Using a compassionate mind to tackle mental health issues- Part 1.

The inspiration for this blog comes from Paul Gilbert’s work The Compassionate Mind and all content is derived from his book.

Our work and life culture are behind the rise in Mental Health

Mental health is on the rise. Feeling rushed, harassed, anxious, tired and time-pressured, perhaps even feeling as if life may feel meaningless at times are fast becoming the norm experienced by many people in our modern western society. It is certainly becoming the norm throughout our education system for many teachers and leaders.

We may have feelings, moods, and emotions that we don’t want but once they come over us it’s hard to pinpoint its cause. Its cause is this: We live in a culture that pushes for efficiency, competition and the setting and meeting of targets in everything! Get more done, do it better than person X, meet all targets and we will feel happier, successful and most of all content from this. But is this really so?

How the business model has infiltrated all areas of our lives

Many of us live in a world of unprecedented wealth and comfort, yet despite our insatiable drive for efficiency, the competitive edge and business model are influencing all aspects of our lives, even outside of the workplace. ( The business model that exploded post-1960s of target-setting, efficiency and competitiveness replaced the previous culture of social welfare, established after WW2).

In relation to schools, rather than schools working collegiality we are set up against each other rivaling for the best Progress 8 Scores. The NHS made up of departments used to work cohesively. Now with increased government involvement NHS departments are now also pitted against each other, competing to outdo each other in reaching set targets. NHS practice is suffering because of this. Teacher practice and personal welfare are suffering because of this. The quality within the NHS and education is suffering, but as long as we meet those ever-shifting targets right?

The new focus on efficiency holds no evidence that this is making us any happier than we were 50 years ago. Actually, there’s evidence that we are becoming unhappier and irritable as levels of stress increase in our hurry-hurry society. Although we have so many material comforts, we still find ourselves seeking deeper meaning, happiness, and enlightenment.

Despite all our wealth and comforts, it is estimated half of us will have Mental Health at one point in our lives: the two main types being anxiety and depression.

A recipe for disaster

Why with all the advancements, why aren’t these making us wonderfully happy as individuals and with others?

Madeleine Bunting in her book Willing Slaves reports that:

  • we are working longer hours
  • the age of retirement has been extended
  • short-term contracts have increased
  • there’s a shift away from the quality of life and welfare and into the business model
  • strong emphasis on meeting targets over quality
  • we are consumed with meeting targets.

Oliver James in his book Affluenza calls out Affluenza as meaning our addiction to affluence and a need for more and more.

John Nesh writes that our brains are evolved to deal with scarcity, not abundance. We are evolved to have seeking and a wanters mindset of more and more. This manifests itself in the modern day as our struggling to say no to our wants and that enough is enough. Add to that the marketing industry that does not allow us to be content and instead tells us we need more and more.

We haven’t learned how to train our minds for happiness and contentment. Every message within our families, schools, and work teaches us not to be content because this is resting on our laurels, which somehow smacks of laziness or lack of ambition.

So it’s not just our pursuit of affluence that is driving us crazy and making us irritable and exhausted and self-focused but that our competitive lives are exhausting. Our lifestyles are mentally, physically and spiritually exhausting and we know it. We are losing touch with things that nourish us.  The drive for efficiency is making life unbearable and keeping anxieties high as we compete all the time.

Science reveals ‘Love is all we need’.

Modern lifestyles can overload physiological systems. Mental health issues are on the rise. Our stress systems were designed to deal with short-term life stressors e.g. predators, short fights but not chronic stress. There is good evidence that the hormone Cortisol is useful for short-term response to life stressors because it energizes the body and focuses attention but it can actually damage the immune systems and the brain if it remains elevated for too long.

Life was tougher before in many ways- we’re not denying that but the focus here is how the new business model that has infiltrated our lives is driving a wedge of what we want, can buy or sell and what we actually need as sources of wellbeing.

Science is discovering that one of the remedies to our current state of anxiety and unhappiness (aside from Mindfulness and Meditation, but more about that in a separate post) is to be more compassionate in mind, word and actions both to ourselves and towards others. Being compassionate and receiving compassion from others is good for us; compassionate thoughts have powerful effects on the body. Kindness to ourselves and to others stimulates areas of the brain that are conducive to our health and wellbeing.

Humans have evolved to need love, kindness, and affection. Giving and receiving love, kindness and affection releases feel-good endorphins and oxytocins which are good for our health- mental and physical.

Make it an intention to be kinder to yourself in your thoughts- retrain your brain to think more positively about situations. Expand on this by being kinder to others in the workplace.

Let’s flood our bodies with all the magic-feeling hormones to increase happiness and wellbeing in the workplace.

Let’s refocus on Humanity first.

