Olympic athletes and entrepreneurs share one critical trait to conquer pressure under fire.

In sports, mental toughness is defined as “the ability to consistently perform in the upper range of your talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances.”  The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Korea have been rife with performances by athletes with well honed mental toughness, giving them the competitive edge over athletes with matched or even higher ranking talent.  Two-time U.S. champion figure skater Nathan Chen was the gold medal frontrunner heading into the 2018 Winter Olympics, only to crumble under pressure during his Olympic debut, underscoring how critical it is for young athletes to harness mental toughness under extreme pressure.  It was a devastating outcome for Chen, the most talented US men’s figure skater to compete in the sport in recent memory. 

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U.S. figure skater Adam Rippon’s incredible grace under pressure has been widely recognized during this winter’s Olympic Games, especially given the level of criticism he’s received for being the first openly gay American figure skater to ever compete at the Olympics.  His positive attitude, willingness to lead with charisma and humor, and champion performances have catapulted him beyond just physical mastery as an athlete.

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If anyone in the business world ever needed mental toughness at their disposal, it’s an entrepreneur.  Investors and other tech industry insiders all agree that startup success is all about mental preparedness, tenacity, and skillful pitch execution under high stakes circumstances.  Entrepreneurs regularly face cutthroat competitors and critics, and must be able to push their ideas and products past consumers resistance to change.  In his most recent book “Executive Toughness,” Dr. Jason Selk discusses mental toughness and other shared traits between sports and business high performers.  Given the self-driving nature of entrepreneurial work, startup founders must exemplify this critical trait to prevail.  In his Harvard Business Review article “How the Best of the Best Get Better,” sports psychologist and former consultant to Olympic and world champions Dr. Graham Jones says, “Obviously, star athletes must have some innate, natural ability — coordination, physical flexibility, anatomical capacities — just as successful senior executives need to be able to think strategically and relate to people. But the real key to excellence in both sports and business is not the ability to swim fast or do quantitative analyses quickly in your head. Rather, it is [mindset] mental toughness.”

After living and working in and around Silicon Valley for more than 20 years I’ve seen firsthand the underpinnings of mental toughness, the stamina it takes to succeed here, and the price those people pay to stay at the top.  Through executive coaching I’ve supported top organizational leaders through pivotal growth periods in life and business, leveraging best practices from peak performance psychology, cognitive neuroscience, behavioral design and critical communication skill acquisition.  

Top 5 best practices for augmenting mental toughness:

  1. Notice the subtle shifts in your physiology and thought patterns, and where they drive your emotions, behaviors and decision-making.  Cultivate control over this chain reaction through mindfulness training, and commit to embodying your most unflappable self in high stakes situations.  Use tools like visualization, auditory prompts and self-directing phrases to tap into deep learning through habit formation.
  2. Prepare confidence-boosting engagement and response scripts to the three most challenging interpersonal situations you face.  This is especially helpful for those who aren’t naturally charismatic, because they serve as a guideline for how to best interact with people. Well-developed and practiced interpersonal responses work to center you, bringing you back to a place of familiarity, reducing socially anxious reactions that can interfere with peak performance.
  3. Develop a relentless and optimistic ‘solution focused mindset’. It is so irresistible to ride the wave of emotion that surges when facing a hard problem. Our brains can get railroaded by our emotions, mimicking the addiction response and diminishing our ability to think critically and generate effective options.  Approach all potential solutions one step at a time, giving yourself time to process your emotions first.  Even mapping out a single step completion is progress and an improvement to the current situation. Remember you can’t solve all problems at once, so choose one and stay focused on it until measurable progress is made.
  4. When you set your mind to do something, find a way to get it done, no matter what. While a relentless solution focus is the mental step, behavioral discipline is the action step that makes effective solutions materialize. In this way, discipline delivers success. Make discipline a habit by looking out for triggering temptations and planning accordingly.
  5. Be willing to embrace change.  Mentally tough people are flexible, constantly adapting in order to solve for best possible outcomes.  Fear of change is paralyzing and a major threat to one’s progress towards broader goals for fulfillment and happiness. 

A backbone of mental toughness is essential for providing the courage and internal compass that top competitors rely on to steer through the challenges they face. It also emboldens them to take on new opportunities for learning and growth- healthy life habits for effectively navigating stress, conflict and crises.  If you can develop mastery in this, you win!

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New year, new goals, now what? Ten lessons from some of Silicon Valley’s fastest rising founders.

For many of us, 2017 was an exhausting year fraught with political change, devastating natural catastrophes and economic strain.  But Silicon Valley never stops evolving, fueled by talented people driven to create positive change and effective solutions.  I’ve had the pleasure of coaching some of the Bay Area’s fastest rising founders, tech leaders and startup teams as they turned their ideas into reality, started companies that attracted clients with the biggest and hottest names in tech, joined executive teams that launched transformational products, and challenged themselves to take professional risks in new high level roles.  Engaging in coaching helped them sustain motivation and gain clarity through periods of doubt, burn out, and high stakes decision making.

Their pathways to achievement in the startup space are not meant to remain hidden and unaccessible to others who are just beginning their journey.  My goal as an executive leadership coach is to share honest lessons from their pivotal experiences so that others can find encouragement and make progress with aplomb.

