Comedian Louis C.K. performs this bit about the possibility of alien life: “I was watching a program about people on other planets. I don’t really care anymore. I’m not curious anymore about the wonders of the universe. I don’t care. I feel like I know enough things.”
If—like C.K. and me—you are approaching or fully entrenched in middle age, you probably feel pretty comfy with how much you know. You’ve got routines and rituals that work pretty well for you. And isn’t that what we deserve as adults? We went through years of trial and error to find the job, friends, leisure activities, even clothes, that fit us best. We are comfortable. Why bother with aliens?
Self-preservation is a strong survival instinct. When we are threatened, we puff up our chests and bare our teeth to defend our position, property and point of view. But one great paradox of humanity is that our self-preservation requires adaptation. We have to change in order to remain. Getting too comfortable—whether it’s in the cave with fire and animal skins or in the three-story house with central heat and Snuggies—prevents us from adapting to a changing world.
And the world does change—and not just in catastrophic ways like meteors or global warming. Your go-to Italian trattoria could close. Knee pain might end your morning runs. Your job may become automated. In other words, the aliens might find you anyhow, so you’ll need to learn new things. Because you’re human, this process will be uncomfortable, and this discomfort is called growth. You can go it on your own, but it’s easier with help from a friend, a parent, a mentor… a coach, whether formal or not.
Are you open to change? To help? Are you coachable? If not, your alien encounter might not go so well. It’s easy to decree, “Be more open.” It’s much harder to actually do that, especially if you have shy, cautious or defensive tendencies. Following are three powerful techniques for opening your heart, mind and life to change.
1. Affirm your values. When we feel threatened, our defenses immediately go up. To protect our self-esteem, we may deny our faults and find many in others. If your work team wins a pitch, for example, you might assume it was because of your own hard work and strategy. If you lose, though, it’s natural to blame the failing on your teammates’ laziness or your client’s lack of vision.
While this self-serving bias may leave our egos intact, it doesn’t let us learn from the experience. But there is a way to counteract this ego-protecting instinct. It’s called self-affirmation, and it’s a simple theory developed by Claude Steele in the 1980s and studied extensively since: By affirming your core values, you ameliorate the effects of temporary blows to the ego. This type of self-affirmation consists of recognizing and reminding yourself of the qualities that make you who you are and that are most important to you: your family, your capacity for kindness, your creativity, your faith.
“You’re affirming a deeper place than just your ego,” says Christine Carter, Ph.D., senior fellow at the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and author of The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work.
In a recent study of the self-affirmation theory, Lisa Legault, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., and co-researchers asked graduate students to rank these values: theoretical (discovery of truth), economic (what is most useful), aesthetic (form, beauty and harmony), social (seeking love of people), political (power) and religious (unity). Half of the participants were then asked to write a short essay about their highest-ranked value and what it meant to them. The others were instructed to write why their highest-ranked value was not particularly important to them. All of the participants then took a simple performance test (push a button when you see the letter M but not the letter W).
The students whose values were affirmed by writing about the value’s importance did better on the test and reacted to harsh error signals (WRONG!) with less stress. The participants who had been asked to undermine their values showed greater signs of neurological distress when they made mistakes, causing them to perform even worse.
Legault concluded that through self-affirmation, “people can anchor their sense of self in their broader view of the self as good, and there is less need to defend against the threat. Rather, they can focus on the demands of the situation, setting aside the need to protect their ego.”
A key to being coachable, then, is to drop your defensiveness simply by reminding yourself what really matters, Carter says. If you can’t accept bad news and advice, you can’t learn, change and grow. Whether it’s a professional matter (“You’re late with your work and need to manage your time better. Let me help you,” a co-worker might say), a relationship issue (“I need you to be more positive,” your spouse urges), or a matter of life and death (“You have diabetes and need to change your diet,” your doctor orders), open yourself to improvement by being true to your core values instead of your ego.
2. Be compassionate with yourself. In a study by Duke and Wake Forest universities, participants were asked to create a video introducing and describing themselves. They were told that someone would watch their tapes and assess how warm, friendly, intelligent, likable and mature they seemed. Half of the group received positive appraisals, and the others received neutral feedback, although all of the comments were completely fabricated and randomly assigned. Many in the group took the feedback, whether good or neutral, in stride and were willing to accept the comments on their personalities. But plenty of others were angered and upset by the neutral comments, rebelling against the idea that they might be simply average. They blamed the lackluster evaluations on the reviewers rather than their own personalities.
What made the difference between these two groups, one calmly accepting appraisal and one becoming defensive? The study participants had been evaluated on levels of self-compassion before the experiment, and the difference was clear: Those who scored high in self-compassion were not threatened by the feedback; they could accept and admit having flaws along with strengths—they were open. People low in self-compassion, however, lacked this emotional resiliency.
So what is self-compassion exactly? It’s “gentleness with yourself,” Carter says. “We think that if we speak critically to ourselves, we will improve, but all the research shows with absolute certainty that self-criticism does not improve performance. It blocks your ability to learn from the situation and creates a stress response in which fight or flight are your only options. Personal growth is not on the menu when you are self-critical.”
Highly regarded researcher Kristen Neff, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind, writes that with self-compassion, “we give ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give to a good friend.” Self-compassion is not self-pity, she emphasizes, because self-pity disregards the connections with the world at large and the flaws and suffering common to all humankind.
Neff’s definition of self-compassion involves:
• Self-kindness instead of self-judgment. Do you talk to yourself like a trusted friend, with a calm, forgiving voice? Or do you yell like a drill sergeant? If you are open to your shortcomings, then you are open to growth.
• Feelings of common humanity instead of isolation. Neff urges us to see our imperfections, struggles and suffering as part of the shared human condition so we can see our own weaknesses from a broad, forgiving place. Your flaws connect you to all other humans.
• Mindfulness instead of over-identification. Try to hold your experiences in balanced awareness, Neff says, rather than ignoring or exaggerating your pain. When you over-identify with certain feelings, you can get swept away by negativity or caught up in your ego.
Take a moment every morning, Carter advises, to say a kind word to yourself; to recognize your connection to the pulsing, imperfect humanity around you; and to practice mindfulness, whether through meditation, yoga or doing the dishes Thich Nhat Hahn-style. If you’re saying to yourself right now, I am skeptical of this stuff because I am self-conscious and definitely don’t believe in aliens, but I’ll give it a try, that’s OK: You’re on your way to self-compassion and coachability.
3. Try new stuff. Once you’ve practiced self-affirmation and self-compassion, you can put your openness to use. One step: Talk to strangers. Studies show that the more social interactions we have with “weak-tie” relations—fellow commuters, baristas, store clerks, neighbors, familiar people in your office—the happier and more satisfied we feel with our day. Also check out art: Appreciating paintings and sculptures helps make you more observant. And take lessons: Learning—whether it’s guitar, a language, chess, computer programming or rock-climbing—builds and preserves cognitive function.
“Always be growing and challenging yourself and seeking new opportunities,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, and author of The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want. “It’s what prevents us from getting too comfortable.”
And above all, ask for help to do these things. We humans need each other.