From Burnt Out to Fired Up

From Burnt Out to Fired Up

Are you headed for burnout? New studies show that chronic workplace stress may be a major cause of burnout. 

Earlier this year I was speaking at a conference in the US. All went brilliantly. The talk was interactive, engaging and thought-provoking. The attendance was fantastic. The atmosphere fun, warm and friendly. The praise and thanks afterwards effusive. An all-out success. Two hours later, back in my hotel, I realised I was running on empty. I finally had to accept something was up. I was burnt out. Still functioning, still able to perform at a high level, still appearing to everyone else to be fine. But burnout sneaks up from below or from the side. And it often hits those of us who pride ourselves on having endless energy and stamina. Which makes it hard to accept that our eternal flame might just be flickering to burnout. So, I decided to take a step back, catch my breath, and hand the poll position in the company to my sister Penelope. A hard decision. And the best decision. I hadn’t stopped since the death of my partner Tom in 2016. And it was time to recharge. Why am I writing this? Because when I told my clients I would be taking some time out I think I expected them to be a bit thrown and a bit disappointed and frankly abandoned. But in fact, they were not only supportive but many of them said to me I was modelling something that perhaps they too should think about doing. And they were right. I have coached a number of execs over the years who have pushed themselves to their limits to perform to their maximum. We’re all at it! And perhaps my move to take time out could do more than simply look after myself. Perhaps it could help others do the same for themselves. 

Six months on I’m gearing back into work. Keynotes and conferences lined up in the diary, new programmes and pilots rolling out and all of it feeling exciting and welcome. And I’m feeling renewed, re-energised and bursting with creativity and new ideas. Oh and there’s nothing like a mini-sabbatical to give one time to toe-dip into dating again….but that’s another story! Back to burnout and what the hell it’s all about…

 

An “occupational phenomenon”

The World Health Organisation recently defined burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” caused by “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” So, this month we’re reigniting the conversation around burnout and attuning ourselves to its early warning signs. How can we become aware of the often-silent signs and signals of this invisible syndrome? And how can we better manage our workload, so that it doesn’t end up managing us? This isn’t just about getting back in the driver’s seat of your life. It’s about understanding the mechanics underneath so that we can live and work at our optimum. Because knowing when to hit the brakes- and when to take a break- is key to building a satisfying and successful career. 

 

What is burnout?

Burnout was first described in 1974 by German-born American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. Freudenberger described burnout syndrome as “becoming exhausted by making excessive demands on energy, strength, or resources in the workplace.” 

Almost 45 years on since Freudenberger coined the term and research suggests that 23% of us are feeling burnt out at work very often or always, while another 44% are feeling burnt out at work sometimes. Given that almost 50% of us will struggle with burnout at least once in our career, why are we not taking it more seriously? 

The early warning signs

According to Freudenberger’s original description, burnout is characterised by a mixture of physical symptoms and behavioural signs. Physical symptoms can show up as fatigue, shortness of breath, digestive issues and insomnia while behavioural signs may include frustration, anger, a suspicious attitude, cynicism and depression. Burnout’s long list of warning signs can explain why it is so difficult to spot because it can look very different from person-to-person. For example, for some people, it may come on more suddenly, in the form of a physical collapse or emotional breakdown. Whereas for others, it may build up over an extended period, showing up as long-term agitation, anxiety and an inability to cope. 

Freudenberger went beyond simply describing the symptoms of the syndrome; he also described the personality traits that predispose someone to burnout and. He believed it was primarily “the dedicated and the committed” who are most likely to burnout. Or as a recent FT article phrased these individuals “insecure over-achievers.”

Thanks to the dawn of the smartphone, the geographical boundaries between work and home no longer apply, giving us remote access to our workload 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And if you have a smartwatch then you may also be able to catch a glimpse of your work emails while you’re taking a class at the gym. On the one hand – literally in the case of the smartwatch! – this is amazing because these technological advancements- amongst other benefits- have enabled companies to offer employees more autonomy over their workload.

However, on the other hand, I wonder whether this non-stop, 24/7 culture makes the “dedicated and committed” workers described by Freudenberger more vulnerable than ever. Is this bigger, faster, stronger, harder mindset causing us to miss the early warning signs of burnout? 

Normalising Stress

It’s become very easy for us to normalise feelings of stress and overwhelm. In fact, for many of us, it’s become a part of the daily narrative we share with our colleagues and friends. Perhaps you are someone who typically tells the “I’m so busy and stressed” story? And perhaps you are very busy and stressed. But do you ever stop to ask yourself why ‘busy and stressed’ has become a normal and culturally accepted part of life? 

 Five monkeys, a ladder, and a banana

In the influential ‘five monkeys’ experiment, a group of scientists placed 5 monkeys in a cage and in the middle, a ladder with bananas on the top. Every time a monkey went up the ladder, the scientists soaked the rest of the monkeys with cold water. After a while, every time a monkey went up the ladder, the others beat up the one on the ladder to avoid getting soaked. The scientists then decided to substitute one of the monkeys. Upon entering the cage, the new monkey immediately went up the ladder. Immediately the other monkeys beat him up. After several beatings, the new member learned not to climb the ladder even though he never knew why. After a while, a second monkey was substituted, and the same thing occurred. And the first monkey participated on beating up the second monkey, even though he’d never been sprayed with water. The same occurred when a third, fourth and fifth monkey was replaced. What was left was a group of 5 monkeys who- even though they had never been sprayed with water- continued to beat up any monkey who attempted to climb the ladder. 

 

This is a great example of the way culture is created and why it perpetuates, even when it no longer makes sense. The experiment speaks to the phrase “that’s just how things are done around here.” When we get stuck in this fixed mindset, we lose sight of reasoning, stop questioning why things are the way they are and stop trying to change it. 

