The Ostrich Effect

Have you ever found yourself putting off something important? Something that you knew you needed to do but found reasons to avoid. Maybe you avoided checking your email for fear of what was inside, maybe not checking a debt balance or a bill or maybe you avoided going to the doctor for fear of unpleasant news.

Ostriches are famous for burying their heads in the sand to avoid predators, although this is a fictitious belief – ostriches don’t really do this. Like the apocryphal story of the ostrich, many of us will commonly bury our heads in the sand to avoid unpleasant experiences, even if those experiences are vital to leading a full, rich life.

The ostrich effect is a tendency to ignore important information when we feel overwhelmed, stressed or worried. In particular, people may delay acquiring information, even when doing so may improve their situation. One study even found that investors check their portfolios growth more frequently in a growth market than one that’s receding. It may be easier to pretend that the problem doesn’t exist than to deal with it, especially if we don’t feel like we have the cognitive resources or emotional capacity to be able to cope with the challenge ahead. We may be in a job that doesn’t fulfil or satisfy us, we may feel that we’re in a relationship with the wrong person, we may regret living in the city we move to, or maybe we’re questioning our sexuality or whether we are studying the right degree? Maybe we’re lacking meaning or purpose in our lives but we don’t know what to do so it’s easier to power on and “just get on with it” and pretend that we’re just doing “fine”.

These types of “problems” we have in life are difficult to talk about and finding the right person to have a discussion with can sometimes be challenging. We all fear people’s judgments, and we prefer to show the version of ourselves that is our “best selves” rather than admitting that things aren’t the way we expected.

In our society today, we are taught to think that we have “control” over our lives. When things go “wrong” or when we have “problems” we have a tendency to overestimate how much influence we have over outcomes. People who are self-critical believe that they got themselves into the mess that they are in, and therefore has the responsibility to get themselves out. When we feel like we are the problem it is more likely that we are going to bury our heads in the sand, to save “face” for as long as possible. However, what if we don’t actually have as much control over our lives than we think we do? What if sometimes stuff just happens and what we need to do is talk about it so that we can overcome our challenge?

If we think about it, businesses are run with groups of people, each person has a different task to do, people have meetings to talk about how each member is going on their particular task and each person is able to get help and feedback from other team members if they are struggling with their project. What if we were to have regular meetings with ourselves and the people we have in our lives? To check in and ask “what’s currently working for you?”, “what do you think you need to improve on?” “what are you finding most challenging”, “Is there anything you’re finding difficult to approach right now?”, “are you missing some important information”, “how can we get through this together?”. Checking in with others and getting and receiving feedback about our personal problems with the right people, can open up new doors to feel differently about our situation. Doing this regularly will decrease stress and prevent problems from getting worse.

When it’s an external problem that has guidelines to follow, objectives to meet and outcome to measure, it’s much easier to talk about because the problem is “out there” rather than something “inside” of us. But when it’s an internal problem, personal situations, difficult thoughts and feelings about life, work, relationships and our future, it’s much harder to articulate and express the issue in words, especially when we haven’t taken the time to process what’s going on for ourselves.

People have a tendency to “avoid” problems. Therefore use different types of methods to help them get rid of them. Some methods include:

-Over productivity: taking on too many new projects, excessively cleaning or exercising, having a regimented routine.

-Suppression: pushing difficult thoughts away, pretending that everything is okay.

-Numbing or Withdrawing: drinking more alcohol than usual, taking drugs, over eating, restrictive dieting, sleeping too much or too little.

The first step to change is to identify what avoidance strategy you are using. Once we admit that something is not working out we usually feel much better about ourselves and our situation because most of the time it’s not half as bad as we think it is. When we open up and talk to a trusted friend, colleague or professional a huge weight is lifted off our shoulders because we are actually dealing with the problem instead of pretending that it doesn’t exist. We all have problems, but most of us don’t like to admit or talk about. If we can stop burying our heads in the sand, open up and be honest to ourselves and others then maybe our lives will be filled with less stress, and only then we can truly experience a life filled with meaning and purpose.

It’s very common to ignore information to avoid unpleasant thoughts and feelings, but by burying our heads in the sand we do ourselves no favours, in fact we only deny ourselves the chance to grow, to be brave, and to be vulnerable with ourselves and others. Talk to those around you about the things you’re avoiding, and do your best to open up and accept that it might be unpleasant, but it’s in service to living your values – and being the kind of person you’d like to be.

