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Relationship Rescue: Communication traps to avoid

April 1, 2019
communication in relationship

In any relationship, after the honeymoon phase is over, couples can find themselves running into rocky ground. As you and your partner relax and get more comfortable with each other, you both begin to reveal a more natural version of yourselves and sometimes this is when the cracks begin to appear. In long term relationships, conflict arises over differences in opinions or values. Parenting, money and sex are common areas of relationship conflict.

Conflict in a relationship is not necessarily a signal that the relationship is doomed. In fact, studies have shown that it’s not the amount of arguments a couple has but how people argue which determines whether or not a relationship will succeed or fail. Dr John Gottman is a world-renowned relationship researcher and therapist who is famously able to predict (with astonishing accuracy) which relationships will succeed and which will fail after observing a couple discussing a heated topic for just 15 minutes. He suggests that there are four communication habits that spell disaster for any relationship.

If you are locked in battle with your significant other, it’s worth knowing what Gottman refers to as “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and doing your best to avoid falling into these unhelpful relationship patterns:

1.    Criticism

Criticism is different from complaining in that rather than focusing on a person’s behaviour, it takes the form of broad generalisations about their character. Expressing a complaint is healthy in a relationship but when you start using generalisations such as “You always….” or “You never…”. When you attack your partner’s personality or character, that is criticism, not a complaint. We’re all guilty of being a little critical at times, but when criticism becomes pervasive, it erodes the quality of your connection.

Try to raise your points with specific examples of behaviours you consider to be problematic (and why). Avoid launching into an attack on your partner by expressing your needs in a positive way. Remind yourself that attacking your partner’s character is a fast way to escalate an argument and will not likely lead to the resolution of the issue.

2.    Contempt

Too much criticism in a relationship is likely to lead to contempt. Contempt is when you verbally or non-verbally communicate disdain for your partner. It could take the form of insults or even dismissive eye-rolling. Contempt has the intention to insult or belittle the other person. Perhaps unsurprisingly, contempt in a relationship is the single biggest predictor of divorce.

To avoid acting in contempt, focus on your partner’s positive qualities and the common ground that you share. Remember the reasons you are together in the first place and try to focus on the issue you are discussing rather than attacking your partner’s sense of self.

3.    Defensiveness

Usually defensiveness is a response to feeling criticised. It is refusing to take on board your partner’s feedback and making yourself a victim in the situation. Defensiveness sometimes leads to a pre-emptive attack, which is also unhelpful when trying to resolve an issue.

Overcoming defensiveness requires you to be open to hearing your partner’s feedback and being willing to accept any responsibility you have. Dropping your defensiveness means you need to trust that your partner is also willing to take their own share of responsibility and that you both have the best interests of your relationship at heart.

4.    Stonewalling

This is when one person gives the other the silent treatment or otherwise refuses to engage with their partner. It is psychologically withdrawing from the conversation, creating distance and disconnection perhaps because it’s too difficult to discuss. Just as defensiveness is often a response to criticism, stonewalling is usually a response to contempt. Being given the silent treatment by anyone (even if you don’t like the person!) feels painful and it is all the more unbearable when the person you love is the one who is ostracising you.

The antidote to stonewalling is to tell your partner you need some space or time and to then take the time to soothe your own discomfort. When you’re feeling calmer, you can re-enter the conversation.

Most couples who are in trouble wait far too long before seeking help so if you feel you and your partner are having trouble resolving your issues on your own, the key message is to ask for help early rather than waiting until the problems are too great and the relationship is beyond repair.

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Five Toxic Friends You Don’t Need in Your Life

March 25, 2019
Five toxic friends you don't need in your life

There’s a lot of emphasis these days on decluttering our lives and living more minimally. Marie Kondo’s method of keeping only those possessions that spark joy has become almost a global movement and we’re even being encouraged to take a minimalist approach to technology.

Sometimes in the course of clearning the clutter, you realise that there are people in your life who also don’t spark joy.  They may not support the highest version of you or they simply don’t add any value to your life. When it comes to friends, quality is much more important than quantity. As you get older and friendships evolve and dissolve, it becomes even more important to invest your time and energy into the people who support and value you.