In many work cultures the early warning signs of burnout- stress, fatigue, overwhelm and overwork- have become a part of the ‘that’s just what it’s like around here’ culture. We’ve normalised these important warning signs and as a result, we might be missing the early buildup of burnout. But we can’t spend our whole life living in the fast lane, always operating from a state of stress. Our bodies simply can’t handle being in ‘fight or flight’ mode for that long. And over time, if we don’t listen to the signals the body is sending us, the body burns out. This is its way of forcing us to finally listen to the signals we’ve been ignoring all along.

 

What we need to do about it? 

As Heinemann & Heinemann point out in their 2017 research article: ‘Burnout Research: Emergence and Scientific Investigation of a Contested Diagnosis’ 

Freudenberger not only coined the term burnout, he also suggested preventive measures. “Because he believed that burnout is particularly linked to specific working environments and organisational contexts, he proposed intervening at an organisational rather than just an individual level. His recommendations included shorter working hours, regular job rotation, and frequent supervision and staff training.”

Freudenberger was certainly ahead of the curve. He recognised that burnout syndrome was much bigger than the individual it affects but a symptom of the culture he or she is working within. Which is why his advice for beating burnout is still very appropriate for employers and employees in the 21st century. We need to look- not only for the signs and signals of burnout in both ourselves and our colleagues- but also for the culture within which it perpetuates. Question yourself and others if you notice someone normalising stress. Create a dialogue about workload overwhelm. And start a conversation where it is okay not to be okay.

Model this value shift for your colleagues and you will help others to own where they are, get help when they need it and find a balance in life. 

 

From Burnt Out to Fired Up

We urge you to go away and open up a dialogue around burnout in your workplace. If you think you’re too busy all the time, then maybe you are also too busy to be properly listening to the signs of burnout in your own life and noticing them in your colleagues and loved ones. To create space, start a conversation and step into a more self-compassionate way of relating to your workplace stress. 

In Praise of Ordinary

In Praise of Ordinary

Ordinary is the new black

 

Are you tired of trying to be ‘shiny’? Are you bored of comparing yourself with everyone else? Or dissatisfied by the need to constantly compete?

If you answered yes to any of the above, then join us in praising ordinary. This celebration of ordinary is designed to help you to reconnect to your own unique ordinariness and appreciate the ordinariness in everyone else; recognise the value of yours and other people’s everyday ‘ordinary’ offerings; understand that your value is yours to ‘value’- it’s not reliant on anyone else’s’ approval; and enjoy the small, simple moments in order to find more presence and meaning in everyday life. 

 

We live in a society that is obsessed with the idea of being special. We all want to be unique, and to stand out from the rest. Anything to avoid being seen as average, normal, run of the mill and perhaps worst of all… ordinary. In his book ‘Embracing The Ordinary,’ Michael Foley explains that there are “cultural factors such as the new obsession with celebrity that makes anonymous, mundane life seem worse than death.” Yet ‘ordinary’ is a relative concept. What seems ordinary to you might seem very unusual to someone else. So, instead of trying to be special in relation to everyone else, we’re connecting to our own unique ordinariness. Because if we’re all chasing the same ideals, aren’t we in a sense becoming somewhat ordinary. Becoming the same as our neighbour as opposed to embracing the differences that make us who we are in everyday ordinary life.

 

Attuning to Ordinary

“Do not ask your children
to strive for extraordinary lives.
Such striving may seem admirable,
but it is the way of foolishness.
Help them instead to find the wonder
and the marvel of an ordinary life.
Show them the joy of tasting
tomatoes, apples and pears.
Show them how to cry
when pets and people die.
Show them the infinite pleasure
in the touch of a hand.
And make the ordinary come alive for them.
The extraordinary will take care of itself.”

 

– William Martin, The Parent’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for Modern Parents

At the heart of good parenting is attunement. This involves being aware and attentive to the micro moments a baby creates. And this has a lot to with our abilities in non-verbal communication. In fact, this trend continues into adulthood as research shows that over 93% of our communication is non-verbal. It is this “dance of attunement” between parent and child, that builds the foundations for a trustworthy world, within which the child feels safe to take risks and try new things.

As a child starts to take, baby steps (quite literally) parents and caregivers often find themselves amazed by these small and simple moments. They are proud of the baby for simply being a baby and for doing baby things. Not for being special. And this attunement to the micro experiences that the child creates is a crucial element in the attachment process. Under ideal circumstances these processes of attunement shape a young child’s maturation through a meaningful system of communication that provides their infant cues to guide interactions.”

Babies crave to be loved exactly as they are. Yet, as they develop and grow they learn other ways to ‘be special’ beyond simply being themselves. They get called ‘a star pupil’ for getting the top grades in class, or ‘super talented’ when then win the 100m sprint. Simply being themselves is no longer enough in a society that celebrates being ‘special’. Special makes you shiny and different. And thus, the endless striving to be bigger, better, faster, stronger begins…

 

 

You are enough

 

The internet bombards us with visuals that can all too easily trigger a sense of ‘I’m not enough.’ One scroll through Instagram can cause a whole host of unhelpful comparisons that can leave us feeling not fit enough/ rich enough, pretty enough/ thin enough/ smart enough/ happy enough/ present enough. The list goes on.

