Dr. Diana Hill focuses on ACT – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy – and specializes in evidence-based and compassion-focused approaches.
Diana started as a biopsychology major and also practiced yoga and mindfulness to manage her struggles with anxiety and eating. After her undergraduate degree, she went for her PhD in clinical psychology. She became the clinical director at La Luna Center, an intensive outpatient center for eating disorders that embraces feminine, and holistic, integrative approaches to healing, designing programs centered around ACT.
After becoming a mother, Diana moved back to Santa Barbara, and started a private practice. To stay on top of the most current psychology research, she started a podcast called Psychologists Off the Clock with her colleague Dr. Debbie Sorenson in 2016. She also wrote a book with Dr. Sorenson called ACT Daily Journal: Get Unstuck and Live Fully with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, released in 2021.
Diana also records a podcast called Your Life in Process and offers a Foundation of ACT course.
In this podcast, Sonya and Diana talk about acceptance based therapy, mindfulness, and more.
“From my perspective, acceptance is one of the core processes involved in human flourishing. Oftentimes, I won’t even start with the word acceptance with clients because of that reason. It’s like, ‘I’m not going to accept my mother-in-law,’ or ‘I can’t accept my boss is a jerk.’ But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about actually accepting anything outside of yourself. Acceptance is really an inside job. By an inside job, it’s, how are you relating to what shows up under your skin that is uncomfortable. When you show up with acceptance and you relate to that with acceptance, you are doing things like making space, being willing, turning towards, allowing, letting go. Those may be some other words that feel a little more accessible than acceptance because oftentimes we think acceptance means approval or resignation.”– Dr. Diana Hill
- Acceptance-based therapy
- Practicing mindfulness
- What acceptance means
- A “yes” brain
- Values – qualities of action that you bring to situations
- Psychological flexibility and the six core processes
- Harnessing energy
- Resting even though you feel guilty
- Being efficient with your time
- Celebrating successes
- Learn more about ACT and Dr. Hill
- Check out the ACT Daily Journal
- Listen to Dr. Hill’s podcast Your Life in Process
- Check out my Substack about high-performance mindset
- Sign up for my weekly newsletter!
- Try Athletic Greens and AG1!
Sonya Looney: Diana, welcome to the show.
Diana Hill: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to talk with you today. Yeah.
Sonya: I’m really excited to have you on the show because I have listened to you on Psychologists Off the Clock, and then your new podcast, is It Your Life in Process? The name of it. I got it.
Diana: Your Life and Process. Yay.
Sonya: Yeah. So like, what spurred all of this type of work that you’re doing? And can you define the type of work that you’re doing?
Diana: Yeah. Well, I’m a clinical psychologist and how I describe myself as a psychological flexibility guide. And what that means is that I help people get more flexible in their lives, more flexible in their thinking, more flexible in their acting, so that they can move their behavior towards directions that matter to them. And psychological flexibility is part of this larger concept called ACT. People may have heard of act or acceptance and commitment training, acceptance, commitment therapy. And it’s been a bit of a twisty, windy road to get there. I think that a lot of the times when people ask you what was your path? It’s never like flying from Santa Barbara to New York. The airplane isn’t going that straight little line that you see on the screen. It goes ups and downs and left and right. So I was a biopsychology major as an undergraduate, always interested in neuroscience, and went on to pursue clinical psychology, really because of my own struggles. I had a history of an eating disorder and went to graduate school to find that that traveled with me, and I really struggled my first year of graduate school, ended up withdrawing. Actually, in my first year, my PhD program, went to a yoga ashram and decided that I was going to go back and get my PhD. But I wanted to research things that were more integrative. And at the time, people weren’t doing like, it was very evidence based, the program I was in, and they weren’t doing things like mindfulness or embodiment or yoga and research based programs. So when I went back, I ended up studying with a woman at Stanford, which is one of the few people in the world that were doing mindfulness based interventions for eating disorders. And that led me on this whole other twisty turny path of how to pursue the work that I love, acknowledge that I’m a super striver, and I have to keep that in track and like how to do it skillfully without it harming me and then how to help others. I work a lot with executives and organizations in becoming more psychologically flexible and thriving in their lives and within the organizations.
Sonya: Can you define what a mindfulness based intervention is? Because people listening might think like, oh, yeah, I’m Super analytical. I’m super sciencey. But what is this mindfulness intervention thing?
Diana: Sure. There’s a number of them, and they’re actually considered third wave psychology. And what third wave means is that it’s sort of built on the back of cognitive and cognitive behavioral interventions. So cognitive interventional interventions, how they would view things would be if you’re having a problem, it’s the way that you’re thinking about it. And we need to just think differently. Right? Behavioral interventions would say if you’re having a problem, it’s the way that you’re behaving in your life. You need to behave differently, like get out of bed in the morning, if you’re depressed, don’t go back in bed. And that’s true, there are cognitive interventions have some benefit. Behavioral interventions have some benefits, but acceptance based or mindfulness based interventions have a little bit of a different angle, which is, sometimes the best thing to do is to be with, to turn towards. And things like anxiety, more often than not, when you experience anxiety, what you tend to do is run away from it and you take a left turn every time that anxiety shows up. So say you have social anxiety, you’re like, oh, I’m uncomfortable. People are looking at me, so I’m not going to talk or I’m going to drink or I’m not going to go. We take these left turns of avoidance in our life. But what happens is if you take a lot of left turns, you end up going in circles, right. And you just go deeper into your anxiety.
