Do you have psychological insight?

July 29, 2019
Psychological insight

In psychology, a person’s level of “insight” refers to the degree to which they recognise that their problem is, in fact, a problem. For example, someone with an anxiety disorder preventing them from leaving the house and socialising with friends may have very good insight, meaning they recognise their fear is irrational and prohibitive – even while they struggle to manage it. Another person, whose overly controlling behaviour is negatively affecting all their relationships might believe that their exacting standards are a positive quality and that the real problem is with other people failing to meet those standards. That would be an example of poor insight.

The reason we’re interested in how much insight someone has is that those who have good insight are far more likely to make the changes necessary for them to get better. The same could be said for any one of us who experiences emotional and psychological struggles. The more self-aware we are, the better position we’re in to grow. So how do you know if you have good insight? And more to the point, how do you develop it? Below I’ve listed a few ideas about how you might increase your self-awareness and uncover your blind spots:  

1.      Have people you trust

We should all have a few people close to us whose opinion we know we can trust. These people will ideally know you, value and support you – but they won’t always tell you what you want to hear. A casual friend might be quick to reassure you that how you’re thinking and/or behaving is perfectly normal when it’s not, while someone who doesn’t necessarily have your best interests at heart might cause you to doubt yourself unnecessarily. This is why it’s so important to have a few trusted people in your corner who will tell you the truth; and even more importantly, that you’re prepared to listen to them.  

2.     Look for patterns

Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, but we’re usually so busy with the day to day rush that we have little time to pause and examine our patterns. But those patterns often hold clues to your troublesome blind-spots.  For example, if you’ve had to leave your last four jobs due to a falling out with your manager and you’re telling yourself you’re just unlucky to always get a bad boss, you might be avoiding the possibility that you have trouble with authority. If you seem to always be upset with friends because people are so thoughtless and inconsiderate (and yet they seem to have thriving friendships with other people) – there might be something to be noticed about your expectations of people or the part you might be playing in those misunderstandings. The patterns can hold the clues if you’re open to looking for them.

3.     Learn to like yourself (warts and all)

Most of our defensiveness and denial regarding our shortcomings stems from our unwillingness to accept our flaws and imperfections. When you’re your own harshest critic, the only way to protect yourself from your own glaring disapproval is to justify and defend your behaviour, but in doing so, you miss all the important opportunities for self-reflection, learning and growth. A beautiful thing happens when you let go of the idea that your worthiness is contingent on your always being right, being perfect or having it all together, and instead become willing to accept that you’re an imperfect person and that’s ok. Suddenly, there’s no fear of being exposed. It’s a little ironic but self-acceptance is actually the first necessary step towards self-improvement.

There’s no question that recognising your own shortcomings and shining light on your blind-spots can be confronting and difficult, but it’s only in moving out of your comfort zone, raising your self-awareness and being willing to receive and act on feedback that you have any chance of truly becoming the best version of yourself.

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Read next article: The art of mindful communication


5 steps to setting healthy boundaries

July 22, 2019
doing yoga as part of setting healthy boundaries

Boundaries are essential to healthy relationships. Your personal boundaries are the limits or guidelines you create, which determine what you consider to be acceptable in terms of how other people behave around you, speak to you and what they can expect from you. If you have problems creating or maintaining boundaries, you may find yourself feeling put upon, saying yes when you mean no, being upset by other people’s treatment of you (but not knowing how to express your feelings), or being passive rather than taking a stand for what matters to you.

Boundaries benefit you and the people around you. They remove ambiguity and let people know clearly what is acceptable or not in your relationship. Ideally, your personal boundaries should be neither too soft nor too rigid and have some capacity for flexibility. We all know it’s important to be clear about our boundaries but knowing where that line should be drawn – and then how to hold firm to it – can be tricky territory if you’ve not been great at setting boundaries in the past.

If you struggle with maintaining healthy boundaries, you might use the following tips to help you determine your limits.

1.     Go with your gut

When someone has crossed a line with you, you will usually have an internal reaction to it. How do you feel when people expect you to drop everything and be available for them at a moment’s notice? When your boss or colleague calls you on your scheduled day off just to ask one super quick question? When you’re always the one covering the upfront cost of outings with friends and then having to chase them up to be recouped?

