Stop Worrying About What People Think of You with Dr. Michael Gervais

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Katie: Hello and welcome to the Wellness Mama podcast. I’m Katie from wellnessmama.com and this podcast is about the greatest constrictor of human potential and how to overcome it. And I’m here with Dr. Michael Gervais who is fascinating. He’s one of the world’s top high-performance psychologists and leading experts on the relationship between the mind and human performance. He has spent his career helping the best of the best across the worlds of business, sports, the arts and science when they need to achieve the extraordinary. And his clients include world record holders, Olympians, internationally acclaimed artists and musicians, MVPs from every major field and Fortune 500 CEOs. He’s also the founder of Finding Mastery, which is a high-performance psychology consulting agency that helps individuals and innovative companies solve the most dynamic human performance challenges through mindset training. He’s also the host of the Finding Mastery podcast and the co-creator of the Performance Science Institute at USC.

He is a wealth of knowledge when we get into a lot of these topics today, including big dive into the Fear of Other People’s Opinions, FOPO. And how to delve into our negative thoughts and repattern them, why our current culture is obsessed with performance and what cost that comes at, and so much more. Definitely lots of practical mindset tips in this one, and I cannot wait to share it with you. So let’s join Dr. Michael. Dr. Michael, welcome. Thank you so much for being here. I’m so excited to get to chat with you today.

Michael: Ditto, thank you for including me.

Katie: Well, you are an expert in many things. I think for context, I would guess some people are already familiar with you. But for those who aren’t, I would love to hear a little backstory about how you got into the work you do and why you wrote your current book and also maybe a base definition of the term FOPO, because I know that’s going to come up a lot in today’s episode.

Michael: Okay, good. I’ll start with the quick narrative. It’s that I was a young athlete and I physically was able to do all the things I wanted to do in practice. Like I was doing fine there. And then come competition day, I was a different type of athlete. I lost my ability to find the stuff that I knew I could do. I lost the ability to access my skills. And it’s no different now than somebody who, maybe can look back at a time when they could do the thing in calm environments but got rattled during, you know, whatever the stressors were. And that could be in a conversation or that could be like walking on stage and presenting or it could be pitching an idea in a boardroom or having a heated discussion with a loved one and I just couldn’t get it done.

And so I didn’t know that there was this thing called psychology, certainly psychology of sport. This was like 30 years ago or 40 years ago now. And I was in a competition and somebody, it was Big Wave Surfing and a gentleman paddled by me and he said, “Gervais, I see you surfing out here every day.” I was 15, he was like 20 some years old. He says, “I see you surfing out here every day. What are you doing? You’ve got to stop worrying about all the things that could go wrong.” And I thought to myself. How does he know what’s in my head? That’s it. That’s all I was doing. I was worrying about what people would think of me. I was worrying about which was the impetus for this book of 30 years later.

But worrying about what would happen if I made mistakes, how would they judge me, critique me? What if I were to get hurt? It was just a busy mind and I was anything but present with what I was caring so much about. So that’s what led me to study psychology and what formally the study of sports psychology, which is really the study of excellence. And when I say the word excellence, I just want to give an asterisk because excellence doesn’t mean to me the shiny metallic metal. It means the ability to be at home wherever you are. And sometimes that, wherever you are, is in a high-stress, high-pressured, chaotic environment. And just having the ability to be at home with yourself. So that’s where I spent the last 20 plus years.

Katie: I love that. I love when there’s a personal tie-in to a life’s work and purpose. And I would guess that there’s a lot of factors that go into this that make us vulnerable to the opinions of other people. I know for me, for instance, I was more on the academic side growing up and I internalized early from being told I was smart, kind of a high stakes game around that. And so I realized a pattern in adulthood where I was unwilling to try things I wasn’t already good at, which is obviously a paradox and you can’t get good at something without trying it. So I’m actually currently now for the first time in my life really delving into the athletic world and training for a heptathlon as a way to very much get out of my comfort zone. And not to your point, not that I expect to be competitively good at it or win, but in a way to challenge those barriers of my mind.

But for me that highlighted that there are things that can happen that seem small and somewhat inconsequential, even in childhood, but that we can internalize and then they can become limiters later on. But I’d love to hear from your research, your take on where does this vulnerability to other people’s opinions seem to come from? Because this seems like an almost universal human struggle that we all experience.

Michael: I love that you framed it as a vulnerability to other people’s opinions. And I’ll open this up here in just a moment, but I want to acknowledge heptathelete like that’s this, heptathlon are serious, serious business. And how can you, how do you find, I’m enamored. How can you find the time to do that? And be a mother of six and run the household in that way. How can you do that? That’s awesome.

Katie: Oh, well, thank you. It’s partially a bonding experience with my kids. All of my kids are athletes and I have a daughter who’s highly competitive in pole vaulting. And so it’s been a way to bond with her and get to do track and field. And it was also kind of like, I had always not defined myself as an athlete. So I just sort of chose the highest athletic endeavor as a female that I could do to try to break through those barriers. And to be fair, hurdles might be the actual death of me, but it’s been a really fun challenge so far.

Michael: That’s great. Okay. So this vulnerability to people’s opinions, actually, we are biologically wired to attune to people’s opinions. And we’ve got this ancient brain that’s millions of years old with some very rudimentary processing that takes place. And we’ve got modern day challenges and problems that our brain is not optimized for. So our brain is designed to scan the world and find danger. It’s designed to keep us alive. It’s designed for safety. And one of the very dangerous things in the world is yes, you know, saber-tooth tigers and wildebeest and you know, those things are dangerous and warring tribes are very dangerous.