So a mindfulness based or an acceptance based intervention would teach you some skills around how to be more present, even with discomfort as it shows up in your life. And the way that I practice is integrative. I believe there’s a lot of benefit to being able to navigate our thoughts differently. There’s a lot of benefit to behavioral interventions. Sometimes we just need to move our hands and our feet and then our head will catch up. And there’s a lot of benefit to mindfulness based interventions of learning how to be with our discomfort and turn towards it, especially when turning towards our discomfort is in the same direction of our values.
Sonya: Yes, it seems like those three waves are not mutually exclusive, but it also seems like the mindfulness based interventions need to be the foundation. Because if you don’t even know how you feel and you’re just trying to change how you think about something or act a different way in your life, but you don’t understand the foundation of what’s happening inside your head or even in your body, it would be really hard to make those other things effective.
Diana: Absolutely. And there is a sort of awareness that’s needed Viktor Frankl’s very famous line of the space between stimulus and response. So mindfulness interventions help you slow down enough to be able to notice when those spaces are happening. So say if you are, you tend to get into conflict a lot with your partner, and you just get hooked into the conflict and conflict over and over and over again. With a mindfulness based intervention, you would be able to start to notice what has led up to that. Like, what are the precursors to it? And then when it’s happening, what’s hooking you and how can you unhook? And then also, I really do a lot of practices of not only two eyes in of noticing what’s inside my own body, but two eyes out. Maybe what is my partner experiencing that may be contributing to the conflict? Can I get behind his eyes and have some perspective taking or compassion for him? So mindfulness is a really powerful tool. I think it’s been popularized a lot in the US, and it’s oversimplified in a lot of ways. My early training was with Thich Nhat Hanh, and so I traveled to Plum Village in my 20s to go study with him. And his teachings were very simple, but they were also very profound, and he was quite an activist for change. So I think sometimes they get oversimplified in the US.
Sonya: But it’s a good intervention to have what are some ways that it’s being oversimplified?
Diana: I think it’s oversimplified in that we start to think that mindfulness is just about being present or observing. And there are sort of different levels of awareness. There’s the awareness of sort of your five senses. What do I see? What do I hear? What do I smell? There is another awareness that some people would say is your 6th sense, which is how my thinking not only what the content of my thoughts is, but what is the quality of my thoughts and my emotions. A 7th awareness, 7th sort of sense, would be what’s happening inside my body, and then an 8th sense would be what’s happening interpersonally. How are we deeply interconnected? So mindfulness has a component of interconnection to it. It’s also oversimplified, I think, because not only is mindfulness about awareness of that, it’s also awareness of the spaciousness. So we can become aware that we are aware, which is sort of another sort of Dan Siegel’s work, but that’s another sort of higher level of mindfulness that people practice.
Sonya: That’s something that I think is really exciting and interesting about mindfulness is that there’s no endpoint. It’s something that you continually will work on your entire life until you die.
Diana: Yeah, absolutely. It’s an ongoing process, for sure.
Sonya: And I think most people are familiar with meditation. But what are some other ways that people can practice mindfulness if people are like, I really just am, against meditating because some people are really resistant to that?
Diana: Well, it’s interesting because the practice that I teach accepted the commitment training actually is one of the acceptance based practices that doesn’t include mindfulness. You don’t have to be on a cushion to practice mindfulness. One way to practice mindfulness is just getting present in your body right now as you’re listening to this, can you feel your feet? Can you feel your breath? Can you sort of turn those two eyes in and then also getting present in the environment that you’re in. So can you turn two eyes out and look at what’s around you and then eventually keep one eye in and one eye out? So that’s just sort of being mindful as you walk about your life. More often than not, we are just caught up in our thinking. We are overthinkers. We tend to believe our thoughts to be true. We tend to never challenge them or question them. And what is interesting is that oftentimes our head is like the least helpful thing that we should be listening to. It’s like a terrible motivational speaker, especially when we’re struggling. It tends to be highly critical. And there’s evolutionary reasons for that. Those of us that had highly critical, fearful thought patterns in our ancestry were the ones that survived because it was pretty dangerous out there. But in our modern day environment, it’s not so dangerous and our heads can really lead us astray from our values. So be mindful of getting out of your head, getting into your body, getting into the moment. And you can do that as a parent. You can do that when you’re going for a run. You can do that when you’re at the grocery store.
Sonya: You’ve mentioned the word acceptance a lot. And I think that people hear the word acceptance and they think that that means the same thing as complacency and they don’t want to feel stuck or they don’t want to feel just resigned. So can you explain what acceptance really means?