Can you do Great Things, Even When you Don't Feel Great?

By Tomas Tapper

Have you ever seen a toddler throw a tantrum? I have. Just last night in fact. And again this morning. Our home is entering “the terrific twos” (a phrase my wife uses).In these last two tantrums, I noticed something pretty awesome.

Imagine an exhausted almost-2-year-old, clearly needing to go to sleep, but not wanting to miss out on more play time. As the emotions get stronger and the tiredness (and stubbornness) overtakes, the stomping feet, the rubbing eyes, it all gets louder, and then the tears start. I’ve worked extensively with parents and children, and I’ll readily admit it’s quite a bit harder when it’s happening in your own home!

Here’s where ACT comes in. A bit of grounding work for myself, and then a gentle touch of compassion and an explanation “You need to get your pjs on so you can give yourself some rest” brings an interesting realisation. No, the crying doesn’t stop, the screaming doesn’t subside – but the arms go in the sleeves and the feet miraculously walk towards the bed. It’s an amazing thing to witness. Despite everything likely going on in my toddler’s mind, the anger, the sadness, the raw emotions, there’s still the ability to physically do what’s needed to complete the bedtime routine. Even at just 2 years old we can already practice taking action towards what we want, even though our emotions are seemingly getting the better of us.

Somewhere along the way in our “growing up”, we start to see our emotions as things we shouldn’t express as much, and in turn, often things we should control. We have “adult tantrums”, usually within ourselves and sometimes towards others. We express our anger, frustration, and disappointment through self-criticism, arguments with loved ones, disengaging from work, etc. The result:

We start to tell ourselves, and even believe, we need to feel better to do better. 

Then we take it a step further, and we stop doing the things that help us get what we want from life like self-care, engaging with others and performing our best. I see it everyday, and I’m guilty of it sometimes myself, after all, we are only human. Luckily, our emotions don’t actually decide our actions, even if we sometimes let them. On the contrary – if emotions always dictated our actions, imagine the road rage we would see!

So what makes us sometimes take action, and sometimes be dictated by our emotional state of mind and body? Well, just like a 2-year-old’s temper tantrum, it may be circumstances we don’t like, or things happening that feel too hard to cope with. Either way, when we do work in ACT, we build stronger skills and increase our psychological flexibility so we don’t get caught up in our own inner tantrums. Working on getting untangled from the mess of emotions, and regaining control of our actions so we can be free to engage with a life that we want to live. So even though we might feel like throwing our arms in the air and crying because life is pretty cruel to us sometimes, we can put one foot in front of the other and walk towards something that will help make things better.

You don’t need to feel good to run good. You don’t need to feel great to do great parenting. And guess what, you don’t need to feel happy to engage in something that can bring happiness or meaning to your day.

You can still do great things, even when you don’t feel great.

My extensive work with parents is actually not too far off from my work with elite athletes. It comes down to doing what matters most and performing at your best. The tough part is – You need to perform on a given day, whether you want to or not. 

How to Become an Emotional Resilience Superhero

Life is full of challenges, some more difficult than others, it’s how we respond to those challenges that matters most. Everyone has the experience of facing a challenge that was just out of their realm of control. Facing tough times like that can make us stronger, but how can you prepare for a crisis in the easier times?

“Emotional resilience” is how readily you can cope with stresses both small and large, and how well you can adapt to difficult circumstances in our life. Resilient people tend to be happier and teaching resilience to children can prevent depression, anxiety and increase grades in school.

Developing resilience helps you keep going when challenges, sudden or expected, make the going get tough. Research shows that natural aptitude is only a part of resilience, and it’s largely a learned skill which you can cultivate to turn yourself into a stress busting super hero.

  1. Get Clear About Your Purpose.

Developing resilience is a personal journey of learning your strengths and working on weaknesses. Everyone’s journey is going to be different but one of the most useful things you can do on that journey is get clear about your motive and your purpose. Without a strong purpose driving you through adversity you’ll quit or crumble. A strong awareness of purpose works like a lighthouse guiding you through the heaviest of storms.

How do you get clear about purpose? Think about who and what you care about day to day, and how you’d like life to be in the future. Ask yourself how you’d like to behave through whatever challenges you face. What’s motivating you? What are the values you want to express right now?

2. Everyday is an Opportunity to Improve.

Practicing awareness deliberately with low to moderate daily stressors will build resilience. Developing skills of being present, emotional flexibility and keeping focus on your values and goals in relatively safe environments helps when the stress level gets dialled up.

