Embracing the Darkness Within

Embracing the Darkness Within


Empowerment through shadow work

In this article we’re exploring the sides of ourselves that we’re often unaware of; the parts of self that get shunned to the edges of our consciousness by ourselves and often by society too. Otherwise known as the shadow self.

This article will explain what a shadow self is. It will offer ways to help you to connect to your shadow self to help you rapidly transcend to your greatest, most whole self.

Shining a light on your inner ‘darkness’ helps to heighten self-awareness, free you from fear and enable you to see yourself as a multi-faceted, 4-dimensional human being. And you may just discover that the darkness isn’t so dark after all, but rather the key to a much more balanced, full and connected way of living. Join us as we step into our shadow selves and unlock repressed feelings in order to connect to a much more complete and centred sense of self. 


What is a shadow self?

Our shadow selves are the parts of ourselves that we believe to be unacceptable (or what we believe society considers to be unacceptable). Due to our upbringing and conditioning we have learnt that certain parts of us are not ‘acceptable’ and as a result we start to deny or hide these parts. Emotions like rage, jealousy, bitterness and lust may be repressed because they are typically dismissed as ‘bad’ emotions. This binary approach to life- good/bad, hot/cold right/wrong – is the foundation upon which the shadow self-forms. All of the sides of ourselves that we- or society- consider to be abnormal, unacceptable or wrong end up hiding in the ‘shadows.’ 

We all have a ‘dark’ side to our personality. It is what makes us human. And instead of pretending they don’t exist, we need to embrace these parts of ourselves. Then we can learn from them, we can create more choice in our lives, we can access more creativity and we can be fully ourselves. Our shadow selves have huge gifts to offer us all. So today, we’re celebrating our shadow selves, to release ourselves from the taboos that keep us trapped, defensive and fearful. 

Deepak Chopra, co-author of ‘The Shadow Effect: Illuminating the hidden power of your true self’ says: “In order to have manifestation you need to have opposing energies. All experience is the result of contrast. To have a shadow is normal. If you had only truth, goodness, and harmony on the inside, and the complete absence of the other, there would be no creative impulse. Everyone has a shadow unless they are standing in the dark.”


Origins of Shadow theory

Carl Jung first coined the term ‘shadow’ when he was trying to answer the following question: “Why do seemingly good people do obviously bad things?” The Swiss psychoanalyst used the term to describe those aspects of the personality that we choose to reject and repress. Jung believed that we were all born as a blank canvas, but due to our social and cultural conditioning, we all have parts of ourselves that we push down into our unconscious psyche. This collection of repressed emotions and aspects of our identity is what Jung referred to as our ‘shadow.’ In ‘Psychology and Religion’ Jung writes: “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.”

When we deny our shadow, we are denying a part of self. Embracing the shadow self can lead to a greater understanding of our whole self, as it helps us to understand, control and integrate it. Because when we shine a light on our shadow, we become conscious of the unconscious and gift ourselves with the power of conscious choice. 


Don’t think of a pink elephant!!
 

For the next 30-seconds think about anything you want. You can think about your work, what you’re having for dinner, your plans for the weekend. But whatever you do… DON’T think about a pink elephant.

So…did you manage it? My guess is that most of you didn’t even last 5-seconds without thinking about a pink elephant.

This exercise is often used by psychologists to show how trying not to think about something, actually makes you more likely to think about it. This is due to “ironic process theory,” whereby deliberate attempts to suppress certain thoughts make them more likely to arise. Social psychologist Daniel Wegner, a psychology professor at Harvard University and the founding father of thought suppression research, discovered that telling someone to simply ‘stop thinking’ about an intrusive thought, encourages further obsession and worry about the thought in question. His research has suggested that ignoring and repressing disturbing thoughts only increases their potency and persistence. The way to move past these psychological blocks is to move through them, by replacing an attitude of resistance with one of acceptance. 

It is the same with parts of ourselves we deny or don’t like. If we try to fight them, resist them or deny them they will pop up from our unconscious and play out in relationships and situations. And even then, we will still find a way to deny their reality! Even when they’re right in front of us. We might blame someone else, defend ourselves or justify our actions as reasonable because of the someone else’s wrongness, badness or irresponsibility. But if we own those parts of ourselves we find tricky – suddenly we have nothing to defend against, nothing to fear and nothing to fight about. We can’t be hurt by those parts because we have taken ownership over them. 

So, unfortunately, we find ourselves in a paradox: to be free of our shadow, we have to step into it and normalise the repressed emotions and rejected identities that make up this darker side of self. This is why shadow work requires a huge amount of courage, self-compassion and conscious intentionality. However, hard work reaps great rewards…


Celebrate your shadow

“Man needs difficulties; they are necessary for health.” 

 

– Carl Jung

Stepping into your shadow can help you to tap into your creative and innovative potential and increase your physical and mental health. This is because working with your shadow involves balance: you accept all of your so-called ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parts and embrace your whole self.

Steve Wolf, co-author of ‘Romancing the Shadow’ writes that: “Beneath the social mask we wear every day, we have a hidden shadow side: an impulsive, wounded, sad, or isolated part that we generally try to ignore. The Shadow can be a source of emotional richness and vitality and acknowledging it can be a pathway to healing and an authentic life.” To change our auto-pilot programming we have to go beyond our surface-level beliefs and start working with our unconscious desires. What are these repressed feelings trying to tell you? What do they need? Want? Take, for example, the part of you that is angry. Maybe it needs to be heard. Or perhaps it needs you to set some boundaries for it so that it doesn’t feel put upon and undervalued by others. Every shadow part is trying to tell you something. Something that, if you listen, will make your life much fuller and happier.

Opening up an internal dialogue with these rejected parts of self will enable you to better understand them. To quote 20th-century philosopher Charles Francis Haanel: “The real secret of power is consciousness of power.” How might you work with your shadow to step into new ways of being?


Getting to know your shadow

There are three key ways that we try to hide our shadow. Three behaviours that most of us do every day. These behaviours are rationalisation, rejection and projection. 

  • Rationalisation: With rationalisation, we justify actions in order to make the parts of our self that we don’t like, appear completely reasonable.
  • Rejection: With rejection, we completely deny these parts of our self. We limit opportunities because we have decided that we are not that person. With rejection, we reject, judge and dismiss these qualities in other people. 
  • Projection: With projection, we project onto other people the behaviours and qualities we cannot tolerate in ourselves. Even if that person has not even demonstrated these qualities. 


Making the Unconscious Conscious…

We can start to integrate and own our own shadow by heightening our awareness to these 3-shadow hiding behaviours. 

