This headline is true. It’s just not one that appears in our papers every day. And to be clear, snake bites are in no way one of the biggest threats to life we face as human beings – heart disease, diabetes, suicide to name but a few of the larger threats. And yet I can imagine that if we saw this headline every day the fear of snakes would be top of mind. Because… it’s the stories that we are told that affect what we think, do and feel. It’s the stories we hear that shape our reality.
“The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come”
– Steve Jobs
We are currently in the midst of a global health alert with the spread of the COVID-19 virus and we are all uncertain of course how this particular story will unfold. What’s clear from the media focus and breadth of coverage is that the story of the virus so far has penetrated deep into our lives.
Story is powerful. Story creates our reality. And like a virus, stories can sweep across the world taking on a life of their own. And if we think about this in terms of our own day to day lives, the impact of our teams and the performance of our organisation, we would be foolish not to focus on the stories we are telling.
Storytelling is one of the most impactful tools at your disposal. Human beings are fundamentally wired to absorb information, buy into new ideas and trust people – through story. Studies confirm that social storytelling is responsible for more than 65% of conversations had in public. Often we either unconsciously absorb stories being fed to us by others, or we create stories of ourselves and our organisations without giving it much thought. I recently spent some time with an old friend who wasn’t feeling very motivated in his job and he casually made a flippant remark that his department was where careers came to die. We chuckled, and yet when I reflected on that comment I realised that he was creating a self-fulfilling prophecy based on the story that was being told. He was killing his own career through story!
Storytelling in our highly connected, online world is critical every day, but especially at times when perhaps the stories out there are impacting our business performance or team motivation. At 4D Human Being, through dynamic, practical virtual and face to face workshops and seminars, we help leaders, teams and individuals consciously communicate with impact every day. Discover the art of really engaging your team, colleagues and customers with emotionally charged stories that make you and you truly memorable, motivate your team, inspire your customers and shape the reality of your organisation.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
How often have you looked back at a so-called ‘bad’ event and realised that it was actually a blessing in disguise? This of course, is the benefit of hindsight. The ability to look back on a situation and see the silver lining it brought you. Which makes me wonder: how good are we at really reading, seeing and understanding the impact of a situation right there in the moment? Due to the brain’s negative bias and the fight or flight response, we go into short term thinking patterns when ‘bad’ things happen. We are often unable to see the ‘bigger picture’ so to speak. It’s not until later down the line when we are able to ‘join the dots’ as Steve Jobs said and see the benefits of some challenging situations. Now imagine what your life would be like if you could always have an eye on that silver lining, even from the middle of a storm? Tapping into the wisdom of hindsight, amidst the grey clouds of a difficult and stressful life event.
In this article we’re looking at ways of finding the silver lining during difficult situations. This isn’t about excessive optimism, it’s about widening your lens, seeing the multiple and contradictory truths of a situation and stepping into other people’s shoes. The ability to see silver linings has huge health benefits as it can greatly reduce stress, insomnia and depression whilst also positively impacting learning, relationships and present awareness. So, join us as we look for life’s silver linings in some of the darkest corners of our lives. To quote the Taoist Parable about the farmer and his horse “who knows what’s good or what’s bad?” Good and bad is a false dichotomy. This is why the ying yang symbol shows a white dot on the black side and a black dot in the white side. We see black and white, right or wrong as binary and contradictory when they are in fact, complimentary and fluid. So today, we’re looking for the grey space in between good and bad. The silver lining that blends these two stances together and softens the extremes.
