Replacing Your Rock Star Moments With A Lifetime Of Flow

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Someone recently pointed out that I lead a pretty boring life.

After asking for my favourite moment of the past year, I described being elbow-deep in home-made compost picking out some juicy worms to prepare for my next batch of kitchen leftovers.

The subsequent eye-roll and ‘each their own’-mumble reminded me I probably needed to find a more glamorous hobby. But it also highlighted that when we’re asked to describe our most joyful experiences, most people instinctively feel the need to scan their memories for moments of pure ecstasy.

Like that time when we watched the sunrise on Machu Pichu, or when we were lucky enough to see the polar lights on a trip in the Arctic, or that day we had a foursome in a tipi at Burning Man.

While most of these are sadly still on my bucket list, I’d classify them as ‘rock star’ moments, rather than joyful experiences.

And a life filled with rock star moments alone is bound to lead to intensity addiction – meaninglessly living from one thrill to the next.

But if ecstasy-loaded activities on their own don’t lead to a happy life, then what does?

What makes people feel joyful?

Back in the seventies when pagers were still a thing, one of the godfathers of positive psychology – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – decided to conduct a large-scale experiment. He wanted to find out which life experiences were most likely to lead to happiness.

It involved repeating his name three times correctly into a mirror, and then he’d appear right behind you.

Fine, I made that bit up, but he and his team provided thousands of people from all walks of life with a pager which would go off at random intervals during the day. Once the device started buzzing, participants were then required to score themselves on a happiness scale. They also needed to write down how they felt and what they were thinking about in that particular moment.

The experiment showed that irrespective of nationality, age or gender, there’s a common theme in the type of experiences that makes people feel joyful – one that links a North American car plant worker putting parts together with a seventy-year-old farmer woman in the Swiss mountains milking her cows, and a South-Korean heart surgeon executing a triple bypass operation.

Indeed, what Csikszentmihalyi discovered was that a person is at their happiest when their body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

He called this experience flow.

What does being ‘in flow’ feel like?  

The best way to describe flow is to think back of an activity you were so involved with and ‘in the zone’ that time just disappeared. Minutes turned into hours and maybe you forgot to eat, drink or pee.

This is typical when you’re in flow. Your thoughts, feelings and actions are so aligned that you lose your sense of self – that’s how concentrated you are on the task at hand.

Whether you’re crocheting jackets for orphaned penguins, going for a 5k run for the first time without stopping, or putting on the finishing touches on a kick-arse sales presentation in Google Slides – you’re so focused on that one activity that everything feels in absolute harmony.

When you’re in flow, you don’t even realise you’re in it until the experience has passed.

You’re so utterly engaged with what you’re doing that all your mental power and bandwidth are taken up. There’s simply no space for anything else, including self-awareness. 

Other conditions for flow to take place

To achieve flow, you first need to be able to get yourself into a decent state of concentration. Ultimately, the opposite of flow is conflict – also known as psychic entropy.

An excellent example of entropy is the fact that it took me seven minutes to finish the previous sentence after getting stuck reading about Joe and Lucie’s romantic shenanigans on Love Island UK while trying to find a cleverer word to describe conflict. I’ve never watched Love Island, and I don’t even live in the UK.

Entropy sounds nice though.

How we deal with distractions depends on the person. Some authors write their best works knocking down a caramel Frappuccino in the local Starbucks, while others – like JK Rowling – need to lock themselves up in a five-star hotel to get the job done. Personally, I’ll write anywhere that serves burgers and doesn’t play Ellie Goulding.

Flow doesn’t come immediately either. Most people take twenty to forty minutes before they can really get into the zone – provided of course they don’t get distracted.

Secondly, for an activity to become a flow experience, there need to be clear goals and direct feedback on how well you’re performing. Without that feedback loop, you wouldn’t be motivated to do it. It would be like playing a keyboard that hadn’t been plugged in or singing without being able to hear yourself. I hope you’re reading this, Ellie.

And lastly, you need to be in control of the activity. Without that sense of agency, you’re only a bystander.

This is why many people fail to have as much flow at work as they’d like to. Even though writing a report to shareholders or a beautifully streamlined spreadsheet ticks all the right boxes, because it often doesn’t feel like a voluntary activity, it may not provide us with a sense of flow.  

Complexity versus skill

All flow activities are enjoyable, but not all enjoyable activities provide flow.

Indeed, for an activity to be both enjoyable and flow, your skills need to more or less match the complexity of that activity.  

If you look at the two axes of the graph below – challenge level versus skills  – you’ll notice a point where the balance starts to tip towards more positive emotions such as arousal, control (or comfort), relaxation and flow. The higher your skill level, the more likely it is therefore you’ll get enjoyment from an activity.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi - Finding Flow (1997)

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi - Finding Flow (1997)

For that reason, to achieve flow you need to encounter a challenge which is testing enough for your skills, and those skills need to be high enough to just about meet the challenge.

The just about-bit is very important. Your skill levels are almost matched, but not quite – so you’re stretching yourself.

Indeed, for flow to take place, there needs to be an element of learning – the activity has to be on the edge of your abilities. If it’s too easy, your mind will wander and you’ll get bored. But if it’s too difficult, you’ll despair and switch off.

This is also why most people don’t enjoy doing the same thing at the same level for too long – they become bored, frustrated and apathetic.

In Csikszentmihalyi’s words: ‘Flow transforms the self by making it more complex. In this growth of the self lies the key to flow activities.’ - The Psychology Of Flow (1990)

Say you’re a medium tennis player who’s up against an opponent in the next league. It’s possible you’ll get your arse kicked, but because the skill level required from you is only slightly higher than where you’re at, you’re likely to achieve a flow after playing for some time.

Competing against your seven-year-old nephew who spends most of his day playing Minecraft, on the other hand, is unlikely to provide you with the same flow experience. Because of your weak opponent, the complexity of the activity is too low.

Although flow is always an enjoyable experience, it isn’t always a positive experience. Take gaming, for example. Most video games are based on combining increasing skills with heightened complexity as the game progresses. But even though video games can provide a lot of flow after a long day at work, playing six hours straight without leaving the couch would hardly classify as an optimal experience.

Filling life with flow leads to happiness

We often assume that happiness lies in the pursuit of big moments of ecstasy and joy – holding your new-born baby for the first time, stepping into your first home after picking up the keys; catching your first breath after you’ve just jumped out of an aeroplane.