But what’s also very dangerous is a scowl. When somebody looks at you privately and or publicly, even more so, and they have full-on rejection or even just the hint of rejection. So rejection meant that you are no longer part of this community. You are no longer part of this belonging, which is mired with safety. So if you were rejected, and I was rejected literally from a tribe, millions of years, or hundreds of thousands of years ago, That was a death sentence in many respects, because if the two of us were kicked out because we did something in error to the morality or the performance of the tribe. I’ll explain that in a minute. That would mean we had to hunt, gather, forge. We had to build safety. We had to protect against all the dangers of the world. And that’s just not going to last long enough to be able to live a good life.

So we’re very tuned to picking up acceptance and when we’re on the fringe of rejection. So in social settings, it’s one of the most dangerous things in that setting is getting rejected. So our brain is constantly scanning for it. So that’s why we’re vulnerable to it. The way that… That’s an onramp. It’s a biological onramp to be tuned to what people think of you. This book, The First Rule Mastery, is not about not caring about what other people think. It’s about not worrying. To the successive worry about what they might think of me later. Is what FOPO is, Fear of People’s Opinions. And I do not believe that FOPO is something that just, you know, let me say this differently. I do not believe FOPO rises to a clinical level of a psychological condition. I do believe that most of us, if not all of us, on the healthy spectrum, narcissists and sociopaths, not included here, I don’t think that they have FOPO for people’s opinions. But the majority of us do and we worry about it. And it’s normal, it makes sense.

But if we don’t address the many onramps to FOPO, we can find ourselves living our life attuned to what other people want us to be, what other people want us to do or say. And that’s a, in modern times, that is a difficult, if not dangerous way to actually go through life, is to play it safe and small and compromise one’s authenticity and values to be aligned with the masses, to be aligned with the strong person in a room. Because, you know, forbid if we were to ever push against that, what would happen?

And so that’s really what this book is about. It’s about the anxiety that we carry around with us. And quite possibly as a psychologist who’s worked with the best in the world for the last 25 years, I think this is one of the greatest constrictors of human potential. And, you know, it’s this relentless effort to avoid rejection and to be accepted. And it’s this exhaustive attempt to be liked that we’re finding is one of the main contributors, so I introduce a new phrase here, a main contributor to the human energy crisis.

We are fatigued and tired. We are overrun, over-scheduled, overworked, under-recovered. And one of the reasons that we are under-recovered is because we don’t have the right places anymore, like the formal religions and spiritual practices have been compromised in the last, let’s call it five years to be kind. Meaning there’s a decrease in those places of activity. And we were never taught, I was never taught how to take care of my mind how to take care of my inner life in high school, in grade school, high school or college. And so it’s if you have to go out and figure out how to do that later.

And this is one of the culprits of why we’re so tired because we’re constantly managing, am I okay in the eyes of others? And that is just a massive drain on energy. And so that’s what this book is about is the on-ramps and the off-ramps to be able to work with this anxiousness about what people might be thinking of me.

Katie: And as you’re saying that, I’m definitely noting, having gotten to read this myself and wanting my kids to read it as well, especially my older ones. But you mentioned, so paradoxically, I would guess that striving to have other people like us actually probably potentially limits their ability to like us in some ways, whereas living more authentically likely increases the chances of that authentic connection with other people.

But you mentioned we’re naturally attuned to the opinions of what others want and what they think. And just understanding that paradox, I’m guessing, is not the only, like that’s not going to completely unravel it. I’m sure work that goes into that. And like you, I agree with that statement. I don’t think we’re taught how to take care of our mind. And that’s been a massive unraveling for me as an adult is to realize, first of all, to pay attention to my inner language and my inner speak, and then to learn how to cultivate it in a more positive direction.

And I know you cover this extensively in the book, but what are, you mentioned on-ramps, what are some of the beginning off-ramps of that? How do we start to break that pattern that so many of us have?

Michael: Well, before I go to some of the off-ramps, which I’m happy to talk about, there’s one more on-ramp that you already mentioned that I think is worth talking about, which is at a young age, I think you said that you were recognized for your academic prowess. Is that correct?

Katie: Yeah, and it made me very attuned to that with my kids. I was told I was smart, which from reading about that, that’s a thing that we can think of as like out of our ability to change somewhat. And so with my kids at a more surface level, I’ve tried to highlight the things that they have power over, like their hard work when they have poured a lot of creativity into something or some kind of to highlight characteristics that they hopefully feel that they have some power to change.

Michael: So good. It’s great research and I love hearing that you’re applying it. And so what happens for people like yourself and like me, and I can give examples, and many of us in our communities is that we did, our parents didn’t quite know that research and aren’t doing what you’re doing right now with your kids. And so we were told we’re smart or what a fill in the blank academic or athletic and athletic, you can actually change, but like what ends up happening for people at a young age when they’re good at something, is that there’s what’s called Identity Foreclosure.