Of course, sometimes we naturally outgrow friendships. People move away, you develop different interests or just change to the point that there isn’t enough in common to maintain a regular friendship. Other times, friendships can turn toxic and when that happens, you might need to make the hard call to end a friendship that isn’t serving you anymore.

Here are five friends you might need to cut loose if you find them bringing you more heartache than joy:

The competitive friend

A good indicator of a solid friendship is that they are thrilled when you achieve something you’re proud of or get a lucky break. Of course it’s human nature to sometimes feel a little envious of someone’s big success, but the toxic friend will be so fixated on comparison that she’ll find it difficult to experience any happiness for you at all. She might undermine your success by downplaying what you’ve achieved (or finding fault with it), ignoring your news completely, or changing the subject to highlight something she’s achieved and stealing your thunder.

The narcissist

Narcissists have an overinflated sense of entitlement and exaggerated sense of self-importance. At social gatherings, they’re only comfortable if they are holding the floor and rarely stop telling you about their greatness to ask you how you are. The narcissist can be charismatic and popular and make you feel super special, which is why you might initially be drawn to their charm. But narcissists are only interested in you as long as you serve a purpose for them. You are an extension of them and you are there to prop them up and make them look good. Things tend to go pear-shaped if you push back against their demands or they don’t need you anymore.  A true friend will take on board your feedback if you point out they’re being a little self-absorbed. The narcissist will turn the tables and make it sound like it’s you who has the problem, or else they might cut you off, get angry or turn other people against you in order to preserve their own self image.

The emotional vampire

We all like to have a whinge when we’re having a bad day, but sometimes there’s that one friend who only ever seems to be complaining and telling you what’s going wrong. Usually the emotional vampire isn’t interested in hearing your suggestions about how she might change things or make improvements; she’s only interested in venting. When she’s done, she goes away feeling a million bucks while you’re left feeling like you’ve had the life literally sucked out of you. Unless there is some positivity to balance things out, you might want to put some space between you and the bad news cycle.

The Single White Female

Based on the classic 1992 thriller “Single White Female”, the SWF is the friend who copies everything about you and your life. They say imitation is the highest form of flattery and it’s lovely if someone lets you know they find you inspiring. For the SWF it’s usually more a case of her not having a strong sense of her own identity therefore she models herself, her preferences, opinions, personal style or even major life decisions on yours. You know you’re dealing with an SWF when she doesn’t acknowledge that she’s been inspired by you but instead begins cloning you while acting as if those choices are entirely her own idea. If you complain about having a SWF, people might assume you’re being petty or paranoid, but it’s up to you to make the call and put distance between you if you feel this is not a healthy, balanced relationship. (Oh and in true SWF style, when you do create distance, you will probably quickly become the enemy just like in the movie).

The Unreliable Friend

If someone constantly makes plans to catch up, then cancels at the last minute you can probably tolerate it to a degree because we all know life gets busy; but when it becomes so routine that you don’t feel you can trust her to commit to anything, you might want to stop making those plans. As you get older, life gets busier and making time for friendships becomes more and more difficult. If you’re making an effort to schedule time for someone, it’s nice to know you are as important to your friend as they are to you and that they’ll do what it takes to keep commitments.

Every friendship has ups and downs, but some friendships reach the point where the balance has tipped so far into the negative that you know it’s time to walk away. If you know a friendship can’t be saved or that your feedback would fall on deaf ears (or cause a drama you don’t need), it’s perfectly ok to start putting some distance between you and the friend. Losing a friend can be painful but the more you free up space by cutting out the energy drainers, the more room you have for positive, fun and mutually supportive people in your life.

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Transitions: How to Deal with Change

March 18, 2019
deal with change

It was the philosopher Hericlitus who said, “The only thing that is constant is change.” It’s easy enough to grasp intellectually, but many of us still struggle emotionally with change. So much so, that the central concept of Buddhist teachings is ‘impermanence’; that is, that we’d all be happier if we could just accept that nothing lasts forever.

Some of us have a higher threshold than others when it comes to how much change we can comfortably handle. Whether it’s a relationship break-up, changing jobs, moving house – these are widely acknowledged as being the most stressful experiences in life.

What’s important to understand is that an actual change in your circumstances can happen in an instant. You can move house (or even interstate or overseas) in the space of a weekend. Similarly, changing jobs, ending relationships or getting married – these things happen quickly. However, the psychological process that goes along with a change usually takes a whole lot longer.