Diana: From my perspective, acceptance is one of the core processes involved in human flourishing. And oftentimes I won’t even start with the word acceptance with clients because of that reason, because it’s like, oh, I’m not going to accept my mother in law or I can’t accept my boss is a jerk. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about actually even accepting anything outside of yourself. But acceptance is really an inside job. And by an inside job, it’s how are you relating to what shows up under your skin that’s uncomfortable. When you show up with acceptance and you relate to that with acceptance, you are doing things like making space, being willing, turning towards, allowing, letting go. There may be some other words that feel a little bit more accessible than acceptance, because oftentimes we think acceptance means approval or resignation, like you’ve mentioned. And when we start to practice this sort of like turning towards, opening up, making space for, discomfort, what it allows us to do is be able to make moves in our life towards things that we care about. So anything that you’ve done in your life that you care a lot about…you’re about to become a parent. Is this for your second time or second time?
Sonya: Second time.
Diana: Okay, so you’re a parent, there’s probably nothing that causes more suffering pain than being a parent. It’s like you’re signing up to just like feel a lot of pain, right? Anything that has really mattered to you in your life, most likely has had some degree of pain associated with it, and therefore, we need to learn some skills to be able to be with pain. And acceptance is one of those skills. How do we allow for discomfort to show up and continue to turn towards what we care about? That’s a hard task, but it’s very doable. It’s something that we can practice.
Sonya: How do we practice that?
Diana: I like to think about it in three ways. Accepting with the mind, the body, and the behavior. So I’ll do a little experiment with you right now.
Sonya: All right. I’m in the hot seat. Let’s do this.
Diana: And the listeners could do this, too. I like to do things experientially. Okay. I’m going to ask a series of questions. And as I ask them, I just want you to say in your head, no. Okay.
Do you want to continue listening to this conversation? Are you enjoying this? Do you want to go outside? Do you want to go for a walk? Do you want to talk to somebody else later? Okay.
So that’s a no brain. Ok. No brains shut things down.
Ok. I want you to answer these questions now again in your head with a yes. Do you want to continue this conversation? Do you want to go outside later? Do you want to go for a walk? Do you want to talk to somebody else today?
Diana: Would you notice in the difference between saying yes versus saying no?
Sonya: Well, first of all, make a joke. I heard my toddler’s voice going no. But I noticed that whenever I say yes, I feel expansion in my body and I feel a lightness expansion in your body and lightness.
Diana: And actually, it’s appropriate that you said your toddler said no, because this comes from Dan Siegel, who wrote the book The Yes Brain. And he wrote it for kids of like how to work with your kids to have a more of a yes brain because kids are so into saying no. Right. And I’m not saying that you should just say yes to being oppressed or yes to being abused. That’s not what I’m saying. But actually yes or that stance of openness is a way of approaching life that will lead to more expansiveness. And expansiveness is actually a really nice word. That’s how we want to feel. A lot of times with the no brain, we feel constricted and closed. Right. So that’s a yes brain that’s accepting with your mind. Am I willing to have this experience? Yes. And then we can accept with our body by doing all sorts of body based practices. When we are shutting down or closing off to life, we have a tendency to do a couple of things that are sort of the fight flight freeze. We tend to hold our breath. Women in particular tend to suck their bellies in because we’ve been trained to, like suck it in. So we can practice letting go with our belly. And we can practice taking longer exhales and taking longer, slower breaths. We can practice letting our shoulders drop and letting go of our face, opening our hands into willing, open hands. A lot of times when clients will come to my office and they’re really shut down, they’ll cross their arms and hide. So you can open your arms to the side and open your hands and you can even practice pushing your feet into the ground, which is sort of like an open, expansive feet in the ground, crown of the head to the sky. So those are body based acceptance. Am I opening my eyes and my body to what is? And then finally, behavior based acceptance is doing things that are important to you, saying yes to life with your actions, because ultimately we can think it, but it doesn’t really come into fruition until we do it. And sometimes we need to accept our behavior first. Like, I am going to call that person that I’ve been avoiding even though I don’t want to. And even though I think I can’t, I’m still going to do it. And then as I start to do it, I notice acceptance comes or I’m going to apply for that job that I think that I’m not good enough for. I’m accepting the discomfort with my behavior by applying and putting myself out there.
Sonya: That kind of comes back full circle to your circle metaphor of going, turning left, turning left, avoiding the anxiety, going around in circles and never actually getting through it because you’re avoiding it. What are some other ways that people avoid discomfort with their behavior or their thoughts?
Diana: I have a long list of them, and sometimes I list these and I say, like, put up a finger for each one of these that you do.
First. I just want to say avoidance is the coping strategy to pain. We just avoid pain. That’s what our brains are designed to do. It doesn’t work so well when it’s something inside of ourselves. Right. So we tend to do things like numb out and you can numb out through substances, you can numb out through technology, you can numb out through exercise can actually be an avoidance strategy. We tend to distract ourselves with a lot of those types of things. One of my personal favorites is doing – being overly productive.
Sonya: That’s what I do too.