1. Rationalisation: Catch yourself justifying certain behaviours. For example, “I only slept with him because I was drunk.” This justification reveals a lot about a part of yourself that you are repressing. To quote Carl Jung: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.

2. Rejection: Notice the traits you reject in other people. This is usually a sign you are rejecting this trait in yourself. If you catch yourself thinking about your boss “she is so controlling”, then this may suggest that “controlling” is something you reject in yourself. Or something that you do but deny you do. What do you reject in others that you might be rejecting in yourself? To quote the German poet Herman Hesse: “If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.” 

3. Projection: It’s not easy or comfortable seeing the darker sides in our selves. To quote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” It’s much easier to project these qualities onto other people as opposed to recognising them in ourselves. In fact, the entire celebrity gossip industry is built on this fundamental human tendency. It loves to build people up with incredible qualities and talents that we mere mortals could not possibly ever own. And then it loves to tear them down with all the terrible qualities that we would never demonstrate ourselves.

Because when it comes to shadow, we don’t just project the ‘bad’ stuff we also project out the wonderful qualities that we don’t have the courage to own in ourselves. And by projecting out amazing qualities we set ourselves constricting yet ‘safe’ limitations. “I could never be as amazing as that because I’m just ordinary. I could never do what they do, I don’t have those qualities.” But you do. You’ve just projected them onto someone else. So, losing the insights, gifts, and expansion they could bring you. We lose out in every way when we project qualities out onto others. 


Own your shadow

So – own your shadow. Create a list of the worst adjectives to describe a human being. Now pick five that you would hate somebody to attribute to you. Let’s say your five are: greedy, selfish, thoughtless, angry and stupid. Now own own of these adjectives by saying it out loud: “I am greedy. I am greedy. I am greedy.” Keep saying it till it doesn’t hurt. Once it no longer stings you can balance it with: “I am greedy, yes and I’m also very generous. I am both.” Then continue to work with the other adjectives you have chosen. Because both parts of you are true. And that generous part of you needs some balance. A little bit of greed- perhaps in the form of self-care- does not take away from your generosity. Embrace the paradox of being both.

The second exercise involves owning the amazing parts of you that you typically disown. So, this time write a list of amazing, wonderful, incredible adjectives that you think are the best ways to describe a human being. Now pick five that in your heart you feel “I’m not that.” For example: special, successful, funny, radiant, beautiful. Now keep repeating to yourself over and over: “I am special, I am special, I am special.” I know it seems a bit silly but stick with it! This really does work.

You can even involve a partner or friend to help you with this. Every time you say for example: “I am special” they say to you: “yes, you are special.” And you keep on and on and on until it no longer embarrasses you and you no longer reject the words. Until they simply feel a part of you. Because they are. 

With both of these exercises, you are creating new neural pathways and shifting both your mental and physiological responses to these parts of yourself. In the first exercise, you keep going until you no longer feel triggered and shamed by the words. And in the second exercise, you keep going until you no longer feel embarrassed, modest and rejecting. Until you can own the words, shrug your shoulders and say: yes they are a part of me. The next time somebody calls you one of these words or you imagine that somebody might think you are one of these words… You will simply shrug your shoulders and be fine with it. Other people’s judgement and criticism will no longer have any power over you. Because you have owned your shadow. You have owned your power.


Shine a light on your shadow

Working with your shadow will help you to stop living reactively and unconsciously and will help you to consciously respond to whatever life throws your way. Shadow work isn’t about ridding yourself of the shadow. Nor is about becoming perfect. It’s about integrating the shadow self into your conscious experience so that you can step into a more integrated and whole way of being in the world. Normalising intrusive thoughts and repressed feelings will enable you to sit back in the driver’s seat of your life. So that you- the whole, integrated you- can make conscious choices that will drive your life in the direction you want it to go.

Whole Body Health

Whole Body Health

 

Shifting the focus from body weight to a positive state.

 

The theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week UK is body image. How we think and feel about our bodies- on both an individual and social level- is having a big impact on our mental wellbeing. Shocking new statistics from the The Mental Health Foundation found that 1 in 8 adults has considered taking their own life because of concerns relating to body image. The cultural and social importance placed on body image is having a devastating impact on our sense of self-worth and is warping our understanding of health. Because ’being healthy’ is about so much more than weight, shape and exercise. It’s about the mind, the body and with that all of the internal phenomena that goes on beneath the surface.

 

 

In this article we’re looking at health through a holistic lens, in order to shift the focus from body weight to a positive state. The aesthetic focus that dominates our understanding of health is undermining many other important factors, like our mental wellbeing. So, in support of mental health awareness week we’re looking at health in 4-dimensions and offering simple ways to accept, include and potentially upgrade each of these dimensions into your attitude and action plan for healthy living.  By stepping back and looking through a system lens, we’re transforming a 1-dimensional definition of health into a 4-dimensional, all-inclusive celebration of holistic health. Let’s turn it up to 4D….

 

Physical Health: Slow down

 

In 2014 I ran the London Marathon. I’m still incredibly proud of this achievement because it seemed like a physically impossible challenge. When I signed up for a charity place 8-months prior to event I could barely run 3km without stopping. Fast forward half a year and I was running half-marathons every other weekend and starting to believe that I might just make it through the 26.2 miles. I was- by the standard definition- really healthy and fit. Yet, I was missing the signs and signals that were starting to show up below the surface of my strong runner’s body- like the niggles and locks I was getting in my knees. Instead, I strapped on two bulky knee supports and managed to make it through one of the hottest London Marathon’s to date. Sadly, that was one of the last times I’ve been able to run long-distance, as since that event I’ve had 4 major knee operations, including 2 stem cell transplants. Now, this isn’t to say that this wouldn’t have happened at some point, as I do have a predisposition for knee injuries. However, not listening to my body and placing a heavy focus on aesthetic health, probably didn’t help.

Whilst the ‘physical’ dominates the conversation around health, it’s often limited to aesthetic signs and symptoms that are collectively to blame for our unhealthy, obsessive relationship with body image. However, it all starts at a much deeper dimension physically, which is then affecting what we think, feel and believe. We’re all releasing chemicals into our brain all the time. Simply standing in a different way can affect the neurochemicals that are released into our brains. So, I’m going to offer a surprising- yet quite possibly life-changing- way of stepping into a more all-encompassing understanding of physical health: slowing down.