Psychologist Bill Bridges refers to this process as the ‘transition’ and he suggests that it involves three distinct phases.  He mostly applies the theory in organisational settings these days but it’s very relevant to personal change and I often refer to his theory when helping people to understand and navigate their way through life’s changes. (In fact, he wrote another book, “The Way of Transition: Embracing life’s most difficult moments” describing his own transition process when his wife died from cancer.) He describes the three phases as follows:

1. The Ending

In any change process, there is an ending to the way things are. If you have made the decision to end something, various emotions are usually present in the lead up, such as disenchantment, disillusionment and psychological disengagement. If the change is sudden and unexpected, there might be stronger emotions like shock, anger and denial.  In this phase, Bridges says your task is to let go of your inner connection to how things used to be. It can be helpful to ask yourself, “What do I need to let go of?” and to give yourself the space to experience any emotions that come up at this time. Even with a positive change like getting married or having a baby, there can be an ending to your old sense of self and identity. It’s important to acknowledge it all.

2. The Neutral Zone

This is the time when the old way of life is gone but the new doesn’t quite feel comfortable or familiar yet. This can be a confusing and difficult period because the neutral zone is a psychological no-man’s land. For many people, it can be a time of reflection on your values as you make sense of the change that’s happening and slowly work towards feeling ‘normal’ again. Some people might find they withdraw socially a little while they work through their own emotions and navigate their way through a time when it can feel like there is nothing solid to hold onto. There is no fixed timeframe for the neutral zone and there should be no rushing it. Sometimes the discomfort leads people to want things to go back to how they were or to launch into something new before they’re ready (for example after a break-up or loss). Tolerating the discomfort and allowing this process to unfold in its own time is the key to a successful transition.

3. A New Beginning

At some point in the future, there will be a way of life and sense of identity that feels familiar and comfortable again. New beginnings are often associated with optimism and anticipation, renewed energy and re-engagement with life. You may have adopted new values, attitudes and even have a new sense of self. All the inner work that takes place during the neutral zone is worth it when you look around and realise you’ve happily settled into your new way of life.

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How to let go of rigid food rules.

March 11, 2019
Food rules!

Food is vital for life and fundamental to our health and wellbeing. It’s a means of celebration and connection; but for many people, food can also be a battleground. As a society, our preoccupation with weight and body shape has led us to search for the ‘right’ food plan that will help us achieve our weight goals and gain optimal health. No doubt at various times during your life, depending on what you’d read or what ideas were prevalent, you might have subscribed to a low-fat or low-calorie diet; low-carbs, high protein, healthy fat; or you may have opted for a vegetarian or vegan diet. Carnivores might follow Paleo guidelines with the most diligent omitting all grains, legumes and dairy from their diet.

All of these approaches to food and eating can potentially lead you to categorising foods into categories such as  ‘good or bad’, ‘right or wrong’, ‘healthy or unhealthy’. If you add environmental and ethical issues to the mix, you can easily begin judging food by how sustainable it is; how ethically produced or humanely raised. If you tend towards perfectionism or have a strong need for control, what begins as a guideline or values-based decision can quickly turn into rigid rules around food and eating. So when do personal approaches to eating become a problem, and what can you do about that?

It’s easy to believe that following a certain diet or food plan is the “right” way to eat (that’s why you do it!) but the bigger picture is that having unrelenting standards about food can impact your ability to enjoy life. When it becomes extreme, it can cause anxiety and lead to disordered eating. Perfectionistic ideas around food can actually be a precursor to Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, or even Orthorexia, which is defined as an obsession with healthy eating.

If your food rules are causing you to feel stressed, try these strategies for lightening up and letting go of the rigidity:

Do you find yourself using moralising words or phrases such as ‘bad’ food, ‘cheat’ meals, or ‘not allowed’? Bring in some flexibility and choice by using the word ‘could’ instead of ‘should’. Swap out ‘cheat’ for ‘treat’ and remind yourself that food choices are exactly that – a choice you make, not a doctrine you must obediently follow. Simply noticing this tendency to judge or moralise certain foods is the first step to changing that habit.

