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.”

Whole Body Health

Whole Body Health

 

Shifting the focus from body weight to a positive state.

 

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

 

 

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

 

Physical Health: Slow down

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

Emotional Health: Celebrate Sleep

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

Intellectual Health: Read Daily

 

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

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

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

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

Here are some stats to get you started…

 

Intentional Health: Redraft the story

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

1. Look for evidence that contradicts the belief

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

3. Catch other people’s stories

 

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

 

4. Stay curious

 

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

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

 

Be an advocate for whole body health

 

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

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

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

For more information and helpful resources click here.

An Easter Ego…

An Easter Ego…

Learning to live, lead and love with a healthy ego

 

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

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

Ego triggers and traps

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

The Healthy Ego

 

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


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

 
1. Co-create Conversation

 

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

But what does this have to do with the ego?

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

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

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


2. Accept praise

 

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

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

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

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


3. Make friends with failure

 

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

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

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

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

 

 4. Embrace vulnerability

 

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

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

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

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


5. Look through a systems lens

 

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

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

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

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

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

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


Have a healthy happy ego!

 

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

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

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.
Naughty but Nice…

Naughty but Nice…

There was a little girl, Who had a little curl,

Right in the middle of her forehead.

When she was good,

She was very good indeed,

But when she was bad she was horrid. 


– Henry Wandsworth

 

We can become conditioned into ‘being good’ from a very young age. And our experience of ‘goodness’ may often be subjective and gender-specific. One may be called a “good girl” for being ‘sugar, spice and all things nice’ and a “good boy” for being bold and brave. As adults, our understanding of what it means to ‘be good’ is likely to depend on the messages from childhood that we have internalised. And this definition of ‘good’ influences much more than our moral compass: it affects our day-to-day interactions with our co-workers, family and friends and also, with ourselves. So, what does ‘good’ mean? Compliant? Well-behaved? Talented? Successful? Top of class? Kind? Avoiding eating the donuts?! The list goes on….

For some of us, ‘being good’ means being obedient and following the rules (something that is conditioned into us throughout our education.) Yet, in Silicon Valley I’m sure ’being good’ is also much more about ‘disruptive innovation’, thinking out of the box and breaking conventional norms. Which makes me wonder whether our ideas about ‘goodness’ are somewhat archaic and misaligned with the fast-paced and ever-changing landscapes of our lives. One article encouraging parents to embrace the rebel child, asks if childhood obedience is “a cause for concern or celebration?” And another, commending rule breakers in the workplace, goes so far as to say that “What is really dangerous these days is safe thinking.” So, could it be that our rigid, outdated understandings of goodness are holding us back?

In this article we’re looking at how conditioning around ‘being good’ might be limiting us at work, in our relationships and with ourselves and exploring ways we can accept and embrace our own unique inner ‘goodness’. Let’s take charge of our own definitions of goodness, instead of allowing society’s multiple (and often contradictory) definitions to direct our lives. We can be the author of our own life narratives, and whilst being good for some might mean going for an 8-mile run, for me, ‘being good’ this year, is simply about being true to me.

New Year, Same Me

I typically start January with a New Year, New Me resolution, in the hope of being ‘more good’ in a certain area of my life (last year it was to run twice a week.) But like 91% of all New Year’s resolutions- I didn’t even make it to February. And so, I find myself feeling ‘bad’ for failing to stick to my challenge. But, who is defining this idea of ‘goodness’? My colleague Katie spent several years running and ended up having 4 knee operations. So, in this instance running was not so ‘good’ after all. This is why it’s important to take charge of our own understanding of ‘good’, instead of being influenced by everything and everyone around us.

Be Good to Yourself

As with my 2018 resolution, a lot of our ‘being good’ revolves around not being good enough. So, this year, why not focus your ‘goodness’ efforts internally? Instead of trying so hard to live up to someone else’s’ vision of good, why not focus on being good to yourself?

“If I am not good to myself how can I expect anyone else to be good to be?”


 -Maya Angelou

Self-compassion has been shown to help promote healthy behaviours and positive thoughts. In one study, an increase in self-compassion correlated with an increase in health-promoting behaviours, such as eating habits, exercise, sleep behaviours, and stress management. Another study, looking at the effect of self-compassion on ‘restrictive and guilty eaters’, showed that self-compassion helped to reduce distress and helped people to adopt healthier eating patterns. So being good to yourself can actually lead you to being ‘good’ in more conventional ways, like diet, exercise and sleep. In fact, scientists are now arguing that “self-compassion attenuates people’s reactions to negative events in ways that are distinct from and, in some cases, more beneficial than self-esteem.” We live in a world obsessed with the idea of being self-confident and having positive self-esteem but perhaps it’s much more important to cultivate self-kindness. Which brings to mind a quote from author and Buddhist practitioner Jack Kornfield: “If your compassion does not include you, it’s incomplete.”

