The Return of Foggy

Sometimes (well most of the time) I write this blog to help me put what is going on in my head in some order. This is one of those blogs.

I knew this time of year was always going to be difficult after Mum died, granted also it has only been 3 months since she left us, so it was always going to be more acute this year. I also expected Foggy (my Black Dog for those of you who maybe new to my blog) to attempt to make a return. Saying that he still took me by surprise.

He made his dramatic return during my eldest son’s Graduation, a wonderful day celebrating his success in achieving his degree in Music Journalism. Myself and Lisa were so proud of him, we were all there. Lisa, Jack, Olivia (Ben’s partner) and myself. There was someone missing, someone who was so proud of all of her Grandchildren and burst with pride when he told her his results back in the summer. Now I was expecting to be very emotional as because of this, and that was fine, everyone expected this emotion and all of the family were waiting for my tears. My family are very well aware of my emotional nature, and will often anticipate this, especially Jack, who seems to have a sixth sense when it comes to recognising people’s emotions. Jack during the day stayed close to me throughout, just letting me know he had me, he is truly an exceptional young man. As I said this was expected by myself and my family, what I was not prepared for was my anxiety.

It started the day before when we were travelling to Manchester, I was wound so incredibly tight. Lisa was too we both felt nervous and worried. I was worried about keeping my emotions under check, I was worried about sleeping away from home, about being away from home, I was worried about Lisa, about Ben and about Jack. I was hyperalert, it is only now as I reflect on it that I realise how much of an impact it was having on me physically and emotionally. It was a glorious day, a truly wonderful celebration and I was so proud of Ben, not just for Graduating but for being such a fantastic young man. I just wished I was more relaxed and less anxious, so I could have enjoyed the moment more. What I do have are the photographs and video of a grinning super proud young man, that once the memory of my anxiety fades will remind me of what a special day that was. Ben, Gran would have burst with pride if she had been there, in fact I suspect me and her would have made quite a scene.

Since that day I have been on full alert, my shoulders, neck and hands have been tense, I have a constant background headache, and worried about everything. I have been waking up worried, not about anything in particular, just worried about everything, that might potentially be worth worrying about, like have I missed something at work, or had I upset someone. Any feedback I have received has been perceived as a personal attack, that Foggy has used to remind me how useless I am and how this confirms that I am not up to my job and I am a failure as a man. This is what I am waking up to every morning. Most of the time as my day progresses this starts to settle down, I try not to push Foggy away, I let him say his piece and sit with the pain it causes me. This will often be enough and Foggy will let then let me go about my day, without his interference, however he will make sure I am on full alert just in case. Anything that could be taken as a threat is either acted on by Foggy immediately or is stored for comment in the early hours of the morning.

I have been here before, Foggy for many years was a regular companion providing a running commentary on my life. It took me a long time to recognise who he was, and that he was symptom, a reaction to major events in my life, and it took me even longer to learn how to live with him and quieten his voice. Now he is back with a vengeance, this time however I recognised him quite quickly, not as quick as I would have liked but that is how he works, he is a sneaky bastard. He may be back, but I know I have the tools to manage him. The problem is managing him at the height of his powers is painful and distressing. I have to let this anxiety happen, I have to continue to allow myself to grieve, and understand the importance of this grief. I know if I do this my anxiety will subside and Foggy will fade back to his shadows.

So if you know me, be patient with me, expect I might be defensive, I might be slightly less sociable than normal. If you resonate with some of what I have said, if you feel something similar take comfort in knowing it is normal, but don’t suffer alone, talk to people you trust about how you feel. If you continue to struggle seek professional help from your GP or via NHS Direct

Take care.

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Connecting to My Story

Stories of My Well Being

Since becoming an adult I have struggled with my mental health and well-being. Over the years this has manifested itself in a number of ways, ranging from general anxiety, self-hatred and physical symptoms. I was going to say I manage to avoid a dependency on this journey, but that would not be strictly correct. From the age of 16 until I was 44 I had an addiction to nicotine and I definitely used that as a crutch. Throughout my adult life my depression manifested itself as a physical ailment, generally I would present with joint and back pain. The pain I was experiencing was very real, however maybe not as severe as I felt it was. All the diagnostics came back negative each time. Eventually I was referred to the community pain team. This team was made up of a nurse, a physio a doctor and a psychologist. Each member of the team would take it in turns to triage new referrals. I was triaged (luckily for me) by the psychologist, who ended up continuing to see me. He started me on my journey of recovery from my back and joint pain and on my journey for managing my mental health and well-being. I recognised that my back pain was a useful framework for my poor mental health to take hold of my life, it also provided a shield for hiding my shame.

I had 4 sessions with the psychologists where we talked about how it all started and eventually how I found the pain useful, actively seeking it out to give me something to hide behind. When the negative thoughts were too much I would concentrate on pain in my back, telling myself and all those around me that is was the pain that was too much to cope with, allowing me to withdraw from the world. In my eyes it gave me a legitimate excuse not to be at work, to be grumpy and sit in front of the TV. Being away from the world does not help your depression however, the pain is still the same, the only relief is that you don’t have to interact with people.

As I said though these sessions changed my relationship with my back pain. For the first time I had permission to talk about the real reasons for my pain. It was just like shining a light on those childhood night-time demons that lurk in the corner of your bedroom. When you shine that light you realise it is just a dressing gown. I started talking about the triggers for my pain, that made them somehow smaller. This was not an overnight sensation, however it showed me what was triggering my feelings of anxiety and how that manifested itself in me becoming tense and therefore creating that pain. Some of the anxieties were connected to unhelpful habits, others were reactions to what Professor Steve Peters would call my Gremlins. Gremlins are unhelpful negative memories associated with certain situations, places, sounds and smells. These gremlins would trigger those anxious feelings. By recognising these triggers I could start rewriting those memories with benign memories. Most of these gremlins were not based in fact but came from assumptions I was making about my relationship with the place I worked and the people I was working with. This was a long slow process but I did start to rewrite those memories. I now do not experience anxiety when I approach my work place. I still experienced pain for a good 3 months after being discharged from the pain team, but my relationship with the pain had changed and I no longer used it as a shield, I was beginning to manage my feelings by facing them. I stopped catastrophizing the pain and accepted that my back was hurting because of the tension I was creating and once I relaxed, the pain would subside. I was then able to carry on with whatever I was doing and eventually the pain would diminish.

