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Five myths about meditation

May 17, 2021
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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.

Situation NORMAL.

Notice that you’re thinking… Unhook from the thought… Breathe.

*mind wanders*

Notice that you’re thinking… Unhook from the thought… Breathe.

*mind wanders*

Notice… Unhook… Breathe…

Sound boring? Remember, no-one said it was supposed to be relaxing!

Situation normal!

3. “If I meditate, I’ll be super chill all the time”

Sadly, no.

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.

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Why you need to ban body talk.

September 16, 2019
ban the body talk

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.

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Five great reasons to meditate

September 9, 2019
woman meditating in nature

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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 xo

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Stressed at work? Signs you might be burning out

August 12, 2019
girl stress at work

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.

Available in stores now

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.

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The Art of Mindful Communication

August 6, 2019
women having mindful communication

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.

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Read next article: Signs you might be burning out at work

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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

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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.

Cass Dunn signature - Black

Read next article: Do you have psychological insight?

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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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