The Living Wise Blog
I’ve been meditating regularly for almost two decades, have attended several long, silent meditation retreats and trained as a teacher of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy in 2013. In all my years of practising and teaching mindfulness and meditation to individuals and groups, I’ve seen the same common misconceptions and myths about meditation come up over and over again with students and clients.
Unfortunately, when you buy into some of these misleading ideas it can get in the way of your willingness to stick at it, so you may be missing out on the enormous benefits to be gained from maintaining a consistent meditation practice.
These days, you’d have to be living under a rock not to have heard of all the great reasons to meditate, but if you’ve tried and failed to establish any kind of consistency in your own meditation practice, you might need to dispel some of these common myths about meditation to give yourself the best chance of success.
1. Meditation is supposed to be relaxing.
As soon as I hear someone say that they don’t find meditation particularly relaxing (and therefore, “It’s not working”), I know they’ve bought into this very common [but false] belief. The objective of mindfulness meditation is not to achieve any particular state; not even relaxation. The only objective when practising mindfulness is to pay attention to your experience exactly as it is, without judgement, and without needing it to be something different.
If you’ve decided that meditation ‘should’ be relaxing and if it’s not, there must be something wrong with the technique or with you, then by definition you’re not being mindful.
Of course, some days you might find that taking time out of your busy day to sit and breathe feels very pleasant and relaxing. If that’s the case, lovely!
But if the next day you’re agitated, restless, bored or emotional, that doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you or your new meditation practice.
Mindfulness is about being willing to observe everything that arises when you sit down to meditate – every thought, feeling, physical sensation, urge to do something, judgement or opinion you might have… all of it – without needing to change anything, fix anything or get up and walk away because you’re not enjoying it.
2. “I can’t meditate because I just can’t keep my mind still”
Oh, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this.
The good news is that you’re not alone because every one of us has a busy mind! Meditation is NOT about stopping thoughts. Thoughts will always come and go, sometimes at a startling rate. Remember what I said before?
Mindfulness is about learning to observe what’s happening as it’s happening.
That means observing all those thoughts without reacting to them, judging them, believing them or needing them to stop.
When you notice that your mind is busy, you might gently shift your awareness back to the movement of your breath, the feeling of your feet on the floor or silently repeat a mantra in your mind as a way of ‘unhooking’ from your busy thinking mind.
Inevitably, you’ll get pulled back into thinking.
Notice that you’re thinking… Unhook from the thought… Breathe.
Notice that you’re thinking… Unhook from the thought… Breathe.
Notice… Unhook… Breathe…
Sound boring? Remember, no-one said it was supposed to be relaxing!
3. “If I meditate, I’ll be super chill all the time”
Practising meditation does help people to feel calmer over time but it is no magic cure for unpleasant emotions.
No matter how much you meditate, there will still be times when you feel cranky or stressed or sad. In fact, when you first start practising mindfulness those thoughts and feelings might be even MORE prevalent because for the first time in a very long time, you’ve stopped trying to run away from them and starting paying attention to what is actually going on with you.
But since you’re practising noticing your thoughts and feelings, you’ll be getting better at learning to be curious about them instead of believing every thought you think and reacting to every feeling you have.
With time, you will gain more emotional equilibrium because you’re not being hijacked by every random thing that pops into your head and you won’t feel a need to escape every unpleasant feeling you have.
You’ll start to catch your thoughts and feelings more quickly so that you can choose a wise response rather than reacting in old, habitual ways.
And sometimes you’ll still react no matter how much you practice and that’s when you’ll reap the rewards of all the time you’ve spent practising non-judgement because you’ll know not to beat yourself up for those human slip-ups.
4. “I’m way too busy to waste time sitting down and doing nothing”
I get it. You’ve got a busy life, a big job or young kids and there doesn’t seem to be a spare minute in your day. Sitting still and doing ‘nothing’ feels like an incredibly unproductive use of your time.
There are actually two myths embedded in this one. Firstly, that meditation is doing nothing. And secondly, that you don’t have time.