Leaders: Let’s become more mindful of when we are sacrificing our health and that of others for the sake of meeting (often unreasonable or unjustified) targets. Support each other. Lead your team with compassion. Use kindness as the driver and work together positively to achieve great things but without the do-or-die pressure that we currently operate in.

Part 2 coming soon.


Maximising leadership: Understanding personality diversity in the workplace

It’s important to understand the benefits of personality diversity in the workplace. Knowing who tips towards the Introverted or Extroverted side of the Spectrum is useful to an effective leader.

Workplaces are skewed towards Extroverts meaning that Introverts are overlooked.

(FYI Introverts include: Bill Gates, Emma Watson, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Junior King).

There is a strong case for recognising and valuing introverts’ gifts, contributions and strengths. If you better understand Introverts you can maximise their contributions.

Understand your team.

Get a handle on the styles, skills sets and preferences of those you will be supervising.

For the Extroverts: Extroverts need chances to talk it out. Find opportunities to put extroverts in people-interfacing positions where they can shine.

For the Introverts: (although not necessarily exclusively): Give everyone time to prepare. When creating a request or description of a problem and presenting it, give a timeframe for a solution and walk away. This allows the team to internalise the challenge, process information and deliver an answer without feeling they must come up with a response on the spot. Introverts want time to prepare, quiet periods during the day, privacy and a slower pace.

Remember that Introverts are:

  • Energised by solitude
  • Reserved in nature
  • Express thoughts after reflection (on the spot questioning won’t get the the best ideas from them).
  • Need time to prepare
  • Carry low key facial expressions
  • Prefer writing
  • Their strengths lie in innovation, competing and leading in a given market, creativity, inspiring and challenging the status quo.

Allowing introverted personalities the working environment to have access to the above means you’ll allow them to be at their best and in turn receive the maximum productivity,creation and innovation from them.

The model of successful leadership must expand from one that emphasises extroversion to one that includes introversion. Organisations lose out by not tapping into the introverted 40-60% of our population.

Diverse teams can accomplish more than homogeneous teams. Introverts and Extroverts working together bring the full range of strengths to a project.

Credit: Material from The Introverted Leader: Building on your Quiet Strength by Jennifer Kuhnweiler.

Credit for Image:


An Introverted Leader

Quiet, reserved, not one to interrupt others mid-sentence, not one to offer my ideas unless I am specifically asked to, not one to draw attention to myself, don’t necessarily enjoy small talk (I’d struggle with “How was your weekend?” but would speak volumes if asked about deeper topics such as world poverty or climate change), I feel like a fish out of water during group work, and oh my goodness I hate ice-breaker activities with a passion. How could these qualities ever allow me to become a leader? Surely these very qualities would render me dysfunctional for leadership, no?! All the aforementioned qualities I inherit from being an introvert. I used to only be aware of the ‘negatives’ of having an introverted temperament, seeing myself as a secondary citizen in an extroverted society, a quiet person that would be happy to make do with blending into the background; however, since I began to become more curious about what makes me, me I indulged in reading up on personality types and found it fascinating. Everything I read I could relate to and it all began to make sense. It is through this that I began to understand the traits of introversion and extroversion better and realised that the same introverted personality type that I had thought only came with inferior attributes actually equips me with a range of unique qualities and strengths that make me a powerful asset within a team. Some of these qualities are that: I give deep reflection to everything, I am very perceptive, I will notice a lot within an environment or amongst a group of people that most other people would miss, I am very emotionally receptive, determined, resilient, compassionate, conscientious and work with the utmost integrity, hold myself accountable (mostly to myself), follow my gut, know myself, exhibit good manners and respect to all, make others feel valued, strong, always care for the wellbeing of others, dedicated and loyal, have a strong moral compass and I work through method of consultation and listening rather than dictatorially, I do not hog the limelight but allow each member of my team to have a voice, a contribution and sense of value.

Our lives, friendships, choice of conversations, careers, leadership efficacy are all affected by our personalities. I now know that being an introvert can allow me to be a very effective leader. My knowledge in what it means to be introverted and to be happy within my own skin allows me to remain individualistic without feeling the need to conform. I am me, and it feels good. I play to my strengths and I use the strengths of my personality and temperament type to be an effective leader and to continue to improve to do so. Recently research has even gone as far to show that people perceive those that talk a lot to be effective leaders and those that talk little to be ineffective leaders and that these perceptions do not hold true, far from it. The research also shows that teams working under introverted leaders tend to be more proactive, initiative driven and feel more rewarded than those that work under extroverted leaders. This is because if extroverted leaders are not careful they can talk too much and listen too little, hog the limelight, take the credit, dictate rather than collaborate and come off very alpha.