Rock star moments like these are important because they provide us with a strong sense of significance and an awesome reminder of being alive.

But, as Csikszentmihalyi’s research has shown, a happy and contented life doesn’t involve chasing one rock star moment after the other. Instead, it’s a life which is filled with experiences where we’ve focused our efforts on something that was difficult and worthwhile.

The challenge to all of us to find or create as many of those flow opportunities as possible.  

Snog, marry or avoid? Save Your Love Life By Testing Your Attachment Style.

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Photo by DESIGNECOLOGIST on Unsplash

I just don’t like who I become when I’m in a relationship

We’ve all heard – or said – that one before.

And it’s usually either a thin-veiled admission that he’s been checking your WhatsApp messages while you were showering off the post-coital bliss, or that she’s ghosted so many exes that even an Ouija board won’t go near her.

Finding out your attachment style

Both behaviours – stalking and ghosting – are on the extremes of what is known as attachment theory, a model which describes how people respond to being hurt or taken away from their loved ones.

Although the theory was developed to explain the attachment of children to their primary caregivers, it is particularly applicable to our adult dating lives.

John Bowlby, the British psychologist who first coined the theory, identified three main styles of relating to people – secure, anxious and avoidant.

Knowing which of these styles you subscribe to is by far the most important thing you can do when it comes to improving your dating life and your relationships.

Powered with that knowledge, you can then educate yourself – and those around you – about the romantic traps you’re likely to fall into when you enter a new relationship.  

Anxious attachment style

Research shows that roughly twenty-five per cent of the population has an anxious attachment style.

If you fall into this category, you have an above average craving for intimacy and closeness, and you don’t like the idea of not being in a relationship. You may describe your need as a desire for someone to complete you or to fulfil you.

While you’re wonderfully loving and sensitive to your partner’s moods and needs, you’re also very delicate when it comes to any type of perceived threat which threatens the romantic picture you’ve painted in your mind.

Your panic radar is extremely sensitive, so even if you’re not a particularly jealous person, the slightest whiff of ambiguity triggers paranoia that your partner may be falling out of love with you.

As a result, you require very regular verbal, physical and emotional reassurance that your partner is still committed to you.  

Your friends might describe you as emotional, romantic and passionate, while your exes would probably settle for clingy, paranoid and codependent.

Avoidants hate the drama

On the opposite end of the attachment scale, you’ll find the avoidant lovers – making up about 25 per cent of the population.

If you’re an avoidant, you’ll probably bring a lot of variety and excitement into a relationship, although often not a huge amount of emotional depth.

It’s not necessarily that you lack depth. It’s just that you prefer to avoid the hassle of having to deal with all the ‘drama’ that comes with relationships.

This is why many avoidants take a rather dismissive approach to love – resenting anyone who dares to impede on their emotional self-sufficiency. Indeed, you’re uncomfortable with the idea of depending on anyone else but yourself.

Whenever you feel yourself getting close to someone, your impulse to flee gets triggered and you’ll seek to distance yourself from your partner – either by casually bringing your incredible ex-boyfriend up in conversation, getting sarcastic with you boo, or by burying yourself in work.  

At the root of this frosty behaviour lies an often-touching backstory from the past, one which has led you to fear the very same thing that sends your anxious lovers into a tailspin – abandonment. 

Secure attachment rules the roost

Then there’s the fifty per cent of you lucky ones with a secure attachment style.

Generally, you have a reasonably positive outlook on yourself and on relationships. You’re okay with other people depending on you, and you’re equally comfortable depending on others.

Research also shows that most of you have pretty high self-esteem, are good at seeking out social support, find enjoyment in intimate relationships and are pretty adequate at sharing feelings with others.  

Your emotional prowess has the potential to ‘heal’ the relationship patterns of lovers on both ends of the spectrum.

Indeed, when you’re with an anxious partner, you take care of their neediness by making them feel safe and secure. And when you’re with an avoidant partner, you give them the space and sense of independence they crave.  

While by no means 24/7 fairy tales, relationships with secure lovers tend to be quite equal, honest and open – with both parties feeling independent, yet loving towards each other.

Indeed, your ability to communicate and tune into what your partner wants and needs, has turned you into genuine relationship gold.

Opposites attract

But, wait a minute. If secure lovers are such a catch, then why are so many anxious lovers falling for avoidants – and vice versa?

Partly because romance is a numbers game. Secure lovers – aka ‘all the good ones’ – are out there having stable relationships, mostly with one another. Meanwhile, the dating pool replenishes itself with anxious and avoidant lovers who continuously repeat their increasingly bruised and battered romantic patterns with each other.

But most importantly, avoidance acts like a red rag on anxious lovers – and vice versa. They simply can’t resist each other. 

There’s logic to this. If you have an anxious attachment style, you experience the highs and the lows that come from dating a free-spirited charismatic avoidant much stronger than anyone else.

You’ll happily accept the dreadful lows, simply because the rest of the ride is so darn exhilarating. But once that rollercoaster becomes a relationship pattern, you’ll crave that ‘passion’ with every new potential mate.

When a secure match then finally walks into your life – with all their predictability, attentiveness and talk about feelings – you’ll be bored within a month because Goodie Two-Shoes isn’t providing you with your intensity fix.

And before you know it, you’re back to dating hot, brooding fellas who’ll take you to a fetish club on your first date and subsequently respond to your increasingly desperate ‘are we still one for Friday?’ with ever-lasting silence.

Avoidants seek out anxious lovers for the same reason. They also love the intensity ride and get a thrill from seeing their anxious lovers validating the avoidant’s self-perception that they’re somehow stronger and more independent than everybody else.

Test your attachment style

Does that mean relationships between mixed attachment styles are doomed from the start? No, but they do require a strong sense of grounding and a hell of a lot of communication – skills which neither anxious or avoidant lovers are typically good at.   

Getting to know your own attachment style is therefore really important.

Spend some time taking a closer look at your relationship history and write down what your triggers and emotional patterns in each of them. In fact, do the test here and find out where you fit in.

If you’re anxious, be honest with yourself about what your needs are in a relationship. Move on quickly if your love interest is unable to meet them, rather than hoping things will get better over time. They rarely do.