So first up, what most people notice (and science would support) is that the improvements in focus and productivity that you gain from meditation mean that you’ll easily make back the time you invest. Then there are the improvements in your mood and sleep and the wiser choices you make in every aspect of your life – all of which add up to increased energy, presence and attention.
Secondly, if you’ve got one of those screen time apps on your phone, no doubt you’ve already been confronted with how much time you lose every day staring at your phone. Even if you’re a master at managing digital distractions, the truth is we all make decisions about how to spend our time and we all waste plenty of it on unnecessary, trivial, or ‘urgent but unimportant’ activities.
It might feel like a pain to shuffle some things around or get up 10 minutes earlier or go to sleep 10 minutes later or turn off the TV or shut down the browser, but you’ve got the time.
If you still feel like sitting in meditation is not a possibility for you, there are plenty of ways to practise “informal” or everyday mindfulness by bringing more present, focused attention to your daily activities like showering, driving or eating. But I want to make clear that all too often I see people falling back on ‘everyday mindfulness’, not as a supplement to their meditation but as an excuse not to do the work of sitting down to meditate, which is where the real benefits are to be found.
5. “There are too many distractions.”
Meditating in a peaceful environment is certainly easier than trying to focus your attention when there’s a lot of noise around you. But remember, mindfulness is about paying attention to your experience even if the experience is unpleasant. If you notice feelings of irritation, or if certain distractions pull for your attention, this is all part of your mindfulness practice.
For a long time when my daughter was young, she’d wander into the room and sit in my lap while I meditated. Or my dog would lick my elbow. Or I’d overhear a loud conversation or the TV blasting in the next room from where I was sitting.
Mindfulness doesn’t require that there be no distractions. It simply asks you to notice the distractions, notice the stories you tell yourself about them, notice your internal reactions, all without judgement. This attention to your experience, without buying into your thoughts of needing your circumstances to be somehow different, is the very definition of mindfulness.
If you’d like more step by step instructions about how to begin and maintain a mindfulness meditation practice, you might want to check out my online course Mindfulness for Busy People.READ MORE
These days the term ‘narcissist’ is used fairly loosely, especially given the impact that reality TV and social media has had on our culture. But if you find yourself in a relationship with a real narcissist, you’ll soon realise that narcissistic behaviour is a lot more damaging than just posting a lot of selfies on Instagram and wanting to be the centre of attention.
A diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder can only be determined in a proper clinical assessment, and it’s worth noting that people can have a lot of narcissistic traits without necessarily having a full blown personality disorder. At the end of the day, whether someone can be diagnosed clinically or not isn’t the most important thing. What’s usually more helpful is knowing the typical behaviour patterns that play out when you’re in a toxic relationship so that you can spot the signs early and save yourself a lot of emotional harm.
In my most recent YouTube video, I described five very typical behaviours you can expect to see if you’re dealing with a narcissist.
1. Love Bombing
In the early stages of a relationship, the narcissist will LOVE BOMB you. This is also known as the idealisation phase where they will put you on a pedestal, tell you you’re the most amazing, beautiful, special person they’ve ever met and that they want all the same things in life that you do. It’s much like the honeymoon phase of a normal relationship but it will be intense and accelerated. They might talk about engagement and marriage very early and will convince you that they’ve waited their whole life for someone like you. The whole point of the love bombing is to get you completely and utterly enamoured by the narcissist’s charm; in other words, to get you on the hook and reeled right in.
2. Future Faking
“Future faking” is a term used to describe the narcissist’s tendency to promise you something you want in the future in order to get what they want in the present. It could be the engagement and the wedding that they dangle in front of you or it could be that you want to buy a house or take a special holiday or something else that’s important to you. They’ll talk about it, go to the open homes, pick up the travel brochures… but then they do absolutely nothing to turn that dream into a reality. In other words, they will lie to you in order to string you along.
You might want to watch my full video below or share it with someone you think might be in a relationship with a narcissist.