With regards to my anxiety I still have episodes of anxiety and low mood, sometimes on a weekly or even daily basis. The difference now is I do not deny these feelings, I am now willing to accept that this pain is psychological. It is still pain and I feel it as I would any other physical pain. Painkillers are not going to work, I once tried antidepressants when I first acknowledged that my mental health required attention. I am no longer on antidepressants, I came off them under the supervision of my GP. So far in this chapter I have been reluctant to call what I was suffering from depression. Now in my blogs I have called it depression, but then when I hear about what people who suffer from depression go through I am more inclined to think I have low mood and anxiety as a result of not paying attention to my mental health, which is very different from having a diagnosed condition. My GP called it mild depression, and prescribed antidepressants for a few months in the first instance with regular check-ups . In the end I was on them for a year. In hindsight I was grateful for them, they gave me the time and space to get use to paying attention to my mental health. Once I had come off them I felt able to be open about my feelings, and start looking for ways to look after my well-being. As I said I do not believe I was depressed or mentally ill, I believe I was mentally unhealthy, just as I was physically unhealthy. Essentially I had been neglecting myself and was paying the price for that.

This blog is not about mental health or ill-health it is essentially to help you pay attention to your well-being. If you believe that you may be depressed or suffering from anxiety, then speak to a health professional. If you think you are suffering from any illness that is having a debilitating effect on your life then you need to be assessed and diagnosed by a Doctor, whether that is appendicitis or depression they are both potentially life threatening illnesses that require assessment and treatment immediately, take it seriously and get yourself checked out.

If you are feeling essentially well or just a bit clunky and under the weather then this chapter may well help you stay mentally healthy and even make you feel significantly better.

My story of positive emotion

I have always had an abundance of positive emotion. I love a good laugh, I am always cracking jokes. That was true but when I looked deeper I asked myself how often I smiled, I mean really smiled. How often did I look at the world and see more than just my surroundings, how often did I see my beautiful surroundings. I remembered being on holiday in Thailand and having my breath taken away by the beauty of the country. I asked myself since then, how many times had I felt that. I struggled to be honest. I can tell you now every time I take my dog for a walk, go for a run, or just look up at the sky I feel joyful and grateful for living in a beautiful country. I listen to music and smile, I laugh out loud daily. I feel joy when I see family and friends. I smile when I see or hear that a friend is doing well.

My story of engagement

I suppose once I get out there,  running is engaging, but I have to get out there and I have to get into the rhythm of the running before it becomes mentally effortless. Reading a good book I suppose creates the most engagement for me, and most of all researching for this book, reading about how the mind works, how we behave and what makes us successful and effective. I love reading about this, I love talking about it as well, I love giving masterclasses and lectures on this subject. That creates the most engagement for me. I can spend hours prattling on about how to empty your bucket, understand your stressors and connect with each other. I love it, it energises me and the better the response from my audience the more engaged I become. So there we are that is my engagement. This stuff, my passion provides me with engagement.

Do you look up and realise hours have gone? One common activity that creates engagement is catching up with a best friend over a coffee that leads to several coffees and then a race across town to pick the kids from school, because you completely lost track of time, catching up on old times. Some of you might get engrossed in a good book, sometimes that might be a new book or an old favourite. Whenever there is a new Jack Reacher story I will pre-order it and devour it as quickly as possible, I will binge read it in about 2 sittings.  Other people love to curl up with a favourite book, something they have read it over and over again, it gives them comfort and transports them to another time, without any effort or too much thought.

Music is another way to create that engagement, either playing or listening. Music like many engaging activities also creates a positive emotion. It is obvious really that for you to be engaged in an activity that you enjoy it.

Do you take part in engaging activities regularly?

My story of relationships

Loneliness is a real problem in modern society. In 2018 The Office for National Statistics  released a report on the characteristics and circumstances that are associated with loneliness. The findings are not unsurprising but stark all the same. 1 in 20 adults reported feelings of loneliness between 2016 and 2017.

You are more likely to experience loneliness if you, are single or bereaved. People with long-term illnesses are also more likely to experience loneliness. If you live in rented accommodation, and feel disconnected with your community you are more likely to be lonely. What was quite striking for me was that people aged between 16 to 24 are more likely to be lonely than any other group.

Being single or bereaved, having a long-term condition and even disconnection with the community are unsurprising causes of loneliness. At first glance though the fact that young people are more likely to be lonely than older age groups is surprising. I don’t know about you, but when I imagine lonely people I think of a little old lady or man sat in a flat, not a young adult. In fact over 75s are 63% less likely to report loneliness. That really surprised me. The ONS provides a couple of explanations; a) older people have developed a resilience to loneliness, as a result of adverse life events; or (and this will make you sit up and notice) b) most of the lonely people are already dead before they get to 75! According to the ONS loneliness increases mortality by 25%, so being lonely reduces your life expectancy. It is vital not only to your state of mind, but to your life that you seek out positive relationships. You won’t only be having an impact on your life, but the life of the person you are connecting with.

If you see the same person every day, on the train or the bus, or in the lift, start with a smile, then progress to a hello. Now not everyone will respond, but there will be people willing to connect that will say hello.I can think of a number of people who I have connected with, and have a positive, friendly relationship with, that started with a smile and a nod of the head. If you think about it all our relationships start with at least 2 people who have never met before (even your mum and dad). Be bold give them a smile, let them know that you believe there is more that connects you with them, than disconnects you.

My story of meaning

Does your life have meaning? Is there a purpose to what you do every day? Putting it another way, what gets you out of bed in the morning?   I have asked myself this question many times, and I always come up with these three things:

A Dad to my boys

An Educator

A  Coach

Essentially all of these roles (Parent, Educator and Coach) all provide the same meaning for me. That is caring for and supporting my fellow human beings. I hope I have a positive impact on the people I meet. Being an active positive member of the human race is my meaning. It is as simple as that. These roles live up to my core value of being useful (something we will come to later).

When I had poor mental health and spent time away from work, I was disconnected from my meaning. I didn’t feel I made a positive contribution to the people around me. At the time I was a Ward Manager and was deeply unhappy with what I perceived my role to be and started to disengage with the job. There was a clear gap in my view between my values and what was expected of me. My job no longer had meaning as far as I could see. When I was a Staff Nurse I was caring for my patients, using empathy and compassion, something I felt comfortable doing. I assumed that being a Charge Nurse meant that I would extend this care to my staff as well as my patients. However at the time these attributes were not valued for managers. Coming to work and not being valued had a terrible effect on me and I could not see any meaning to what I was doing and who I was. My mental health suffered and eventually I became so unwell I went off sick. I was not ready to be open about my mental health at the time. My poor mental health manifested itself as back pain. Nurses notoriously have bad backs, so the normal aches and pains became unbearable pain. I would find myself in unguarded moments holding myself with so much tension to create more pain in my back. I couldn’t stop it; I needed the pain so I did not have to engage with the world. Being off sick removed nearly all meaning to my life. I only had being a parent to hang on to, but I didn’t always recognise it. It was a vicious circle, the more time I spent off work the less meaning my life had. The less meaning my life had the worse my mental health became. At the time I was not aware that any of this was going on in my head, I had convinced myself that my back was the problem.

