First, let’s get really clear about where we are at – we each have different experiences of lockdown and of social distancing depending on our circumstances, our jobs, our families and the degree of isolation we are feeling. To move forward we have to accept and, more importantly, respect those different experiences may evoke different emotions and behaviours. This is a time to be kind, to be tolerant, and to refrain from judging each other for handling stuff differently.
I believe there are a number of neurological things that help with this acceptance: your perspective, your self-talk and your ability to assume people are doing the best they can in the circumstances they find themselves in. I would be the first to accept this is difficult when your neighbours are having a full volume row in their garden, their dog is barking and you are trying to have a serious zoom call with a client – but hey the rain will put a stop to that, right?
Seriously though, you have two choices don’t you – well three maybe – you could scream at them over the fence to be quiet (definitely not kind or understanding), you could get really frustrated and distracted and derail your own day, or you could manage your own state – which is the only thing you actually have any control over. Feel grateful that you are not in that situation and cut them a bit of slack; even when you love people being with them 24/7 has its challenges.
You can only do this if you are prepared to get real. Being able to focus on positive aspects in life is hugely important and so is not being in denial, kidding yourself everything is ok, when your world is unrecognisable, is equally important.
How do you ever get to act courageously – which is what you need to do right now, if you are deluding yourself that the uncertainty, the isolation, the level of ambient fear is not affecting you in any way. It is, you are a human being – none of us are left untouched by the suffering of other humans, unless of course you are a psychopath.
Seriously though, none of us are left untouched by this.
I believe this is about mitigating the damage caused by isolation – we know isolation changes our neurochemistry. Oxytocin is produced in response to bonding – physically and emotionally. Babies evoke oxytocin production in their parents as well as the other way around. The resulting, often unconditional, love between a parent & baby gives us a great start in life, and as we get older we need to find other ways of creating this oxytocin production. Mostly this is from socialisation, from connection with other people – or animals in some cases.
So just as connection increases Oxytocin – which is needed for empathy, for love and for emotional safety; isolation causes stress and increase in cortisol. It doesn’t need to be actual physical isolation either. The perception of social isolation has exactly the same impact; cortisol levels rise which can reduce your higher cognitive function – like rational processing and creativity – because your brain is focused on survival activity. When you lack social contact – real or perceived, activity in your dorsomedial prefrontal cortex – the region of your brain associated with altruism and social judgement, changes and this in turn makes you less tolerant, less able to see other’s perspectives, less trusting and more judgemental.
It strikes me that this potentially makes the current situation less tolerable depending on your circumstances, and it makes it more difficult for you to emerge from lockdown as it inevitably gets lifted.
So what can you do to ensure you emerge stronger, more courageous and more in control of your own wellbeing – all of which I believe are possible.
First, focus on the things you have control over and limit your exposure to things you have no control over – to be clear I’m not suggesting you stick your head in the sand – but it might be that you don’t need to read every article or scroll relentlessly through social media just in case you miss something – this just fuels fear.
The things you have control over are those that you can directly impact: your mindset and attitude, the way you show up, how you behave towards yourself and those around you and, critically, how you spend your time now.
I am a great believer in investing in your future self and now is no different – here are a few ways to invest in yourself:
Invest by being kind to yourself, think about the stories you tell yourself, do they help you to be the person you want to be – or do you need to change your script a little – they are your stories, you can change them. Your brain will look for evidence to support whatever you focus on so you might need to choose to consciously focus on something different to your default story – with practice the evidence follows and a new story grows.
Invest by accepting that things may not be as you want them, you might not be as productive, as organised, as groomed even and that is ok. You are allowed to stand in your own imperfect glory
Invest by identifying what relationships or activities enrich you and make time for them, even if they are nothing to do with work, or what you think you should be doing with your time. It’s no accident people are going baking mad – myself included. It’s distracting, it’s nourishing and breaking bread – quite literally – is one of the most connecting of human activities.
Invest by staying fit mentally and physically in whatever way works for you, there is no right or wrong. There’s plenty of free stuff online you can do at home. Use routine or ritual to calm your mind, it doesn’t have to be clever or traditional meditation, just the things that create space for you. If you need a hand try some simple things like anchoring activities to calming – like hand washing, add in a little ritual about reminding yourself you are well and safe (if those words work for you – or choose your own). Listen to your favourite music, get up and dance, go in the garden if you have one. Remember the things that keep you feeling connected and do something every day.
