Denise Shull (@DeniseKShull) is a performance architect, ReThink Group founder, and author of Market Mind Games: A Radical Psychology of Investing, Trading, and Risk, considered the Rosetta Stone of trading psychology.

“The worst decision you make is always from acting out some feeling you usually don’t know you have.” -Denise Shull

What We Discuss with Denise Shull:

  • Why understanding what we feel and why we feel it is a source of power for creating change and spurring transformation.
  • Why the avoidance mechanisms high performers often use to escape the influence of emotion on actions is counterproductive.
  • How feeling negative emotions can help us decode hidden information inside those emotions to help us perform at our best.
  • What we can do to recognize what we’re feeling — especially if we’ve regulated ourselves to feel nothing in the face of difficult decisions.
  • How a thesaurus can be used to keep us from making mistaken decisions.
  • And much more…

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Market Mind Games: A Radical Psychology of Investing, Trading, and Risk author and performance architect Denise Shull created The ReThink Group to address the challenges of slumps, repetitive mistakes, and confidence crises in portfolio managers, professional athletes, Olympians, pro poker players, and traders.

In this episode, she’ll explain how she leverages neuroscience, emotion research, and modern psychoanalysis to create a mental model and strategies for solving otherwise unsolvable mental blocks. Listen, learn, and enjoy!

Please Scroll down for Full Show Notes and Featured Resources!

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More About This Show

While we often drive home the importance of understanding body language in order to decode someone’s true intentions, motivations, and emotions, performance architect and Market Mind Games: A Radical Psychology of Investing, Trading, and Risk author Denise Shull prefers to remove it from the equation entirely when working with clients. So while she’ll meet with them in person every so often, the majority of her time is spent with them on the phone.

“If someone’s talking about their feelings and I’m really trying to listen to the nuance in what they’re saying, it’s easier to do it if we’re not looking at each other,” Denise says. “Being on a phone is a bit like being on a couch in a psychoanalyst’s office; the reason that exists is so they’re not looking at you…they can more free associate.”

Denise is a pioneer in her field largely because she was in the right place at the right time. While pursuing her master’s degree in neuropsychology at University of Chicago, she played volleyball with floor traders who kept telling her she would make a good trader. This was in 1994, and these were some of the first traders to use the Internet in their industry; they invited Denise to learn the essentials, and within three months she was trading on her own.

One of the higher ups at their firm pulled Denise aside and told her, “I’ve got to tell you, you have the best instincts I’ve ever seen, and I didn’t think a woman could trade!”

“Am I supposed to feel good about that, or not good about that?” she wondered.

Trading desk manager became Denise’s day job, but she enrolled in a PhD program in modern psychoanalysis “as a hobby” — which allowed her to see a connection between the way work being done to help schizophrenics could also be applied to help the way she and her fellow traders made decisions.

“[Neuroscientist] Antonio Damasio…and a handful of colleagues of his had shown that you really can’t make a decision without emotion,” says Denise. “And I was like, ‘Well, darn. I’ve been reading all this trading psychology for the last eight years that’s been telling me I have to be disciplined, follow my rules, take the emotion out of it — oh, but yeah, I’m supposed to use my intuition every once in a while.’ If you really did that, you couldn’t make a decision. That’s a problem.”

With her unique cross-discipline background, solving this problem — not just for traders, but other stressed-out high performers like portfolio managers, professional athletes, Olympians, and pro poker players — has been Denise’s focus ever since.

“10 years ago, it was assumed in neuroscience that you had to have emotion to make a decision,” says Denise. “There are still people that don’t know that’s true, but if you’re on the cutting edge of neuroeconomics or affective science, you know that feelings and emotions are germane to performance, judgment, decision making, and perception.”

Decision Making: It’s Not Just In Your Head

People tend to think of decision making as a purely intellectual action. But according to Denise, senses, feelings, and emotions — points on a spectrum of intensity — are the clue to everything: motivation, achievement, breaking through, better risk decisions, and more focused, error-free athletic performance.

“If you think about it, they are all physical, bodily experiences,” says Denise. “A sense if something’s right or wrong — you experience that below your neck, not in your head.”

Thinking of something particularly distressing can make us feel sick. Intuition or confidence in the soundness of a choice made can literally be experienced physically as “a gut feeling.”

“An emotion is just a more intense, more severe form of a physical, bodily experience,” Denise says. “It’s just the information that both your body is giving you about its state and it’s giving you as a reaction to what it’s seeing.”

Getting high performers to even realize they’re feeling something — especially the ones who have been taught to regulate or stifle their emotions for the sake of making “rational” choices — is the first hurdle. Once bounded, it’s easier to recognize a wider spectrum of feelings as they occur, understand why these feelings occur, label and put into words what these feelings indicate, and then choose what feelings best direct the next course of action.

“I don’t care about regulating,” says Denise. “In fact, generally I think regulating sends the wrong message.”

How to Find Your Feelings

How do we begin the process of finding our own feelings — especially if we’ve been trying to ignore them for so long?

Denise says a good practice exercise is to spend five minutes trying to describe what we’re feeling in its most extreme form.

“Let’s say I feel really bad about losing this job, losing this girlfriend, whatever it is,” says Denise. “I’m going to try to see how much I can feel that. How many different places in my body I can feel it. What it actually feels like. Lean into that physical experience.”

People are often surprised to find that this doesn’t make them evaporate, blow up, or shrivel up and die on the spot. They come out the other side, realize it’s not as bad as they were expecting, and life goes on (as we talked about in episode 10, our deep dive on how to manage suffering).

“That you can feel sad, afraid, angry, and just experience it is usually a revelation to people,” says Denise. “Step one.”

What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You

Once we get over how our bodies respond to these feelings, we can start to decode what the feelings are trying to tell us. Sometimes we make hasty decisions because we’re so eager to chase the feelings away, but this is really just throwing away a valuable resource that could help us make better decisions if only we would let it: information.

“Somewhere in there is really useful information — there’s useful information in all of it — it’s just a question of which information is about your here and now and whatever you’re facing and extracting that, and which is about your history and knowing that and then having a path to work with over time to make the here and now easier,” says Denise.

“Everyone’s so afraid of that [first step], and really, at their core, all feelings — but particularly negative feelings — are meant to help us. There’s information and value in every one of them.”

Research shows that putting a name to what we’re feeling — whether it’s fear, uncertainty, doubt, concern, panic, or any among a host of feelings — makes us less likely to mistakenly act on the feeling.

“I literally have my clients look up words for the type of feeling — the category — in the thesaurus,” says Denise. “One they get that word, something in the body clicks, and [they] feel better. Empowered better.”

Listen to this episode in its entirety to learn more about why the bad decisions we make are often the result of acting on unacknowledged emotions, how fear of future regret is a particular motivator of bad decisions on Wall Street, why we develop resistance and defense mechanisms early on that serve us poorly later in life, what we can do to identify and shed these mechanisms, how we can decode the information we learn from shedding them, why accentuating the positive isn’t always (or even usually) the right answer to solving our problems, and lots more.


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