In his book ‘If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him’ psychotherapist Sheldon Kopp describes a patient’s challenge with “I’m not enough”: “She seemed for a time to be so preoccupied with accomplishing something to please me so that I would accept her, that she absolutely could not comprehend that I liked her very much just the way she was. (If she wanted to change something in herself for her own best interests, I would be willing to help, but I had no personal need for her to change at all.) It was far more frightening for her to accept the way I valued her as a gift, a stroke of grace over which she had no control, than to struggle to find some way to sing for her supper, to purchase acceptance (or at least to rent it). That way, at least, she could maintain the illusion that she had power over my happiness (as well as the option of rescinding it if need be).” What’s interesting is that the patient in this example is more comfortable and secure with her belief in not being good enough, because it offers her a sense of control. After a lifetime of striving and looking for the next thing, stopping and accepting that her ‘ordinary’ is enough might seem a little daunting. 

 

 

Best-selling author, relationship therapist, hypnotherapist trainer and motivational speaker, Marissa Peer, prescribes 3 words to people like the aforementioned patient: I am enough. Peer is a big champion of those 3 words because of her belief that “You are enough not because you did or said or thought or bought or became or created something special, but because you always were.” And Peer suggests saying these words as often as possible, so that we can start building the new belief in our brain’s belief system. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was your brain. So, expect it to take time. However, if you keep repeating and reinforcing the belief, you will start to truly believe it. And you’ll start to see that the people who love you see it- and have always seen it too. Your ordinary self is 100% enough and wonderful exactly as it is. Everything else is an add-on.

 

 

Your obvious is your talent

 

“Creativity is the way I share my soul with the world

– Brené Brown

Keith Johnston, author of ‘Improvisation and the Theatre’ is a big champion of what we like to call ‘obvious creativity.’ “The improviser has to realise that the more obvious he is, the more original he appears.” When an ordinary person is asked to step up on stage and improvise a scene, they might find themselves desperately searching for a clever and original idea. Yet, we are improvising all the time in life- and what an audience likes to see from an improviser is the simple, obvious answers – that the audience member may or may not have considered themselves. Take for example a scene where someone asks “what’s for dinner.” A bad improviser might try to come up with an original and witty idea like “a deep-fried dolphin” yet in reality, “fish and chips” the simple, ordinary answer which first came to mind, is much more likely to delight an audience. This is because no two people are alike. Johnston explains that “the more obvious an improviser is, the more himself he appears. If he wants to impress us with his originality, then he’ll search out ideas that are actually commoner and less interesting.”

 

 

One study, titled the ‘ordinary creative’ argued that: “the potential for creative thinking exists to a greater or lesser degree in everyone. Ordinary creative thinking is proposed as a point of view in which creativity results from ordinary people thinking in identifiably unique ways when they meet everyday problems in real-life situations.” By default, we are all designed for creative and innovative thinking. It’s trying too hard to be special that crushes our capacity for creativity and limits the scope of our imagination. Johnston actually goes so far as to describe an artist as ‘someone inspired by their obvious.’ They are not making any decisions but are instead accepting their first thought. And according to Louis Schlosser, Beethoven once said: “You ask me where I get my ideas? That I can’t say with any certainty. They come unbidden, directly, I could grasp them with my hands.” Suppose Beethoven, or Salvador Dali or any of the other artistic greats had tried to be original? It would have been the undoing of their true selves or as Johnston states: “like a man at the North Pole trying to walk north.” Striving to be special only leads to mediocrity because you end up with a watered-down version of your own obvious, brilliant self. To quote Oscar Wilde: “Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known.”

 

Catching the big fish

 

“When you don’t dress like everyone else, you don’t have to think like everyone else”

 

– Isis Apfel

 

David Lynch, Author of ‘Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity’, aligns the concept of catching ideas with catching fish: “If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper. Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure. They’re huge and abstract. And they’re very beautiful.” Yet, these big and beautiful ideas are found within, and are therefore the most ordinary, most obvious and also, the most true to ourselves. To use the beautiful words of Elizabeth Gilbert, author of ‘Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear‘: “One of the oldest and most generous tricks that the universe plays on human beings is to bury strange jewels within us and then stand back to see if we can ever find them.”

 

Live a ‘Lagom’ life

 

I’ve spent a lot of my life being shiny. So much so, that shiny, has started to lose its shine. I find myself much less enamoured by the ‘show’ of special and more interested in the raw and real parts of myself and of others. The parts that make me me, and you you. The parts that make us human. Impressing and performing have their place…and…I’m investing more time co-creating, deeper all-inclusive friendships. Relationships that accept the whole me and not just a one-dimensional, show-pony version of myself. The ordinary, average bits of me that don’t need to say anything to entertain or impress. Or perhaps- as I did with a dear friend the other day- not having to say anything at all. We sat for the afternoon in gentle conversation, shared contemplation and sometimes silence, simply being with each other, as opposed to doing anything or trying to be anyone else. As we were saying goodbye I had a sinking feeling in my stomach that my friend must think I’m incredibly boring. But you know what? She turned to me and told me that that was just the afternoon she’d needed and thanked me for my company. Me doing nothing- simply being ordinary average me- was well and truly enough.

What unremarkable things would people miss about you? And what stupid, silly things would you miss about your nearest and dearest? To quote from The Lake written by Banana Yoshimoto: “It occurred to me that if I were a ghost, this ambiance was what I’d miss most: the ordinary, day-to-day bustle of the living. Ghosts long, I’m sure, for the stupidest, most unremarkable things.” Perhaps when your partner is next away on a business trip, or during the daytime when your kids are at school- stop for a second and notice what you might miss about their everyday, ordinary presence. This quick lesson in gratitude will help you attune to the people you love, like a mother to a baby. A love that loves them for who they are. Exactly as they are. 