As you know there was a happy ending for me. The psychologist who saw me and helped me realise that my poor mental health was driving my back pain, gave me a way back into the world and reconnecting with my meaning. This didn’t happen overnight as you know the struggles with my poor mental health continued for a while longer. My journey to good mental health is relatively recent. Since becoming Lead Coach and a Senior Organisational Development Practitioner I have developed a clear sense of meaning in my life. Becoming an internal coach has given me the confidence to start a blog and do some life coaching, which have all added to this sense that my life has meaning because I contribute positively to the human race.

My story of accomplishment

What have you achieved? It doesn’t have to be a dramatic achievement, like a first class honours degree or running the London Marathon (although there are plenty people I know who have done this). Accomplishment means you have achieved what you set out to do. It does need to have been challenging though. It needs to have required effort on your part. We have all achieved something in our lifetime. Can you remember that feeling you got from that sense of accomplishment, being able to complete something you have never done before?

On many occasions this accomplishment comes alongside the other PERMA components. For instance learning to play a musical instrument or singing in a choir creates positive emotion, engagement, possible positive relationships if you are in a choir or a band, even meaning as music entertains others. Then when you can either play a piece of music that is recognisable or you sing with your choir at a concert, you have accomplished something.

The question is do you challenge yourself to accomplish something most days? It does not have to be really hard, but should challenge you. I go for a run at least once a week I don’t run far or very fast but I do it, and every week I accomplish running at least 1 or 2 miles and even 3 miles. I always aim to exercise for 30 minutes and push myself each time to be out for a little longer. Every week I write at least one blog, to me I have accomplished getting my message across, hopefully bringing some light to someone’s darkness. When it is published on my website I look at it and think, I made that. What have you made this week?

My Story of Shame and Vulnerability

Our shame diminishes us; it stops us being vulnerable and therefore connected with those around us. Shame can quickly turn into blame, and jealousy, it encourages us to search for what disconnects us rather than what connects us.

When I think about what I am ashamed of, I realise that I have heard a lot of the descriptions I use from other people. We share a lot of our shame with the people around us. How ridiculous is that? So we all share common themes in the very thing that causes us not share and drives disconnection!

Now not all of our shame is shared by everyone, however the broad themes of our shame are. To illustrate this I will list a few things that create feelings of shame in me;

  • Not being handy, I am completely inept at all things DIY, every time a craftsman, my brother in law, or my brother does some work around my house I feel that I am somehow less of a man. (I know it makes no sense and what I can and cannot do does not define me, but that is my initial feeling).
  • Having poor mental health, when my mental health is poor and my mood is low, I instantly go to a place of shame. I want to hide it away, I am afraid that I appear weak and flawed. Now this is an initial response, and I am able to overcome this shame, however every time I feel low I go straight to feeling ashamed and wanting to hide away.
  • Being overweight, I am not comfortable with how I look, it makes me feel like I am somehow a failure. I can hear you all shouting “go on a diet then!” You are right, I could do something about it. I have made attempts in the past with varying degrees of success. This then drives that shame of being weak willed and a complete failure. Oh god I can feel my jaw getting tight with shame just writing about it.

Some of you will recognise those feelings of shame that I have described. There are a lot more where they came from, but let’s not over share.

You will notice that our society and culture drive the three triggers of shame I have described. If you are going to be a successful man in our society you have to be able to build and maintain your home, keep your shit together and be pleasant on the eye, amongst many other things, which I probably do not possess.

Our shame and vulnerability is shaped by our map of the world (our paradigm). It is probably best to describe paradigms before we start to talk about how to tackle our shame and embrace our vulnerability.

Stephen Covey describes paradigms as our maps of the world. What is important to remember though is that a map is an interpretation of the territory before us and not the actual territory. It is important to make this distinction, as we will all have different interpretations of our territory even though we may share that territory with others. Our experiences and how we interact with our territory will determine how we draw/paint our map. The stories we are told will all add to the detail of our maps. The stories we hear come from a variety of sources, not just our families, but from our local community, news media, social media, and fictional media. This therefore creates a rich and detailed map that does share some similarities with those people we share a culture with. Below is a picture that is used frequently to describe paradigms and perception. Some of you will recognise it, and be able to see both the old lady and the young lady. Some of you will only be able to see one or the other.

Once you see either the old lady or the young lady for the first time, your paradigm has shifted and more detail is added to the map of your world. You will forever be able to see both. As we interact more with our surroundings the more detail we add to our map. These interactions create more data, which is then incorporated into our ever expanding map, however how we view this data is dependent on our previous experience with similar data. The problem is those previous experiences may not be our own, and may come from stories, many of which might not be completely factual. Can you see why parts of our map of the world might not be completely useful to us, and in fact can be destructive? It is important to challenge ours and others paradigms if we want to start to step out of this shame that our paradigms can generate.

So how do our paradigms shape our shame? It is probably best if we dissect some of the shame I experience and discover where it comes from. Let’s look at the shame driven by my body image. This is based on a few different paradigms. Firstly I see that our culture values men that are slim, muscular and athletic, and I am none of them, however if I ate correctly and exercised regularly I would have a body like this. Our society values people that eat healthily and exercise well, therefore I see people that live up to this ideal as successful. I do not live up to this ideal therefore I am not successful. Occasionally I will make half-hearted attempts to live up to this ideal and then give up, therefore I am a failure and therefore I am less valuable as a person, and that is where my shame comes from. If we don’t live up to our paradigms we can feel less valuable as a member of our community and this makes us feel ashamed. There is no reason why I don’t live a healthy lifestyle other than I choose not to, and if I don’t challenge my paradigm I feel really ashamed of this.

Up until a few years ago I was a smoker, this was a source of great shame. Everyone knows smoking is unacceptable (another paradigm), therefore every time I lit up a cigarette I would feel ashamed, every time I tried and failed to give up I would feel more ashamed. To all of you out there that smoke, you know it is bad for you, you know all of the reasons why you should give up, however the reasons you continue to smoke are just as valid. By all means feel guilty for smelling like an ashtray, and making others cough. But you smoking does not diminish you as a person, I would still like you if you are funny and caring, you being a smoker does not change that, so don’t be ashamed, feel guilty but not ashamed. Guilt does not diminish you as a person, it accepts that you are as complex and flawed as the next person, and that we make mistakes and make poor decisions.

So how do we keep our shame in check? I don’t believe we can ever defeat our shame but we can keep it in check. The first thing to do is to think more critically about why we feel ashamed. What is our view of the world based on? Is it based on fact, or from stories we have been told. If it is based on stories, how accurate are those stories? Our paradigms come from our memory banks, and the problem with our memory banks is that they are generally a mix of fact and fiction. Therefore how reliable are our paradigms. If our paradigms struggle to stand up to critical review, why do we put so much store in them, and why should they drive so much shame? Just asking yourself why you think that way, can start to diminish your shame.

