What I'm musing about...

By Kelly, Nov 22 2018 03:58PM

Today is the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States.  As an American expat in the UK (albeit one who, after 18 years, feels as much British as American these days), I still like to commemorate the day.  

Below is an American parable, perhaps familiar to some:  

The Two Travellers and the Farmer

 A traveller came upon an old farmer hoeing in his field beside the road. Eager to rest his feet, the wanderer hailed the countryman, who seemed happy enough to straighten his back and talk for a moment.

"What sort of people live in the next town?" asked the stranger.

"What were the people like where you've come from?" replied the farmer, answering the question with another question.

"They were a bad lot. Troublemakers all, and lazy too. The most selfish people in the world, and not a one of them to be trusted. I'm happy to be leaving the scoundrels."

"Is that so?" replied the old farmer. "Well, I'm afraid that you'll find the same sort in the next town.

Disappointed, the traveller trudged on his way, and the farmer returned to his work.

Some time later another stranger, coming from the same direction, hailed the farmer, and they stopped to talk. "What sort of people live in the next town?" he asked.

"What were the people like where you've come from?" replied the farmer once again.

"They were the best people in the world. Hard working, honest, and friendly. I'm sorry to be leaving them."

"Fear not," said the farmer. "You'll find the same sort in the next town."

A teacher of mine passed on the tale some time ago and the lesson stuck.  Although one could be forgiven for feeling more like the first traveller these days, this perspective can shift depending on the lens we use.  

These are tricky times.  The constant drip of cortisol-producing news headlines is taking its toll on many. There is a feeling of helplessness and overwhelm in the air.  I see it up close in in my consulting room; I feel it even closer in myself at times. And yet, we can turn to the wise words of the late American hero, Mr Rogers:  “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers.  You will always find people who are helping.”’  So this is what I do to manage my own psyche these days.  Look for the helpers.  And the not-so-curious thing is the more I look, the more helpers I find.  With gratitude, a Thanksgiving shout-out to the following ‘helpers’ who have kept me firmly in ‘Traveller 2 stance’ recently.  

My son W whose humour and winning smile can cut through just about anything.

My American family who never make me feel guilty for moving thousands of miles away - ‘i carry your heart(s) with me.’

My adopted British/international extended family who share my day-to-day celebrations (+ sorrows) and have stopped questioning my love of country music.

My dog Teddy who always makes me feel like the person he thinks I am.

My wonderful colleagues and clients who allow me to engage in what feels like meaningful work with people who care.  

My pain in the a*s acquaintances.  After I’m done cursing you, I usually learn something from you.  

And to my many ‘podcast friends.’  With the exception of weekend papers, I’ve largely turned off the news and social media these days.  ‘My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane’ said a New Yorker cartoon making the rounds.  Quite.  But there are ‘keepers of the faith’ out there in podcast land or in their writing/speaking/videos.  People who can and do grapple with difficult issues in a civil, constructive manner without resorting to divisive ‘us vs them’ soundbites.  These are fellow travellers I like to tune in to. In alphabetical order (so as not to have to rank which felt wrong).  Thank you.

Tara Brach

Brene Brown

Glennon Doyle & Wolfpack

Seth Godin

Sam Harris

Esther Perel

Maria Popova

The School of Life*

Tami Simon & Sounds True

Krista Tippett & On Being

Happy Thanksgiving, all. But remember, gratitude isn’t just for one day of the year.  Cue plug for the work of Martin Seligman. This ‘father of positive psychology’ found that keeping track of blessings (3/day in a journal) led to an overwhelming majority (92%) of people feeling happier.    A simple exercise in ‘re-focusing the lens.’  Maybe try it on for size?  Happy travelling, and keep looking for the helpers. 


* Full disclosure:  I work as a psychotherapist at The School of Life.  Even before joining their psychotherapy team, I was a huge admirer of TSOL online videos, thebookoflife.org and their many workshops and events.  

By Kelly, Mar 9 2018 10:45AM

I love hosting group workshops.  I can never predict what is going to emerge on the day, and always leave with thoughts to ponder.  Our recent 'Taming Your Inner Critic' workshop (24 Feb) was no exception.  One thing that became quite clear early on was a theme of blaming ourselves for everything - or if not everything, a vast majority of conflict that comes our way.  It reminded me of the Jennifer Ament print (see above) hanging in my sister's loo.  I've always been drawn to the piece, perhaps because my own inner critic has a history of all-too-quickly assuming I am the one at fault, not the other person, when a disagreement arises.  Based on our recent group discussion, this is a familiar 'go to' position for those who have fierce inner critics.  Sometimes this is blame we willingly take on ourselves, a familiar pattern.  Other times, it is blame forced upon us, often unfairly.

