe Rich — great name for a business person, by the way- and Joe said, “This is great stuff”. And I said, “well, Joe, there's a ‘but’ in your voice, I can detect it. We’re friends, I know”. He said, “Well, actually there is.” “So what's the problem?” He said, “The problem is if you follow these traditional methods, you're going to ask people to think their feelings. And guess what? They feel them.” I had to start over. That's how I came to facial coding, because I said, “Oh, my God, what is it going to be, a very lost month? I don't have much money. I gotta start earning some if at all possible here.”
At the University of California, San Diego, UCSD, they had a lot of PhDs and social sciences in town and psychology, all of that, and a great section on neurobiology. And I started checking out books. One day, I came across the fact that Charles Darwin, the Charles Darwin, came to realize that in your face, you best reflect and communicate your emotions. I read that about 10:45 in the morning, I can picture to this day, just like a picture where I read that fax from the IBM guy.
I can picture the very seat in the coffee house in San Diego where I was sitting when I came across that statement in one of the books I checked out from the library. I went, “Oh, I was an art history minor in college, I lived in Italy, as a boy, I had to read nonverbals my mom was an interior designer, I can do this, this fits, and this is exciting. I'm going to be doing this for the rest of my life.” And I knew that just as instantaneously, as when I read the article where I decided to quit. So two of them within half a year. I mean, it's a blessing.
Dr. Lisa: Getting these sort of messages and just like the right information at the right time. And so the first message was most of our brainpower is not fully conscious. And then the second message was people understand and process so much from other people's faces. Those were the kind of the two messages and then taking those together.
Dan Hill: So the first one blew up the paradigm. Because the real paradigm we've lived with basically is really outmoded. It's Rene Descartes saying “I think therefore I am”. Yeah, I mean that that's obsolete as can be, but we still live by it very often. And so it's The Big Lie we tell ourselves. And then the second revelation to your point was, here's a tool.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Oh, that's so fast. And I'm so glad you're talking about this. Because I know I personally do this too. I think we all fall into that belief that we’re fully in command of what's going on in our heads and we're making sort of like thoughtful decisions that is not even remotely true. It's so humbling to be like, “No, actually, that is not what is driving your bus most of the time.”
Dan Hill: It is humbling. But I also think it's really liberating, as though we don't have to pretend to be something we aren't. Because we're not Mr. Spock, from Star Trek, we are Homer Simpson. And you know, and Maggie and everybody else in the family, it’s just, we are who we are, and accept it, try to learn from it. Don't just give in to it, necessarily. But yes, there are tremendous blind spots, and it's going to help you with other people. Because if you think they're rational players, you're off base and the vagaries of their behavior, and how you're going to connect with them most effectively. We'll certainly have a better shot if you're grounded correctly, which is to say, I'm around a lot of other people's blind spots and biases, too.
Dan Hill’s Discoveries
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Good reminder. And, and your research and where you started to go is this idea that our faces and other people's faces are kind of a window into what is really going on, if I'm understanding correctly, and I'd love to hear more about how that path unfolded. And if you could take our listeners into just, you know how, I mean, I am a card carrying nerd. And so I'm always interested in how you did the research, because I think it's super cool. But, of course, and again, you've written nine books on the topic. So there's so much to share. But it's, you know, some overviews, I guess, of some of the main themes that your research uncovered.
23 Facial Expressions and 7 Basic Emotions
Dan Hill: Sure, there's a lot to unpack there, but I'll try my pieces. And if I miss something, you can, you can redirect me back to what I missed. I guess the first thing I would go to is, obviously, Charles Darwin, not available for a conversation after I came across this revelation. But you know, I'm a researcher with a PhD. So I like to verify through multiple sources, and then I like to get to the most credible sources, or resources to draw on as possible.
First of all, Darwin's work, essentially arguing that the face is the only place in the body where the muscles attach right to the skin. We have more facial muscles than any other species on the planet. There's 44 sets of muscles, so there's a real richness of data there. It can also be argued that it's universal, that the display rules vary. Certainly, what could be the triggers, you know, can vary by cultural context. But there is a universality and I believe that because my company has done research for more than half the world's top 100 brands. We've done research in I think about 35 countries, I've spoken in more than 25, I have traveled to more than 80, myself. So you know, I have seen it across the world.
Now. There is someone, Lisa Barrett, who are used against that, but it's because Dr. Paul Ekman was kind of the expert in the field made — it was an early kind of rookie mistakes, I guess I would call it. So he went out to verify this. And he showed some photographs to people in the highlands of New Guinea, and tried to identify if they could pick out what the expression is. And she picks on that and says, Well, yeah, we tried to replicate this, in India and Africa. And it didn't work.
My point is, of course, it didn't work and Paul Ekman never should’ve done it. In the first case, because we have 23 expressions that reveal our emotions. Let's just take anger, for instance, there are nine different ways you can show anger in the face. Some of those expressions just show anger. But some of the other expressions potentially based on Dr. Ekman’s research itself, indicates that it might go to more than one emotion, maybe two, maybe three, you can't possibly hold up a photograph that's going to be — is this anger, because you're not going to probably show all nine emotions or expressions for it. Plus, some of those expressions will also reveal another emotion.
It's simple, but it's not that simple. Because to be that simple, would be ridiculous. You know, when we'd all had to the Botox Center and the plastic surgeon, you know, to try to hide what we're revealing on our faces, potentially, if we did have something to hide. But the real point of that research is that there are these 23 expressions, and they cover seven emotions.
The seven emotions are happiness, and surprise, and anger and fear, sadness, disgust, and contempt. Six of those most psychologists I think, would agree that there will be called basically core emotions or, the real fundamental building blocks. And that really sets up the proposition because emotional intelligence really has three steps to it.
In essence, I perceive what's going on for myself and others. Unless you got a mirror- its not going to be so good for that. But it could be, we will have seen your expressions, you can go back and look at your own photographs and video. But it gets you started by perception, then the question is, Do I understand these emotions? Or what do they actually mean? What's their significance? What may trigger them? What does it lead to in terms of behavior? And the third one is putting it all together and managing the emotions.
You can't do the last one, of course, without the first two. And the game really starts with the perception. And that's why I love facial coding, because it gives you the chance to capture data and get a sense of what's going on for other people. Because one of the problems we have otherwise is we caught up in our own silo. And we do need to get outside of that to be effective.
Dr. Lisa: Yes, your silo meaning like so caught up in our own inner experience. Sometimes we don't fully recognize what's going on.
Dan Hill: Or to quote my favorite New Yorker cartoon is I have more than once from the stage and so on. Two women are talking to each other one says to the other, “But enough about me, what do you think about me?” Yeah, that’s the silo.
The Feel Gap
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Okay, that's so interesting. And so that there are the 23 different facial expressions that are tied into variations of those, those basic emotions. And then it ties into emotional intelligence, because you're saying that when you can kind of clue into people's faces and understand what they are really potentially thinking, or feeling that you can have more insight psychologically and kind of know what's happening. And that, I'm guessing, it also might sometimes be different than what people are saying out loud, or perhaps, if we're going to get really deep, perhaps even different than what they are consciously aware of?
Dan Hill: Oh, absolutely. So, I mean, I'd make one small correction, what you said, which was, you said, what they're thinking and feeling. I can get a reasonable surmise, and nothing's infallible, and I'm not fallible as a facial coder, but you're looking for a leg up, you know, an opportunity to be better. So I can know, I think reasonably well, what they're feeling, whether they're aware of it or not, whether they're going to admit to it or not. How they're thinking, or why they're feeling that feeling- I can only get through probably through asking questions, trying to look for behavioral patterns that link up to this. So the detective work is not over yet. But yes, it gives you that chance to get to more end.
You mentioned the idea that might be a distance between what they say, and how they feel. And indeed, in my research, I get very quickly settled on the term, the say “feel gap”. They say one thing, but they feel another. What we've found in our work, and I think could be true in your personal relationships as well, we actually found four categories. One is- what they said and how they felt matched up. That's the least common of the categories.
Dr. Lisa: That's so interesting.
Dan Hill: There's also, the lineup was some connection, but you know, some distance. Another one is that they say something, they don't feel it at all, you know, there's no muscle activity. They're just saying it, it's lip service. And the last one is the say-feel gap, where indeed, there is essentially a complete breakdown between what they say, and what I believe they're actually feeling on their face. Because yeah, we try to get along with other people that mean, it's understandable. We don't want to fight all day long have conflicts. And so essentially, our motivations in life are to feel good about ourselves, and to attract allies, whether it's romantically, in terms of our career, and so forth.
Neither one of those has to line up necessarily with being honest. And that being honest, might get us into trouble. The National Geographic had a cover story just a few years ago, about you know, called I think it was, “Why We Lie?” And of course, we went into all the reasons why we would lie, but what I remember is the statistic — 40% of us apparently, tell, on average, five lies a day and we're not talking about little white lies, but lies of some substance, some consequence. 40% of us five or more a day, and I went, “Okay, that's a lot.” But if it's good research, it could make some sense.
Yeah, we don't know what's going on. We do lie to ourselves, perhaps most of all. And it's probably why you know, life is a little messy. But I guess my approach is to be intrigued by it. Most days, there are days I despair about it. But mostly I try to be intrigued by and say how can I do better? How can I understand this? How can I accept my fundamental humanity and accept that of the people I'm talking to.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Well, that is sobering. And I'm, I'm sure we have people listening to this right now who, you know, might have trust issues and relationships. I mean, that's a thing. And that's very scary to consider that, humans routinely are saying things that are not fully true.
I like your point that sometimes that is a conscious deception that is motivated by you know, a desire for self-esteem or to manage relationships. But the other times, it is not fully conscious that even though people are saying something that isn't true in a moment, they may not be aware of that, they're lying to themselves.
Dan Hill: Yeah. And maybe the lie is altruistic. In some sense, you know, benign.
Dr. Lisa: “Your baby is so pretty.
Dan Hill: Yeah, I think what really disturbed me in a relationship is when it's for malicious intent. And it's a pattern, pronounced pattern with real consequences. I mean, that's kind of a trifecta of poison, that one would be well advised to escape if possible.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Definitely. And so I guess what I'm curious to hear more about, so much of our brainpower is, you know, focused on people's faces. And there's such a wealth of this, I mean, kind of reading through the lines here, it seems like, if you become very skilled at kind of decoding people's emotions from their faces, you have a huge advantage and understanding what's really going on.
I'm curious to know that if somebody wanted to develop their skills in this area, to be able to read people more effectively, you know, not just to maybe see problems potentially coming down the line, but I think also just to develop their own emotional intelligence skills, like how do I become better able to reading people and understanding how they're feeling? And I'm curious to know what you would see as being like the sort of arc of that growth process for lack of a better term, like if somebody wanted to develop their skills in that area? What do you think works?