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  1. You don’t have to do things the way they’ve always been done (or the way others have done things for that matter) to “make it”.  For every newly minted ivy league graduate gunning for entrepreneurial success in the startup community, there are countless others who have leveraged their humble education or work experiences with immensely profitable gains.  Not having a degree is no longer a reason to believe you can’t create opportunities to learn and achieve in your chosen field.
  2. Fear and doubt are emotions not behaviors. Use mindfulness to manage your thoughts, which have a direct impact on your emotions.  You can’t rely on waiting for your emotions to ‘be ready’ to start taking on new challenges.  Set yourself up for success by using ‘SMART goals’, a behavioral timeline that is realistic and achievable, at a pace that allows small but measurable progress.
  3. Take your own short cuts.  Use what’s available rather than re-inventing the wheel. Our time and energy are better spent creating impact in unique ways than in rebuilding something that’s now available off the shelf.  Open-source, high engagement educational tools and projects, third-party design tools, and strategic outsourcing are ways to focus more of your time on leveraging your core competencies.
  4. Listen to your gut.  What are you truly curious and passionate about doing?  Find a space to explore and track these thoughts, talk about them with trusted others or engage in coaching to gain clarity around what you want to build towards in this phase of your life, and how to set yourself up to achieve your biggest goals.
  5. Embrace your difference.  Undeniably, the world remains in the grips of a political climate that systemically limits opportunities and equal rights for ‘otherness’ identities.  Yet now more than ever there is evidence that embracing diversity yields unique perspectives that reinvent what’s broken, generating innovative solutions that raise the bar across all industries.
  6. Grow at your own pace. While many people would love to have the problem of achieving rapid success, growing pains that strain one’s functional capacity can feel like a dam threatening to burst.  What’s at risk if you lose control of your growth pace?  It’s not necessary to convince yourself you ‘have’ to accept all the big opportunities that come your way.  Helping founders decide how and when to aggressively prioritize growth opportunities has revealed to me the critical value of pacing growth in the big picture of one’s success map.
  7. Use losses and transitions as a chance to re-evaluate and re-direct your personal vision of success.   The tech industry has the lowest average employee tenure, creating a cutthroat climate for those in the game.    Employment transitions and lost opportunities can feel overwhelming, especially for those whose work identity is a grounding anchor in their self-esteem.  It’s normal to feel uncertain about what to pursue next, especially if it opens up other major decisions like where to live, and what relationships should be prioritized in the grand scheme of one’s life.  Borrow Salesforce‘s ubiquitous alignment tool, the V2MOM.  Creating a personal V2MOM is one way I have helped clients formulate next steps according to their vision, values, methods, obstacles and measures.  It can help to do this exercise with an objective person you trust, or anyone without personal stakes in your decision-making.
  8. Pay attention to how far you’ve come, it’s further than you realize!  One of the most fulfilling parts of being a leadership coach is taking inventory with my clients of how much they’ve learned and grown by tracking their measurable progress.  As a lifelong skier, I’ve always enjoyed taking that moment to pause and look back at the steep, icy, once intimidating run I just came down.  It’s so important to acknowledge where you started!
  9. Surround yourself with people who want to see you win.  Well cultivated friendships and supportive social networks are irrefutably one of the healthiest, most rewarding things we can instill in our lives.  Making friends in adulthood can be intimidating, don’t hesitate to review some surefire tactics for building social equity into your current phase of life.
  10. Engage in mentorship for highest ROI.  Contributing to the collective wisdom of groups you been inspired by reinforces the ‘why‘ in your daily life, and serves as a springboard for reinforcing gratitude and resilience when you need it most.  It’s a way to bring together your values and share in building the communities you believe in most.
 

Are your dating skills ruining your love life? 4 dumb dating habits to drop.

Most accounts of modern dating describe finding lasting love as more elusive than ever.  Thanks to mobile dating apps, dating has evolved into a finger-swiping game of ‘matching’ with people whose real intention for long-term dating is nearly impossible to determine.  Being an executive and dating coach in the San Francisco Bay Area has given me a front row seat to this phenomenon with an inside view of the good, the bad and the ugly.  The highly competitive tech scene here is also known for having an awkward dating culture where both men and women can develop some dumb habits that thwart their long term relationship goals.  I feel it’s my duty to share them publicly, air out the gender themes I see, and hopefully shed some light on the issue so more people are successful in their dating endeavors.

My clients are bright, healthy, charismatic people who bemoan their dating struggles as real a ‘pain point’ in their life.  In my last article on learned optimism, I outlined the rationale for viewing problems through a positive, solution-focused lens, and how to hold yourself accountable for your role in a problem.  When a client tells me “I’d like to meet someone and settle down into a long-term relationship but I’m having a tough time finding them.”  I’ll ask “What strategies are you using to meet eligible people?  Tell me, what are you currently doing to build a long-term relationship with someone?”  This is when the storyline starts to reveal dating habits that can be major roadblocks to developing a lasting romantic relationship.

master-of-none-5.w710.h473A 30 year old male client of mine shared with me how Season 2 of the Netflix hit series Master of None,(episode ‘First Date‘) struck a chord with him.   In this episode, Dev (Aziz Ansari) meets a myriad of women and for various reasons, experiences failure to launch towards a meaningful relationship with any of them.  In 2015, Aziz Ansari and sociologist Eric Klinenberg co-wrote Modern Romance: An Investigation, a book that examined the evolution of dating patterns and coupledom. The concept of ‘overchoice’ in dating, an idea first introduced in Alvin Toffler’s 1971 book Future Shock, and later explored in Barry Schwartz’s 2004 book The Paradox of Choice has become a mainstay in modern dating culture.  Ansari concludes that while having access to more potential mates might be enjoyable up front, it eventually makes the process of choosing and investing in someone much harder, and can ultimately lead to less romantic fulfillment.

Dumb dating habit #1:  Going on a never-ending cycle of first dates, waiting for that ‘love at first sight’ feeling to signal when it’s time to finally pursue someone for a long term relationship.

First impressions are often not a good predictor of who’ll be a good fit for a long term relationship.  In my observation, guys need to take initiative and figure out how to emotionally invest in the process of dating if they want a long term relationship.  A lot of men are stuck in a conundrum when they’re looking for a girlfriend- they feel safer with more options, but more options leads to low emotional investment, which leads to a sense of emptiness, which they fill with more creating more options.  It’s a vicious circle!  Men, start by figuring out what you need to do to care more about the person you’re meeting for a date.

Males are commonly raised to avoid vulnerable emotions, and learn to keep a safe distance from their feelings, especially in matters of the heart.  As a result, they can miss out on developing emotional intimacy with someone because they fail to take an active role in building it.  In movies, men are portrayed as reluctant participants in intimacy – cinematic stereotypes such as the manic pixie dream girl archetype evolved in order to protect masculine identity in the face of falling in love.