Give help and accept help – for the simple reason that this creates connection and raises your oxytocin levels. Even in lockdown there are so, so many examples of human kindness – focus on these and emulate what works for you.
Finally invest by staying positive and grateful – even on the worst of days there are a few moments of positivity – something that made you smile or laugh, something that made you feel loved or worthy. Focus on this not the hundred bad things that might be your go-to default – it is worth the effort to retrain yourself.
Remember, courage takes two things: a willingness to act and an ability to manage fear and anxiety – even temporarily. You manage fear by focusing on your values, on what matters most to you, on where you can make a difference. You are willing to act because you believe something is possible, you can picture an outcome and that outcome matters to you enough to endure your fear.
What could possibly matter more than being the best version of yourself that you are capable of right now? – this is how you emerge stronger, this is how you care for those you love, this is how you find the energy to re-craft your business or your job, and this is how you stay mentally well.
So please invest the time and know that your future self will thank you. If you need a little help do join us in our virtual co work community.
Like many good myths and stories, Pandora’s Box has iterated over time – if I had a pound for every inspirational speaker I’ve heard say ‘and the last thing out of Pandora’s box was hope’ I’d be doing very well. For hope to prevail, you have to suspend your fear long enough to believe in something better. Pandora did not.
As far as the myth goes – in a very abridged version – Pandora was a curious being, sent by Zeus to punish mankind. She had many gifts from many gods – these were stored in a jar (mistakenly translated as a box), and she was told never to open it. Of course, she did and once she did all manner of evil flew out into the world – she watched hardship, sickness, sadness, death and many other bad things fly out of the box and in an attempt to stop the flow of evil she had released, she slammed the box shut – trapping hope inside. (Later iterations of the myth have her finding hope at the bottom or have her husband showing her hope, which is obviously a much more palatable version of the story – particularly for children)
The interesting and relevant point here is that when you are in scary, uncertain situations you don’t know what is going to come out of the box – you may not be the one who opened the box, but you do have to deal with what flies out. You can’t stuff everything back in and you can’t pretend nothing’s changed – well maybe you can do that but it’s not a very good strategy.
When you act from a place of fear you tend to make poorer decisions from a more limited set of internal resources – which is fine when you are in immediate danger and you need to remove yourself, but not so good for the decisions that most of us make most of the time. There is a fairly simple neurological reason why this is the case – fear ups your cortisol and adrenaline activates your sympathetic nervous system and diverts effort to key survival areas of your brain. It literally narrows your conductive bandwidth, bypassing some of the rational processing that might be needed to find solutions.
Once this happens – even if you are not fully in fight / flight mode, your limbic brain has the wrong chemicals sloshing about for courageous, connected longer term solution finding. For this you need dopamine – the reward hormone, serotonin – for confidence and significance and oxytocin – for bonding and connection. Hope helps to release these hormones, but there is a caveat – you have to believe the outcome you are considering is possible. You don’t have to have it all planned out, you don’t have to know how to do it all – but you do have to believe it is possible that you can do it.
These are very uncertain times for most of us, whether it’s health, wealth or both, it is reasonable to feel fearful. The thing is, we will emerge from this pandemic, what is happening now will pass, and life may well be different after. The decisions you make now, right now, about your business, about your behaviour and about how you show up for your community will impact how your future looks – and while it’s really tempting to launch in and start ‘pivoting’ or changing your business, especially if your income has disappeared, remember this, you have to live in the future you create.
So before you react from a place of fear, think about the future you hope for, the business you want, the life you want and look at how you might start to craft that. If you don’t know, and it’s ok not to know – these are exceptional times, sit with it. Wait. You may well have more than a bit of time on your hands. Make sure you are informed about any financial support you may be eligible for, make sure you have looked at your expenditure and culled where necessary – that is good business housekeeping.
Then, when you start to craft the future you actually want, remember two things – hope helps you to have the right neurochemicals for expansive thinking and creation; and when you hope for something, you need to also believe it is possible in order to get the neurochemical hit.
When people say hope is not a strategy, they are right, and for the record fear is not a strategy either. Both are available to you: fear you’ll probably experience whether you want it or not; hope you might have to look for.