Dan Hill: Well, I decided at this point in my life, I just published it just a couple, three years ago, I released a book called, “Famous Faces Decoded: A Guide to Reading Others”. And the reason I did that is because, I lived a couple times here in passing to Dr. Paul Ekman, so he's considered the modern expert on facial coding. Although in addition to Darwin, I could even go back as far as Leonardo Da Vinci.
If you look at his notebooks, they include drawings of faces because he was interested in their, you know, the muscularity and how the muscles moves and which emotions they showed. And I really think it's a big reason why Mona Lisa is such an intriguing painting, because it was informed by his interest in science, just like Michelangelo was contemporary was actually doing likewise, but more focused on the body. So one gave us Mona Lisa, one gave us the statue, David, because they had different areas of interest, so to speak, even they were parallel interests.
Dr. Ekman, simply picked up the baton and ran with it and figured out with a colleague of the School of Medicine in San Francisco, you know, these expressions. His manual was like 500 pages. So when I got it, I read through. I was a good student. And I think based on my art history, interests, and even frankly, the fact that I fell in love with Rembrandt at age seven, because my mom took me to the Rights Museum in Amsterdam, and Rembrandt is greater portraiture work.
I think I had some real built-in advantages. And that time in Italy, where we moved for my dad's career, and I didn't know the language at first and went to Italian first grade, and the fishing village, waited all day for the math unit. But Italians have a lot of body language. And you know, that kind of gave me away. And so I had some advantages.
What I'm doing is, is making it simpler for people. So my book is much more accessible than the 500-page manual, definitely shorter, but gives you the secret sauce. So I think the book is really kind of operating on three levels.
One is I said, for some people, you know, maybe learning isn't so easy or attractive. I'll make it real fun, because I'll give them celebrities. I'll give them celebrity examples where they can follow along, but learn something new about these celebrities, in terms of their life stories, little tidbits. And that's kind of the setup piece. And they're celebrities who are Americans and for the last, you know, a couple of generations, and the celebrities were actually did something with their career. They're not just famous for being famous. You know, by and large, they actually did something.
That's kind of the first layer of the cake. And then the next layer was really to try to explain the emotions because that's step number two of EQ. Emotional Intelligence is understanding what the emotions are. And so most emotions really have and there's not necessarily a negative emotion or positive emotions, they both have, all have upsides and downsides. But just understand what are the possible triggers and ramifications for behavior because emotions have a storyline and let me ground this for people by one example, disgust.
With disgust, some really obvious things that might happen to do is your nose wrinkles, or your upper lip curls, it's almost as if nature is very literally saying, it stinks, my nose curl or wrinkles, it tastes bad, my nose, my mouth kind of lifts up and away from the offending taste. Think about the evolutionary advantage of this. You pick a fruit off the tree, you are at the watering hole, you know, we're talking 1000s of years ago, and, of course of evolution and civilization. Well, Disgust can give you or reinforces for this feeling, “Oh my God, that's a bad idea.” This fruit is rotten, that water is toxic, it's polluted, I shouldn't drink it, I shouldn't eat this. And you back off, because that's the storyline of disgust essentially, is something's toxic, poisonous, bad for you. And I'm out of here.
So that that's the, kind of the understanding. So the second tier of the book or of the cake, as it were, is, you know, what do these emotions mean. And then I have diagrams and photographs to explain how you reveal those emotions. So I actually deliver all three of those things. And I think I've tried to make the book as successful as I can without, you know, making it too dummy down that it's not actually accurate, or useful to somebody. And, you know, did all that in a couple 100 pages with fun examples, as opposed to a 500 page manual. And I think that's, I'm not just saying this, because I wrote it. I really think that's probably the most helpful thing out there in this specialty.
Dr. Lisa: I mean, yes. And so again, this is “Famous Faces Decoded”, I will be ordering this immediately after our conversation ends sir, by the way, because it sounds so fascinating. But I could totally see how you would really have to, like, see examples that you present in your book to be able to kind of put it together and know what to look for.
Dan Hill: Yeah, we're visual creatures. And yeah, there's no way you're gonna learn facial coding, without visuals. So I have plenty in there.
Confronting Others About Their Facial Codings
Dr. Lisa: Got it. Okay. But now, I have another question for you. So. So say, it sounds like such a huge, useful thing to do is to really put time and energy into getting more clear around facial expressions and what they mean so that you're better able to read people.
I'm just sort of putting myself in the mind of like a client that I meet by be talking to as a therapist or a coach who does that, and is in tune and is picking up on some of these subtle facial cues, you know, maybe from a work colleague or a boss, or maybe even their partner, asks what do I do with that, like, I know that somebody is maybe having this feeling.
As you said, just so insightfully if human was before, is that, that humans have a tendency to conceal. Their faces say one thing, but that if you ask them or try respond to that, they may or may not be willing to engage with you on that level and say, “Yes, I am actually feeling XYZ.” Like, it's easy for people to blow things off. And I think that that feels frustrating sometimes for people who know, on some level, but can't like engage with it directly. Do you know what I mean?
Dan Hill: Oh, absolutely. It comes up all the time. I mean, my advice when asked a question or came in as part of a discussion is to say, you're right, I mean, it's, you bring it up directly to them and say, there's a contradiction here. They're gonna feel embarrassed, they may not even be aware of it, they're gonna deny and shut you down. It's very unlikely that that's a good approach, how helpful approach to moving things forward.
I said to cite the poet Emily Dickinson who said, tell the truth, but tell it slant lest everyone go blind. To take things on, you know, head on probably just doesn't work. It's got to be done on a slant. And so you know, if I see something I might say, well, that's interesting. And we just play that out a little bit. So I'm training separation from the comment that I think is obviously not quite on the up and up, and just try to let them talk it through and maybe they realize themselves, you know, that's not all of what the answer is here, that's a little more complicated, or may even though work themselves out and say, you know, what I said a moment ago isn't quite accurate.
If they can get there themselves, and you don't have to push them, you might pull them a little bit or invite them to get there. That's a whole lot better. Or just say, I'm a little bit confused. You know, I, I kind of thought it was this, see, I'm trying to get these softening words in, no, I'm confused, you're taking agency on yourself. You're not making a declarative statement. Just ways that soften the path and see if you can keep them in the conversation, then maybe the revelation will come, the connecting of the dots, and it'll be a far nicer landing. That's what happens, as opposed to “you bloody liar.” That's not likely to go down well.
Dr. Lisa: No, I get it. That's just so helpful that, you know, it's a full frontal like very direct, I think maybe “you're feeling a little bit differently” will shut people down, they will feel attacked or defensive. And so what you're saying is that the advantage here is that if you, you have information, and then you can sort of move into a interpersonal stance, where you're helping them talk, cultivating emotional safety, and giving them you know, opportunities to sort of talk through with you because the other thing here, just based on what you were saying previously, is that they literally may not be consciously aware, in a moment of what their faces are telling you as the observer.
Dan Hill: Yeah. And I'm speaking from experience, I can tell you more than once I said to someone, you know, back in the day, you said something the other day, and you know, it kind of hurt my feelings. And I can't tell you how many times they deny they said it. And I have a pretty good memory. And you know, you do remember things, particularly when it's emotionally laden for you. But that's really how memory works in a lot of ways that it's something significant, and emotional, and you hold on to it.
Maybe it wasn't significant for them, because there was just this little jibe they made. But it was for the person who received it and felt hurt very significant. So I have a hard time imagining that I was really wrong about them saying those things. But boy, they didn’t own up. And if they didn't own up that we couldn't have the conversation. Because if I was crazy for having imagined that they could have possibly said such a thing, even when I'm quite certain they did. So that's how it gets to be so difficult.
Een when I tried to circle back indirectly, sometimes and say, “Have we ever discussed this topic before”, and then see if it came back, even, that's not always been helpful, because the mind in a lot of ways, like a paper shredder, we just, we just dump stuff as fast as we can. I mean, you would know these statistics, the brain is 3% of our body mass, and consumes 20% of our calories.
It's all about metabolic costs, as the psychologist would say, we're trying to preserve mental energy, and not use up more than we have to because, you know, if the brain suddenly took 100% of our calories, well, then we can't even walk or breathe, or do anything else. So we're awfully determined to try to keep it to 20.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, so kind of shredding things that the brain doesn't perceive as being significant, even if it was highly significant to another person. And I think, you know, going back to one of the first things that you said is that we're all kind of stuck in our silos of, you know, being very aware of how we, well sometimes, you know, we're, we're caught up in our own inner experience and that if when you said to your friend, “Hey, that hurt my feelings.”
Now, like, “What are you talking about?” Like, they just experienced it so differently, it's very difficult to have that empathy for the validity of somebody else's experience when it is so different from how you experienced the same situation.
Dan Hill: It's one thing with friends it's another thing I mean, I can think of at least one instance where it was a boss. And now you got power dynamics in there because you know, one needs the job, and they're in charge of your career. And you really can't push very far there at all. And yet, you know, just like in a romantic situation or with one's parents or children you know, these are real stakes. These are serious stakes and yet you're kind of on this uneven and very flawed playing field you know, and the balls not rolling evenly.
Self- Awareness and Understanding Others
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Well and that's a such a good reminder right there because I know that I'm so like in my practice we really have two specialties. We do Like couples counseling, relational coaching kinds of things, and then it's and it seems like it would be different, but it's really not the other sort of post of our practice is around career development and professional growth.
I think that the link there is really in emotional intelligence and being able to understand yourself and manage relationships in both of those domains. But because of that, I know that we have a lot of people who may be listening to this podcast, who are in leadership positions, and who are very interested to develop their skills as a leader.
I'm just so glad that we're talking about this for their benefit, because what you're suggesting is that someone who is in a leadership position needs to become extremely careful to make sure that they are accurately reading the people that work for them or that they work with, because due to that power dynamic, the person in those sort of, you know, perhaps the employee position, may not feel able or even be able to bring up their feelings.
Dan Hill: And that's in a particular relationship, even in general, I mean, most statistics would suggest that no more than 10 to 20% of employees in a company feel like they can speak truth to power, or be very candid or transparent. And to go back to your example.
I mentioned my father was an executive, but I was a Director- Executive Communications for a Fortune 200 company, which meant that I was helping him prepare for his speeches, whether it was to shareholders, to employees, to the press, potentially, to nonprofit groups. I've done executive coaching, using facial coding and EQ for those same purposes. So yeah, that's another situation where the stakes are high. Because you know, these can be large audiences. There's moneyed interests involved here. Do you predict the stock price and you handle the press conference well, when there's a crisis or a scandal, some people do that well, I'd say a lot, don't do it terribly well. Because, you know, executives are used to being in charge and power.
One of the things that they can default to is anger, because now you're challenging my control, because I'm on the hot seat. And you're asking me to make an apology. I mean, the analogy I often make is, at least if you're like me, it's so much harder to back the car up than it is to go forward. I'm always afraid when I'm backing up that I'm going to hear that terrible crunch, where I hit the back bumper or worse of another car going forward. I don't, you know, it's the other driver’s mess. I don't really expect I'm going to cause a fender bender. You know, I can see more clearly that way.