(Blog continues below video)
After a narcissist has successfully got you on the hook, they’ll fairly quickly show their true colours. The devaluing tactics might be subtle or they might be glaring. It might come in the form of backhanded compliments, a condescending tone, dismissing your point of view or being passive aggressive. It might be cruel, insulting, and hurtful comments, or belittling you and the things or people you care about (yes, all those things they loved in the idealisation phase).
The narcissist might be inconsiderate, not bothering to consult with you about plans or they may give you the silent treatment. If you get upset, they’ll devalue your feelings by telling you that you’re being overly sensitive or too emotional. (Note: the narcissist has no real capacity for empathy so your hurt feelings are an inconvenience to them).
4. Narcissistic Rage
A narcissist can blow up over the tiniest thing. You’ll be left with your head spinning wondering how such a small thing created such a huge explosion. One of the most significant character traits of a narcissist is that they can’t cope with criticism at all, so if you should you do or say anything the narcissist perceives as undermining their position, challenging their false idealised sense of importance, or threatening their ego, you will likely cause a narcissistic injury and this can result in narcissistic rage.
5. They never apologise
Even with all their terrible behaviour, the narcissist will never apologise. In their opinion, every problem is really YOUR fault. Problems they bring upon themselves will be blamed on you. You can’t reason with them or bring your point of view to them in order to have a healthy adult discussion. There is no discussion with a narcissist; there is only the narcissist educating you on how things are.
So, are you dating a narcissist? Maybe, maybe not.
At the end of the day, the most important question to ask yourself is whether you feel truly valued and respected and SAFE in the relationship, or if you feeling like you’re constantly being pepper-sprayed with micro- and macro-aggressions. Are you walking on eggshells or slowly losing confidence in yourself? Are you doubting yourself and wondering if it might really be your fault things are bad? Do you feel exhausted from ‘managing’ this relationship?
These are all signs you need to find the courage to leave and free yourself to find a more healthy, balanced partnership with someone who truly values what you have to offer.READ MORE
We all know (at least in theory) that success isn’t linear and that no matter what you set your mind to achieving in life, the wise approach is always to focus on progress over perfection, no matter how slow or tedious it may feel. But still we can’t help but feel disappointed and deflated when we hit a setback along the path to achieving a goal. Those feelings of disappointment and the perception that you’ve somehow ‘failed’ can send you into a negative spiral that will turn a momentary setback into a total unravelling, so that if you’re not careful, you could lose all the momentum you’ve been creating.
Achieving anything, whether it’s finishing a degree, writing a book, running a marathon or even your first 5km requires you to face those challenges head on and to persevere even when things don’t go to plan. Being able to manage your emotions and quickly take action to get yourself back on track is the key to moving forward and getting to where you’re going faster.
If you’re someone who struggles to pick yourself up when you hit a hurdle, you might want to try some of these strategies for bouncing back from failure:
Be a realist, not an idealist
In an ideal world, you’d decide on a goal, set a course of action and stay completely committed and motivated throughout the entire process, only pausing to bask in the glory of your achievements as you check off each milestone on your unobstructed path to success.
What a completely (ridiculously!) unlikely scenario that is, so why is it that we’re so surprised and disappointed when we don’t achieve these perfect results first time, every time? The more you’re able to set realistic expectations about real life issues getting in the way, inevitable slumps in motivation and all of your human imperfections, the less likely you are to wallow in feelings of self-doubt and defeat when those issues crop up. Even the world’s most successful people will go off track and get back on track many, many times.It’s not the going off track that determines your outcome, but how quickly you’re able to course-correct. Click To Tweet
Be kind, not critical
We typically default to harsh self-criticism when we fail to live up to our own expectations (again, check those expectations!)
It might help to understand that this is part of the human condition so you’re not the only one who gets down on yourself. But ALSO understand that you can choose to not do it. Beating yourself up activates your own stress response. In other words, it makes you feel worse and will absolutely not motivate or inspire you to do better. Trust me, there’s plenty of research on this. People who acknowledge their struggles with kindness and who treat themselves with the same compassion they’d offer to a friend are far more likely to recover from disappointment and keep moving forward. So when you hear your inner critic slinging all the usual insults, tell it to pipe down and create a bit of inner cheerleader instead.