Now I know this is hard. A career in acting has made me well aware of the pulls towards shininess. And perhaps now more than ever young children are encouraged to aim for greatness, or else expect a doomed future. We need to take the focus away from special and teach our kids that ordinary is okay too. The Swedish actually have a word for this: “lagom” which means: Not too little. Not too much. Just right. There’s less striving and more space to be satisfied with what you already have. Which aligns with Buddhist teachings in minimalism. Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, is quoted as saying: Having few desires, feeling satisfied with what you have, is very vital: satisfaction with just enough food, clothing, and shelter to protect yourself from the elements.” Lagom is essentially about mastering the art of moderate, embracing average and celebrating life’s small simple wins. Psychologist Jaime Kurtz, writes in Psychology Today:For a happier, more balanced life, start by asking yourself, “Is this lagom?” Ask it when you look inside your crowded closet, or as you consider your relationship with your work. Ask it when a massive portion of food is placed before you, or as you consider that second bowl of ice cream. Ask it about your life in general. Amid the more typical American life questions, like “Am I joyful?” and “Can I do better?” add in these much more reasonable questions: “Am I content?” “Is this good enough?””

I’m going to add one more to that: am I okay with being ordinary?

 

In Praise of Ordinary

 

Our consumerist culture and societal obsession with celebrity doesn’t make ordinary an attractive or easy destination. But think of it as a journey inwards. Towards destination me. The more ordinary you become the more yourself you’ll be, and thus the more of your unique gifts you’ll have to offer to the world. Instead of trying to be what you think other people want you to be, why not see what your unique ordinary might bring to the party. Your unique ordinary, that makes you unlike anyone else.

 

Embrace ordinary and you might discover a much more extraordinary way of living. One that celebrates average, everyday events and inspires great gratitude for the ordinary relationships and experiences which make up a life. Oscar Wilde once wrote: “Be yourself: everyone else is already taken” I’m going to leave you with this:

“Be your ordinary self and someone else will find you extraordinary.”

The Surprising benefits of being Surprised!

The Surprising benefits of being Surprised!

Is your life made up of lots of little surprises? If not why not!? Shake up expectation, spark up relationships and stay present and proactive by peppering your life with small and simple surprises. This isn’t about great big gestures, or lavish set-ups. In fact, the smaller and more regular the better, because when it comes to surprise, size doesn’t matter.

In this article we’re exploring the brain boosting benefits of surprise and looking at ways we can shake up the script by bringing more of the unexpected into our everyday lives. In fact, we’re redefining what we mean by ‘everyday life’ by swapping mundane and ordinary for unexpected and extraordinary! Join us as we step into surprise and discover some of its startling benefits such as: enhanced memory, increased happiness, strengthened relationships, heightened resilience and greater opportunities to create and innovate.

Surprise yourself

Anyone who has young kids will have heard of the surprise egg videos on YouTube. For those of you who haven’t they are basically videos of someone unwrapping a plastic egg filled with small toys. That’s it. Here’s an example of someone unwrapping several surprise eggs covered in ‘play-doh’. And this 21-minute video has over 600 million views! In his thought-provoking Ted Talk, James Bridle describes these videos as “crack for little kids. There’s something about the repetition, the constant little dopamine hit of the reveal, that completely hooks them in. And little kids watch these videos over and over and over again, and they do it for hours and hours and hours.”

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Now whilst I’m not suggesting you spend your lunch break watching surprise egg videos, there is something to be learnt from this seemingly bizarre obsession. The surprise is very simple. The brain rewards the children with the same feel-good chemicals as if they were opening the surprise eggs themselves. The hippocampus is one of the most important brain regions involved in the discovery process, a crucial component in triggering the surprise sequence in the brain. This is because the hippocampus serves as the brain’s “novelty detector” by comparing the sensory information coming in with what’s already known. If this information differs from what is expected, it triggers the release of dopamine- the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitter. This feedback loop is what makes surprise feel so good (and is also what makes these strange videos so addictive to kids!)

In one study 25 people underwent MRI scans while having water or fruit juice squirted into their mouth, either in a predictable or unpredictable pattern. The scans revealed that the brain’s pleasure centre was most strongly activated when the squirts were unpredictable. Researchers commented that: “The region lights up like a Christmas tree on the MRI[when surprised]. That suggests people are designed to crave the unexpected.”

Thankfully there are countless ways to enjoy the benefits of surprise in your everyday life. It could be as simple as changing your usual greeting. Instead of asking your partner “how was your day?” perhaps you ask them: “what was the most exciting thing you did today?” This subtle change has given your partner the opportunity to tell a different story and has given your relationship a chance to break away from its usual script. A small and simple surprise is sometimes all it takes to wake us up to the moment and shine a light on something unfamiliar or new.

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Surprise others

Couples guru John Gottman believes that the secret to a happy relationship is to ’show up’ everyday by doing little things to show that you care. This isn’t about bringing home flowers or cooking a special dinner (although by all means do!) This is about breaking predictable patterns, with small gestures that show not only that you care, but also that you are present in the relationship. To quote John Gottman: “Like the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says that in closed energy systems things tend to run down and get less orderly, the same seems to be true of closed relationships like marriages. My guess is that if you do nothing to make things get better in your marriage but do not do anything wrong, the marriage will still tend to get worse over time. To maintain a balanced emotional ecology, you need to make an effort—think about your spouse during the day, think about how to make a good thing even better, and act.” 

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When we look at someone through a lens of expectation and past experience, we don’t give them space to grow. By fixing them in our mind we limit opportunity for growth and development in the relationship. I’m currently reading a fascinating book called Playing Pygmalion: how people create one another and the author Ruthellen Josselson talks about how “we have a stake in people being…what we need them to be for us…[and] when we have sculpted people out of our own need, our relationship with them becomes fulfilling – but lifeless.”