Then, the combination of the rearview mirror and trying to turn around and look over my shoulder, which always leaves me feeling like, God, there must be a blind spot there somewhere. Some sliver of my vision field that I'm missing and haven't helped me if you know, it goes wrong.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, yeah. So you're saying to use this self-awareness and understanding of others to try to prevent problems as opposed to going back and then trying to fix them?
Dan Hill: Well, I'll give you an example. So we were talking about disgust and the poisoned waterhole earlier. It has a sister emotion or a male brother emotion whatever you want to say here. It would be contempt. Because, you know, it's also an aversive kind of backing off emotion in some ways. But contempt is really complicated because it's a smirk at the corner of the mouth. When we say Mona Lisa smile, she actually also smirks, although there's even more there than just the smirk. But there's a vast difference between a smirk and a smile.
In business, I sometimes say its profitability is the definition of that gap. Because contempt, a smirk means I don't trust you. I don't respect you. And it applies to both aspects of your practice, by the way, because, as you would know, with Dr. Gottman, John Gottman at the Love Lab of the University of Washington, Seattle, with 30 minutes of facial coding and 90% accuracy rate, if the couple will stay married.
Contempt is the most reliable indicator it will fail. But I also call it the, not just the emotion of divorce, but also of bankruptcy. Because now you have caused the target market not to trust you. And if trust is the emotion of business, I'm now in the wrong place. Because you know, I'm backing off from you, and I don't trust you, and I don't respect you. And therefore anything you say to me might seem like it's a lie. And you've created, you know, real problems.
I was once doing some executive coaching for a CEO and in the annual employee meetings, he was pretty given to contempt. But I'd said, you know, if you're trying to solicit their input, and feel like you're together with them, and that's what you're trying to convey, then contempt makes it feel like you're above them and removed from them. And it's kind of contrary to your goals. And that led to a really good conversation, it turns out, because he was a good person, and actually a psychology major as an undergraduate.
He appreciated the power of psychology and said, “No, it's not that at all. In fact, I do respect them. It's that I'm uncomfortable sometimes in the trappings of being a CEO. Sometimes I feel like I have to say things, feel things, to the shareholders, to the press.” He said, “I know the story's more complicated. We're not always without our blemishes.
Obviously, we're fallible like anyone else. And yet, I'm kind of told this line that I'm supposed to walk, and the things I'm supposed to say.” So he said, “to be really honest with you, Dan, I feel at times a little bit of contempt for myself, because I feel like I'm playing a role. And I'm not authentic.” And I said, “you know, if you told your employees that they would, they would understand you better, relate to you better.
It really be that kind of shining moment of truth that could really make them root for you as a leader.” And as you know, we met at a couple other occasions afterwards, down the road where he had got into some public speaking, and he did shift. And I'm not saying this, because I'm trying to Frankenstein people into someone they aren't or weren't or don't want to be. But I think it really actually reflected who he genuinely was. But he felt that trapped in a role.
Dr. Lisa: Well, how wonderful though, that you were able to kind of like see that in him and get him to talk about it in an authentic way with you and to be able to provide coaching. I'm thinking of the work of Brene Brown right now, like the power of vulnerability.
Dan Hill: Oh, absolutely.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, to be able to say, I'm not comfortable with this, because I think so often, you know, we feel like we need to, like a project this image that we have it all together. But you're saying and what your research, it sounds like that it sort of seeps through anyway, even if you're trying to, like maintain this facade. And that, and that the real way of creating those connections is to just be honest, well, I also heard you say that sometimes being direct is not always the best course of action
Dan Hill: Well, in this case, I try to reach my audience and the way I really framed it initially, because I didn't know what reception I would get was to say, you know, I think these are your goals, because I said, I've been a Director of Executive Communications. And I know, this is what you'd be trying to achieve, is to motivate, galvanize, engage your employees, so they, you have more productivity, that's the business goal. I said, so the business goal is being harmed by the communications goal. And even not the words, but the nonverbals. So really, I just laid out that contradiction first.
I kind of sat back in the woods and waited to see, you know, how the bear responded when they found the meat, you know, and the campsite. And, you know, all respect to him. He took it on. He said, yeah, that is a problem, that he admitted what he admitted to me, which is, you know, allowing for vulnerability, wanting authenticity, revealing what his value system was, he didn't have to do that for me. I, you know, I'm just a consultant, and not his wife. I'm not on the board of directors, he didn't have to do those things.
But he did do them. And it allowed him to grow, in my opinion, and the results we saw, and it's a real nice success story, without ever, you know, exactly putting him under the gun. I mean, I know the person who was his chief of staff was like, all nervous, you know, what are you going to tell him? You know, what did you see?
They were on pins and needles and I said, “I'm a good diplomat, you know, I'm a constructive person here. I'm not out to flame anybody diss anybody, destroy anybody's ego or career. That's not what this is about. So if you'll allow me the latitude, I need to do my work. I think I can ensure that you know, I will take it forward to the extent that, you know, the CEO is willing to take it forward. But I won't impinge.”
Dr. Lisa: Wow, yeah, that masterfully so I'm thinking of like the Montessori kind of philosophy right now like you creating a prepared environment and then it allows the student or the participant to engage and clearly this person was motivated toward growth and took the opportunity that you provided, but how lovely it must have felt good for you.
Dan Hill: It certainly did. I mean, I'm still here to talk about it today. So it was years ago, but it stuck with me. And I was really happy for the occasion. And you know, and then you just have to accept that. Sometimes it may not work that way. I mean, you know, I'm not the biggest baseball fan in the world, and I know the World Series is starting.
The truth of the matter is, you know, a great hitter, maybe gets the 300, and very few do, that means they're not getting to first base or beyond most times. So you just don't, you don't make a hit every time. And you do have to live with that. That's part of emotional intelligence actually, is not beating yourself or the other party up. Or the fact that not every time is, is that kind of success story, it just, sometimes it is what it is for now. It doesn’t mean it couldn't change later, they may even sleep on it, and come back. But you can't assume that everything's going to suddenly make the doors swing open, and the world looks different. It just doesn't tend to work that way necessarily.
The Power of Projection
Dr. Lisa: Well, good, good reminders, such interesting stories. And I know, I know, we probably don't have a ton of time left, but I have two other questions for you, if I may. And so one of them — and I hope that this is okay to ask.
As we've been sitting here talking, one of the things that I have been thinking about in that, you know, the facial decoding and reading other people is also the power of projection, and, how you are what you've observed about that, even potentially, in our research, and so I'm sure that you understand this well, but for the benefit of our listeners, so that the idea of of projection is that, particularly when it comes to how we interpret other humans is largely based on many of our early life experiences, attachment styles, and back in the day.
Like Sigmund Freud, and those guys would practice actually a form of therapy called psychoanalysis where the therapist was a blank canvas, they did not offer thoughts or, you know, they would just be that person sitting behind you scribbling notes in the chair and and that the person in therapy would sort of free associate for an hour, five days a week, and in doing so, would start to project all of these ideas and interpretations and personalities and thoughts and feelings on their therapist like so they would imagine that the therapist was angry with them, or hostile to them or in love with them. I mean, like could be all kinds of things.
But the idea of projection is also very real, that we tend to see in other people many times what we do experience in ourselves. And I'm curious what your research has uncovered about the interplay there, or how to even like, manage some of that. Does that make sense?
Dan Hill: Sure. Well, I think the way I approach that, at least, is kind of two levels. One is I'm in the moment, and am I projecting assumptions about why they're behaving this way? Why they thought this, why they feel that and I try to be really gingerly about that, because you don't know.
It is a wonderful comment from Bekenstein, no, it’s Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard said, “Out of the twisted timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”
Dr. Lisa: No what was ever made?
Dan Hill: No straight thing was ever made. There's warps in the wood. There are knots. You just, you know, and I use that quote, sometimes to just remind myself do not project, do not assume. You know, because you can't know I have some glimmerings of what's their feeling. I can restate the question, go back with a topic. They may feel more than one emotion.
What's the interplay of those emotions? What's the sequence of the emotions even? Do they go from sadness to anger? Do they feel this is a really common one, someone could be afraid, then they get angry because they are uncomfortable being afraid. Or they're a guy and they want to mask the fear with anger? Because they think you know, men don't feel afraid, which of course is absurd. Naturally they do. So yeah, the blend that sequence of emotions, whether it comes back in another situation, so I see a recurring pattern. There's so many things there that I think you are alert to or need to recognize you can't jump in and make the assumptions.
On the other hand, for me, at least, I admit, it's a little tempting, not in the short term, but over time to say, Ah, is that kind of a signature expression of theirs? Because George Orwell, the writer said by the age of 50, a man has the face he deserves. We do have muscle memory. We do have patterns as human beings. We're very habitual creatures after all. And so it can be tempting to think I've got to make it really simple. I've got a hothead, they're rarely given to anger, I have a sad sack and they struggle with sadness.
Whatever the case may be, I've got a nervous Nellie, they're always afraid. But those are stereotypes, of course. And it's very unlikely that they fit the one budge bucket. And then the question is, if that is true, you know, what cost? You know, is it me? Is it a boss? Is that a primary relationship, including from earlier in their life? Yeah, you'd hope that it creates empathy, and the curiosity to understand the person as opposed to a judgment and potentially put down or a verdict.
I think I do well, in terms of trying to stay away from the put down. But it is tempting for me as an analyst, to just try to see if I think I can get there and unlock the clue on somebody. And so yeah, I don't want to say it's a parlor game or something. But when I watch people on TV being interviewed, having been on national TV myself, do I get tempted to try to kind of figure out this person, it's like, a 60 minutes episode, I got 20 minutes with them. Yeah, that's enough time, they're like, Oh, let's see if I can, you know, come away with a real sense of who this person is. So you know, that's fun. But you still have to be aware of the stakes and the risk availability.
Self-Awareness and Emotional Intelligence
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, well, and you're so clearly like approaching this with a, like scientists mind, like, of I have a hypothesis, but I don't want to assume and I think I'm also reading through the lines here that your own self-awareness of those habitual patterns, because I'm just thinking to myself, like, over the years, one of the things that I have learned about myself, is it because it can be very tempting to like do mind-reading, and particularly in relationships, you know, people can run into trouble when they're like, I know how you feel.
What we're talking about is, you know, taking a more scientific approach, and really like looking at people's faces and trying to read their emotions to get that accurate information. But like, one of the things that I've learned is that, you know, it's easy for me to assume that people are upset with me, somebody is mad at me, or doesn't think well of me. Not to blame parents, but me, I had a kind of a critical dad. And so that was often true in childhood.
So now I sort of even have to like talk through that, like, you don't know that, you know, and just kind of like back away from that idea. But, I think, I think that self-awareness, just even just knowing that you have a tendency to make, like kind of key assumptions, could be helpful in staying in that reality-based place that you're talking about is like the taking more scientific approach of uncoding people's faces and understanding them.
