When our efforts to live a healthier lifestyle fall short of our expectations, we can be left feeling disillusioned and frustrated with ourselves, which often only reinforces underlying beliefs and creates more tension and pressure, resulting in a self-perpetuating cycle of pressure and disappointment. Internal conflict can take over and we forget why we were doing the activity in the first place! We lose the satisfaction of working toward the achievement of something that was once important to us, because we have replaced the inspiration and motivation with expectation and obligation. According to Flow theory, to be immersed in feelings of pressure, ennui, agitation or anxiety is, by definition, to be excluded from the experience of Flow.
Decades of Public Health research has indicated that the factors impacting on whether or not we take sustained personal action to improve our health are largely related to: a) how we perceive ourselves in relation to the successful adoption of new “healthy” behaviours (self-efficacy), and b), our ability to integrate the desired behaviours within the context of our everyday lives. Acknowledging our barriers, and applying a loving and compassionate lens through which to view ourselves within our journey to wellness is a more fertile ground for Flow. A coach can also do much to take the sting out of the likely temporary setbacks along the way.
Flow for health
At its heart, Flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does. It can feel like we have wind beneath our wings. The universe is supporting our every breath and action. In this space, potential is limitless, creativity is effortless, and we can even experience feelings of bliss commonly associated with being connected to the divine. The expectations of others are inconsequential in this state because our forward motion is 100% internally inspired and generated. Momentum builds of its own accord, supporting the forward movement. Pressure, obligation, and reluctance fall away. We’ve eclipsed mere responsibility to the task at hand. Instead we are the inspired and willing orchestrators of our future and we are in our element. When we consider the application of the state of Flow as it relates to personal health and wellbeing we see incredible potential for sustainable transformation. Imagine what could be achieved if people approached the task of improving and maintaining their health from a position of inspiration, motivation, commitment, and productivity!
Nakamura and Csíkszentmihályi (2009) identify six factors (seen below) which encompass the experience of Flow. These factors can appear independently of each other, but in combination constitute the most comprehensive Flow experience. In brackets following each factor, corresponding concepts familiar within coaching, positive psychology, and spiritual literature have been included for the purpose of acknowledging cross disciplinary ways of understanding
i. Intense and focused concentration on the present moment (Mindfulness, being in the “Now”)
ii. Merging of action and awareness (Creating Awareness, Creating Action, Congruence, Alignment)
iii. A loss of reflective self-consciousness (Lightness, Trust, Self Awareness)
iv. A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity (Self efficacy, Self-management, Self-determination, Responsibility, Commitment)
v. A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered (Meditation, mindfulness, being in the “Now”)
vi. Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience (Gratitude, Optimism, Positivity).
Pressure Vs Flow – Coaching Application
An alphabet of powerful questions
How do we support clients to increase the presence of Flow in their lives and only experience feelings of pressure to the degree that they serve their intention? As coaches we can facilitate conversations with our clients that catalyse them moving toward lives of inspiration, motivation, commitment and productivity. Our role is firstly to powerfully listen to clients as they speak about their lives, reveal perceptions about their experiences and explore their own concepts of Pressure or Flow. Secondly, we can ask powerful questions that raise awareness, challenge underlying beliefs, and re-connect the client with their own personal resources for change. Thirdly we can support clients who wish to adopt Flow generating practices such as mindfulness and meditation through coaching and the facilitation of personal skill development.
The following questions may assist coaches seeking to raise awareness within the client about the nature of their feelings of pressure.
a. What is the specific task or action you feel pressured about?
b. What is it about this situation that makes you feel pressured?
c. What is the origin of the pressure? Is it being externally or internally applied?
d. Are the feelings of pressure warranted?
Upon reflection, a client might find that there is little reason for feeling pressured at all. For instance, if the feeling is related to a deadline with work, the client might re-appraise the task and realise that there is in fact plenty of time to get it done, or that an extension or variance to the delivery of that task is no big deal. The client may have an underlying belief that others expect more from them than they can contribute, but upon reflection realise that they are the only source of pressure and everyone else is perfectly happy! It is useful for the client to consider whether the pressure is real or something they have created to serve another purpose, which leads into
e. What do you get for feeling pressured?
f. Do the feelings of pressure support your intention or do they detract from it?
g. What would happen if you stopped feeling pressured?
If we discover that the feelings of pressure are a natural and productive element supporting the client’s intention, we can work with them to let go of negative perceptions and accept some degree of pressure as part of the process. If however the client concludes that they are not served by the feelings of pressure, we can start to peel away the client’s view of the action or objective, and their relationship to it by asking:
h. What is the significance of this action or objective?
i. What or who are you doing it for?
j. What do you get for undertaking the action or achieving the objective?
k. What is its value to you?
l. Is the action or objective aligned with previously expressed values and priorities and if so,
m. What can you commit to the action or objective?
n. What else is required to achieve it?
Once a client consciously and wholeheartedly commits to an undertaking, and they are certain of its purpose and service to their ultimate intention, they will often cease entertaining thoughts and feelings of pressure, resistance and doubt. This doesn’t mean that they will never experience those thoughts and feelings again, but that they can observe them greater impartially and not inflate them with more meaning or consequence than is warranted. When people can observe themselves struggling with commitments, and acknowledge the underlying feelings and beliefs without judgement, they are ideally positioned to consciously redirect their energy and establish an alternative dialogue with questions such as:
o. Am I still committed to achieving this?
p. What will I gain if I succeed?
q. What will I sacrifice if I choose to let go of this commitment?
r. Do I still choose to undertake this?
A client may also benefit from a visualization activity whereby the coach facilitates a deep state of relaxation and creates a story in which the client has successfully achieved their objective and is living with the reward that comes with that achievement. At the end of the visualisation the client could be asked:
s. What did you experience in the visualisation?
t. How did you appear?
u. What were you doing?
v. What did it feel like having achieved your objective?
Flow, the final frontier
It is important that Flow not be framed in such a way as to exclude everyday people from experiencing it. Language is key to enabling people to relate and identify with the concept of Flow. Not everyone would necessarily be able to recount an occasion of being in Flow, but most people could recall an experience when they were feeling inspired, motivated, committed and productive. Another role as coaches might be to re-connect people with those experiences, and the personal resources they were utilising at that time. The following questions might be useful in this context:
w. Can you remember a time when you were inspired, motivated, committed and productive?
x. What was happening in this instance?
y. What is the difference between then and now? and finally….
z. What can you do to manifest more inspiration, motivation, commitment and productivity in your life?