 

You don’t need to be a scientist to understand that the mind works faster than the body. For example, the body takes almost 20 minutes to sense hunger in which time the brain has decided it wants a second helping, dessert and another glass of wine. And then the “Oh God I’m full” sensation kicks in. Whilst the body’s systems often operate in a slow and steady fashion they should not be considered as simple or inferior to the brain. Via an incredibly sophisticated network of nerves, neurones and hormones the body sends signs and signals to the brain to help it make sense of the world. That is- if it’s listening. If your mind is too focused on the awkward conversation you had with your boss at lunch, then it probably won’t have the capacity to properly consider hunger, tiredness and the fact that your knees are aching again. It sounds simple, but listening to the body in a culture characterised by fast food and contactless credit cards takes a lot of conscientious effort.

Knee surgery was my way in to a slower way of living. A life-changing silver lining that has completely transformed the way I listen to my body and think about my life. However, you’ll be thankful to know that there are other avenues to slowing down, that aren’t so drastic or debilitating. Simple, shortcuts that put the body back in the driving seat. For me, this involves meditating every morning, taking walks without my phone, not saying ‘yes’ to every invitation, and prioritising self-care.  To quote the wise word of Pico Iyer, author of The Art of Stillness:In an age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.” He suggests slowing down can be as simple as “taking a few minutes out of every day to sit quietly and do nothing, letting what moves one rise to the surface.”

 

Emotional Health: Celebrate Sleep

 

I used to regularly start my day rushing from my flat to yoga studio- pushing past everyone on the elevator – just so that I could make it to my mat on time. I remember on one particular occasion, dashing across London to make it to a 6am class. I arrived at 5:55am, only to be told that I was late and that they’d given away my place. “I’m 5-minutes early” I told the receptionist. “Yes, but you need to be here 10 minutes before class. So technically, you’re 5-minutes late.” Resisting the urge to scream at the yoga receptionist I turned away feeling broken, bitter and wishing I’d stayed in bed for an extra hour.

Hindsight can be quite hilarious. As I write this I am recalling so much stress: running red lights, power walking along yellow lines on station platforms and knocking over tourists… all in search of relaxation and release. It seems so silly because my bull-dog pursuit of wellness has often added pressure and strain to an already overwhelmed day. Rushing to relax is surely counterintuitive, so why then is stress around wellbeing so prevalent? In part because the consumerist life-model is often dressed up in a wellness cloak. It guises itself as selfless and well-meaning but it is sometimes no better than the unashamed consumer. So, my remedy for emotional health is simple: celebrate sleep.

Sleep is one of our fundamental needs and is arguably more important that food: whilst we can last 30-40 days without food the longest recorded time without sleep is approximately 264 hours, or just over 11 consecutive days. So, whilst we’re not telling you to skip your morning gym sessions, we are asking you to reevaluate your relationship with sleep. Because the physical and mental ‘gains’ you’re hoping to get from going to the gym after 4 hours of sleep might be completely counteracted by your exhausted and overwhelmed body. Those of you who are parents will have experienced children saying they are hungry when they are in fact, tired. Well studies show that we do this as adults too. “For adults, over-tiredness or exhaustion can leave you irritable, lethargic, a little slow in the head, and craving high-fat, high-carbohydrate snacks, as your body looks for a quick fix for its depleted energy stores.” As well as being linked to fat gain, and muscle loss, sleep deprivation has also been shown to significantly compromise the immune system. One study showed that “Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer.” To quote the words of Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of ‘Rest: why you get more done when you work less’: “If you want rest, you have to take it. You have to resist the lure of busyness, make time for rest, take it seriously, and protect it from a world that is intent on stealing it. History.”

 

 

And perhaps unsurprisingly, insomnia often goes hand-in-hand with depression. “Until recently, insomnia was typically seen as a symptom of depression,” says Michael L. Perlis, director of the Behavioural Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Pennsylvania. “Treat the underlying depression, the thinking went, and sleep problems would go away.” But new research shows that insomnia is not just a symptom of depression: it can actually be a causal factor. So, if you find yourself feeling stressed out, maybe take a look at your sleep. To quote Matthew Walker, best-selling author of ‘Why we sleep’: ““The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep.”

 

Intellectual Health: Read Daily

 

I’m sure I’m not alone in admitting that I place far too much importance in the number on the scales. After two knee surgeries last year I lost quite a bit of weight- mostly due to the muscle I lost from my legs. And I’m ashamed to say that I secretly celebrated this lower number. Fast forward a year and I was so happy to have two strong and supportive knees. Yet, in spite of this health success I found myself frustrated by an increase in the numbers. My legs had built muscle that was helping me to hike, teach yoga and learn handstands, and yet, my healthy body somehow felt like a failure- all because of a number on the scales. On so many levels I knew this made no sense, as I was so much healthier and happier than I had been after surgery. Yet I found it impossible to break this hardwired blueprint. So, my husband helped me do the next best thing: he hid the scales! And I’m surprised to say that this small and simple change has had such a positive impact on my day-to-day wellbeing. Because now when I wake up in the morning, instead of reading a number on a scale, I start my day by reading a book. I’ve swapped criticising my body, for building my brain.

As Dr. Seuss once wrote, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” It can also help you to feel significantly happier. One 2009 study showed that reading can reduce stress by as much as 68 percentCognitive Neuropsychologist Dr Lewis, says“Losing yourself in a book is the ultimate relaxation. This is particularly poignant in uncertain economic times when we are all craving a certain amount of escapism. It really doesn’t matter what book you read, by losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book you can escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world and spend a while exploring the domain of the author’s imagination.” Making reading a part of morning ritual has reduced my stress levels and has helped me to develop a healthier relationship with my body. You’re just one click away from an infinite number of books and articles, that will take you on adventures, teach you new things and perhaps even inspire body positive thinking. I’ve taken this one step further by painting the words ‘I am enough’ on my living room wall. The hope is that on some subconscious level, reading these words on a daily basis wills be reprogramming my core beliefs about myself.

Furthermore, reading is a hobby and a habit shared by some of the world’s most people including Warren Buffett who believes it to be the key to success: “Read 500 pages […] every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.” In addition, the very activity of reading itself activates and engages both the right and left sides of the brain, thus giving you access to your creative and logical thinking styles. According research, reading, unlike watching or listening to media, gives the brain more time to stop, think, process, and imagine the narrative in from of us.

As a society we spend so much time, energy and money focusing on our weight and far less on building brain boosting habits, like reading. So let’s rebalance our attention by putting ‘brain training’ on our ‘exercise’ schedules. One study showed that activities that create mental stimulation, like reading, can protect memory and thinking skills, particularly as we age. The study also suggested that reading every day can slow down late-life cognitive decline. So indirectly we can assume that reading, can actually help us to live longer.