Dan Hill: Yeah. Well, I think I can relate to what you just said. I think my father is a very smart and honorable person.
Dr. Lisa: Yes. I love my dad.
Dan Hill: Yeah. But in, in my case, I would say my dad was, could be given to a little bit of condescension, since he was smart and industrious. And so I'm particularly adept at picking up smirks and you're sensitive to them. And who's to say, you know, I don't know myself, but who's to say that the nine books that I've fathered, and all this work that I've done is in some way to try to gain the respect I don’t get in childhood easily. It could be, you know, yeah, I couldn't prove it in a court of law. But, you know, if I was on trial, I would have to confess that there was a distinct possibility that that's at least a part of the explanation
Dr. Lisa: Was your dad, the Norwegian one?
Dan Hill: Yes.
Dr. Lisa: Okay. My dad, Belgian. I'm a first-generation Belgian American, and I think there is something to that, Dan, I really do. Yeah, I really do. Well, then, so the other question that I had for you. So there's one side of this, I'm imagining, which is really learning how to understand what other people are showing through their faces.
I'm so curious to know about the other side, because I would imagine that people might want to use this knowledge to manage their own facial expressions in such a way that they are being careful about what they're kind of communicating to others. I'm curious to know if and maybe we could talk about your clients but I'm also curious about you. Have you noticed yourself kind of consciously shifting what you are doing with your face when you're talking to people?
Dan Hill: The answer is absolutely no, because I decided almost immediately once I got into this that I was not going to go back and look at my videotape, my TV appearances from my speech. at conferences, I didn't want to put myself in a fishbowl.
I wanted to highlight authenticity. The reason I became a facial coder is because I liked it is that an objective tool, or at least I can say quasi-objective, since there's probably nothing that's truly, utterly objective in the world. But to try to faithfully use the tool with the researcher, Dr. Ekman to try to get a lens on what's happening, it could be to make companies more efficient. But honestly, my interest in business had almost entirely to do now with, you know, bottom-line profitability. I do, like I do like to have, you know, efforts that are fruitful, as opposed to stupid and wasteful.
I was interested in restoring humanity to business, and getting recognized that whether it's your customers or your employees, your colleagues, that why don't you treat them better. I mean, I've been to enough office politics, you know, it's probably why I wrote the “Blah, Blah, Blah” book, like, I'm thinking of office, politics, and bullies, and all those head games that go on. But I know I never wanted to look at myself, but I do know, because I just, I can't avoid it sometimes.
I gave a speech once where it was the chairman of Nokia, Nokia kind of imploded. It was the chairman of Nokia and the CFO of Nokia, and then me, three of us on the stage back to back to back 15,000 People in the hall in Barcelona. The screens behind me were like I was born out with a YouTube concert. I mean, they were, I think, I'd guess roughly 52 screens, each of them 50 feet high, and 100 feet wide, behind me. So could I avoid seeing myself? Not so much.
I do know at least one thing, but I don't harbor it or belabor it, I can be given to showing a lot of surprise. And I guess, therefore some fear on my face, because those two emotions are quite similar. And I think there's an explanation for it in part, which is, I wasn't always that aware of human nature growing up.
I was pretty isolated as a boy, in Italy, you know, the boys I did play with were older than me. And so when you got a big age gap, at that point, it's a little difficult. They didn’t definitely want to hang with a younger boy. The one boy who was my age was, you know, not very athletic, and maybe not as lively, even intellectually, so he wasn't a companion, I was seeking out. Especially I spent a lot of time going on long walks along the Italian Riviera, up in the hills in the olive orchards on my own.
I read copiously and read a lot of books as a kid. So I think to this very day, there are times where human nature just shocks me, baffles me, leaves me bewildered because I expect higher standard, I expect more thoughtfulness, more sensitivity, more owning up to something that actually happens. And so I seem to be potentially always in a state of being “Oh, really?”
But at least I guess the upside of that is that also indicates that I'm willing to be very curious, and continue to learn, which is true. So just like every emotion has an upside and a downside. That can be the two coins, or sides of the coin in this case. So I know that much about myself. I do think that in the progress of understanding emotions, I probably made by and large and adjustment to being more calm.
When you run a company as I have, it's a lot of stress. And you either buckle under it, or you learn to cope with it better. And I think I got, yeah, I'm not perfect, but I think my ability to cope with snafus and stress and things that come up is vastly improved. And I think one of the motivations I have to be a tennis player, and I'm almost exactly at this very close within half a year of being the same age as John McEnroe.
We're both lefties. Now am I as good as John, not even close. But I did watch John's career and at some point, I started feeling embarrassed for John because he was a great champion. But he was out of control. He got tossed from tournaments, he got fined, he undercut himself. He's a great commentator now for the US Open. I mean, he just, you know, really cuts through and has some insightful things. And he really knows the game and you never know he's going to quite say. So it's really exciting to listen to him.
But there was a point in his career. I was like, No, John, you know, you're maybe when you're 23 and you haven't matured. I can cut you some slack. But now you're a 32-year-old player. And you're still getting into these kinds of shenanigans. Yeah, it's wrong. It's embarrassing.
Dr. Lisa: Just for the benefit of some of our some of our younger listeners. So John McEnroe was a very famous tennis player back in the day who was legendary for like freaking out on the tennis court like, straight up tantrums, like throwing his racket, like stomping off, like all kinds of things.
Dan Hill: Once in the tournament in Sweden in a year where he went like, I think at three and four, he lost four matches in the entire year. In a match that I think he went on to lose, maybe didn't, but anyway went berserk yelling at the ref and everybody else, he whacked a tennis ball at one point into the stands and barely avoided hitting, I think it was the king of Sweden, in the face, with the tennis ball. So he's the number one player in the world for several years, you know, a legend in the sport. Did he reach his full potential? I don't think he did.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah. Well, and so there's certainly a benefit to being able to control your own emotions. But I also just, I want to recognize what you said. Because when I asked you, you know, if you've used this information to kind of, I mean, I can't, this is a terrible word, but it's the right word to almost like, manipulate how other people see you, I heard you say that you made deliberately a conscious choice to use these superpowers, so to speak, for the purpose of good and just like sitting with you and talking with you, Dan, you seem just like a very genuine, ethical, like, just good.
I don't know that you and we don't know each other that well. But that's the energy that you give. And I'm just, I'm so glad that you are sort of the steward of this information, these things that you've learned about it? Because I would imagine as you're teaching them to others, it's for the purpose of helping them be more effective and more empathetic in relationships, as opposed to using the information.
Dan Hill: Yeah, be that's yeah, that's all true. And if I just close my eyes for a moment, there's we're talking, which is a sign of sadness, because, there are, of course, people who use it for other reasons. Just to pick up on one, the Chinese government, there's a very large company. All the companies in Silicon Valley are basically at work automating facial coding, they're not very accurate so far, but they're at work doing this.
But so true for a Chinese company, worth billions tied into the Chinese government and using this to monitor the Uighurs. Rather, it's how you say it, the Uighurs in northwest China, who are Muslim. So it's being used as a tool of oppression in that case, because it's monitoring their emotions and behavior and trying to indoctrinate them. So this can have very large stakes. But yes, I am trying to be benign, beneficent, positive, ethical, and my use of the tool, whether involves myself or others. That's, you know, that's my purpose. But I'm aware that it could be used for other reasons.
EQ: Emotional Quotient
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, well, but that I mean, my takeaway is just how much good it can do to to be more aware of the needs and rights and feelings of the people around you, so that you can have closer and more connected relationships with them. And really, like more emotional intimacy is like my big takeaway is that when you become good at understanding how other people are feeling, by that you can open the door for those really emotionally intimate moments like the ones that you discussed, you know, with, with your coaching clients and other situations.
Dan Hill: Yeah, I mean, it's all about EQ. And I wrote the book, you know, “Famous Faces Decoded.” I was lucky that I talked to him about an endorsement from John Mayer, who's one of the three founders of EQ movement. The other two are both at Yale University, and he's up in New Hampshire. And he pointed out gives you probably there's a lot of inflated claims as to what EQ could do for you, he said, but it's a very solid like 6% advantage.
I went well, because I know being a tennis player, and having been on Tennis Channel twice with Mary Carillo, interviewing me that the greatest players in the world are Roger Federer, or Serena Williams, on average, even when they're number one in the world, they were in 53% of their points, on average. That's it. So the margin to winning you lose, even when you're the very best in the world is not very large. So 6% advantage, you might go. That's not much. That's a lot. That's an awful lot. And it's the separation between EQ and IQ. IQ is relatively fixed. That's my understanding of it. EQ isn't fixed. It can grow, it can embellish. And they should work together as opposed to just EQ being silent now give you maybe one last instance here as we're wrapping up.
So I'm at Rutgers. I'm getting my PhD, and I'm going to be teaching courses now in my case. I'd already taught both at Brown University Of course, and for two years full time at a state university before I came back for the PhD so I was versed as a teacher but my fellow classmates were not. The truth of matters, the students at, you know, even at Rutgers, they pay a good amount of money for the tuition. The chorus is the time and the money, and yet, you're gonna put me in a classroom. And maybe I know the content, and maybe I got the IQ part down.
But do I know how to teach? Do I know how to interact with the students? There wasn't one second that I can think of that we spent on EQ skills, even though that particular course was supposed to be a training course, to prepare us to be, you know, in the classroom, as teachers. It's kind of absurd. And if you look at where the economy is headed, skill sets will evaporate.
Technology is such that, you know, things get overturned immediately. So I know your podcast, one of the words in the title, and we didn't talk nearly enough about love, and relationships. But if you want to just end it for a moment on success, success is going to depend a lot on soft skills going forward. Yeah, I think your ethics, your flexibility, agility, you know, all those things that get poo pooed sometimes, because those are permanent, and they can be built on and your so-called hard skills, those are actually the soft ones.
They may be the erased skills, the invisible skills, the obsolete skills. So what was wrong about how we got prepared for the classroom at Rutgers is a problem that all sorts of classrooms are making, and all sorts of companies are making universities, colleges, businesses, organizations in general, should never underestimate the importance of EQ.
Dr. Lisa: Yeah, what a powerful message that culturally, we've been kind of over-prioritizing intellectual informational IQ type of knowledge. And what I'm hearing you say, is that the robots are coming for us all and all of the informational things, that's the part that we like, can't come things change so fast. But the soft skills, the compassion, emotional intelligence, flexibility, those are the things that are going to endure. And so that to your point, that it's really worth if you're going to invest in anything to be successful in, professionally and relationally, it's to really develop your skills in that area, because that's what matters.
Dan Hill: Yeah, I mean, if he just follows the progression, I mean, yeah, machinery, you know, started to step in and take over and do as well, what our backs could do, and our arms and our legs, lifting and making things work. And now we work in conjunction with them, but they do the bulk of it. The same thing is going to happen with the IQ side, we can supplement the robots, we can fill in, collaborate, but the robots are going to be better at some point, maybe even now, at times in that area.
