Brett N. Steenbarger, Ph.D.
It is commonly assumed that the role of the psychologist is to help people with their problems. Lodged in the backs of our minds is the image of the patient on the couch, talking with a Freudian analyst. In reality, applied psychology has come a long way from its beginnings as a “talking cure”. Indeed, many of the newer approaches, which have been extensively studied and validated through research, do not emphasize talking at all.
Nonetheless, old assumptions die hard. People assume that you need to have “a problem” in order to see a psychologist. In fact, insurance companies will not reimburse visits to psychologists and psychiatrists unless they are provided with a “diagnosis” of the problems being “treated”. Little wonder that the stereotype persists that there’s something wrong with you if you need to see a “shrink”.
The reality is that the good psychologist is not a shrink, but instead expands people’s minds and horizons. The goal is not to treat problems, but to make changes. Psychology is about making changes in life. Sometimes these are changes in relationships; other times, they are changes in the ways we think, feel, or act. To benefit from psychology doesn’t require that you have a problem. It does require a desire to make changes.
A group of methods known as brief therapies are extremely promising, because they accelerate the process of change. I refer to the brief therapies astherapies for the mentally well. There are individuals who have chronic mental health problems. They are not the ones for whom brief work is appropriate: lifelong, severe problems often require ongoing assistance, including medication help. The mentally well, however, are not beset with such problems. They are simply interested in making changes. Sometimes those changes are simply to expand their strengths: to become even better at what they do.
A trader who made 2 million dollars last year–and more the year before that–recently insisted on meeting with me before New Year’s Day to identify areas for improvement and set goals–and a path for meeting those goals–for 2007. His goal was to enhance his performance, not rid himself of personal demons. That is an excellent use of therapy for the mentally well.
So how do you know if you can benefit from such brief work? Here’s a guide:
Behavior is patterned. How we think, feel, and act have a pattern to them, and that patterning is what makes us who we are. The sum total of our patterns is our personality.
Sometimes our patterns interfere with our goals in life. They prevent us from being who we want to be or accomplishing what we want to accomplish.
Perhaps there are times when you say to yourself, “I don’t know why I keep [fill in the blank]. I wish I would stop.”
You could fill in the blank with any of the following–and more:
“losing my temper”
“going into slumps”
“winding up in bad relationships”
“beating myself up”
“making stupid trades”
“pushing people away”
“choking under pressure”
In each of these situations, we’re recognizing that there is some pattern of behavior that is not fully in our control. The pattern has ossified: it’s hardened into a habit. If you can identify a pattern that is getting in your way, you can benefit from short-term applications of psychology.
Brief therapy is about changing the patterns that no longer serve us well. The second step in such therapy for the mentally well is to ask yourself: What is the one pattern that is most holding me back from my goals, from being who I want to be?
So what’s the first step? To know what our goals are. To know who you want to be. Many people never travel the right path, because they never formulate their destination.
So that’s where we’ll begin in the next post in this series: Figuring out where you want to go in life. Then we’ll take a look at what might be holding you back.
But first things first. Solving a problem will not give you a goal. Furiously climbing the ladder of success won’t help you if it’s leaning against the wrong structure.
Brief therapy doesn’t start with problems. It starts with goals–and a vision for the future. Without such vision, we’re walking blind through life. The therapy for the mentally well begins with the recognition that it’s time to open our eyes and develop our vision.
Brief Therapy – Part Two: The Vision and the Goals
Brett N. Steenbarger, Ph.D.
In my recent post, I described a set of change techniques that I refer to as “therapies for the mentally well”. These brief, intensive approaches to change are very different from the traditional talk therapies that come to most people’s minds when they think of psychology. In coming posts, I will be describing some of the specific methods and how they can be employed in trading situations–and any other life situations in which performance matters.
I also mentioned in that earlier post, however, that these techniques are not the first steps in a change process. Rather, it is crucial to establish goals for change: to know what it is you want to change in the first place.
That is not so easy. We become so engrossed in getting by from day to day, with responsibilities at work and home, that the big picture of our lives stays in the background. Year after year we busy ourselves with work and routines, only later in life to realize that opportunities have passed us by.
So the first question to address in a change process is, “What do you want to change?” Or, stated otherwise, “How would you like your life to be different?”
The usual responses to this question involve eliminating or reducing some negative state of affairs: “I want to stop thinking negatively;” “I want to be less anxious”; or “I want to argue less in my relationship”. Even when there is a positive response, it is often so vague that no one can truly act upon it: “I want to feel better about myself” or “I want to be a better trader”.