Diana: So during the pandemic, it was summer of 2020. It was like the dark days of summer 2020, pandemic times, especially pandemic times as a parent and a therapist. And I started waking up in the middle of the night, so anxious. And I would go and work in the middle of the night, like 02:00 in the morning, I’d be at my computer. And I remember that one evening I woke up and I was working and I was like, oh, my gosh, here I am again. I’m doing my thing. This is what I do when I’m really anxious is I work. And it’s a really old pattern for me. Go back to grad school, right? Go back to eating disorder. This is my old history of striving when I’m uncomfortable. And so I sat down and I wrote this list of all the things that are sort of about that avoidance strategy. And it was included things like doing more, but never feeling like I was doing enough, working and neglecting my body’s needs, competing with people that don’t have the same goals or values that I have, not being present in important domains of my life because I’m so hooked into my productivity anxiety. And so I made this list of all these signs that I was engaging in that avoidance behavior. And it was really helpful. It’s helpful if you are able to start to notice, like, what is your cycle? What do you do to avoid? And maybe it’s not striving, but maybe it’s drinking, or maybe you’re in a kind of an uncomfortable conversation, so you check your phone chronically, right? Or you rush through, you start speaking really quickly, or you don’t go, you isolate, you get back in bed. We all have our favorite avoidance strategy. And the first step in being able to get out of it and do something different and get out of that left turn roundabout is to be able to identify it. So that’s where mindfulness comes in, like, oh, here I am. And then the next step is like, okay, when these queues show up, they’re going to continue to show up is what I do. What do I want to do differently and why? Like, what is the outcome that would be different for me if I weren’t waking up in the middle of the night writing or working? Why is that important to me in the first place? And that’s where the values component of ACT comes in is really foundational in this work is figuring out your why.
Sonya: Yeah, I love that you bring up the values based work. I’m a health coach, and a huge part of health coaching is integrating values into everything that we do and helping to build intrinsic motivation that way. What if somebody isn’t sure what their values are? Or maybe their values list has 30 different things on it. How can people get more clarity around their values?
Diana: Yeah, one of the things that’s gotten kind of popularized with values that kind of irks me a little is that we have all these lists and we’re supposed to come up with five. Like, okay, it’s kindness and it’s compassion and it’s adventure. Those are my values, right. As if our values are words. Our values are not words. Our values are not posted on some list or handout somewhere. What our values are at least in ACT, our qualities of action that you bring to situations in your life that are important to you. The words are sort of like a way of organizing our mind, but they’re much more embodied than that, and they’re ways of being in the world. So one example that I do with clients is I think that there’s sort of two angles in to look at our values. I could ask you a question. I’ll ask a few of you, Sonya, if you were to think about the past 24 hours, everything you’ve done in the past 24 hours, and what would be one of the most meaningful, sweet moments for you of the past 24 hours?
Sonya: Pretty much any time I’ve spent with my son where he’s, like, displayed affection to me or I’ve seen him experiencing joy.
Diana: Okay. Can you boil it down for me? Like what happened in the past 24 hours when he did that, for example?
Sonya: I’m trying to think of a specific example. Just like wanting a hug and a kiss. Just coming, ‘Mommy hug. Mommy kiss, mummy hug’ And the connection that brings and that presence, too, because I’m not doing anything else. I’m looking him in the eyes and experiencing that connection, and then it’s truly genuine and authentic. That brings me a lot of joy.
Diana: And what does it feel like in your body when that’s happening?
Sonya: It feels warm.
Diana: Warm. Yeah. So that’s a value of yours. And we could put a word on it and say you value connection. You value this sort of genuine presence. Right. But it’s hard to put a word on that. It’s more of like, how you feel and what you are doing in that moment with your son that is like, oh, yeah, that’s it. Right. Okay, so I’m going to ask you another question, and this one’s a little bit more uncomfortable that people hate to answer. So I’m going to throw you up to do it.
Sonya: That’s right. I like it.
Diana: Yeah. Who do you envy?
Sonya: I actually just wrote a newsletter about envy. That was today. Yeah.
Sonya: Right now I envy people who have better sponsorship opportunities than I do because it’s been really hard having two pregnancies in a pandemic for my racing career. And it’s mostly I notice it when I’m on social media and I see people that have things that I wish that I had or that I tried to get and I didn’t get.
Diana: Okay. And what is it about a sponsorship opportunity that you envy. Like, what would that give you?
Sonya: Well, part of it is, and it’s not a healthy answer, but it’s validation that I’m good enough. Like, if X brand believes me or wants to pay me money, well, now I’m worthy or now I’m good enough, and there’s imposter syndrome in there as well.
Diana: I’m good enough. Is that something that you value? Having a feeling of being good enough?
Sonya: To some degree, like if I break it down even further, the reason why I want to feel good enough is because I want to be able to make an impact on other people. And I want people to care what I have to say because I really want to help people. But it gets challenging because there’s ego involved there and there’s, like, looking externally in comparison that gets intertwined in that. But ultimately when I distill it down, because I truly want to be able to reach more people so that I can help them, because I really enjoy being able to help people.