Personality types| Introversion and Extroversion are descriptors of two main types of human personality that determines how a person re-energises, where they place their attention and what motivates them. Introverts and extroverts are known to have unique ways of energising, processing information and generally interacting with the world. It is worth noting that these two personality types exist on a continuum and although you may largely identify as being either an introvert or an extrovert you will find that you are able to move along this continuum depending on the time, moment or need of an environment but mostly you will find that you naturally rest at a particular end of the introvert-extrovert spectrum.

Living in an extrovert’s world| It is estimated that 50-74% of the population are extroverts. Despite a third to one half of us being introverts we ( in the Western society) see ourselves as a nation of extroverts and thereby propagate a value system dubbed as the ‘Extrovert Ideal’ where we see the ideal self as being fully expressive, unreserved, alpha, spotlight seeking, thinking less but acting more (even if actions are based on poor decisions). We have turned the extroverted personality type into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel the need to conform to. We seek to be more talkative, not only saying more, but saying it louder and faster, being overconfident at all times, calling the shots and holding negative bias towards those that are quieter than us, the so called introverts.

Some of our most important institutes such as schools are designed towards the Extrovert Ideal. We have activities, for staff and students alike that is always revolving around group work, collaboration, group learning and high levels of stimulation, with very few activities being catered towards those that are more introverted, leaving introverts having to pretend to be extroverts which is exhausting and energy depleting for them. It is time for us introverts to stop camouflaging ourselves and flying under the radar and instead come forward with a knowledge of what it means to be introverted, it’s kryptonite and strengths and to know how to use these strengths to propel ourselves forward in the workplace. I mean, just think about our world without the likes of Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Chopin, Steven Spielberg, J.K. Rowling, Dr Seuss, Bill Gates, Rosa Parks, Walt Disney. These were all introverts who played important parts in creating and contributing to the Sciences and Culture with some of them having to lead on a level as big as that of CEO!

It’s all to do with biology| Our introversion or extroversion is the result of our biology, which is the makeup of our genes and how this impacts the functioning of our nervous system, namely the brain. Introverts are genetically highly sensitive to dopamine. Dopamine is a neurochemical that provides our brain with the feel good factor or a feeling of reward. Introverts receive enough dopamine from quiet activities such as reading a book, painting, admiring objects in a museum, cycling through the woods etc. which means that they don’t need as much external stimulation for their brain to give the body a sense of reward or a feel-good hit. Therefore introverts tend to be orderly and cautious and enjoy the comfort of routine. For an extrovert, their brain produces less dopamine and so the extrovert has to engage in more thrill-seeking behaviours to get the right amount of dopamine that gives them their feel-good hit. So this would be activities such as partying, skydiving, talking on stage to a large audience etc.

Research around the brain and its function shows that there are separate pathways for different neurochemicals within the brain. Introverts have even more blood flow to their brains meaning more internal stimulation, making different areas of the brain more sensitive to that of a non-introvert. The blood flow also takes a different pathway in an introvert’s brain compared to that of an extrovert’s. The introvert’s pathway is more complicated and focuses inwardly and internally, the blood flows through areas linked to memory, solving problems and planning, the path is a complex one. The extrovert’s brain however has a fast pathway with blood flowing to areas that recognise visual, auditory, touch, taste, and smell stimuli. Their brain focuses outwardly, they soak in sensory stimuli and it excites them and it is a quicker and more instant neural pathway. Therefore what would be overwhelming to an introvert would be exciting to an extrovert and what would be stimulating for an extrovert would be energy draining for an introvert.

Playing to your strengths| Because of all the activity happening in the brain of an introvert it means that usually we reduce eye contact when speaking as it allows us to focus on collecting our thoughts when speaking but we give our full attention and body engagement when listening to others. We can be quiet but this is not the same as being shy, we are quiet which makes us excellent listeners and we become very animated when a topic of interest is touched upon (remember I said we tend to move away from small talk and jump straight into the deep conversations). Introverts are cautious when speaking, needing more time to articulate their opinions (due to that extra complex brain pathway the blood and transmitters have to take). We are sociable but need moments of solitude for our moments of eureka in which our creativity is ignited. We are far more creative alone than we are in a group. We have a good memory although it can take a moment or two to recollect information and extrovert’s can find our pausing to mull during conversation and our slower rate of speaking rather frustrating! We are clearer about ideas and thoughts and feelings after sleeping on them due to how our brain is wired, we possess a calm and reserved manner, our actions are well-informed and we like to plan and prepare. In contrast, extroverts have less internal activity as they scan the external world for instant hits of stimulation. This means that they increase eye contact when talking but decrease it when listening to others as they are noticing what is happening in the environment, they enjoy talking and feel energised by limelight, they tend to talk more than they listen, they are good at quick thinking, do well under pressure and feel invigorated by group chat but run the risk of reaching burn-out.

Where do you fall on the Introvert-Extrovert Spectrum? Take the test here: