If You Want to Win, Stay on Offense

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When I was younger, I played hockey. I was lucky enough to be on some very good teams, teams that won a lot of games.

In fact, during my senior year in high school, our team (Grafton-Park River) won the 1991 North Dakota State Hockey Championship (if you doubt me, click here). We scored the winning goal with 13 seconds left in the game, which made the arena (consisting largely of our fans) go absolutely crazy! It was, and continues to be, one of the highlights of my life.

I started playing hockey when I was 5 years old, and as I moved through the ranks, I learned that coaches often have very different strategies for how they approach the game.

Some coaches wanted us to be very physical, hitting (or, “checking,” as it’s technically called in hockey) the other team as much as possible. Other coaches wanted a more “wide-open” game where we did less checking and more skating and passing.

But one thing I heard over and over again as I played for different coaches was this:

“If you want to win, stay on offense. Don’t go into a defensive shell.”

Most often, we heard this when we were ahead by a goal or two and the game was starting to wind down.

The reason our coaches told us to “stay on offense” was because, when we were up by a goal or two, it was really easy to focus on trying to keep the other team from scoring rather than trying to score yourself.

Now, although the hypothetical outcome in each of these approaches is essentially the same—whether you keep the other team from scoring or whether you score yourself, you win the game—they are, in fact, quite different. And I quickly noticed that we played much differently depending on whether we were on offense or defense.

When we were on offense and trying to score, we attacked. We pushed hard at the other team and made things happen. We were proactive. And when we did that, we scored frequently (and usually won).

When we were in a defensive shell, however, we played differently. Rather than attack the other team, we were on our heels. We reacted to what the other team was making us do. And when we played like that, the outcome was often very different: We were much more likely to give up a goal or two, and sometimes, the other team even came back to beat us.

Over the last few years, I’ve come to believe that this sports analogy provides a very good way to think about our own personal development.

Staying on Offense: Covey, Skinner, and Proactivity

Quite often, when we decide to improve our lives, things start off well enough. We put in the work, and good things happen. But eventually, we get stuck, not knowing what to do next. And when this happens, we often stop trying, hoping instead that something will eventually happen that gets us out of our rut.

But when we approach our lives that way, there’s a problem. When we sit back and wait, we’re on defense—reacting and trying to keep bad things from happening to us.

What we need to do instead, though, is go on offense and make things happen for us.

In fact, many knowledgeable people, from all walks of life and from very different philosophical traditions, have given similar advice over the years.

Take, for instance, best-selling author Stephen Covey, whose famous book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” has sold over 25 million copies, and B. F. Skinner, considered to be one of the most influential psychologists of all time.

Covey’s writings show him to be a true believer in the notion of pure free will, which suggests that our choices are unaffected by past or current events.

Skinner, on the other hand, thought that free will was an illusion (as do many scientists) and that our actions are completely determined by genetics, past experiences, and things happening in the current situation.

Now, despite their philosophical differences on the notion of free will, what Covey and Skinner did have in common was the belief that we could improve our lives by being proactive.

In Covey’s “7 Habits” book, he discussed the notion of S → R, which suggests that stimuli in our environment (the “S”) automatically cause us to react, or respond (the “R”). For example, if I put food in your mouth (the stimulus), you will automatically salivate (the response). Or if you get a speck of dust in your eye, you will automatically blink.

In contrast with the reflexive nature of S → R (where we reactively respond), Covey suggested that we should instead be proactive (the first of his 7 habits).

Specifically, he said we should pause after a stimulus and proactively decide how we are going to respond to it rather than “reflexively” and mindlessly going through the motions.

Rather than “reflexively” eating the cake we are offered, we can pause, think twice, and eat something healthy.

Rather than “reflexively” wasting time watching Netflix, we can pause, be proactive, and do our homework instead.

Rather than “reflexively” going to graduate school because our parents expect us to, we can evaluate our lives and decide to take the path less traveled.

Ultimately, as Covey noted, “[E]very moment, every situation, provides a new choice. And in doing so, it gives you a perfect opportunity to do things differently to produce more positive results.”

