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. 

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.

Summer Slow Down: The Upside of Downtime

Summer Slow Down: The Upside of Downtime

If your default response to the “how are you?” question tends to be “I’ve been busy/stressed/tired” (or all 3) then this is the article for you.

 

We’re taking advantage of the holiday season to offer you ways to help de-stress your life and embrace the power of rest…because the benefits of downtime are many and if we want to be healthy, happy and successful, we’re going to need to spend a lot more time watching sunsets!

This article is all about helping you to recognise and prioritise the power of rest; feel less stressed whilst still being productive; create more space for the things you love; and stay present and connected with your co-workers, family and friends – even during a busy day – so you can fall in love with the softer, slower side of life.

Many of us were brought up to believe that, in order to be happy, we need to work hard at school, take all the exams, get decent grades, work harder at university, get better grades, get a job, get married, have children and then we will all live happily ever after.  Ermm… that isn’t exactly how it’s worked out, is it?  We are in the midst of a mental health crisis and a stress epidemic that has most of us spending our days tearing between expectations and aspirations. We overload our brains with information, overwhelm our calendars with appointments and convince ourselves that we can keep on pushing ourselves without consequence. We can’t. We human beings are experiencing unprecedented levels of depression, anxiety, insomnia, cancer, cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes and burn out – and the research all points to these being linked to stress, overwork and lifestyle. So, join us as we take a step off the treadmill. It might seem like a step you ‘just don’t have time for,’ particularly if busy-ness has been your default for a long time, but if we want to look forward to a life of long-term health and happiness, it may be time for us to pause to allow our bodies and also our minds and spirits, to ‘rest and digest’.

 

The busy story

 “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

 

– Einstein

If we’re really honest, how much are we ourselves responsible for creating our busy narrative? Who is it but us that’s filling our diaries and saying yes to every request and demand that comes our way? A survey showed that 2018, American workers failed to use 768 million days of PTO—a 9% increase from 2017. That’s an average of 6.5 days when we could have been lying on the beach, doing something we love or just getting some good old-fashioned, much-needed sleep. We chastise ourselves for being lazy instead of giving sleep the credit it deserves when we all know that the more rested we feel, the stronger we are in mind, body and creative spirit.  Sleep and rest impact every part of our lives from our performance at work to our relationships to our physical and mental health, and yet most of us aren’t getting nearly enough of it.  Amongst its many benefits, sleep improves our digestion, builds our immunity, repairs cells, improves memory, boosts creativity and supports our mental health…and that’s just the beginning! Yet we seem to insist on overworking and over-committing and then feel angry and frustrated when we suffer from ill health, exhaustion or mental health issues – as if we somehow expect a different result. 


Identity and the busy story

 

Over recent years, ‘busy’ has somehow become synonymous with ‘successful.’  The busy story is pernicious. It can become part of our identity when we’re not looking. How often do we find ourselves complaining (slash bragging) that we have ‘110 emails in our inbox’ or that we ‘have so many people to get back to’ with the implication being that we are incredibly successful and in demand, in fact basically indispensable? The idea that to be successful we need to work till we drop is dangerous because it’s a bottomless pit; it leaves us feeling drained, depressed and drowning in an overwhelming sense of ‘not enough’: not quick enough, not clever enough, not good enough, not (fill in the blank) enough. Just. Not. Enough.

 

Thrive or Dive?

 

The Autonomic Nervous System is made up of two major systems: the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”), and the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”). The “fight or flight” response is triggered when the body senses threat of danger.  This was indispensable when we were living under trees and needed to look out for passing predators, but our modern-day bodies and brains haven’t evolved as quickly as our environment and can’t tell the difference between, say, an overly-busy schedule and being chased by a bear.  The body’s response is that the heart rate speeds up, the muscles contract and any systems that are not required for our immediate (as opposed to long-term) survival shut down, including digestion and immunity. Another issue for our systems to contend with is the fact that the brain cannot distinguish between a real threat and a potential or imagined one, which is why we can find ourselves getting tense just thinking about our packed schedule.

We need the sympathetic nervous system like we need fire doors: it’s an emergency escape for occasional use. However, the problem is that this ‘safety switch’ is being tripped far too regularly and, in some cases, constantly. In 2018, it was reported that 74% of the UK felt too overwhelmed or stressed to cope with daily life. Together with all the advantages and convenience of The Digital Age, comes the fact that we are constantly ‘on’: phones never stop ringing and pinging, inboxes are rarely empty and many of us are spending a large part of our lives in fight or flight. And it’s having a major impact on our wellbeing.