2. Remember the bigger picture

If you choose to eat a particular way because of certain beliefs or values, there isn’t anything wrong with that unless that way of eating begins causing you stress or anxiety. Valued living means making choices in line with your values but accepting that life happens sometimes and we all veer off course. Values are a direction, not a final destination. If you notice you’re becoming anxious or excessively pre-occupied with food or that it’s limiting your ability to enjoy life, try to step back from the rigid rules and keep the bigger picture of your values in mind.

3. Practise mindfulness.

If you’ve struggled with food or weight in the past, rigid food rules can feel comforting because you no longer trust yourself to make reasonable choices. The problem is that relying on food rules continues to place the onus on something or someone outside of you to decide what or when you should eat, rather than you tuning in and listening to the signals of your body. Mindful eating is about connecting to your experience in the present moment; that is, what’s happening within you as well as the sight, smell, taste and texture of food. Being aware of your body’s signals helps you to recognise when you’re hungry or full whereas having your choices dictated by food rules overrides those natural inclinations.

And if this is something you feel you can’t manage alone, there is no shame in asking for help from a professional. You can obtain a referral to a psychologist from your GP or you might want to check out an organisation that specialises in eating or body image issues such as the Butterfly Foundation.

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Lack Discipline? 5 tips for better self-control

March 4, 2019
willpower for better self-control

willpower.  What you may not know about this mysterious energy that we call willpower is that it is actually fuelled by glucose in your brain. Every day you use your willpower for all sorts of things, and the fuel required for self-discipline becomes depleted.

Of course, when it comes to staying committed to your goals, there are other strategies that are more effective than relying on willpower alone, but I think it’s important to understand how willpower works.

For a start, the daily actions that drain your reserves of willpower are:

  • Doing things you don’t want to do
  • NOT doing the things you do want to do
  • Focusing on tasks and making decisions.

This explains why at the end of a long day of getting up and going to work, choosing to eat well, perhaps working out when you don’t feel like it, managing your emotions, attending to tasks, refereeing arguments between your kids and making decisions, your willpower reserves can be dangerously low. There’s nothing left in the tank, so to speak.

The good news is that we also know how to replenish those reserves of willpower so you can maintain your self-control in the face of temptation.

Below I’ve listed five tips for giving yourself the best chance of having some reserves of willpower on hand when you need it:

Stick to a routine

Daily healthy habits will obviously support you in achieving your goals but a consistent routine has the added benefit of conserving willpower. You see, habits bypass the part of the brain associated with decision making. Remember it’s the decision making process that taxes mental energy.  Every time you question your commitment or wonder if you’ll do what you need to do to continue moving towards your goals, you are using up those energy reserves. You’ll have more of that precious willpower in reserve when you need it by embedding those positive behaviours into your routine and making them a habit.

Meditate

Meditation is a great way to restore depleted energy but beyond that, it’s also an extremely effective mental training task. By simply focusing on your breath or a mantra and training your mind to stay on task when it wants to wander off, you’re building mental muscles and learning impulse control. Meditation helps you tune into your body and be curious about urges and sensations without automatically giving in to them. That’s a handy skill to have when dealing with temptation.

Eat regularly

The glucose in your brain responsible for your willpower increases when you eat. By having regular nutritious meals and snacks you increase the energy available to exert self-control. Of course, eating well also gives you the physical energy to get through the tasks you need to, and if you feel satisfied, you’re less likely to be tempted by quick-fix, sugary or junk foods that crash your energy and give you brain fog.

Get enough sleep

When you’re sleep deprived, your body burns through the energy reserves that you need for willpower. Fatigue is never conducive to self-discipline or focused action.  If you aren’t sleeping well, try to address it as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, if you’re going through a period of disrupted sleep try to catch up during the day. Even a 20-minute nap can go a long way to reversing the negative consequences of a bad night’s sleep.

Be kind to yourself

Most of us rate ourselves poorly on self-control and this is at least partly due to our tendency to focus on our setbacks much more than our successes. Setbacks are human and are very much a part of the change process. If you give them too much attention, you’ll only begin to doubt your ability to make positive changes and achieve goals. And if you’ve convinced yourself your efforts are futile, you’re going to give up.  The key to staying disciplined and making progress is to remember you’re human, forgive yourself and move on as quickly as possible.