If you’re an avoidant, realise that being be strong and autonomous is a sexy trait, but so is vulnerability. Not everyone is out to clip your wings, and a balanced relationship with the right person will massively increase your sense of self-worth and your capacity for intimacy.

Best of all, allow yourself to explore the safety of a relationship with a secure lover. As Amir Levine, author of Attached: The New Science of Adult puts it: “It’s like having a coach built into the relationship. They’re so good at it, they walk you through many potential pitfalls and teach you to become more secure.”

So, if you happen to be a secure lover reading this, please use your healing powers wisely. Most of us anxious and avoidant lovers look forward to being welcomed into your stable arms sometime soon.

If those arms ever become single again of course.

Assertiveness: 25 Tricks For Fighting Your Corner At Work Without Losing Your Dignity.

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Can’t we all just get along?

Unless you’re Miss Universe dreaming of world peace while getting your bottom pinched by Donald Trump, the answer is no.

Our brains are wired for conflict. Whether at home or at work, we’re on a constant quest to fulfil our personal needs for protection, belonging and significance.

As part of that process, we’re likely to step on the toes of at least a few of our colleagues, clients, family members or customer service representatives – all looking for safety, belonging and significance in their own way.

Once a person senses we provide a threat to their needs – rightly or wrongly – they’ll often answer with a series of obstructive behaviours aimed at protecting themselves, and ultimately at restoring their own sense of belonging and significance.

Most of us will respond to this behaviour in kind – creating a vicious cycle which at best ends with a bruised ego, and at its worst can lead to years of international warfare.

As part of this article, I’ll discuss four different ways to respond to conflict at work. I’ll hone in on one in particular – assertiveness.

I’ll also provide you with 25 rough-’n-ready tips on how to argue like a pro at work.

When ignorance ain’t bliss

Conflict isn’t always bad and certainly shouldn’t be avoided. As long as both parties have healthy personal boundaries in place, any dispute can hold the key to creative problem-solving.

When it comes to expressing anger at work, however, political correctness and the knowledge that we can’t get away with it, usually stops us from going all-out.

Much as you’d like to give it to her straight, Carol from Accounts probably won’t appreciate you telling her to pull her effing finger out – and neither will your client appreciate your passive-aggressive email suggesting that a ‘thank you’ might be in order for you pulling a weekender.

That makes arguing at work a form of art. A dance perhaps even, although one that’s more akin to a waltz than a Paso Doble.

And while taking a stiff upper lip approach may feel nice and easy in the heat of the moment, consistently putting your head into the sand will prevent you from decisively tackling your issues at work.

Worse, by ignoring conflict you’ll lose the respect of your clients, your team and your boss. You may even start to internalise some of that pent-up anger and end up blaming yourself, with plenty of research showing that unexpressed resentment is one of the leading causes of stress-related problems at work.

Fight, flight or freeze

When a conflict arises, our poor little brain is flooded with a nasty cocktail of stress hormones. Adrenaline and noradrenaline enter our bloodstream which causes our body to increase its heart rate and blood pressure.

You become sweaty and hyper-vigilant – with some people literally seeing red, as the blood flow in the capillaries of your eyes increases. If you’re working in a language that isn’t your native one, you may find yourself tongue-tied as you see your otherwise large vocabulary dry up.

These are all typical stress mechanism which are commonly known as the ‘Fight’, Flight’ or ‘Freeze’ response – an evolutionary leftover from the days when a saber-toothed tigre presented more of a danger than a bollocking from your Chief Exec.

And while ‘F*ck’ and ‘Feed’ are considered two additional stress mechanism, you might want to take those out of your repertoire at work.

The three stress responses broadly correspond with three conflict-coping strategies.

Passive behaviour

Some of us tend to take the path of least resistance when confronted with conflict. By sacrificing our own needs and preferences, we feel we won’t upset those of others.

But this type of ‘selfless’ behaviour can be very bad for you in the long run. Although it might seem easy, simple and effortless in the moment, by not fighting your corner your colleagues and/or clients will begin to feel sorry for you over time. They may even start to take advantage of you.

As a result, you become resentful as you continue to undermine your self-confidence.

If you’re the kind of person who veers towards this behaviour, you’re also likely to be someone who thrives on the approval from others. You probably often use phrases like: ‘Would you mind terribly if…”, “I don’t mean to be rude, but I was wondering…” or you’ll belittle yourself by saying things like: “I’m no expert, but…”.

Aggressive behaviour

Aggressive behaviour may well put you in a league of your own when it comes to being an alpha female or male in your organisation.

Sarcasm, swearing and losing your rag may help you to get what you want. People are too scared to push you around, so you’re the top dog.

Remember that bullying or putting yourself above others to get your own way is not a great strategy in the long run.

If it hasn’t already, your relationships with colleagues are about to get sour very quickly. And while you might fancy yourself at the top of the tree, you’re operating from a place of isolation – with plenty of volunteers queuing up to shake that tree once the time’s right.

If you find that your ‘good guys always come last’ approach makes it impossible for you to build deeper relationships at work; or that colleagues avoid eye contact with you and never genuinely include you in activities or conversations, it’s probably because you’ve successfully established yourself as the office arsehole.

Passive aggressive behaviour

There’s a special place in hell with slow WiFi, smelly lunches and a broken photocopier reserved for people who display passive-aggressive behaviour at work.  

Most of think of sarcasm, jibes and Post-its inside the fridge when we talk about passive aggressive behaviour, even though those are actually more typical of aggressive behaviour.

Passive-aggression works by manipulating others into doing what you want them to do by making them feel guilty or by shaming them. You sulk and embarrass someone to the point that they feel sorry for you. You drive them to the point where they simply want to get away as quickly as possible from your injured and unhappy aura.

Just like being passive or aggressive, it’s a fairly successful tactic in the short run. Do it too often, however, and you’ll gain yourself a reputation as the office ‘victim’. People feel they’re walking on eggshells when they’re around you, and the initial sympathy vote quickly turns into resentment.

If you fall into this category, others might describe you as irritable or disagreeable. Sometimes you intentionally sabotage or delay the requests of others, simply to make a point. You complain about not being appreciated by others, while showing resentment over the demands of others. You’re quite a hit at office parties.

If you’re a fan of Catherine Tate, you’ll probably know who I’m talking about.

Disagreeing like a pro

Being aggressive, passive or passive-aggressive are valid responses in limited number of situations.