Probably the one thing we can hold on to best actually is our hearts and our creativity and ingenuity, and ability to collaborate. And that's why this is also important. And facial coding can help you because it's right in the moment. It's what's happening. And you can pivot it and respond and utilize it. And that’s the opportunity. I think it's a real sweet spot where people could be and believe me the same they can help in your personal relationships, too. So anyway, we'll leave it at that.
Dr. Lisa: Oh, what a beautiful idea for us to glide to a halt. And, and a beautiful segue for me to remind everybody where they can find your books, if they like me are going to be. I, as soon as we hang up, I'm going to be getting all of these books that you mentioned from Amazon, because I really want to learn about this. But the one is “Famous Faces Decoded” to learn how to understand facial expressions, and another, what the most recent book is “Blah, Blah, Blah: A Snarky Guide to Office Lingo.”
If you want to get a handle on how to manage some office politics, and I mean, again, you've written nine books and so there's all kinds of information and guidance that you offer. But you can find all of it on Dan's website, which is sensorylogic.com Access to his books and you have a podcast as well.
Dan Hill: I do. It's called Dan Hill’s EQ Spotlight. It's on the New Books Network. It's the largest book review site in the world gets about 1,000,007 downloads a month, not just me, but for everybody who's on it, and set up by a former Harvard Russian studies professor who is best I understand it had tenure, but walked away because he didn't think it was interesting enough anymore.
He was going through the motions too much and wanted a different way to bring knowledge to people in the world. So you can check that out of the new books network, Dan Hill's EQ spotlight, and you're right there are the books the ones you've already mentioned, other business books, and even a book called Art, a book on democracy and political leaders getting all the US presidents that I've facially coded. So I can't say I've covered everything under the waterfront but I hit a number of topics over time.
Dr. Lisa: Definitely an authority. But thank you so much for just coming and, and sharing your wisdom with us today. This has been a fascinating conversation. I really enjoyed speaking with you. So thank you for doing this with me.
Dan Hill: Absolutely, thanks for the good conversation.
What is your problem? And what is someone else's responsibility? Learn how to set healthy boundaries with clarity and confidence.
What's Your Problem?
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
What’s Your Problem?
As a therapist and life coach, I often work with clients who are doing personal growth work because they’re struggling with feeling blamed (and even guilty!) for other people’s problems and issues because they are trying to figure out how to set healthy boundaries. Particularly hardworking, competent and conscientious people can have a hard time figuring out the line between taking appropriate personal responsibility (which is a good thing) verse being made to feel responsible for things that are actually someone else’s personal responsibility. Can you relate?
But accepting responsibility for things that are really someone else’s problem can happen much more subtly, and even subconsciously. Many people have unrealistic expectations of themselves in relationships, and feel that they should be taking on more responsibility than is actually healthy for them.
In particular, it’s much more challenging to see that you’re taking an inappropriate level of responsibility when you have a “helping” personality. Helping others is something that you just naturally start doing and is a role that probably feels very familiar to you. This could be due to your role in your family of origin, or also just by virtue of the fact that you’re probably kind, compassionate, and competent. You see someone who needs help, you can do something to help them, so you step in.
But should you?
Here’s The Problem With Everything Being Your Problem
While being generous and helpful is not an objectively bad thing, here’s the problem with it: if you’ve been subconsciously taking responsibility or working harder than you should to solve problems for other people, or managing other people’s feelings, or doing things for others that they should really be doing for themselves, over time, it starts to create problems for you too.
For example, if you start setting appropriate boundaries with people you’ve been “over-serving,” they might get mad at you and tell you that you’re being mean. Or, if you allow other people to experience natural consequences for their own behavior, you might feel anxious and guilty. Emotionally, it can start to feel easier to just keep doing more than you should!
To complicate matters further, you do have to keep your side of the street clean. Healthy adults do have responsibilities, and there are things that you do actually need to do in order to be a healthy, happy person and have positive relationships with others. It is appropriate for other people to have some expectations of you, too!
But where do you draw the line between your responsibilities and someone else's? How do you figure out if you’re in a situation where you need to be doubling down on your emotional intelligence skills… or whether it's okay to simply say no and let someone else have their tantrum? How can you tell if you actually do need to show your partner love in a different way, or whether they have unrealistic expectations in your relationship or even trust issues? (Which would then be their problem to work on — not yours.)
It can be very, very challenging to get clarity about the line between where your sphere of responsibility stops, and where someone else’s starts. That’s the topic we’re tackling on today’s episode of the Love, Happiness and Success Podcast I’m calling, “What is Your Problem?”
In it, we’ll be discussing how to:
Differentiate what is your problem from other people’s problems.
Be aware of when you need to reevaluate a responsibility issue in your life.
Learn how to set boundaries and have healthy relationships with others.
Find out what your personal responsibilities are.
Discover the importance of allowing others to have space to grow on their own.
You can listen to “What is Your Problem” on Spotify or on Apple Podcasts, as well as on the player of this page. (Don’t forget to subscribe!) If this podcast is helpful to you, I hope you consider sharing it with someone else you care about so they can benefit from these ideas too.
I have show notes for you below, as well as a full transcript of this podcast at the bottom of this post. If you have any follow up questions I hope you leave them for me in the comments. I’ll answer them!
Personal Responsibility vs Inappropriate Expectations
Being blamed for something outside your scope of responsibility is commonplace. You may have experienced the following with a colleague or family member:
Being mad when you don’t do their job
Get angry when you react negatively to something they did
Try to make you feel bad for the consequences of their actions
When you buy into the idea that you are unworthy because you can't take care of other people's problems, you can start feeling inappropriately guilty, and may even start showing signs of low self-esteem.
To help you get clarity about your boundaries, try this simple exercise:
Grab a pen and piece of paper
Draw two circles, one inside of the other.
In the inner circle, write what you need to do to feel confident that you are doing your very best in various situations in your life. What are your responsibilities? Write them down.
In the outer circle, jot down what is in the realm of others’ responsibilities that they are trying to hand to you.
You can practice this exercise in your various relationships, whether involving your work or personal life.
We often tend to take over people's responsibilities because others feel that we can do them. This dilemma is especially prevalent amongst strong, intelligent, competent, compassionate, and naturally caring individuals.
As you bear more of the burden, you’ll eventually become more resentful of others. If you feel this way, remember that your anger and resentment are valid: “When people are not treating you appropriately, it's totally normal and expected that you will be feeling angry towards them.”
Take these emotions as a sign that there is a responsibility issue at the core of your life. You can also see it as a growth opportunity.
Your Personal Responsibility
It might be hard to hear, but you also have to think about how you may have contributed to this unhealthy dynamic.
In addition, it’s much more exhausting to fight with other people about the things they need to change. After all, “When we blame other people, for the things that we are experiencing, we're giving our power away.”
Here are some of the things you need to be taking responsibility for:
1. Having Emotional Awareness
Our feelings tell us about our needs and values. We have to be self-aware of our emotions so that we can make informed decisions.
People who have disconnected from their feelings have a lot of trouble setting boundaries. We need emotional intelligence if we want to improve our relationships.
2. Practicing Emotionally Safe Communication
You need to communicate how you feel about what you need and prefer in an emotionally safe and effective way. It is your responsibility to talk about what you're thinking and feeling in a kind and respectful manner.
You also have to manage your reactions; avoid screaming or slamming doors! It helps to learn how to be vulnerable safely.
3. Prioritizing Your Health and Wellness
Our personal health is our responsibility. Getting enough sleep, nourishment, and movement are basic needs.
If we don’t actively pay attention to our health and wellness, we cannot be our best selves or even be functional.
Once you make these clear, you can then learn to turn down requests that don't serve your best interests.
Remember: “Just because you can do something doesn't mean that you should.” It is our responsibility to protect ourselves from people who harm us and disregard our needs.
Similarly, it falls on us to figure out what makes us happy and pursue opportunities for happiness. You have to find what fills your cup so that you can serve the people around you. “You can't look to other people to do this for you. It is not their job. It's your job.”
5. Defining Your Obligations
Another thing that falls under the realm of our personal responsibility is knowing what we need to do to hold up our end of the bargain. These can include your roles in your family or even at work.
It is particularly helpful to sit down and write these responsibilities down. Then, communicate these with your partner or colleagues so that they can respond appropriately.
6. Having Empathy and Compassion
We are interdependent to those around us, from the way we respond to each other's actions. So being empathetic and compassionate with others should also be our responsibility.
What is Your Problem
Ultimately, finding out what is your problem boils down to control how you show up in the world. We need to live our lives with integrity to ourselves and to others.
We don't need to do this perfectly. However, we do have to make a sincere effort to be considerate of others. This process takes time and effort.
Other People’s Problems
Once you become clear about what is your problem, you can determine what other people’s problems are.
Even if you set your values and priorities straight, other people can still be upset with you. And that should not be your problem.
Others may think badly of you for setting healthy boundaries, but that's okay. You don't need to think about their opinions of you anymore because you know that you are a good person.
If another person becomes abusive in response, don’t think for a second that you need to change their reactions. At this point, resolving what is your problem requires keeping yourself safe and leaving. In cases of domestic violence, reach out to thehotline.org immediately.
Giving Space for Others to Grow
“The foundation of a mutually healthy relationship is healthy boundaries on both sides.”
Keep in mind that other people's personal growth is not part of your problem. It's best to allow them to experience the pain and discomfort of the consequences of their actions.
Clearing the path for them can even hamper their progress. That’s because, in the absence of dissatisfaction and frustration, people won’t grow.
To help other people, you can share resources (like this podcast!) and even help them get a life coach to help them in their journey.
[Intro song: O.P.P. by The Wimps]
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby: This is Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby and you're listening to The Love, Happiness, and Success Podcast. That’s The Wimps. The song is O.P.P. In this case, O.P.P. stands for Other People's Pizza. But I still wanted to use the song, first of all, because I love this band. Second of all, today, we're talking about: “What is your problem?” What is your problem, specifically, compared to what is somebody else's problem? I have a whole category of things in my mind that are other people's problems: OPPs. Hence, the relevance of this song. And a nice intro into what we're going to be talking about on today's show which is figuring out what is actually your problem, and what is someone else's problem, and getting clarity and confidence to set boundaries between those things so that you don't get pushed around by other people. So that you are actually taking personal responsibility around the things that you do actually need to do in your relationships, and yourself, in your life.
Good stuff in store for us today. And I'm glad you're here. If this is your first time listening to the show, I would to formally welcome you. I am Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby. I'm the founder and clinical director of Growing Self counseling and coaching. I am a licensed marriage and family therapist, so I specialize in relationships, but I'm also a licensed psychologist. I do have some insight into the quirks of humanity and the way people are. I am also though a board-certified coach, which I am quite proud of.
I feel that coaching is a profession that has gotten kind of a bad rap in recent years. Honestly, in some ways, rightfully so, there are a lot of dubious characters out there running around offering all kinds of coaching with no training or real experience, for that matter, which is always kind of scary. But there's also a lot of very responsible, ethical, and highly-trained coaches who I think take the best of the principles of therapy and counseling. But turn it into transformational change, which is very worthwhile, and that is part of my orientation.