Here are some stats to get you started…

 

Intentional Health: Redraft the story

 

On a daily basis we are bombarded with images of ‘perfection.’ Images that are causing us to internalise ‘shoulds’ that impact what we think, feel and believe about our bodies.

Now every time you have a new thought about what you ‘should’ look like, you create a new neural pathway in the brain. And when that thought repeats it suggests to the brain that it’s a really important thought. So the brain does it’s best to preserve and strengthen the neural path by wrapping it in a protein called myelin. The more the thought repeats the more you protect the neural pathway. Over time you build up a superhighway around a thought. Which is useful if it’s a positive thought and in line with the story you want to tell. But the brain doesn’t discern between good and bad, useful and unhelpful. The thoughts that occur most often in your mind will be the ones that the brain believes are most important to you.

So, if you keep telling yourself that you hate yourself over and over again, your brain will build a super strong pathway and it will become a belief for you. However, what you may not realise is that you have built this belief because you have built this neural pathway. This is why the story we tell ourselves is so important because it can completely change the way we see ourselves in the world.

 

Now obviously some beliefs are much more difficult to rewire than others. Beliefs that have repeated over and over from a young age will have become ingrained in your neurobiology. These beliefs may have created unconscious behavioural patterns and habits that play out in relationships- with yourself and others. And you may not even be aware of the beliefs that are behind these behaviours because of how imbedded they have become in your psyche. So be patient, these beliefs will take longer to break. But they can be changed. We know this because of science. And I know this from personal experience.

Think of something small and simple you’d like to change. Decide what you want to rewire, and we’ll work together to rewrite the story…

 

1. Look for evidence that contradicts the belief

 

This can help you to gain some perspective on the belief by narrowing its catastrophising effect. By reframing the belief, you can start to take charge and apply some order to this exaggerated assumption. Context and clarity are key because they enable us to break down the limiting belief and build it up into something new: into something we can do. We’re not rewiring with a lie, we are re-storying with your true potential.

 

2.  Listen out for words like ‘always’ and ‘never’

 

“I never have the confidence to meet new people.” “I’m always eating.” ‘Always’ and ‘never’ are clear signals that you have built a pathway and a belief about yourself self that simply can’t always be true. When you next notice one of these definitives, use it as an opportunity to rewire a pathway.

 

3. Catch other people’s stories

 

Become vigilant to the stories and beliefs about yourself that are in fact, coming from other people. Some of these internalise without us being aware, so try to become conscious to the story that is being created for you. Whilst this may be someone else’s’ story about you but it can so easily become your story about you.

 

4. Stay curious

 

Don’t be surprised if you uncover many unhelpful neural pathways. This is a daily practice and it’s a never-ending journey, so don’t dismay if you can’t rewire everything in a day. Think of it as a research project instead of a personality transplant because you’re not trying to fight who you are: you’re trying to find out more. Read behind the lines and rewire the best bits of you so that they come shining through. To use the wonderful words of William Blake: “Do what you will, this world’s a fiction and is made up of contradiction.” Our contradictions are what make us human and if we can celebrate, rather than condone, this ability to create, compartmentalise and contrast, then we give ourselves the freedom to play in the ‘fiction’. It’s your life and it’s your story, so you can write it how you darn well like.

Self-sabotaging beliefs are not in charge. You are in charge because you are the one who built the pathway and you can choose to build a different one. You can choose to change it for a belief system that will serve you and your life.

 

Be an advocate for whole body health

 

Health is about so much more than our bodies. So when you’re next talking about ‘health’ with a friend, colleague or family member, see if you can open up the discussion. Start looking at health from a 4-dimensional perspective in order to help yourself and others build a balanced attitude and action plan for healthy living. Share and celebrate the joys of slowing down, sleeping, reading and consciously creating the life that you want lead.

But don’t worry if you do feel negative about your body from time-to-time. Because even when you don’t love your body: your body will always unconditionally love you.

Mental Health Awareness Week takes place from 13-19 May 2019.

For more information and helpful resources click here.

An Easter Ego…

An Easter Ego…

Learning to live, lead and love with a healthy ego

 

Ego gets a bad rap. We are told to transcend the ego, release from ego, fight the ego. And it has been singled out as one of the biggest hurdles in the discovery of the ‘true self.’  Yet, the majority of us don’t live on a mountain in the middle of the Himalayas where it might seem feasible to ‘starve the ego and feed the soul.’ We live in a world that incessantly provokes the ego. An ego that can protect and motivate us. As well as enrage and hijack us.

Developing and nurturing a robust and healthy ego is key to personal development and professional growth as it helps you to: lead from a place of vulnerability and courage; create a culture of openness and honesty; learn from mistakes; embrace failure; accept praise; become a systems thinker. We’re not interested in the size of your ego: this is about the state of your ego and how it can help you to live, lead and love with intentionality.

Ego triggers and traps

I’m in the midst of an ego-fuelled email exchange, and every line- no every punctuation mark- is pushing my buttons. I feel like I’m being baited to fight back, with provoking and petty messages reminiscent of a primary school playground. I’m trying my utmost to ‘consciously communicate my impact’ and yet I can’t seem to get through to this other human being. I’ve tried using all of my 4D tools and tricks to somehow connect and collaborate but every reply I receive back is like a concrete brick wall. Now a few years ago, I would have probably joined in with the same spiteful email exchange, adding even more fuel to the fire. However, thanks to a recent ego ‘health-kick’, I’ve been able to stop myself from ‘cutting off my nose to spite my face’. But what even is a healthy ego? And how can you get one too?

The Healthy Ego

 

Your EGO can be a wonderful thing. It is our developed sense of self in the world. And yes, an unhealthy defensive or fragile ego can be troublesome. It can lead to victim mode, contempt, scorn, defensiveness, undermining others, passive aggression, or straight up aggression. It is often coming from a place of fear. The ego believes others have the power to diminish it so either crumbles, self-punishes before someone else does or try to diminish someone else’s state to protect itself. The goal, however, is to use your intentionality to develop your HEALTHY EGO. A healthy ego isn’t dependent on other people to be whole and safe. It might enjoy praise or winning but it will not be devastated if these things don’t always happen. With a healthy ego you will be strong, resilient, confident in your abilities and honest about your amazing talents – as well as available to growth, happy to receive constructive feedback, curious in the face of conflict and able to acknowledge mistakes with a clear mind and open heart.


Here are 5 ways of developing and nurturing a healthy ego:

 
1. Co-create Conversation

 

Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, Dr. Daniel Siegel describes the brain as a ‘relationship organ.’ He’s spent over twenty years researching the profound influence of those around us, or what he calls “the neurobiology of ‘we’” and has discovered that emotions are what fire and wire neural interaction patterns in the brain and enable us to learn. Therefore the core drivers for human beings throughout life are relational and thus inseparably emotional in nature.