Let’s put this to the test with my body image shame. My shame is partly driven by my inability to stick to a diet and healthy lifestyle. When I think about it, the paradigm I am stuck in, is that I should find living a healthy lifestyle easy and therefore my inability to do this means I am somehow less of a person.

Now how does this stand up to scrutiny?

What evidence do I have that supports this paradigm?

Pictures of smiling toned healthy people on social media telling me how much they enjoy drinking kale and beetroot smoothies, and doing the plank.

How reliable is this source? Have I ever seen someone drinking a kale and beetroot smoothie or doing the plank in the flesh?

No I haven’t.

Have I ever drunk a kale and beetroot smoothie, if so what did it taste like?

Yes I have and it was the most disgusting thing ever.

Have you ever done the plank, and if so did you feel like smiling when you were doing it?

Yes I have, and no, I tried not to be sick if I am honest.

Just writing this has reduced my shame.

When you start picking apart your shame and what drives it, you start to treat yourself with empathy, you start to understand your own emotional response to your shame, this allows you to show yourself some compassion. Brene Brown in her books Daring Greatly, and Dare to Lead suggests that empathy is the antidote to shame. Empathy and compassion shine a light on that shame.

We are more accustomed to hearing about empathy and compassion in the context of showing them to others. This comes next as being empathic with others really does put that shame in a box. Brene also points out that, to truly be able to show empathy to others you have to be comfortable showing yourself empathy. Once you have started to diminish your shame you are able to successfully articulate your emotions when feeling that shame. When a friend is experiencing shame you are then able to draw on your own experience of shame, and can share those emotions with them. When we start sharing what shames us we start to recognise that many of the paradigms that drive our shame are shared by the people around us. When we notice that we share those emotions, and that diminishes the shame further.

By being present and responding to what is really happening, rather than anticipating what might happen based on what we believe has happened in the past, or what we believe people will think of us, and sharing those feelings, we can keep our shame in check. I don’t think it is possible to banish our shame completely but we can prevent it from ruling our lives.

We can often confuse guilt with shame. Now guilt is an emotion we feel after we have behaved badly or done something wrong. Guilt is nothing like shame. When you behave badly and subsequently feel guilty you are acknowledging that you have behaved in a way that you do not find acceptable, and that you are sorry that you behaved that way. Guilt provides the opportunity to make amends, to show accountability. By expressing guilt you are saying that you are not less of a person because of your behaviour, and you want to make it better. Shame says that as a result of your behaviour you see yourself as a bad person. For example if I feel guilty that I have not been able to stick to a diet, I am saying that I am not happy that I have not been able to stick to it, but I am not a failure, I do however need to find a diet and adjust my attitude to having a healthy lifestyle. My shame however says that I am a failure and I deserve to be fat and unhealthy, and I will always be fat and unhealthy, because I am useless. I much prefer to feel guilt. Guilt demonstrates dissatisfaction with the current status quo without diminishing my sense of self-worth.

If we want to tackle our shame, and start making meaningful changes to our lives we have to challenge our paradigms, start practicing empathy and sharing what drives our shame with the people we care about. It is possible to manage our shame, we just have to start being kinder to ourselves and each other.

The other day I was facilitating a team building session, and I had asked the participants to pick out at least 5 values that they felt were important to them. Not what they thought they should value but what they really valued. This is more challenging than you think it might be. As it is difficult to find the words that describe your values I provided them with 3 pages of words that describe their values. I then invited them to use the lists of values to start them off, but reminded them that they were not wedded to that list. Nobody used any values that were not on the list. Now this could have been that they were happy with the wide selection, or that they did not feel comfortable enough to tap into their individuality for fear of getting it wrong. This fear is driven by our shame. We all know how shame attempts to diminish us to make us less of a person. We all know now how to combat this shame. We do that by confronting it and talking about it with our fellow ashamed friends and colleagues. The problem is, that you have only just read the chapter on how to combat that shame. Fair enough you may have read Brene Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability, but shifting your shameful paradigm takes a lot of practice flexing your empathy muscle. So what else is there to do but avoid shame at all costs by not putting yourself at risk of mucking things up. “Probably best if you play it safe….remember the last time you tried to express your opinion at a meeting….you made yourself look a right tit”. I have said that to myself so many times. It has always led to me keeping my mouth shut in a meeting instead of letting people know, what I have observed or experienced as I was fearful that I would not be taken seriously and be dismissed, therefore diminishing my self-worth. The problem is with this approach is that it can end up having the same effect as the one you were trying to avoid. People could start to think that Matthew never contributes to meetings, he somehow appears disinterested, and is not engaged. Don’t get me wrong embracing your vulnerability is not about running off at the mouth at every opportunity. But perhaps I could have just been vulnerable and spoken up, and trusted my judgement that what I had to say had value. If it didn’t then the conversation would move on, I may feel a little silly, but I it has not harmed me.

The difficulty with avoiding vulnerability is that it is driven by our limbic system or mammalian brain, as is shame. It is evolutionary necessary for us to live in groups (something we will look at in depth later in this book). So it is important to us not to look foolish, as foolish means weak and less useful to the group, which may lead to us being cast out and left to starve to death lonely and unloved. Yeah I know a little extreme. The thing is the limbic system is primitive and it’s primary function is to keep us and our species alive. It does not care which century we are in or how dangerous our outside world is. If it is left unchecked it will assume any threat is a threat to life unless advised otherwise. Therefore when you notice that another member of your team is ridiculed behind their back for making a suggestion at a meeting, your limbic system makes a note to put in your memory bank, so the next time you are in a meeting and consider making a suggestion your limbic system, goes and gets that note and waves it in your face, saying don’t do it, you then get that funny feeling in your stomach and your mouth goes dry and you say nothing. The urge to say nothing is as strong as it would be if you were alive a thousand years ago about to question the leadership qualities of your village chieftain. Only you are not likely to be cast out or get your head chopped off. The limbic system has no understanding the current political climate it is just interested in you staying alive, it leaves all that stuff up to your frontal lobe.

So there you are embracing your vulnerability and confronting your shame is not going to be easy. Your limbic system is always going to scupper things and avoid vulnerability at all costs. Don’t worry though there is a way to manage how your limbic system responds.

Before we explore how to create the right conditions for you to be able to vulnerable it is important to explain why avoiding vulnerability and being a slave to your shame is not just toxic, it can be downright dangerous. Vulnerability avoidance can stop us from speaking up or acting when we see things are going wrong, things have been missed or when someone is acting with malicious intent. History is littered with testimony from bystanders that either did not think it was there place to say anything, they didn’t like to say anything or they were too afraid to say or do anything. I am not saying that to be able to embrace vulnerability you should put yourself in harm’s way. There have been occasions in history and to this day where people may be in mortal danger if they spoke up or acted on what they saw. Some of those people put themselves at risk and others didn’t, now that is a whole other debate that I have no wish to get into. If your life is in danger you are going to make decisions based on your values and what you are faced with. I am more concerned with situations much more commonplace, situations that happen on a daily basis.