So identity foreclosure is one of the great risks of the good life. And so it definitely is an on-ramp for FOPO, but it’s an on-ramp for high anxiety and not knowing who you are and how you fit in this world. Because when our identity is collapsed, on the thing that we’re good at, it’s called the Performance-based Identity. And a performance-based identity is problematic because at the ages of 12 to 22 in that range, according to developmental psychology, we’re trying to sort out who we are. And if we close all the chapters down to say, “I’m an athlete”, or “I’m an academician”, or “I’m a good student” and everything else fades away. When we go into the next chapter of our life, and that can be earlier than the age of 22, it could be like at 16, once we’ve solidified that I am, which is never going to be big enough at that age, right? We’re so much more than just one thing.

But again, to simplify this, when we say, “I’m an athlete”, and then we foreclose everything that’s around it, when we go into that athletic environment, our entire identity is at stake. That’s why our heart pounds. That’s why we lose our way. That’s why when I was a young surfer, I didn’t know how to get free because my entire identity was at stake. So I was competing on two fronts. I was competing with the environmental conditions of surfing, right? So that’s hard enough as it is. And I also had another competition that I was managing, which is my identity. It’s too much.

And that is why we feel that fight-flight freeze mechanism kick on because there’s so much on the line when our identity is not healthy. So performance-based identity is really about, I identify with what I do, and here’s the kicker. With how I’m compared to how well you do. That’s where it gets really tricky. And what we found, so that’s an on-ramp to worry about what people are thinking, because it’s about the relationship being just being a little bit better than others.

And then the off ramp there is what’s called a Purpose-based Identity. So a purpose-based identity is when you go beyond your performance acumen, you go beyond that you are so much bigger than what you do. And so a purpose-based identity is exactly what it sounds like. It’s trying to discern and figure out like, “what is my purpose today?” That’s a small thin slice of purpose. What is my purpose for this week? And eventually when you start practicing thin slices of purpose. And you push your chair back from your desk or from the dining room table. That you start to think about what is my life purpose? And that’s big. That is daunting to so many of us.

But if you can start thinking about your purpose in a thin slice way, like “what is my purpose for today?” It has very little to do with your performance and how well you’re performing relative to other people. Again, that’s exhausting, but what is my purpose? You start to find a different way of engaging with yourself, engaging with your performance, because there are performances we all need to do. But it’s just the way that the contour and the shaping of how you fit with that performance and the caring less about what they might think, but caring more about the opportunity to carry forward your purpose or your part of that purpose. So that’s an on-ramp and an off-ramp, if you will, as a bit of a bookend.

Katie: Yeah, I love that. That reframe, I feel like is super helpful. And it touches on something else which I would love to delve into, which is it seems like on average negative thoughts can be a lot more sticky or magnetic than positive ones or at least easier to attach to. Have you delved into why that is and potentially anything we can do to sort of shift that balance?

Michael: You are right, we are biologically, I’ll go back to this idea again, we’re biologically wired to attune to things that are disgusting, like a smell of, you know, putrid smell or it’s saying like that could be a foul something, stay away, whether it’s poison or something. So we are more attuned to the things that are dangerous because again, our brain is designed for survival. So the negative piece is about what’s not working and what’s not working could lead you to rejection, could lead you to poor performance, could lead you to being kicked out of the tribe in some respect, could lead you to being hurt. So that negative bias is there for good reasons. Just knowing that can create some freedom, but actually you have to do something with it.

And I don’t use the word positive negative, I use the word productive unproductive. And so. It’s just, that just helps me and I think the athletes and people I work with. Be a little bit less critical and judgmental about this is positive, this is negative, this is good, this is bad, and get into something that’s more about unproductive or debilitating or productive and facilitative, you know, if you want to be a scientist or more pedestrian in the language.

So productive unproductive is recognizing when something’s not working for you and guiding your thoughts into something more productive. And once you train at a fundamental level, awareness of how you speak to yourself, the world ends up being just a little different. Because the way you inhabit your emotions and feelings, the way you inhabit your body, emotions or physical sensations. So the way that you’re working with your emotions and your thoughts is either incredibly constricting or wonderfully freeing. And I would just…If I’ve learned anything over the last 25 years of working with World’s Best, tey are not in the game yet. They could be the best in the world. This is going to sound blasphemous, but they could be the best in the world at something, but they haven’t scratched their potential if they haven’t invested in awareness training.

It all begins with awareness, awareness of your thoughts and emotions, awareness of how your body is working. And awareness of the things outside of you, awareness of the unfolding surroundings around you. With dull awareness we end up being slow to make the changes to adjust to the demands of the environment, to adjust to the demands of authenticity. And we end up just kind of struggling to figure it out. So the whole thing begins with awareness. From in this case, unproductive thoughts to guiding and navigating, winking at them, hello and goodbye, quick little exhale to something that is more productive, something that builds you.

Katie: I really like your language around that too, because one thing I discovered in my own journey that I’m very much still on with that is that if we just try to shut them down or resist them, they often tend to stick around even longer. I don’t know the scientific way to describe that, but it seems like resistance is not the option, but you kind of spoke to an acknowledgement of them. And then letting them go. Do you have any practical steps for learning that process? Because I know for me, at least early on, I wasn’t even aware of some of the language I was using internally, or I wasn’t even aware of some of that that was going on.

Michael: I think mindfulness is one of the grounding practices to help anyone become more aware. There are three best practices. So mindfulness practice or meditation. The second is journaling. And the third is conversations with people of wisdom. It’s those three that help increase awareness. And then once you’re more aware to get to that second point of like how do you work with your thoughts, there’s two approaches.