REBOOT:  If you don’t work to get inside your feelings and figure out how to genuinely invest in caring about the person sitting across from you, these feelings will not mysteriously emerge on their own.  I know you believe you just haven’t met someone who’s attractive enough, smart/accomplished enough, humble and supportive and interested in YOU enough.  If this storyline is sounding a lot like you, it’s time to see it for what it is – you’ve got to rise to the occasion and take initiative.  Make a real effort to be curious, listen, absorb and relate.  Look at it from an economic perspective- wise investments of all kinds pay off big!

Dumb dating habit #2:  You’re using dating as a way to compete with your friends- in this game the last one to get off the single train wins.  

You’re struggling with choosing someone because you’re too busy rounding out your dating options for more bragging rights with your friends.  A proud 20-something year old guy once told me that he and his male roommates had a world map in their house with colored pushpins in it to represent the countries of origin of women they’d each slept with.  Why?  Because it made them look cool to all their friends, duh!  But do you really want to be the last one who still cares about playing this game?  It’s like you’re that last guy in your middle school friend group who still cares about who has the most/best Pokémon cards.

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Dude at some point, it’s not that crucial anymore!  Eventually, most guys want to be with someone that will stand by them when life gets hard, someone to enjoy private moments with, who will honestly be there for them through the thick and thin of their life.  Meanwhile, do you want to still be scrolling through your phone contacts looking for someone who actually cares about what happens to you? (besides your family!  Not your ex either, she’s probably happily married now with a baby on the way.)

REBOOT:  The price tag for a real relationship is steep, and you need to be willing to pay the price.  Commitment, vulnerability, giving FOMO a grown ass man smack down, and dealing with someone’s shortcomings because they have to put up with yours.  When was the last time you heard of getting something worth having for free?

Dumb dating habit # 3:  Not noticing when your mind magically fills in the blanks in someone’s potential instead of accepting the current reality as it stands.  The problem with this is that your brain gets caught in a vicious cycle of unrealistic expectations.  This can lead to feeling mad and resentful when the person falls short of your version of them. 

Sometimes women can get ahead of themselves while dating, and lose track of the difference between what is reality and what is wishful thinking.  This happens when they fail to notice that someone isn’t demonstrating a consistent investment in getting serious with them.  When you fantasize a million steps ahead about how your next dates will play out together it can lead your brain to believing it should and it will, and then when it inevitably doesn’t, you feel shortchanged and frustrated, but keep hoping things will improve.  Unrealistic expectations can also lead people to cut things off prematurely which is sabotaging your #relationshipgoals.  Confirmation bias  is a form of faulty thinking with plenty of scientific evidence supporting people’s propensity to believe something is true because they would like it to be true. Motivated by wishful thinking, individuals will stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views (prejudices) one would like to be true.

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REBOOT:  DO NOT GET AHEAD OF YOURSELF. If someone isn’t consistently making an effort to set concrete plans with you, showing a genuine interest in connecting with you, stop giving him your mental attention!  Be ready to harness some discipline because old habits die hard.  You’re perfectly rigorous about keeping your diet paleo, you’re awesome at limiting your drinking to the weekends, but you let your mind go on a wild goose chase over every text thread in your phone!  You know you’re in trouble if the guy inside your head is always more fun to think about then the same guy whose text messages rarely extend beyond 3 words and you never quite know where things stand between the two of you.  Be honest with yourself.  Why would it make sense to want a relationship with someone who’s hot and cold towards you?  Inconsistency and unpredictability beget failure in building anything of value.  Open your eyes to the people who are making it clear they value you and want to spend time with you.

Dumb dating habit # 4:  You over-rely on dating apps and forget that prospective dating partners are everywhere!  Your attention is buried in your phone and you never (ever, ever) initiate conversation with a stranger for social purposes.  

Pretty much everyone is guilty of digital social isolation these days.  You’ve heard this before from those of us who evolved as human beings before the digital era.  By limiting yourself to socializing through online/text consumption you are actually limiting yourself to a communication method with WORSE social aptitude results not BETTER.  The quality of enjoyment, depth of expression and opportunity to build lasting relationships has evolved over billions of years through face to face communication.  Digital communication on the other hand has existed for a fraction of a mili-second and the jury is out if humanity would even survive if we continue to depend on it with today’s enthusiasm.  It’s not that I think people shouldn’t enjoy all the latest dating apps, follow each other on social media for entertainment, ease and efficiency, but aim to keep practicing your real life social skills.  Every single client who’s taken me up on my encouragement in this area has come back glowing with newfound empowerment and shock, really.  Like “I cannot believe I initiated a social conversation with a total stranger (sober, mind you!) AND DIDN’T DIE ON THE SPOT FROM ANGST.  I CAN DO ANYTHING NOW!!!”  YES!  That is the best feeling!

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Improve your health and performance with Learned Optimism and you will win at life

What is the difference between someone who consistently performs to the best of their ability and someone whose performance is unpredictable?  What allows someone to effortlessly tap into their peak performance and reach their goals and what compromises a person’s ability to access and sustain it?  One word- outlook.  Martin Seligman‘s groundbreaking research on learned optimism reveals how being optimistic is consistently related to improved health and longevity.  A US study of nearly 100 000 students found that people who are optimistic are less likely than those who are pessimistic to die from Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) or from any other cause over an eight year period.  On the other hand, pessimism has been linked to chronic stress and poor health functioning such as high levels of inflammation, a weakened immune system, increased pain perception, and other signs of physiological and mental dysfunction.  Optimistic people appear to manage stress more efficiently than others so that their stress disappears at a faster rate than those who don’t utilize optimism in their outlook.

Seligman developed a test to help people identify their outlook style (which you can take here.)  If your base level of optimism isn’t very high, don’t panic.  In fact, it means that you are at the level where learned optimism can be the most beneficial!

Executive coaching can be an effective way to learn and adopt optimism to improve your overall functioning and sustain peak performance in all areas of your life.  I typically work with high-achieving young adults in the tech community of the Bay Area/Silicon Valley.  Working with a coach is great for healthy people who are motivated to change what isn’t working, but need some guidance on how to execute strategically and efficiently.