But generally speaking, a fourth response will get you much further in any type of disagreement – assertiveness.

Many people equal assertiveness with aggression, but nothing could be further from the truth. While an assertive response may well be firm, it is never inflammatory.

Being assertive means you express what your needs and your wants are in a way that’s direct, open and honest. You own what you say (or write); you stand up for what you believe in, but you never do it at the expense of others.

Assertiveness works on the basis of negotiation. Instead of ‘I win, you lose’ (aggressive), or ‘you win, I lose’ (passive), or ‘we both lose’ (passive-aggressive), assertive behaviour seeks out a workable comprise where ‘we both win’, or ‘we both withdraw’.

Communicating assertively

Acting assertively isn’t baked into our natural fight, flight or freeze response. This is why most of us instinctively struggle with it. It is learned behaviour which means it requires practice.

There’s a link between having high self-esteem and being assertive. When you have a strong sense of your own self-worth, the opinions of others aren’t likely to bother you quite so much.

In fact, assertiveness isn’t so much a way of being; it’s more a way of communicating. So, even if you’re on the lower end of the scale when it comes to self-esteem, practising assertive communication can massively boost your confidence and self-worth.

Starting from the premise that you’re willing to resolve the conflict, assertiveness means you take a direct and diplomatic approach where you stand up for your thoughts and feelings, while staying aware of those of others.

As we’ll see below, whether you deliver your message in person or in writing, the language you use when crafting it is absolutely vital if you want to resolve the conflict successfully.

25 ways to be more assertive.

What follows next are a series of easy-to-implement phrases and behaviours. If conflict is imminent for you, I challenge you to try at least three of these techniques before the day is over.

  1. Before you communicate what your needs are in a particular situation, check in with yourself first as to what those needs are. Then convey them in a direct and respectful way.

  2. If someone surprises you with a request, tell them you need time out before answering. Simply respond: ‘Thank you, I need to have a think about this first before I give you a response.’

  3. Be direct and use so-called ‘I’ statements, such as ‘I want...’ or ‘what I need is…’. Fully own what it is you’re saying, and don’t use roundabout ways to express it.

  4. Use positive statements like: ‘Tell me how you feel about this situation. I’ll tell you how I feel and then we’ll come to a way forward’; or ‘I can see we don’t agree on this. How are we going to sort this out?’; or ‘I would like you to…’; or ‘I want…’

  5. Remember that nobody can take away your power at work – unless you decide to give it to them. In other words, nobody can do to you what you refuse to have done.

  6. You’re perfectly entitled to give a simple ‘no’ to a request. It’s neither rude nor unfair, and you shouldn’t have to explain your decision. Saying no works better than making excuses anyway. If you make an excuse, it’s likely the same request will pop up again at some point in the future.

  7. Avoid using generalising statements like ‘you always…’ or ‘you never…’ They come across as blameful and they often act as an emotional red rag. They’re also unhelpful because it’s usually quite easy to come up with evidence to the contrary.

  8. Be specific about what action you want the other person to undertake. Don’t lose your temper and stand your ground. After you’ve communicated that you recognise their viewpoint, simply repeat your request.

  9. When you’re on a difficult call or in a difficult meeting, avoid the fight or flight response when the going gets tough. Focus for a couple of seconds on your breathing, instead of your thinking. And remind yourself it’s perfectly within your abilities to handle that situation well.

  10. Give the other person space and let them speak their mind. They’ll run out of steam eventually. But remember that you’re not a punch bag. If you feel the person is overstepping your boundaries or is rude, politely say so and inform them you’ll end the conversation unless they tone down.

  11. Be empathic and show the other person you understand their viewpoint. Understanding someone’s viewpoint doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with it.

  12. By throwing in verbal softeners such as ‘likely’, ‘possibly’, ‘occasionally’, ‘perhaps’, ‘I wonder if’, or ‘typically’ in your conversation, you can create a better environment for agreement and cooperation.

  13. If you’re talking face-to-face with someone, make sure you meet on the same eye level if you want the conversation to be amicable. If you’re making a demand, make sure you place yourself at a slightly higher level than the other person.

  14. Practise keeping your voice at a low pitch and volume. It’ll help you exude more confidence.

  15. Be absolutely clear and specific on what you want done. Say how you feel. Explain why you want it done. Then follow through with a ‘What we’re going to do next is xxx’.

  16. Avoid undercutting yourself and negating what you’re asking for by using stop phrases such as ‘I’m sorry to ask you but…’ or ‘Sorry to be so blunt, but…’. Seriously, ban them from your vocabulary. Instead, say what you really want, and say it clearly.

  17. If you’re leading a meeting where conflict is likely to arise, start it by clearly stating some of the ground rules – such as raising one’s hand before speaking. Also, make sure everyone is able to contribute during the meeting so that a single person doesn’t dominate.

  18. If you spot someone displaying early non-verbal signs of disagreement in a meeting, invite that attendee to make their point as soon as possible.

  19. Use empowering and constructive phrases such as ‘When you ask me to do xx without checking in with me first, I feel like xxx. Instead, I propose we do xx from now on. How does that sound?’

  20. Use the ‘broken record’ technique in which you keep repeating your point until the other person recognises or acknowledges what you’re saying. Consistency is key if you want to be taken seriously.

  21. Don’t give big egos a chance to ‘bait’ you in a conversation. You probably won’t win that battle and it will make you look bad for trying. Ease the situation by letting them exhaust themselves and run out of steam.

  22. When dealing with large egos, always use their first names in the conversation, but also not too often. When applied in a subtle way this is a great technique for taking command and control of a conversation.

  23. Find out what it is about someone’s specific behaviour that’s triggering you emotionally. Be open to the fact that you may well be projecting some of your own insecurities and inadequacies onto someone else.

  24. Practise speaking your mind outside of work too, but make sure you do so after preparing some solid arguments. Always concentrate on discussing the argument at hand, and not the person’s character.

  25. If the conflict relates to your manager, provide them with specific and supportive feedback on how you feel you’re being managed. Be friendly and upfront, and remember to be critical of the behaviour, rather than the person.

Conclusion

Conflict at work is simply inevitable. And even though instinctively most of us will seek to avoid it, in the long run this flight mechanism can seriously undermine our confidence and credibility at work.