Often I notice people will try to talk themselves out of those feelings of irritation or resentment rather than honouring what their gut is telling them. If you don’t listen to that inner alarm, over time those small impositions can erode the quality of your relationship.

2.     Get clear on your values

What you consider to be acceptable or unacceptable in your relationship can often be a reflection of your values. If you value quality time with family, you might have boundaries around how much you allow work to encroach on that time. If you value honesty and direct communication, you may feel uncomfortable when people involve you in gossip. If equality and respect matter to you, you’ll feel ill at ease when someone disrespects you and perhaps uncomfortable in the presence of someone making homophobic or racist jokes. When it comes to values, it might also help to think about what kind of example you’re setting and behaviour you’re modelling to others – whether in the workplace or at home with your kids.

By getting clear on your values, you also get clear on your boundaries. In this way, you hopefully feel more comfortable expressing and maintaining those boundaries because they are less about judging other people’s behaviour and more about honouring what matters most to you.

3.     Speak up

If something causes you to feel annoyed or imposed upon, it is in the best interests of your relationships to speak up even if it feels uncomfortable or impolite. We often assume that other people will naturally share the same ideals when it comes to boundaries or that they ‘should know’ what’s acceptable and what’s not. Remember the old saying, “You teach people how to treat you”.

Practise being assertive so there is no confusion or misunderstanding. A reasonable person will appreciate knowing where they stand with you and if someone doesn’t appreciate your newfound assertiveness, it’s because they’ve benefited from your lack of boundaries in the past.

4. Tolerate a little discomfort

Pushing back when someone encroaches on your boundaries can feel uncomfortable. You might fear you’ll create a confrontation or conflict. You might feel guilty for letting someone down. You may have a fairly entrenched pattern of saying yes and people pleasing. Remember that it’s ok to have those feelings but those feelings are not reasons to continue allowing your boundaries to be violated. It’s much more important to acknowledge your discomfort, and learn to manage it while you continue to do the work of prioritising your own needs. Perhaps ask yourself why someone else’s comfort is more important than your own?

5. Start small if you have to

Before you start setting limits with your boss, you might have a conversation with your sister or a friend. If your boundaries have been fairly soft or spongy, it’s going to take some practice to flex those assertiveness muscles and start protecting your personal space, but practice makes progress. You might need to be prepared for some resistance when you first start redefining what you’re prepared to tolerate, especially if your lack of clear boundaries has been of benefit to someone else, but soon enough, people will know what your limits are and if you lose a relationship over it, perhaps it wasn’t the kind of relationship you really need.

Remember that every time you say no to someone else, you’re saying yes to what matters most to you.

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Read next article: Do you have psychological insight?


How to be less emotionally reactive

July 15, 2019
girl being emotionally reactive

We’ve all had the experience of being triggered by something that creates a sudden and intense emotional response within us. It might be that something happens that evokes feelings of anger or defensiveness, or that you feel very hurt by someone’s words or actions. An emotional response is just that – an emotion. It’s a feeling that’s evoked within you.

But unless you learn to effectively manage those feelings, they can easily turn into an action, or rather a reaction. That’s when you act in the heat of the moment and do or say something which you might later regret.  

If you find your buttons are easily pushed and you’re frequently experiencing emotional outbursts, flying off the handle at small things, lashing out at others or even sulking and withdrawing over the smallest things, it can be helpful to learn some strategies to manage those big feelings.

1.     Start with mindfulness

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Viktor E. Frankl

This isn’t about sitting down and meditating on a cushion – it’s about pressing the pause button between the stimulus and your response. Being mindful means being fully aware of what’s happening as it’s happening, and when you are able to slow yourself down enough to recognise you’ve had your buttons pushed, it gives you an opportunity to take a breath before reacting. This brief pause is a crucial starting point for learning to choose a different response.

2.     Identify what you’re feeling

There’s a popular and proven strategy for handling big emotions called “Name it to Tame it”.

By putting words to what you are feeling, you bring a part of your brain online that can help you to regulate those feelings.

In fact, labelling your emotions is proven to be as effective as many other strategies for emotional regulation. The added benefit of naming what you are feeling is that you start to develop a healthy emotional vocabulary. Many of us are quite limited in the words we have available to us to describe our emotions and learning to clearly identify and distinguish between various emotions helps you to make sense of them and therefore to manage them.