Remember the magic of micro-actions
Probably the most important thing you can do to get back on track fast is to take one, teeny tiny step back in the direction of what you want to achieve. The longer you stay stuck, the worse you feel and the more effort it takes to get going again. But when you take even the smallest action that reinforces your intention to keep going, your brain will reward you with all sorts of feel good hormones that will give you the boost you need to take one more micro step. The magic of micro-actions is that they are small enough to feel effortless, but they add up to a chain of actions that take you right back to where you want to be.
So… in the spirit of taking the theory and turning it into action – what’s one thing you can do today that will take you closer to achieving something that’s important to you?
P.S. If you know you fall into the ‘All of Nothing’ trap, you might want to check out my YouTube video on how to overcome perfectionism!READ MORE
There’s a lot to be concerned about right now. Even if your own health and family and income are safe, if you’re a human and you’re paying attention, it’s hard not to be worried about what’s going on in the world.
Sometimes, you might have a random thought pop into your head – the possibility of bad things happening in your future or even a decision you made in the past – which leads to another thought and another one, until before you know it, you’ve launched into an anxiety spiral. Those negative thought loops consume your attention, flood your body with stress hormones, hijack your mood and influence your behaviours. You might find you resort to self-defeating behaviours to soothe yourself (eating or drinking more than you should), you might feel compelled to make rash decisions or become snappy and irritable with the people closest to you – especially when you’re in a confined space.
Because we spend most of our day operating on automatic pilot, it’s easy to become hooked into negative thoughts unless you’re deliberately and consciously working to shift the focus of your attention. Below are some step by step suggestions for how to interrupt the pattern so that you can cut off that loop before it begins.
1. Check your thoughts
We typically have around 60,000 thoughts running through our minds every day, most of them outside our conscious awareness. Many of those thoughts are fairly benign but when an idea pops in which causes you to worry or focus on something negative or rehash an event or conversation that’s happened in the past, it triggers an emotional response so that you fixate on that thought and expand on it.
We have little control over the kinds of thoughts that pop into our minds but in the current crisis when the overwhelming majority of media we’re consuming is unpleasant and frightening, it’s important to pay attention to how you feel, so you’re more likely to catch the negative thought train before it completely derails you.
2. Come back to the here and now
Worry thinking is not based on what’s happening right now. It’s very much projecting forward and imagining the worst case scenario, or dredging up the past and using it to forecast what might happen in the future. When you pull your attention back to right here and right now, you’ll usually find that there is nothing terrible happening in this moment.
If you find it difficult to mentally ‘unhook’ from whatever disaster thoughts you’re having, a great tip is to focus on your physical body and your full five senses. Your body is always right here in the present which is why it’s such a useful anchor point. Reconnecting to something solid and grounded like the feeling of your feet on the floor and the person sitting across from you can be the quickest way to stop that thought train and get off before it takes you to anxiety town.
3. Just breathe
When your threat response is triggered into action, the part of your brain involved in useful and rational thinking goes offline. The most effective way to quickly bring it back online is to take long slow deep breaths, with a particular focus on the out-breath. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system, signalling to your brain that you’re not in danger and allowing you to access more helpful coping strategies rather than being triggered into old, self-defeating patterns.
4. Shift your focus
After you’ve noticed your negative or anxious thinking, you’ve come back to the present and taken some slow breaths, you’re in a position to choose where to redirect your attention. It might be choosing to focus on positive news stories, acknowledging something you’re grateful for or just refocusing on the task that’s right in front of you. If you feel tempted to jump back into those negative thoughts because your brain wants to convince you that it’s doing something useful like ‘problem solving’, remind yourself that there’s usually nothing to be gained by ruminating (except a bad mood and maybe a compromised immune system – thank you, stress!)
5. Postpone worrying
There’s a big difference between effective problem solving and unproductive worry but sometimes your mind finds it hard to tell the difference. If you’re continually getting stuck in a pattern of worrying or ruminating, it can help to set a time each day for worry. Then, whenever you’re tempted to go back into those negative or anxious thoughts, you just remind yourself that now is not the time. This can often be enough to satisfy your brain that you’re not ignoring the problem completely and free up your mind to focus on other things.
