How often in the course of a normal day do you react to what is presented to you instead of responding? If you have kids I will almost guarantee it is at least in double figures. So what do mean when I say react instead of respond? When we react we use our reptilian brain, the reptilian brain looks after many of our base needs (physical protection, finding the next meal and reproduction), wound up with all of those base needs are our emotions which are controlled by our limbic system (mammalian brain).As the reptilian and mammalian brains concentrate on keeping us safe they work much faster than our human brain (neo-cortex). Reactions are really fast in fact we will often react to something before we are aware that something is happening, for instance when you feel uneasy about a situation or a place you are in. Responses however are slower and more considered our responses come from the rational part of our brain the neocortex or frontal cortex. Obviously this is the part of the brain where the major decisions are made (or should be made) like which mortgage we choose, the we buy and the car we drive.
So now you are armed with this information which is the busier part of your brain?
There are many occasions that require a reaction, when a response would quite frankly be too late. These are normally where we or people around us are in danger, for instance slamming on the breaks when a child runs out in front of us in the street, or it could be something less life threatening such as catching a glass that has been knocked off the table. We might run to pick up a child that is wandering too close to a busy road, we might scream stop at the top of our voice prevent someone walking into danger. When I was ward nurse I would occasionally put my reactions to good use, when responding to emergencies, by calling for help, starting CPR or performing back slaps on choking patients. These are all situations where reactions come into their own and I am sure you can all think occasions where your reactions have saved you bacon. Having an active threat centres is evolutionary necessary. The members of our species with who failed to react to their threat centre, who resisted the urge to fight. flight of freeze, or whose threat centre was somehow faulty were killed. Therefore if you do live on your nerves you can be thankful to your ancient ancestors for keeping your family line going.
Now this neurosis would be really useful if we lived under constant threat of being killed but most of us don’t. Most of us live quite safe mundane lives, and rarely have to make life or death decisions. The problem is our threat centres don’t know this, their primary role is to alert us to any threat it perceives. Once it has alerted you to the threat it then refers what it is experiencing to your memory bank. Now this in some instances is instantaneous, if the memory bank has a memory that this is dangerous it will come inform the reptilian brain that will then instigate an appropriate response. Or if the memory bank has a memory that this is safe, then the reptilian brain will stand down. The problem comes when the memories are inconclusive, or if this situation has caused some form of psychological pain in the past. See the reptilian brain will cause you to experience anxiety until you make a decision on the action you take. Now this is very binary, therefore it is either a threat requiring a reaction or not a threat so no action is needed. However we experience lots of threats that will not end in our death or physical harm, or of others. It is not unusual to receive an email, have a crossed word with someone, do something out of our comfort zone, such as speaking in front of large group of people. All of these experiences will successfully awaken your threat centre which will then search through your memory banks for precedents. No doubt you have experienced these before, so immediately your reptilian brain knows that your life is not in danger, however you may have felt psychological pain from all of these experiences. Recent research has identified that the same part of the brain that is activated when you experience physical pain is activated when you experience psychological pain. Pain is therefore pain no matter whether it is a result of a physical assault or a psychological attack. You brain will store the memory regardless, so when the threat centre refers to this memory it will want to avoid the pain therefore creating anxiety as it tries to come up with a response. Now sometimes that response may well result in you armouring up in some way, either by attacking, avoiding, or becoming passive. These responses in turn may well have consequences that cause another threat, which then creates more anxiety. How many times have you responded to a text or email in the heat of the moment and then instantly regretted it. Or someone verbally attacks you and you see the red mist and fire a verbal assault back at them. Have you noticed that it is easier to lose your shit with people the closest to you? Well the reason is because the consequences of going ballistic with a family member is much less than if you get up in the face of a stranger, your boss, or a colleague. The majority of us have this stored in our memory banks, which then prevents us from being abusive to people who are less forgiving. There are however many people that are willing to accept the more severe consequences as a price worth paying. Text and emails are something else, as we are not face to face we do not always consider the consequences, and we can all be more aggressive when we do not see the consequences of our actions.
So if we have to consider carefully our responses this can cause us anxiety and discomfort to such an extent that just the prospect of the threat can cause this anxiety. When we know we are going to do something that may cause a threat to us (going somewhere new, talking to a group of people, having a difficult conversation or even just going to work) we will armour ourselves up to protect us from the potential attack. We might avoid doing things, get our attacks in early and come across as aggressive or just not engaging with people, and therefore appearing distant and aloof. Can you see where this is leading? Yes you guessed it, right back to the beginning of this book, and well-being. If we spend too much time being a slave to our reptilian and mammalian brains we will surely damage our mental health.