The following tactics outline the basic tenets of Learned Optimism.  Keep in mind that our first reaction to something will always be automatic and happen instantaneously – that’s normal and to be expected!  We can acknowledge our initial reactions to an event without this becoming our permanent outlook on the matter.  That’s where Learned Optimism comes in.  We can cultivate this skill by identifying our first reaction, clarifying how this first outlook might impact our overall ability to problem-solve and perform, and challenge ourselves to adjust our outlook in order to optimize our performance and goal achievement.  With practice, we can improve our mental toughness, which is what helps a person cope with difficult situations, persevere and succeed at a high performance level.

Our outlook is shaped by our individual explanatory style, a psychological attribute that indicates how people explain to themselves why they experienced a particular event, either positive or negative.  There are three components to this:

  1. The permanence of an event – how long someone thinks it will last
  2. The pervasiveness or scope of an event – whether the person sees the event as specific and contained, or global and all-inclusive
  3.  Personalization of an event – whether the person views the event as something that was caused entirely by oneself, others or external factors

Learned Optimism tool # 1 – Adjust TIME outlook for an event.

Find ways to view a negative event as temporary:

  • “The next fiscal quarter will be better.”
  • This is a short-term setback.”
  • I’m having an off day today.”

Find ways to view a positive event as enduring and reflective of personal ability:

  • “I’m on a roll now, because I’ve worked hard, practiced, and now have a winning strategy.”
  • I know I can handle challenging things because I’ve already overcome so much.”
  • “I’ve created opportunities for myself in the past, and am capable of creating more.”

Learned Optimism tool # 2 – Adjust SCOPE of an event.

Find ways to view a negative event as specific and contained to one situation:

  • The next event will work out better because of what I’ve learned this time around.”
  • “I won’t let this personal rejection or difficult co-worker get in my way or stop me from reaching my goal.”
  • Things at my company are rough right now, but my personal life is going well.”

Find ways to view a positive event as global:

  • “Earning this promotion has gotten me on the right path to developing as a leader in the company.”
  • “My management style is more effective since I’ve made an effort to be more approachable and generous with my time.”
  • Taking social risks has been challenging but I’ve learned that overall, people respond well to me when I reach out first.”

Learned Optimism tool # 3 – Adjust PERSONALIZATION to contain one’s responsibility, recognize which personal strengths were utilized, and which external circumstances influenced the outcome of an event.

For negative events, identify your personal accountability, then factor in others’ contributions and the role of external circumstances:

  • “I can see how I contributed to the fight my spouse and I had.  I want to clarify my expectations and work on finding some middle ground so the next time this issue comes up we can avoid a blowup.”
  • “I reacted without communicating beforehand with my team members, which led to a break down in our overall progress.  I will suggest a few temporary solutions until we can figure out a more inclusive strategy.”
  • My company is going through major layoffs, and in spite of the contributions I made that demonstrated real utility, I’ve been informed it’s time to find my next position.”

For positive events, recognize which personal strengths you utilized to bring this event to fruition:

  • “I stayed focused on my goals and was willing to work harder when other people were frustrated and fed up, which helped me move forward and achieve in spite of facing real adversity.”
  • “I’m more comfortable and experienced speaking in front of others than my co-founder, so I took on the responsibility of pitching our idea to investors and now our startup has seed funding.” 
  • “I’ve worked on building up my tolerance for discomfort in social situations, which I believe gave me the confidence to ask out someone I’ve been interested in for months.  Even if it doesn’t work out, I feel good about stepping up and taking initiative.”

Bringing it all together- learned optimism is a winning strategy to get through challenging or unfair situations by shining a spotlight onto where there is opportunity for improved coping, positive progress and effective solutions.  Our initial response to a situation may not be the most effective way to navigate it successfully.  The key to adopting an optimistic mindset is to acknowledge the inherent choice we have in our response.  Learned optimism is not an exercise in avoiding responsibility or ignoring dire circumstances either.  Adopt an outlook that encourages personal accountability, and supports your performance growth in every area of life.  From your education to your work to your health, it is your outlook that predicts your level of success above all else.

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Trump style slurs: you don’t have to get your feelings hurt.

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With the Trump administration ahead of us, many Americans will witness or receive hate-filled comments meant to devalue, belittle and shame anyone who is demographically different.  The major uptick in hate crimes dates back toward the end of 2015, which corresponds with Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims entering the United States.  Since the presidential election results came in, national news and social media sites have already begun documenting a new surge of confrontational hate-mongering behaviors aimed at racial/ethnic/sexual/religious minorities.  Generally speaking, the most important response to hate mongering is to ensure one’s physical safety first and foremost.  This article is not meant to provide guidance on physical or legal protection tactics, but rather outlines the most accurate and effective way to emotionally immunize yourself to this type of ignorance.  You don’t have to get your feelings hurt.  You don’t have to feel the blow of belittlement when ignorant remarks are flung at you.  You don’t have to feel insulted or devalued.  In fact, when someone says or does something racist/misogynistic/etc, it’s an instant opportunity to recognize the disposition and circumstances surrounding the offender.  You will know immediately that this person is experiencing one or more of the following:

  1. People who feel compelled to point out their categorical superiority to others based on race/gender/religion/sexual orientation differences often do so because they feel a deep sense of resentment about not feeling good enough about themselves.  (They will vehemently argue that nothing could be further from the truth, but there is something called the subconscious (part of the mind of which one is not fully aware but which influences one’s actions and feelings) and it is working furiously in overtime to correct low self-worth.)  By actively engaging in a game of “I’m better than these people” (through various verbal or behavioral acts) they can give themselves a short-lived burst of much-needed self confidence.  It quickly dissipates, so they often choose to surround themselves with like-minded people so they can commiserate and boost each other up through mutually insulting group outsiders.
  2. People need to blame and find fault in whole categories of people out of fear: when older regions of the brain dominate a person’s cognitive style, more complex intellectual processing is superseded, limiting more complex comprehension of circumstances surrounding their perceived ‘problems’.  Attempting to solve one’s problems by persecuting a whole group of people in a scapegoat fashion is usually a tell-tale sign of shortsightedness that does not result in lasting solutions.  Failed solutions often leads to increased blaming and anger.  It’s a vicious cycle which some people remain stuck in, and then pass on to others as a narrow worldview.
  3. The bottom line is, people who are effective and successful in pursuing their life goals, feel a sense of personal resourcefulness, and are benefiting from genuinely loving relationships do not need to actively engage in hate-mongering and devaluing/disrespecting whole groups of people.  There is no need to assert oneself as superior at the expense of other’s basic rights, to the contrary, they enjoy embracing a spirit of generosity because they can afford to give and share without feeling threatened.  Being chronically unhappy does not give way to hate-mongering behaviors, but there’s a good chance they are prone to certain habits that perpetuate their own unhappiness.