One is, I’ll use an analogy, it’s more like karate. So it’s like thought stopping and like blocking. It doesn’t work for me. Maybe according to evidence. I’m sorry, according to research, there is a population that has been productive for them. It doesn’t work for me. I am more Aikido, more Judo, where I need to see it, recognize it, and hand it off and move to take that and move forward in a different direction. And so Aikido is softer and karate is more right angles. So there’s not a right and wrong. And both have been found according to evidence and research, like productive for people. I’m just more Aikido in this respect. It sounds like you are too.

Katie: Gotcha. That’s a great analogy and it makes sense. Okay, so there is a difference there and definitely not everyone is like you and I sound like we are. Circling back to, you mentioned how we value other people’s opinions and you explained how we’re wired to do that and this had a survival purpose. H

ow can we learn to value our opinion of ourselves over what other people think? And even for that, I know for some people maybe the struggle is actually figuring out what we want and think outside of other people’s opinions at all to begin with.

Michael: Let’s start with that first one is how do we come to value our own opinions, right? So what ends up happening, is a classic condition in psychology and you run an experiment and they tend to be the college kids that are the subjects most experiments. And you put a white coat on somebody that’s a little bit older. So now that I’ve got this white coat of expertise or authority or someone that knows more. And they walk in and they’ll say some stuff and the subjects of the experiment believe that to be true. I’m not pointing to a specific study, I’m saying overall, like that is a pretty well-understood principle. So we do that with other people. Is that unfortunately many of us will default our knowing and knowledge to the expertise of somebody else. And it’s actually something that’s happening right now in your communities. And I hope people are not listening to me saying, “oh, the expert”, I don’t see myself as an expert. I see myself as a work in progress, studied this stuff a lot. I’ve got some interesting ideas around it, but each of us in our communities need to run experiments for ourselves. And we need to understand like thought experiments and emotion experiments to understand what works right for us. Because we are not the subjects in that experiment.

And so the way that we do this is to just recognize, like, “am I deferring?” my sense of how much I value somebody else’s opinion, to am I deferring that to them? And when we, what’s it called? Outsource. When we outsource our opinion and to other people about who we are and how well we’re doing, that’s another massive on-ramp. It’s a very dangerous proposition. So to do well in this, just recognize, am I giving them too much power? Okay. And if you’re not sure about that, that’s okay. But if you are, you’re like, yeah, I don’t, when I’m tangled up in a conversation that’s kind of heated, I don’t necessarily fight or want to run away, which is normal for many people that haven’t trained their mind. But I feel like I submit. I feel like I just give in and I just, I don’t want to fight, but I don’t want to leave. I just want to feel okay. That’s submitting. It’s not talked about as one of the mechanisms. And one of the ways that we do that is, or to work with this, is that we have to speak to ourselves in a credible way. So for outsourcing the credibility to another person, we have to work from the inside to build our credibility.

And the way that we build our own credibility is twofold. One is you make a clear decision that you’re going to do something very hard today. And then when you do that hard thing, you back yourself and you speak to yourself just like one of your greatest coaches might. And you’re building yourself from the inside out. Like, “that’s right, you did it. That’s the work that you did. Nice job. Keep it going. If you can do this, you can do other hard things”. So you’re building your own credibility because you can’t talk to yourself in that kind of way unless you’ve earned the right to do that.

So the twofold path here is doing hard things and then backing yourself with that type of language. Now, you don’t have to necessarily do something today to speak to yourself in that way. You can back catalog all the hard things you’ve done in your life. And this is something we do with athletes all the time, is we ask them to index things in their life that they’ve done, where they’ve squared up with something hard, where they’ve had real adversity in their life, maybe trauma even. Ask them to write it down. And then ask them to coach themselves on how they worked through that. Like become a little bit of a researcher. How did you navigate that thing? Whatever item number two on your list, how did you navigate that? How did you get through it? And what did you learn from it?

And then the column next to it, so there’s three columns, the hard thing, what you learned from it, and then the third column is, what statements have you earned the right to say? What statements have you earned the right to back yourself? And so once you’re clear on that third stuff, it’s grounded in something that is real that you went through. Then you’ve earned the right to say. “I’m a savage. I’m free flowing. I figured things out. I can do hard things in my life. I’m a lover no matter what”. Like you can just say those things because you’ve earned it.

And so what I’m suggesting is we need a credible source to know how to believe what we say to ourselves. And so that comes from doing hard things from this point forward and learning how you speak to yourself and back yourself that way, and then indexing all the hard things you’ve done in your life. That only takes 10 to 15 minutes and it might be a little emotional. That’s cool. You get a little practice at being, you know, connected to emotions as well. But really what you’re trying to get to is the statements that you’ve earned the right to say to yourself.

Katie: I love that as a journaling approach and I’m going to definitely try it out myself. I also am curious, it seems like a lot of these things can start in childhood with what we internalize and of course there’s a dynamic there with our parents where we are when we’re very young outsourcing a lot of things to them by sheer need to do that when we’re too young to do them ourselves and then there has to be a sort of switch that happens as we become more autonomous.

But for many of the parents listening, I would guess and intuit that part of the answer here of course is that we have to do these things ourselves and model them and that’s the most powerful example we can give our kids. But I’m also curious, are there any things we can do as parents to help our children have a stronger framework for these things at an earlier age so that perhaps they don’t have as much to un-pattern and repattern when they’re adults? Are there any, whether it be like hands-on strategies we can use with them or mental frameworks we can help them build from a younger age than we’re learning them?