The absence of concrete, actionable goals–and a clear vision for the future–is a main reason we stay submerged in daily minutiae, getting by but not necessarily getting ahead.
If your life is a canvas and you are the painter, what will the finished work look like? Will it be a work of art, with a theme and integrity of its own, or will it be a random assemblage of colors and shapes without meaning or significance? A painter captures his or her vision on a canvas. What is your vision for your life’s canvas?
Here’s a useful exercise that might help you answer that question:
Imagine your death. You have died, and on the gravestone is inscribed an epitaph. What is written on that stone? What does it describe of what you’ve left behind and the impact you’ve had during your life? Imagine very specifically what you would like that stone to say.
Now imagine that you’ve received the results of medical tests from your physician. No doubt about it: you’ve got five years at most left in your life. There is no possible cure or remission for your disease. Within five years, your epitaph will have been written.
What would you do during those five years? Would you make radical changes and do things very different from what you’ve been doing, or would you simply continue on your existing path at perhaps a more urgent pace? What would you need to do during those five years to earn the epitaph you want at the very end of your life?
If what you would do to earn the epitaph is very different from what you’re doing now, you quite likely are on the wrong path. You’ll find your proper goals in the activities you’d stuff into those remaining five years: those, most likely, would contain the essence of what you would find meaningful, what you would like to accomplish, what you would want to leave behind.
Learning the techniques to make life changes is really the easy part. The harder part is knowing which changes you truly want to make and keeping those topmost of your mind. Mark Twain once advised people to never let their schooling interfere with their education. Similarly, it’s important to not let life interfere with living.
You don’t want to be that person, regretful at the end of life, hurting and having hurt others. A canvas and a rich array of paints lies in front of you. All that matters is what you make of that opportunity: to face the end with pride, fulfillment, and the sense of having made a work of art of the life you’d been given.
Brief Therapy – Part Three: Becoming the Playactor of Your Ideals
Brett N. Steenbarger, Ph.D.
I was sitting in a waiting room reading a popular magazine, when I came across an interesting quote from actor/director Mel Gibson. The interviewer pointed out that many of the actors in his latest film, Apocalypto, had no acting experience. Was it difficult, the interviewer asked, to work with them as a director?
Gibson’s response was that it wasn’t all that hard. To teach someone to act, he insisted, what you need to do is show them how to breathe the emotions they are trying to portray. If actors can shift their breathing, Gibson implied, they can enter into the emotional states demanded by their roles.
To be sure, I haven’t agreed with all of Gibson’s comments of late, but this one struck me as particularly perceptive. There are approaches to short-term therapy that purposely increase a client’s anxiety, by confronting patterns of avoidance, resistance to change, and defensiveness. Under conditions of heightened emotion–particularly anxiety–individuals gain access to memories, insights, and perspectives that they didn’t have when they first walked in the door. By shifting a person’s state of mind and body, the psychologist also shifts their awareness.
Think about the phenomenon of test anxiety. A student can study hard for a test and know the material cold. Under conditions of performance anxiety, the student tenses up. Muscle tension increases, negative thoughts intrude, and breathing becomes more shallow. In Gibson’s terms, the student is literally enacting a panicked mode by adopting the mindset and physical state of the anxious person. Once the state has shifted, the student no longer has access to what he or she already knows.
This illustrates that the state we’re in either facilitates or blocks access to what we know. Stated otherwise, what we know is relative to the state we’re in. Without realizing it, we are like actors, altering our breathing, our posture, our movement patterns, and our thought processes to create a convincing enactment. Actors and actresses, however, shift their states intentionally to generate their portrayals. When we shift states, it is most often without our conscious awareness.
I submit that access to our implicit knowledge about markets and trading patterns is mediated by the states we’re in during our decision making. If our bodies are relatively immobile, our breathing is shallow, and our thoughts are worried, we are hardly creating the conditions by which we would normally experience ourselves as powerful, confident, and controlled. We fail because, unwittingly, we enact the role of the ineffective individual.
What if we tracked the states of mind and body that we’re in when we’re trading effectively and then consciously made efforts to access those states through the trading day? What if we followed Gibson’s dictum and enacted the mental and physical processes associated with success? Quite a while ago, a social psychologist named Kelly invented a therapy in which he encouraged people to act out their ideals: to play-act the person they wanted to be. He even had them make up a name, personality, and history of the role that they were to portray.