I think every one of these episodes that I make for you on the podcast are with that spirit: not just talking about ideas but talking about ideas and then turning them into, hopefully, something that you can do something with. I do a lot of different kinds of experiential growth activities on the show. I have one for you today, and I have a lot of fun doing it. I hope you have fun listening.
Very lastly, thank you so much if you're one of my regular listeners for the kinds of reviews. Oh, my goodness. I had the opportunity to look at The Love, Happiness, and Success Podcast on iTunes lately and I was just floored by all of the reviews and the nice things that you guys had to say. Thank you so much for the reviews, and also for your questions. I know you guys get in touch from time to time with questions, and I read those. I consider all of them, and then I think about how do I answer that question in an upcoming topic, an upcoming episode of the podcast.
While I certainly can't be like, “Okay, Stephanie. Here's what you should do.” Because I'm not your therapist and it would be inappropriate for me to give you highly specific advice for your life. I can absolutely talk about the things that are important to you and create growth activities that would be genuinely helpful to you. Because here's also the secret: I have a lot of people who asked me for specific advice like, “Okay, this is what my husband said. What do you think I should do?” I always am like, “Mmm.”
The truth is that any good counselor or coach is not going to tell you specifically what to do. None of this is informational in nature. I have ideas, and I can make suggestions but those suggestions are around growth experiences. They're not specific, “Do this and then this will happen.” It is, “Let's hand in hand walk into this growth experience together. I will be your guide. Here are some things that would help you develop in such a way that you would know how to handle this situation. It would be congruent with you. You might even have a different perception of the whole experience in and of itself.”
When people ask for advice, it's like this little head of a pin. It's the very tip of the arrow, but behind that is all of this opportunity for growth, like real meaningful growth, which is never an event. It is always a process. I don't want to deprive you of that process. I'm not going to cheapen this by even suggesting that there are black and white easy answers. “Do this and your life will be perfect.” If there are any other podcast hosts, self-proclaimed life coaches who are telling you that, either they don't know what they're talking about, or they're lying to you. I would never do that.
Here today, we're going to have yet another growth experience together. This is going to be a good one. And we're talking about how to differentiate between what is your problem, and how to take effective personal responsibility for yourself in your life, and how to differentiate that from what is somebody else's problem. So that you can get really clear about setting boundaries and expectations and not allowing yourself to be inappropriately blamed or used or made responsible for things that you really shouldn't be.
I think that's an important topic, and I know it's a pain point for you. It's a pain point for many of the clients that we see here in Growing Self. I've also gotten a number of questions about this very topic. And that's why we're talking about this today because as always, it's all for you. Let's jump in.
Have you ever had someone say to you, “What is your problem?” In an accusatory way? How many times have you had somebody tried to blame you for something that is one, not your fault, and two, not your responsibility? It’s not in the sphere of things that should be your problem. It happens all the time. Examples of this would be somebody making you feel guilty when you don't want to do something that they want you to do. Or when somebody is being a jerk to you and then surprised when you have an appropriately negative reaction to them.
“What's your problem?” Well, let me tell you, or what about this. This is very common. It happens all the time in couples counseling: Someone blaming you for how they feel and that you need to modify your behavior so that they can feel differently on the inside. Somebody's being mad at you for not covering for them or cleaning up their messes. That can happen. Oftentimes, in professional situations, if you're working on a team and you have a co-worker who's kind of slack, and you're doing all these things to try to make the project successful anyway. One day you can't, and then they get mad at you for not doing what should have been their job anyway. This is also super common is somebody making you or trying to make you feel responsible for the consequences of their own actions, what they're choosing to do or not do.
On the show, in service of healthy relationships and how to have them, we talk a lot about boundaries. When we have podcast topics about personal growth, which is also hugely important, we talk about self-esteem. But today, we're really going to be getting under the hood to talk about the unhealthy dynamics that you do have control over that actually create those situations. When boundaries aren't healthy, there's often this inappropriate responsibility thing going on. When people do have low self-esteem or struggle to feel confident, it's often because they are feeling blamed or believing these messages from other people. That, “You're not quite good enough.” Or “You're not doing this well enough to make me feel better about it.”
When you buy into those things, that's when people start to feel bad about themselves. This is really kind of getting into the nitty-gritty of how do we assess, with confidence, what is actually my problem and my responsibility? What do I have control over? What should I have control over? Compared to what is on the other side of this line that not only am I not going to be responsible for that, but I'm also not going to feel bad about not being responsible for it? I'm not going to feel bad when I hand this one right back to you because you're its rightful owner. This is a conversation, again, that comes up all the time in many, many areas of life.
To sort of illustrate this, I would for you to either imagine or you could have an experiential growth moment with me right now. Pause this for a second, go get a piece of paper, notebook, whatever you got, and draw two concentric circles. One medium-ish sized circle on the inside and then around that circle, draw a larger circle. You have two circles, one inside the other. The inside circle is actually you and the things that you are in charge of. We're going to be talking about what those things really are and what they should be.
While we can be inappropriately blamed by others, it is also true that we do need to show up in the healthiest way possible. We do need to conduct ourselves well enough in order to feel authentically good about ourselves and to feel confident. That, “You know what, I am actually being appropriate right now. I'm doing the very best job that I can do, and I know that because I've done this work.” Right? We don't just get it. We have to earn it and that's what this is. That's what goes into the inside circle.
The outside circle is what is actually in the realm of somebody else's sphere of responsibility? That maybe they're trying to hand to you or make you be responsible for, but you're not really. With those two circles in mind, I want you to now think about how that shows up in different situations in your life. For example, it can come up in interpersonal relationships, certainly, where we're getting blamed for other people's feelings or when other people can't control us in the way that they like to. They get mad at us and like that. There's all kinds of things.
Even at work, it can happen especially if you are a strong, smart, and naturally competent, and also a naturally caring person, this is going to be relatively common for you. Because strong, smart, capable, competent, compassionate people can wind up accepting more and more stuff from others because they can do it. There's a part of them that’s like, “Well, it would be nice if I did do this for them.” And since they’re caring they’re, “Okay.” But what happens is that over time, all this stuff just gets heaped on and on and on. They feel like they're staggering under the weight of it all because it is actually too much.
Predictably, what you can expect to happen if you are taking on more than you can or should legitimately bear is that you will start to feel resentful of others. You will start to feel angry, you will probably feel very tired, and also this defeated feeling because you can't actually do it all. When there's this voice in your head that's like, “Oh, but I should be able to do this all.” You'll start to feel bad about yourself because you actually can't, right? It's like you have inappropriate expectations for yourself at that point.
Also, in relationships, this can lead to a lot of really negative emotions. If both you and your partner are colluding around this idea that you are actually responsible for the way they feel. And you're starting to walk on eggshells, and being super careful with everything that you say and do so that they don't go flying off the handle, it can make you feel really withdrawn, disengaged from the relationship to the point where you're not talking about how you're feeling anymore, what you're thinking. It's kind of this checked-out, burnt-out feeling. And it can happen in relationships. It can happen on the job. Really, anywhere where you have spheres of responsibility, this can happen. That's, again, why I wanted to talk about it today.
Before we jump into the circles, why don't you just actually check-in with yourself for a second and ask yourself whether any of the things that I just mentioned resonate with you. Do you find yourself feeling guilty frequently? Or do you feel like you're running yourself ragged and just doing everything for everyone and it never ends? Here's the ringer: feeling resentful when other people, when you look around and other people aren't killing themselves the same way you are, and you're like, “Why aren't they?” Because you're so overwhelmed and exhausted and starting to feel kind of angry.
Also, on that note, people will very predictably and rightfully feel angry when their boundaries are being violated. When you aren't getting what you need or when people are not treating you appropriately, it's totally normal and expected that you will be feeling angry towards them. That can be a sign that the locus of responsibility is kind of feeling out of balance when you're having that experience.
Lastly, in addition to that resentment and guilt and hostility, depletion, there are also often feelings of self-doubt. It gets mixed up with that. “Oh, if I were just better or if I were more organized, I could do more.” “If I exercised every day, I would have more energy to do all these things.” Also, this feeling of low self-esteem, like you're feeling like you've failed because you can't. No matter what you do, this other person in your life is always going to have a negative reaction, or it's never quite going to be good enough. Low self-esteem is internalizing those messages and getting tricked into believing that you're not good enough, that you're not doing a good enough job, that somebody else would get better results.
I know that this is probably a little hard to think about, but these, to me, are all the signs and symptoms that there may be a responsibility issue in the core of your life that is worth examining as a growth opportunity for you. And again, I am not going to give you trite advice about: “Do this instead.” This is actually a real invitation to take this bigger picture look at what is really going on and not just what other people are doing. But here's the hard part you guys: how you might currently be contributing to this dynamic that you don't want to participate in anymore.
I know that is hard to hear, and it can be challenging because I think many times, people are stuck in a situation, and I felt this way too. When I've been stuck in this situation, it feels we're sort of being lowkey victimized by people in our lives, right? “Well, they just keep asking me to do stuff.” Or, “If I don't do this, then it won't happen, and we're going to have piles of laundry around the house for three weeks.” Those things might be true, but when we blame other people for the things that we are experiencing, we're giving our power away. It's just not helpful. A: It doesn't change anything And B: If everything is really someone else's fault, how can you possibly be empowered to change it?
Your Personal Responsibility
You have to have responsibility. You have to have power in order to really take action and change your circumstances because other people can't do this for you. Particularly, in your relationships, if you're spending a lot of time and energy fighting with other people about how to get them to do things differently, again, that's an opportunity to shift this mirror around and look back at yourself. Because it's so much energy, and it's so exhausting to be fighting with other people about the things that they need to change. It is much more useful and honestly effective when we can think about: “Okay, what do I need to do to make this be different? What can I do to make this be different?” Then, focus all of your energy on that, specifically, because that will move the needle.
Again, this is why when people ask me for relationship advice and like, “Well, let's crack into this.” It's really a discussion and it's a growth opportunity because I think people hope that I'm going to say, “If you say this to your wife, then she'll be different.” My friend, the actual process is so much more complicated than that. But it's okay. It's good. It's authentic. And that is what this is about. It’s authentic growth, right?
With that in mind, now, let's go back and let's take a closer look at those circles of responsibility that I got you to write down on your paper. When we look at what is your problem, your personal responsibility is the way that you show up in the world. I'm just going to tick through some of these big ones. Some of them might be things that you're already doing, some of them might be growth opportunities for you, some of them, you might not have any idea what I'm talking about yet. That is also completely okay. These are just things that I have learned over the years on through my own personal growth work.