Michael: We live in a performance obsessed culture. It’s a fixation with how well we perform and it’s seeped into our work, our school, our parenting, youth sports, social media, you know, and it’s having an exponential impact on the quality of our lives. When we think about parenting in this frame is that if we can just about do anything to decrease our attention to the performance abilities of the person. And so if we’re obsessed with living relative to how well we’re performing in work or whatever, they’re just going to pick that up. So there’s no chance. So if you’re obsessed with performance, you stand very little chance and at best you’ll be a hypocrite.

And so the first order of business is for us as parents to work from the inside out. And that’s what the first rule of mastery is pointing to, is to make a fundamental commitment to work from the inside out. And what does that mean? It means to invest in your psychology. It means to study your own psychology. It means to have an understanding of what excellence means and feels like to you. And again, excellence for me is being at home with myself wherever I am in a stressful, rugged, consequential, high-pressured environment, still being at home with myself so I can think creatively and critically and I can adjust to the unfolding moment. That takes time. And the time that it takes when you work from the inside out starts with awareness.

So if you’re not on a meditation practice, you’re not doing some sort of regular journaling to get down to the essence of something and, or you’re not in rich conversations with people of wisdom. Meaning maybe it is a psychologist, maybe it is a rabbi or pastor or somebody, maybe it’s the neighborhood wise woman on your street, like whatever it might be. But being in that awareness building process is ground zero. And so the next thing is when you work from the inside out, you’re more clear on what matters most. And it is not the opinions of others. It is the opinions of some people though. And it’s being clear about how to go to those people in an open mind and a clear heart to learn from them.

This is one of the greatest unlocks that I learned from working in elite sport is that they make a fundamental commitment in their life to become their very best. And they practice doing hard things every day amongst their peers, publicly scrutinized by coaches, by their peers, and sometimes by millions of people on game day. But they make that commitment to be publicly, again, whether that’s small room or big room or big stage environments to be to be coached in a way where their missteps are being pointed out and a path forward is being developed. That vulnerability is hard for people.

So how do you do it if you’re just, you know, you’ve got six kids and you’re trying to figure it out is making a fundamental commitment to figure out where you want to grow. And then knowing that you don’t do it alone. And you need other people to help you through that process. And that’s where relationships pay dividends. So how can you help your kids? Work from the inside out. Definitely, increase awareness practice. One of those three that we talked about. Third is nobody does it alone. So working that vulnerability relationship so that they can help you get better at something is a commitment. And then we don’t pour into our kids, like you got to be better, you’re so amazing. Like we’re pouring into them practices built on the science of psychology, self-talk, breathing, mindfulness meditation, performance imagery, goals, goal setting, and those goals that are 100% under your control. And doing that every day, like my son every day walks into practice and he has between one and three goals that are 100% under his control. That’s a simple little practice. And you can, if you want to start somewhere maybe, and you’ve got a kid that’s into sport or music or something, or even school. Three goals, 100% under their control, and then ask them about those goals at the end of the day. So there’s, I give you a lot. There’s lots of places to start with. And I’m happy to double click on any of those.

Katie: I love the emphasis on conversations with wise people. I think that’s a great stuff that often gets overlooked. And I know that from reading some of your work, there’s also the counterpoint to that, which is the importance of alone time, which seems like we are kind of at a crisis and having not very much of that in today’s world with so much, especially for moms that takes up our time, but even with just social media and TV and all the things that compete for time. I know there’s all the quotes around all of man’s problems stem from his inability to sit quietly in a room, but I know that this is also an important piece of the puzzle. So can you talk about the importance of alone time and why we seem to have a resistance to that often?

Michael: Absolutely. One, there’s some classic studies in psychology and one in particular that people would rather shock themselves than be alone with their own thoughts. And it seems counterintuitive because most of us are living our lives. The calendar’s whips end, like we’re full. And we even brag about it. How’s life, you busy? Which is a terrible question as an indicator of success. So we have this idea that if I could just have a little bit of downtime, if I have more time to myself, but then when given that time, it’s so unfamiliar that people, according to research, would rather shock themselves and sit alone.

The reason it’s so difficult is because we are not familiar with the noise and the way that we speak to ourselves, our internal narrative. And so those narratives, when you start to feel and pay attention to them, can trigger some emotions that are uncomfortable. And as humans, it’s one of the, I don’t know, it’s one of our, we think, us and some primates, that we’re one of the few that get to have feelings. And so not emotions, but feelings.

So let me just clarify this. Emotions are physical sensations, as enablers to ready us for motion, emotion, to move, to fight flight, to be connected, whatever the emotion is calling for. But feelings is subjective and they’re private, and they’re not observable, they’re not designed for something. Feelings are the way that you interpret the emotion. So humans are one of the unique features of being human is that we’re able to have feelings.

So that’s what’s so hard about alone time is that you are left with your thoughts and your feelings. And you don’t have the stimulation of physical exhaustion or stimulating questions or the internal pressure to get something done where you’re focusing your mind on one thing. You’re left to muse with your feelings and your thoughts. And that tends to be unpracticed and anything that’s unpracticed can feel overwhelming. That’s why in any developmentally minded environment, whether it’s sport or the arts or business, We hopefully are intentional and we start them in calm environments, quiet environments when we want them to learn something. And then we slowly ramp up the stress or pressure. Then we go from, you know, imagery to no bullets. I’m thinking about military framing right now, to rubber bullets. And then eventually one day to live bullets. So when you’re left with yourself, it’s like you’re left with just your thoughts and feelings. And when they’re overwhelming, we don’t know what to do. We’d rather shock ourselves according to the research.