But what does this have to do with the ego?

What Siegel’s research shows us is that in order to nurture healthy, happy egos we need to make sure that our ego drives are linked to relationship goals. One simple way of doing this is by actively listening. Take the time to listen to others by being present as opposed to predicting what they are going to say. It’s simple yes, but not easy, particularly when we consider the fast paced, distraction-heavy, instant gratification culture that pervades our lives. Even if we’re not speaking over another person we may find ourselves thinking over them, by planning what we’re going to say next or thinking about how their story relates to us.

Someone with a healthy ego gives others the space to speak. And they don’t need to say what’s already been said. Instead, they build on ideas and co-create conversations as opposed to dictating and directing them. To quote Carlo Rovelli, author of ‘Seven Brief Lessons on Physics’ (which is as scientific as it is philosophical and political): “To better understand the world, I think, we shouldn’t reduce it to things. We should reduce it to happenings; and the happenings are always between different systems, always relations, or always like a kiss, which is something that happens between two persons.”

A great place to co-create conversations is during Q&As. In fact, I tend to love this part of a workshop as long as I lean in, stay curious and really listen to what is being said. This simple shift takes away the pressure to know all the answers and transforms questions and answers into collaborative conversations.


2. Accept praise

 

When I was around 12 years old I really struggled with my self-esteem. I’d recently started secondary school and anything that sounded remotely like a compliment had me turning bright red and feeling a deep sense of shame.  During this time, I remember my grandma telling me: “it’s rude to reject a compliment. Accept it properly, let it reach you and then say thank you.” Wise and wonderful advice that continues to help me develop a greater sense of self-worth to this day.

I’m sure many of you have had some experience with the embarrassment that so often surrounds praise. One of the more obvious ways we express this embarrassment is by batting away compliments. Perhaps a colleague praises you on your presentation and you find yourself saying: “oh it was nothing really. I had loads of help!” This is example of what I like to call a ‘compliment cringe’: you’re refusing to take in the praise (and are also unintentionally telling the person they are wrong!) Christopher Littlefield, recognition expert and founder of international consulting firm Acknowledgment Works, has uncovered a scientific explanation to why we find receiving compliments so hard. His research revealed that 88 percent of people associate recognition with a feeling of being valued, yet 70 percent also associate it with embarrassment. As he says in his Ted Talk: “We love recognition, but we suck at it.”

One study showed that people with low self-esteem “have difficulty accepting and capitalising on compliments.” This was primarily due to the fact that they doubted the compliments’ sincerity and believed that they were- on some level- being patronised. Interestingly, when the people were not thinking about a compliment in relation to their relatively negative self-theories or stories of themselves, they were able to accept and capitalise on compliments. In addition, there is now scientific validity showing that people perform better after receiving a compliment.

Learning to accept compliments helps to boost your performance and also helps to build healthy relationships, as it opens up the ground conditions upon which relationships can develop and grow. Lean in, stay curious and see what you can learn from another person’s compliment. Maybe you find it hard to comprehend why someone would like your crazy curls, or your energised hand gestures! But your story of yourself is just one story in 7 billion. One perspective. So why not use the next compliment you receive as an opportunity to explore the other positive narratives of You that are out there.


3. Make friends with failure

 

I’m so thankful for many of my so-called ‘failures’. Like not getting into drama school (three times!) At the time this felt like the biggest failure imaginable, personally, professionally and socially. Personally, because I wanted to prove to myself that I was good enough. Professionally because I was working in the industry and believed training was a right of pass; and socially because so many of my friends, family members and worst of all- fellow actors- knew I was auditioning. However, with hindsight I can see that this ‘failure’ wasn’t an end point, but a wonderful new beginning. It fired up another, totally unexpected adventure. To use the words of monk and author Robin Sharma: “the most successful people on the planet have failed more than the ordinary ones.” So, if you want to be successful you might as well start making friends with failure!

Failure is a big threat to the unhealthy ego. It undermines self-worth and can produce feelings of fear and powerlessness. Research has shown that we are more likely to blame failure on external factors like luck or the difficulty of the task. Yet, someone with a healthy ego sees failure as an inevitable part of life and as a unique opportunity to learn and grow. In his book ‘Black Box Thinking’ Matthew Syed states that: When failure is most threatening to our ego is when we need to learn most of all!” Someone with a healthy ego seizes these moments and sees them not as failure in the traditional sense, but as fuel for a greater fire because “a progressive attitude to failure turns out to be a cornerstone of success for any institution.”

In an interview for the Wall Street Journal, cartoonist Scott Adam’s, shared his wonderfully playful approach to failure: “If I find a cow turd on my front steps, I’m not satisfied knowing that I’ll be mentally prepared to find some future cow turd. I want to shovel that turd onto my garden and hope the cow returns every week so I never have to buy fertiliser again. Failure is a resource that can be managed.” Teacher and writer Jessica Lahey goes further, seeing failure as a gift. In her aptly titled parenting book, ‘The gift of failure’ she writes: “Out of love, and desire to protect our children’s self-esteem, we have bulldozed every uncomfortable bump and obstacle out of their way, clearing the manicured path we hoped would lead to success and happiness. Unfortunately, in doing so we have deprived our children of the important lessons of childhood. The setbacks, the mistakes, miscalculations, and failures we have shoves out of our children’s way are the very experiences that teach them how to be resourceful, persistent, innovative, and resilient citizens of this world.”

For the healthy ego, failure is a gift, for themselves and others. So, join us in reimagining ‘F.A.I.L.’ as an acronym for: Forever. Acquiring Important Lessons.

 

 4. Embrace vulnerability

 

Stand-up comedy has taught me a lot about the power of vulnerability. On one occasion I tried my hand at musical comedy, attempting to sing, play guitar and be funny… all at the same time! A triple threat that had me feeling much more nervous than usual. So, I decided to own my nerves, by singing all about the things that were wrong with my performance (like the fact that my guitar playing is pretty sub-par in spite of 10 years of lessons!) And I’m proud to say that my openness and honesty- presented in musical form- had the audience in stitches!

The unhealthy ego often self-identifies as a perfectionist. To use the words of Brené Brown Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: if I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimise the painful feelings of shame, judgment and blame.” Perfectionism acts as a great big wall that stops you from being seen and is in many ways the antithesis of vulnerability. The healthy ego encourages vulnerability and sees it as a strength and a powerful tool for connecting people. Because as some wise person once said: ‘love is giving someone the power to destroy you but trusting them not to.’ In order to create a culture of trust within our families, teams and organisations we must embrace the power of vulnerability.