Being more assertive means you learn to bring greater awareness to what your needs are in a particular work situation. You become conscious that those needs are as valid as anyone else’s, and you communicate them in a way that encourages cooperation and negotiation, rather than conflict.

Remember that assertive communication doesn’t come natural to anyone. It is learnt behaviour. It may take some time to practise, but it has become an essential professional skill.



Your Midlife Crisis Results Are In. It's Bad News I'm Afraid.

Midlife crisis survey

First, a massive thank you to all who filled in the midlife crisis survey. I’m still collating responses, so if you have three minutes to spare, you can still share your experiences (anonymously).
 
What’s already clear from your answers is that when it comes to acting out your midlife, meaningless sex wins pants down over red Maseratis.
 
It looks like you’re one hell of a promiscuous bunch, and I love all you for it.
 
In all seriousness though, and a few notable exceptions aside, a midlife crisis has been – or continues to be – a thoroughly unpleasant experience for the majority of those who responded.
 
The more I study it and talk to clients, the more a picture emerges of a necessary – perhaps unavoidable – rite of passage towards emotional maturity. That's certainly been my own messy experience of it too. 
 
For most of us, the midlife point is when we crave being part of something more significant, and a desire emerges to create things that will outlast us.
 
It often coincides with a broader identity crisis which makes us question some of the core values we've been spoon-fed by our respective tribes, families and societies.

Instead of “What will people think?”, we start asking “What will make me feel good?”.
 
If we're brave, we allow ourselves to distinguish between what our experience of the world is and what we’re told that experience should be

But if we cringe, we get stuck in a loop of endless hedonism which only comes to a halt when an external event forces our ego to face a hard, unavoidable truth.  
 
The truth that our time here is finite ­– too finite to squander our capacity for romance on a relationship that's run it's course or wasting our career capital on an uninspiring status job.

How to deal with it 


When this identity crisis hits, you have a choice. You can either anaesthetise yourself with boys, girls, bumps or Amazon Prime.

Or you can start showing up as the person you really are and as best as you can.
 
To quote James Hollis: “Our life begins twice: the day we are born, and the day we accept the radical existential fact that our life, for all its delimiting factors, is essentially ours to choose’.
 
And that realisation, my friends, is one big giant pot of gold at the end of a very bumpy midlife rainbow.   

Malts, Mazeratis Or Medicine? Let's Talk About Your Midlife Crisis.

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I recently read a quote which described the first half of life as one giant, unavoidable mistake.
 
That simple, liberating truth nearly made me choke on my vegan matcha smoothie – the hippie equivalent of vintage hard liquor.
 
Whether male or female, it highlights a theme which often repeats itself with clients – that of a presumed midlife crisis.

Define existential crisis 


The ‘midlife’ bit is often neither here nor there. We experience it not as a result of our chronological age, but because of our maturity levels.
 
Midlife marks the point when we realise that if we don’t start taking care of ourselves, the people and the world around us, we’ll end up as stagnant and unhappy Peter (or Petra) Pans.
 
The ‘crisis’ bit is usually caused by a lack of meaning. For some, it takes the shape of personal tragedy, turmoil and confusion. For others, it’s merely a slump characterised by aimlessness and boredom.
 
For many of us, however, it’s the equivalent of sticking our heads outside the window and finally being able to breathe in the fresh, crisp air of new possibilities.
 
I’m intrigued to hear some of your own midlife experiences, which is why I’ve put together a short (anonymous) questionnaire.
 
If you’ve gone through those feelings – and particularly if you’re going through them right now – I’d love it if you shared them with me in confidence as part of this survey or by email.
 
And whether you’ve added meaning to your life by becoming a yoga teacher, driving around town in a Maserati, going on a shamanic journey in Peru, or indulging in a series of new lovers – no judgement whatsoever.
 
I’m the Eat, Pray, Love cliché personified after all, having started a new life as a coach and writer in Bali in my late thirties.
 
Except that I have better hair than Julia Roberts.  

How To Make Friends As An Adult - 13 Reasons Why You May Be Struggling

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Making friends as an adult

Even if you were lucky enough not to experience a painfully timid childhood, it’s easy to recognise that our coping mechanisms for shyness become way more sophisticated by the time we’ve reached our twenties.

Ironically, just when we’re most comfortable with ourselves, the number of actual opportunities to connect with others in a deep and meaningful dwindle — and often so does our actual desire to do so. Yet, while that desire to make new friends becomes less urgent, our need for intimacy often remains the same.

In my practice as an online life coach — and particularly as a gay life coach — this triangle of laziness, shyness and lack of practice comes up a lot. Certainly anecdotally, it seems the majority of us struggle with an increased sense of loneliness and social isolation, especially once we’ve reach the big Three-Oh.

Aside from having to scroll further down those online booking forms to find your year of birth, there’s of course nothing inherently eerie about turning thirty. It’s just an interesting reference point from which you can look back on a hopefully wild and exciting ride marked by self-discovery, insecurities and undirected focus.

Nights out with Netflix and Tinder

 
 

Our thirties usually mark the point where career, relationship and sometimes kids all compete for our limited bandwidth — mostly at the expense of our social engagements. Aside from the office, the gym and the never ending stream of baby showers, opportunities for regular and spontaneous interaction with interesting strangers rapidly dwindle.

Luckily, at this point you’ve also become far more picky about whom you spend your precious time with.

As writer Marla Paul put it: ‘The bar is higher than when we were younger and were willing to meet almost anyone for a margarita’.

Yet ironically, it’s right at this point when we’re at our most competent and confident that we seem to find fewer and fewer people who actually give a damn about the amazing human beings we’ve turned into.

Plenty of research also points out that our openness to new experiences decreases as we get older. The fear of missing out or FOMO which ruled our teens and twenties decreases steadily, and so does our willingness to to embrace new adventures, people and ideas.

The lure of a comfy sofa, partner and Netflix is so strong that ‘no’ becomes the default response to many opportunities for social interactions, except maybe for the occasional naked stranger if you’re single.

Worse, many people tell themselves stories about how boring their life has become over the years. They become afraid that others will find out just how uneventful their life has become, which only perpetuates the cycle of isolation.

If this is you — don’t worry. I’ve listed thirteen reasons why you might be making it harder for yourself than necessary when it comes to creating new friendships.

#1: You don’t make time to play

Let’s start with an obvious one. Research shows that more than 75 per cent of university students spend at least six hours per week socialising. 