So what do you do in those moments? Just notice the way that the emotion or the feeling is experienced. And just notice where in your body you experience it. Just notice the thoughts that triggered it. Notice the way that you want to get out of it or what it’s like to stay in it a little bit longer. So when you do have alone time, writing or and or meditating is a massive investment that you can make in yourself. And it’s also the investment you can make in other people as well.

And maybe I’ll just kind of round this, this part of the conversation up with the story of Beethoven that we found doing the research for the book is that Beethoven one of the greats of all time. Unrivaled in his musicality. And his genius. Became so afraid of what people would think of him, so overwhelmed by this idea that he, of all people, was losing his hearing. The person who had perfect attunement to music was unfortunately losing his hearing. So what he did, now this is the kind of alone experience, he faked, even though he couldn’t hear people, he was faking like he was in his own creative world. So what he did is he eventually had to go away. He went away for years because he couldn’t be around other people for the fear that they would know his true self. And he tuned and recalibrated back to what was honest and true to him. And in his alone time, when he went away, literally in hibernation almost, when he went away, he came out with number five, Symphony number five, one of the greatest musical pieces of all time. You know, it starts, bum, bum, bum, bum.

And so that idea that when we go away, there’s something difficult to wrestle down. And maybe on the other side of it, something beautiful holds up to Beethoven, it holds up to most people I know. So we don’t need to go away for years. We can thin slice it with, you know, what research is suggesting somewhere between eight and 12 minutes as a minimal dose, if you will, but more is likely better. We just don’t necessarily know that completely. And so I’ll stop there and hopefully that answers some of your question.

Katie: Yeah, it absolutely did. And as you’re speaking, I’m curious if any of the stoics were influences on your work as well, because some of the things you say remind me of things I read from the stoics. And also, a quote came to mind from Viktor Frankl, who’s been a tremendous influence on me, of the idea that everything can be taken from us, but one thing, which is the ability to choose our own emotions and reactions in any given situation. So I’m just curious if those were also sort of influential teachers for you?

Michael: Absolutely, I was first exposed to the Stoics in undergrad in, I think it was like 1992, and I thought… I did it my minor in undergraduate school was in philosophy. And I thought, “Oh, these are my people”. Like the idea and you can see the the way that the setting goals that are 100% under your control. That it is, not orthogonal to the goal setting science, but it’s not talked about enough. And that’s definitely a Stoics practice.

And so, yeah, the Stoics were complicated too. The Stoics and some of the, Marcus Aurelius killed thousands of people, you know? Like some of them were really complicated, but I just love the idea of, why bother with all the things that you can’t control? Why commit to those? Why bother spending any attention on them? Spend more time on the things that you have volitional control over. This world is not designed to help you be your very best. We have to make an investment in those practices and in the ways that we influence ourself and others around us to become our very best and hopefully to help others do the same. That’s how you create a rising tide.

You can create that lift in other people and yourself when you are controlling and maybe even mastering those elements that are 100% in your control. And I think we all need a rising tide and it starts with you in your community. That’s where the beginnings happen to make a real noticeable impact on yourself and others. You have more power than you know, you have more potential than you know. And there’s a set of very easy practices to commit to that make the world a difference for people. We’ve hit on a bunch of them already.

Katie: And I know you cover a lot more in the book. I’ll make sure that’s linked in the show notes for you guys listening. I definitely highly recommend it.

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I’m also curious, I know one variable that we get to contend with in today’s world that would be different than, for instance, when the Stoics were alive, is the influence of technology and how pervasive that’s become. I’m curious if anything in psychology has shifted in the modern world with the advent of so much technology and or ways that we’re seeing that play out in human connection and human relationships. I know this is a big topic among parents, both for our own technology use and technology use in children. But I always love to be aware of the potential things we face as a result of these new changes in technology that I feel like our kids especially are the first generation to have available their entire lives.

Michael: It’s different now. And so we need to think about how that’s impacting the way that we parent. And again, I’ll go back to a first principle is that the way we parent is rest on the way that we live. So it rests on our philosophy. It rests on our first principles and the way we work our life. And so if left unexamined, we end up passing forward. Many of the practices that our parents or grandparents handed to us. But we have different conditions than just, you know, the generation before. So it does require a new way of adjusting and that does require a new way of living.

So social media, listen, some of these applications that were close to being addicted to, if not fully addicted for some, we’re outgunned. They have hundreds, if not thousands, of PhD psychologists and behavioral experts on how to manipulate your attention to get you to stay on their platform. We’re out managed, 100%, me included. I am a high performance psychologist up against a thousand PhDs on them knowing how to work my attention and work my brain.

So I think we have to look at our own behaviors and how we are being pulled or attracted to those technologies. It’s a one way train. It’s happened. AI is here. It’s happening. And so I’m not a fan of wait and see. I want to understand what’s happening for our kids. So, playing and tinkering and being on the platforms is a good best practice, but it’s also dangerous because we can find ourselves sucked in to those rabbit holes as well. And I’m talking at the cost of 20 minutes here and there, 90 minutes here and there, oh my gosh, what’s happened? You know, it’s in my time. And I’m not saying I’m excluded from it. I recognize it’s a challenge for me as well, but unless I’m practicing it, I can’t begin to just, you know, my young child or my adolescent or even teenager is like trying to figure this thing out.