Research by Paula Niedenthal, which tested the authenticity of a person’s smile, revealed how deeply we resonate with each other. This is why we are able to tell when someone is ‘putting on a show’ because we are able to register their surface level inauthenticity at a much deeper level. This is particularly true for leaders, as research has revealed that we are sensitive to trustworthiness and authenticity in our leaders.

Furthermore, vulnerability also positively affects how we see ourselves. Studies revealed that a state of authenticity “centres on contentment and social ease; or, in the case of inauthenticity, a lack thereof plus anxiety.” Tara Brach talks to this ‘social ease’ that comes with vulnerability in her latest podcast- ‘Releasing Ourselves and Others from Aversive Blame’: “We know that a lot of the humour in our society actually focuses on people’s mistakes because it relieves us when other people make mistakes.” So, reject perfection in favour of connection by embracing your human side- warts and all! It will help you develop a healthier ego, build deep bonds of trust and – as I discovered- might even provide you with some funny material for a stand-up set!


5. Look through a systems lens

 

A system is a group of interdependent entities aligned around a common purpose or identity (CRR Global). And systems are everywhere. There are more obvious systems like families, teams, a cast of actors. And less obvious systems in places such as:

  • The cinema: here we find lots of individual systems until the movie starts. Suddenly everyone stops talking and switches off their phone. It’s an unspoken code of conduct.
  • Up in the air: everyone on a plane is going in the same direction. This is their common purpose. But they are also all interdependent. Everyone has an individual purpose and also a shared

As the 4D model shows, we don’t exist in a vacuum: we are always being affected by cultural and environmental contexts. Another way to put this would be to say that we are always operating within systems. We are simultaneously interdependent and co-dependent. The unhealthy ego celebrates individualism, often at the expense of community and co-dependence. Take for example the air travel example above. As soon as the plane lands, everyone jumps out their seats, pushes to get into the aisle so that they can get their bag and claim their place in the queue to disembark the plane. However, everyone is wanting to disembark the plane. Everyone is heading in the same direction. But unfortunately, the passengers’ heavy focus on their individual goals quite often slows down the system and undermines its shared purpose. 

Someone with a healthy ego thinks about our relationships like a 3-legged stool.  

  • 1st Leg- I, Emotional Intelligence (EQ)
  • 2nd Leg- YOU, Social Intelligence (SI)
  • 3rd Leg- WE, Relationship Systems Intelligence (RSI)

The stool will lose its stability if one of its legs is wobbly. Or it will become unbalanced if one leg is longer than another. We need to nurture all 3 legs: our relationship with our self, our relationship with others and our relationships with our wider communities. The healthy ego recognises that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and sees themselves as a part of whole network of systems. This is what is known as systems thinking, as it offers us a wider lens and a helicopter view of the ‘systems’ within which we exist. 


Have a healthy happy ego!

 

Ego health is the difference between the world happening to you and you happening to the world.  When we have a healthy ego, we are driving the show. And whilst there are many things out of our control- like other people’s responses on email- we can control our response, if we develop a robust and healthy ego. I can promise you that if you keep stepping in and ‘living in the arena’ (as Brené Brown likes to call it), your ego will be threatened time and time again. However, if you’ve developed a healthy ego, it will withstand these triggers and traps. If you don’t like the game that someone else is playing with your ego then you can change the game. Which is exactly what I did with my angry e-mail exchange. I ‘killed them with kindness’ so to speak, responding with relatively pleasant and proactive emails. And eventually, they started to do the same.

Be a game changer by developing a healthy ego for a happier world. Let’s make a positive impact, by changing the planet…one ego at a time!

Thanksgiving and Receiving

Thanksgiving and Receiving

If everyone is busy ‘giving thanks’, then who is going to be available to receive all of our ‘gifts’? 

I recently emigrated to the United States and in ‘honor’ of my first ever Thanksgiving, I’m going to be exploring the gracious gift of ‘giving thanks’ and the underappreciated art of receiving…

Many of us grew up being told that it’s more noble to give than it is to receive. But if everyone is busy giving, then who is going to be available to receive all of that good stuff? We need a receiver in order to give. And in order to properly ‘give thanks’- as the holiday’s namesake suggests- we must first open ourselves up to the vulnerable art of receiving.

Why you ask? Because receiving opens us up and enables us to connect to others in deep and meaningful ways; it emotionally benefits the way we see ourselves; it brings more compassion into our lives; it gives others the opportunity to give; and if we model the ability to receive, we make it okay for others to receive too. Amidst all of the gift giving that the holiday season brings, can we also make space to humbly receive? To open ourselves up to the gifts that have already been given? This isn’t just about being grateful, it’s about acknowledging the beauty in giving and receiving and embracing this continuous state of flow. Giving and receiving are two sides of the same, intimate coin and we need balance. Join me as I step into the Thanksgiving celebrations as an open-hearted giver and humble hearted receiver…

Finding Flow 

“For it is in giving that we receive”


– Francis of Assisi.

The world is in a continuous state of circulation and flow. Our breathing, the seasons and giving and receiving are different aspects of the flow of the universe. Everything is in constant motion and this is why we need a balance of giving and receiving, or else we block- or stop- the flow.

Can you identify a moment in your life when you blocked someone’s giving? I was recently shopping at our local ‘mall’ when a friendly shop assistant asked if I needed any help. I’m not a lover of shopping on the best of days and I really didn’t want to get roped into trying on- and then buying- half the shop. So I smiled and told her, “I’m just browsing thanks.”But that wasn’t enough to deter her helpfulness. “Are you browsing for anything in particularly ma’am?” Unable to resist her kind-hearted smile I let her in on my shopping secret: “Well I’m actually on the hunt for a jumper…but I’m not into stripes or anything fluffy.” Before I could say anything further she grabbed my hand and took me to another part of the shop, where I found a whole collection of what I was looking for. “Okay let me know which colours you like and I can get multiple sizes of each for you to try.” When I finally let down my guard and accepted the lady’s help, I saw how happy her helping made her. And I ended up leaving the shop with two jumpers and a big smile on myface. A smile that I’m sure was soon ’gifted’ to someone else. So, by opening myself up to receiving the shop assistant’s ‘gift’ I was able to create more flow in my life… from an exchange with a complete stranger! If you- like me- find yourself in a situation where you are annoyed with someone’s unwanted assistance or attention, see if you can look behind the ‘gift’ in order to connect with their true intention…

Illusions and Intentions

“It’s not how much we give, but how much love we put into giving”


– Mother Teresa.