Of course, spending that much time in close proximity to people who are only interested in playing beer pong, smoking weed and banging housemates is not advisable when you’re in your thirties. After all, you have a responsible job to hold down, a mortgage to put down and a boyfriend or girlfriend to go down. How could you possible have any time to be sociable?

Let me crash your pity-party here. You do have time. Life is a reflection of the choices you make and as Darren Hardy says ‘your biggest challenge is that you’ve been sleepwalking through your choices.’ 

If you’re feeling lonely or socially isolated, it’s mostly not because you’re boring and it’s certainly not because you’re unlikeable. It’s often simply a matter of re-prioritising your social life.

Start by consciously directing more time and energy into your social circle, even if it requires reducing the time you put into your work, gym or relationship. It’ll make you a more balanced, resilient and joyful person to be around. 

And while six hours of socialising might be a tad on the high side, for many of you––myself included––it’s still a lot less than the amount of time we spend watching Netflix each week. And dare I mention Grindr or Tinder?  

#2: You’re unwilling to make the first move

I get it. You don’t want to come across as desperate, needy or horny so you make up a story that it’s not quite the right time to invite your new Crossfit buddy for dinner, cinema or a beer. 

But has it occurred to you that your new buddy might be feeling a little desperate and needy for connection too?

When you meet someone interesting but you fail to follow through, you simply lose a great opportunity to add this person to your life. It’s your loss of course, but in many ways it’s theirs too. They’re probably trying to get over the same friendship hurdle as you.

Help them by making a follow up plan to connect again before you say goodbye.

And if you’re naturally more introverted, stop repeating your same story that you’re simply too shy to go out and meet new people. Just because you happen to appreciate the joys of quiet doesn’t make you anti-social. You just happen to find more meaning in one-to-one conversation than in a large group.

 
 

#3: You don’t keep up the momentum

Frequency and regularity are vital for developing any type of relationship. The more you see someone, the more you’ll like them. It’s science.

The best way to unlock a friendship is through scheduled activities.

Whether it’s a weekly wall climbing session or the pub quiz every Thursday night at the Queen’s Arms — regular scheduled activities keep the momentum going and avoid any of the awkwardness sometimes associated with having to ask for a follow up. It also bypasses the flakiness that’s so typical of many people living in a large metropolis.

#4: You don’t schedule time for spontaneity

Spontaneous social matching and mixing becomes a little harder after college or university. We may bond and hang out with housemates and co-workers, especially early on in our careers, but once we can afford to live on our own or with a partner — often further away from our previous social hubs––that opportunity for spontaneity tails off. 

In recent years it has also become socially unacceptable to call someone out of the blue, while arriving outside a friend’s flat unannounced turned into a total faux pas. 

“Having gotten used to so many methods of communication that are available to us, we seem to have gravitated towards the least intrusive ones — messaging — because we know how it feels to be digitally prodded through a range of different channels. “ Daisy Buchanan

So why not come to an agreement with your inner circle that unplanned calls and visits are cool — indeed wanted — again, especially if you happen to live in close proximity? 

Stop telling yourself your ambushing your people by calling them. And stop feeling ambushed when they call on you unannounced. 

#5: You’re not leveraging your acquaintances

Yes it sucks eggs having to start from scratch. But even if it feels you currently have no friendships to speak of, you more than likely have at least a couple of acquaintances. 

The best way to start growing your network is by building, expanding and nurturing that outer circle of casual connections. And if those ties remain pretty weak or you find little in common, at some point they may well the ones who introduce you to someone you totally hit it off with.

#6: You’re not leveraging your interests

In other words, get off the sofa and find opportunities to do the things you enjoy with other people who enjoy those same things. Even in less urban areas, there’s no shortage of MeetUp groups, arts and crafts organisations, volunteering groups, or political movements which allow you to mingle with others who share similar values and interests.

Regardless of your sexual persuasion, sports provide a great opportunity for men to bond with other men while letting their guard down and showing vulnerability in a way that still allows you to feel emasculated.

Plus, you’re doing things rather than sharing things, which is a great start if you’re not comfortable showing too much vulnerability too quickly.

#7: You’re caught up in the never ending catch-up trap

This often happens when you live in the big city or away from your main friends hub. You genuinely adore your friends and love spending time with them, but because you only meet or speak periodically, every conversation is dominated by past events or memories. Three G&Ts and a gourmet burger later, you’ve both run out of steam and there’s a train to catch. We must do this more often! Sure hun, how about November 2019?

Instead of meeting for a catch-up, why not go bowling, go-ape, go outdoors, go on holiday together, or bloody Pokemon Go? As long as you create a spontaneous, fun and meaningful experience that fires up and deepens your friendship again. It’ll give you something new to talk about too during your next catch-up. 

#8: You refuse to turn down the sass

Frankness and tactful honesty are wonderful traits if you want to develop a close friendship. Unfortunately, many of us quickly turn it up a notch or two too high in the form form of relentless banter and bitchy sassiness. 

Guuuuurl, I’m all in favour of you teasing the hell out of me, but we’re not in RuPaul’s library and you’re way too intense. I’d be more inclined to hang out with you once you drop that coat of armour and allow me the space to drop mine. And if you’re then still planning on roasting me, at least send me some nudes.

 
 

#9: You think it shouldn’t always be you taking the initiative

You’re wrong. In a perfect world you’d both be pulling your weight and put in exactly the same effort when it comes to keeping up a friendship. But for lots of different reasons most people aren’t actually that proactive, especially with the new season of Orange Is The New Black now available on Netflix. 

So put your ego aside and actually take the lead in developing the friendship –certainly in the beginning. Be the confident one who suggest times, dates, activities and venues to hang out.

Remember the other person’s social skills may have become more than a little rusty too.

#10: You’re always looking to make bosom buddies

By always looking for a soulmate friend who takes care of most of our social and emotional needs, we end up putting too much pressure on too soon. 

Not everyone needs to become our alter ego and there’s nothing wrong with having certain friends for certain situations — clubbing friends, football friends, playing bridge friends or indeed friends with benefits.

Perhaps outside of our usual social scenarios we don’t have much in common with them and that’s fine. They’re a great starting point for developing a more meaningful friendship. And even if there’s no fat chance of that ever happening, at least we can let our hair down around them and they may well be the ones to introduce us to a future bosom-buddy.