What he found was that, as people played out their ideal roles, they began to get positive feedback. This, in turn, encouraged them to continue the role enactments, which in turn provided more good feedback. After a while, the roles became more natural: Kelly’s clients internalized the roles that they were playing.
We often think that we have to change ourselves internally (our thoughts and feelings) in order to change our behavior. But what if we adopted very different behavior and *then* generated new sets of thoughts, feelings, and experiences? What if, to paraphrase Nietzsche, we became the play-actors of our ideals–and thereby moved closer to those ideals?
For those who have developed trading skills, perhaps success is just a matter of finding the mental, physical, and emotional state in which access to those skills can be maximized. There is much room for self-experimentation for traders inclined to work on themselves.
Brief Therapy – Part Four: Programming Our Own Experience
Brett N. Steenbarger, Ph.D.
A bit over a week ago, I described short-term applications of psychology as “therapy for the mentally well”. The goal of such work is to make positive changes, not necessarily eradicate pre-existing deficits. For that reason, the first step in the change process is having a vision of the changes you wish to make. By linking these positive changes to distinctive emotional, physical, and cognitive states, we are able to becomethe play-actors of our ideals.
Allow me to expand on a metaphor I used in thePsychology of Trading book. Consciousness is like a radio dial, and we operate on many frequencies. Each spot on the radio dial is a particular state: a blending of our experience of our bodies and minds. The test anxious student has a spot on their dial that combines negative thinking, increased arousal, shallow and rapid breathing, and diminished access to retained information. Other spots on the dial may combine much more positive thinking, alert concentration, erect posture, and fuller breathing. When operating at those frequencies, the student has full access to the information studied and performance on the test is excellent. What we know and who we are is relative to the frequencies of consciousness at which we’re operating.
The problem is not that some of the spots on our personal radio dials are programmed with negativity.Rather, the problem is that we lack full, intentional control over the dial itself. We change stations, so to speak, without intending to. What the brief therapies accomplish is a greater control over selecting our own frequencies: they give us a hand to turn our dials. The idea, after all, is to become our own trading coach: to develop our own ability to reach our goals.
What creates the “radio stations” that make up our dial of consciousness? Two things: repeated experience that becomes habit patterns and powerful emotional experience that is processed as a trauma. Just as some radio stations on our car radio dials are faint and others generate a powerful signal, some of our states are weak and some dominate the dial. The more repeated the experience–and the more powerful the experience–the more it becomes part of your spectrum of consciousness.
As I emphasized in the Enhancing Trader Performancebook, one reason so many traders fail is that they create repeated, negative emotional experiences for themselves. Indeed, this is why I included self-help manuals for cognitive and behavioral change techniques as two chapters within the book. Quite simply, traders can find themselves operating on frequencies that they don’t want to be experiencing: their dials change without their consent or control. And all it takes to shift our frequencies of consciousness, very often, is a simple shift in one element of our frequency: a few negative thoughts, a change in our patterns of posture or breathing, a fleeting emotion. Those become triggers that diminish our control over our own experience.
While the aforementioned cognitive and behavioral techniques are extremely valuable, it is also important to be able to program our own new, enhanced spots on our dials of consciousness. The way to do this is to rehearse positive patterns of thought and behavior while you are in a distinctive emotional and physical state. This is one of the quickest and most reliable ways to generate change.
For instance, let’s say your desired behavior is to hold onto winning trades longer. You might mentally rehearse market scenarios of holding onto trades–emphasizing how excited, happy, and profitable you’ll be by achieving this goal–while you are pushing yourself during a strenuous treadmill exercise. By setting the treadmill at an incline and a good speed, you will be jogging at a brisk pace and elevating your heart rate. With repetition, you will begin to associate the goal–and its emotional benefits–with your body’s pumped up state. It will become an increasingly powerful signal on your radio dial. Then, before trading and during trading breaks, all you have to do is get back on the treadmill. Triggering your body’s shift in state will trigger the desired shift on your dial of consciousness. You will access the behavior you desire by intentionally triggering the cues associated with the behavior.
Making changes entails far more than simply engaging in positive thinking or getting positive images in your head. If you don’t change your state of consciousness–and your ability to shift your own consciousness–you’ll be listening to the same programming day after day. Learning how to shift out of negative states is a huge achievement. Where dramatic growth occurs, however, is in learning how to create new, positive states: in becoming the programmers of our own experience