Is it really that person’s fault they are irritating you so much?

Do you find some people really annoying? The things they say or the way they behave can be so bothersome and irritating.

I know I do and I am sure I am not alone in that! We say things like ‘she makes me so mad’ or ‘he frustrates and irritates me so much’. And maybe there are legitimate things that the other person says or does which are understandably frustrating and annoying.

However, the diagram below (from Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) challenges those assumptions in some radical ways.

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 19.54.00

In Biology at school we learnt that for simple organisms like an amoeba or relatively straight forward structures like the knee joint, there is a predictable response to a stimulus. You prod an amoeba and it goes in a certain direction. Or you strike the front of the knee and you get an involuntary knee jerk reaction.

But we as human beings are much more complex than that.

Granted most people do react to circumstances, but just because they do does not mean you and I have to do the same.

The fact is that for human beings between stimulus and response is a space. In that space we have the power to choose how we respond.

If you think about the word ‘responsibility’ you will notice it is from 2 words – response and ability. In other words responsibility is the ability to choose your response. An extreme example illustrates this.

Victor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist caught in the terrible and brutal horrors of a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. Apart from his sister, his entire family perished. For Frankl himself there was torture, physical and psychological abuse on an unimaginable scale. At any moment death could be around the corner or he could be called to remove dead bodies or shovel the ashes of fellow prisoners.

It was in this truly horrific environment Frankl became aware of what he would later call ‘the last of the human freedoms’. It was a freedom his Nazi captors could not take away. His physical environment was completely controlled by others; he had no choice as to how he spent his day and his tormentors could do what they wanted to his body. He began to realise he was self-aware and could look at everything happening to him as a detached observer. There was a part of himself no one could touch. His identity did not have to be affected by all that was going on around him.

In his mind Frankl created a small oasis that was impervious to all the brutality that was going on in his external environment. He could decide within himself how all this was going to affect him.

Between what happened to him, or the stimulus, and his response to it, was his freedom or power to choose his response. Here is how Covey builds on this:

“In the midst of his experiences, Frankly would project himself into different circumstances, such as lecturing to his students after his release from the death camps. He would describe himself in the classroom, in his mind’s eye, and give his students the lessons he was learning during his very torture.

Through a series of such disciplines – mental, emotional and moral, principally using memory and imagination – he exercised his small embryonic freedom until it grew larger and larger, until he had more freedom than his Nazi captors. They had more liberty, more options to choose from in their environment; but he had more freedom, more internal power to exercise his options. He became an inspiration to those around him, even to some of the guards. He helped others find meaning in their suffering and dignity in their prison existence.”

Yes it is an extreme example, but it illustrates how through stimulus (the irritation or external suffering) and response (how we think and behave) there is the freedom to choose.

Within this freedom to choose, and in addition to self-awareness, we can call upon:

Imagination – that is the ability to create in our minds something beyond our present reality.

Conscience – a deep inner awareness of what is right and wrong. those principles that guide what we do and a sense of how much our thoughts and actions are in harmony with them.

Independent will – our ability to act from our self-awareness in a way free of all other influences.

Having read and reflected on this is that person a little less irritating to you now?

You may also find of interest the following posts:

Podcast #022: The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Could This Be The Real James Bond? on the life of James Bond Stockdale

The Search For Joy on the life of Nick Vujicic


Is it work-life balance or integration?

5 steps to your life symphony

I’ve come to the conclusion that work-life balance is fundamentally a flawed concept.  The problem with balance is that it implies giving an equal amount of time and attention to every area of my life – and that is simply just not possible. It’s not possible to give in equal measure each week the same same amount of time to, say work; the same amount to family; the same amount to exercise or to friends or to other meaningful activities.(I’ve explained more on this in a previous post).



Perhaps a better way to think about work-life balance then is in terms of work-life integration. What do I mean? When I use the word integration, I mean spending an appropriate amount of time in each of the important areas of my life. In that case the analogy of the orchestra conductor is better as I seek to create a symphony from all the different aspects of my life. Do all the parts appropriately come together to create a life of beauty or a disjointed cacophony of noise that leaves me and those around me stressed and exhausted?

Notice it is the word appropriate. The point is that there is no gold standard you can go to and find out what the right amount of time is to spend, for example, with your family or at work or exercising or with friends. When I am at work, I want to be fully absorbed at work, not thinking about things at home. And when I am at home, I want to be able to give those around me my full attention. Do I always succeed? Absolutely not, but it doesn’t mean its not an important goal to strive to towards.

Here are 5 suggested ways to live according to the most important priorities in in your life and move towards creating that symphony:

  • Get absolutely clear what those priorities are in the first place and then rank them in order.