#11: You’re looking for that ‘close-knit’ circle of friends

Most people who fantasise about having one big happy group of friends probably have never experienced the realities of being part of one. 

Because scratch the surface of most cliques and you’ll find a cesspit of resentment, unresolved conflict and unspoken truths which makes Jersey Shores look like Dawson’s Creek. 

It’s difficult enough to expect more than five people to ever get past our ‘brother from another mother’-threshold. It’s pretty much statistically impossible that all five will get past each other’s threshold too.

 
Close-knit circle of friends without sweat patches — as imagined by a stock photographer with no friends

Close-knit circle of friends without sweat patches — as imagined by a stock photographer with no friends

 

#12: You’re expecting too much intimacy too soon

A friendship won’t develop unless you give yourself permission to let your guard down around others. For men in particular, this is often a challenge. 

“Most men tend to look to others for what’s ‘allowed’ or acceptable; by being willing to open up, you’re showing them that a greater level of intimacy is not just ok, but welcomed.” — Harris O’Malley

So lead by example. Go as slow as you feel you need to. At your own pace start getting comfortable again with opening up to others in a way that feels natural to you. Your new friend probably needs it as much as you do and it will provide them with the encouragement to reciprocate.

#13: You invest your energy in the wrong friends

Author Jim Rohn once said you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. In other words — choose wisely.

Some of your friendships may be anything but healthy and enjoyable. Maybe they’re boring, fake, awkward, forced and/or generally toxic. 

Do an audit of your current friendships and commit to only investing social bandwidth into those that are both healthy AND enjoyable. Then demote all your other friendships.

Is this friend generally lifting you towards the kind of life you want to lead? If the answer is yes — prioritise the friendship and reciprocate. If it is a clear no, then this relationship should be ruthlessly demoted.

And if you feel you currently have no healthy and enjoyable friendships to focus on, make a commitment that developing a wholesome circle of friends will become one of your priorities.

 
 

Conclusion

It might not get easier making friends once we hit our thirties. The endless opportunities for frequent and spontaneous interaction with beautiful strangers that characterised our youth and university years are gone and we find fewer excuses to let our guard down.

To avoid social isolation and loneliness, start reprioritising your social life. Make a commitment to let go of ego and shyness. Be proactive and be the one who keeps the momentum in the initial friendship phases.

And while our friend-making skills may have become a little rusty perhaps — there’s a big plus side. The people we do hang out with in our thirties are generally a wholesome, confident and increasingly self-aware bunch who — like you — are eager to share a sense of connection and community with people of similar values.

Call to action

Let’s be friends! If you want to join my very cool gang of men and women who want to make personal growth as fun and engaging as possible, then leave me your email address.

In return, I’ll teach you our very cool secret handshake.

 

7 Important Things You Need To Know About Making Adult Friends

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One perk of being an online life coach who works with lots of gay men is that I get to spend plenty of of time on Instagram staring at people’s abs, pretending it’s for work.

One such six-pack recently provided me with the ultimate boner killer by posting a picture of himself and his dead Tamagotchi with the caption, ‘My best friend is dead’.

His previous pictures didn’t suggest a particular talent for sarcasm, so his post raised two questions. Firstly, how did anyone with a body like his have the time to look after anything else but his own meal plan? And secondly, how the hell did he manage to keep that thing alive since the nineties?

Turns out that Tamagotchis are making a bit of a comeback. See, clever marketing people have figured out that millennials aren’t just the self-entitled brats you love to bitch about. Apparently they can take care of other things too than just their social media accounts. Plus they’re old enough now to do nostalgia. Nostalgia for the days when they were six and you were 26 — in case you’re still clinging on to that ridiculous idea of being an Xennial.

After feeling a tad guilty for unfollowing said six-pack, I started to wonder whether I was the one who was missing a trick here. Maybe it was judgmental and ignorant to think somebody can’t be friends with a virtual chicken. And maybe I could even learn a thing or two about love and kindness from cleaning up some pixelated poop.

So, as the first in a series of articles on how to make friends as an adult, I’m investigating some of the external conditions necessary for making new friends, and whether it is indeed possible to become friends with a robot.

Here are the seven lessons I learnt. You may not like them.

Lesson #1: We need to get along in order to belong

We all depend on others for our survival. Throughout history, those with advanced social skills mostly had the upper hand compared to those who were fit but dim.

From an evolutionary perspective, these social skills served a tit-for-tat purpose. I’ll scratch your back so you can scratch mine later. Throw in a shoulder rub and a happy ending and you have my unwavering loyalty and trust.

Of course we seek more than just practical benefits by being sociable. All humans have a basic need for belonging. We have different interests, preferences and life stories, and we use those differences to decide which tribes and social groups we seek to belong to.

Like any other close relationships, friendships therefore play a very important role in the development of our self-identity and self-esteem.

Friendships allow us to compare ourselves with others — inside and outside of our group — and through that comparison we get to understand and define our own likes and dislikes, as well as our own beliefs and values.

So unless and until we belong to a tribe or a number of tribes, we can’t really build a clear identity for ourselves. Without knowing who’s in and who’s out of our circle, we don’t know who we are ourselves.

Lesson #2: Proximity is the key to starting a new adult friendship

The functional distance between two people is the most powerful predictor of whether you’ll hit it off as friends. It refers to how often your paths cross, rather than how physically close you are from one another.

This is basic mathematics. If you keep you bumping into Stephen from Accounts in the Starbucks downstairs, you’re way more likely to become aware of his existence. You’re also way more likely to strike up a conversation about his disgusting banana split frappuccino habit.

But there’s another factor at play here too. In social psychology it’s called the ‘familiarity principle’. Often used in advertising, this principle banks on people having a preference for certain things or people purely because they’re more familiar with them.

That means that even if you don’t like someone to start with, that dislike often fades once you’re exposed to them more often.

I can already hear you protesting as you think of that muscle-mary in the gym who’s been testing your nerves for months with his endless grunting, and I don’t blame you.

See, the familiarity principle only works when there’s something in it for you. We’ll only go out of our way to find things in other people we can like if polite society or the particular social set up requires us to do so.

When there’s nothing or nobody riding on it, we notice our own dissimilarities with others much more, which then leads to less liking. So unless you secretly want to do naughty things with Mr Muscle there, your dislike is only going to get worse.