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Speak Up! How to be More Assertive

February 25, 2019
How to be more assertive

Are you someone who struggles to say what you really mean? For many women, our default is to ‘be nice’ in order to be liked and this can lead to saying yes when you really mean no, or not speaking up and telling people how you really feel. If you have difficulty being assertive, it can lead to you feeling overlooked at work, unappreciated in your relationships or railroaded by more strong-minded and outspoken individuals. Ultimately it creates resentment and frustration for you.

Learning to express yourself with confidence is an important life skill that benefits you and all the people around you. It might feel scary but people feel more comfortable when they have a sense that you’re being honest about how you feel and that you’re clear about your boundaries. If you struggle with assertiveness, here are some ideas to help you flex that assertiveness muscle:

1. Buy some time

When someone makes a request of you and you feel put on the spot, often you will default to saying yes and then regret it later. Instead of feeling like you have to give instant responses, it’s ok to buy yourself some time so that you can come back with a more considered response. You might say, “Let me check my diary and get back to you” or “I’m not sure whether that’s going to work”. When you’ve had time to consider your other priorities, you might decide to say no (in which case, you don’t need to offer a lengthy explanation) or to offer a compromise, such as “I’m not able to do xyz, but I’d be happy to do abc if that helps.” The important thing is to not feel pressured to respond immediately.

2. Find a middle ground

Feeling put upon can sometimes lead you to extreme reactions, with the two most common being  “compliant” and “defiant”. In other words, depending on the situation you might become passive and let people walk over you or you might become aggressive and react angrily. Being assertive is about finding the middle ground between those two extremes, in which case you’re able to respect your own boundaries and needs, while also maintaining respect for the other person. When you’re able to find this healthy balance, you don’t dismiss your own needs for the sake of someone else’s preferences, nor do you dismiss other people’s opinions or needs. Being assertive then allows for a very healthy and balanced communication and compromise, rather than ending in tears and hurt feelings.

3. Practice saying how you feel

Speaking up for yourself often creates anxiety because you assume it will cause conflict (this is usually because you think the only options are to be compliant or defiant!) This is especially true in situations where you disagree with another person or they’ve upset you. The problem with anxiety is that it hijacks your brain and body making it very difficult to think straight or formulate strategies or even to find words for how you feel. It also leads to avoidance and the more you avoid a situation, the more fearful you become. Until you feel less anxious, it can help to have a few short phrases scripted and practice using them.

Some example might be:

“Have you considered…(alternative point of view)…?”

“I don’t agree…”

“I’m not comfortable with that..”

“That’s not going to work for me..”

The important thing is to practice, practice, practice – even if it feels uncomfortable at first. As you do, you begin to see evidence that people will usually respond positively and learn that stating your needs is not as scary as it seems. 

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Five unhelpful thoughts you’d be better off to let go…

February 18, 2019
change unhelpful thoughts

Every day you have upwards of 60,000 thoughts and most of them you’re not even consciously aware of. Many of the thoughts you have today are in fact the same ones you had yesterday, and a decent amount of those habitual thoughts are probably unhelpful to your mind, motivation or mood!

Considering what we know about how much of our mood and behaviour is influenced by our thoughts, it’s worth paying a bit of attention to those thoughts which are supporting and empowering you and which are, in fact, potentially undermining your happiness and success. When you take them off auto-pilot and bring them to your conscious awareness, you’re in a better position to decide whether you really want to put your focus on those thoughts, or if you’d be better off to swap them out for something more helpful, or just let go of them completely.

Here are the top 5 thoughts that you might want to re-think or let go:

1. I’ll be happy when…

We know from happiness research that the circumstances of your life account for a very small amount of your overall happiness; so if you believe you can’t be happy until things in your life improve, that would be faulty thinking. The time to be happy is right now and the place to find it is within you, not outside of you.

2. I’m …. hopeless, stupid, undeserving… (insert insult of choice)

Most of us, by default, are high on self-criticism and low on self-kindness. We focus a lot of attention on our flaws and mistakes while we dismiss the things we do well. Try making a list of your good qualities, your strengths, the values that are important to you and what other people appreciate about you. Catch that voice of self-criticism and replace it with something a little kinder as often as you can.