So how do we spend more time using our neocortex (our rational brain) and have a much more considered view of the world around us?
I will give you an example of how even the merest idea of a threat can create anxiety and cause you to armour up. Every time I start work on this book, a thought comes into my head that people will laugh at me, or say what does he know about personal leadership, have you seen his life? My limbic system is protecting me by putting those doubts in my head. I want to be considered as a useful member of society. If I write something that is rubbish, that oversteps my mark I might no longer be deemed useful and be rejected by my part of society. As we know being rejected and not part of the group was in primitive times just as deadly as being physically attacked by an enemy or becoming prey for a predator. The limbic system has not adapted to the modern world and still wants to protect you from isolation and keep you alive. So my limbic system creates the anxiety to force action to prevent the potential pain and rejection. So I find myself armouring up. This is always in the form of stories I tell myself. My first tactic is to delay, I shut down my laptop and tell myself I am not feeling up to it today, I should wait until my creative juices start flowing. I convince myself that watching Netflix will get those juices flowing. Of course it doesn’t it just distracts me from feeling vulnerable. Then I start to feel guilty about not working on the book when I have told people what I am doing, and that creates anxiety because I am not being useful and potentially putting my position at risk. I then tell myself I have a choice and just because I have told people, does not mean I have to do it. I can choose to not do it today and do it another day. I can exercise my choice. Most times this works because it satisfies my limbic system and allows my rational brain to make an informed choice. After a short while I find myself writing.
Practice Responding Rather Than Reacting
The neocortex is never going to act faster than the reptilian and mammalian brains. They are designed to react to keep us safe. The problem is they are rather blunt and indiscriminate. Professor Steve Peters bundled them together into the Chimp to describe how they both work to protect us from physical threats and threats to our position in the group. That is a convenient way to describe them, as they are very good at detecting potential threats but no good with the social niceties and context. That is what the neocortex is for.
When we react it is always based on emotion, and that emotion comes from our memories, which are initially interpreted by our Chimp (a combination of the reptilian and mammalian brain) from our memories. Therefore a potential threat is detected by the chimp who refers to the memory bank, there is often something in the memory bank that fits the bill or is similar enough, and then the chimp will detect an emotion attached to that memory, and make a decision to act or not. No reasoning is applied by the chimp. It will either act or not based on the emotion that memory creates. We cannot get around this, this will always happen.
If we want to practice responding rather than reacting, then what we do after we react is crucial.
What is important is that we challenge the memories we hold and the emotions we have attached to them. We often leave our emotions and memories unchecked, as we do not believe we can alter them. This is of course not true. We alter our memories all of the time to fit our narrative, our view of the world. We know we can shift our view of the world, and therefore our narrative about what is going on, so it is inevitable that we will view some of our emotions differently. If we view our emotions differently, how we react or respond to new events will be different.
When I was working as a Charge Nurse (Ward Manager) and for some of the time working as a Nurse Educator, I would dread going into work, I would feel anxious about the day ahead, I lived in fear everyday of being criticised and talked about. That feeling of anxiety for a long time would stay with me all day. It still comes and goes now, especially in the morning just before I go to work.
What I needed to do was to make sense of the emotions I was feeling, and as Steve Peters suggests, replace those Gremlins I had about work with Autopilots. Now I started doing this after I had left my role as a Charge Nurse and was working as a Nurse Educator, so I was now removed from the events that caused me the most pain, but I was still feeling the after effects. I was still seeing the people and working in the same environment, and was therefore still worried that I would experience them again.
What I started to do was to write down what was happening to me when I started to feel anxious. I would write it all down in what Brene Brown called my “first shitty draft”. I would get it all out then look at it after I had written it all down. I could then start making sense of what I had written.
To start making sense of what I have written I ask myself the following questions:
What assumptions am I making about the situation? Start by looking for facts in what you have written. Underline them all, then go back through them, and just ask yourself is that really a fact or are you just assuming it is a fact? Our assumptions come from our memory banks. As I said previously both our reptilian and mammalian minds use our memory banks to help them assess the threat level of what is being presented to us. They will look for anything that is remotely similar then our minds will if unchecked make an assumption based on previous evidence. The issue is with our memory bank is firstly what I mentioned before, our memory makes stuff up, and secondly it chooses similar situations like Spotify chooses what you should listen to next. Sometimes it is spot on and other times it is very wide of the mark. So always check your assumptions as often your emotional response is based on faulty out of date information.