Conversely, there are individuals who are unwilling - or maybe even incapable - of owning their part in any clash.  They will use any tactic to deflect responsibility - denial, misdirection, contradiction and even outright lying.  At its extreme, this results in 'gaslighting,' a form of emotional manipulation of others.  Effectively, gaslighting is a projection or kind of 'transfer' of painful or potentially painful conflict onto victims.  Many clients of mine have been subject to this abuse, whether by parents, partners, bosses or other.  It is particularly common when the perpetrator is low on empathy and has a vested interest in always being right, qualities often found with people on the narcissism spectrum (a much larger topic beyond the scope of this blog).

The two 'poles' described above and in the Ament artwork are extremes.  The reality of any interaction between two or more more people is no one is ever 100% 'right,' nor the other person(s) 100% culpable.  Relationships are things we co-create together - a useful reminder to anyone who finds themselves persistently gravitating to one position or the other.  That awareness and self-assessment is a pretty important first step in taking emotional responsibility for our actions.  But most of us don't live in the extremes - where to from the murky middle?  

In client work, and in life, I frequently encounter the natural tendency to ascribe blame elsewhere.  The wife who is in therapy 'because my husband is impossible.' The manager who is furious because 'all of my team are useless.'  Now sometimes the husband in question really is quite difficult (e.g., see narcissism reference above), or certain employees are indeed dropping the ball.  But after a period of venting frustration, I tend to move to the question 'what's your role in this?'  Because often we have very little power over changing others - getting fixated on doing so leaves us feeling stuck and powerless. It is easy to think of ourselves as innocent victims, but this means living our lives like victims.  No good.  If we can't control others' actions, nor sometimes even understand them, why not instead shift our attention to what we can - our own thoughts and actions. I call this 'tending to our own business.'

This shift can be very empowering.  When we stop blaming others for our situation, we can see our own part in it more clearly.  When we stop focusing on others and instead make changes to ourselves, we start to gain back our power.  We no longer view life as 'something that happens to us' (both the good and the bad), but something we create for ourselves.  

Even if we think the other party is more at fault - whether 99% or 51% responsible - it is far more constructive to hone in on our part.  I guess that's the challenge for all of us -  tending to our 1%, 49%, or anywhere in between.  That work is hard enough.  Let the other person handle the rest.

By Kelly, Jan 17 2018 08:22AM

‘Blue Monday’ came and went earlier this week.   The term dates back to 2005 when Dr. Cliff Arnall, a South Wales lecturer, called out the third Monday of January as the worst day of the year.  His reasoning?  The realisation that the holidays are well and truly over, the apparent debt hangover from holiday spend, and the fact that most people have broken New Year’s Resolutions by this point.  The rain pissing down in London on the day wouldn’t have helped.  So far, so depressing. 

All of this heaviness made me think of something I often suggest to clients:  The benefit of  ‘chasing joy.’  So often, people assume the sole focus of therapy is ‘fixing things’ that aren’t working.   Concentrating on negative emotions and processing these to affect healing and change.  While there is certainly an element of truth to this (no one said therapy was all fun and games), I like to point out that we need to look at the other side of the coin as well:  What brings incremental happiness.  Specifically, what do we like doing for no other sake than pure enjoyment?  To be clear, this is something that may energise or relax us, or just make us feel more connected in our relationships or environment.  But the crucial caveat is the activity is only for cultivating joy, not as part of some ‘self improvement’ crusade, or because we feel like we ‘should’ be adding a new layer of x-y-z to our lives. 

For some clients, it works best to have a weekly ‘date’ to pursue such activities.  Others prefer to have a few minutes or half-hour every day.  Whatever you can fit in is a start.  Because the more our focus and attention is on finding joy, the more we somewhat unsurprisingly start to see it show up in our lives. 