Of course, while it’s useful to have strategies for cutting off an anxiety spiral in the moment you’re spiralling, it’s equally (if not more) important to have ongoing strategies in place to support your physical and mental health. A regular meditation practice will go a long way to building your emotional resilience and is proven to reduce anxiety, stress and depression. Eating well, exercising regularly and having a strong social support network are also essential self-care tools that will continue to sustain you, long after this moment has passed.
P.S. Want to join my positive, supportive online community where you’ll get regular access to all my tools and tips based in mindfulness and positive psychology? Check out Beyond Happy.READ MORE
When you’re among female friends, have you ever noticed how often the conversation turns to the topic of body shape or weight? You might mention the reason you’re passing on the cheese plate is that you have a few kilos to lose before your holiday. Perhaps you get into a discussion about someone you know who has lost loads of weight doing keto or fasting or some other plan.
Engaging in ‘fat talk’ is very normal and seems harmless enough, but the consequences can be far more damaging than you might think. A survey found that engaging in, or being exposed to negative body talk increases body dissatisfaction and yet 27% of women’s social interactions (according to this survey) involved fat talk and 70% of women made negative comments about their own and other women’s bodies.
The conversation isn’t always negative. Frequently, when we catch up with a friend we haven’t seen in a while we say things like, “Wow. You look great. Have you lost weight?” But if you think about it, even when you give a compliment, you’re reinforcing the social conditioning that a particular body shape (i.e., THIN) is the ideal, not to mention that a woman’s value is in her appearance.
The amount of conversation that revolves around body shape and weight is a good indication of the mental energy we devote to thinking about how we look, how we’d prefer to look or what we can do to change our appearance in order to feel more satisfied. Surely there are more interesting things about us. (And what’s the message we’re sending our daughters?) If you know this is something you’re guilty of, you might try putting some boundaries in place to limit the ‘fat talk’ you engage in, either to yourself or when you’re with your friends.
1. Ban body talk
Try going a day and then a week without mentioning your body, weight or appearance or commenting on anyone else’s. A funny thing happens as soon as you put a ban on something – you begin to notice how often you have the urge to do it. Use this as an indication of how much mental energy you’re wasting on body thoughts/talk and a useful starting point to break the habit.
2. Become a ‘no fat talk’ zone
If you notice conversations are always turning to the subject of dieting and weight, start steering things in another direction. Depending on how comfortable you are, you might even tell your friends you won’t be participating in body talk anymore. You’ll all feel better for it and you might even inspire your friends to ditch the fat talk too.
3. Appreciate what matters most
Your self-talk is repetitive and habitual so it can be hard to immediately turn off the fat talk. If you’ve always trash talked your own body, try focusing less on how you think it looks and more on appreciating what it does. You don’t have to immediately embrace your cellulite or love your stretch-marks but you can acknowledge that your arms allow you to hug your kids and your legs carry you through life every day. Appreciating your body for its function is a great step away from our fixation on the thin ideal and learning to focus on what really matters – which is that your body is merely the vessel through which you share your gifts with the world.READ MORE
I talk a lot about mindfulness and meditation but if you’re unfamiliar with the how or why of mindfulness, it can feel like just another thing to try to fit into an already overloaded schedule.
Believe me when I say that the benefits of starting and maintaining a meditation practice are definitely worth the effort, even if you don’t see them instantly. In case you are still in any doubt or you need a friendly nudge reminding you that sitting still is actually doing something good for you, here are just five of the many scientifically proven benefits of a regular mindfulness meditation practice:
1. It’s good for your physical health.
Regular meditation has been shown to boost immunity and lower blood pressure. It helps relieve stress, reduce chronic pain, improve sleep, and alleviate gastrointestinal problems. Some forms or mindfulness meditation have been shown to lengthen telomeres in your DNA. Shortening of telomeres is associated with ageing and age-related illness, so longer telomeres indicating a slowing down of cellular ageing.