Likewise, Skinner introduced the concept of self-managementAlthough Skinner believed that our behavior is determined, he nevertheless proposed that we have the ability to modify, or manage, our actions. We can do this by identifying the stimuli that cause us to act in certain ways and then proactively changing them.

For example, if we have a problem snacking late at night (because we see a pint of ice cream in our freezer), we can remove unhealthy snack foods from our house. No unhealthy snack foods in the house means no unhealthy snacking.

Or if we waste too much time watching Netflix when we should be studying, we can place an app on our computer (like StayFocusd) that blocks Netflix during study time. No access to Netflix means no watching Netflix.

Be Proactive, and Stay on Offense

Now, whichever of these definitions of “proactivity” we like best—Covey’s notion of free choice, or Skinner’s idea of proactively changing the factors that cause you to behave, or even some other definition—doesn’t really matter.

What does matter, though, is that we need to be proactive in trying to make things happen in our lives. For example:

I’ve tried to do this over the past year by starting this blog and holding myself accountable for my diet and exercise activities.

I’ve also tried to do this by “putting myself out there” with other local musicians and seeing how my guitar playing stacks up.

Similarly, I tell my students that they need to be proactive and seek out help from their professors if there’s something they don’t understand in class (or, as my graduate advisor put it, “You need to be a good-natured pain in the ass”).

I also tell those interested in getting into graduate school (or getting a job) that they need to email prospective graduate advisors (or employers) and get their foot in the door.

There are many other examples, but I hope you get the point.

In other words, we need to stay on offense.

We need to attack our lives and act in ways that make things happen for us, rather than hanging back and waiting for things to happen to us.

When we take control of our lives and proactively pursue the things we truly want to accomplish, we are more likely to “get the goal,” more likely to “win the big game,” and more likely to create the kinds of lives that matter to us.

So, as you tackle tomorrow and try to make improvements in your life, just remember what my hockey coaches told us:

If you want to win, stay on offense.

 

If you have a minute, I’d love to hear what you think about this post. Please leave a comment below.

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Pursuing the Good Life: What Are You Willing to Pay?

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Last week, my family and I were sitting at the dinner table, talking about our days.

After a bit of conversation, my youngest son, Dainen, said he wanted to have some Gatorade. He hadn’t, however, finished his dinner (which consisted of some tasty meatballs my wife had made). I told him he needed to finish his meatballs first, and then he could have some Gatorade.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t having any of my offer and decided to throw a fit instead.

“Noooooooo! I want some Gatorade now.”

To which I responded, “If you eat your meatballs, then you can have some Gatorade.”

“I don’t want my meatballs. I want some Gatorade!”

This went back and forth for awhile, until my oldest son, Rylan, chimed in: “Well, Dainen, it’s just an economic choice.”

My wife and I looked at each other, a little dumbfounded that our 7-year-old son knew something about economic principles (which, if I remember correctly, I first learned about in college). After a few seconds, my wife asked, “Rylan, you know about economic choices?”

“Yeah, we talked about them in school today. We learned about opportunity costs and response costs.”

For the next 10 minutes or so, we talked about opportunity and response costs and how they’re present in the boys’ lives.

Since that time, I’ve also thought a lot about how these costs play an important role when it comes to pursuing the good life.

In this blog post, I’d like to spend some time exploring this idea.

What are Opportunity and Response Costs?

Now, if you’re unfamiliar with these concepts, let me take a quick minute to explain them.

1. First is opportunity cost, which is a concept that comes out of economics.

An opportunity cost refers to a loss we experience when we pick one choice over another (and, importantly, we can’t have both). Usually, the “cost” is defined as what we would’ve gotten had we chosen the next-best alternative.

For instance, imagine I have the choice between (a) going with my friends to a movie I really want to see, (b) getting a couple hours of much-needed sleep, and (c) studying a few more hours for an upcoming exam.

Now imagine I can rate each of these choices on a 10-point “importance” scale.

Maybe I’d rate them something like this:

Going to the movie will provide me with entertainment and maybe a bit of relaxation, which, altogether, add up to 6/10 on my personal importance scale.

Getting some sleep will make me feel refreshed and maybe a little less stressed out. But, in fact, I feel like I can push through it. As such, it only gets 4/10.