3.     Focus on what matters most

Usually when you react emotionally, you are being hijacked by a very primitive, lower part of our brain that instinctively wants to keep you safe from threat or harm. That part of your brain is not very rational and the things it’s most sensitive about are often past experiences that have nothing to do with what’s happening now.

Right now, in the present moment, what matters most is behaving in a way that is aligned with the kind of person you want to be, and upholding important values such as kindness, fairness, or compassion. When we are caught up in an emotional storm, we are not being our best selves. After pressing pause on your emotional reaction and clearly identifying what you’re feeling, the next step is to remind yourself of what is most important to you. This is your decision point to either give in to your emotional reaction or choose a different response.

4.      Count to 10

When faced with the decision to react or to choose a different option, while you are still flooded with intense emotions, you might just be inclined to go with the option of reacting. Sometimes the temptation to discharge those emotions is pretty powerful. There’s a reason they say you should count to ten when you’re angry and that’s because taking that brief break gives you a little more space to calm down the intensity of your emotions. The act of counting also draws on a more logical and linear process in your brain to help counter the irrational, emotive response.

5.     Respond, don’t react

Being less emotionally reactive isn’t about being passive or a pushover if someone has done something to offend or upset you. It is about choosing to respond rationally in a way that aligns with your values. Explaining to someone as calmly as possible that they’ve done something to hurt you gives you a much greater chance of being heard and understood than if you fly off the handle or use aggressive or blaming language. It might feel satisfying in the short term to vent all of your frustrations but in the long term what we are usually more interested in achieving is more honesty, respect and understanding. Take the high road for your own sake and the sake of all your relationships.

Learning to observe your thoughts and feelings (even the really big ones) without having your mood hijacked and your relationships threatened by them is what I teach in my Mindfulness for Busy People online course. To hear when the doors are opening again, register your details here.

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Do you need to stop apologising?

July 8, 2019
girl apologising by writing a note

How many times you do you find yourself injecting the word ‘sorry’ into your interactions with people even when you have nothing to be sorry for? For example, do you automatically say sorry when someone else bumps into you? Do you apologise for chasing someone up when they’re the one who’s late delivering what they promised? Sometimes the apologies are so regular, it’s almost as if you’re apologising for your very existence.

There are many reasons why you might default to saying sorry when you’re not sorry. For example, if you’ve had a difficult upbringing or unhealthy relationships in the past, you might be more likely to jump straight to apologising because it’s how you’ve learned to keep yourself safe. (Side note: all of us have behaviours we adopted because they worked for us at the time, but often realise later they’re not working for us – but that’s for another post!)

Women and girls are especially prone to apologising because we’re socially conditioned to be nice, polite and agreeable. Whereas qualities such as confidence, courage, leadership and ambition might be encouraged in both boys and girls, it’s usually girls who have the added expectation of being attuned and empathetic to the needs of others. We’re raised to care how we make other people feel, and to not be too brash or loud or opinionated. Therefore, it’s girls who are more likely to receive social disapproval when those strong leadership qualities are perceived as bossy or rude.

When you apologise unnecessarily, you send a message that you doubt yourself. When you diminish yourself in this way, even if you think you’re just being polite, you inadvertently give others a reason to also doubt you and your credibility. If you apologise for something that’s not your fault, you potentially take the blame for stuff that is absolutely not your fault.

In addition to the unnecessary apology, this conditioning manifests as inserting other qualifiers into conversation. “I could be wrong, but…” or “I was just wondering if maybe…” These are all ways women in particular communicate in a way that is not perceived as too direct or intrusive – even when they have every right to be.

If you know you’re a chronic apologiser and would prefer to break the habit, it starts with noticing your pattern and then taking steps to do something differently.

1. Take a breath

Next time you feel the inclination to start a sentence with “Sorry”, pause and ask yourself if you genuinely have something to apologise for. If you don’t, see if you can resist that urge, even if it feels uncomfortable. Often the words are out of your mouth before you know it, so in those instances I’d suggest making a mental note of the times, places, people and scenarios that tend to trigger an automatic apology from you.