That said, people who feel compelled to a seek momentary boost of self-importance through hate-mongering in the name of Trump support or otherwise, are likely doing so because they don’t feel adequately important enough in the world, prefer to indulge in overly simplified, fear-based solutions to their problems (or are less intellectually equipped or compelled to grasp more a complex understanding), and see anyone different than themselves as a threat to their well-being and/or way of life.  The last thing you should feel is slighted by someone else’s irrational fears and ignorant solutions to protecting and improving their station in life.  Recognize the pattern as something that has ensnared them, not you.  

Move forward by choosing to focus on the positive aspects of your own life rather than toil in the negativity that someone else is stewing in.  Stay true to your core beliefs and values.  You may feel discouraged and understandably frustrated with the influence of Trump’s hateful rhetoric that has emboldened some people to lash out against America’s longstanding value of inclusion.  The point is, you need not allow those people’s efforts to bring you down and keep you there.

 

Donald Trump: defining toxic masculinity and how healthy, happy men diversify

I want to begin this piece by sharing how challenging it can be for me to understand the underpinnings of American masculinity as an American woman of color.  I feel stumped sometimes in helping men navigate their career development and enhance their interpersonal relationships, particularly as it relates to their masculine identity.  I have a deep sense of curiosity and motivation to understand the perspectives of all my clientele. Public figures can also also stir my intellectual curiosity, especially when similar issues are cropping up among those I’m helping in my coaching practice.  I write as a way to synthesize the research and consultation I do with professional colleagues and members of various social groups to increase my understanding of people.  By improving my understanding of how men operate within their gender framework, I can more effectively support their goals for happiness and professional achievement while respecting their values and world view.

Donald Trump’s entire public life provides a rich opportunity to examine how male gender expression, at it’s extreme, can lead to a toxic crisis in masculine identity.  In this article I’d like to set aside drawing conclusions about his potential to effectively lead as President of The United States of America.  Why?  Just imagine for a moment, what it would be like to work alongside Donald Trump.  You see, as difficult as it may be, his colleagues must aim to reserve judgment in order to collaborate and meet professional goals along side him.  If we can we understand Donald Trump’s masculine identity, surely we can learn something about the gender confines that men face in getting their needs met as they strive for fulfillment and achievement.  Why is this important?  Trump reflects the toxic side of American masculinity, and if we don’t take a close look at how and why toxicity develops and festers within male culture, we can’t begin to stop it from infecting others in small or large ways in men everywhere.

Imagine for a moment, a four way street intersection, where gas fueling stations are housed on each of the four corners.  At each fueling station, you can ‘fill up your tank’ on:

  1. Physical Aggression/Strength/Athleticism
  2. Money/Influence of Financial Wealth
  3. Control/Influence Upon Others (at work or in personal relationships)
  4. Sexual Prowess and Virility/Sexual Satisfaction

These four fueling stations can be seen as representing the most traditional, socially acceptable, even socially celebrated opportunities for men to fuel their sense of masculinity.  Whether or not you personally agree with this, the vast majority of American men are measured by others against these four standards of traditional masculinity at various points in their life.  While men also aim for other forms of achievement (e.g. intellectual development, family life development, practice of religious faith) those strivings aren’t typically seen as embodying strength of masculinity in and of themselves.  Traditional masculine-affirming pursuits do not have to be at the expense of other’s rights, take on a quality of malicious manipulation and oppression, or require a man to rely on them as his sole means for fulfillment.  Masculine identity serves men best when it allows space for them to thrive in these traditional areas should they choose, but also allows them ample space to enrich their lives through other areas of fulfillment and connectivity.

Some men whom I’ve worked with appear to be ‘stuck‘ in the relentless pursuit of boosting one or more of these traditional areas of masculinity in the hopes of achieving lasting happiness in their professional and personal life.  The theory of masculine overcompensation dates back to Sigmund Freud’s notions of ‘reaction formation‘ and ‘defense mechanisms‘. Some men respond to having their masculinity questioned by emphasizing their expression of traditional masculine traits.  In 2013, a group of sociologists put this theory to the test.  In Overdoing Gender,” a study for the American Journal of Sociology, men were given feedback suggesting they were ‘feminine’, which led to an increased support for war, homophobic attitudes, interest in purchasing an SUV, support for, and desire to advance in dominance hierarchies, and belief in male superiority.  Research from The American Journal of Men’s Health and a host of other studies conclude that the expression of traditional masculine traits can be hazardous for men’s health functioning.  William Ming Liu, editor of the journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity  describes toxic masculinity as providing a very limited way for men to relate to each other- when boys are socialized to avoid feelings and weakness it increases their overall psychological stress.