 

What rest isn’t…

 

Abby Seixas, author of Finding the Deep River Within: A Woman’s Guide to Recovering Balance and Meaning in Everyday Life, uses the animal world to illustrate why, when we miss out on rest, we are missing out on one of our fundamental needs: “If you watch animals, [you’ll see] they spend a lot of time not sleeping but resting […] The animal part of us needs this too. Every living organism needs rest. When we don’t take the time to rest, eventually it takes a toll on the body.”

When we talk about rest we’re not just talking about sleep. Rest is essentially a waking sleep. According to Rubin Naiman, co-author of The Yoga of Sleep, rest is “the essential bridge to sleep” and is something we need to start prioritising in our lives.  Rest helps us to put the body back in the driving seat by influencing the autonomic nervous system.  So how do we do it?

 

 

The Upside of Downtime

 

Like me, you may remember teachers at school regularly telling you off for dreaming and staring out of the window. I remember school reports often containing remarks such as: “Claire is very good when she’s with us, unfortunately she spends a great deal of her time in Wonderland!” Now that may have been true but I’m going to fight my corner here and say that I felt dream time was valuable. It was when I had my best ideas! You can imagine how delighted I was to discover that there is actually a scientific reason for it. When we do what we think is ‘switching off’, a system in the brain called the Default Mode Network kicks into action which, as it turns out, is a powerful source of idea generation. It’s why we often get our best ideas when we’re in the bath or out taking a walk. Staring and zoning out can actually be incredibly productive. Research from the University of Southern California shows us that when we ‘switch off’ the mind is anything but idle. The study showed that these times of ‘rest’ are incredibly important for creativity, memory consolidation and learning; Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and her co-authors argued for more “educational practices that promote effective balance between external attention and internal reflection […] ranging from free-form daydreaming and off-line consolidation to intensive, effortful abstract thinking.” Because downtime helps us to access the most creative parts of our selves.

 

Dream on!

 

You don’t have to go on a 2-week holiday in order to get into a state of rest. Evidence suggests that the brain takes advantage of every momentary lapse in attention in order to rest, even in just a blink of an eye. Researchers recording electrical impulses in people’s brains as they watched clips of British comedian Mr. Bean found that eye-blinks are actively involved in the release of attention and that the Default Mode Network woke up briefly with every blink.

Downtime is essential to mental processes that affirm our identities, develop our understanding of human behaviour (including our own) and instills an internal code of ethics. In other words we have time to consider who we are, what we care about and why. So, next time you’re tempted to check your phone because you have a few spare moments (on the train, in the supermarket queue, when your friend goes to the loo in a restaurant) try sitting and staring so you can give rest and digest a chance. In short, dream on, it turns out to be good for you!

 

Starting the day

 

What you do at the start of the day sets up how you are going to ‘be’ that day.  Making time and space for yourself first thing in the morning is difficult for many of us – and yet it’s so important. It can shift us from being in a reactive mindset to being in a proactive one so, if you can, try getting up an hour earlier in order to wake up and engage your mind, body and spirit. You could take 20-minutes to meditate, 20-minutes to move your body (Yoga, Tai Chi, skipping or just dancing in the living room to your favourite music).  If you can, add another 20 minutes to read something inspiring, journal or to set and intention. Decide on priorities for the day before the world starts crashing in with its needs and demands.

 

 

Take a breath

 

If you’re anything like me, you may find there are moments in the day when you are either breathing in a really shallow way or even holding your breath. Deep, slow breathing is an incredibly effectively way of tricking your body back into the ‘rest and digest’ state. A few weeks of deep, mindful breathing can have a positive impact on a person’s overall health. Try this one: it’s called the 4-7-8 breath. The technique is simple: breath in through the nose for 4, hold for 7 and exhale forcefully through the mouth for 8.  If the events of the day are starting to stress you out, stop and do 3 or 4 rounds of 4-7-8 breathing, and then get on with your day.

 

Schedule in downtime

 

Schedule in downtime like you schedule in appointments, and make sure it’s a priority as opposed to a luxury. If you don’t schedule it in, it won’t happen. There’s no need to feel guilty, the power of rest will help you to become more productive and purposeful in the other parts of your life – and may even help you live longer!

 

 

 

Find your flow

“Time slows down. Self-vanishes. Action and awareness merge.”

 

– Steven Kotler, cofounder of the Flow Genome Project.

You know that state when you lose all track of time and wonder where the last few hours went?  Some people call it ‘Flow’. The state of Flow, originally coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is the state when we are “completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Times flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.”

So where do you find your Flow? Painting, gardening, writing, running, cooking, nuclear physics? Whatever does it for you, schedule it in. The hit of pleasure we get from doing what we love filters out and gives us strength to deal with everything else life throws at us.