For me, I realised over the holidays that I very rarely read fiction any more.  Anyone who knows me knows I am a voracious reader, and I do love keeping up on all the science and research surrounding mental health.  I have a towering pile of what I affectionately call my ‘psych porn’ on my desk and another next to my bed.  I love the stuff.  And yet, this type of reading always has a little bit of an agenda in the back of my mind – how I may incorporate the new thinking into my work.  It is never for pure fun and relaxation.  So I picked up a novel on the plane home for Christmas.  And loved lazing with it either in the jet-lagged wee hours of the morning or during an afternoon snooze on the sofa.  And then I moved on to another…and now another.  A well crafted sentence, a quirky-but-lovable character, an author’s attention to subtle detail….these things make me, well, happy.  They bring me joy.  That’s me.   Others have shared with me joyful pastimes as diverse as drawing or painting; cooking or crocheting; gardening or cold water swimming (Seriously?!  Apparently so…).  It doesn’t matter what the activity is, merely how it makes you feel.  Joyful, hopefully.  

Give yourself the gift of time, sit back and enjoy.

By Kelly, Jan 3 2018 11:18AM

After the early years of 'growing up' during which we carefully plan our education, career and family aspirations, most of us don't stop to think about our values and goals in the same serious and structured way later on. The exception, of course, is the short period around when the calendar changes from one year to the next and we come up with our list of resolutions for the year ahead. But I'd argue this type of life planning can't be reduced to an early January fleeting concern; it's a 365-days-a-year one. Spending a mere week or so mulling over things we think we 'should' do (but may not necessarily want to do) then mustering up all the willpower we can manage and hoping for the best may explain why the failure rate for New Year's resolutions is so high, reportedly 80-90%.

Don't get me wrong, I whole-heartedly believe in the value of making intentions then putting actions in place to achieve these goals (I'd be in the wrong profession if I didn't). But sometimes the endless treadmill of ‘self-improvement’ is really self-flagellation in not-so-subtle disguise; a critical voice that keeps saying you aren’t successful enough, attractive enough, kind enough, fill-in-the-blank-enough.

This critical stance erroneously has us clinging to a habit of ‘if only’ thinking: if only I got that promotion, or lost those last five pounds, or was in a relationship or had a bigger flat…then I’d be happy. We set our New Year’s resolutions accordingly, hitching our wagon of future happiness to the attainment of these goals. The problem with this is it means we’re starting from a place of ‘not okay’ as it is. Think about that for a moment. If our starting point is ‘I’m not okay,’ that’s a hugely demoralising place, and frankly one that isn’t true. We fill up our minds with ‘I have to work harder, must go to the gym more, need to start meditating or dating or whatever it is…’ Shoulds, musts, needs. It all sounds like impossibly hard work; standards imposed by the outside world as ways we need to improve ourselves. It can be overwhelming and exhausting. High time for a different approach.

Often, when I suggest the above to clients, I get push-back. There is great fear that if they are not hard on themselves, all will go to hell in a handbasket. Not only won’t they make desired changes, they will actually regress. I have a lot of time and understanding for these fears, especially as we've been so conditioned to think this way. Equally, I like to point out that the critical approach has been in place for the person for years (often decades) and there is still an inability to make desired changes. So why not ‘risk’ another approach? As in ‘the one you are currently using definitely won’t work (based on history) whereas the one I’m suggesting only might not work and it very well may work if you believe the research.’ Risking success, if you follow me…

‘The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.' Carl Rogers

I’m with the late American psychologist Rogers on this. One of Rogers’ biggest contributions to the field was the assertion that for people to really grow and change they needed a supportive environment consisting of genuineness, acceptance and empathy. Switching from a critical (shaming) backdrop to one that is more nurturing. When we apply this to self-regard, we can think of it as moving away from a ‘critical parent’ stance towards ‘nurturing parent,’ the one that loves us unconditionally and just wants the best for us. Where the starting point is one of acceptance for ourselves – and even gratitude for the many things going right in our lives - but where we acknowledge that there are things we want to do to increase our general happiness and wellbeing. Less self-improvement, more self-care.