View small conflicts and daily trials as opportunities to develop your skills as they come. Be like a scientist running an experiment, and be curious about the results. Pay full respect to the successes – and focus also on the areas that have room for improvement next time – learning opportunities!

3. Thing Big Picture.

Get in the habit of paying attention to the things are going well in your life. Remind yourself of things you’ve enjoyed, that have been worth your while, and take time to be grateful for things you’re fortunate to have, friendship, food, and shelter. Getting in this habit before you’re under a time of stress will help you to maintain a broader awareness within a crisis.

People who view their crises as insurmountable problems are less likely to thrive, whereas framing something as a challenge makes it easier to work through.

5. Let Yourself Feel Things Flexibly.

We’re all capable of feeling a dizzying array of emotions simultaneously, even feelings that are seemingly contradictory. An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy skill is learning to ‘defuse’ from thoughts and feelings and notice other feelings in your rich emotional landscape. Research by Barbara Fredrickson, PhD shows that in a crisis resilient people are able to feel both traditionally positive and negative emotions simultaneously. They allow themselves to feel upset while also being able to celebrate the good things. Contrasting to that less resilient people are in crisis all of their emotions turn negative. When challenges strike let yourself feel a broad range of emotions, not just the negative ones.

For more here’s a great post by the terrific blog Barking up the Wrong Tree that summaries research evidence about life skills which we can use in everyday life. Here’s an article on building resilience by the American Psychology Association that we used in our research for this post.

Bonus! 6: Enlist the Aid of a Professional.

The psychologists at Brisbane ACT Centre can help you develop these skills and many more – so that you’re ready to face the challenges that crop up in life. If you wanted to run a marathon you’d train before the race so that you could perform at your best, and a good psychologist can help you just the same way. Working with an emotional resilience professional in the good times to help you work on your psychological flexibility skills can make the difficult times ahead a whole lot easier.

Winning Your Sweetheart's Heart... and Again

Courtesy of Brisbane ACT Centre psychologist, Nikita Kotlarov. Check out Nik’s website here.

Winning Your Sweetheart’s Heart… and again.

  1. Perfect relationship? Where?
  2. You are different, most of this will not change.
  3. Unburdening or Winning Your Sweetheart’s Heart?
  4. Adults misbehave too.
  5. Wired to connect, hurt from disconnect.
  6. When we protest, we misbehave. We protest when in pain.
  7. Who do I blame for the pattern?
  8. Emotional hurt less valid than physical? What about trust?
  9. Scary cues.

10. I don’t want to think about the scary cues, how do I build? 11. What will help/or make changes more difficult?

There is no such thing as a perfect relationship.
We may admire a couple of friends, who seem to have it ‘all together’, or watch a movie and get an idea of others having perfect relationships. Unfortunately, after the actors finished shooting the movie, they go and have real lives with real relationship problems. After all, don’t we all try to show our best side to our friends as well? Chances are, some of them might thing we have it ‘all together’ as well!

When two people come together, they often share some similarities, and also many differences. Most of their differences will never be resolved. For example the male is unlikely to stop being a male. Even in same sex couples the partners often chose those who are very different to themselves. Initially, we Win our Sweetheart’s Heart by celebrating these differences, rather than trying to get our partners to change. We call it the ‘honeymoon’ stage, when we truly do celebrate these differences, often creating our children in the process!

I am not happy with my relationship! Now what!?
Luckily for you, being a human means that we are great learners and can quite flexibly adapt to the changing world (like long working routines or the arrival of a baby), our changing ideas about ourselves (like traumatic experiences, aging, or simply gaining wisdom), or changing perceptions about our partners (like her/him starting to earn more, or stopping work to focus on parenting). It is also important to remember that we don’t have unlimited resources. We can’t be everywhere doing everything at the same time all the time! This means that in working on your relationship you will sometimes be Winning Your Sweetheart’s Heart or sometimes unburdening. Surprisingly, not many of us will know the difference. A good start in building your relationship is to regularly pay attention – am I unburdening, or am I Winning my Sweetheart’s Heart? Regularly learning the difference during ‘peace’ times will help you make a valued choice during the times you are flooded emotionally. This is called ‘overtraining’ and can be used when you are expected to perform under pressure.