And then I’ll just add one more thing to it. Is that there’s a not so well-known research. It was a Cornell professor, Thomas Golilovich, which just had this incredible study. And it’s been about 20 years since he first did it. So what he did is he had about a hundred college students and put them in a room with their peers. Individually and alone, he asked them to wear a t-shirt with a photo of the pop singer Barry Manilow, which, you know, like, is not the epitome of cool. And so people would look at the shirt and be like, you want me to wear this and go in there in front of 100 of my friends and peers? Like, yeah, that’s what we want to do.

So I’m sharing this experiment findings in context to the highlight reels that we’re seeing from other people. So we’re inundated with the highlight reels of other people. And then this finding in the research is, when you put the two together, scary. So what happened is that people would walk into the room with their, you know, uncool Barry Manilow shirt. And then they asked, the researchers asked the students wearing the Barry Manilow shirt. You know, how many people in the room paid attention to what they were wearing? They thought it was about 50% of the people in the room would notice that they’re wearing this ugly, embarrassing shirt, and on average, less than 25%. So this was dubbed the spotlight effect. So less than 25% of people in any environment are noticing anything that you’re wearing. Let alone critiquing or holding it with that much importance. So the phenomena here is that we overestimate that we are important to other people. We overestimate that they are actually critiquing what’s happening for us. So of that 20%, a healthy majority, and I don’t have the number off the tip of my tongue here, a healthy majority didn’t care at all. They just noticed.

So why is this so important? Because if you’re comparing yourself to others, the highlight reel is on all of the grams. And you are operating under this “spotlight effect” that you think you’re more important in the eyes of others, more egocentric as a bias, if you will. And you’re sucked down the rabbit hole of giving your attention to these make believe highlight real worlds of other people. This is a massive drain on one’s sense of well-being and health. We are not at the center of the universe. That was discerned, you know, a couple of thousands of years ago, but we still feel like it. The highlight reels that we see, they are not true and we know it, but our kids don’t necessarily know it. So we have to help kids know that they’re not at the center of the universe. Though parents. Stop saying that your kids are so special. Stop swooning over every little thing that they do. That’s not where self-esteem comes from. That’s not where self-confidence comes from. That’s where narcissism is built.

Self-confidence comes from the child knowing how to speak to themselves about a challenge ahead. Teach them how to speak to themselves about the challenge. And then when they do the challenge, don’t say, “oh my God, that’s so amazing you did the challenge”, whatever it might be, talk to them about how they spoke to themselves about the challenge and how they spoke to themselves during the challenge. That is a massive unlock. If you can do that, you will stop building the spotlight effect, stop flaming the unrealistic idea that the highlight reel is the end all, and you’re helping them invest in the core capabilities that do allow some highlight reels to actually happen. Invest in those core capabilities, which is basically me saying invest in their psychology.

I’m sorry to say this, most parents are not qualified to do a great job here. You can become qualified if you make a fundamental commitment to work from the inside out on your own. Excuse me. And so maybe think about if you can afford it. Go to a therapist, go to a psychologist, even if it’s for 10 sessions, even if it’s just somebody that spent their whole life understanding best practices to work on some of the things we’ve talked about, and you spend $1,000. Maybe you got to save up for it. Maybe that’s easy to do. Wherever you are on that spectrum, that’s a radical investment in the quality of life that your children are going to live forward.

And so I’ll stop there because I didn’t have any of this as a kid. My parents did their best job. But I didn’t get it. And I’ve made a commitment in my professional life to give as much of this away as I possibly can. And so there’s real good here. And the community is benefiting from all the wisdom that you’re sharing as well.

Katie: Well, I absolutely love that parenting advice and I loved the idea of even going on the social media and having context for it and learning that self-management yourself too. It reminds me of that story that’s often quoted of a woman going to Buddha and saying, “can you tell my son to stop eating sugar?” And he says, “come back in three days”. And when they come back, “he says, stop eating sugar”. And she’s like, “why do we have to wait three days?” And he said, “well, three days ago, I had not myself stopped eating sugar yet”. And so I just, I love that story in that context.

And I know another side effect of so much of our connection moving online is that there’s statistically a decline in authentic in-person human connection and community. So I’m curious if you have any strategies for helping people regain some of that or nurture that. I feel like we live in a time where that’s not a thing that happens just naturally as a by-product anymore. And it’s something we have to have intentionality around. But do you have any strategies for that?

Michael: Oh, I love this question because there’s a call up in the image. It’s an old newspaper cartoon. And it was, it looked like a married couple or a couple that were walking into a holiday party and they’re walking up the three steps to get to the front door. And one of the partners turned to the other, I don’t know which gender it was and said, “I can’t wait to see our friends”. And then the other partner turns and says, “do you have as much pre-party anxiety that I do?” And so and then the other person, the first person turns back and says, “Yeah, I thought I was alone in it”. And so it’s this idea that even before social media, there was an anxiousness to even be around friends, but we don’t talk about it. And so some friends, it’s more, and for some people it’s less and whatever, but it’s just worth noting that social engagements can trigger a sense of anxiousness. And again, I think what underlies that is that readiness to respond at the slightest hint of rejection, and God forbid if I say something outrageous, or stupid or whatever. And so that’s where this readiness comes from, now that we’ve got social media and people are communicating in different ways, and I’m not sure it’s better or worse. It’s easy to say worse, but I’m not sure it is.