If you find it difficult to temper your need to apologise, perhaps start practising with your written communication. If you regularly write, ‘Sorry for the delay’ or ‘Sorry to bother you again’ in your emails, go back and delete those phrases before you hit send.

2. Swap it out

Some people suggest swapping out ‘sorry’ for ‘thank you’. For example, instead of “Sorry I’m late”, you can say, “Thank you for waiting”. There are lots of ways you can insert gratitude instead of apology and I’d encourage you to play around with finding alternatives. “I appreciate you doing this.” or “I’d be grateful if you followed this up” are some more examples. Note that while gratitude can be preferable to apology, I would still caution you to not express too much gratitude for something that most would consider to be a reasonable expectation, not a favour.

3. Offer a solution

If you feel you do owe someone an apology because you’ve failed to meet a deadline or you haven’t delivered what you promised, I can assure you the person you’ve let down is more interested in how you’re going to resolve the situation than listen to you apologise. We’re all human and things get overlooked. You might say you’re sorry but immediately follow it up with, “I haven’t been able to do what you asked, however this is what I’m doing instead.” A perfectly reasonable alternative might be, “I know we agreed on this date but that’s not going to be possible for me. Would you mind if I got it to you by this other date?”

As you can see, the point is not to doggedly refuse to apologise but to be mindful of instances where you are diminishing your own worth and credibility by being overly and unnecessarily apologetic.

Checkout Amy Schumer’s lighthearted (but not unrealistic) take on women’s ridiculous propensity to apologise HERE.

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Why feeling bad isn’t all bad news

July 1, 2019
feeling bad, feeling good

It goes without saying that we’d all prefer to feel good most of the time. No-one particularly wants to feel sad, anxious, angry or any other ‘negative’ emotions. If you’ve been influenced by the kind of positive thinking messages that teach you that creating a good life means focusing on always feeling good, you might have even become fearful of allowing yourself to feel bad. (For example, you might worry that you’ll attract bad experiences into your life if you let yourself slip into negative thoughts and feelings.)

Sometimes as children, we’ve been exposed either directly or indirectly to the message that anger is unacceptable or sadness is unnecessary or your fears are silly and so, naturally we learn to hide or suppress those feelings. But attempts to stifle, avoid, or deny your unpleasant emotions are usually counterproductive. If you routinely use strategies to avoid feeling bad, such as taking the edge of your stress with a drink, cheering yourself up with a bit of retail therapy, or talking yourself out of your hurt feelings when someone has upset you, you ultimately create more problems. Your stress is compounded by poor quality sleep after that wine. Your credit card bill eventually arrives. And resentments in a relationship continue to grow when they’re unaddressed.

The value of painful feelings.

Sometimes your uncomfortable feelings can act like inner alarm bells telling you there is something to fix or change and if you’re more concerned about avoiding those feelings, you’re not tuning into the valuable inner guidance of your own emotions. For example, if you feel remorse, that’s a useful clue that you’ve acted out of alignment with your integrity and you might need to modify your behaviour or make amends to someone. If you feel angry, you might realise that you’ve been allowing people to take advantage of you for too long and it’s time to learn to be more assertive. If you’re feeling stressed a lot of the time, it’s much more useful to look at the conditions of your life contributing to your stress than it is to keep numbing those feelings.

It’s only by learning to sit with that discomfort that you can look at what it’s telling you. When you learn to accept unpleasant emotions, they lose their power over you because, paradoxically, the more you reject or deny them, the stronger they become.

You know what they say: “What you resist, persists.”

If you have trouble being with unpleasant feelings, there are a few things you can practice that make it easier to tolerate that discomfort and use it to your advantage.

1. Break it down

When you experience a strong emotion, it often shows up as a bundle of thoughts, feelings and sensations in your body and a strong urge to act or react. As best you can, try to slow down your experience as if you’re watching it on a movie screen and tune into it part by part. What are the stories in your mind? What are the emotions? (Try to be as specific as possible.) And where do you feel those feelings in your body? Be aware of emotional reactions and see if you can resist that urge to immediately do something to escape or discharge the emotion.