Reframe the situation
“It was the best of times it was the worst of times”
– Charles Dickens
Cognitive reappraisal involves recognising negative thought patterns and changing them to patterns that are more helpful. One study titled “Seeing the Silver Lining: Cognitive Reappraisal Ability Moderates the Relationship Between Stress and Depressive Symptoms” found that Cognitive reappraisal – or CRA for short- was an important protective factor against long-term depression in response to stressful life events. “Individuals who are high in CRA could perceive a stressor as an extremely negative event in terms of disrupting their lives, but could still decrease their negative emotions in response to this event.” So, what is the process of CRA? Responding to an emotional situation will result in an automatic judgement of the situation (the appraisal). Cognitive re-evaluation, involves looking at the situation again and offering a second opinion (the reappraisal). The reappraisal is more neutral and objective, because there is space between the emotional event and the verdict. So, the ‘reappraisal’ can offer us a sense of the ‘benefit of hindsight’ but in real time. Which is why training yourself to do this can be highly effective when emotions are running high- as it enables you to access a second opinion inside yourself.
I recently experienced the benefits of cognitive reappraisal in response to a house flood. My initial reaction was stress and worry (perhaps rightly so) as the rather dramatic event has created so many issues, cost a small fortune and wasted so much of my time, filing insurance claims and looking for temporary accommodation. Whilst all of that is true…we’ve now found somewhere else to live for the summer… and we’ve decided to treat it as a ‘holiday home.’ The basement was also the only part of the house that didn’t need redecorating- so now we have an excuse to spruce up that room too! Most importantly, my ‘reappraisal’ of the event offered me an important lesson in what’s important life. Not long after I heard the news, I found myself feeling incredibly grateful: no one was hurt, we have- another- roof over our heads, and I felt lucky to have such a supportive network of friends and family living nearby.
“Time was invented so that misery might have an end.”
– Saul Bellow
Are we really seeing what is happening in front of us? Or are we locked in the emotions of a past event and missing positives of the present moment? Dr. Joe Dispenza says: “For most people, living in the safety and comfort of the known past is a lot safer than stepping out into the unknown future. Living in the past also validates all of the traumas and betrayals we’ve had in our life, not to mention it makes for a great excuse why we haven’t been able to change. What most people don’t realise, however, is that when we excuse ourselves for someone or something, we give away our power to that person, thing, or event in the past, and as a result, we give away our power and ability to change.” Many of us live our lives through the lens of past experience and as a result, miss the present moment. And the present can offer great relief from pain and suffering after trauma. As the writer Saul Bellow said in Henderson the Rain King, “Time was invented so that misery might have an end.”
Finding presence when you’ve been emotionally hijacked by a traumatic event can be incredibly difficult. The body will often switch on the ‘fight flight or freeze’ response which gets all the body’s resources readied for danger. In this state we quite literally lose the ability to see the bigger picture, as our vision becomes tunnelled and there is a loss of periphery vision.
One of the best ways of bringing yourself out of this state is by following the breath. Breath awareness teaches us that each and every breath is a refresh: it has never happened before, and it will never happen again. Heart Rate Variability can show us the impact of the breath on the body- in real time. HRV monitoring software created by HeartMath, can tell us if our body is in a homeostatic state: that is, when the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are dynamically balanced. The best thing about the software is that it shows us how we can train HRV using the breath. Using a mix of games and challenges it functions as a sort of objective pranayama, or breathing meditation, with the benefit of live on-screen results. Which means there’s no cheating! I recently heard a story about a fortune 500 CEO who was reported to have worn a HeartMath sensor for several weeks, in order to improve his stress levels at work. At home he was able to score highly, however he found himself frustrated with his results at work: as soon as he stepped into his office, his HRV levels dropped, showing him that his body wasn’t working at its optimum. Over time, using his breath, he was able to raise his HRV levels throughout his working day, showing him that his body’s systems were working much more harmoniously. So, a simple breath, might help you experience a silver lining. You might not feel balanced on the outside, but a few deep breaths might be all it takes to bring your body’s systems back into balance, thus impacting your experience of the world… from the inside out.