Lesson #3 — Physical attraction matters, even if you don’t want to see your new friends naked

This may come as a surprise, but physical appearance is one of the most important indicators of whether we’ll initiate a friendship or not, alongside proximity.

Plenty of research shows that we have a preference for hanging out with people we deem attractive, just like we have a preference to interact with things that are beautifully designed. We rightly or wrongly associate beauty with other socially desirable traits.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder of course, and when it becomes beauty standards we are one narcissistic and incestuous bunch.

Studies show that in terms physical attraction we’re most drawn to those who resemble ourselves and our parent of the opposite sex.

Which perfectly explains why all my friends are hot. Thanks mum.

Attractiveness is important in predicting whether we become friends with someone. But other things being equal, physical appearance usually doesn’t outrank other qualities — especially when it comes to developing the friendship further.

Also note that there’s a distinction here between physical attraction and sexual attraction, so you can take your mind out of the gutter. Or you can leave it there if you wish, because plenty of great friendships do indeed start off in the sack.

Lesson #4 — Birds of a feather rock together

Proximity and attractiveness may determine the first move, but personality takes over once you both decide to take the friendship further.

We like those who like us. Or at least those who like the same things we like (including ourselves). The more similar someone’s attitudes and character traits are to yours, the more likeable you’ll find that person.

If someone acts, talks and thinks like us, then that validates the way we act, talk and think. It supports our sense of self, our values and our core identity. So by interacting with others that are like us, we get to reinforce and validate our own identities.

Creepily enough, a recent study by Dartmouth College found that friends have similar neural responses to real-world events and researchers can predict who your friends are simply by looking at how their brains respond to video clips. Friends had the most similar neural activity patterns, followed by friends-of-friends who, in turn, had more similar neural activity than people three degrees removed (friends-of-friends-of-friends).

It gets even creepier. Research by the University of California suggests that we naturally seek out friends with similar genotypes to our own. In fact, their data found that friend pairs were on average genetically as close to each other as they were with their fourth cousins.

So you might want to be careful about that sleeping with friends thing after all.

Lesson #5: Show them yours and they’ll show you theirs

Intimacy and proximity are a powerful friendship mix. That is why intense experiences such as group therapy, hikes, retreats, or wasted cuddle puddles in the bowels of Berghain can create lifelong bonds.

According to psychologists, for intimacy to take place one person needs to disclose personal information, thoughts and feelings to a partner. They then need to receive a response from that partner and interpret that response as understanding, validating, and caring. Easy.

In other words, without some level of self-disclosure and an appropriate response to it, there can be no friendship. This self-disclosure can be factual (I don’t drink coffee) or emotional (banana split frappuccinos make me want to vomit). It can be non-intimate (I don’t like the sweet taste of it), or intimate (I have IBS).

In any budding friendship you’ll walk a tightrope between being boring (factual) and intense (emotional), although research does show that friendship is more highly related to self-disclosure in intimate than non-intimate topics.

You might want to keep your IBS stories for another time though.

Beware also that emotional intimacy doesn’t mean an unrestricted license to vent. Remember that like seeks like. If you’re on a downer, you’ll find that negative people might flock to you, while the same is true if you’re feeling positive.

So go ahead and be vulnerable. Vulnerability elicits trust. And it’s pretty damn attractive too.

Lesson #6: Flattery (and frankness) will get you everywhere

Closeness, contact and supportiveness are very good predictors of whether a friendship will be maintained, but if you want to turn it up a notch or two, add flattery.

Also known as ‘social-identity support’, it refers to the way in which a friend understands and then supports our sense of self in society or in our group. That social identity can be based on our nationality, job role, sports team, sexual preferences, religion, or any other ‘special club’ we might be a member of.

Best friends are often part of that same club or category. But what made the friendship so strong is that they boosted each others’ self-esteem by affirming one another’s identity as a greatly cherished member of said club or category.

“John, nobody else in this room full of Crossfitters smashes his weights on the floor as loudly as you do.” Or, “Will, you’re the prettiest twink at this Ariana Grande concert”. You get the drift.

Our desire for identity support can be so strong, that it may even make a difference for the those who are addicted. Studies found that people with substance abuse problems were likelier to kick their habits after three months when they felt more conflict between their drug use and their social roles and sense of self.

Those who felt socially in sync with the drug use were less likely to become substance-free. Something to think about if you’re feeling affected by the ongoing chemsex epidemic.

And yes, while social identity support is important, do keep it real boys. Friendship is based on trust and that involves frankness and honesty in equal measure.

Lesson #7: You can become friends with Siri

Friendship might be a big word in this context, but people can and do form strong attachments with objects.

In the 2013 film Her, Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with a Siri-like operating system that’s designed to meet his (almost) every need in life. Of course falls in love with it.

When he finally admit to his ex-wife that he’s in a relationship with an operating system, she furiously blurts out: ‘You always wanted to have a wife without the challenges of actually having to deal with anything real, so I’m glad you found one.” After which she storms off.

Honey, truth be told, we all want a husband or a wife like that. Ideally one that’s faster and has a bit more depth than my current Iphone 5.

According to researchers at Brown University, our universal need to belong means that — at least in theory — humans can bond with robots, provided those robots are social enough to reciprocate with regular and meaningful interactions.

What those interactions look like is somewhat open to interpretation of course, but here’s another key. People are also very good at projecting human-like characteristics to objects, animals and robots, potentially turning a cold piece of metal into a living being (at least in our minds).

In other words, any object or robot that we perceive to have a capacity for meaningful interaction with us, could pass a legitimate partner in social interactions with humans.

Conclusion

It doesn’t matter whether your Furby, Tamagotchi, IphoneX or Japanese love doll has the technical ability to interact socially with you or not. As long as you experience it to be social and you project a personality onto it, you can become friends with — or at the very least become attached to it.

So here you go, I’ll eat my words and admit I’ve been a tad judgmental.

Now, Siri sweetheart, please find me that six-pack again on Instagram. This gay life coach has some more work to do.

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If you want to join my very cool gang of men and women who want to make personal growth as fun and engaging as possible, then please leave me your email address. In return, I'll teach you our very cool secret handshake. 

Also, this is the first in a series of articles on friendship after 30. If you don’t want to miss out on the next instalment, then you really should subscribe.

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