And studying for my exam will likely get me a better grade (which may have numerous benefits later on) and thus rates 8/10.

After some thought (or maybe none at all), I decide to stay home and study, because this activity has the most total importance.

Now, by staying home, I’m doing the thing that is most important to me, the thing that provides me with the most value.

But at the same time, I’m also paying a cost because I’m missing out on the movie, which I rated as the next-best activity (and I’m also missing out on sleep).

In short, one opportunity costs us the chance for another opportunity.

2. The second concept is response cost, which refers to the idea that we often have to do one thing before we can do another. (There is another definition of response cost that is popular in the field of behavior analysis, but I’m going to deviate from that definition here.)

Whereas opportunity cost occurs when making a choice keeps us from having another, response cost occurs when we have to do one thing before the next.

Most often, the thing we have to do first is less enjoyable than the second. And quite often, it requires some effort.

For instance, maybe I have to clean my room before I can go to a movie. Or maybe I have to finish this blog post before I can practice guitar. Or maybe I have to exercise before I can eat some junk food on my Free Day.

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In each case, getting what we want “costs” something—it costs responses that sap our energy, decrease our enjoyment, and so on.

Hence the term “response cost.”

Opportunity and Response Costs: They’re Everywhere

The fact of the matter is that opportunity and response costs are all around us. And more often than not, we have to pay them to get where we want to go in life.

Maybe it means working really hard in college so you can pursue your dream career.

Maybe it means staying up late and practicing guitar so you sound good during rehearsal the next day.

Maybe it means forgoing the chocolate cake so you can lose some weight.

Maybe it’s an economic cost, like when you have to save money for awhile or take out a loan to start your dream business (as the old saying goes, “You often have to spend money to make money”).

Maybe it means saying goodbye to people who are holding you back and seeking out a new group of friends who provide you with more social support.

Maybe it means tackling your fears head-on and pushing through them to a life you really want to live.

Or maybe it simply means eating your meatballs before you can have some Gatorade.

What are You Willing to Pay?

Yes, opportunity and response costs are often painful—sometimes psychologically, sometimes physically, and sometimes both. And when things are painful, we tend to avoid them…

…because we’d rather stay comfortable.

Unfortunately, the hard truth is that having a life we truly want—one that rates high on our importance scale—is usually going to cost something.

Which begs the question: What are you willing to pay to get there?

 

If you have a minute, I’d love to hear what you think about this post. Please leave a comment below.

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Pursuing the Good Life: Stop Using Fear As An Excuse

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A few days ago, a former student of mine posted a picture on Facebook that included the following question:

If you could write a note to your younger self, what would you say in only three words?

Maybe not surprisingly, the answers I got from my Facebook friends (who consist of people from 17 to 70+ years of age) were quite varied. But the one theme that popped up over and over again was this:

Don’t be afraid.

If there’s one thing that seems to stop people from taking chances and doing the things they truly want to do with their lives, it’s fear.

Fear of failing

Fear of disappointing others

And even fear of success

What I want to do in this blog post is make the argument that fear is, quite often, a nonsensical (or even silly) reason for not trying things. I also want to provide you with some possible ways to tackle your fear if you feel like it’s holding you back in life.

First, though, just to make sure we’re all on the same page, let’s take a minute and talk about what fear is.

Fear: What It Is and How It Develops

By most accounts, fear is an emotional response to a perceived threat.

For example, being bit by a dog while you’re in the park might send your heart racing. Or standing on the glass floor in Toronto’s CN Tower (which stands about 1200 feet above the ground) might make you a little weak in the knees. Or you might even feel queasy as you prepare to take an exam in your Abnormal Psychology course.

So, where do these fears come from?

First, a very small number of fears are inborn. They are nature’s way of helping you survive, of telling you that danger is imminent and that you should probably “get the hell outta Dodge” as quickly as possible. The fear we experience when we hear a very loud noise or stand on a very high ledge are examples of this. In both cases, the threat is real and could conceivably impact your survival.

But most of the fears that grip our bodies and keep us from doing certain things are not innate. Rather, they are learned, and they emerge because of experiences we have (which I’ll discuss more in a minute). Examples might include:

Experiencing fear before taking an exam.