The next question I will ask myself is how accountable am I for the situation I am in. In other words what part did I play in this mess? We will often if unchecked looked for people or situations to blame for what has gone wrong. It is after all easier than facing up to the part we have played. Populist Governments and right wing racist movements have been making an art form of blaming groups of people and races for the ills of society. We see it every day in the press and on social media, like stories of immigrant’s taking jobs, and scrounging off the state in the UK and USA to name only 2. The UK has Brexit and the USA has the wall. Being bombarded with that kind of rhetoric makes it much easier to look for external influences when things happen in our lives, rather than looking closer to home.
The next question to ask is what part did other people play in what is happening? Was the part they played helpful or unhelpful. Were they active or passive participants? What do I not know about the part they played? Remember those assumptions. Our minds are masters in projecting and attributing behaviours to people that are possibly less than accurate. What facts do you have about the part they played? Again ask yourself are those facts really facts or are you just making assumptions?
The last question I ask myself is, is this situation with my control (can I change it)? If I can what do I need to do to change my emotions about this situation? Some times that will just be a mind-set shift, and sometimes I need to take action. If action is needed, it is vital to turn those thoughts into action. This leads to some supplementary questions.
What specifically am I going to do?
When will I do it?
How will I know I have achieved what I wanted to do?
Now all of this might feel a bit stilted at first but that is the reason for starting off writing those “first shitty drafts” at first to practice these responses. You can then start training your mind to pause when a response is required, and not jump in with an emotional reaction. This will take time and there will be many times that you will jump to an emotional reaction when a more reasoned response would be more appropriate. Don’t beat yourself up over that, it is after all how your mind has been operating for most of your life. What is important is that you recognise when you have reacted when a response may have been more appropriate and use the process above. The act of practicing converts those gremlins to autopilots, by putting the notion of an alternative view in the memory bank, allowing your reptilian mind to concentrate on real threats to your life and limb, and managing the reactions instigated by your mammalian mind to be more limited and less widespread.
What we don’t want to do is to kill of those gut feelings we have. Those feelings that let us know when either something is wrong or something is right. It is what we do with this visceral sensation that is so vital, do we go with the instant reaction stemming from our reptilian and mammalian minds or do we quieten them down to allow our neocortex to give a more reasoned and considered response. Now some of us will find it easier to have a more considered response than others, which is something we will consider later in this book when we look at behavioural preferences.
This is one of them, having a word with myself blogs. Do you, you are good at it, you really are, if only you took time to notice, and stopped comparing yourself to others. That is what I needed to tell myself this week, but I would rather impart this wisdom to you lot instead. It’s easy to support and care for others than it is ourselves, I am sure you all agree. Writing it down certainly helps remind myself that I am enough, and comparing myself to people around me is certainly not helpful. It is an automatic response obviously and we all do it without thinking about it. What we can do is notice when we are doing it, and shift our attention to ourselves and compare our current performance to our performance the day, week, month, or year before. You might not be performing well, but is it better than the day before? What could you possibly do today that will improve your performance tomorrow? What might be getting in the way for you that could be effecting how you perform? How could you possibly remove or reduce that obstacle.
Most weeks I have moments when I feel inadequate and a bit daft, I have to remind myself to compare myself to my previous performances and ask myself the questions above. If I only compare myself to others I am either never going to be good enough, or never push myself enough to strive to be better. When I look at my own performance I am able to hold myself to account for my performance and do something about it.
I am enough as I am now, as you are, my performance will vary at work and home, but I will always be enough. You will always be enough. You are doing your best right now, there may be room for you to do better in different circumstances, so change the circumstances you have control over and your best tomorrow will be better than your best today. There are circumstances obviously that we have no control over that can prevent us from doing better. We can use these circumstances as excuses for our inaction. I haven’t written anything towards my book since November. I have struggled with my grief since my Mum’s death in August and I have struggled to find the headspace to write creatively. For a few months I tried to write but just could not concentrate, eventually I just could not face it. The pain I was feeling was very acute, and completely out of my control. I still feel the pain most days, this week I have noticed that for quite sometime I have chosen to view this pain differently and not allow this to completely affect my work. This week I was booked to deliver a team development session and facilitate a planning meeting. I really did not want to do either of them, I didn’t believe I had the mental bandwidth to stand up in front of two teams of medical staff and talk with confidence, when all I wanted to do was hide away and feel sad and miss my Mum. I am grieving the loss of my Mum and that will continue, I could hide behind my grief and use it as a reason not to do what I need to do, or choose to have a different relationship with my grief. I loved my Mum so much and she influences so many aspects of my life, that I will always grieve her, if my grief is not going away I can put it down so I can do activities that are important to me. I wont forget how much I love her in the time I am doing something else. It worked I ran both sessions, they appeared to go very well, I came home and held the memory of Mum tight for a little while and put it back down.
If we can’t change our circumstances we can change how view them so they don’t prevent us from growing. In the moment though when there is a lot in your way, remember you are doing your best with without you have, just know it is in your power to get better.
Do you, you are really good at it! Remember you are enough and doing your best.
I have been on annual leave this week. I still get up ridiculously early. I was awake at 5 today. It is a habit I have had since being a young adult. I feel guilty if I sleep beyond 8am. I find I am more alert and can get things done in the morning. The majority of the blogs I write (like this one) are written in the morning. If am working from home I will start at 7am. I think some of it comes from having an underlying anxiety. Foggy hangs about in the morning, so the sooner I occupy my mind with writing or working the sooner he drifts into the background. Last week I mentioned that he was playing a big part in my life again, since Mum died. Since exposing him in the blog, he has started to fade back to normal levels of anxiety. He is still hanging around and generally pounces in the early morning and late afternoon. There are still a few things in my head that I need to pay attention to, before he will go away.
For quite a few years now I have working on myself to create a more balanced sustainable identity that is less self destructive. I had been doing quite a good job, my confidence has grown, I have been more willing to share some of my vulnerabilities, and learn from myself. After my Mum was diagnosed with lung cancer I did take a bit of a dip, but generally I managed to keep myself on a fairly even keel, with a few blips. Then in late spring this year it became clear that Mum was in the last weeks of her life. Myself and Lisa went to see her at the end of May. She was quite well and able to get out and about, we asked her where she wanted to go for a day out. She told us she wanted to go to the seaside. So we took her to Prestatyn, somewhere we used to go with her when the boys were younger. The weather wasn’t great, it was windy and cold, but she loved it. We walked along the front, sat and had a coffee and then had a drive along the coast. That was the last time she went to the seaside.
We went back to Chester in early July, it was very warm but she wasn’t as well. I realised that it would not be long before I would never visit Mum’s home again. I had grown up there, it hit me that it was a huge part of my life. I went around the house one afternoon and took pictures of the rooms and the gardens. I could not bear the thought of me never seeing those rooms again. A few weeks later I was there again, this time though was the last time. At the beginning of August I came back to help care for Mum, as Louise was struggling to keep on top of her pain and Mum would not let her stay. If I came she had no choice but to let me stay. I stayed there until she died on 28th August.
I know I have written about this before, but I needed to write it down to make sense of how I am feeling right now, and to get a sense of what has happened since 2019 when Mum was diagnosed. 2019 and was a challenging year. Mum was diagnosed, Ben left to go to University, I gave up Nursing to work full-time in Organisational Development. My sense of identity was put under severe pressure. Then the next year there was global pandemic, and Jack left to go to University and I couldn’t go and see Mum for months. I think on the whole apart from a little bit of naval gazing and self pity from time to time, and coped quite well. Writing my blog helped a lot. It helped me sort through my shit. Then Mum died, the most important person in my life, she was constant throughout my life. I know how incredibly luck I am to have had a parent that never once let me down. She was not perfect, she got on my nerves, and we had loads of arguments, but she always let me know that she loved me. The first word I think of, when I think of Mum is love. Now she is gone, the gap she has left has shattered the sense of who I am, my confidence has gone, and my anxiety has grown. I am in the process of reframing my relationship with Mum, to fill that gap with gratitude and joy that we were all so blessed to have been loved by her. It is a work in progress, and it is challenging not to revert back to unhelpful self destructive habits. The advantage I have now is that I have greater sense of what is important to me, and this pain I feel is worth it for being so blessed in the first place.
Foggy is still knocking about, but his unhelpful impact is beginning to fade and his helpful function is beginning to come to the fore. Afterall he does help me get shit done.
We used to get our Christmas tree (a real one) the Saturday before Christmas, most people did then (in the 70s and 80s). Now this might not be strictly accurate, but this is what I remember. I remember having real trees when we lived in Chester, even after Dad had left. I remember getting them from Proud’s the hardware store further down Christleton Road, a shop that was used frequently in our family history, being the local hardware store for my Nan and Grandad, where they bought their tin baths, dustbins, mops, and buckets of all descriptions along with paraffin and paraffin lamps for the outside toilet. Nan was a regular in their when I was growing up as well as the post office opposite, that doubled as a bit of general store, where she would get the pies and ham on a Saturday morning before our visit.
Back to the Christmas tree, so we would drag the tree through the house put it in a bucket and wedge it in place with half bricks, we would then decorate it with highly flammable tinsel strands that would get everywhere, I have no clue how we managed to retain so much of the stuff each year as it was nearly impossible to remove from the tree after Christmas, we would randomly dangle the silver and gold strands over the branches, it would always concentrate in clumps when I did it, Mum however seemed to have the knack of throwing it at the tree and it spread evenly. We would add an assortment of glass baubles and other assorted plastic, paper and wooden decorations from the Christmas box, every year we would find a casualty of storage, a broken glass bauble or a dinted plastic one, if it wasn’t too dinted though it might find it near the back of the tree. Mum would then add the lights and the long garlands of tinsel.
Next out of the Christmas bag would be the ceiling decorations. In the mid to late 70s Mum had bought these plastic metallic ceiling decorations that hung down from the ceiling and gentle oscillated up and down as the room heated up, they would also catch the light and glimmer as the gently rose up and down. They were a sight to behold, well for the first few days, then the sellotape that was fixing them in place would give way and they would end up on the floor. This would mean they were regularly being picked up and refixed to the ceiling, until we gave up by Boxing Day, but when they were in full oscillation they were a shimmering thing of beauty.
As reminisce about Christmases past the first memory to return is the smell, the smell of the tree of course, but also the smell of those decorations, they had a distinct plastic smell, like cellophane, it is strange, but that plastic smell reminds me of childhood Christmas every time. I then see the tree with all the baubles reflecting the lights of the tree, and the rest of the room, creating little parallel worlds tinted, red, gold, green and blue. In the days leading up to Christmas I would lay on the floor next to the tree looking up at tree, the baubles, and the lights, listening to Mums Perry Como, Christmas Album getting lost in the beauty of it all.
Christmas Day would always start wonderfully with the anticipation of the presents then opening them, then it would always go downhill, especially when Dad was at home, he would take up residence in the front room and drink and smoke all day. I would go upstairs and play with my presents. After Christmas Dinner we would often be banished to the kitchen and play games around the tiny kitchen table and huddled around the Calor Gas fire whilst Dad snored in the front room in the warm. We had a laugh in the Kitchen with Louise’s boyfriend (future ex-husband) keeping us amused, with his Frank Spencer impersonations. Previous Christmases were spent quietly coking on the cigarette smoke in the front room trying to watch the Christmas afternoon film through the smog of smoke and trying to listen of the snoring of Dad. After he had gone I was older and mostly less memorable, we would still play board games and laugh at Ted.
I would imagine most people have mixed feelings about Christmas even if they dare not mention it. There is so much pressure on us all to happy at Christmas that we feel guilty about not completely enjoying it. Last year I could never have written this for fear of my Mum reading it and upsetting her. Such is the cultural importance of Christmas for many of us that it is nearly impossible to be honest about it, especially in hindsight. Obviously Mum had nothing to be upset about, yes they were not perfect, we would sit and freeze in the kitchen, but the room was full of love. It is ok for Christmas or any other time for that matter to go wrong. It is OK to have mixed feelings, indifference, or outright dislike about Christmas.
The pressure of positivity around Christmas is culturally driven by the media to create an idealised version of family. It has nothing to do with the religious message of Christmas. I would even be as bold as to say the religious significance of this festival has practically been airbrushed out of modern Christmas. Christmas is now about eating overpriced rich food, drinking warm spiced alcohol for about a month, culminating in a day of greed and laziness in the company of people you spend very little time with the rest of the year.
Maybe I am being grumpy, but this time of year can often make me feel less than. I want to enjoy it more than I do, pressure for it to be perfect and happy is high, and I generally fall short of what I want to do. The bread I bake is never quite as good as it could be, the dinner I cook is never as nice as it could, the day doesn’t feel quite as magical as it should.
This year is going to be hard, the first one without Mum, and Ben’s first Christmas living away from home. I know I will be sad; I know we will all have tears in our house. It’s not going to be perfect; I am not going to try to make it perfect. My bread will be enough, the dinner will be enough, I will be enough and there will be plenty of love in our house.
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
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
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?
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.
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 essentially 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.