When we’ve known someone for a long time, we can quite easily stop seeing them as they actually are. We see what we choose to see based on our own patterns and conditioning. But actually, we are so much more than that. You may have met an ex and suddenly discover they love scuba diving and mountain biking. Who knew! What has happened is that their new relationship has allowed them to express another part of themselves. To use the wise words of Goethe: “treat an individual as they are and they will remain how they are. Treat him as he ought to be or could be and he will become what he ought to be or could be.” Embracing surprise in relationship can be a hugely transformative tool for reinvigorating and reimagining a relationship. A great example of this in my life is with my relationship with my identical twin sister Penelope Waller. 15 years ago, I never would have dreamed we could work collaboratively and now…we run a company together! With hindsight we can see so many of these wonderful unexpected surprises in my life. Surprises that remind us to regularly shake up relationships, so that they always have the space to develop and grow.

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Surprising strangers

I heard a beautiful story on The Mindvalley Podcast from motivational speaker and therapist Sean Stephenson. Sean learnt about the power of ‘surprise connection’ when he was 8-years old, thanks to a surprise encounter with an airport shuttle driver. Sean stayed at the front of the bus and spoke to the driver for the duration of the ride back to the hotel. Later that evening as he and his family were eating at the hotel’s restaurant, the driver came up to Sean and his family and thanked Sean for talking to him. He told them about how sad and lonely he’d been after a recent divorce and how he had actually planned to take his own life that evening. However, after his unexpected conversation with Sean he realised there was life left in him. And that his life was worth living. Such a small, simple thing, such as talking to a stranger, can be the most wonderful- and perhaps even life-changing- surprise.

We all carry around this power to surprise but we have to be present in order to access it. Because surprise captures our attention, takes us away from our thoughts and gives us a moment of heightened attention. It goes beyond communication. Surprise is about connecting. It is one of the primal threads that has the power to connect us and close the gap between us and ‘other’. So why not surprise yourself and somebody else today? Take a moment to look up from your phone and connect with a stranger. You might be surprised to find that they aren’t that strange after all.

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Surprise innovation

Why should you sprinkle surprise into your next meeting? Because it will trigger a release of dopamine in your colleagues’ brains, boost your team members’ long term memory and will improve their creativity and ability to think outside the box. One study discovered that: “the release of dopamine in the hippocampus of rats activates the synapses among nerve cells, creating stronger connections that lead to long-term memory storage.” Another study took this further and used FMRI scanners to compare long and short-term memory in humans. Test subjects were divided into 2 groups and the first group were shown a series of known images, whereas the second group were shown mix of known and unknown images. The FMRI data revealed that the second group were better at remembering the images as their scans showed greater activity in the SN and VTA areas of the brain.

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Surprise is also a key ingredient for disruptive innovation. Disruptive innovators capitalise on the power of surprise by reaching further, connecting disconnected ideas and embracing blank canvas thinking. So, if you want to redefine a category, create new customer behaviour or change the trajectory of your business, you are going to have to embrace the power of surprise.

An example of surprise innovation comes from King Price Insurance. The company offers an alternative to conventional car insurance plans by offering decreasing premiums in line with a car’s decreasing value. By considering a lot more data, the company has been able to offer cheaper, short-term insurance plans and retain happier customers, who find themselves regularly rewarded with a cheaper rate.

Don’t save up surprises!

With April Fool’s day only a week away, why not start flexing those surprise muscles by startling yourself, your colleagues or even an unknowing stranger! Let’s not save surprise for special occasions. Bring a ‘jack-in-a-box’ attitude into the boardroom, the energy of a party popper to your PT session and the essence of an unexpected win to a weekday dinner date. Bring to mind one person, perhaps a team member, partner or friend, and think of way you can surprise them right after reading this article. Perhaps you text them a quote, send them a thankful email or invite them for a coffee. Something so small and simple can be a great surprise to someone and can have a profoundly positive impact on their aptitude for work, mental health and overall wellbeing. So, don’t wait for their birthday or retirement party to say the things you want to say: surprise them today!

Baggage Reclaim

Baggage Reclaim

In this article we’re reclaiming our emotional baggage and learning how to handle it better. This isn’t about putting down all of our emotional baggage and throwing all of our issues over the floor: it’s about becoming aware of our emotional baggage, accepting that some of it will always be there and helping other people to reclaim and reconnect with their excess baggage too. Because our ‘baggage’ is what makes us human. We are all carrying around a bag of inherited, conditioned and learnt emotional blue prints, as well as challenging life experiences and losses that can- at times- weigh us down. And the more we ignore them, or pretend they don’t exist, the heavier our emotional ‘suitcase’ becomes. Until eventually, it bursts open. Because like a suitcase, we also have a finite capacity of space to pack away our ‘stuff’. When we reach capacity, we can- quite literally- break-down (hence the term ‘having a break down’), perhaps through ill mental health, physical ailments or irrational behaviour.

So, in this article we are inviting you to take ownership of your emotional baggage so that it doesn’t own you. This is all about helping you to: reclaim your own emotional baggage and become curious about the type of emotional baggage that you are carrying. How might you handle your bags better? And how might you help others carry their emotional bags through life? Let’s get unpacking…

Lost Luggage

“Why am I afraid to tell you who I am?”

 

– John Powell

We’ve been conditioned into thinking that negative emotions are “bad”. So, it’s not surprising that we end up ‘bagging’ a lot of these so-called ‘bad’ experiences, emotions and feelings. After a while, we may forget that the ‘bad’ baggage even exists. But the weight of it is still there, whether we choose to see it or not. To quote C. S. Lewis: “Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say My tooth is aching that to say My heart is broken.”

Before we think about sharing our ‘stuff’ with others, we must first be open to acknowledging it within ourselves. We must be willing to embrace our ‘secret selves’, the parts of us that we’ve shunned to the shadows. They say ‘sharing is caring’ and that starts with you. Can you be open to giving and sharing your attention with all of the different parts of yourself, even the bits that you don’t like?