While Rogers’ work dates back to the 1950’s, there is an increasing body of scientific evidence that suggests nurturing positive emotions such as gratitude, compassion and pride (as opposed to arrogance) are instrumental to wellbeing. As Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University David DeSteno’s research concludes, ‘what these findings show is that pride, gratitude and compassion…push us not only to cooperate with other people but also to help our own future selves. Feeling pride or compassion has been shown to increase perseverance on difficult tasks by over 30 percent. Likewise, gratitude and compassion have been tied to better academic performance, a greater willingness to exercise and eat healthily, and lower levels of consumerism, impulsivity and tobacco and alcohol use.’ Simply put, cultivating these positive emotions – gratitude, compassion and (appropriate) pride – are our best hope in getting our New Year intentions to stick. Happy 2018, all!

If you are looking for help making the mindset shift that will best support growth and change, join us at W11 Wellbeing for our Taming Your Inner Critic workshop 24th February, or get in touch with Kelly@w11coaching for 1:1 coaching.

By Kelly, Dec 13 2017 10:20AM

I've been praising quiet lately. It seems especially important this time of year when 'silly season' can take hold and December pass in a blur. I wrote last week about developing a meditation practice, but this isn't the only way to get still. One of my favourite means of cultivating quiet is my morning routine. I've always enjoyed rising earlier than anyone in the household (and much of the outside world) as I find it a gentle ease into the day. Even when I was working in finance and had to be at my desk at stupidly early hours, I still managed to get a bit of time in for myself before the news feed and blackberry (in those days) messages took over. But over the past few years, I've begun to use the time a bit more differently, to great benefit. Whereas I used to enjoy attacking my 'to do' list early on so as to get a 'head start' on the day, I now intentionally leave the space more open, if loosely structured. I do tinker with the format from time to time, but generally speaking my chosen morning routine includes:

* Some version of meditation, 10 mins. I mentioned Headspace before and that's still an app I turn to, but I am just as likely to do 10 mins on my own or guided by another practitioner (10% Happier app has a good selection; Tara Brach is my 'go to girl' if I have a bit longer).

* Some journalling. There was a time when I was working my way through The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron's wonderful programme to rediscover creativity. This approach includes writing 'morning pages' every day (three pages of A4, stream of consciousness, freehand). These days I'm not focusing on my writing as much, but I still capture something in my journal or (as currently), put thoughts down in a blog.

*Some checking in with 'what's going right.' Simply put, a gratitude practice. Sometimes the things I'm grateful for are the subject of my writing. Sometimes I just sit with what comes to mind and pause to appreciate these people or things. Other times I may write a quick card or email to the person I'm thankful for to let them know. Before you roll your eyes and think I'm going all Northern California on you, keep in mind that a growing body of scientific research is pretty clear on the benefits of gratitude. This is a big topic for a later post, but suffice it to say that our brains naturally migrate to what is going wrong, so some time and effort redirecting them to what is actually going right is time well spent.

* Focusing on what matters: Intention setting for the day. Here I pause to make the case for old school diaries. As in the paper kind. I am particularly taken with my Passion Planner for all the space it allocates to intentions, goals, focus...whatever language you want to use. The simple truth is we need to get clear to ourselves what really matters each and every day as this becomes the driving force for our actions. Over time, a lot of daily intentions/actions create the bigger picture life we're living. Another reason for this intention setting using diary: it allows me to get very precious with my time. To check in that all of the activities and appointments I have planned for the day are important to me. This isn't to say I ruthlessly cancel plans last minute on a regular basis (I am usually pretty careful with my time in the first place and don't put things in unless they matter to me), but this is an opportunity to just double check that I'm using that precious resource of time in the best manner possible.

* Some inspirational reading. There is just SO MUCH bad news out there. Honestly. It's enough to leave us ALL feeling bombarded and overwhelmed. Again, a big topic for a later post, but for now I'll just give a plug for actively seeking something to read that inspires you and opens you up rather than depressing and closing you down. My current read I'm dipping into is Mark Nepo's latest, Things That Join the Sea and the Sky. Or I'll turn to a classic (Marcus Aurelius's Meditations is also on my desk). Poetry is great for this time in the morning. Whatever floats your boat.

If the above sounds like it would take hours to do every day, be assured this need not be the case. I am happy to enjoy a long quiet if I naturally wake up earlier than usual, but this isn't always possible. Plenty of wise souls I know get in a full morning routine in approximately 10 minutes (granted, this means an abbreviated meditation). For anyone still pushing back that there 'isn't time,' I'll quote uber-coach Tony Robbins: 'If you don't have 10 minutes, you don't have a life.' Typically blunt / to the point as is his style, but kinda true, right?