2. It’s good for your mental health.
Practising mindfulness increases positive emotions and in some cases has been shown to be at least as effective as antidepressants in fighting depression. In the past decade or so, psychologists and psychotherapists have increasingly incorporated mindfulness meditation into the treatment of many psychological problems, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders, relationship conflicts, parenting struggles, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
3. It’s good for maintaining a healthy weight.
Mindfulness helps you tune into your body sensations, thereby sharpening your ability to recognise hunger and fullness. Practising mindfulness helps you to ride out cravings and can be effective in disrupting the automatic reaction of reaching for unhealthy foods. Studies have shown that people who meditate, even if they don’t lose weight, actually experience fewer weight fluctuations over time, breaking the unhelpful yo-yoing of weight gain and loss.
4. It’s good for your relationships.
Couples who learn mindfulness report being more relaxed and optimistic, more satisfied with their relationship and more emotionally connected. For parents, mindfulness also helps reduce perinatal depression, stress and anxiety, and parents report being happier with their relationship with their kids.
5. It’s good for your brain.
Meditation practice has been shown to increase the grey matter in your brain! After just 8 weeks of consistent meditation practice, the amygdala, which is the brain’s “fight or flight” centre appears to shrink. This part of the brain is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress. As it shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex – which is involved with higher order brain functions like awareness, concentration and decision-making – becomes thicker. The connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker, while the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration get stronger. Amazing!
Are you convinced? Now, how to get started:
Meditation is simple, but not easy. It involves putting your attention fully on one thing – whether that be your breathing, sounds, sights or body sensations – and then trying to keep it there while your mind attempts to pull you away into thoughts and distractions. Over and over again, we simply gather our attention and bring it back to our object of focus.
- Download an app and spend time each day doing 10-20 minutes of guided meditation. I normally recommend the Insight Timer app because it’s free and has a huge range of different meditations. Other apps are Calm, Smiling Mind or Headspace.
- If you’re one who likes to read, check out “Mindfulness for Beginners” or “Wherever You Go, There You Are” (both by Jon Kabat-Zinn). But remember you don’t learn to swim by reading about swimming techniques. You have to get in the water!
- If you’re keen to learn from a trained teacher but aren’t sure where to find a class or when you’d find the time – I’d recommend you check out my 6-week Mindfulness for Busy People online course. Hundreds of people just like you have discovered the transformative power of mindfulness.
And remember, a little bit like planting seeds in a garden, you need to keep watering them each day and trust that something is happening beneath the surface before you see the first green shoots appear. And even then, you need to continue attending to those fragile new seedlings to ensure they grow into something lasting with deep, solid roots.
Cass xoREAD MORE
We’ve all experienced times in our life when it feels like the responsibilities are piled so high on top of us, we barely have room to breathe. Or when the deadlines keep backing up so that just when you’ve got one important task ticked off the last, there’s another one right there to take its place. It can feel like being dumped by a wave over and over again. It might make you feel anxious and it can be difficult to concentrate on anything, which doesn’t help when you have a lot of things that need to be done!
Ideally, those times are infrequent and short-lived, but when you’re stuck in overwhelm it can help to have some strategies to manage your stress and get back in control more quickly. Try these tips for clearing your mind and relieving the pressure.
1. Write everything down
Sometimes the best way to clear your head is to dump all those swirling thoughts onto paper. Feeling overwhelmed sends your body into fight or flight mode and when that happens, it’s difficult to access rational thinking and problem solving. When you write things down, you take that all that feeling of angst and turn it into something quantifiable. Everything from personal appointments, bills to be paid, work deadlines or nagging worries kicking around in the back of your mind. Once they’re out on paper where you can see them, you have a much better chance of making sense of them, prioritising them, delegating or even deleting some of them.