There are usually multiple motives for giving and sometimes, giving can be a selfish and not a selfless act, as the very act of giving makes the giver feel good. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: I for one love to see how happy my husband gets from finding a surprise bar of chocolate in the fridge. I also receive a gift when I give. A beautiful ‘secondary’ that gives both sides a hearty dose of joy.

Issues only arise when the ‘giving’ and the ‘getting’ become imbalanced. Are you simply giving so that you can feel good about yourself? Or to look better than someone else? A friend back in the UK recently had a birthday and I decided to ‘be kind’ and send her a book I knew she’d like. Note that I decided to ‘do’ kindness: I wasn’t embodying it. A few weeks went by and I hadn’t received the thank you I was hoping for. My friend hadn’t validated my kindness and so my kindness quickly dissolved into bitterness: ‘some people are just so ungrateful.’ Suddenly I realised what was wrong. I was the one looking for love, attention and validation as opposed to giving it. The ‘gift’ I’d sent my friend was in reality, a vicarious gift meant for me.

If you notice an unhealthy need to ‘give’ or find yourself unsatisfied with a receiver’s response then see if you can get behind the initial desire and uncover the intention behind it. What may have seemed- on the surface- to have been an unconditional outpouring of love might have, in fact, been a self-involved contract of love, bound by multiple T&Cs. If the receiver doesn’t oblige to the ‘terms’ of this type of giving, then you may end up feeling like a victim of your own gift.

The Gift of Receiving

“When we give cheerfully and accept gratefully, everyone is blessed”


– Maya Angelou.

When we are good receivers we give others the opportunity to give. So why then, do we find receiving so hard? Because receiving puts us in a position where we are vulnerable, indebted and with less power. But receiving also keeps us balanced and nourished: to humbly receive a gift is a gift in itself.

As a Brit in North Carolina, I receive a lot of compliments about my accent. Initially I found the attention quite surprising- even embarrassing- as I’ve never before considered myself to have an accent. However, in my new home town of Charlotte (otherwise known as ‘the Queen City’) the ’Queen’s English’ – as they like to call it- is incredibly well-loved and lots of people have told me to “keep talking, I could listen to your accent all day!” Learning to accept these compliments has not only made me feel proud of my differences, history and heritage but it’s also opened doors to lots of interesting conversations and even some on-going friendships.

Receiving a well-intentioned compliment can help us to connect more deeply with other people and with ourselves. How often do you find yourself batting away kind words from a colleague or praise from your boss? “Oh, I’m not that good” “It wasn’t that hard” “I had loads of help.” Not only are you blocking the givers ability to ‘gift’ you a compliment (and essentially telling them that they are wrong), you are also blocking the compliment from reaching you and informing your sense of self. So next time someone offers you a compliment, see if you can pause to thank the person and allow their words to properly sink in…

The Art of Giving

“No one has ever become poor by giving”


– Anne Frank.

If you’re reading this article and starting to feel bad about the mountains of presents you’ve got stashed away for Christmas- don’t. Giving is a wonderful thing and a fundamental part of the human experience. We are wired to give to others because we are wired to connect. And when our gifts are pure and simple, we can create deep and meaningful connections with our loved ones, but also with the wider world.

Share your gifts with a stranger by opening up to your humanity- perhaps in the form of smile, a newspaper you’ve finished reading or a seat on the train. Simple, everyday gifts that greatly impact the lives of others and create ripples in the world around you. Because your gift won’t only affect the receiver: it will also positively affect anyone witnessing the act. This is all thanks to oxytocin- a neurochemical associated with boosting empathy, bonding and trust. Sometimes referred to as ‘the love hormone’, Oxytocin also increases our self-esteem and optimism, which is really helpful if we are feeling anxious or shy in a social situation.

A few weeks ago, I experienced a shot of this happiness hormone, after witnessing a young man holding an umbrella for an elderly lady. A simple gift to someone else, but one that put a smile on my face and completely changed my day! Even the smallest of gestures can create waves in the world around you because the gift you give can also indirectly impact the emotions of others.

Little and Often

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”

 

– Mahatma Gandhi

The emotional benefits of giving are highest when we spread giving out into lots of separate experiences. The sum of each positive experience is far greater that the one gift. Michal Ann Strahilevitz, professor at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, California and a researcher on the topic of charitable giving, discovered that those who gave less but on a more regular basis reported higher levels of ongoing happiness. This is why charities often encourage people to sign up for an ongoing monthly donation, as opposed to giving the whole amount at once. Whilst the latter is often more beneficial to the organisation, the former is much more likely to improve the emotional wellbeing of the giver. As Strahilevitz says: “We can say that people’s motivation for good deeds should be pure altruism, but research shows that often there is more than one motive for giving. There is a warm glow we get from helping others. There is also the fact that it improves our self-concept and potentially our self-esteem. Finally, there is improving our image to others, if others learn of our efforts for charity. All of this is the truth about giving– we don’t just give to help the cause, we also give for the good feelings it gives us.” To put it simply: if we want to feel good, we should increase the amount we ‘give’ as opposed the amount we donate. Less- on a regular basis- quite often gives us so much more!

 

So this Thanksgiving, see if you can stay open and connected to all of the ‘gifts’ in your life. Do you tend to give or receive? Can you get curious about your patterns of giving and receiving? Start this digging and you will soon break through any blocks and allow the art of thanks and giving to flow. And consequently, you’ll bring more of what you want into your life. To quote American author Zig Ziglar: “you will get all you want in life, if you help enough other people get what they want.” So, if you want joy, give joy. If you want appreciation, give appreciation. Keep the cycle flowing- from both sides- and you’ll start to see how quickly you can consciously create the experience of life that you truly want.

Just make sure that when it comes along you are ready to receive!

We’d love to give thanks to you for reading our article and being part of the work that we are so passionate about. If you, your colleagues or your friends would like to receive more of our work then do subscribe to our monthly newsletter ‘Conscious Conversation’ and have a very Happy Thanksgiving, wherever you are in the world!

Conscious communication in the digital age

Conscious communication in the digital age

Part 2: In defence of daydreaming…

(Click here to read Part 1: Let’s talk about texts baby)

I’m waiting in line for a coffee and I’ve already whipped out my smartphone- scanning, swiping and sending- simply to fill time. Or perhaps I should say to save time because I use the 30-second wait to send an email and post ‘Happy Birthday!’ on a friend’s Facebook wall. My coffee comes and I leave walking and writing, now on a mission to clear my WhatsApp inbox. I’m scrolling the screen, slurping coffee whilst simultaneously trying to weave my way through the early morning Oxford Street crowds. My masterful multitasking involves a meerkat-esque move, moving head up and down, from street to screen. I run through a red light, spill coffee on my coat, but somehow, I come out unscathed.