Would it benefit men to consider seeking fulfillment from a wide range of areas in their life?  Particularly for those who’ve already experienced objectively high levels of achievement through these traditional areas, and are still unhappy/unsatisfied.  Why not pivot and diversify?  See if some other areas of personal development could help you feel better/more fulfilled for the long term?”  Toxicity can take root in a man’s masculine identity if he gets stuck searching for fulfillment from these 4 traditional areas of masculinity.  In Donald Trump’s case, he keeps going back for more and more – all of his accomplishments are no longer getting him that desired high, so he keeps upping the ante.  This particular phenomenon of toxic masculinity is socially destructive when public figures like Donald Trump effectively normalize misogyny, sexism, racism and xenophobia.

donald-trump

While many American men aspire to experience some degree of his accomplishments in the areas of wealth, power, influence, access and opportunity with beautiful women, it’s important to underscore that these gains alone may very well NOT lead to the level of fulfillment and happiness one might imagine.  Encouraging a more well-rounded sense of masculine identity, one that allows room for pursuits that go beyond the traditional male gender constructs will increase men’s opportunity for lasting and balanced happiness.  Research by Levant reveals healthy aspects of masculinity might actually protect  and improve men’s health. These healthy aspects of masculinity include:

Aiming to grow and diversify oneself in these key areas can help men achieve lasting personal fulfillment beyond traditional masculine pursuits for success.  Each are common treatment goals I work on with the high-achieving men in my executive coaching practice.  Many have shared with me how rewarding it feels to build upon what they’ve already mastered and thrive in these important life aspirations.

Dr. Christina Villarreal’s Focus on Women’s Sexual Health, Empowerment & Wellness

15 years ago, I completed my doctoral dissertation examining cultural and gender influences of sexual risk behavior among Latino women. I’ve enjoyed educating women on how to embrace their sexuality, overcome obstacles to safe sex practices, and empower themselves for a lifetime of sexual wellness. I’ve served as a Relationship Expert on social media websites like GuysAskGirls.com, and written a range of articles on dating and relationships, with media publications and interviews in popular media sites such as techcrunch.  This week I orchestrated what turned out to be an amazing educational workshop for nearly 40 women on Navigating Sex, Relationships, and Dating in San Francisco. I feel so privileged to have the opportunity to do this important work. Thank you to all those that participated, there will be more to come!  In the coming weeks I will be recruiting a diverse group of men in various stages of their dating life and relationship experience- from single to married.  These men will form an expert panel for an open Q & A session for an audience of Bay Area women who’d like to better understand why guys do what they do!  I will facilitate an honest and respectful dialogue that will surely be insightful, informative and instrumental in improving dating and relationship experiences for all.

Here are a few candid snapshots from the event on May 27th, 2015, we had a great time!

Hosting my first workshop on Women's Sexual Health and Wellness
Hosting my first educational workshop on Women’s Sexual Health and Wellness

With Rebecca Alvarez of Bodyfeminina- she is a Sexual Wellness Expert and Women's Sexual Health researcher

With Dr. Lina Hannigan, a Clinical Health Psychologist practicing in the Bay Area, SF.
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Is Lightweight Stalking on Social Media a Relationship Killer? Stop in 3 Easy Steps.

How often do you keep tabs on the person you're dating online?
How often do you keep tabs on the person you’re dating online?

Have you ever wondered how much checking someone’s status updates/tweets/photo uploads is normal/harmless, and when does re-checking their online activity become problematic?  Most of us have caught ourselves clicking through someone’s social media activity because we have reason to be naturally curious  about them- maybe the person is someone we want to meet, or just started dating and want to know more about them.  Other times we might scroll through our partner’s online activity as a way to check their daily mood, as counterintuitive as that may sound (since you likely see them or at least communicate with them regularly in person).  Today’s prolific use of social media gives us an alternative glimpse into our partner’s emotional status and social exchanges that we may not otherwise pick up on.  Even if someone’s online persona is carefully constructed for public consumption, having access to their online activity gives us an opportunity to interpret the meaning of their coming and goings, even their level of intimacy with others.  If this person is an ex-romantic partner this may be all we have to go on- even if all we see is their profile picture and friend list, this information can still provide a rough approximation of their current situation. This dilemma recently became a topic of conversation in my coaching practice, where helping people improve their emotional intelligence is a common goal throughout the work that I do.  Victoria, a bright and accomplished 24 year-old woman shared with me that constantly checking her boyfriend’s social media activity and online communication with his ex is taking a hard toll on her mood and relationship functioning. Me: “Have you ever talked to your boyfriend about what you see on his social media sites?  That you’re concerned about who he’s interacting with online?” Her: “HELL NO! The last thing I want to do is come across as the person that I actually am- the type of person who stalks people online to see what they’re up to, and compare their successes to mine.” Checking people’s online activity, or ‘lightweight stalking‘ if you will, can run deep.  We start out taking a quick glimpse at our partner’s tweet/Instagram pic of the day, only to find their ex decided to comment suggestively.  It’s too easy to then check out our partner’s ex-boyfriend/girlfriend’s Twitter/Instagram/Facebook, etc (because dammit they have a public profile just begging to be explored).  So begins the comparisons.  Do they seem happier/sadder now? Does their taste in fashion/music/politics demonstrate that I’m a more tasteful/intelligent person?  Is he/she in better shape than me?  Our self-esteem may start to wane the more we compare ourselves to them.  We end up heading into an tailspin trying to interpret their ‘Vaguebooking‘ habit on Facebook.  We’re left wondering if they’re pining for their old relationship.  Do they want to rekindle things?  Will they/have they tried?  If trust hasn’t been well established in our relationship, we might become irrationally suspicious by mistrusting and/or questioning our partner for no substantial reason.  Suddenly we’re starting arguments that undermine the health of our relationship.

FML.

Dr. Tara C. Marshall, Ph.D., explores online post-breakup fixations in her research article Facebook Surveillance of Former Romantic Partners: Associations with PostBreakup Recovery and Personal Growth.  Results based on the responses of 464 participants revealed that one-half to two-thirds of people have made contact with an ex-romantic partner through Facebook, and that over half admit to having looked through an ex’s photos to find pictures of them with a new romantic partner.  Findings from this study suggest that keeping tabs on an ex through social media is associated with poorer emotional recovery and personal growth following a breakup. Therefore, avoiding exposure to ex-partners, both offline and online, may be the best remedy for healing a broken heart.

