September 23, 2021

A while ago I wrote a blog post called ‘5 Signs You Might Be Dating a Narcissist’. I thought if more people knew the signs to look for early in the relationships, it just might prevent them from investing so heavily in people who ultimately turned out to be destructive and even abusive.

But even if you know all the signs of the stereotypical narcissist, there’s another, more subtle kind of narcissism that’s quite a bit harder to detect. These people are often referred to as ‘covert’, ‘hidden’ or ‘closet’ narcissists.

In psychology we refer to their characteristic behaviours as Vulnerable Narcissism. They don’t necessarily display the behaviours you’d typically associate with narcissism like being extraverted, charismatic or successful, openly boasting about their achievements or being unashamedly egotistical and self-confident.

In fact, vulnerable narcissists can present as humble, shy and insecure. This is why they’re hard to spot! They can still be highly manipulative and exploitative but it often takes a whole lot longer for you to realise that what you’re dealing with is a form of narcissism.

Let’s run through a few characteristics or behaviours of closet narcissists.

Five typical features of covert narcissism

1. Their efforts to get attention are more subtle

Grandiose or ‘overt’ narcissists have no problem standing in the centre of a room gushing about their own achievements and assuming everyone will be enthralled. Their entitlement and arrogance is always on display.

Vulnerable narcissists also feel entitled to attention and validation but they tend to be introverted and insecure, therefore they’re more likely to use subtle manipulation to get recognition, support or sympathy. They’ll find ways to always turn the topic of conversation to themselves (and disengage completely or change the subject if they’re not the centre of attention).

Unlike the more boastful narcissist, the covert narcissist often talks about about how disappointed or lonely they feel because no-one understands or appreciates them. The vulnerable narcissist may present themselves as selfless, big-hearted and “giving without any expectation of return” and yet they’ll be the first to complain if they believe their kindness is not reciprocated.

While narcissists are often accused of lacking empathy, the closet narcissist will present themselves as caring and compassionate as a strategy to garner attention and praise, which means they’ll often make sure any generous act they perform is on full display.

2. They’re passive aggressive

Grandiose narcissists are known for their rage. They can be explosive if you confront or criticise them. The vulnerable narcissist, on the other hand, is more likely to use passive aggressive tactics because their sense of self is too fragile for direct confrontation. They might ‘forget’ to pass on important details about events or leave it until the last minute to share information that doesn’t give you time to prepare.

At work they believe they’re more intelligent and superior to everyone else so they might avoid doing work they believe is beneath them. They may have a pattern of not getting along with the boss because they don’t handle feedback well and always think they know better (in fact, they believe they should be the boss).

Another passive aggressive tactic is to give back-handed compliments or offer ‘friendly advice’ that is actually insulting or critical. They will always be the first to point out any mistake you make but they’ll wrap it up in a way that makes them sound like it’s really because they care.

3. They’re thin-skinned

Narcissists of all kinds don’t take criticism well. Nothing is ever their fault and they typically don’t ever apologise.

Covert narcissists are hyper-sensitive to criticism, and their emotional instability makes them prone to depression and anxiety. They’re wounded by any perceived slight, deeply insecure and extremely defensive, unable to take on board any kind of negative feedback. For this reason, they’re often referred to as ‘thin-skinned’.

Often they’ll pretend to brush off criticism as if they’re unaffected by it, using sarcasm or off-hand remarks to hide the fact they feel insulted, humiliated and angry. If they feel you’ve attacked them or said anything at all that portrays them in a negative light, they’re more likely to cut you off than have a direct conversation or be open to listening to your feedback.

Criticism evokes feelings of shame, which can cause them to be vindictive. They typically will hold a grudge and perhaps even spend time secretly plotting revenge.

4. They’re competitive and jealous

The vulnerable narcissist does not take kindly to someone else getting the attention or praise they believe they deserve. If the focus is on someone else, they might try to ‘one-up’ the person or else they might criticise, dismiss or devalue the other person’s achievement. Alternatively, they check out of the conversation completely, change the subject and probably simmer with resentment.

Just like the more obvious grandiose narcissist, they are obsessed with image and if you are famous, successful or popular, they will want to be associated with you because it reflects well on them. But if you don’t reciprocate their admiration, they will feign disinterest, devaluing and ignoring anything you do.

5. They’re uniquely miserable

The covert narcissist has a victim mentality and they believe that whatever struggle they are experiencing is unique and special. They are always more stressed, more misunderstood and having to deal with more problems than anyone else.

Because they fail to take any responsibility, their suffering is always someone else’s fault. Sometimes their unique struggle is that they’re just so much more sensitive, caring and giving than anyone else, always going above and beyond to be helpful to others (and then complaining that others let them down in their time of need).

They will often use their challenges as evidence that they would be achieving the success and recognition they deserve if only they had all the advantages that someone else has.

The line isn’t hard and fast

While it helps people to gain clarity by having a sense of the difference between an overt, grandiose narcissist and a sensitive, vulnerable one, the truth is grandiose narcissists can be vulnerable and vulnerable narcissists will have moments of grandiosity. For this reason, some professionals find it unhelpful to create sub-categories of narcissism.

It’s also true that many, many people (including you and me) possess narcissistic traits, without necessarily meeting criteria for what might be described as a narcissistic personality style or a full blown narcissistic personality disorder.

While we don’t need to run around categorising or labelling people, if you are in a relationship or a workplace with someone who possesses these traits, it definitely IS helpful to recognise the signs that will help you make decisions and perhaps give you some insight into the behaviours you’re dealing with. “Gaslighting” (or causing you to questions yourself and your own judgement) is common with narcissists and so, the sooner you recognise those signs the better able you’ll be to protect yourself.

For more on this topic, you might be interested in the work of W. Keith Campbell who wrote “The New Science of Narcissim”.

Does any of this sound familiar to you? Drop me a comment below if you’ve ever had a covert narcissist in your life. It’s super helpful for other readers to get a sense of the types of behaviours to look out for.

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5 Signs You’re Dating a Narcissist

June 28, 2020

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)

3. Devaluing

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.

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3 steps to bouncing back from failure fast

May 28, 2020
failure to success

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.

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?

Cass Dunn XO signature

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!


5 ways to manage overwhelm

September 2, 2019
managing your overwhelmed emotions

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.

5.     Breathe

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. 

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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


Do you have psychological insight?

July 29, 2019
Psychological insight

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

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

1.      Have people you trust

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

2.     Look for patterns

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

3.     Learn to like yourself (warts and all)

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

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

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Read next article: The art of mindful communication


5 steps to setting healthy boundaries

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

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

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

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

1.     Go with your gut

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

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

2.     Get clear on your values

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

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

3.     Speak up

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

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

4. Tolerate a little discomfort

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

5. Start small if you have to

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

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

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Read next article: Do you have psychological insight?


How to be less emotionally reactive

July 15, 2019
girl being emotionally reactive

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

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

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

1.     Start with mindfulness

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

Viktor E. Frankl

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

2.     Identify what you’re feeling

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

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

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

3.     Focus on what matters most

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

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

4.      Count to 10

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

5.     Respond, don’t react

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

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

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Do you need to stop apologising?

July 8, 2019
girl apologising by writing a note

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Take a breath

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

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

2. Swap it out

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

3. Offer a solution

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

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

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

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