All I’m suggesting is you hang on long enough to get to the bottom of the box – don’t be like Pandora and react (or shut the lid), before you’ve allowed yourself hope.
If I can help you, if you’d like to join us for Cowork & Coffee meeting on Wednesday at 11am or you’d like to be part of the Braver Business Community, please reach out.
At the risk of stating the obvious, we live in scary times – whatever your background, your job, your politics – this affects you. I’m seeing a complete contrast between my small business client, many of whom have seen their work evaporate overnight, and friends who thought they were in stable jobs being laid off, to my health care colleagues who are being called upon to give even more than they usually do in even more difficult circumstances.
The vast majority of us are simply asking ourselves what we can do to help. Whether that be staying at home to slow the spread of the virus, whether it be volunteer delivering for local pharmacies or charities, whether it is through your paid work – we can all do something. This I believe is critical – not just because of the ‘doing’, but because of the sense of purpose, or contribution it brings with it.
As humans we need to contribute, we need to feel that we matter and for many the perceived lack of control over our own circumstances and our health even, is incredibly anxiety provoking. Knowing and accepting what your contribution is right now – however small it might feel, and let’s face it ‘stay home’ doesn’t really play into the hero in most of us, will help you to feel more in control.
Feeling more in control goes hand in hand with feeling less anxious, and at a practical level it also leaves you better placed to contribute.
Anxiety is both complex and simple. It’s complex because it doesn’t often have a specific cause or cure, it may have some known triggers and those of us that have experienced it will have a few management strategies, but often it can be a bit like trying to keep liquid in a sieve. It’s simple because whatever the trigger, it creates the same chemical change of events in your body that, left unchecked, will make you feel awful, it will stop you functioning as you are used to and make you question yourself more than usual – this is a physiological response.
I’m very much taking the simple chemical approach here. When you help others, what goes on in your amygdala activity changes. Fear is suppressed by the oxytocin (the feel good, empathy hormone) floating around in response to social connection / contribution – you feel good for giving help.
According to research by Inagaki & Ross in 2018, who tracked amygdala changes through MRI scans, targeted help was more beneficial than untargeted help. People giving to charity, for example, give untargeted support – they have no direct control over the outcome of their action, in the research these people experienced a wellbeing benefit. Those who gave targeted help – i.e. they took specific action to create a specific benefit over which they had some control, showed reduced amygdala activity (the thing that reduces fear and anxiety). In part this is because we are socially connected creatures who need to be of service.
As oxytocin levels rise, so do dopamine and serotonin which boost your mood and counters the impact of cortisol (the stress hormone) thus reducing anxiety.
Back to the current situation and our need to help; it is in part innate, we are each part of the social structure under threat, but it is mostly about targeted help – a way to bring a little bit of control to our chaos, away to rebalance our internal chemistry in favour of wellbeing – oh and an increased immune system by the way!
What can you do practically?
It might be that staying off the streets and looking after your immediate family is your contribution right now – so recognise it and focus on the difference you are making (both by way of protecting your family and slowing spread). It might be that if you are well and not in the vulnerable category, you can support others, friends, wider family, neighbours by being an ear, dropping off supplies at their door or simply checking in from time to time.
It might be you have some time, resource or skill you can share. We are creative creatures, we can find work arounds for many things. I’ve seen volunteer shoppers and deliverers, people showing one another how to use tech to stay connected, people having virtual coffee breaks, cocktail hours and watch parties – playing games you’d normally play in person, like monopoly, over video – think about what you can do.
It might be you are working from home and, having done that off and on for many years, it is not without its challenges in a full house. If you are not used to it don’t simply try to recreate your office at home, you may need to take breaks when you can and you’ll probably need to treat distractions as a blessing (yes I do mean children, pets and even chores). Be kind, graceful and helpful when your flow gets interrupted. Stay in touch with co-workers, they are probably feeling some of the challenges you are, it is amazing how much a kind word and online smiling face, or a collective laugh at your circumstances can do to help.
If you are still out working then the rest of us probably need to say thank you as it’s likely you are in healthcare, public service or essential industries and your efforts are quite literally helping the rest of us survive. You are already providing targeted help, and I, like so many others, am incredibly grateful. Do try to find time to acknowledge to yourself the contribution you are making – this is the way you get the neurological benefit. I know from my emergency care work it is all too easy to brush your contribution of as normal or just what you do, or even to feel like you haven’t done enough because of an overwhelmed system.