Solution:  Put Yourself on a Stalking Diet

  1. Do not allow yourself to stalk during the time of day when you know you are the most emotionally vulnerable and/or have unlimited time to comb through the internet for new postings.  For many people this is late at night.  Give yourself an 8 pm stalking curfew!!!  Most likely after 8 pm, you’ll engage in other things that will bring your mood back to a normal, and you’ll be in a less anxious place before you sleep.
  2. If you know you’re not ready to quit cold turkey, put some “stalking hours” in place, like office hours, if you will.  You’re only allowed to check on those you stalk between 2-4 pm, for example.  That way if you find yourself curious about your ex at midnight (especially likely if you’ve been out drinking), you can rest assured you’ll have a chance to stalk to your heart’s content, just postponed a little.  Chances are, you won’t have that same aching (likely misguided) curiosity during the logical hours of the next afternoon.
  3. Delete the social media app(s) that you use the most during your sleuthing for one week.  This will allow you to see how much you actually miss compulsively scrolling through that particular social media site.  You might discover that the cost of missing out (FOMO) is not creating as much emotional damage as stalking does.
  • And if all else fails…
If all else fails…

Millennials tech twist on engagement, weddings and parenthood

While millennials are still getting married at much lower rates than previous generations, some are finally beginning to grow and up, entering the world of marital engagements, wedding planning, and parenthood. True to form, their choices reflect advancements that set them apart from Gen-Xers, who were the first to utilize technology to chronicle their love stories on websites like theknot.com, build wedding registries online, gift personalized CDs with digitally remastered music as wedding favors, show spliced video montages of the bride and groom’s childhood at wedding receptions, and research honeymoons on websites like tripadvisor.com. As a card carrying member of generation X, I can proudly say we thought we were so cutting edge! Our kids were the first to be born with smartphones and tablets in their hands, and we posted their baby pictures on our social media pages and texted them to their grandparents. But time nor technology stands still, and Gen-Y has begun to put their own tech twist on engagements, weddings and baby plans. As someone who works with a high volume of with millennials in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have taken note of the following trends:

Their romantic relationships have an online life of their own. As the saying goes, no one really knows what happens behind closed doors, but in the personal lives of millennials, we can certainly take a look at their online activity to see what they’d like us to believe about their relationship status and history. The internet has become their forum of choice for chronicling romantic highs and lows, functioning as a means to gain public support, air grievances, compete for attention, and display markers of success (not to mention deleting away failures.) From public playlists on Spotify, hashtags on Twitter and Instagram, Pinterest boards and Facebook’s ‘Relationship Status’ updates, Gen-Y leaves little to the imagination when it comes to sharing their stories of romance.

They crowd source their decisions when it comes to navigating relationships. Millennials are used to solving problems fast, arriving at optimal solutions with the least resistance possible. Millennials have been groomed to work in competency-based teams, and this concept is frequently used for managing their personal lives too. They prefer to avoid conflict, and are more comfortable than previous generations relying on others to help them make decisions. Jeff Snipes, CEO of Ninth House, a provider of online education, including optimizing team effectiveness, says a hierarchical, leader-oriented team was more appropriate for earlier generations: “Traditionally if you worked up the ranks for twenty years and all the employees were local then you could know all the functions of the workplace. Then you could lead by barking orders. But today everything moves too fast and the breadth of competency necessary to do something is too vast.” When faced with life-changing decisions about relationship commitment or endings, Gen-Y seeks the opinions of their team of friends, family and experts to help them navigate and solve problems. When problems are deemed too private to share, websites like popular sites like Whisper and Secret are put to use by millennials as a way to air their private thoughts, share their hidden behaviors and ask for advice completely anonymously, so there is no threat to their carefully constructed online image.

Their engagement stories, weddings and honeymoons reflect their brilliance and investment in personal branding. While previous generations aimed to establish their worth and reputation through self-improvement, author Dan Schawbel of Me 2.0: Build a Powerful Brand to Achieve Career Success points out that Gen-Y has discovered that in the dawn of the internet, admiration and success comes from self-packaging through a carefully concocted personal brand. From the days of Myspace to Tumblr, millennials have grown up managing their self image like celebrity publicists. Gen-Y has turned self-portraits into a way of life- ‘selfies’ have become one of the internet’s top forms of self-expression. Their overall online presence has been a way to uniquely distinguish themselves from everyone else, and they are highly invested in making their relationship milestones ideally memorable as part of their personal brand. Whether they capture and share these milestones via Snapchat’s Our Story, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or personal blogs, millennials are sure to control how the world sees their love stories unfold through brand management. One San Francisco Bay area millennial shared with me she got engaged via FaceTime, since her long-distance boyfriend was living in abroad and couldn’t wait to pop the question. To his credit, her (now fiance) also created an iMovie that he shared with her, depicting him staged in funny scenarios accompanied by a personalized musical score that specially captured their romantic history.

They’re comfortable resisting tradition, understanding that ‘following the rules’ doesn’t necessarily bring ‘happily ever after.’ Author Paul Hudson of Elite Daily, The Voice of Generation Y observes that millennials are far less likely than past generations to buy into the notion that marriage is the gateway to a future of stability and happiness. Harry Benson, research director at the Marriage Foundation, describes the strong link between parental divorce and a reluctance to get married. “If your parents split up then most people are more likely to be quite skeptical about the value of marriage,” he explains. “So as there’s rising divorce rates, you can imagine how when the next generation appears, people will be more dubious about marriage.” Bobby Duffy, leading market researcher on generational analysis, says there are also far more financial pressures on millennials than previous generations. They have more educational debt in a less stable economic climate, and face an incredibly buoyant housing market. According to CNNMoney, twenty-somethings are transitioning into adult life at a more gradual pace, opting to cohabitate and co-parent without traditional marriage at a much higher rate than previous generations.

They anticipate their babies’ future in a world where technological identity matters. One website says it all:awesomebabyname.com, a new online tool that allows parents to choose a name for their child based on website domain availability. Yes people, this is happening. I heard it first a few months ago when a pregnant patient of mine found out she was having a girl, the first thing she and her cohabiting boyfriend/expecting father-to-be did was buy website domains and establish email accounts in her name. Of course, now there’s an app for that! “It’s important to give your children a fighting chance of having good SEO (Search Engine Optimization) in the 21st century,” says Finnbar Taylor, who created this website together with Karen X. Cheng. “We use search engines all day long to answer our questions and find things, including people. Imagine being called John Smith and trying to get a ranking on Google search. It’s important to give your child a unique name so that people, like potential employers, will be able to find them easily in the future.”

Granted, millennials are still in their 20’s, a time when it’s still developmentally common to be preoccupied with self-image, and an idealized future that looks different than previous generations. The question is, as Gen-Y ages, which of these trends, if any, will change?

 

Hypochondria or not: Do you use the internet to self-diagnose your physical symptoms?

Most of us have had that “OH NO! I think I have that!” moment, after poking around online, trying to figure out the cause of our vague physical symptoms. A 2004 study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 79 percent of Internet users — roughly 95 million Americans — have researched health information online. People now have access to incredibly complex medical information, with little ability to sift through it or interpret it accurately. The abundance of health information available online, valid or not, has contributed to what the media have coined ‘cyberchondria’ (researching diseases on the internet, and then worrying that you have the symptoms of that disease.) These people are often frustrated when their self-diagnosis does not prompt their doctor to order the tests and/or medications they feel necessary.

Yet after getting checked out by a doctor and getting a clean bill of health, most of us feel reassured, and are then ready to move on. For hypochondriacs however, relief does not come, and the fear of serious illness continues to fester. Hypochondria falls under the umbrella category of Somatoform Disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) and is defined as a preoccupation with the belief that one has an illness, based on a misinterpretation of bodily symptoms. To qualify as hypochondria, this preoccupation must cause distress in the person’s daily life and persist for at least six months — despite medical evidence discounting the perceived illness. About 1 to 5 percent of the population suffers from hypochondria, and the disorder is believed to strike men and women equally.
In the professional world of mental health, “Somatization” is a term that describes the expression of psychological or mental difficulties through physical symptoms. Somatization can range from preoccupation with potential or genuine but mild physical problems (as previously described in Hypochondria), to the development of perceived or actual physical pain, or dysfunction. This article addresses some of the other major diagnoses that the DSM-IV-TR defines within the Somatoform Disorders category.
Somatization disorder is characterized by a history of multiple unexplained medical problems or physical complaints beginning prior to age 30. People with somatization disorder report symptoms affecting multiple organ systems or physical functions, including pain, gastrointestinal distress, sexual problems, and symptoms that mimic neurological disorders. Although medical explanations for their symptoms cannot be identified, individuals with somatization disorder experience genuine physical discomfort and distress. Review of their medical histories will usually reveal numerous visits to medical specialists, second and third opinions, and numerous medications prescribed by different doctors, often putting them at risk for drug interactions.
Conversion disorder is marked by unexplained sensory or motor symptoms that resemble those of a neurological or medical illness or injury. Common symptoms include paralysis, loss of sensation, double vision, seizures, inability to speak or swallow and problems with coordination and balance. Symptoms often reflect a naive understanding of the nervous system, and physicians often detect conversion disorder when symptoms do not make sense anatomically. The name conversion disorder reflects a theoretical understanding of the disorder as a symbolic ‘conversion’ of a psychological conflict into a concrete physical representation. Ironically, patients with conversion disorder may not always express the level of concern one would expect from someone with their described condition.
Pain Disorder is physical pain that causes significant distress or disability or leads an individual to seek medical attention. Pain may be medically unexplained, or it may be associated with an identifiable medical condition, but it is experienced as far more severe than the actual physical condition would warrant. Common symptoms include headache, backache and generalized pain in muscles and joints. Pain disorder can be severely disabling, causing immobility that prevents patients from working, fulfilling family responsibilities or engaging in social activities. Like patients with somatization disorder, people with pain disorder often have a long history of consultations with numerous physicians.
Body dysmorphic disorder is characterized by preoccupation with a defect in physical appearance. Often the defect of concern is not apparent to other observers, or if there is a genuine defect it is far less disfiguring than the patient imagines. Common preoccupations include concerns about the size or shape of the nose, skin blemishes or color, body or facial hair, hair loss, or “ugly” hands or feet. Individuals with body dysmorphic disorder may be extremely self-conscious, avoiding social situations because they fear others will notice their physical defects or even make fun of them. They may spend hours examining the imagined defect or avoid mirrors altogether. Time-consuming efforts to hide the defect, such as application of cosmetics or adjustments of clothing or hair, are common. Many people with body dysmorphic disorder undergo permanent procedures like plastic surgery or cosmetic dentistry, but are seldom satisfied with the results.
Note that Somatoform disorders should be distinguished from Factitious disorder, in which patients intentionally act physically or mentally ill without obvious benefits such as monetary gain. What motivates people with Factitious disorder is being able to play the role of a sick person. Further, the DSM-IV-TR distinguishes Factitious disorder from Malingering, a disorder which is defined as feigning illness when there is a clear motive—usually to economic gain, or to avoid legal trouble.
Causes. One longstanding theory about the cause of Somatoform disorders suggests that it is a way of avoiding psychological distress. Rather than experiencing depression or anxiety, some individuals will develop physical symptoms. According to this model, their preoccupation with the body allows them avoid the stigma of a mental health/psychiatric disorder. They end up getting the care and nurturing they need from doctors and other people in their lives who are responsive to their physical illnesses.

Treatment. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is considered an effective treatment for Somatoform disorders, focusing on changing negative patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behavior that contribute to somatic symptoms. The cognitive component of the treatment focuses on helping patients identify dysfunctional thinking about physical sensations. With practice, patients learn to recognize catastrophic thinking and develop more rational explanations for their feelings. The behavioral component aims to increase activity and self-care. Many of these patients have reduced their activity levels as a result of discomfort or out of fear that activity will worsen their symptoms. Patients are instructed to increase activity gradually while avoiding overexertion that could reinforce fears. Other important types of treatment include relaxation training, sleep hygiene, and communication skills training. Preliminary findings suggest that CBT may help reduce distress and discomfort associated with somatic symptoms; however, it has not yet been systematically compared with other forms of therapy.

Resources
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 4th edition, text revised. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association,2000.

Phillips, Katherine A. The Broken Mirror: Understanding and Treating Body Dysmorphic Disorder. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Pilowsky, Issy. Abnormal Illness Behavior. Chichester, UK: John Wiley and Sons, 1997.

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