Feeling tense when thinking about asking out that attractive person in your sociology class.

Getting scared before you have to speak in public (which is frequently listed as the biggest fear people have and which prompted Jerry Seinfeld to joke that giving the eulogy at a funeral is worse than being in the casket).

The reasons we experience these non-innate fears is actually quite complicated and would require extensive discussion of some very interesting psychological phenomena called classical conditioning, stimulus generalization, and stimulus equivalence.

But here’s the short version: The human mind is complex and quickly learns how things in our environments are related to one another. We learn, for example, that thunder and lightning go together, that wings and football go together, that Kanye and Kim go together (#thankskanye).

In fact, the human mind has the ability to go even further than these simple associations. Sometimes we learn to associate things that seem, at first glance, unrelated (that is, until we create a connection between them).

For instance, if a person repeatedly goes on a diet and fails to lose weight, he might start to have negative feelings toward things that typically go with diets, things like “eating lettuce” or “exercising.” Interestingly, he might also start to associate “failed diet” with things like “shopping for new clothes and having nothing fit.” Because of this association, going shopping for clothes—or even thinking about shopping for clothes—might produce negative feelings.

Here’s one more example. Because we don’t always succeed when we try new things (often because they’re hard at first), we might associate “difficult” and “failure.” And if failing has made you feel bad in the past, the very thought of trying something difficult might be enough to produce negative feelings and keep us from moving forward.

Now, although it’s completely normal for the human mind to make these connections—even the seemingly irrational ones—there are at least three problems that arise when discussing how the fear that comes from these connections keeps us from pursuing things we truly want to do.

1. The Things We Fear Often Aren’t That Bad

First, because of how our mind connects things, we sometimes come to believe that certain things will be much more “dangerous” than they actually are. For instance, if we get bit by a dog in the park, we will equate the “danger” of the park with the “danger” of the dog bite.

But the park, by itself, is harmless. It doesn’t threaten our survival.

Likewise, failing an exam does not constitute a life-threatening situation (even though some of my students claim they’ll “just die” if they fail one). Nor does speaking in public or even approaching that good-looking person in your class.

And yet, we often convince ourselves that certain outcomes will be much worse than they actually are.

Most often, though, the things we fear are truly not as “dangerous” as we make them out to be.

2. Our Fears Are Not Reality

Second, because of the mind’s amazing ability to connect things, we sometimes act as if our thoughts are the same as the actual things themselves.

For example, to us, the word “dog” basically means the same thing as a picture of a dog or even a real-life dog.

What this also means is that thinking about a “dog” will produce the same response as if a dog was actually about to bite us; thinking about failing an exam will make us feel like we actually failed an exam; and thinking about our new business failing will feel the same if our business had actually failed.

But here’s the thing: Thinking about a growling dog and a real-life growling dog are not the same. Thinking about failing an exam and actually failing it are not the same. Thinking about your new business failing and actually having that happen are not the same thing.

What this means is that many of the fears we experience are dictated not by the actual event itself, but by a mental representation of a future event that may not even happen!

3. Fear Leads to Avoidance

The final problem—and one that’s related to the previous two—is that feelings of fear lead us to avoid. They keep us from taking action on the things we probably need to be doing to make better lives for ourselves.

When we are “afraid” of things, we try to stay away from them. This is because, in our evolutionary past, people who avoided dangerous things were more likely to survive and pass on their genes.

The problem, as I noted above, though, is that our complex minds lead us to fear things that aren’t that dangerous or that aren’t even “real” (thinking about failing an exam isn’t “real” like actually failing an exam).

And when we fear things, we avoid them, which further exacerbates the problem.

For example, imagine a person who wants to be more social but who also thinks she’s “socially awkward.” Her mind has convinced her that she’ll probably say something stupid around people, and so she gets scared and avoids the party (which produces some short-term relief).

Unfortunately, avoiding the party simply reinforces her already-existing belief that she is “socially awkward,” and this only makes the problem worse.

Or imagine someone who really wants to start her own business but is afraid that it’s too risky and might fail.