But what is happening is they’re less familiar, less practiced with communicating in person. And so micro expressions, squinting or unsquinting of the eyes, figuring out micro body language or demonstrative by language is less practice for people. So it becomes a bit more overwhelming on how to discern from what you and I might’ve considered basic skills. It’s harder for some of the kids to do it. That’s why one of the reasons when people are overwhelmed, they’ll look down. And some will look up, but most will look down. And it’s a way to kind of gather oneself and feel a little bit more safe. And so we think it’s low self-esteem or whatever you want to, you know, it’s just a moment to gather themselves because there’s so much information coming in.

So how do we help kids? Increasing the practice of, you know, being a person for sure. And then, but giving them those primary capabilities, teaching them how to breathe as they’re walking into a party to down-regulate, to decrease their anxiety, teaching them how to shape their body or contour their body, where their shoulders come up and back and down just a little bit, where their breastbone and chest bone is more available as opposed to kind of that crouched hiding posture. Because just that changes the way that other people experience you. And that can in return create some ease in your environment. It’s a little bit like the pit bull effect is that pit bulls walk down streets. And they look intimidating. Especially ones that have clipped ears and they’re big and they’re massive and they’ve got a reputation and they are tuned just like we are for danger. And so when they’re walking down the street on a leash with their, with their owner, and let’s say it’s the cutest dog in the, or the safest dog in the world. But you and I are walking in the opposite direction and we tighten up and kind of skirt our way around or we feel nervous and anxious. That that dog picks up, “oh, there’s something dangerous in the environment”. And so now they’re keyed up. So your fear and my fear has led to the other person’s fear, in this case, the dog.

So if we’re calm in environment, we teach our kids how to be calm in any environment, then they’re more likely to pick up micro expressions. They’re more likely to impact their community around them in ways that those kids feel a little bit more relaxed. So again, the first rule of mastery is about working from the inside out. And when you do that, your world internally fundamentally changes. And as an order of magnitude, so can your external worlds as well.

Katie: I love that. And like I said, I highly recommend the book because there’s so much more than we can cover in a one hour podcast episode, though I could certainly talk about this with you. But a couple quick questions I love to ask at the end of interviews. The first being if there is a book or number of books that have profoundly impacted you personally and if so, what they are and why.

Michael: Yes, I love your question here. You’ve already brought up Viktor Frankl. So, you know, just maybe triple down on his work. It’s incredible. And John Wooden, Be Quick But Don’t Hurry, has some incredible insights as well. All of the greats, meaning the books that have changed the world more than any other book, I’m more interested in those than anything pop culture. So, Bhagavad Gita, you know, the Koran, Bible, Old Testament, New Testament, Lao Tzu’s original work. You know, so if you can go pull up some of the originals of that, and I don’t mean original prints, but I mean, if you’re looking at the Tao Te Ching from Lao Tzu or any of the other great works of art that I just expressed. I do think that we owe it to humanity to at least understand some of those first principles, whether you agree with them or not, know that they’ve influenced a billion people maybe. Maybe you’ve just only read the Bible, check out some of the other great works of art, you know? And so, I’ll stop there and say there’s a lot out there.

I’ll give you one more that I think is really fun for parents, especially with kids that are performing. It’s called Mind Gym, and it’s this small little book, perfect for kids, perfect for me in a lot of ways too. And it’s like, half a page or even a quarter page a day and you keep it by your nightstand or keep it in your gym bag or violin bag and it’s just something you can read every day, something small. It’s not motivational, it’s skill-based. And it’s a practice that you can try today. And so that’s called Mind Gym, and the author is Gary Mack. He’s no longer with us, but he left us a nice piece of art.

Katie: I love that. I’ll link to those as well. And lastly, any parting advice for the listeners today that could be related to something we’ve covered or life advice that we didn’t get a chance to cover?

Michael: I don’t like advice and hope this is not offensive to you or other people, but it doesn’t work for me. I don’t know how to give it. I know I’m a licensed psychologist and been in really incredible environments and working in environments of great reference points of human flourishing. I’ve never lived in your shoes or somebody else’s shoes, so I don’t know what to say.

And so I think, you know, as a first principle is everything you need is already inside you. And so I found that to be incredibly powerful for myself and so many people that have literally, the way we understand what’s possible for humans. Is that they make an investment to go in. And I think that there’s something very powerful about that practice, but I don’t know if that works for everybody. Some people in your community and my community that are, and it could be you as well, I don’t know, are so traumatized that going in is just really overwhelming. So to go inside alone could be too much. So do it with somebody. And so anyways, maybe I just share first principle as opposed to a piece of advice, which is everything you need is already inside you.

Katie: I love that. I think that’s a perfect place to wrap up. I’m so grateful for your time. Thank you so much for being here.

Michael: No, I’ve… You just asked great questions to be able to allow me to use and kind of get on the soapbox a little bit. So I just want to say thank you, Katie, and congratulations on how you’re helping other people. What you’re doing is meaningful, and I’m honored to be on your show with you.

Katie: Thank you and thanks to all of you as always for listening and I hope that you will join me again on the next episode of the Wellness Mama podcast.

If you’re enjoying these interviews, would you please take two minutes to leave a rating or review on iTunes for me? Doing this helps more people to find the podcast, which means even more moms and families could benefit from the information. I really appreciate your time, and thanks as always for listening.



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