When I was a  Clinical Nurse Educator I taught Human Factors (risk management) to Health Professionals. The basic premise of this is that we are all at risk of making errors or contributing to errors as part of the error chain. One of those human factors that creates an environment for error is a steep authority gradient, where someone is clearly in charge. This leader however is not interested in discussion, and likes to let everyone know that they are in charge. Everyone is expected to do as they are told and there are consequences for disobedience. No doubt you can all think of examples of leaders like this either first hand or through stories. So imagine you are working in an environment like this, say for instance that you are a junior nurse on your first ward and you are involved in the resuscitation of a patient. The resuscitation is being performed by a domineering Consultant who is barking orders at everybody. All involved are clearly nervous, and no one is acting until they are told to do so by the Consultant. You notice that the green oxygen tubing that is attached to the bag and mask that the consultant is using to provide respirations to the patient is not attached to anything. It is you first ward but you are pretty sure that your tutor told you that the oxygen should be attached when using the bag and mask, but the Consultant is really shouting at everyone and you are too afraid to speak up just in case you have got it wrong. That patient subsequently dies, now how would you feel? Like you I would like to think that I would have spoken up, and faced the wrath of the consultant, and some of you would, but there are some of you who wouldn’t. Now imagine you are 18 and that Consultant is in his 50s with 30 years’ experience as a Doctor, how easy do you think it would be. This is not a real example, however I have witnessed situations where an authority gradient has put patients at risk, and I have read incident reports from all over the world describing this behaviour. There lies another problem, we have all heard examples of this behaviour and have a perception of the type of people and the situations where this authority gradient might be present. When you hear these stories your limbic system becomes very interested and lays down memories in your memory bank, just in case you encounter such people or those situations. So when you come across something that remotely looks familiar your limbic system leaps into action to ensure your safety. So regardless of whether or not this person and the culture they work within operate a steep authority gradient, you will behave as if there is one. So you start to perceive that if you speak up or act on your initiative that you will face sanctions regardless of the lack of concrete evidence. This perception of a steep authority gradient is just as dangerous as a real authority gradient. Our limbic system is on the whole very useful but it can be a right pain in the arse if you don’t manage it.

How do we embrace our vulnerability. What makes us do the things that make us vulnerable, like telling someone we love them, or walking in to that interview for a job? Well in those two circumstances it is the limbic system that can drive you taking the risk. After all the limbic system is interested in keeping you alive and keeping the species going. So it stands to reason that your mammalian brain would not have too much trouble doing either. After all having a good job and a partner are indications of being successful in our society (pack if you like). However speaking out when you think something is wrong can be very different, as I discussed earlier. So how can some people stand and say something when they notice someone senior doing something wrong and how can I get up and speak to large groups of people when it makes me so nervous.

The stories we tell ourselves have a big influence on whether or not we are willing to embrace our vulnerability. The stories we tell ourselves are influenced by the stories we hear from our friends and family, and then the myths and folklore we hear, as we grow up and what we hear at work. All of this fact and fiction from a such a wide variety of sources is all jumbled up filed in our memory bank, to be used at a later date either by our human brain or our chimp brain. In his book The Chimp Paradox Professor Steve Peters describes these memories as either autopilots (positive) or gremlins (negative). So when the mammalian brain goes running off to the memory bank to look for precedent to justify its continued involvement in the situation and its subsequent actions to keep you safe, it comes across either gremlins that justify its involvement or autopilots where it can handover control of the situation to the human brain. The trick is then to create autopilots or positive/benign memories for certain situations that we have come across where our mammalian brain has stepped in and prevented us from embracing our vulnerability. The thing is our memory bank is not that great at distinguishing between fact and fiction. When we start talking about and sharing our memories, especially those that drive our shame, then we can run them past our human brain and the human brains of our companions. With everyone in the room using their human brains we can fact check the information we hold about certain people, places and situations. It is then possible to rearrange previously held inaccurate memories that were gremlins, so they become autopilots. As mentioned in previous chapters talking and sharing shines a light on shame and changes it from a monster to in the corner of the room to your dressing gown hanging on the door. When collecting new information be sure to check the facts. Practice thinking critically, don’t just take things at face value, check what assumptions you are making about the information you are being presented with, how much of it is true and how much is just made up, and how can you check how accurate it is. Most things are never as bad as they seem. Notice I wrote the word practice, thinking critically is not an easy thing for most of us to do. So if you really are serious about embracing your vulnerability you really will have to practice examine some of the stories we hear that become part of our memory bank. Now the questions you ask yourself are very similar to those you ask when examining your shame. After All this stories and memories form the basis of that shame that stops you from being vulnerable. Below is a quick checklist to use when confronted with new stories or when you are examining old memories.

Did I witness it first hand?

If not

How reliable is the source of information?

What assumptions am I making about this information?

How can I check its validity?

Do I believe it?

If I do believe it what are the implications?

I know it can be a little bit laborious to start with, ut once you start practicing it does get easier and easier.

I mentioned it earlier that I get nervous every time I teach or speak publicly as most people do. When I was younger it did it so much so that I just would not do it. Even up to 6 years ago when I became a clinical nurse educator I really struggled to stand up in front of people. The story I told myself was that I was boring, I had nothing important to say and more importantly the audience thought I was stupid and useless. When I examined this story critically I established that yes I could be a little boring at times and there were sometimes gaps in my knowledge. I could however change those things by listening to what people needed, knowing the subject and adding a bit of myself to the teaching. When it came to the audience having a poor opinion of me as a person I exposed very quickly that this had no basis on fact and existed in my mind and nowhere else. Now no doubt there will be people who do not like me, but I cannot do anything about that. So I adjusted what I needed to do and regularly enter the arena of the classroom or lecture theatre. I am still scared and nervous but I am able embrace my vulnerability as my chimp mind only now sees autopilots in my memory bank instead of gremlins.

It’s a balancing act

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I am doing a course on Coaching Supervision with work, and as with a lot of courses that are worthwhile it has got me thinking how some of the ideas discussed will inform my practice.

Coaching Supervision is essentially an element of the wider discipline of supervision for helping professions, such as Clinical Psychologists, Therapists, Nurses, Social Workers, etc. Now this got me thinking about leaders right across all industries, leaders essential experience similar stresses and tensions to helping professions. Now I know for some this may be controversial but being an effective leader is a helping professional.