Even though her life’s dream is to open a restaurant, she fails to take action because doing so provides immediate relief from the fear and anxiety she experiences when thinking about starting her own business.

How to Tackle Your Fears

So, what’s a person to do if they want to move forward, but fear is holding them back?

There are three things I personally have found to be effective when tackling things I’m afraid to do:

1. Embrace the Fear

First, psychological research has shown that one of the best ways to reduce fear is not to avoid, but rather to approach—or to “embrace”—the thing that causes you fear.

fear godinIf you’re afraid of dogs, you should spend time around dogs. Or if you get anxious when thinking about studying for an exam, you should allow yourself to embrace the negative thoughts (which is an important part of a new and effective therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy).

Importantly, if the thought of doing these feared things overwhelms you, don’t try to do too much at one. Just take a small, manageable step and then build on it.

When you allow yourself to approach the things you fear, you often find out that they don’t have the negative outcomes you thought they would.

And when you realize this, the fear goes away (which is actually a psychological phenomenon called extinction).

2. What Could Happen: The Worst-Case Scenario

The second thing I try to do when I’m feeling a little fearful is to think about the worst-case scenario. Some time ago, I heard “lifestyle entrepreneur” Tim Ferriss talk about this on one of his podcasts.

Specifically, Tim suggested that people should identify the “worst that could happen” if they decided to try something.

For example, if you decided to ask out that attractive person in your sociology class, what’s the worst that could logically happen? Well, maybe he or she would say “no” to you. (It’s important to think logically when doing this. Failing an exam, for instance, will probably not cause you to die penniless and alone, as a former student once told me.)

Once you identify the worst-case scenario, you ask yourself: “Is there any way I wouldn’t be able to recover from this?”

Unless the worst-case scenario involves maiming or death (which is doubtful in most cases), recovery is almost always possible.

Asking someone out and getting shot down might suck, but you’ll probably recover from it (as many people have).

Failing an exam might hurt a bit (or even a lot), but you’ll probably recover from it (as many people have).

Even having your business fail might be a big blow to you, but you’ll probably recover from it (as many people have).

Recovery may not always be easy. But it’s almost always possible.

3. What Could Happen: Will It Matter in a Year?

A third strategy (which I use quite often), and one that is somewhat opposite to the last strategy, is to minimize the perceived negative effect by asking, “Is this really going to matter in 6 months or a year or 5 years?”

Quite often, we place so much emphasis on the near future, we forget that life is a marathon, not a sprint. And when we focus too much on the short term, we tend to blow little things out of proportion, thinking they are going to have much bigger long-term impact than they actually do.

When we slow down for a second, though, and look at things as part of a bigger picture, we often realize they’re not that important in the grand scheme of things. And when we realize there might not be as much risk involved as we thought, we are much more comfortable facing our fears and taking chances.

Moving Forward

So, there you have it, my reasoning for why I think “fear” is often not a reasonable excuse for inaction.

Now, I’ll be completely honest with you: I still struggle this this—I still find myself getting anxious when I let my mind “run free” (but I’ve been practicing meditation to calm what Seth Godin calls “the lizard brain“).

But becoming more aware of how my fears develop and how I respond to those fears has allowed me to move forward and to do things that I probably would’ve passed on before, like joining a country band (shameless plug: Please check out my band’s Facebook page and our Instagram page. Also follow us on Twitter).

When we embrace our fears and move forward in service of what we really care about, we often surprise ourselves and realize that we had nothing to be afraid of in the first place.

 

If you have a minute, I’d love to hear what you think about this post. Please leave a comment below.

Also, if you enjoyed this post, please subscribe to my email list (in the sidebar to the left), and please share it with others (by clicking one of the icons below). Thanks!

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The Negative Effects of Positive Social Support

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A few months ago, I was sitting in a local coffee shop doing some writing. I happened to be seated next to a student of mine, who was having coffee with her friend at an adjacent table. As their meeting came to an end, I heard my student say to her friend, “Good luck on your exam. I know you’ll do really well!” (I wasn’t eavesdropping. I promise!)