Diana: Yeah, great. So we start with an uncomfortable emotion. And there’s also, like, a little bit of self judgment around it. Like, I can feel that. Like, ooh, I like envy people that have sponsorship positions that’s so. Like, superficial of me or whatever it is that you may have judgment about. Right. And oftentimes envy is something that we would just ignore or we would kind of like, not like that part of ourselves. As if we don’t like our left shoulder. And it kind of like, follows us around everywhere. But there it is again. And I’m like, damn. This envy will not leave me every time I look over that direction. Right. But actually what you did there was be able to take a feeling that maybe is an uncomfortable one and get underneath it to what your core value is, which is to be able to help people. So if every time envy were to show up for you and you were able to feel it’s, a feeling state and you could turn towards it like, oh, because this is because I care about this thing. It transforms your relationship with it. So in ACT, we are never about getting rid of stuff. We’re always about relating to something differently, whether it’s our thoughts or it’s about our emotions. The third question that I often will ask people, which is a newer one, and this comes from Daniel Pink, who’s got this great new book out called The Power of Regret. He’s researched over 4000 people to look at what are people regretting in their lives? It’s very common emotion that we often skate over. Like many of the uncomfortable motions, we say things like, I have no regrets. We all have regrets. Actually, more often than not, we look back on the past, we will have regrets. And he’s been able to identify there’s these four main areas of regret. Things like regret he calls foundational regrets. Like, I wish I wore more sunscreen or I wish I brushed my teeth when I was a kid. Right. That could lead to some regret later in life. Then there’s also moral regrets. I wish that I hadn’t cheated on my spouse. And then there’s regrets that have to do with boldness. I wish I put myself out there more. I wish I went to graduate school. I wish I applied for that, whatever competition put myself out there. And then the last type of regret has to do with connection. I wish I was around my parents more before they passed, more time with my spouse before our marriage kind of fell apart. So we have these types of regrets and oftentimes we skate over regrets so we can look at our regrets as well as a pointer to our values. What is it that you regret and what does that say about what you care about and ACT does a lot of that work. It’s not about warm fuzzies and positive psychology anymore. Now it’s like what’s dark and dirty in there? And let’s go there because it says a lot about you and what’s important to you.
Sonya: So where does that crossover point? Because there is that part. But then there’s also being able to change the way that you’re telling yourself a story about something. So you could say, oh, I’m experiencing envy, envy is bad, blah, blah, blah. Or you could say I’m experiencing envy, well, now it’s teaching me something. You are changing the way that you’re talking to yourself about envy, but you’re also using this mindfulness based approach and then your behavior might change too because of that.
Diana: Right. So I’m kind of alluding to these six processes and I’m just going to spell them out because it’s helpful. So psychological flexibility has six core processes, sort of like sides of a Rubik’s Cube. And one side is going to influence another side. They’ve all been demonstrated through research. They are evidence based to be effective in enhancing your performance and improving things like anxiety and depression. So we’ve talked about the acceptance side, we’ve talked about a mindfulness side, and we’re now talking about another side. When you say changing your story, which is the perspective taking side, which is we all have belief systems. Another type of therapy, they call it schemas. We have stories about ourselves and we can become flexible with our belief systems and stories about ourselves and take perspective on them and stories about other people and take perspective on those. And when we are more flexible with those stories and choose the stories that serve us. So it’s choosing what story would help me reach my goals in life and my values. None of these stories are true or not true. They all have like when they ask adult siblings about their childhood, they will tell completely different stories. Ask your siblings sometime – what’s your holiday experience when you were a kid? One will say, oh, it was terrible. And I will say it was great. Right. So we are storytellers. Humans create narratives to explain our experience. But when we become inflexible in our stories and we’re unable to take perspective on them, then that can lead us to another roundabout of getting stuck and maybe not taking risks, maybe not playing big, maybe believing something, whether it’s a positive self story. Like, I’m smart kids that believe and are told that they are smart have more of a fixed mindset. They will not solve the puzzle as long. And the same is true for us as adults. I work with tons of high performing executive folks that have really positive stories about themselves. It doesn’t work so well when that story doesn’t come true or when you’re unable to be flexible with it. So that’s another side of the Rubik’s Cube, too. Those are three sides, and then the other three sides are about your thoughts, how you relate to your thoughts. In ACT, we do something called cognitive diffusion, which is your ability to step back from your thoughts and observe them, and then values, which is a side we’ve already talked about. And then the last side is committed action, which is that behavior side I’ve mentioned. How are you going to put this into action with your daily habits, with your tiny moves on a regular basis so that you kind of water the seeds that you want to grow in your life?
Sonya: And if people listening want a great primer, they should pick up your ACT Daily Journal book, because I think that’s a really great description and also good practices to work on a bunch of those things. I want to take one thing that you said and then roll with it. It was about the executives that you work with that have a positive story, or maybe they have a goal that they’re working towards. And then when that goal doesn’t work and a lot of times people do set these outcome based goals that you don’t always have control over. And the athletes listening are like, oh, yeah, I’ve set goals like I want to have a certain race result that’s like an outcome based goal that isn’t going to serve you very well because you can’t control what anybody else is going to show up to the start line with. And you can’t control some of the things that are going to happen out on the race course. So it’s more about that process. But then there’s the striving piece, and it’s like, well, why do you need to have that goal? And what are you trying to feel versus what are you trying to achieve and those types of questions. So I want to bring up how do we have a healthy relationship with ambition and striving while holding all of these principles?