Helping professionals generally have 3 masters that compete for time and attention, sometimes they are in harmony and sometimes they are in tension. These masters are:

  • Their own lives (their well-being, home lives)
  • The recipients of their help (patients, clients, customers, or in the case of leaders their team)
  • The sponsors of the help (the organisation they work for, professional body, major stakeholders)

In more complex working arrangements there may be more as the three elements branch out, if there are competing forces within the element. Most jobs have varying degrees of complexity at different times, therefore they can fluctuate between 3 and 6 elements depending on the demands of the work at this time.

If you are a leader you will recognise those completing tensions all pulling on your attention and time. Satisfying the needs of one will compromise the needs of another. Depending on your perspective you may have more of an affiliation to one more than the other. For instance if you have been promoted out of the team, you may hold a narrative that you are going to be a more compassionate supportive leader than the last one, and you want to maintain existing friendships in the team. This may result in you avoiding decisions that may be difficult to sell to your team. Or you might have come into the role with a very clear vision to improve the experience for the user and focus solely on doing this without taking into consideration the needs of yourself, the organisation, and the team. These are extreme viewpoints but there are times when we can pay more attention to one than the other, and there are times when the pressure exerted by one of the elements causes an ethical dilemma.

Having a space to talk through these tensions is essential to maintaining your own well-being and the standards of performance you and others expect of you. If you are a leader in any industry ask yourself if you have an arrangement to attend to this. Do you have an executive coach, a clinical supervisor (if in a clinical role) or someone in your organisation to support you? If not is it time you sourced someone? Is this something you or your organisation are willing to pay for? How much are you willing pay? If you are interested in finding out more I do have some limited spaces available. Message me to book an initial conversation.

matt@mattycoach71.com

What is a Coach in Your Pocket?

A few days ago I tweeted about a way of working with a coach that is accessible for a busy lifestyle and and is affordable (I mean really affordable).

It is a digital/remote form of coaching that allows you the flexibility to engage with coaching when it is convenient for you. The only commitment from yourself is to attend an initial scene setting and contracting meeting, either face to face or via video messenger, then pick up your voice notes via whatsapp listen to them, take action and drop me a message in response, and then attend a review meeting again via video messenger.

So here is how it works:

  • You get in touch with me to arrange an initial meeting.
  • We hold the initial meeting via video messenger or in person. The meeting will last about an hour and half and is free. In this meeting we will talk about what it is you want to achieve, and set a goal and a timeframe. We will start a priority action list, agree what your first action is. We agree on frequency and the level of challenge and support you need and when you want it to start, and we set a review date.
  • You agree to start coaching, you pay the first monthly payment (a minimum of £10 up to £30 a month depending on frequency of voice notes)
  • After first payment you will receive voice notes to prompt action, support you, and provide challenge to help you maintain focus on your goal. You respond to voice notes via text to let me know how things are going, such as what challenges you are facing or how will it is going so I can tailor my voice notes to meet your needs.
  • After specified time we meet again to review progress, to either end the coaching or continue.
  • You can cancel at any time.

This coaching approach works wonderfully for any goal you might have, such as stopping smoking, getting fit, weight loss, career change, improving confidence, increasing motivation.

3 Things to attend to when working in a complex uncertain environment.

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Working in a complex and uncertain industries such as health and social care (but not exclusively) requires you to attend to 3 things to remain effective. These 3 things can often be in tension with each other and if not attended to can work against each, causing significant risks to yourself, your patients/clients, stakeholders and the organisation you work in. It is therefore vital to attend to yourself as the professional responsible for the delivery of the desired outcomes, your client/patient/customer, or whoever is on the receiving end of your outcomes, and mandatory constraints imposed on you.

You as the Professional

When attending to yourself it is important to understand your emotional responses to the events that are happening to you at work and outside of work, that are happening to you and around you. Examine how these emotions are affecting you, your work and your life as a whole. Understanding how these events impact on your values and how this might determine what emotions you are feeling, and identifying whether these emotions are helpful or not. Are these events related to the work that you do? If so where does this originate from is it the behaviour or actions of your client/patient/customer, or is it the constraints placed on you by external or internal forces such as targets, legal frameworks, policies and procedures.

Your Client/Patient/Customer

It is vital to attend to and understand the experience the person on the receiving end of the work you do. How they respond to it, how they behave, the feedback they give you, and the impact you have on them? Are you delivering what they want/what they require and is it having the desired effect. How you are able to deliver what they need within the constraints imposed on you, by them, and the mandatory constraints you are obliged to work within.

Mandatory Constraints

These can be both internal and external to your organisation, but you have no choice, contractually to work within them. They might be legal requirements, policies and procedures, centrally imposed targets, codes of conduct etc. It is important to consider the impact these have on the delivery of your body of work and how you organise this work, and how you reconcile these with your values and the impact they have on your end users.

Paying attention to all three is essential to continue to improve your body of work, for your benefit, the benefit of your clients/patients/customers, and your organisation. To be effective this needs to be done periodically throughout the year to ensure the standard of you work remains effective. This approach allows you to examine how you feel about each aspect and make sense of what needs your attention and what does not.

If you do not use this approach through clinical supervision, or coaching, then I would invite you to consider working with someone that can support you with this

Feeling Squeezed

The pressure from every angle can feel like we a being squeezed at the moment. Speaking to friends it is evident that many of us are being squeezed not just for our finances, but for our time, our emotions and our attention.

A friend of mine recently was talking about the pressure to support and care for elderly parents, to provide financial, practical and emotional support for adult children, to deliver a high level of performance at work with less and less resources, and from each other as a couple to spend quality time with each other. My experiences are not exactly the same as yours might not be, but I definitely resonate with the sentiment of it, as you may well do.

These pressures however are normal and are an expected aspect of grown up life, up until recently we would soak up these pressures and carry on. We probably would not experience them all at once, and if we did we would accept that we may have short term pain and it would eventually pass.

That was when our bandwidth was set to default, the problem is all our default factory settings do not cut it in the batshit crazy world we are currently experiencing. This increasingly volatile, and uncertain world has had a profound effect on us all and has successfully managed to narrow our bandwidth but almost permanently putting us in a continual threat state. Therefore most things we encounter become a threat to our well-being, so we respond to them accordingly.

We are less tolerant of each other, we are more emotional than usual, we want to hide away from the world more, we start to lack energy, get indigestion, our sleep is disturbed, and everything becomes a burden. When I am feeling this way I find it really hard to see anything positive. I become a self-fulfilling prophecy, I start looking for evidence to confirm and justify my belligerence with the world.

This is when I know it is time to redress the balance and deliberately make an effort to look for what makes me happy. It is vital to counteract the confirmation bias with some critical thinking, to look for an alternative view of the world you are currently seeing. The world is incredibly challenging, but there is still plenty to be grateful for, that brings us joy. The reason it is vital is to complete our stress cycle to get our threat state to stand down so we can physically recover ready for the next real threat, and reduce all those unpleasant symptoms described above.

Recently I have found a number of activities have helped me see beyond a world of pain an misery, one is writing my blog and talking about how I feel, one is spending time with fellow coaches and supervisors that are willing to listen to me, without judgement and solutions, to allow me to sort through all my emotions and discard those emotions that were not serving me and keep those that served me well, and most importantly facilitating coaching both individually and in groups. All of these things bring me joy, make me feel socially safe and therefore completing my stress cycle.

The world is still batshit crazy, but my bandwidth has been restored for now. It will narrow again, that is a certainty, the key is not to late it narrow too much. Keep looking for moments of joy, and find someone to talk things through with. If you work in an uncertain complex industry then consider working with a coach to help you park and make sense of those emotions swirling in your head, to help you have clarity on what really needs your attention.

Thank you for everything Mum

The past few months have been the most difficult in my life so far. I have never felt emotional pain like this. I have not tried to push it away I have sat with it and accepted it. It is worth it, it is worth it for the 51 years of unconditional love I had from you Mum.

I have cried and I mean proper snot bubble crying nearly every day since she died. This is not weakness or soppiness, this is resilience in action. I will not bury my pain deep inside, I will sit and cry when the sadness of realising I will no longer hold her hand and give her a big bear hug, because those moments were so special and deserve my sadness. Every moment in her presence or talking to her over the phone were priceless and I am so grateful we had that relationship. She helped form the man I am today and I will be forever grateful.

This is what being resilient means, it means experiencing and understanding the pain you are experiencing, and using it to make changes to your life for the better. I am not sure yet what changes I need to make to my life, I am still sitting with the pain, I still feel it intensely everyday. I do have a feeling that my values are shifting, courage is important to me, but I am not sure usefulness is still as high as it once was, but I will have to wait and see, as I think now, I would suggest duty and integrity are right up their after spending time caring for Mum. I had to do it, because it was my duty in fact I might describe it as devotion. I am so devoted to her that I had no choice but to be with her and care for her with my family, but that came with immense personal pain, more than I ever knew I could cope with. As I write this I am noticing that my values are still shifting and have yet to settle in their new order. I am sure though that devotion, duty, integrity and courage will be there.

At the moment the last few weeks of Mum’s life are still fresh in my mind and are still raw. I feel so grateful for my relationship with Mum, but at the moment those last couple of weeks are so painful that I find it hard to be grateful for that time. I know that as time passes I will be so grateful to be able to repay the care and attention she showed me for 51 years.

I love you and miss you Mum, and thank you so much for everything.

Meaningful support for leaders

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I teach Clinical Supervision, practice as a supervisor for Nurses and AHPs ,as well as coaching, I also provide coaching supervision for our internal coaches. I have also started the ILM 7 cert in coaching supervision.

Recently I have been thinking about the challenges faced by leaders not just the NHS but across all industries, and how much of a burden this places on the individual managers. Maybe leaders need a space to sort through the stresses they collect.

So why don’t we offer a form of leadership supervision that isn’t coaching but provides the space to explore all aspects of their leadership, including how they see themselves, their staff, their stakeholders, the different relationships, the work they do, the environment they work in, and the context within which they work. Now Exec coaching might cover this but what about the leaders in organisations?

Rather than coaching it feels more like the clinical supervision and coaching supervision I practice. We expect so much from our leaders that if we do not provide some space where they can make sense of their work and not carry their stress from one day to the next, we are just going to see more and more good leaders burning out.

The work leaders undertake is more and more challenging and these challenges come from all angles. I see messages and emails from leaders in my organisation come through late at night and early in the morning as the need to complete tasks becomes overwhelming. I am certain this happens right across the board not just in the NHS. This to me highlights that there is a need for leaders to take part in some sort of restorative, reflective conversations with a supervisor that does not hold a line management responsibility over them (ideally is external to the team). The supervisor will help the leader reflect on every aspect of their role helping them decide what needs to be kept and attended to and what can be let go of. Helping them make sense of their experience and manage their stress more appropriately.

If you are interested in discussing how this leadership supervision might work for you please get in touch.

Trying to give up? Stop it, it won’t work!

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Whether you want to give up smoking, cut back on drinking or lose weight, focusing on giving something up or denying yourself something you are attached to is unlikely to end in success.

If we set ourselves goals on moving away from something, such as smoking, or drinking too much, or reducing our weight, then invariably the strength of our desire to complete the goal diminishes the further we move away from our starting point. As our drive to complete the goal diminishes old habits start to creep back, we will sneak the odd cigarette on a night out, have a cheeky glass of wine on a Friday night, or have a favourite chocolate bar on the way home from work.

All these minor discretions in another context would be perfectly acceptable if that was part of your plan. But most of us don’t plan it that way, we decide we are going to give up and then stop doing it. This works fine at first and we feel proud of ourselves. “We can do this”… we say to ourselves, we feel empowered. Because we are not sure what our criteria of success is, we can if we are not careful convince ourselves that we are nearer to achieving our goal than we are, and we begin to lose focus, and that’s when our old well formed habits sneak in, and push our new slightly awkward and partially formed habits out of the way. This is most likely to happen when we are stressed and tired, and in need of some comfort. We will reach for those habits we rely on to give us solace and comfort, like a cigarette, glass of wine or a chocolate bar. In the short term they give us a hit of endorphins and we feel comforted. At this point we convince ourselves all is good, we have proved we can do it, and we go back to denying ourselves until the next stress point. Eventually we resign ourselves to failure and go back to our old habits. Some of us tell ourselves that it is just to hard to give up at the moment, I will try again when I am feeling stronger, and some of us tell ourselves that we can give up anytime, we just choose not too. Both are just stories we use to cover up that feel like failures, and are unable to give up.

You are not a failure

You are not a failure, you are just looking at it from the wrong angle. What is important to do before you tackle anything in your life that you want to change, is to be clear about the destination where you want to end up. Rather than concentrating on giving something up, instead you are concentrating on creating a future version of yourself.

To create a realistic future version of yourself that is not fanciful and unrealistic it is important to be very clear on what values you hold. What you value in life, what is important to you. Then examine your life now through the lens of your values. What parts of your life live up to your values, and which parts of your life don’t. Now you can start to build a picture of how you want to live your life that lives up to your values. It is vital to spend a lot of time creating a picture (by writing down how you want to live your life and what that looks like) of your future life. Once you have this vision of your future you can start creating goals to achieve that vision. I say goals because there will be more than one thing that is required to create this change.

Your overall vision is the stretch goal as it will help you stretch and grow, and the smaller goals are your performance goals. These performance goals are based on the parts of your life that do not live up to your values.

For instance my core values are usefulness and courage. I set myself a stretch goal of living a healthy life. The vision I have is being an active and supportive Grandparent. I set this stretch goal about 6 years ago, when my boys were teenagers. I want to continue to be useful as I get older, and being there for my children as they grow older and someday start their own families. So I have this image of me playing in the park with my grandchildren. To be that fun loving Grandad I will have to be healthy. I cannot guarantee that but I can increase my chances. So my first performance goal was to become a non-smoker. I set myself a start date and prepared for that day, by buying nicotine replacement gum. The day came and I threw away the cigarettes I had, and started using the gum. The cravings were challenging even with the gum, I found myself picturing my vision of the future every time I had a craving. I set myself a criteria of success, success for me was when I no longer craved a cigarette. Once the craving stopped I could call myself a non-smoker. I never gave up smoking, I chose to be a non-smoker. I then set myself a goal of running the Great North Run, and then running the Hull 10k and the Great Manchester Run, all achieved. My next goal and one that has been ongoing as it requires more work for me is losing weight. The stretch goal is still on target I am still moving towards living a healthy lifestyle and continuing being useful as I get older.

Be clear what your values are

To help you identify what your values are, ask yourself the following questions.

  • What motivates me?
  • What is important to me?
  • What moves me into action?
  • What can I not imagine being without?
  • What gives me a sense of identity?
  • What do I use to influence others?

Look at your life through the lens of your values?

Once you have 2 or 3 clear values, think of three occasions when you have lived up to your values. What were you doing? Why were you doing it? How did people close to you react? How did it make you feel? Then think of three occasions when you have not lived up to your values and then answer the same questions. This will give you a map of what you do in your life that is based on your values and what you do that does not live up to your values. You can use this map to create a vision of your preferred future and what you need to do to achieve this.

Create you stretch and performance goals

From your map of your value based life, create your stretch goal, which is your vision of your future life. You can put a time on it. For instance in a year’s time I want to be fit enough to be regularly running marathons. Once you have a stretch goal you can then indentify the performance goals to achieve this based on aspects of your lifestyle that do no live up to your values. By the 15th November 2022 I will be eating a low carbohydrate, nutritionally valuable diet at every meal 7 days a week. It is important to each of your performance goals are SMART (specific, measured, achievable, relevant, and timely) it is helpful to write it down in a SMT format like above and then give yourself a scale on how achievable this goal is and and how important it is in relation to your stretch goal. Do this for every performance goal you identify. It is important to remember that your life is complex and ever changing, so be prepared to add more goals, or remove and revise goals.

Once you are satisfied with the goals you have set it is now time to prioritise which goal you are going to start with.

Time to plan and take action

Now it is time to create your action plan.

  • What can you possibly do to achieve this goal?
  • What could you possibly need?
  • Who could possibly help you?
  • What barriers and pitfalls could you possibly encounter?
  • What possible risks could this create?
  • How could you possibly overcome barriers and pitfalls, and reduce the risks?
  • What are the possible implications of achieving this goal?
  • What assumptions are you making about achieving this goal?
  • If you were stood with the world expert in achieving goals like this, what advice would they give?
  • What is the first action you will take?
  • When will you do this?
  • Who is the most important person to help you?
  • When are you going to ask them for their support?
  • How will you ask them?
  • What is the next thing, and then the next thing and so on?
  • When will you check your progress?
  • What will you measure?
  • How will you know when you have achieved your goal?
  • How will you celebrate your success?

Repeat this process for every performance goal. Prepare to be flexible and stop and start as your circumstances change or when things don’t work. Most importantly don’t do it alone. Get some support.

If this has inspired you to make a change, and you want to know more or even work with me to achieve your success please message me via the platform your are reading this on or email matt@mattycoach71.com

Reflections on love, certainty and loss

On 28th August 2022 my Mum died. Since that day I have felt traumatised, lost, alone, loved, grateful, angry, frustrated, sad, distraught, hopeful, most importantly uncertain. The time between her death and her funeral on 20th September feels unsettling and uncertain. I am mourning the loss of the life I had with my mum in the world and adjusting to my new life with my mum as just a memory.

I returned home a few days after her passing, after being away from my home for nearly a month, helping care for her with my sister, I was desperate to be home to surround myself with familiar sights, sounds and smells. Since I have been home however it does not feel familiar. I find myself waking in the night transported back to my mums house, and sometimes I wake not sure where I am at all. What once was comforting seems somehow distant.

I understand that this is just a period of adjustment, so to this end after a few days I arranged to access support through work. Talking about the strong emotions I was feeling to someone who is not feeling it themselves certainly helped. Hearing my words helped me make sense of what was happening. As I was speaking to my listener a metaphor came in to my head which made perfect sense, a metaphor I read in a Brene Brown book. “Talking about what troubles you, is like shining a light on the monster in your childhood bedroom and seeing it is just your dressing gown hanging on the back of your bedroom door.” It certainly felt like that, after speaking to her on Wednesday I slept much more soundly that night.

The next day Queen Elizabeth died, it was as if the rug had been pulled out underneath me. I did not expect the Queen’s passing to have such a profound effect on me. I never had a strong connection to the monarchy, I quite enjoyed the spectacle of royal occasions, but otherwise I was quite indifferent to the comings and goings of the royal family. However as a lot of commentators on the TV and in the papers have said the Queen has been an ever present in our lives. I have known nothing else other than being British and having a Queen as our head of state. Her image and title is ever present. During a time when I was going through upheaval and uncertainty, losing another ever present knocked me sideways. Now all of us felt disoriented. It seems irrational but I feel unsafe, a little lost trying to grasp on to another anchor, something to give me certainty again. I crave familiarity, but nothing feels familiar at the moment.

I was thinking about this last night in the shower. The need to see patterns in our life, to create stories about the world around us and how we fit into that world are so strong. That is why King Charles’ address to the Nation was important to reassure and provide certainty that life will carry on. Also the delicate balance between coverage of the ceremonies and traditions of state and broadcast of normal TV and radio consumption is important to create endings and familiar patterns of life are vital for people to feel socially safe and complete their stress cycle. From my perspective I have looked for a constant in my life that I can anchor myself to, and it is nothing new, it is something I have been practising for a few years now. I am not always successful at attaching myself to it, when busy looking for something to grab onto.

My anchor is me and what I value, as I reflect on the last few weeks of my mum’s life, I know I lived up to my values of courage and usefulness, and I found I could live up to them because of the love I feel for my Mum and my children. Those 3 weeks with my Mum were the most difficult weeks of my life, but the most important 3 weeks in my life. As I reflect back on those moments of tenderness with my Mum show me what my constant is, where my anchor is. My anchor is love. I show my love by being useful, through warmth and kindness. Sometimes being useful in this way requires courage to continue, but when I dig deep into that courage strengthen the one certainty in my life.

Thank you Mum for everything! I love you to the moon and back.

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