Celebrate Slow

 

Life is short, yes. So instead of chasing the clock, let’s consider the quality of our lives. Because we wouldn’t want to live to a hundred if we were miserable and stressed all the time. We want to enjoy the lives- and the time- we’ve got.

Let’s slow down, show ourselves some compassion and give ourselves and each other, the space and time to be here.

What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs

And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,

Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,

Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,

And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can

Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

 

Leisure by WH Davies

From Songs Of Joy and Others (1911)

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.

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.
Make friends with fear

Make friends with fear

Have you ever watched a horror movie or ridden a rollercoaster in order to recreate the experience of fear?

 

Well believe it or not, but we are doing this all the time. On a daily basis we are often unknowingly creating and living with the experience of fear, particularly in our professional lives. So, this month we shine a light on fear and face up to those unspoken and unconscious worries that might be holding us back. The great news is that fear isn’t fixed: we can change our response to fear by becoming conscious of the mechanisms behind the fear response. Join us as we cross edges, step in and create exciting new possibilities by making friends with fear. To use the wonderful words of Maslow: “In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or to step back into safety.” What would your life look like if you stepped into fear? Well, there’s only one way to find out…

Your fears are my fears

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers fear”
 

– Nelson Mandela

We may believe that our fears are unique to us, yet in reality your fears are much more commonplace than you might think. Among the top workplace fears are the fear of losing your job, the fear of looking stupid, the fear of being yelled at, the fear of stepping on toes and the fear of being a know-it-all. But topping them all is: the fear of speaking up. Sound familiar? Many of us will recognise some of these workplace fears whilst others might not believe that they are particularly bothered by any of the above. But sometimes our behaviours give away the fact that we are unknowingly being driven by a deep fear. These behaviours are what we like to call the 9 faces of fear and they indicate that our fear has been triggered. You may recognise some of them. They are:

 

1. Not giving 100%

2. Procrastination

3. Anger

4. Crying

5. Rationalising

6. Avoidance

7. Indecision

8. Withdrawal

9. Lack of completion

In isolation these manifestations of fear may be harmless and possibly useful in certain situations. Issues only arise when these states of fear become our day-to-day default modes of operating and perhaps even our only modes of operating. When we are living in a constant state of fear we contribute to a culture of fear, which limits potential for growth, creates unacceptable behaviour, reduces productivity and creativity, demotivates and discourages individuals and teams, leads to poor communication and drives stress.

 

 

So, how can we stop fear from running our lives and negatively affecting our families, teams and wider communities? By understanding what is being triggered. When we become aware of our fear-based behaviours and thought patterns, we awaken the power of conscious choice.

At 4D we use a model called the pyramid of fear to separate the different layers of fear and to illustrate how fear shows up in our body, brain and beliefs. At the very base of that pyramid- the foundation underneath the various levels of fear- lies four simple words “I can’t handle it.” Susan Jeffers, psychologist and author of ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’ argues that maybe we can handle quite a lot more than we believe. And what’s the best way of strengthening this belief? By handling things that you didn’t believe you could handle. When you “‘handle it’ self-esteem is raised considerably. You learn to trust that you will survive, no matter what happens. And in this way your fears are diminished immeasurably.” (Susan Jeffers)

Body

“Thinking will not overcome fear but action will”
 

– W. Clement Stone

At the very top of our fear pyramid is the body. The tip of the iceberg so to speak as this segment focuses on the surface level signs of fear that show up physically. Can we really change the way our body responds to fear? Yes, and believe it or not – no special equipment or training is required. All you need is your breath.

Fear kicks off our flight or fight response, an automatic and involuntary reaction activated by a deep and ancient part of the brain. When activated, our heart rate goes up, blood pressure increases and the body floods with adrenaline. All of which are incredibly useful if we’re walking alone in the dark and hear footsteps behind us or historically, if we’re being chased by a tiger, as it stops us from thinking and simply gets us ready to defend ourselves or to run away. However, this isn’t so useful if it’s triggered by a stressful meeting at work.

The good news is that our response to fear isn’t fixed: we can train our body to respond to fear differently. One of the easiest ways of reprogramming your internal operating system is by tuning into the breath. You’ve probably heard- and perhaps even said- the following phrase during a stressful situation: take a deep breath. Now this is helpful as long as that deep inhalation is followed by a long and slow exhalation (we want to avoid inhaling and holding the breath because this can lead to overbreathing!) So, counting the breath is a much more useful tool (and mantra) to use during stressful situations as it creates a slow and deep breathing cycle, which sends a signal to our brain that we are safe. As a result, the body returns to a more balanced state. Through working with the breath, we can regulate ourselves and get ourselves back to our optimal zone of functioning – what Psychiatry professor Dr Daniel J. Siegel and trauma therapist Pat Ogden Phd call our ‘Window of Tolerance.’ So, the next time you find yourself in a stressful meeting, “breath in for 4 and out for 4“…and open up your Window of Tolerance. You’ll find it much easier to solve the situation with a clear, calm head.