Working with couples, I often see the aftermath of some extremes of fights. Two loved ones will hurt each other in many ways, will betray trust, break things, threaten to-or reveal secrets, hurt each other emotionally, and even physically. When asked, both will often either not remember what the fight was about or will agree it was about something small and insignificant. Why then, do we go through such tremendous emotional rollercoasters with our partners?! Or else withdraw, emotionally and even physically… whilst hurting and grieving not having our partners present in our life or not being present in theirs. All the while, avoiding them, avoiding topics of conversation, or avoiding connection. Quite the opposite from Winning Your Sweetheart’s Heart! These experiences appear to be akin to our responses to threats – fight, flight, freeze, and fright – the nature’s ‘crude-but-fast’ survival reaction. Survival of what? What is the threat?

Psychologist and co-founder of the Emotionally Focused Therapy Dr Sue Johnson explains that we are born with fundamental needs – to survive and to belong. As a result, we have the corresponding fears – fear of injury/death and fear of abandonment/rejection. These are as powerful as each other and sometimes we will act in a way that will risk… or even cost… us our life – so that we are not abandoned/rejected. Fears can be triggered by cues, suggesting a threat. Some cues are with us when we are born. For example, wind in the face, loud noises, or quick drop can startle, upset, or panic a baby. Similarly, there are cues that trigger our fear of abandonment/rejection. These are just as powerful and can trigger primal panic, similarly to that of injury/death.

Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Dr Edward Tronick has demonstrated this in his series of experiments popularly called the “Still Face Experiments”. You can easily find the video on YouTube. The experimenter asks the mother to face the baby without responding to her. The baby immediately notices the ‘disconnect’ and instinctively (she has no logic developed yet) acts to get her mother back. After number of failed attempts, the baby’s distress becomes unbearable and the experiment is stopped after only 2 minutes. The attempts to reconnect vary from withdrawal, to appealing to mother’s curiosity, to protest, to panic. This is our normal human way of connecting with loved ones. Adults do that too. Especially, when feeling a ‘disconnect’ from our partner. Sometimes this works. I might realise how much pain my partner is in and come to soothe her (Win my Sweetheart’s Heart) after hearing her yelling “you’re never there for me!” Alternatively, I might experience this as a ‘disconnect’ and a ‘threat’ of abandonment/rejection and… panic as well. Sometimes unburdening our panic, expelling our anger, or protecting ourselves will trigger our partners more (and so on…). Responding to your partner’s attempts to reconnect in a way that is perceived as reconnecting will be Winning Your Sweetheart’s Heart.

Fault… We focus so much on whose fault it is…
Blaming ourselves can be so painful and can flood us emotionally. Unburdening through blaming others can result in them feeling under attack and defend. Chances are, of course, if we or our partners could simply choose between two buttons “good response” or “bad” – we would always choose “good”! But it’s not that simple and the world can be harsh and complex. If I don’t fully control it, how can it be my or my partner’s ‘fault’? Our experiences can be multifaceted and painful and sometimes couples fall into a pattern that is not working. As Dr Sue Johnson calls it the “protest polka” is a dance, where one partner’s move hurts the other, pushing them to move in a hurtful way, and so on. Consider in your relationship, when you and your partner get into painful conversations, does one withdraw more, while the other pursues? Does one’s withdrawal lead the other to pursue more? Does the pursuit lead to more withdrawal? This is a painful place for anyone to find themselves and I find it difficult to allocate faults to either of the partners. Finding a way out of this pattern can help you Win Your Sweetheart’s Heart.

When we step on someone’s foot, there’s no need to be confused. The person who did the hurting, cares for the person in pain, “are you ok? I am so sorry, I didn’t see you there. Let me have a look at it” and so on. Unfortunately, we seem to regard physical pain as more valid than emotional… for some reason. Our partners can – and if we care about each other, will – get hurt emotionally by something we have done. During that time, we could look after our partners (apologise, soothe, etc) or do I look after ourselves (defend, blame, etc). Dr John Gottman calls times that we face this choice “sliding door moments” (after the movie). One such event does not define the relationship. It is important, however to consider that every time we choose ourselves, we erode trust. On the other hand, every time you choose to look after your partner, you build trust and get another step toward Winning Your Sweetheart’s Heart. Yes, you read correctly – trust is built in small daily choices, when you put your partner before yourself.