3. What will people think?

Here’s the thing – most other people are too busy worrying about what people think about them to be thinking anything much about you. But unfortunately, we are so self-obsessed that we give far too much attention to worrying how other people might perceive us. When you start noticing you are holding yourself back, changing yourself to fit in or making life decisions based on how you perceive other people will judge you, it’s time for a reality check. The truth is, even if people do have an opinion about your choices, your own opinion (and your authenticity) is what really matters. People will think what they will think and life will go on. Focus on doing what makes you happy.

4. It’s all their fault

Whether it’s your partner sabotaging your diet, your boss making your work a living hell or your parents who screwed up your childhood, staying in blame mode takes away all of your personal power. Taking responsibility for your choices or your life circumstances can be confronting but it’s the only way to truly take charge of your destiny. Try not to fall into victim mode. As the saying goes, “Your past might not be your fault, but your future is your responsibility”.

5. What if….?

I’m not talking about contingency planning here, I’m talking about the endless stream of ‘worst case scenario’ thoughts that drive you into a frenzy of worry. Your mind fools you into believing that your worry is serving a useful purpose (such as problem solving or preparing you for the worst) when in fact the only thing your worry is doing is sucking the joy out of your life. If you know you’re prone to worry thinking, try ‘postponing worry’. Tell yourself you don’t need to think those thoughts right now and allocate a time later in the day or week to devote to worrying. You’ll probably find that when your worry time comes around, those thoughts aren’t important anymore – and even if they are, at least you’ve contained them to a limited time and taken back control of your racing thoughts.

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How to Overcome Social Anxiety

February 11, 2019
overcome social anxiety by being yourself

Social anxiety is caused by an assumption that other people will evaluate you in a negative way. Unfortunately, focusing on what you fear can have the effect of creating what you fear. So if you are telling yourself that you will mess up the presentation or that you won’t be able to think of anything to say in conversation and that people will be judging you, you naturally will feel anxious.

The physiological responses to those anxious thoughts include freezing and being unable to think clearly, speaking quickly and being less present to the people around you. The result can be that people assume you are aloof, not shy. Or that you fumble the presentation because of your nerves. In other words, your fears can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, which only reinforces all the negative beliefs  you already have and the assumptions you are making.

For many people who experience social anxiety, their preferred coping strategy is to avoid the situations they are afraid of. The ‘reward’ of that immediate relief you feel when you opt out of something that feels scary only reinforces the avoidance behaviour so that next time you feel anxious you’re more likely to avoid the situation again. Over time, your anxiety doesn’t decrease. It actually increases. Not only have you positively reinforced your avoidant behaviour, but you’ve given yourself no opportunity to prove that you can cope with the thing that makes you nervous. You’ve had no chance to practice the skill of managing your anxiety so you get a different outcome.

Here’s the rub: Achieving what you want in life usually means having conversations with people, attending job interviews or giving presentations and when fear holds you back from doing those things, your options become more and more limited. This is why it’s important to do something to manage your social anxiety when you notice it’s a problem and that it’s limiting your choices. Here are just a few things you might try if you want to make a start.

1. Breathe

Lots of people assume that the advice to ‘just breathe’ is simplistic and unhelpful. The truth, however, is that when you experience anxiety of any kind, something is happening in your brain that also affects your physiology. It starts with your brain’s ‘fight or flight’ response and causes your body to flood with stress hormones and send blood away from your vital organs. It also has the effect of limiting your access to higher level, rational thinking. The best way to reverse this process and deactivate the fight or flight response is by breathing slowly and deeply, with more emphasis on the out-breath than the in-breath. Taking the time to concentrate on your breath, either before you enter a situation that you know makes you anxious, or even when you are in the midst of that situation can be enormously helpful in calming your fear response and helping you to choose where to direct your attention.

2. Take anxiety along for the ride

One of the most important steps in overcoming any kind of anxiety is to move towards the thing you fear, not away from it. The key point here is to challenge any expectation you have that you need to get rid of the anxiety before you do the thing you’re afraid of. The truth is that you will never live a completely anxiety-free life (everyone feels nervous sometimes) so it’s important to accept that some anxiety will ‘come along for the ride’ whenever you take yourself out of your comfort zone. This way, you will learn that you can survive the anxiety and that it isn’t the worst thing in the world.