At first, I thought to myself, “That’s nice. It’s always good to have supportive friends.” And this particular student happens to be one of the nicest, most supportive, and most genuine people you’ll ever meet, so I expected nothing less from her.

Now, if you’ve been following my blog at all, you’ll know that I recently wrote about how we should try to surround ourselves with positive people. When we do, they make it more likely that we’ll think and act positively.

But as I thought about my coffee shop experience a little more, I started to wonder whether my student’s positive comment might’ve actually had a negative impact on her friend.

After thinking about the issue a bit more, I’ve come to the conclusion that some types of positive social support can actually have highly negative effects. Specifically, certain types of positive social support—although they almost always come from a place of authenticity and good intentions—might actually have the undesired effect of increasing a person’s obsessive passion, which, as I’ll explain in a minute, is a “bad” type of passion that produces numerous negative outcomes.

But before I jump into the issue of positive social support and obsessive passion, let me briefly revisit the topic of passion first.

Passion: A Quick Refresher

As I’ve discussed before, passion occurs when a person loves, values, and spends time on an activity. For instance, I love to play guitar, I find it to be a valuable activity for a number of reasons, and I spend a good chunk of time practicing. (In fact, I’m working at home today, and I spent a good hour or so playing guitar this morning when I probably should’ve been preparing for my classes. But I digress…)

If you look around a little bit (on the Internet, example), you’ll see a lot of people talking about passion. Although there are competing ideas, more often than not, the prevailing belief is that finding and following your passion is the way to a good life. If you’re passionate, supporters claim, you’re more likely to be happy and successful and eventually make a billion dollars. Steve Jobs, for instance, frequently spoke about how important it is to love what to do.

But in reality, it’s actually quite a bit more complicated than that. The truth of the matter is that not all passion is good. In fact, there are times when being passionate about an activity can actually have negative psychological effects and even hurt your performance.

** Harmonious and Obsessive Passion

As Vallerand and his colleagues have shown, there are actually two different types of passion—an important point that is almost always overlooked in “pop psych” discussions of passion (for example, see here).

The first type of passion, harmonious passion, occurs when a person freely chooses to engage in an activity. Because of the freedom involved, she feels as if she’s in control—she can decide when and when not to do the activity. Hence the term “harmonious”—it’s nicely balanced, or in harmony, with other things in her life.

For example, a student who is harmoniously passionate about her academic activities—which she enjoys, values, and spends time on—can study when necessary but is also able to step away when other responsibilities call. She freely chooses when she wants to study and experiences little guilt when she’s not doing so. Although “being a good student” is an important part of her identity, it’s not everything.

Importantly, as numerous studies have shown, the feeling of being in control is associated with positive emotions and even improved performance.

Obsessive passion, in contrast, is a type of passion in which a person feels pressured to engage in an activity. Although he still enjoys, values, and spends time on it, the lack of freedom involved makes it feel like the activity controls him. As a result, he feels compelled to engage in it and often feels guilty because he neglects other responsibilities.

A student who is obsessively passionate about his academic activities feels controlled by it all—by studying, by grades, by going to class, and so on. When he’s studying, he’s good (although he frequently thinks about the other things he needs to do, which interrupts his concentration). But when he finally pulls himself away to do other important things, he feels guilty, conflicted and “pulled” back to studying: “Geez, I really need to be studying right now.” A huge part of his self-image revolves around being a good student.

With obsessive passion, the compulsive feeling of being controlled creates negative emotions and may even negatively impact performance.

How Positive Social Support Can Make You Obsessive

In addition to studying the different outcomes that occur when a person is harmoniously or obsessive passionate, researchers have examined how these different types of passion develop.

Ultimately, what much research has shown is that harmonious passion develops under conditions of autonomy support. Obsessive passion, in contrast, emerges when people are in psychologically controlling environments.

supportAutonomy supportive environments are those where we feel free to make our own choices and receive support for doing so. Specifically, as Mageau and colleagues have shown, autonomy supportive environments are those where other people (a) provide us with (and support our) choices, (b) give us reasons when they ask us to do something, and (c) try to understand our feelings.