2. Get started
Overwhelm can have the effect of keeping you stuck in a kind of paralysis, not knowing where to start (again, that’s the fight or flight response limiting your access to logical thinking!) The longer you stay in that stuck place, the more anxious you become. Once you’ve got everything out of your head and onto paper, choose some small things you can get done or delegate immediately, so you feel like you’re making progress. Then make a plan to tackle some of the bigger stuff. The best way to reduce the anxiety of a deadline is to take action.
3. Do one thing at a time
The temptation to multitask can be all too inviting when you have a lot going on but ultimately that is an unhelpful strategy. Switching your attention back and forth between tasks reduces your productivity by as much as 40% and only serves to keep your mind feeling stretched and scattered as you try to divide your attention. You might choose to allocate a period of time to work on one thing before making a start on something else if you have multiple projects going on at the same time but avoid the temptation to flick back and forth during the same block of time.
4. Take breaks
Again, it seems counterintuitive. When you’re overwhelmed, it feels like you need to keep pushing through and get things done. But the longer you try to stay focused on mentally engaging tasks, the more likely you are to become distracted, zone out, make mistakes and reduce your overall effectiveness. (Besides multi-tasking, pushing through without a break is the biggest time waster there is!) Change the mental channel every 90 minutes or so to ensure you continue being focused and productive. Those brief recharge breaks will also help you manage your stress levels so you don’t crash and burn.
It’s the oldest and most effective trick in the book when it comes to managing anxiety. Long, slow breaths all the way into your diaphragm will help to switch off the fight or flight response in your brain. As soon as you notice your stress levels rising and your brain feeling foggy and crowded with too many things, come back to your breathing and spend a few moments getting centred again. Remember your priorities and get started again.
Recently, the World Health Organisation took the step of expanding on its definition of burnout and defining it as an occupational issue arising out of chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been successfully managed. They characterise burnout as having three dimensions:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- reduced professional efficacy.
The factors which cause workplace stress are sometimes external to you (under-resourcing, unmanageable workloads, and lack of support) which means there isn’t always an easy answer or an immediate solution. However, it’s important to know the signs that you might be burning out so that you can take steps to manage your own self-care.
1. Beware the exhaustion funnel
When you feel overwhelmed and have difficulty coping, usually the first things you drop from your schedule are those which seem non-essential, such as catching up with friends or getting to your yoga class. You start off with a wide, full life that includes work, leisure, friends etc., and one by one, the activities that are most important for your wellbeing fall away. As you spiral down into the funnel, your world becomes smaller and narrower until the only thing left is work.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the most conscientious workers who are most at risk since they’re likely to pride themselves on a job well done and continue to work longer and harder to get on top of things.
The answer: It’s crucial that you prioritise getting enough sleep, doing things that support your wellbeing and that you resist the temptation to drop self-care activities in favour of getting work down. Make time to see friends and do things that bring you joy.
2. Watch your self-talk
One common characteristic of burnout is being self-critical and doubting your ability to do the job. As you become more stressed, it’s common to become forgetful, to make careless mistakes or to be disconnected and distractible. These symptoms of mental overload are seen as evidence that you’re not performing and that you need to work harder to lift your game. When your sense of self-worth and self-confidence is tied to your work performance, you’re more likely to keep pushing yourself to the point of breakdown.
The answer: Take some time to practice mindfulness meditation (it should help you to slow down and think more clearly) and use mindful awareness to observe any negative thoughts and let them go. When you recognise that self-critical thoughts are symptoms of stress and burnout, you’re in a better place to detach from them instead of allowing yourself to be defined by them.
3. Keep perspective
It might be very clear to everyone around you that you’re reaching crisis point while you’re telling yourself you just need to reach this deadline or get through this tough period and everything will be fine. The problem with chronic workplace stress is that when you spend all your time in an environment where everyone is pushed to the limit, you adapt and begin to accept it as normal. When that happens it’s hard to step back and get the perspective you need to realise that the situation is not normal, the environment may well be toxic, and you are in danger of serious health issues.
The answer: Speak to people who you can trust to give you impartial advice and be open to listening to what they have to say. It might be a trusted friend or better still, you might want to seek support from your GP or a psychologist, who can help you get clarity on your situation and assist you with putting strategies into place to restore your health and happiness.