3. Reality test your assumptions

A big part of anxiety stems from the stories we tell ourselves about what will go wrong. We develop a lot of worst-case scenarios in our mind and then when we avoid the situation, we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to reality check those fears. When you are going into a situation you fear such as a social gathering, make some predications about how anxious you will feel. Notice any catastrophic thinking about how you will mess things up. Then observe what happens. You will probably find that once you enter the situation, your anxiety reduces fairly quickly, that people are friendly and maybe you even start to enjoy yourself. The important thing is to identify your assumptions and pay specific attention to how true (or NOT) those things turn out to be.

4. Focus outward

We feel socially anxious because of our strong focus on ourselves. It is human nature to be pre-occupied with stories about ourselves, our own flaws, and how we perceive other people are judging us. What we tend to forget is that everyone else is also very focused on themselves, their own perceived flaws and worrying about what people think about them.  When we deliberately choose to take the focus off ourselves and direct our attention to making other people feel more comfortable, it can be a great relief. Choose to ask people questions about themselves, offer to re-fill people’s drinks or pass food around and have the goal or trying to make other people feel at ease. Notice also how much you don’t judge other people if they appear anxious or uncomfortable and use it as a reminder that most people aren’t judging you either.

5. Ask for help

If social anxiety is getting in the way of you enjoying life and achieving the things that are important to you, there are many other proven and effective strategies that can help. I highly recommend seeing your GP for a referral to a psychologist so you can receive specific and tailored strategies to help you overcome your fears and get on with enjoying life.

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P.S. We’ll be covering social anxiety and how mindfulness can help you to overcome it during my Mindfulness for Busy People online course.

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How to Stop Being a Control Freak

February 4, 2019
letting go by stop being a control freak

Have you ever been accused of being a control freak? Maybe you pride yourself on your meticulous attention to detail and methodical approach to tasks. It’s a term we use to describe people who like things done a certain way, who prefer planned over impromptu and aren’t very comfortable with chaos.  At work, it might come across as micro-managing; on holidays, it’s preferring a detailed itinerary rather than winging it; and at home perhaps it’s insisting on household tasks being done a particular way.

Sometimes those qualities are great assets. There are times in life when consistency is required and you can’t afford to go with the flow. But needing too much control can have its downsides (much like perfectionism also has a dark side). We exert control as a way to create more certainty, in order to reduce the discomfort of uncertainty. Of course, life is inherently uncertain. There are rarely, if ever, guarantees. Oftentimes, it’s when life feels particularly chaotic that taking charge of things you can control soothes the feelings of helplessness created by an uncertain future.

Growing up in a chaotic home or family environment can lead to a higher need for control later in life. Whether it’s rigid food rules, alphabetised pantry shelves or an unwillingness to delegate, there are many ways people attempt to control their environments; but lurking beneath all those control tendencies, there is often anxiety, fear and vulnerability. Control is used as a solution but when it goes too far, it becomes a problem. Often what we need is not more control but an increased capacity for flexibility; that is, to not be wound up quite so tightly. If your peace of mind is contingent on things always going exactly to plan, you will only ever have the most tenuous grasp on happiness.

If you know you’re a control freak and feel like it would benefit you and the people around you to let go of the reins a little, there are a few steps you can take that might help you with letting go:

1. Shift your focus

Being a control freak is attempting to manage your outer world to soothe your inner world. That’s called primary control. Secondary control is more focused on managing your internal response to your outer world – so basically managing your own thoughts and feelings about the uncertainty around you. Not only is it a more realistic goal since it is actually within your control, but it’s been proven to increase wellbeing. Taking deep breaths, choosing to let go of the small stuff and increasing your capacity to tolerate discomfort are all ways you can manage your need for control.

2. Consider the consequences

While you are focusing on making yourself feel better by micro-managing the world around you, often you’re creating stress for other people who can’t relax until everything is perfect for you. If you continually re-do other people’s work or refuse to delegate, you send a message to people that you don’t think they’re competent and that you don’t trust them. If you’re doing it with your kids, this is probably not the message you want them to absorb. Not to mention the personal consequences to you because the more you try to control things, the more things there are to control. Contrary to what you may think, control doesn’t reduce anxiety but reinforces it.

3. Delegate… whether you like it or not

If your partner doesn’t fold the towels the way you’d like, resist the urge to complain or re-fold them and watch how no-one dies. Start taking opportunities to delegate tasks either at work or at home even if things aren’t done exactly how you’d like. Remind yourself that your relationship with other people and your own wellbeing will benefit from you learning to relax your standards and let go.  