Fear of our emotional baggage is what stops us from letting go. And this fear along with avoidance can actually add to the heavy load we may already carrying. So instead of continually fighting with the idea of even having emotional baggage, let’s face up to the fact that we all have emotional baggage. And whilst we may not be able to let go of all of it, perhaps we can learn to lighten the load.

Oversized bags

“We crave permission openly to become our secret selves”

 

– Salman Rushdie.

Taking ownership of our emotional baggage doesn’t mean spilling it all over the floor. There are many parts of ourselves that we wouldn’t want to (and perhaps shouldn’t!) share with our colleagues at work. So instead of dumping your suitcase all at once, perhaps you can take out one item and lighten the load?

One way of doing this is by asking for help with your bags. Maybe you reach out to your partner, a good friend or even a therapist. In one study, ‘talking therapy’ a term used to describe all the psychological therapies that involve a person talking to a therapist about their problems, was found to be as effective as ‘anti-depressants.’ The review included 11 studies, with a total of 1,511 patients and found that people treated with antidepressants and face to face interpersonal talking therapy were equally likely to respond to treatment and to get better. So, it seems there’s some truth to the old idiom, “a problem shared is a problem halved.”

Whilst there are numerous different approaches to ‘talking therapy’ the essence across the range of therapies is the same: to shed light on an issue and heighten awareness through talking. So perhaps there is someone in your life that you can talk to? It might sound simple but sometimes sharing a problem and seeing it through someone else’s eyes can help to lighten the load, one sock at a time…

Baggage Reclaim

“How much does your life weigh? Imagine for a second that you’re carrying a backpack. I want you to feel the straps on your shoulders. Now … I want you to fill it with people. Start with casual acquaintances, friends of friends, folks around the office, and then you move into the people that you trust with your most intimate secrets. Your cousins, your aunts, your uncles, your brothers, your sisters, your parents and finally your husband, your wife, your boyfriend or your girlfriend. You get them into that backpack … Feel the weight of that bag. Make no mistake — your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. Do you feel the straps cutting into your shoulders? All those negotiations and arguments, and secrets and compromises. You don’t need to carry all that weight. Why don’t you set that bag down? Some animals go about their whole lives carrying around other animals in symbiosis. Luckless lovers, monogamous swans… we are not these animals. If we move slowly, we die quickly. We are not swans. We are sharks.”

The above lines were spoken by Bingham (played by George Clooney) in the 2009 film ‘Up in the Air’ What I love about this speech is that it highlights how empty our lives would be without any baggage. He suggests that arguably some of the best bits of our lives- like family and friends- seem to create the biggest amount of baggage. So perhaps this is a good time to emphasise that baggage isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is a part of being a conscious and connected human being. In fact, people who are able to take ownership over their baggage show high levels of what Daniel Goleman called ‘emotional intelligence.’

Reclaiming our emotional baggage helps to raise our conscious awareness, gain perspective and better manage our emotions. And it also models a way of being for those around you and shows them that it is safe to do the same. Because how you are being with difficult experiences will have an impact on the way other people feel they are allowed to behave. What are you allowing other people to share? And how might you better help them to reclaim and carry their bags?

When my partner Tom died in July 2016 I had some incredible support from family, friends, business colleagues and clients. Two and a half years on it is quite natural that the intensity of support lessens. But anyone who has suffered loss, illness or another major life event knows that however much time has passed – we still carry our heavy ol’ suitcase. Maybe we get really good at carrying it, but it is still there. It means the world to me when a family member or friend recognises the case has suddenly become very heavy again and very hard to hold – and sends me a text or even a look or gesture that makes it clear to me that they are aware of what I’m holding. Often lightening the load immediately by at least removing the extra burden of feeling alone.

A ‘Case’ for Creativity

‘You cannot find peace by avoiding life.’

 

– Virginia Wolf

Reclaiming our baggage not only helps us to connect to other people, it also opens up a gateway to a huge amount of creativity. Accessing our pain can in fact be a life source, in a literal way of re-releasing energy for other creative, life-fulfilling pursuits. Edvard Munch’s painting ‘Scream’ expresses the great pain and frustrations that Munch saw as an unavoidable part of the human experience. It is now one of the top 10 most popular paintings in the world. A musical equivalent is Mozart’s Requiem, which was created out of response to his darkest fears in life.

These examples show us the power of channeling our emotional baggage into creative pursuits. Great pain can create great art- whether that be through paint, words, song or dance. Cathy Malchiodi, author of The Art Therapy Sourcebook, is an advocate of art therapy and considers it as “a modality for self-understanding, emotional change and personal growth.”

Perhaps we too can use creativity as a way of processing our emotional baggage and making something meaningful out of it. Maybe your outlet for channeling sadness is a weekly spinning class. Or could a pottery course be your way to process pain? Creativity is an incredible resource for emotional release and can literally turn our most difficult experiences into works of art. To use the words of American novelist Matthew Specktor, “I think it’s what fiction is for: to illuminate that gap between our secret selves and our more visible and apparent ones.”

Shiny Surfaces

“Man is not what he thinks he is, he is what he hides”

 

– André Malraux.

In the last few years of her life, Marilyn Monroe sat in various parks across New York in her married role of Mrs. Miller, watching children play and occasionally asking mothers if she could hold their babies. Grieving another miscarriage and feeling isolated in her marriage to Arthur Miller, Marilyn appeared to the other women in the park as an ordinary woman. A woman who was shy, curious as well as desperately sad and lonely. Some of the mothers worked out the real identity of Mrs. Miller and saw the huge gap that had opened up between the Hollywood star and the ordinary woman. A woman who was seen to be the very icon of beautiful, happy, successful, sexy and lucky, but who really was lost –never able to truly step ‘off stage’ and be happy in her real self, or to own her real life. To use the wise words of Brene Brown: “Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that really prevents us from taking flight.”