Recognise the Brain’s Bias’s
“Whether it’s the best of times or the worst of times, it’s the only time we’ve got”
– Art Buchwald
Simply knowing that the brain has a negative bias and reminding yourself of this can be extremely useful. John Gottman has spent several decades researching couples in order to better understand divorce prediction and martial stability. Whilst his work focuses on intimate relationships, studies from Daniel Goleman and several other researchers have shown that the results apply to almost any kind of relationship- whether that be personal, professional- or as we’re discussing here- the one you’re having with yourself. What Gottman’s work has shown is that there needs to be a ratio of 5:1 of positive to negative interactions in order to maintain a positive relationship. So, if you apply this to the relationship you are having with your self- are you balancing out the negative thoughts with positive thoughts? They don’t have to be big declarations of self-love. Maybe you simply thank yourself for making yourself a proper dinner. Or congratulate yourself for going outside and getting some fresh air. Small, simple but regular gestures will help you to build up your ‘positivity bank account’. So that when a wave of negativity comes your way you’ll already have enough to balance it out.
We can take this a step further by using an Organisational Relationship Systems Coaching tool- the 2% rule: looking for the 2% positives in any given situation. If you’re in the midst of an emotional storm, your brain is unlikely to do a complete flip and see the sunny side of life right away. So, the 2% rule can be a great way of easing your brain into more positive thinking patterns. As I mentioned at the start, this isn’t about being an optimist: this about balancing out the brain’s negativity bias so that it doesn’t cloud your vision.
Untapped negativity and long-term pessimism can also be highly detrimental to your health. Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania has conducted extensive research comparing the health and well-being of optimists and pessimists. “The researchers found that pessimists’ health deteriorated far more rapidly as they aged. Seligman’s findings are similar to research conducted by the Mayo Clinic that found optimists have lower levels of cardiovascular disease and longer life-spans.” Researchers from the Universities of Kentucky and Louisville went so far as to inject optimist and pessimist with a virus in order to measure the response of their immune system. The results showed that optimists had significantly stronger immune systems than the pessimists. So, encouraging positive thoughts and balancing out negativity in the brain can actually bring about an immune boosting silver lining.
“The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.”
– Marcus Aurelius
Stoicism was founded in Athens in the early 3rd century BC and was famously practiced by the likes of Epictetus, Cato, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. The philosophy teaches that the path to happiness is found in our acceptance of what is. In the words of Epictetus: “In life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control. Where will I find good and bad? In me, in my choices.”
Sometimes taking on the attitude of a Stoic and accepting what is, can, in itself, be a silver lining. When we stop trying to make ‘everything alright’ and start accepting where we are at, we reduce stress around ‘what isn’t.’ In his latest book Happy, Derren Brown says: “To approach [happiness] the other way, and see it as an absence of disturbances is helpful.” Sometimes called ‘strategic’ or ‘defensive’ pessimism, it is a way of seeing the world in an open honest way, as opposed to covering over the bits that we don’t want to see. The British version of this is when someone says “shall I make some tea?” in response to a difficult conversation. Optimism can be a form of avoidance, and can- in the long run- cause much more pain and suffering.
In her latest book Dare to Lead, Brené Brown talks to the expression “gritty faith and gritty facts” which was inspired by the Stockdale Paradox, which was named after Admiral Jim Stockdale, who spent eight years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Stockdale explained that the optimists- the people who believed they’d be released by Christmas, or Easter- were typically the ones who didn’t survive: “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” Gritty faith and gritty facts aren’t an absence of dreaming. Nor are they cynical. They are a balance of hope with the hard and sometimes, uncomfortable facts of reality. A balancing act that can bring much more peace and harmony in the long-term.
Does every cloud have a silver lining?
“I’m thankful for my struggle because without it, I wouldn’t have stumbled upon my strength.”
– Alexandra Elle
What small silver lining might you discover today? Stay open to unexpected possibilities because you might just discover the best plot twist yet! Curve balls can come into our lives at any time. And whilst I can’t offer you a fast track through the difficulty and challenges that these can create, I do believe we can hold onto the light at the end of tunnel. The silver lining that lets us know that there is another story and another life to lead on the other side.
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.”
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.
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.”