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P.S. One of the best ways I know to learn to manage your inner world is through learning and practicing mindfulness. I know I bang on and on about it but that’s because I have seen first hand the difference it makes in people’s lives, not to mention all the research that now demonstrates its effectiveness in reducing symptoms of anxiety, stress and even depression. To find out more about my online mindfulness course, Mindfulness for Busy People, click HERE.

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Five Steps to Breaking Bad Habits

January 28, 2019
five steps to breaking a bad habit

Around 40-45% of what we do every day is done out of habit. You might be surprised just how much of our lives happen on auto-pilot, but it makes perfect sense when you consider how much time and energy we would waste if we had to decide every day what to do, when and how to do it. With repetition, our brain develops a ‘shortcut’ so that we no longer have to think consciously about what we’re doing, and our thinking mind is freed up to focus on other more important things.

Perfect! Unless, of course, some of those habits aren’t very good for you. Then you find yourself mindlessly acting out behaviours and falling into old patterns you’d rather not. When you try to consciously do something different, your brain acts to preserve the status quo by sending you signals in the way of strong urges or cravings to do the very thing you said you wouldn’t do.

From studying the neuroscience of habits, we know that every behaviour has a ‘cue’ or a trigger that instigates it, and is followed by a reward. Rewards give us a strong hit of dopamine in our brains, and after a while just thinking about the behaviour (e.g., when you anticipate the glass of wine, the online shopping or the chocolate biscuit) triggers the release of dopamine. No wonder those habits are so hard to break.

While the first few times you do something, it might very well be a conscious decision, after only a few occurrences, that combination of trigger, behaviour and reward becomes quite automatic and is instigated by a part of your brain that has nothing to do with conscious choice.  With these processes going out outside of our conscious awareness, bad habits can seem impossible to break. This is why it’s not enough to just focus on the behaviour itself but to look at all three factors in combination. Here are 5 tips to help you over-ride your impulses and establish healthy habits instead.

1. Practise mindfulness

Being mindful is like pressing a pause button between the stimulus (the urge or craving you feel) and the response (i.e., your bad habit), giving you a moment to consider a different response when you are hit with that craving. Mindfulness not only helps you to slow down enough to notice what you’re about to do, it also teaches you to observe your experience – including all those thoughts and sensations involved in a craving or urge – with a degree of objectivity. Usually we are consumed by our thoughts and we act on every urge as if we have no other choice. Mindfulness gives you that choice.

2. Identify your triggers

The trigger for your craving might be a time of day, particular places, people, emotions or even other behaviours that become paired together (such as having a cigarette every time you have a coffee). It can be helpful to keep a log of every time you experience the urge or the habit you’re trying to break. You should fairly quickly identify a pattern and know what your cues or triggers are. Armed with information, you’re better placed to stay away from, or be better prepared for danger zones.

3. Choose a new reward

Once you know the trigger, it’s important to also get clear on the specifics of your rewards. If your habit is to have a chocolate at 3pm, the reward might be the sweetness, the quick energy boost, or satisfying your hunger. Sometimes part of the reward is social connection (gathering in the tea room at work) or alleviating boredom by getting up from your desk and stretching your legs. Once you know that your reward is, you can find other activities that will help you to achieve it that don’t involve engaging in your bad habit. 

4. Use repetition to your advantage

Initially your new behaviour might not give you the exact same sense of relief as your old one. But with repetition, you are creating new neural pathways that over time will ensure your old habit is replaced by your new behaviour. By repeating your new preferred activity every time you experience your trigger, the new behaviour will also start to become automatic. Eventually the new pattern will become habitual and the old associations will be suppressed. Soon you’ll find yourself reaching for the peppermint tea instead of the glass of wine.

5. Remember – progress not perfection!

Habits aren’t formed overnight, nor are they broken so easily. If you expect immediate success, any slip-up can feel like a failure and send you straight back to square one. By forgiving yourself for slip-ups, you’re more likely to get back on track quickly and eventually ditch those bad habits for good. Practice makes progress! If you’d like to be the first to hear when doors open to my 8-week online course, Mindfulness for Busy People, you can register your details HERE and I’ll keep you posted. (There are always early bird discounts for people on the list!)

 

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