For me those priorities and the order is:
1. My relationship with God: He is my creator and the source of everything in my life. If I get that foundation wrong, then everything else will fall apart. (If you are interested in why I have come to that conclusion do see the 15 minute video Just As I Am).

2. Myself. That may well surprise you, but it comes from a realisation that the one person I have the most control over is myself. I cannot change others, but I can seek to change myself. As Gandhi succinctly put it, ‘Be the change you seek in the world.” In the same way that on an aeroplane we are advised in case of decompression of the cabin to put an oxygen mask on ourselves before seeking to help anyone else, there is the realisation that attending to my own health and well being empowers me to give my best self to the challenges and needs around me.

3. My spouse. Sally, my wife, has to come as the most important human relationship in my life. She is certainly the first to know when I am not doing well. And if things are not going well between us then it quickly begins to affect everything else! One of the best pieces of advice I also came across was if you want to love your children well, make sure you love their mother first! Which leads to..

4. Our children. They are God’s gifts to us. Unnerving as it is, our happiness is tightly tied up with them and as parents we both have huge influence on the way their lives will go.

5. Work. Its with that foundation in place, I can then give myself to the work I am called to.

  • Schedule time for those things that matter most.

With the increasing complexity of life and distractions coming in so many directions, unless I am clear on what my priorities are it is so easy to be carried away by what is latest and loudest.  (See Should Living In A VUCA World Matter To You? and Time Management).

  • Establish a brief set of non-negotiables.

These are things that you will not compromise on and do without. Period. There are no ifs or buts. So on one level there are obvious things for all of us like getting sleep, brushing teeth and washing, but there are other more personal values. For me that includes activities such as daily time for prayer and meditation each morning; regular exercise; being home with family by 6pm; not taking paid work over the weekends unless it is really necessary; getting to church every Sunday.

  • Strive for alignment between your stated priorities and your daily practice.

We all know that life happens. The unplanned and unexpected can so easily take us off track. However, so long as I know what my priorities are I can keep returning to them. I’m often reminded that it is better to be guided by the compass than the clock. So long I am going in the right direction, even if it is not at the speed I want, I will eventually get there. Which leads to…

  • Learn to accept that there will always be tension.

In other words work life balance rather than being a problem to be solved, it is a tension that has to be continually managed. None of us ever fully master it, because there will always be people, priorities and projects that will need our attention.

The key is how can I bring that harmony from everything going on in my life to create a symphony which is coherent and consistent with all I am called to be?

What questions, thoughts and comments does work-life integration create for you?




We’re all materialists now!

A Guest post by Andy Parnham

We live in a culture which is dominated by one particular worldview….

Stop, Andy! What do you mean by ‘worldview’?

Everyone has a worldview. It’s all about the assumptions we make about people, the world, the universe and all that is. Because they are assumptions, they usually operate at a subconscious level. They are like specs that we wear all the time, colouring our view of everything. They are so pervasive that we don’t even notice we’re wearing them! No one can live without a worldview.


Worldview questions sound a bit like this: What is ultimate reality? What is the nature of the world? What is humanity? What is the purpose of life? What happens at death?

So, what is our culture’s dominant worldview? It goes by the name of secular materialism. Some people abbreviate that to “modernism”. Its assumptions go something like this…

1. Matter and energy is all there is
2. Everything in life can therefore be explained in material terms
3. Humans and other life forms are therefore very complicated machines
4. Behind the personal (you and me) lies the impersonal (matter)
5. There is no overarching purpose or meaning in the universe
6. There is no future for the individual, humanity or the universe – this life is all there is.

Put that way it sounds rather dismal, but at root, that’s the essence of it. In recent years there has been a reaction against it. One reaction is “postmodernism” and another takes an increasing interest in Eastern approaches to life, which seem to have more of a “spiritual” emphasis.

But still, in the public arena at least, modernism or secular materialism rule. And this has profound practical outworkings. For example, economics focusses mostly on material matters – money and the things it can buy. Commerce, fashion and the media too have that emphasis.

But the one that fascinates me the most is the Medical Model. It also sees the human person in primarily materialistic ways. The body is essentially a machine, which can be understood and fixed in that way. When something goes wrong, we use physical or chemical means to put it right.

Now that works pretty well a lot of the time, especially if the problem is obviously physical or chemical – do some surgery or administer some chemicals (ie drugs) to change the body’s chemistry. But the less material the problem is the trickier this becomes. So with psychological matters, drugs are only partially helpful (antidepressants are of questionable value in many cases) – and we are still in the era of passing electric current through people’s brains!