Inside Out

Instead of defining goodness from the outside in, we’re flipping the formula and starting from the inside out. To quote the wise words of the 19th century monk Swami Vivekananda: “You have to grow from the inside out. None can teach you, none can make you spiritual. There is no other teacher but your own soul.” If we don’t define our own values and understandings of what it means to be good then they may become ungrounded, disconnected and vulnerable to negative, outside influences.

“You have to grow from the inside out. None can teach you, none can make you spiritual. There is no other teacher but your own soul”

 
– Swami Vivekananda

So, using the 4D2C model (see below) let’s take a look at how we can take charge of our own definitions of goodness. First, let’s look at the two contexts in which we live – our culture (people) and environment. As we’ve mentioned above, the world around us can affect our ideas of goodness in numerous ways and this starts from a very young age. So, we’ve got the outside pushing in, often influencing our internal dimensions. For example, we may create an autopilot of goodness within our physical dimension, with ideas of goodness being linked to ‘going to the gym’ and ‘eating healthy.’ In the emotional dimension goodness might be linked with ‘being kind.’ And in our intellectual dimension being good might be connected to ‘getting top grades’ or ‘being top of the class.’ The autopilot goodness narrative will depend on multiple cultural and social circumstances. But sometimes these autopilot narratives don’t serve us. As we develop and grow, these ‘goodness’ narratives may become outdated, limiting and stop us living from our true values. So, this is when we have to fire up our intentional self and look inward for answers. Asking ourselves questions like: what does goodness really mean to me? What elements of good will be useful to live by to be my best self? And how does being ‘bad sometimes serve me? As Michelle Obama said: “I have learned that as long as I hold fast to my beliefs and values — and follow my own moral compass — then the only expectations I need to live up to are my own.”

 

When we live with intention we can push back from the inside out and learn to love all of our parts. Intentional living isn’t about being perfect: it’s about being integrated and connected to your whole self. To use the words of Swiss psychiatrist Karl Jung: “I’d rather be whole than good.”

For Goodness Sake

Once we’ve begun to take ownership of our own values of goodness, the real challenge is acting on them. Why for many of us is it so hard to invoke our inner rule breaker when we are faced with opposing forces in the real-world? Because of a deep-set desire to people please.

 

American Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory around the stages of moral development can help us to understand why we can struggle to embrace the rebel inside, particularly when faced with a moral dilemma. Kohlberg theory suggests that the majority of us remain in level two, Conventional Morality, so called because it is where we conform to conventions and rules of society: “Good behaviour is that which pleases or helps others and is approved by them. There is much conformity to stereotypical images of what is majority or ‘natural’ behaviour. Behaviour is frequently judged by intention. ‘He means well’ becomes important for the first time. One earns approval by being ‘nice.’” What Kohlberg is saying is that at this level we are more concerned with group approval than we are with taking charge of our own moral compass. We self-sacrifice our own values in order to please the group.

So, how can we begin to step out of this conventional level and into what Kohlberg calls ‘post-conventional morality’? We can look to our inner creative or our inner child. The free spirit who wants to push boundaries in a playful, curious and flexible way. This doesn’t mean throwing around chairs in your next boardroom meeting. But it could mean, putting the desks to the side and setting up your meeting in the circle. Small changes that can create huge waves in organisations. One only has to consider the theory of ‘disruptive innovation’ to see this in action. And thanks to companies such as Uber, Airbnb and WeWork, the way we travel, work and play has completely changed. These companies have not only changed the game. They’ve rewritten the very language of the game. (I wonder how long the word ‘taxi’ will remain in circulation given that we now are all ‘Ubering’ everywhere!) Yet, this didn’t happen by following the rules. In fact, they ‘did good’ by redefining what it means to ‘be good.’

So, like these disruptive innovators you too can relax your boundaries around what it means to be good, in order to give yourself the space to be curious, creative and think out of the box. Instead of living by the hard lines of right and wrong, learn to love the space in between. Because it is in these unknown, grey spaces where we find inspiration, innovation and unbounded potential…and perhaps your next big adventure!

Good Enough

Atelophobia is the fear of imperfection. The fear of never being good enough. Something that I’m sure touches many of us on some level on a daily basis. However, if you practice being good to yourself, connect to what goodness means to you and allow it to be an open, unbounded concept…then you no longer need to fear being good enough because good is no longer in the equation. You are quite simply enough.

The next time you find yourself feeling bad for not doing something, seeing someone or being something check-in with your own goodness barometer. Does this definition of ‘being good’ really sit with you? And, how might your ‘being bad’ actually be really useful? Last week I cancelled dinner plans with a friend and I felt really bad as it’s something I rarely do. But this was also an example of ‘being good’ as I was – for the first time in a long time- prioritising self-care and sleep after a very hectic week. It really is all about perspective. Flip the story, fire up your intentional self and start writing a goodness narrative that works for you and your life.