2. Stay with the sensation

Where most people go wrong is that they get very caught up in the story in their heads; that is, all the thoughts and justifications for why you feel this way or shouldn’t feel this way. Thoughts create feelings, but thoughts are not feelings, so try to let go of the thinking part and tune into the sensation in your body. Anxiety might feel like a knot in your stomach or sweaty palms. Anger might feel like a weight in your chest. See if you can observe these sensations objectively, mentally tracing around them, noticing the quality of them and describing them in your mind. Emotions always show up in your body, so try to stay with those physical sensations and don’t get caught up in your stories about them.

3. Check back in with the emotions

Every now and then, move your attention away from your physical body and back to the emotion and note if there has been any change. Has your emotion intensified, or has it dissipated? Has the original emotion been replaced by a different one? (Sometimes anger makes way for sadness when you sit with it for long enough.) Be curious about what happens to the emotion as you simply allow it to dwell in your body.

4. Make a wise choice

Now that you have a safe way of relating to strong emotions, you’re in a more calm and mindful position to decide about what to do next. Rather than (over)reacting emotionally or running away from your feelings, you are able to see more clearly what your feelings are trying to tell you. This puts you back in control of your feelings and choices which is a much more positive and empowering position to be in.

Learning to stay with painful emotions, to observe your thinking mind and to not be hijacked by your thoughts and feelings is one of the most profound benefits of mindfulness. Contrary to popular opinion, the task is not to eliminate stress from your life but to learn a way of relating to it so that you have more more and freedom over your choices.

All of this and more is covered in my 8-week online course, “Mindfulness for Busy People”. To find out more, check it out HERE.

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Read next article: Stop apologising.


Is forgiveness the key to your inner peace?

June 24, 2019
asking for forgiveness

You’ve no doubt heard the saying that holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die, which basically means that when you carry around resentments and grudges, the only person suffering is you. Studies have shown that when people focus on someone who has hurt or mistreated them, their mood spirals downward and they experience all the physiological symptoms of stress including higher blood pressure, elevated heart rate, sweating and tension in their body. Holding grudges is really bad for you.

But letting go of those old grudges is sometimes easier said than done. In fact, it can sometimes feel impossible. When we see stories in the media about people extending forgiveness to the person who killed their child, for example, it almost beggars belief. Where do people find the capacity for forgiveness when they’ve lost so much? It might be that they practice forgiveness not for the person who has wronged them, but for themselves – because sometimes forgiveness is the very thing that releases you from your pain and allows you to move forward in your own life with peace and positivity.

Forgiveness means reducing (or eliminating) the drive for revenge or retaliation and if possible, replacing it with thoughts that are based on more empathy or goodwill.  Maybe ‘letting go’ is a more effective description and if you have trouble letting go, it might help to remember these key points:

1. Forgiveness doesn’t require reconciliation

Forgiveness does not have to involve reconnecting with the person or having any relationship with them at all. In fact, forgiveness doesn’t even require you to communicate with the person and they need never know of your decision to let go of your anger.

2. Forgiveness is not condoning the other person’s behaviour

Another misconception is that extending forgiveness to someone means you condone or pardon their actions. It might feel as if you are letting the other person off the hook but in fact, you’re letting yourself no longer be hooked into feelings of bitterness and hostility.

3. Forgiveness isn’t weak

Probably one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is the idea that forgiveness is weak or foolish. In fact, it’s people who are emotionally stable who have been shown to be more likely to practice forgiveness. It can help to remember that offering forgiveness has nothing to do with what’s ‘fair’. Focusing on fairness and wanting to maintain the upper hand can keep you unnecessarily stuck and unable to move on.

Practising forgiveness

When you choose to forgive someone for their wrongdoing, you are making a conscious decision to let go of the pain you are carrying.  Psychology professor and leading forgiveness researcher, Everett Worthington has developed a five step process he called REACH forgiveness, which has been found to be an effective tool for people wanting to forgive. I’ve outlined his process below so that you can decide if it’s something you’d be interested in exploring further. (Note: Professor Worthington’s own mother was murdered and both he and his siblings forgave her murderer within a very short space of time so this is not just academic theory to him, but a lived experience).

R – Recall the hurt.

The first step is acknowledging that you have been hurt as objectively as possible. It’s dropping the defensiveness and the snark and facing up to the fact that this situation occurred and the impact it had on you.