Diana: Great. So, yes, I mentioned that I have an ambivalent relationship with driving. I’ve described it as my frenemy actually, a lot of times what people say to high achievers, perfectionists and strivers, it’s just like, don’t do it, don’t be so perfectionistic, don’t work so hard, and I want to punch them when someone says that to me, I’m like, what do I do with all this drive that I was born with? I’m a high achiever, I’m a striver. And I think it’s more like, how do we harness it and get it moving in the right direction? What if you… I have this sticker on my water bottle when I was working with I was in a College counseling center at UC Davis, and it said, ‘My thighs carry me up the mountain.’ And I was working with clients with even the orders at the time. And I would say, okay, so if we took the energy that you’re putting into making your thighs not touch each other and we put them into climbing, what mountains would you want to climb in your life? What matters enough to you? How could you harness that energy and shift it? So outcomes, I actually think outcomes are great. I’m a big fan of like, remodeling your kitchen and celebrating, hitting the end of the race and being like, yes, I did it. Being pregnant and having a baby. But if we think that the outcome is the end, it’s like, now you have a baby friend. It’s not the outcome. Now you have a whole other process to deal with. So we are so trained up in our society to focus on outcomes that we neglect process. And part of being in process is, one being able to shift our ideas around, like self esteem and start moving towards self compassion. So it’s not about being a better person. You already are a good person. There’s nothing that you need to do. You were born good. You are good. You are whole. You are good enough. So we start there with, like, I start with wholeness. And then the next step is sort of also being in the moments as they happen when there is a positive outcome, taking in and savoring. That good. This feels so good. And can I stay in it long enough? Because more often than not, what people do is they run through the finish line and they’re already thinking about the next race they need to run. Right. When you look at studies of medalists – gold medalists, silver and bronze – silver medalists on that platform do not look as happy. And this is true, they’ve done this through visual inspection, but also computerized inspections, like, why is the silver medalist unhappy? Why can’t they take in the good of what they’ve done? Right? Because there’s comparison. There’s the feeling I could have been better than what I was rather than being in and sort of taking in the good as you go along. So that’s another aspect. But that day when I wrote down all of those striving things, the night that I woke up, I also wrote down a list of knowing sort of what I know for myself around what healthy striving or skillful striving could look like. And I wrote down things like setting goals based on my values, prioritizing important domains of my life, pausing to take in the view, being present while working hard, balancing effort with surrender, having wholesome purposes, taking rest even when I feel guilty, even when that discomfort shows up, setting clear boundaries, working to benefit the greater whole, and choosing a cooperative, interconnected mindset over a competitive individualistic one. So that’s what if we start striving for some of those things, it can be a totally different type of mountain that we’re climbing.
Sonya: I really like that list. I’m sure that wasn’t an easy list to just put together. I really liked the one about not feeling guilty, about resting because I think a lot of people listening to this podcast feel compelled to just go, go, go. And whenever they do stop and take a break, they feel guilty for it and they feel like they should be hustling.
Diana: I want to pause you. I didn’t say not feeling guilty when you are resting. I said resting even though you feel guilty.
Diana: And there’s a distinction there because oftentimes we tell ourselves, like, I shouldn’t feel guilty. Of course you feel guilty. You have been fed the Kool Aid of rest is equal guilt since you were a child. Like what happens when you’re a teenager and you really needed to sleep in until noon? What did your parents tell you? Get out of bed, you lazy bum. And we’ve been fed it forever that resting is guilt. So you will feel guilt and you can respond to, okay, there’s my guilt. What’s my value? My value is actually to let my body heal, to sleep and know that all that like growth hormone is being released while I’m sleeping. All that repair, all that autophagy, all that whatever is happening in your body when you’re sleeping and taking care of my body will allow me to play my sport. Right. So the guilt won’t go away. You may notice the benefit of guilt reducing over time if you do deliberate, repeated practice of opposite action to guilt. Same thing with anxiety as you move towards something, even though I feel anxious. You may see a change in anxiety, but you have to be careful because as soon as you hook onto attached to that, like, oh, this makes me not feel anxious, then all of a sudden you’re in the same belief system that got you there. And we can’t fix a belief system with the same belief system that got us trapped. We need to have a different belief system. So the different belief system is I will move towards my values, even though I have discomfort, thoughts of guilt, feelings of restlessness, and my values right now are to rest. Athletes actually already know how to do this very well because there’s a lot of about being an athlete where you are moving towards a value even though you have discomfort. So you’re working up a hill and you feel, in a long distance runner, and I run up there’s a hill up behind my house called Gibraltar, which is really well known. The Tour of California goes up and a lot of elite athletes go up this mountain, that’s Lacombe Peak, and there’s like a 12% grade on parts of this Hill. And when I’m running, I’ll run past bikers. It’s really satisfying because it’s so stupid. But there are moments where you feel like total discomfort in your head says, I can’t do this and you keep going, right. So we can use that same mentality of acceptance and moving towards our values. But then tweak it to, okay, I’m having one of those moments, which is I’m taking a rest day or I’m feeling guilty and it’s uncomfortable, but I can still move towards my values. Not that makes sense.
Sonya: Yeah, it does. But I also want to say that for athletes and something I’ve had to learn over the last couple of years is rest isn’t just a physical thing. Like, there’s mental rest that you need. And a lot of us will be like, okay, well, I’m not training as hard, so I’m going to over strive. I’m going to work extra hours, I’m going to do all these extra things. And then you’re still avoiding the rest because you just replace it with mental striving.
Diana: Right. Symptom substitution is what we call that in the world of psychology. It’s like, I’m not drinking anymore, but I’m smoking. So we all have our ways of avoiding and we just switch from one avoidance strategy to another. Absolutely.