The commute has become an extension of the office ensuring that we can simultaneously travel and tick off the to-do list. Whether we use this time for productive work, playing a game or planning a night out with friends, our smartphones keep us constantly busy and never bored. But in eradicating boredom have we short circuited the mind’s capacity for creative thinking? Simple swipes and scrolls are innocent in isolation but when they fill up every crack and crevasse in a day, do they leave any room for anything else?

In eradicating boredom have we short circuited the mind’s capacity for creative thinking?

In eradicating boredom have we short circuited the mind’s capacity for creative thinking? The poet Joseph Brodsky saw boredom as a catalysis for creativity: “Boredom is your window…Once this window opens, don’t try to shut it; on the contrary, throw it wide open.” He’s not praising boredom per se: he’s celebrating how boredom makes us think.Because monotony stimulates a very interesting type of brain activity: mind-wandering. In a culture characterised by constant acceleration, mind-wandering might be considered lazy, distracted and unfocused (Freud went so far as to call it ‘infantile thinking.’) So why would we ever favour procrastination over productivity? Here are 6 reasons why:

1. Memory consolidation

Wakeful resting can significantly improve memories. In a 2012 study, two groups of participants had to listen to a 10-minute story, followed by either 10-minutes of ‘restful waking’ or 10-minutes of spot-the-difference games. The results showed that wakeful resting led to significant enhancement of memory after a 15 to 30-min period and also after 7 days. So if you’re trying to learn lines for a presentation or memorise facts for an upcoming test, then why not take advantage of the “memory consolidating” effect of mind-wandering.

2. Inspired thinking

Answers to creative problems are much more likely to arise during mind-wandering. A study tested the effects of engaging in a demanding task or an undemanding- mind-wandering inducing- task when trying to solve a problem. The results showed that mind-wandering led to substantial improvements in performance on previously encountered problems. Psychoanalyst Victoria Stevens calls mind-wandering “thinking without thinking” and believes it is “critical to creativity in both art and science” because it enables you “to think playfully about how something might be different from how it is or has been” : the power of daydreaming is in its openness to everything and censorship of nothing. This is why some of world’s most celebrated thinkers- including Newton, Einstein and Paul McCartney- attribute their greatest ‘Aha!’ moments to daydreaming.

The power of daydreaming is in its openness to everything and censorship of nothing.

So if you’re stuck on a problem, stop googling for the answers and indulge in some absent minded musing, whilst walking the dog or baking a cake (#procrastabaking!)

 

3. Increased productivity

Procrastination can lead to increased productivity and shorter working hours. In spite of our societal obsession with being busy, we aren’t necessarily achieving more. Psychology Professor Alejandro Lleras’ 2011 study on ‘vigilance decrement’ showed that constant stimulation not only leads to a reduction in sensory awareness, it also decreases mental focus. The research suggests that if you are faced with a long task, you will work more effectively and efficiently, if you allow the mind to wander from time to time. Perhaps Robert Browning was on to something when we coined the phrase ‘less is more’ because as Lleras states, “brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on a task!”

4. Exercises the brain

Whilst we often refer to daydreaming as a ‘resting state’ the brain isn’t actually resting at all. Neuroscientist Dr Muireann Irish sums it up: “I think there is a misperception that we’re actually being lazy and turning our brains off when we daydream but this isn’t true, the research is actually pointing to the fact that when you’re daydreaming, your brain is actually really hard at work.” Daydreaming activates something called the default mode network (DMN), which is essentially humanity’s ‘factory setting.’ New research has found that a particular type of neural processing- suppressed during focused attention- is exercised when the brain switches to the default mode network. So we should consider daydreaming as more than just a default mode of operating: it is a foundationalstate, processing memories and leading to the formation of identity. In fact, Irish goes so far to say that it is this type of “sophisticated thinking” that elevates us above other primates.

We should consider daydreaming as more than just a default mode of operating: it is a foundational state, processing memories and leading to the formation of identity.

5. Uses different parts of the brain

Mind-wandering ‘co-creates’ daydreams using separate systems in the brain. Recent studiesusing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have shown that the brain becomes highly stimulated during mind-wandering and actually activates more parts of the brain. In addition to default network activation, mind-wandering was associated with executive network recruitment. It has been assumed that the brain’s two main operating systems- the analytical brain and the empathetic brain- work in opposition: when confronted with a cognitive task the brain requires the other system to turn off. As cognitive scientist Anthony Jack notes, “If you are engaged in a demanding analytic task, it doesn’t leave any room for empathy.” However, these recent findings suggest that mind-wandering allows these two systems to work in cooperation, creating spontaneous, fluid movement between different kinds of thinking.

6. Shift from ‘doing’ to ‘being’

Doing nothing gives us an opportunity to practice and improve our overall mindfulness. With so much external distraction it can be hard to hear your inner thoughts and feelings. So instead of using the lunch line for diary management, why not use it for self-reflection: disconnect from your device in order to reconnect with yourself. During daydreaming your mind- and not your brain- is in the driving seat. But when we micromanage our every moment, we suppress spontaneous thought and stop listening to the ‘body brain’, or our gut instinct as it’s sometimes called. Perhaps we should take inspiration from Pico Iyer’s TED talk in which he celebrates stillness: “in an age of acceleration, nothing can be more exhilarating than going slow. ” 

After all, we’re human beings, not human doings. 

Everyday daydreams

When we daydream we allow thoughts to flow freely, sparking new ideas and inciting fresh ways of thinking. By giving the mind permission to play, unpredicted possibilities arise out of what might seem to be silly, senseless ramblings. Whilst the name alludes to a sleep-like state, daydreams are still under our voluntary control, albeit distantly. And it is in this liminal space- between sleep and focus- where creativity is free to explore, fuelled by boredom and bounded by the limits of your everyday life (e.g. reaching your stop on the train).

Constant stimulation crushes creativity because it relies on external resources. Whereas boredom brings the brain a cognitive challenge: it has to create for itself.

So whilst I’m not suggesting that you daydream 24/7, I’d encourage you to make more room for mind-wandering in your day-to-day. During life’s little pauses, when we- almost automatically- reach for our phones, we are cheating ourselves of free thoughts and doodle-like daydreams. Constant stimulation crushes creativity because it relies on external resources. Whereas boredom brings the brain a cognitive challenge: it has to create for itself.