In contrast, psychologically controlling environments are those where we receive pressure from others to make certain choices. These environments occur when others (a) tell us that bad things will happen if we make certain choices, (b) try to make us feel guilty for our choices, and (c) pressure us to perform in particular ways.

Unfortunately, many people operate under psychologically controlling environments, thus making it more likely that they’ll become obsessive about a particular activity.

For instance, people who enjoy their work, but who also feel pressure to perform at high levels, might become obsessive about it, unable to pull themselves away (which often creates the feeling of guilt when they finally do).

Similarly, students who feel pressured to pick a particular major or go to graduate school might become obsessive about their academic activities.

Back to the Coffee Shop

And this is where my coffee shop experience comes back into the picture…

If you remember, my student wished her friend good luck and told her she’d do “really well” on her exam.

But what does it mean to do “really well” on an exam?

If you’re like most people (including most of my students), you define “really well” as “getting a good exam grade.”

Unfortunately, trying to get good grades often creates a huge performance pressure—which, as noted above, is one of the components of psychological control.

In fact, in (yet-to-be-published) research conducted in my lab, we found that students whose friends created performance pressure (like when they say, “I know you can get a good grade!”) reported the highest levels of obsessive passion for their academic activities.

As I think about how my students often interact with one another, I see many instances of positive social support that probably function as psychological control:

“I know you’ll get a good grade.”

“I took that class, and it was easy. I’m sure you’ll ace it, too.”

“You’re so smart.” (which is often based on a person’s GPA)

“You’re a shoe-in for graduate school.”

And so on…

Although most “positive” statements like these are well-intentioned and come from a place of caring and genuine concern, unfortunately, they often have a negative effect.

They introduce a type of psychological control that has the unwanted effect of increasing obsessive passion. And as noted above, obsessive passion is associated with negative psychological emotions and, in many cases, even decreased performance.

How to Provide Good Positive Social Support

So if providing positive social support sometimes has the unintended effect of increasing obsessive passion, what can be done instead? How can we continue to provide others with positive social support (which is good!) that is autonomy supportive rather than psychologically controlling?

First, we need to provide autonomy support as much as possible. Specifically, we should:

Support other people’s choices (even if we don’t necessarily agree with them), which gives them the feeling of “being free to choose.”

In addition, we need to “walk a mile in their shoes”—we need to try to understand other people’s feelings, concerns, and perspectives as much as possible.

Second, and maybe more importantly, we need to urge others to pursue mastery goals and to approach their activities with a growth mindset.

Psychologist Carol Dweck has shown that people who believe their IQ and performance are “fixed” (what Dweck calls having a fixed mindset) typically underperform people who believe that their IQ and performance can be improved through hard work (a growth mindset). Thus, if you believe that you can get better through hard work, your performance is likely to improve.

As much as possible, then, we should try to get others to believe that, through hard work, they can reach their goals.

Dweck has also shown that when people receive praise for working hard, they perform better than when they receive praise for “being smart.”

What this means is that we need to stop telling people to focus on things like “getting a good grade” and instead urge them to “work hard and do their best.”

Instead of saying, “I know you’ll get a good grade,” we could say, “I know you’ll do your very best, and I’ll support you regardless of the outcome.”

Instead of saying, “You have a high GPA. You’re so smart,” we could say, “You have a high GPA. You must study a lot and work really hard.”

Importantly, we can’t forget to reward solid effort when we see it happening. As Dweck noted, a little praise for working hard can go a long way.

Positive Social Support: It’s (Almost) All Good

Positive social support is a wonderful thing. We all enjoy the feeling of having good friends who “got our backs” through good times and bad.

But we need to be careful about what kind of positive social support we give to others. If we provide support that unintentionally exerts a psychologically controlling effect, it might have the negative consequence of making others obsessively passionate about their activities.

pete-2If, however, we provide others with positive social support that is autonomy supportive in nature and that encourages the pursuit of hard work and growth, we can help them be more harmoniously passionate about things in their lives, which—as my youngest son’s hero, Pete the Cat, says—is all good.

So the next time you’re having coffee with a friend, let her know you believe in her. Give her a ton of positive social support. Tell her you got her back.

Just make sure your positive social support is authentic, well-intended—and autonomy supportive in nature.

 

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