Sonya: Well, I’m speaking personally, but I think that a lot of people can relate with this is that I think a lot of us over strive because we’re searching for enoughness and wholeness. Like, I’ll be good enough if I can achieve X, and that’s something that I personally have had to wrestle with and work with. And that comes back to what you’re saying about being whole without needing the achievements. But it’s not that easy to untangle from that. And I don’t even know if you actually can. So how can people strive even when they realize they’re doing it because they’re trying to be validated or they’re trying to feel like they’re enough? Yeah, in a way, even if they realize, well, the main reason why I have these tendencies to overdo it is because I’m still trying to feel like I’m enough.
Diana: Yeah. I mean, I would sit with that for a bit. That’s a sad place to live. And maybe there’s sadness to navigate there. I don’t feel like I’m enough. And so I do all these things and I keep on doing more, and more and more, and all of a sudden you’re like me in the middle of the night working right there’s sadness. And what am I avoiding? Like, what is the feared unwanted experience? And could I go there for a little bit? Can I make space for that and be willing to be with myself in that? I think that sometimes this perspective taking skill can also be really helpful. And the perspective taking on striving is sort of imagining that you’re in X marks the spot of your life right here, right now. This is the striving that I’m caught in. This is the not enoughness. But if I look back on my life. And I look to the left, which is the timeline that goes back to when I was younger, could I find another time when I was caught in something similar? And that feels familiar? We’re in the same track, right? Sort of like a bird that’s caught in the house and keeps on throwing itself at a window. We do the same thing over and over again thinking we’re going to get different results. So remembering that younger version of you, and if you could go back to that younger version of you, how would you feel towards them? What advice would you give them? Right? And then the same is true of, like, here we are in the X marks the spot of all of this feels so important right now. My problems and my striving and my, you know, feel so important. If I were to look to the right of the timeline of my life, see an older version of me, who knows what it’s like to be me, like no one else knows. I know what it’s like to be the younger version of me, like no one else knew. If this older version of me that’s a little bit further down the road were to come to me and give me some advice, what would they tell me? So zooming out a little bit from what we’re so caught up in it feels so important right now can be really helpful in kind of loosening up some of our striving. Because if you struggle with unhealthy striving, you will continue to struggle with that. Probably these things, they come around again, and they come around when you’re stressed. We also live in a culture, I would add that striding is one reason why we strive is from not good enoughness, that’s from our threat system being activated. But another reason why we strive is because our drive system is activated, our dopamine system. So threat is very amygdala based, drive is very dopamine based. And dopamine is a craving or a hormone that will lead you to never feeling satisfied. There’s an incredible woman named Anna Lembke, who’s the director of the addiction center at Stanford and I had an opportunity to interview her about her book called the Dopamine Nation. And what she talks about is basically dopamine peaks as we move towards that pursuit, whether that pursuit is a race or that pursuit is a bong. So the dopamine peaks. And then what happens is then dopamine drops, and it drops low, like, lower than where it started. So then we have to go do that thing again to just get ourselves back to normal. And we are, what Anna said, it’s like, we are like cactuses in an ocean of dopamine. Every time you look at your phone, every time you eat food, every time you get on there’s now I think on the Peloton there’s, like, the striving, my girlfriend was like, you’re going to love it there’s. Like the striving score on the Peloton. I’m like, oh my gosh, shoot me now, right? We are getting so much feedback to do more. Right? So a lot of it is not our fault. As Paul Gilbert would say, it’s not your fault, but it’s your responsibility to do something differently. And sometimes that takes some perspective taking of, like, what really matters. Here what’s my why self says about it. Sometimes it also takes them a little bit of dopamine detox, a little bit of self binding. Like, I’m not going to wear my Apple Watch today. What would happen…could be a good thing.
Sonya: Yeah. So sometimes it’s like realizing that you’re going to be okay even if you don’t get those dopamine hits repeatedly. And I think the fascinating thing about dopamine is that it’s at the highest before, like, not after you get the thing, but in anticipation of the thing.
Diana: Yeah. It’s not a satisfaction to a homeowner. It doesn’t make you feel contentment. It makes you feel like you want something. And wanting craving state is sort of the hungry ghost, very dissatisfied place to be. You can feel it. You just feel it. I don’t feel content. And that’s why I really like, one of my mentors is Rick Hanson, and a lot of his work is around cultivating some of these states of good enoughness, contentment, on a daily basis starting to cultivate that for yourself. Like, right now I feel like I have enough and feeling that in your body and lingering on it so that sort of neuroplasticity gets built because there’s so much that’s in our culture that saying you don’t and you aren’t enough. So we have to kind of be within our own selves, cultivate something different.
Sonya: I think that’s why for me, it’s why it’s so important to spend time with real people in real life, because it’s really easy to get into that comparison mode and that looking around, especially when you’re online and you have a lot of work and life online. But I noticed that when I’m around, like friends or just people in my neighborhood, it’s a really different feeling than if I’m having a digital relationship.
Diana: It’s interesting. During COVID, we all developed these digital relationships. And we’ve kind of forgotten that some of these people we’ve never met in real life because maybe we’ve been friends with them for two or three years and don’t even realize it. I think that there’s ways that we can approach our digital relationships that are a little bit more effective. So certainly when we’re working without video and when we’re working without voice tone, we have less access to a lot of the nonverbal communication that makes us feel connected. As humans, we communicate a lot through our facial signaling and through our voice tone. And actually, those two forms of communication are prioritized over the content. But the way in which we communicate a lot online is just through text and so when that happens or when we’re in short little bits of text, we lose a lot of context and we lose a lot of connection. So one of the things I do is I tend to leave voice memos for friends instead of texting, try and do video when I can, when my eyes aren’t fried from it. But, yeah, it’s hard. It’s hard. This online square, little squares world.
Sonya: And especially with remote work where you might default to text and email. And these are all business relationships that you have where you lose a bunch of that connectedness and even nuance and communication if you’re just reading text.
Diana: Yeah. The other thing that I think that we can do a better job of is transitioning in and transitioning out. If you were to meet someone in the workplace in person, there would be just that. Or when someone comes to my therapy office, there’s just this natural kind of like slowness of the transition in, you’re settling in, you’re acknowledging each other. But often in these online environments, we’re like, boom, go. And we don’t pause and acknowledge each other and take a breath and be like, hey, how are you doing? How’s the day going? What’s this up for you? Because we are trying to maximize our hour. Right. Or maximize our time. But being more efficient with your time doesn’t make you feel like you have more time. It actually makes you feel like you have less time.
Sonya: I love that. That’s so true.
Diana: Yeah. So if you want to feel like you have more time, which a lot of people complain they don’t have enough time, if you want to feel like you have more time, get present in the time that you have, like, fully get into it. Body, eye contact, in your breath, noticing what’s happening in the hair now and then a minute can feel way longer than trying to pack a lot of stuff in to be more efficient.
Sonya: I have one more question for you before we go. How can people celebrate their results better or their successes is better? Because you said earlier they’ll move on to the next thing. A striver will just achieve something, move on, what’s next? Or also people will diminish their success. Like, oh, yeah, I did the thing, but so and so wasn’t there or this wasn’t good enough. So people will either rush or diminish. So what do you do? Your recommendation on how to pause and celebrate these moments without them getting away and moving on to the next.
Diana: Right. So I think athletes kind of already know how to do this because you do it with food and with hydration. Along the race, if you’re in a longer race, you’re hydrating. And sometimes you’re fueling along the way. And at the end you do a big fuel and a big hydration. Right. So one way to really be able to take in and download our outcomes and our successes is to do this type of psychological hydration along the way, taking in the moments of like, wow, I got to this part, this mile feel in your body, and I really believe in body based practices. So what does it feel like in my body to be here right now and acknowledge that? And then at the end, when you get there, spend some time and there’s ways that you can spend some time on it. You could write about it, tell the story of your experience. Retelling stories of our experience is what helps our experience and code into our memory. The more times we tell it, the more likely we’re going to remember it. So it makes it real. So tell the story of your experience yourself and tell the story or write it down in your journal and then acknowledge the values that you embodied in this race.
How are you the type of person that you wanted to be? So I would say hydrate psychologically refuel psychologically in the same way that you do with food and water. And it will be really nourishing to you because then you’ll over time, feel more full. And when you feel more full, you don’t have to strive as much, unhealthily, at least.
Sonya: Yes. You have such great metaphors. I love it. Thanks.
Diana: Yes. Metaphors are like the cornerstone of ACT. So it’s like the way that we communicate, and you have to choose metaphors that are appropriate for the person to notice. I’m not talking about truck driving because you only are not athletes. I learned that a long time ago. We’re talking with clients and using metaphors that were not lined up with their context.
Sonya: I actually bought … The Metaphors Book. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m excited to check it out.
What are some resources that people can look at or read or experience if they want to go deeper into some of these concepts?
Diana: Yeah. So I would say the act sort of big book is A Liberated Mind by Stephen Hayes. So ACT was developed by Steven Hayes, Kelly Wilson and Kirk Strosahl in the 80s. And Steven Hayes came out with a book, I think it was in 2020 called The Liberated Mind, that goes through all of these concepts of psychological flexibility. And it does have a whole chapter on performance and outline some of the sports performance as well. It’s been an interest of his and recent area of his if you want. The breakdown of the different components that I mentioned at the ACT Daily Journal that I co wrote with Debbie Sorenson is sort of like how to put into practice in your life. I have a course for laypeople, which is one of the few courses out there on foundations of ACT. And a lot of the work in ACT has been primarily sort of like I trained therapists or I trained clinicians or healthcare workers, but I really thought it was important to make a course for the general public of like how do you do this in your life if you’re interested in that so you could check out my foundations of ACT course on my website, DrDianaHill.com. I also have on my website this like fun little act vision board that you could sign up for and then it downloads it has an overview of all those six processes the hexaflex Rubik’s Cube I talked about and it’s a little quick handout so if you want that for free, that’s on my website as well. And then finally join me at Your Life in Process podcast because every week I talk about different processes related to act and psychological flexibility and I give practices for you to apply in your daily life. It’s a very applied podcast.
Sonya: Yeah and I’ll personally say I really enjoy that podcast so people should definitely give it a listen.