One condition that is not routinely talked about is called Medically Unexplained Symptoms (MUS). The Royal College of Psychiatrists tell us that 1 in 3 patients visiting their GPs and 1 in 4 at hospital clinics exhibit MUS. These are symptoms like backaches, headaches, chest or stomach pains for which doctors can find no cause! The medical model struggles with this. How can so many people suffer so much pain but medicine cannot explain or cure it?

Go beyond the psychological to emotional and spiritual matters, and the medical model struggles even more. Having passed through the Behavioural and then Cognitive Revolutions in the last century, we are now it seems entering the Emotional Revolution – at last opening up the possibility that people are after all more than just their physical behaviours and cognitive functions. And belatedly, psychiatry and psychology are looking again at the spiritual dimensions of their clients’ conditions.

There’s more to say – much more. But perhaps this begins to open up the discussion about the human condition, how we should view it, and what we might do for it!

So, are we all materialists now? No of course we aren’t. Most people have a mixed-up view of life and the world and very few are thoroughgoing materialists. But it is still the default perspective, and its weaknesses are now more apparent than ever!

What are your thoughts on the materialist worldview that dominates so much of current popular thinking?

Andy Parham trained and worked as medical doctor before getting involved in local community work in South East London. He  now spends some of his time working with Livability, a charity that serves people with disabilities.

He also acts as an independent wellbeing advisor and coach, running amongst other things, The Happiness Course, in a variety of settings, including schools, health centres, companies and the voluntary sector.


Podcast #022: The stories we tell ourselves

Everyone loves a good story. Stories are part of what make us human. But I am not talking about the novels and classics many of us love to read.

Screen Shot 2016-03-25 at 15.52.57There is already a story going on in each of our minds. It is those stories that we tell ourselves about what happens to us that can have huge implications for our lives. How do those stories come from the way we see the world?

Do come and join my co-host Andrew Horton and I as we discuss:

  • The see-do-get model of human behaviour.
  • How the way you see the world profoundly affects what you will do.
  • How stories create our paradigm (or mental map) of the world.
  • The power of changing your story by changing your paradigm.
  • Why we resist listening to other people’s stories.
  • The part of the podcast Andrew was tempted to delete about our own personal stories (don’t worry its not that scandalous!)
  • Stories and paradigms of how to approach God and the implications in our own lives.

You may also find of interest the following related posts and podcasts:

What Is The Story You Are Telling Yourself?

Podcast #010 Stephen R. Covey

Podcast #007 Religion

When it feels as if you will never get there

Musings on not finishing

Its that proverbial chant of little children on a long journey from the back seat of the car, “Are we there yet?” They are getting bored and fidgety about reaching the destination they are travelling with their parents to. Every 5 minutes that same question comes. And yet in many ways we never grow out of it.


We all have dreams and aspirations. We all live with a sense of wanting to find deep and lasting fulfilment. Some of us are better at articulating that than others.

One of my favourite writers, Gordon Macdonald talks about how each decade of life presents us with critical questions for which many of us are unprepared. They are the grown up versions of the child’s ‘Are we there yet?’

He divides life into thirds:

How to develop a deeply resilient life

I first picked up the book, ‘A Resilient Life’ by Gordon MacDonald when I was just turning 40. That was a very long time ago! Even so I still remember the profound impact it had on me then (and still continues to have). At the time I was entering into mid-life with all the associated questioning and self-doubt as to what had I achieved or, perhaps more accurately, not achieved in my life. It seemed to me so many others had done so much more, were further along the road of their calling and generally more sorted out (a dangerous thing to think!). Maybe you could call it the typical Midlife – Crisis or Chrysalis that is the subject of a previous blog post.

SamuelWanjiruMacdonald had a beautifully simple analogy that drew me into his book. Imagine the marathon runner, he says. He runs that race –  all 26 miles and 365 yards (or 42.2 kilometres if you prefer). It is long; it is gruelling; it is tough. But if the runner paces themselves correctly then they aim to finish the race with a sprint. They don’t just hobble across the finish line – no they aim to end with a final flourish, celebrating the end in a way that brings a climax to all they have done to come so far.

Macdonald defined ‘the way of resilience’ in someone as “going through adversity, coming out stronger so they are now an inspiration to others, getting better as time goes by.” 

For someone getting older that is enormously attractive!

Resilience matters more and more because:

Work-life balance. Is it possible?

3 ways we get it wrong

The idea of work-life balance is popular. For many years I strived to achieve it. I now think, as it is commonly understood, it is grossly over-rated and even potentially harmful. I know that is a radical thing to say. Here’s why.