Like Marilyn Monroe we too lug around the weight of unmet expectations. But often we show the opposite to the world. Many of us are sharing various aspects of our lives online, presenting picture perfect happiness (literally!) Some 78% of 18- to 24-year-olds use Snapchat, and a sizeable majority of these users (71%) visit the platform multiple times per day. However, reality and virtual reality are not the same thing.

 

I was recently on a retreat where there also happened to be some people from the cast of a well know TV reality show. They were lovely young people. And you might not be surprised to hear that they were constantly on their phones and posing for photos. What was interesting was the difference between the reality (at the retreat) and the image presented (on Instagram). Of course, there were tangible differences, changed via some clever edits and filters. Yet what struck me the most was how much they ‘set the scene’ to look like they’d just snapped themselves ‘having fun in the pool’ or ‘topping up a tan.’ When really the most memorable, connecting, human times were when we shuffled around in our robes and slippers together, no make-up, no glossy hairdos – just having a laugh and enjoying taking time out.

I’m sure many of us at times can feel like Marilyn Monroe or Instagram stars. Hiding behind a guise of perfection and pretending that we don’t have any emotional baggage. And as in the case of Marilyn Monroe, this story of perfection can sometimes be too big a burden to bear. For both ourselves and others because it also sets a precedent to those around you. If you are only choosing to share an ‘image’ of happiness and success then are you, on a subconscious level, suggesting that everyone else should only share the same?

Unpacking…

Embracing the emotional baggage in your life will not only help you to lighten the load, it will also help those around you to do the same. What might you allow your colleagues, partner and children to share if you step up and start writing a new story around emotional baggage? We’re always going to have a certain amount of baggage: it’s a part of being human. Which is why the more you embrace your bags, the more you learn to love and accept yourself.

How might you acknowledge and address your own, ever-changing emotional baggage? And how might you help someone else carry their heavy load?

Takeaways:

  1. Think about 1 or 2 pieces of emotional baggage you are carrying. Can you share them with someone close? Can you thank those pieces of baggage for the lessons or experiences they have given you? Can you take them out of your suitcase entirely?
  2. Whether it’s at work, home or in your community – can you identify someone that you know is carrying a lot of emotional baggage? Have they been carrying it for so long that everyone assumes it’s gone? What might you ask them? How could you check in with them to let them know you see them, and see the burden they bear.
Let’s get dreaming of Christmas connection. Not Christmas perfection.

Let’s get dreaming of Christmas connection. Not Christmas perfection.

Is striving for the ‘perfect’ Christmas leaving you feeling stressed?

If you answered ‘yes’ then you’re not alone. Research from the charity Mind revealed that one in ten people feel unable to cope at this time of year, a figure that increases to a third when we focus on people with ongoing mental health problems. Surprising given that this is supposed to be ‘the season to be jolly.’ But perhaps that’s exactly the problem. Are the social and cultural pressures to create a ‘Happy Christmas’ having the opposite affect? And is our well-intentioned desire to create a perfect Christmas causing us a whole lot of festive stress? In this article we’re exploring how we can create a truly ’perfect’ Christmas for ourselves. One that isn’t aiming for perfection at all but is instead, focused on Christmas connection.

I have a Christmas confession. This article kept me awake at night. I was trying to craft and create the perfect Christmas article, the best possible gift that I could offer to all of our fabulous readers and 4d friends. But by 3 AM I realised that I had fallen into the very trap I was trying to write about! So many of us want to create the perfect Christmas. We want to surprise and excite our family and friends, through gifts, food, gatherings and games. However, as I learnt in the writing of this article, the pursuit of a ‘perfect’ Christmas can cause us a whole lot of stress and even sleepless nights! So, in this article we’re moving away from Christmas perfection and into a narrative of Christmas connection. Join us as we focus on five themes that will help you to have a happier, healthier and much more connected Christmas. Let go of control, manage your expectations, stop comparing yourself to others, prioritise self-care and step-in to the moment. As I learnt recently from the animated film Kung Fu Panda: “The Past is history, the Future is a mystery and today is a gift. That’s why it’s called Present.”

1. Control

My anxiety around creating the perfect Christmas article showed up during a work trip to Amsterdam. My mind kept going around in circles, desperately trying to make sure that everyone would enjoy the article. But I was trying to manage the reader’s experience of this article, which is ultimately beyond my control. Thankfully, I managed to step out of this control cycle in the early hours and was at least able to get a few hours sleep!

If you truly want to enjoy Christmas, then stop trying to control every last detail. Of course, this is much easier said than done, because being in control makes us feel safe. We preempt our lives and predict how things should be and as a result, set ourselves up for disappointment when they don’t turn out as planned.

However, if we can stay open to the spontaneity and surprises that Christmas will inevitably bring, we may discover an even better version of events. An unplanned Christmas story, that is in fact, far better than the one you had in mind. Maybe you end up burning the roast potatoes but perhaps this has you all laughing like children and letting go of expectations? Who knows where unexpected joy and delight will show up. Stay open and curious and you’ll start to find so much joy in the small, simple details that define one moment from the next. As we asked in a previous 4D article ‘Micro Experiences, Macro Effects’: “are you conscious of the micro experiences you are creating in the everyday? And can you appreciate the micro experiences that other people are creating for you? Don’t underestimate their power. These seemingly small and simple moments create a ripple effect that can impact the dynamic of a whole relationship.” We can’t control so many things in life- notably other people and how they feel about us (and our work). So trade in micro-managing for micro experiences and take charge of the one thing that you can control: your response to the Christmas around you.