Taking stock of the difference you’ve made, the small acts, the things you take for granted will give you the energy and resilience to carry on.
Humour is also a great way to socially connect, to help one another relax for a minute and to change your neuro chemicals – I believe this is one of the reasons ‘black humour’ is so prevalent in health and emergency services, and I’m sure most industries have a version of their own, so take a moment to have a laugh where you can.
Finally, remember it is the uncertainty – the lack of control – that is throwing so many of us off kilter. It is the not knowing what comes next that leads to catastrophising and, ultimately, heightened anxiety. Regaining some modicum of control is the answer. Do this by focusing on what you personally can do – follow guidance from respected sources – like the NHS, try to keep a bit of structure if you are at home, identify where you are making a contribution and do more if appropriate, and finally be mindful or what you are spreading emotionally as well as physically.
If you want to join me online, we are hosting virtual coworking and coffee breaks on Wednesday mornings at 11am (these are practical conversations sharing knowledge and skills) join atwww.bravescene.com/coffee
Resolving a crisis often demands innovation, a change in the way you do things. Discomfort, uncertainty and fear, will likely call on you to hold fast, keep doing what you are doing, or have you feeling overwhelmed, like you have no control, or you can do nothing to influence your situation. I get it, this is the emptiest my sales pipeline has been in a very long time, and it’s not something I can easily fix.
I have spent much of today on the phone with healthcare colleagues and clients around the world – mostly postponing work we have planned over the next few months. Unlike our non-healthcare clients, they do not have the capacity to take stuff online, to continue developing their staff – they are working flat out to care for those in need. I’d like to say a big thank you to all of you in health care who might be reading this.
Like any ‘crisis’ Covid-19 is bringing out the best and worst of humanity, I’ve seen all sorts of behaviour from people, as I’m sure you have too. One thing that feels very clear – people are scared, we might not all be scared about the same thing, but there is definitely a heightened anxiety in the air.
From a neuro perspective, whatever you are consciously focussed on gets amplified. At the moment it feels like wherever you look it is fear and anxiety that are getting amplified. Now I’m not saying there is nothing to be concerned about, but I do think we have some individual and collective responsibility to be mindful of what we are spreading around emotionally as well as physically.
I am a great believer in focusing your efforts where you can actually make a difference. As well as obvious self-care precautions, I think there are two areas you can make a real difference.
First, pay attention to what you are talking about, listening too, reading and generally consuming online. Make sure you are amplifying things that actually help you, being reliably informed is one thing, scaring the sh*t out of yourself is totally different. Remember the things that help you feel good, uplifted and resourceful and include some of that in your day where you can.
Second, concentrate on activities that have the potential to sustain your business.
For many of us this will be bringing work online, focusing on how you can engage with clients remotely and looking at how you use a potentially less busy period to develop your business.
While times are tough right now, Covid -19 will fuel a wave of innovation – changes to the way we do business, that will stick long after the virus is gone. One of those will be a greater focus on digital working.
Look first at sustaining your business, think about cashflow, delivering on existing commitments differently and things you already have in place that you may not be using. I bet if most of you did an inventory of your tools and software you’d find some stuff that is underused because it doesn’t fit with how you work, some you don’t know well enough to use to its full potential, some that was just a good idea at the time but you’ve never really got value from.
It often takes an external event to make us change the way we work, we are creatures of habit after all. A great example of this, all be it very different circumstances, was the postal strike in 1988. One of the biggest outcomes was the increase in purchase and use of fax machines, a practice that continued after the strike. What practices might you need to change to operate in an evolving digital world? When you look at what you already have you may find making the transition to more digital working is not as hard – or as undesirable, as you first thought.
Cancel those things you subscribe to and never use – protect your cash flow. Think about things you could offer to clients, if you are in training or coaching for example, you may have several tools at your disposal, things like 360 feedback, profiling tools and team tools – these might just help your clients with the transition to home working, and the emerging work cultures that come with that.
Look at how you stay connected and continue to build relationships with your clients and community – what do you have in place that helps you navigate remote working – personally I’m a great fan of zoom video conferencing it has enabled me to serve clients in a much more convenient manner for both of us, and is now an even more essential part of our business. Have a look at what you have access to, for example Microsoft teams if you use Office 365, