Thursday, 17 June 2010

Psychological Flexibility and The Miracle of Istanbul

This is a story about what Liverpool Football Club taught me about happiness, pain and love.

I love Liverpool FC, but I am also what's known as an 'armchair' fan. That is, I support Liverpool but don't go to the match very often.

In 2005, Liverpool staged the most astonishing run to the final of the European Cup that has ever been seen. With a truly average team, and defying huge odds, they beating many superior teams along the way. It was incredible, and now they would play the mighty AC Milan in Istanbul. In nearly every position AC Milan outclassed Liverpool - but the miracle was they were there at all.

At the time, I remember that I really wanted to go to the final. I thought about it very hard but worried about the huge cost. I even found a ticket and a convoluted journey would have got me to Istanbul. I was desperate to go, but in the end I decided against it.


Because deep down, I thought Liverpool would lose. I wanted to spare myself the pain of being there.

And as it turned out, I was right. Because at half time Liverpool were 3-0 down. They were outclassed as predicted and I was gutted, watching on TV. But I was also a bit relieved that I hadn't gone, because I couldn't have handled the pain of watching my beloved team humiliated.

Beloved.... For some people, their love of Liverpool is so great that they go to every single match. Irrespective of where it is, how they're feeling, who it's against, whether Liverpool are likely to win, they will be there. They love Liverpool, and they live that love. They feel the pain when the Reds lose, but they keep turning up, through the wind and rain. At halftime in Istanbul, these people sang You'll Never Walk Alone.

Just after half time Liverpool scored a consolation goal. Relief! They had avoided humiliation. But then, they scored again....and again. What followed is easily the most astonishing match in any sport I have ever witnessed. Liverpool eventually triumphed amid scenes of utter joy, elation and incredulity - I had witnessed the impossible from a bar in Farringdon.

Just imagine what it would have been like to be there.

And there we are. Happiness and sadness are twins. They either grow big and strong together, or they stay small and weak together. By being willing to be sad, I grow my capacity for happiness. By accepting pain, I open my life to joy.

For the real fans in Istanbul they will always be able to say; I was there.

For me, I have the satisfaction of having played it safe, lessening my pain.

Not got quite the same ring has it?

Friday, 11 June 2010

I'm going to the World ACT Conference in Reno

Next week I'm going to the world Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Conference, in Reno, Nevada. How exciting is that?

Very! That's how. And before that I'm attending a mindfulness retreat IN LAKE TAHOE.

Lake Tahoe is apparently breathtaking. In contrast, Reno is apparently like a sort of tacky, low-brow Las Vegas.

I loved Las Vegas, and consider myself both tacky and low-brow, so this looks a perfect fit.

It might seem strange for a psychologist specialising in career decisions to be attending a conference for therapists, but career indecision is very rarely what it seems. People usually feel so chained to the present that it's no suprise they can't find an answer simply with a few questions about their interests and a nice psychometric test 'matching' them to their ideal career.

(Regular readers may remember my ideal career is, in fact, dental hygienist).

Career indecision is almost always linked to deeper problems and a kind of existential paralysis which is very difficult to budge. After all, we've learned to think a certain way - how do we unchain ourselves using that same brain?

ACT is a type of therapy with two insights of inestimable value. Firstly, mindfulness allows us to pay attention to the world (and ourselves) as it is, not as our minds say it is. By accepting our dilemmas, history, difficult thoughts and emotions we can listen more carefully to our pain. For in the pain is a message, but it's usually one we're trying to ignore or avoid.

Secondly, by emphasising values as a choice, not as a kind of innate strength, clients can learn the most empowering message of all. Namely, if I am willing to accept myself as I am, to hold all of my difficult history and baggage, then I can freely choose my direction in life.

I believe ACT - when combined with sensible decision making advice and research - can improve the quality of career decisions and help us escape the chains that hold us back.

Oh and did I mention Lake Tahoe?

Monday, 7 June 2010


This is a great new animation by Dan Pink on the surprising science of motivation.

Rather like my own presentation, The Motivation Myth available on Scribd and Slideshare.