Having Emotional Awareness
This is what actually matters when it comes to the things that we truly do need to take responsibility for. One of the big ones is emotional awareness. It is your responsibility. When I say “your,” I mean “our.” It is all of our responsibilities to be able to stay connected to our own feelings well enough to take guidance from them, to be able to listen to yourself to say, “I am feeling resentful. I am feeling depleted. I am feeling hurt.”
We have to be connected to our own feelings so that we can A: advocate for ourselves and also take informed action from our feelings. Our feelings tell us about our needs. They tell us about our values. And if you're disconnected from your feelings, you don't have access to any of that. It's like if your whole body went numb and you didn't realize that you just cut yourself with a knife. Like “Oh, that is… I hurt myself. That is damaged. I have to stop. I have to go get a band-aid.”
When we're disconnected with our emotions, we don't have that. You can't say, “Ouch. This is a relationship dynamic that is unhealthy for me.” Or, “No, I actually can't do that work project because I'm already feeling like I'm about to die.” People who are disconnected from their feelings have a lot of trouble setting boundaries between where they stop and someone else starts. That is a primary responsibility.
Practicing Emotionally Safe Communication
From that stems clarity about who you are, what you want, what you need, what is important to you so that you can do the next thing that is your responsibility, which is communicate in a really, not just clear, but emotionally safe way about how you're feeling, about what you need, about what you like: effective communication about possible problem-solving kinds of things. It is, again, emotionally safe communication that creates an emotionally safe environment for the people that you're interacting with. It is our responsibility to talk about what we're thinking and what we're feeling in a kind and respectful way.
Also, with that is to manage our own reactions. Not screaming at people, not slamming doors, not saying snide, snarky, mean things when we're not feeling good. It's our responsibility to be emotionally vulnerable and kind and give other people the benefit of the doubt and manage the way that we are coming across. That is, if you listen to the emotional intelligence podcast I put together a while ago for you, that is one of the pillars of emotional intelligence. Two, really. It's how do I feel and then how do I manage my relationships with others? Meaning how am I being very deliberate and intentional about how I am coming across, how I am communicating, and making sure that I'm doing that in a respectful way that other people can hear?
As we've talked about in other previous podcasts, when we lash out, when we withdraw, when we criticize, when we stomp around or sulk, there are predictably negative reactions from others in response to us. We need to take responsibility for that.
Prioritizing Your Health and Wellness
Another very important thing for all of us to be taking responsibility for is our health and our wellness. Are we getting enough sleep? Eating well? Drinking enough water? Getting exercise? Going to the doctor? Taking care of health issues that need to be taken care of? Noticing when maybe we're getting depleted or we're not getting enough sleep we're not getting enough exercise?
If we're not really actively paying attention to that and meeting our own needs and providing ourselves with self-care and downtime, we are going to get depleted, and not going to be able to be our best selves in relationships, or be functional, for that matter, at work, or as parents, or in our other important life roles. It is our responsibility to be meeting our basic needs for things like nourishment and rest.
Being Knowledgeable and Clear About Boundaries
It is also our responsibility, along those lines, to be both knowledgeable and clear about our own limitations and our own boundaries. If you can imagine building up from the bottom, that emotional awareness leads to clarity, leads to being able to communicate, leads to self-care. It's being able to say to yourself first but then, also to other people, “Actually I can't do that.” Or “I don't want to do that.” That is also completely legitimate. It's like, “What are my boundaries? What are my limitations? What is okay with me? What is not okay with me?” You have to know that in yourself first so that you can then say that to somebody else.
It is similarly our responsibility to say no to inappropriate requests and also to say no to things that are not congruent with the best use of our time and energy and life satisfaction goals. Just because you can do something, doesn't mean that you should. That is an idea that really trips up a lot of very competent, smart, compassionate people. Because they think, “Well, it's not that big of a deal. Yes, I'll do the thing.” When it would have actually been healthier, not just for them, but for everybody else for them to say, “Respectfully, no. There's a part of me that would like to but it's just not realistic for me right now.” It's completely okay, and it is your job to do that.
It is also 100% your responsibility to protect yourself from other people who would either literally hurt you or disregard your healthy boundaries, disregard your needs. It is similarly your job to protect your children and other vulnerable people around you from others who may have the potential to harm them in subtle or very dramatic ways. It is also our responsibility to figure out what makes us happy and pursue those opportunities for happiness. That could be hobbies. That could be friendships that nurture us. That could be just having space to read a book.
You're not doing anybody any favors when you are living your life in such a way that there's no space for you and the things that make you feel happy and satisfied and fulfilled. It may sometimes seem a little selfish to do that, but think about the converse. If you are literally giving everything away and then some, you are going to be irritated, grumpy, exhausted, resentful, angry, and not that functional. You are not of benefit to anybody else if you are grumpy, and resentful, and exhausted, and not that functional.
You have to be doing things that fill up your own cup because you can't look to other people to do this for you. It is not their job. It's not their job. It's your job. Again, this sphere of personal responsibility. It goes in a couple of ways but getting clear about what we need to do is so liberating and empowering once we figure out how to define those boundaries.
Defining Your Obligations
Other things that are super important and within our sphere of personal responsibility is spending some time to get very clear about what do we actually need to be doing in terms of holding up our end of the bargain. Those could be personal obligations or responsibilities in your personal life, but also that may extend to your roles at work or your roles as a parent.
If you're a parent, it is actually your responsibility to make sure that the basic needs of your children are met, to be providing income, housing, transportation, basic stuff, safe environment, an emotionally safe environment for your kids. That is also your responsibility. In other roles, it can even be helpful to sit down with a piece of paper. Like, “Okay, at work, what is my job description? What am I there to do?” To write down all of those tasks: “what is my job,” quite literally. Or in your home life, your personal life: “What are the things that need to get done and that I should be doing?” That could extend to the way that you show up in your relationship. You know, spending at least some time with your spouse, are the things that are your responsibility. It's making an effort to be a kind, considerate, loving partner for your spouse.
I don't know if you had the chance yet to listen to my recent podcast episode about love languages, but trying to be thoughtful about what your partner needs from you and how you can give that to them. That is, I think, in your sphere of responsibility, in addition to being an emotionally safe person and an effective communicator.
It is also your responsibility to provide people with necessary information to be able to say, “Here's my job and this is what I am going to be doing. This is what I'm going to be doing.” So that they can make choices about what they would like to be doing in response to that. Again, you're not telling them what to do. You're saying, “This is what I'm doing.” Providing them with accurate information and that could extend to boundaries but it could also… Doctors are actually, disclosure, therapists run into this a lot.
I know part of my role here at Growing Self, I certainly do see my own therapy and coaching clients, but I also do a lot of supervision of other therapists and coaches at this point. One of the big themes that comes up, especially, I think, for earlier career counselors is this idea of how to tell if they're working harder than their clients are. Because that can actually be a thing in the therapy world. A client might come in and sort of vent about all of these things that are happening in their relationship that they aren't happy with, that they would to have changed. And then, a therapist could say, “Okay, these are the things that I think would be really helpful for you. I think that this is where we should put time and energy into expanding.”
We cannot control whether or not someone engages with that, whether or not they want to do that personal growth work or challenge themselves to do things differently in their relationship with their partner, that would actually help them get different results. I think early career therapists can often feel really bad. Like, “Why isn't this ‘working?’” I think it also has to do with these ideas about how personal growth works, how therapy works. I think that some people have this idea that just coming into a therapist's office or a marriage counselor's office and saying out loud, “This is the problem” and hoping for advice. “Okay, what do you think I should do to change it?” That in itself would change something and that isn't the way it works.
I think that that's one of the dark parts of talk therapy is that people believe that if they're coming and talking to a therapist, they are doing what needs to be done in order to change and grow and evolve. Listening to yourself tell the therapist about how you feel is great. It helps build insight. which is always helpful but it doesn't actually change the results that you're going to get in your life until you turn that insight into action and are able to put in the time and energy and effort to doing things a little bit differently, like the things that we're talking about today: managing the way that you communicate, being clear about your boundaries, saying no, protecting yourself, taking care of yourself, and providing other people with information around “Here's what I'm going to do.”
I could tell you that, as a therapist, until I'm blue in the face but that is actually where my sphere of responsibility ends. Whether or not you do that stops being my responsibility because I have done my part of this equation, which is providing you with new ideas and growth opportunities. That's kind of how this works in my profession, but this is also how it's going to work in your life too. I think if we go back to that thing that we were talking about at the beginning of the show, about how often we can inadvertently get in these situations where we're fighting with people, particularly with our partners to try to get them to do things differently or move in the direction that we want them to move in, that is not anything that you have control over.
Where your sphere of responsibility ends is around: “This is what I need. This is what I'm going to do. This is what I'm going to do in response to whatever you decide to do.” Then, seeing what they do with that. So it gets injected from that inner circle at that moment and into somebody else's lane to do with as they will. Yes, we're interdependent, and the way that we show up in our relationships can impact the response that we have. But I have ceaselessly been amazed over and over and over again about how dramatically, and sometimes, even quickly relationships will change. And how differently people will feel when they start getting real clear about themselves and their own boundaries and their own needs and how they're taking care of what is their responsibility instead of looking outside of that sphere of responsibility for things to improve. Those are some of the things that are in your sphere of responsibility.
Having Empathy and Compassion
Others that I will add, I do believe personally, and this goes back to one of my core values that is not one that is shared by everyone, but I do believe that we all have the responsibility to try to have empathy and compassion for other humans. I think that that's just one of the core principles of life worth living. Again, that's a values-based thing. I do personally believe that we all have the responsibility to try to do as much as we can, particularly when it comes to doing our own work and bettering ourselves.
I think that investing in yourself and your own wellness is our responsibility. That can extend obviously to the health stuff that we were talking about. Well, clearly, we're here together. You're listening to this podcast so you could check this one off the list, but reading self-help books, engaging in personal growth activities, thinking about: “Who am I? Am I the best self that I could be?” Considering what your options are and being willing I think to experiment with new things and grow.
What is Your Problem
It all really boils down to our responsibility is, ultimately, controlling how we show up in the world and making sure that we are living our own lives with integrity: integrity to ourselves, integrity to others, and that managing ourselves as well as we can. Not perfectly. That is not an appropriate expectation for anyone but a sincere well-intentioned effort to be doing our very best job of being a good person, being thoughtful and considerate and kind in our interactions with other people, being very willing to accept responsibility for the things that we do actually need to do, which is our health, our wellness, and also basic stuff of life that we do actually need to get done. That requires a lot of thought and energy into thinking about what those things are.
If you're feeling a little bit overwhelmed by all those, first of all, I'm sorry. But this is going back to that idea that when I do work with people in therapy and coaching, we dive into all of these things over many, many sessions. I'm trying to distill this for you into an exercise that we can talk about in the podcast episode of 45 minutes or whatever it is. Take notes, write these things down. My advice for you would be to give yourself time and space to think more about it. Write down: “What is my responsibility?” Fill in that circle. “What am I in charge of? What am I doing to take care of myself? How do I feel? Am I saying no? What, legitimately, are the tasks and things that are my job that are on my responsibility list?”
