Saturday, 6 February 2010

Limits to Growth

Early on in the Man Booker prize-winning novel "The Life of Pi", the setting is a zoo, where at the entrance a sign instructs visitors that by drawing back the curtain, they will see the most dangerous animal on the planet. Of course in drawing back the curtain, visitors see only a reflection of themselves in a mirror.

The idea that we are our own biggest limiting factor has been the self-improvement mantra for almost 30 years and yet it is the hardest one for most people to do anything about. It is easier to change our jobs, change our home, change country, change partner even but still, no matter where you go, there you are, and likely with the same self-limiting factors. So, just what are the parts of ourselves that we can change and what are the parts that we cannot; and even more importantly, how can we tell the difference?

In biology, the "Sigmoidal Curve" (or S-Curve) is used to explain the potential growth of something organic, a tree, for example. The curve starts low, rising rapidly depicting a growth spurt at the start of the tree's life, followed by a levelling off as growth plateaus in its middle years, and finally a drop as the tree begins to decline and decay. Every tree of a particular species, in theory, has the same potential, however the sigmoidal curve is used to highlight the impact that various factors will have on the tree's growth: the amount of available sunlight, the tree's proximity to other trees, the quality of the soil perhaps, the availability of moisture, and so on. A biologist can use all these factors to adjust the individual tree's sigmoidal curve to something more attainable for this particular tree.

Although we human beings are much more complicated than trees (according to most!) the analogy is one that I can identify with, as someone who facilitates improvements for people, to illustrate what is truly possible for someone seeking change through psychotherapy, coaching or hypnotherapy. Identifying what the limits to someone's growth, potential or achievement are, can often help a client identify what they are prepared to change and what they cannot, or indeed do not wish to change. If it relates to their family or loved ones then it might be that they accept this and carry on as before. If it is something fundamental to their personality, such as core values, ethics or temperament, then these are likely less changeable also.

A key area that I explore with clients wishing to achieve new goals or experience happier relationships is the concept of holding "core beliefs" about themselves which relate to their abilities, their behaviour and how they fit in with the world around them. Here's an example of some cognitions (thoughts) of one of my clients wishing to relate better to others, which we then used to uncover his most self-limiting core belief. His cognition was along the lines of "If I do not do mostly all the talking then I will be considered stupid", with his core belief being "I am stupid" (a high-achieving business man by the way). Holding a core belief such as this one is unfortunately far more likely to confirm the negative belief of "I am stupid" than negate it however. If you are doing all the talking, then you are most probably doing far less listening (and so learning, empathising, relating, etc.). Negative core beliefs, firmly held for a long time, often unconsciously, are usually the biggest limiting factor contributing to adults not reaching their desired potential. This is a key area that I work to identify with my clients wishing to attain new levels of performance, whether in relationships, sport, at work, in the performing arts, etc.

Sally (name changed), a court-appearing trainee solicitor, came to see me as she was having difficulty with public speaking. Each time she prepared to stand up in court, she prepared, rehearsed, but mostly worried, knowing how important it was to her career and each time dreading the experience even more. The first time Sally stood up to speak, her mouth literally dried up, she felt the presence of a hundred eyes upon her ("drilling holes into her") and was unable to coherently and calmly present her case. Sally, knowing that she was not performing as well as she needed to in this area of her job, sought me out with a view to overcoming her "public speaking phobia" as she described it. This is a good example of someone holding the necessary skills and possessing the attributes needed for being a good court lawyer, however with a negative core belief about herself which was severely hampering her abilities. The negative belief which we uncovered came from thoughts along the lines of "unless I do the presentation perfectly then I am a failure", "people will think that I am useless", etc. and so the unconscious core belief that she recognised was "I am a failure". The pros of holding this negative core belief of being a failure meant that Sally was pretty driven to achieve, however it had now become a limiting factor in Sally's "Sigmoidal Curve". Ironically, negative core beliefs usually become largely self-fulfilling i.e. in attempting to mask or deny the core belief, we bring about exactly what we wish to avoid.

Sally and I worked together over a couple of sessions, both on the behavioural aspects of how Sally could modify her anxiety and also on the cognitive bit (the thoughts that whirled around in Sally's head as she stood up to present her case). In summary, from a behavioural perspective, we worked on Sally reducing the perception of "eyes drilling into her" into something more realistic and less hypervigilant i.e. Sally was tasked with noticing how she watched every other solicitor in court - was she really paying attention to their every word, noticing any change in skin tone & being as hypervigilant as she was being with herself? Her answer, unsurprisingly, was no. Also, in identifying the link between her thoughts of being a total failure, the feelings of fear and anxiety and the physiological response of having a dry mouth, needing to visit the bathroom, losing her ability to think clearly and rationally on her feat, and heart pounding due to adrenalin being released, allowed us to work on modifying her catastrophic thinking into something more realistic and flexible which in turn vastly reduced her adrenalin surges. I introduced the concept of feeling the fear and doing it anyway and new, more helpful cognitions, such as: "I can make some mistakes and still be ok"; "people aren't as interested in me as I think they are"; "the more I do this, the easier it will become, if I accept doing ok rather than doing perfectly". Using hypnosis, I was able to link these thoughts with feeling more relaxed and thus reduced the levels of adrenalin likely to be released. When we are more relaxed, we are more focused and able to draw upon the full extent of our training and knowledge. In this way, something which had the potential to severely limit Sally's career prospects in this field, was overcome. This is a fairly typical approach for anyone experiencing debilitating performance anxiety.

If you think you are not reaching your potential, or notice that you always ruminate afterwards about how you could have performed better if only you hadn't done "x" or if you'd said "y", then it can be useful to explore what your personal limiting factors are, and whether you are willing to do anything about them. Acceptance of the status quo or change are then both realistic options!