E – Empathy

Empathy involves seeing the situation from the other person’s perspective. You may not agree with it, but the more you can try to see their point of view, the more likely you are to reduce feelings of anger and make space for compassion. We all know that it’s hurt people who hurt other people and sometimes it can help to remember that anyone who is driven to cause harm to others must be carrying a lot of emotional pain within themselves.

A – Altruistic gift.

Offering forgiveness is an act of altruism because it doesn’t require the other person to do anything for you. It’s recognising that you have been forgiven for transgressions in the past and you have the capacity to do the same for someone else.

C – Commit.

Make a commitment to your decision to let go and move on. A commitment has staying power. It means every time you revert to old resentments, you remind yourself of your decision and don’t question it.

H – Hold onto forgiveness.

When you notice those old stories or resentments coming up again, do your best to hold onto forgiveness and not be derailed again by hostility.

Ultimately, forgiveness is a gift to another person as well as an act of kindness to yourself, and a small contribution to living in a more understanding and compassionate world.

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Read next article: Why feeling bad isn’t all bad news?


How to nurture your creativity (and why you should)

June 17, 2019

Are you one of those people who believes you don’t have a creative bone in your body? Do you envy those talented souls who can paint or sculpt or write compelling fiction? Perhaps you remember being creative as a child and somewhere along the way, you’ve lost touch with your creative side as the serious business of adulthood has taken over all your available time and attention.

The truth is we are all creative in our own ways and making an effort to tap into that creativity can be profoundly beneficial to your success and happiness, no matter what you do for a living. Creativity is about expanding your thinking to include intuitive and abstract ideas, making connections between seemingly disparate topics and coming up with new solutions to challenging problems.

If you work in an environment where things are done just because ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’, creativity can mean coming up with new, more effective approaches. Innovation (necessary for business success) is entirely about new, creative thoughts, ideas and processes. It’s not just about making art. If you find yourself struggling with creative inspiration, you might try giving your logical left brain a break by incorporating some of these habits into your routine to help you tap into the well of creativity that exists inside you:

1.    Be quiet

Spending time in silence is a proven way to enhance creativity because normally the endless chatter in your busy mind drowns out the voice of inner wisdom and intuition. When you turn the volume down on all that noise – whether through a formal practice like meditation or perhaps just by going for a walk in nature without your phone – often new insights and ideas emerge without any effort from you at all. The more regularly you take time out to be quiet, the more space you allow for those creative ideas to bubble up into your consciousness.

2.    Play

Hobbies are designed to be fun and non-competitive. When you take the focus away from striving and achievement and do something with a focus on play instead of work, you break out of the perfectionist mindset that normally stifles your creative potential. You might decide to learn a language or take up macramé or pottery. Playing board games, charades or Pictionary are great ways to tip into a fun and playful side of yourself that is normally locked away. As much as possible, try to be non-competitive and do it purely for fun.

3.    Take yourself on a date

In her bestselling book, “The Artist’s Way”, Julia Cameron recommends spending two hours every week in your own company doing something you love. It might be a visit to a gallery, a walk on the beach or going to breakfast or the movies. The point is to allow yourself time to wander and simply reconnect with yourself, to get to know yourself with the same kind of curious interest and attention you might have for someone you’ve just met for the first time. This is a great way of befriending yourself and cultivating the kind of self-acceptance and self-worth that is essential for taking creative risks.

4.    Create a vision board

Lots of people recommend creating a vision board as a way of bringing to life the dreams and goals you have for your life. The idea is to find words and images from magazines or the internet that resonate with you and inspire you dream bigger about what’s possible for you. The act of cutting, glueing and pinning is a really fun way of connecting to your inner four-year old. The digital version is to use Pinterest to pin the images and quotes but I quite like the tactile process for engaging all of your senses.

5.    Read for fun

If your reading material normally consists entirely of industry journals and text books, make time to read fiction. Escaping into a fantasy world unlocks closed doors in your mind and introduces new, different, exciting landscapes. The break away from your own reality means you re-emerge with a clearer mind and a new perspective.

Ultimately, tapping into and expressing creativity requires the willingness to make space in your mind and your life for unstructured activities, and then to be prepared to take a risk in sharing ideas. Giving yourself permission to be wrong, to lighten up and let go is a great place to start.

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Read next article: Is forgiveness the key to your inner peace?




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