Balance is dynamic and not static.
Another way of saying that is life-work balance is a tension to be managed rather than a problem to be solved. When we think of balance we instinctively think of a scale. There are two priorities of equal value and we are trying to give them both equal attention. Like the tight-rope walker we are precariously placed and any sudden change can potentially be dangerous.
For the tight-rope walker, she has to keep moving or she will fall off! She has to be a little out of balance if she is to move forward. When she is balanced, it doesn’t feel like it and yet that is so much how it is with life! We have to keep making adjustments and move forward, but not too much or too little too quickly in case we fall off….

Podcast #021: Grit

What it is, why we need it and how to develop it

In  a world that is becoming increasingly volatile, unpredictable, challenging and complex, the development of grit has arguably never been more necessary. On the one hand, especially in the more prosperous parts of the world, we have never had more access to technology and labour saving devices. At the same time it is incredibly easy to become overwhelmed and exhausted by the never ending demands on our time and the things that need to be done at what seems to be greater and greater speed.


Do come and join my co-host Andrew Horton and I as we discuss on this podcast:

What grit actually is and why it is so important.

Examples of grit in the lives of people like JK Rowling, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Steve Jobs.

Dissecting grit into 5 key components.

7 simple ways to develop grit in your own life.

The Jewish carpenter and His development of grit.

You may also find of interest:

The difference grit can make to you.

Do you need more grit?

Should living in a VUCA world matter to you?

An interview with Baroness Caroline Cox, a lady of remarkable grit.

What thoughts, questions and reflections does grit raise for you?

Should a God of love get angry?

The media is full of stories of terrible atrocities and injustice everywhere. They are brutal reminders of the violent world that we live in. How can we make sense of a loving God when so many terrible tragedies happen? Can there be a God and if there is how can He be loving by allowing such things to happen?

Such questions a friend recently asked me following the news of a horrific terrorist atrocity. Her premise was that we need to focus on simply being more loving and understanding. A loving God she said, would not get angry. If we really loved people then we would see an end to terrible violence. The following post is part of my response to our discussion. I share it with you in the hope that it may help you or those you know who also grapple with such questions.

20081123120727-violencia-de-generoWhile I would agree with those that say we need to focus on love and understanding, at the same time we also have to engage with the realities of the world around us. Working as a psychiatrist I have had patients who have done terrible things. They have been treated with a lot of compassion and respect by the Health Service, yet they still go on with their crimes. When I talk to them it becomes clear that some of them don’t want to face the consequences of their actions and given the opportunity will revert to their previous behaviour. We spend huge amounts of money to protect the public from them.

Here is how the author Becky Pippert in her book ‘Hope Has Its Reasons: The Search to Satisfy Our Deepest Longings’ in chapter 4 of her book entitled What Kind of God gets Angry?

What does it actually take to be a more caring person?

Developing care and compassion for others is not necessarily something that comes naturally. It cannot be easily taught in a classroom or from lectures. However, being a caring person is an essential life skill for our own character development and to grow into maturity.

This 5 minute video from the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, United States powerfully shows what it actually takes to develop a truly caring and compassionate mindset. As you watch it you will see an unexpected and surprising twist in the lives of the subjects portrayed:

The video was first brought to my attention by John Geater who is International Director of PRIME (an international network of professional healthcare educators, committed to integrating rigorous science and compassionate care for the whole person).

Below are John’s observations on the video. While he writes as a doctor, he makes some important universal insights about getting along side others in their suffering and pain. It is also a good reminder to me about my own attitude when I sit with a patient and/or their family or carer.

“So maybe we could make a more conscious effort to look into the eyes of our patients and see something of their journey. We must of course be careful not to jump to conclusions too quickly, and in some cultures we have to be careful of too direct a gaze, but it is remarkable just how much our inner being can relate to another human being. Some people avoid such relationships under the guise of “professional distance” . When I trained 50 years ago I was told we must become hardened to our patients pain otherwise we would burn out. However, the privilege afforded to us in the caring professions of deep relationship with other human beings, even if only for a few minutes, is something that I treasured during my years of practice.” 

The video ends with the following summary of what it takes to grow into true maturity and sober judgement

To have felt insensitivity….. is to be more kind.

To have faced fear ….. is to recognise it in the eyes before you.

And to have fought to live …… is to know how fragile life can be.

If you found the video and this post helpful you may also appreciate the following posts and videos:

What If You Could Read Other People’s Minds?

Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering Part 1 and Part 2

Why Does A Loving God Allow Pain and Suffering?

What questions, thoughts and reflections does the video raise for you?