2. Expectations

I wanted to send out an article that would help the World to step-into a simpler kind of Christmas. One that isn’t overwhelmed by consumerism, consumption and keeping up with the Jones’ but is instead, focused around the presents we can’t see, like love, laughter and presence. Yet, it’s quite a big ask to expect one article to end the commercialism of Christmas. I had placed an impossible set of expectations on this Christmas ‘gift’ and had therefore, set myself up to fail.

If you also have high expectations, then you may find yourself stepping into Christmas feeling stressed and with a foreboding sense of ‘never enough.’ The human-tendency to always predict the best is known in psychology as ‘the optimism bias’, which is defined as, “the difference between a person’s expectation and the outcome that follows.” Put simply, if we set our expectations too high we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.

So, let’s flip the story. What if we accepted where we are? And who we are? Perhaps it’s not the Christmas we expected but what ever happened to ‘good enough?’ To quote the wonderful words of Osho: “There is no need to be more- you are enough. Everybody is enough.”  

3. Comparisons

Another way I created unrealistic expectations was by comparing this article to other articles. I wanted this one to be bigger and better than any other 4D article (and maybe even better than those other Christmas articles out there…ones that gets thousands of hits and clicks!!) However, comparisons- with both our past selves and other people- cloud our judgement and stop us from seeing our current success. A study in Science reported that activation in brain areas related to reward, respond to relative differences in wealth even more than absolute amounts. Which is why some Silicon Valley billionaires feel disadvantaged because they can’t keep up with their wealthy neighbours.

The rise of social media has increased our ability to compare our Christmases, and offers us instant access into the lives of other people- people that we might not even know. (For example, you might be one of Selena Gomez’s 144.5 million followers or Cristiano Ronaldo’s 148.3!) Yet, this constant scrolling and swiping might be detrimental to your mental health. One study found that Facebook use was linked to both less moment-to-moment happiness and less life satisfaction. Rather than enhancing well-being, the findings suggested that Facebook may be undermining it.

Comparisons are merely oversimplifications of the unique gifts we all possess as human beings. So instead of heading into the holiday season like a headless chicken, why not take a moment to consider your top Christmas priorities and the things that make your celebrations special? This will give you a road map through the endless to-do list and help you to recognise what is most important to you. Perhaps you’ll discover that seeing your Great Aunty is more important than driving two hours to pick up an out-of-stock Christmas toy for your kids. When you work out the things that matter to you, you’ll start to ‘play’ Christmas your way. One of my friends is avoiding Christmas presents this year in favour of donating money to the person’s chosen charity. And my colleague Katie is gifting time by booking experiences and days out to spend with loved ones. Find out what sits with you and your values and create a Christmas that reflects where you are: not your neighbour!

“The Past is history, the Future is a mystery and today is a gift. That’s why it’s called Present.” 

 
– Kung Fu Panda, 2008

4. Self-Care

In my efforts to please the 4D community I overlooked caring for myself. I ended up stressed, tired and found that the writing process was feeling like hard work. I normally lovethe creative process that comes from creating this content each month, so this was a real red flag.

I’m sure we’ve said this before but self-care isn’t selfish; it’s not an indulgence. But it is a discipline, as making time for no.1 in a season focused on ‘giving’ is much easier said than done. However, as we discussed in our Thanksgiving special last month, giving also includes the gifts that you give to yourself. You might find yourself trying to please everyone on your Christmas list, but don’t forget that YOU should also be on that list.

In fact, we’d go so far as to say that you should be at the very top of your Christmas list. We often talk to clients about embracing ‘selfishness’ because until you are in a good place yourself, you can’t be what you want to be for others. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. A short bath, a 10-minute meditation or a walk around the block can all help to relieve you from stress. But if you feel that you really can’t escape physically, then treat yourself to three, deep and mindful breaths. Deep breathing has been scientifically proven to reduce stress whilst also positively affecting your heart, brain, digestion and immune system. A 2013 study examining the ‘relaxation response’ discovered that breathing exercises, “enhanced expression of genes associated with energy metabolism, mitochondrial function, insulin secretion and telomere maintenance, and reduced expression of genes linked to inflammatory response and stress-related pathways.” Other powerful ways of evoking this same ‘relaxation response’ include meditation, yoga, tai chi and chanting.

5. Connection

It’s ironic that my article for 4D Human Being involved so much doing. And like my experience with writing, the real ‘gifts’ can so easily get lost in the performance of Christmas: the gift buying, card writing, food prepping. John Lennon’s lyric from the song Beautiful Boy ring true, “Life is what happens when we are busy making other plans.” We can become so focused on all the things we should be doing, that we forget about the being.

So, this year, reconnect with what’s really going on this Christmas. Stop living through the lens of Christmases past, or ones from an imagined future and be with the one that’s happening now. Can we stay present and connected to the Christmas that is playing out all around us? Perhaps you’re feeling a little disappointed because it isn’t quite as you expected. But maybe this year, your Christmas can be much more connected, conscious and current. To use Einstein’s version of the Kung Fu Panda quote I mentioned at the start: “Yesterday is relative, tomorrow is speculative, but today is electric. That’s why it’s called current.”

Good enough!

I like old Christmas movies. I love seeing my friends. I love walking to the pub with my dog. Laughing a lot. Being with family. Having time off. And from my heart to yours, I genuinely wish each and every one of you a Christmas filled with self-care, connection and a whole lot of love. This may not be the most perfect article I was dreaming of and it may not have gone out as early as I was hoping for but maybe that’s a good reflection on Christmas. We can’t always get it done on time and it won’t necessarily be perfect. But if it’s done with honesty, heart, genuineness and love, then it, I, you and we will all be more than good enough.

Happy Christmas from the heart, with love from Philippa and the 4D team x