Give yourself some time to do this because only then will you be able to say with confidence and clarity, “I am doing what I need to be doing. I know what that is and I feel really good about that.” Because then, that in turn, will lead us to step two which is figuring out what is on the other side of that boundary, that boundary of personal responsibility.
Other People’s Problems
Once you have figured out what you want, what you need, what you need to do to create that, and get clear about what behaving with integrity and responsibility means to you, then you can get very clear and confident about all the things that are on the other side of that line. What is actually someone else's problem? Other people's problem: OPPs. These might include things like other people's reactions to you. If you are behaving well and in alignment with your values, and you're confident that you are being appropriate and clear and kind and responsible, then it leaves your domain of responsibility when it is launched out into the world and received by another person.
I will tell you, if you are trying to set healthy boundaries with someone who does not have healthy boundaries, they will very likely get upset with you for doing that. They will try to make you feel bad about that. And they will have negative interpretations of whatever you do, despite your positive intentions. They'll perceive you as being not a nice, loving person, and that is okay. Because at this point, because of the work that you've done, you do not need them to think that you're a nice person because you already know that you're a nice person, that you're being really healthy and really appropriate.
You can expect, again, unhealthy people, that that doesn't go over well with them. Particularly, if you've been caught in a dynamic with them historically where you have been doing too much and taking responsibility for things that aren't your job. As soon as you stop that, then that's not going to feel good for them anymore. They might try to punish you or make you feel bad. Again, I just want to pause for a second. There are degrees of punishment. It might be your mother that you're trying to set new boundaries with. Now, she's giving you the silent treatment because you're not doing what she wants you to do. That's completely okay and that's, again, within the realm of what a lot of people deal with.
There is also though, a different thing if you are in a patently abusive relationship like domestic violence. If you are afraid for your life or for the welfare of your children, the things that I'm talking about right now about other people's problems and how to deal with them probably don't apply because you need to do whatever you need to do to manage that situation long enough to leave the situation. Don't think for a second that there's anything that you can do to change your partner's abusive reactions. Your responsibility is keeping yourself safe, which is doing whatever you need to do to stay safe and then leaving. That is your responsibility. Just know that the things that I'm talking about here do not extend to those situations.
If you are in an abusive situation, if you're afraid for your safety, and that's showing up in boundary stuff, do not pass go. Go to the website called thehotline.org. thehotline.org, it is by, for, and about people who are stuck in violent and abusive relationships. They have tons of information and you can get free confidential access to a domestic violence counselor who can help assess the situation, and do a safety plan with you, and help start the process of getting you the heck out of there: thehotline.org.
Giving Space for Others to Grow
Veering back into our lane, to continue the conversation about what is not your problem is managing someone else's feelings: feeling like you have to do certain things in order to make somebody else happy. No. You need to be responsible for yourself, and then they will have whatever reactions they need to have to that. It is also someone else's responsibility, not your problem, it is their problem, to set boundaries with you, and tell you what they need, and tell you how they feel and to say no to you, right?
We can only ask for what we want or need or expect but then, the expectation is that it goes on the other side of the net. That an emotionally safe person will have done similar work to what I'm talking about right now and will be able to take on board what you're saying and consider that in light of who they are, and how they feel, and what they need, and what feels healthy for them, and then communicate back with you in an emotionally safe and authentic and respectful way so that there's a dialogue that starts. It is their responsibility to do that with you. You do not have to try to read somebody's mind, or anticipate their needs for them, or prevent their feelings from being hurt. Our job is to trust other people enough to tell us that because that is the foundation of a mutually healthy relationship: healthy boundaries on both sides.
Again, allowing other people to have the time and space and feelings to do their own growth work. Other people's growth is on their side of the net. One of the things that I've learned over the years in relationships, personal relationships, and myself as a parent, as a therapist, is that one of the most precious things that you can do for someone that you really, really love is by allowing them to experience discomfort, to allow them to experience pain, even, and to allow them to experience the natural consequences of their own decisions and their own actions, so that they have the opportunity to get in touch with their feelings, to get clear about their values, about what they need, so that they get to practice communicating effectively, so that they have growth opportunities that come from the same place that yours do. That they're motivated by the desire to get different results.
In the absence of dissatisfaction or frustration, people don't grow. They just kind of cruise along. If you are, I've learned this as a parent, out in front of your kid sweeping the path clear for them always, they don't get to grow. They don't get to learn. They don't get to try something, and I hate to use the word fail. Let's just not even. But have the opportunity to say, “Oh, that didn't work the way that I wanted it to. What could I do differently?” They have to kind of struggle with that and that is their problem. Again, you can provide them with information. Like, “Hey, I just read this book. It was so helpful to me. Here's the title. You might want to check it out.” You're done. Now, it's on their side of a net and they get to decide A: whether or not that is even remotely relevant to what they think they need and to follow through with that. Your work here is done. You tried. Those are all different examples of things that are on other people's side of the net.
Lastly, to put all this together, I'll give you kind of an illustration of this. In my role, so I certainly do therapy and coaching, but at this stage of the game, I'm really the clinical director of Growing Self, at this point. A lot of what I'm doing is managing a team. I provide clinical supervision but also working with different people to keep all the wheels on the bus. As a leader, my sphere of responsibility, I need to create a really emotionally safe environment for everybody on my team that values authenticity, that values growth. This basic idea that we all need to talk openly about how we're feeling, and what we need, and potential problems because the whole theme of everything that we do here is around growth: What can we learn? How can we improve? How can we make this better? And then, it's okay that there are problems because that gives us the opportunity to reflect on our actions and grow and learn.
This is all a good thing but it's my job to, not just make sure that everybody knows that intellectually, but to help them feel that way in their interactions with me. How I respond to people, how I invite people to share their thoughts or feelings, and my reactions to that, that's my job, one that I take very seriously. It is also my job to hold up my end of the bargain with practical matters. There are all kinds of things that need to be done. I have a task list. There are things that I need to do that actually nobody else can do. I need to do that so I'm very careful about how I manage my time, and I'm taking those commitments really seriously. I think it's also my job to do as good of a job as I possibly can. I put a lot of energy and effort and intention into the things that are my job. Making these podcasts for you, I care about that. I can do some little 20 minutes super light non-deep pod… There's a time and a place but I don't do that.
I really want to go deep with you so that it's a meaningful growth experience. I put hours and hours and hours in each one of these, which is great. I love it. I'm happy to do, and I'm not complaining. But I feel that is actually my obligation to you, to be present in that way. That's my job. Also, my job is to know what my strengths are and also what my liabilities are. What am I good at? And what am I not that good at? So that I can either very proactively take steps to kind of either get help for the things that I'm not good at or get real conscious about like, “Okay, I know I'm not the best in the world at time management so before I start my day, I need to look at my calendar. Set my timers so I'm not late to anything.” That's my job.
It is also my job to share ideas and to ask for what I need and also to be selective in what I commit to. I have people come to me all the time with business ideas or things that we could be doing, and I have to say no to a lot of them. Because anything that I say yes to means that there's less time and energy and effort for stuff that I've already committed to that is really important. Being responsible and thoughtful about the boundaries that I set and also be clear about what I would like to have happen with other people on my team.
I think that all of the things that are my responsibility accumulates to being trustworthy, being emotionally safe, and creating an emotionally healthy environment for other people where they feel valued and supported with me. It's my responsibility to show appreciation, to do as much as I can to nurture and support the growth of others. All things that are my job.
What else is happening is that I expect that if I ask somebody on my team to do something, they will say no to me if they can't. Or say, “You know what? I have all of these other projects and when I really look at the amount of time these are all going to take, something has to give. I cannot do one of these, and do this thing that you're asking, or maybe we could schedule it at a further time.” But this super reality-based conversation about what's possible and what's not possible.
I feel like it's also other people's responsibilities to say to me, “Hey, Lisa. This thing isn't working that well. I'm not feeling good about this process. I think that this needs to be better.” Instead of suffering in silence and trying to make do with things that maybe aren't actually good enough. But maybe they're having sort of assumptions laid out like they don't want to upset me or they don't want to cause problems. Or that old friend of “Well, if I were just doing a better job, I wouldn't be feeling so overwhelmed or defeated or whatever it is.” I disagree. I think it's their responsibility to be communicating with me about how they feel because if I know, then we can work together to solve the problem.
I trust the people that I am in a relationship with to care enough about me and our relationship to set boundaries with me, to tell me how they feel, to be self-aware enough to know how they feel. Also, to communicate with me in an emotionally safe and respectful way that are like “Hey, we have a problem. What are we going to do here to fix it?”
That's kind of a simple work-based example of all of this in action about what's my sphere of responsibility and what somebody else's. But as you reflect on your own job or your own roles in your family, to think about what are you creating in terms of the environment and your responses to people. What, perhaps, has been bleeding over that maybe you've been attempting to control something that is in someone else's domain or trying to manage the responses and feelings of another person?
I have all kinds of clients. Super hardworking, super competent who will tell me that they're actually doing somebody else's job in their department. They're doing a job and a half or sometimes even two jobs because they have a really mercurial boss. They are afraid that their boss will be upset if they say no to them. That is so toxic. That is not okay. Again, to get clear about how to set boundaries in a healthy way and also to set limits and to take care of yourself. Because if your toxic boss is actually going to scream at you if you're not doing 1.75 jobs that is inappropriate for your job description, your responsibility is to be operating in reality and thinking, “Okay, can I communicate what I need and have the situation change? What do I need to do to try to make that happen?” “Do I need to start making other plans for myself if I'm in a legitimately toxic work environment that is unhealthy for me, that isn't going to change?” It's your responsibility to figure out your way out of that instead of continuing to be sad and frustrated and miserable because that's your job: to take care of you.
Anyway, so many examples of these differences. If you are one of the people who has written to me lately asking about how to handle specific situations with your spouse or partner that you're feeling unhappy about, and what do you think I should do, or what I think you should do rather, I hope that this conversation has illuminated that the answer to this in a more meaningful way than some basic high-level advice would. There are growth opportunities here, primarily to you, that will then cascade out into your relationship and impact the results that you're getting. Or if you are one of the people that has written in on Instagram about a crappy job situation or how to deal with a really unreasonable boss, I hope that this discussion helps you clarify and design a much more comprehensive, and ultimately, effective path forward for yourself that's based on your long-term health and needs and goals.
Personal growth is messy and the answers aren't always easy. It requires work and depth and thought and intention and also a lot of courage. Because it's also one thing to have these ideas and be reflecting on them, but it's a whole other level when you set out about to do them. Then, experience what that feels like when you do. I hope that you take this in the intention that it was created, which is me trying to do a really nice job, making a meaningful podcast for, you and I am bouncing it over to your side of the net to do with as you will. I'll be so interested to hear if you have any follow-up questions or reactions and how these ideas work for you as you implement them in your own life.
Thank you again for spending time with me today and I'll be back in touch soon with another episode of The Love, Happiness, and Success Podcast.
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