When we spend so much of our time at work, it’s no wonder that workplace happiness is directly linked to overall happiness. That’s why I chose to write Crappy to Happy: Love What You Do. In it I’ve outlined 10 steps to finding more meaning at work. If you’re looking to experience more fulfilment, satisfaction and sense of purpose every day, you can pick up a copy at all good bookstores.READ MORE
What comes to mind when you consider the qualities of a good communicator? Being skilled at expressing your ideas, delivering a punchline or articulating your thoughts and feelings are all examples of great communication. But communication is a two-way street; therefore, it also means being able to read faces, pick up on non-verbals, ask just the right questions, and be a fully present and attentive listener. Sometimes great communication also requires you to manage your internal reactions to other people if a conversation is not going the way you’d like it to.
There are many skills cultivated through a practice of mindfulness that will help you to be a more skilled and artful communicator and thus build quality connections with the people in your life. Below are a few ways that you can bring more mindfulness to your interactions and increase the quality of your communication and your relationships.
1. Be fully present
It should go without saying that being a good communicator requires you to be fully present to the person/people with whom you are attempting to communicate. You might think you’ve shown up for a conversation, a meeting or a lunch date, but it’s always worth checking in with yourself. Have you fully arrived, or is your mind still on the text message you received from your partner a few minutes ago or the work project that’s due tomorrow? Are you looking at faces or at your phone? Far too often we are there in body but not in mind, so this is an essential first step.
2. Mind your judgements
Being mindful means taking the present interaction, as best as you can, for what it is; not what you think it is or what you want it to be. In our default state of auto-pilot, we typically carry around a whole load of pre-conceptions, opinions and assumptions about everything, and of course we bring all of that to our interactions with other people. How you interpret a situation can vary depending on the mood you’re in or the day you’ve had. Communicating mindfully means remembering that everything is perception and being open to the possibility that there are alternative perspectives and explanations for any situation. In mindfulness practice, we refer to having a ‘beginner’s mind’ which means trying as much as possible to let go of preconceptions and to see people and situations as if for the first time.
3. Be generous in your assumptions
If we can remind ourselves that we see the world through our own filters (our personal history, current mood, cognitive biases, opinions about this person etc.), we might also remind ourselves that so does everyone else. We can’t possibly know what another person’s experience has been or what kind of day they’ve had. Keeping that in mind can help us to not take things personally, and be a little less harsh and hasty with our own judgements.
I was taught a long time ago that the best way to manage difficult interactions was to always assume a positive intent on behalf of the other person. That is, don’t assume that someone is behaving in a particular way because they’re an awful person or they woke up this morning with a plan to piss you off. Being mindful helps you catch yourself when you begin going down the path of assuming the worst in people and instead, turn your thoughts to something more generous.
4. Manage your emotions
Mindfulness is especially important when your buttons get pushed and you feel a strong emotional reaction arising with you. (Usually the people who tend to push our buttons most easily are the people closest to us.) A less skilled communicator might let themselves be run by that strong emotion and have it drive their behaviours. Whether it’s sulking, withdrawing, getting angry or going into blame mode – these are all examples of emotional reactivity that can be managed with mindfulness.
Alternatively, it might be that you are doing your best to be non-judgemental and to see the other person’s perspective but they’re not extending you the same courtesy. Whatever the circumstances, being mindful means being present to your emotions, noticing how you’re inclined to react and choosing to be thoughtful and considered in your response rather than allowing yourself to be hijacked by strong feelings.
5. Allow space
Whether it’s space for silence, space for people to process thoughts and feelings, or space for a whole range of different opinions and points of view to be heard, being mindful means having the ability to manage tension rather than needing to fill the silence, rush people to answers, or dominate discussions.
If it’s time you invested in cultivating your own mindfulness practice, you might want to get your name on the waitlist for my next round of Mindfulness for Busy People – an 8-week, evidence based, online mindfulness course.
Read next article: Signs you might be burning out at workREAD MORE
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.
Read next article: The art of mindful communicationREAD MORE