Brain

“Of all the liars in the world, sometimes the worst are your own fears”

 

– Rudyard Kipling

The second layer of our fear pyramid uncovers the stories we tell ourselves about our fears. When we are in a state of fear the stories running through our minds can hugely distort and exaggerate the threat in front of us. I’m sure many of you have experienced the effect of a ‘runaway thought train’ (credit to our fab clients Ginny and El for this term!) It’s when one small- and seemingly innocent- thought builds into a full-blown disaster narrative. The catastrophizing train of thoughts creates a whole reality in our heads about something that hasn’t happened and probably never will. However, your brain doesn’t know the difference between real and imagined experiences. This is why you may find yourself jumping when watching a horror film, because your brain doesn’t register the difference between your reality (sitting in your living room) and the imagined reality in front of you (a full-blown zombie apocalypse!)

 

Neuroscientist and meditation expert, Dr. Joe Dispenza, believes that these negative thought cycles are stopping us from reaching our full potential and are ultimately making us sick. Whilst all animals can cope with a degree of fear and stress (for example, a deer running away from a fox will experience stress and fear as it tries to escape but once it’s safe, the response will be turned off and the deer will return to a balanced state), no animal can survive in a long-term, constant state of stress and fear. When our fear response is turned on and never turned off we are heading for disease. “So, our thoughts make us sick. But that means our thoughts can make us well” (Joe Dispenza).

If you think about a future event- your body doesn’t know the difference between the conjured idea and reality. So, most people are constantly reaffirming their fears and emotional states from past events in their life.

However, the same is true for future events. If you close your eyes, cultivate present awareness and mentally rehearse an action, your brain won’t know the difference between the imagined future and reality. For example, if you are one of the many people who are fearful of public speaking, you might imagine a different reality for an upcoming presentation, one in which you are feeling confident and self-assured. By doing this you are in a sense installing “new neurological hardware into your brain”, to look like the event has already occurred. Suddenly the brain is no longer just “a record of the past” but “a map to the future” (Joe Dispenza). So, the question is: what do you want your future to look like? What fears are you finally willing to let go of and leave behind?

Beliefs

“Your life does not get better by chance, it gets better by change”
 

– Jim Rohn

And so we come to the 3rd layer of fear: our beliefs. This is where we find our deepest and darkest fears. Fundamentally, this is what we believe about ourselves. Therapist and author Marisa Peer, believes that the fear of not being “enough” is “the biggest disease affecting humanity.” If we open this up we find the 4 main fears that sit at the core of our identities:

 

1.             Am I competent?

2.             Am I a good person?

3.             Will I be the best?

4.             Will I be liked?

 

Which one of these is often playing out in your life? The thought of not being liked? Or not being considered a good and worthy person? You may associate with one in particular (mine is usually around being the best!)

If any of these fears are triggered it can feel very frightening and threatening because our sense of self – who we are and what we believe about ourselves- can feel under attack. Guilt, anger and humiliation are signals of this and they can be deeply uncomfortable. Think back to the 9 faces of fear and the behaviours we tend to display. These are simply manifestations of these deep-set fears and they are ways we try to keep ourselves in our comfort zone.

And that is the one of the greatest challenges for us as human beings. We are driven to keep our identity safe and our fears hidden. To stay with what’s known and familiar. But of course, by keeping ourselves safe, we also keep ourselves stuck and this makes it very difficult to step in and start creating new patterns in our lives…

 

I can handle it…

“Everything you want is on the other side of fear”
 

– Jack Cornfield

Which brings us to the very base of our fear pyramid: “I can’t handle it!” When we work down through the layers of the fear pyramid, we can flip our response to fear and transform an ‘I can’t’ into ‘I can.’

Remember, even the fear of ‘I can’t handle it’ is simply a narrative you have created. You have no proof that you can’t handle it unless you step in. Whether it’s speaking up at work, asking for a promotion or even one of the big, frightening curveballs that life can throw us – you can handle it. It might not be easy but we can all handle a lot more than we believe.

So, what limiting beliefs are stopping you from stepping in, pushing boundaries and realising your unbounded potential? Can you lean in with a curiosity instead of running away with regret? Elizabeth Gilbert, author of ‘Big Magic’, believes that this is the key for “creative living” because a creative life is “any life that is driven more strongly by creativity that it is by fear.” So, let’s stop fear from ruling our lives by stepping in with curiosity, conscious intentionality and with the knowledge that we can, in fact, handle a lot more than we might think! Who knows what’s possible if we “travel in the direction of our fear” (John Berryman).