How do I know when I trigger my partner’s primal panic? Dr John Gottman and his team spent literally decades videotaping couples, coding their behaviours, observing their impact on relationships. Ultimately, they were able to define 4 behaviours that they called the “disasters of relationships” (or the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse). Each comes with an antidote to help you in Winning Your Sweetheart’s Heart. As you read through those, notice that each of these behaviours are more than common in our communities – they are culturally supported:


1. Criticism (accusing, blaming) – instead, state your pain and need

2. Defence (sometimes by attacking) – instead, take responsibility “oh, that’s a good point… sorry”

3. Contempt – “I’m better than you… honey, this is how you do it…” (feel superior, name-calling – best predictor of divorce) – instead, make deposits into your emotional account at 5:1 ratio

4. Stonewalling (see pic, pulse > ~100) – instead, manage your and your partner’s agitation

Later on, Drs Julie and John Gottman, described the 7 behaviours they called the “masters of relationships”.


Give your partner at least 5 times more Praise than Reprimand. The sound Relationship House (bottom up):

1. Build Love Maps (know your partner – maintain awareness of your partner’s world) – ask open ended questions.

2. Share Fondness and Admiration (instead of focusing on mistakes, focus on what the partner does well) – Make deposits into the Emotional Bank Account at 5:1 ratio.

3. Turn Towards (towards bids: be aware of how partner asks for attention and respond) – Accept bids for emotional connection.

4. The Positive Perspective – A positive perspective occurs when the friendship of your marriage is strong

5. Manage Conflict:

  • Accept influence from your partner – be open to compromise.
  • Discuss your problems – take turns listening to one another about perpetual issues.
  • Practice self-soothing – reduce your agitation.

6. Make Life Dreams Come True – Help partner act on what matters to them

7. Create Shared Meaning – Build a shared sense of purpose. What is your mission and legacy?

Humans are great learners, which means that when we do something once, twice… we get better at it. In my sessions with couples, I often notice how quickly the partners will assume their habitual positions in their interaction with each other. So much so, that it appears they kind of acting out a well-rehearsed script. Both know to anticipate hurt, even if none was offered. This is a testament to how powerful of a learner human beings are. We can learn to do quite complex things, like driving a car, on ‘autopilot’, without having to pay deliberate attention to the process. Sometimes, the ‘script’ doesn’t fit what needs to be done. For example, finding oneself driving overseas on the opposite side of the road, we need to slow our ‘autopilot’ down and bring it to our awareness. Similarly, when things you do in your relationship, and/or some of the patterns, don’t work, being a human and a great learner means you can slow these processes down, bring them to your awareness and make conscious choices. Try this until you find what works and it too will become a more effective ‘script’ in Winning Your Sweetheart’s Heart.

Some of these scripts are likely to affect you outside of your home. Humans have a unique ability to ‘conjure up’ a mental experience without the need in external triggers. For example, I can, from time to time, experience real emotional reactions (with real biological changes in my body) in response to some of my memories, or fears for the future. Neither one has to be present in the room with me, I just get ‘hooked’ on this mental experience. In therapy – what you learnt about being hurt in relationships could affect how you relate to your therapist. You may anticipate and/or misinterpret things as judgement, blaming… more hurt. Generally, 3 things are likely to make changes more difficult for you: a) lack of clarity in who cares for whom at what point – you and your partner kind of take turns; b) getting ‘hooked’ on past wounds and hurt; c) getting ‘hooked’ on logic and missing the big picture of what you and/or your partner are going through. Some terrible logic can lead us to build resentment, rather than gratitude. One such ‘hook’ has been described by social psychologists Harold Kelley and John Thibaut as ‘CL alt’ or ‘Comparison Level for Alternatives’. This is when as a partner, I decide to shift the responsibility for my actions in the relationship to my partner, assume I am beyond blame, and stop committing to Winning my Sweetheart’s Heart. Usual thoughts that come with this are ‘I don’t need this mess’ or ‘I deserve better’ – the perception that if the partner was to be replaced, I would somehow be having a great relationship. To effectively be Winning Your Sweetheart’s Heart, you will need to be able to notice when you are ‘hooked’ and return to acting on what is important.

Finally remember, there is no such thing as a perfect relationship. You are likely to experience some effective times, but also some ineffective. This does not mean that “nothing works”. It just means that in the balance of things, you are right now ineffective. Work with your partner to grow the times that you are effective. Learn to notice as quickly as possible when you are ineffective and return to what you found works for you to be effective again. Regularly seek opportunity to celebrate your partner. As the DJ Avicii and singer-writer Aloe Blacc put it…
Life’s a game made for everyone, and love is the prize…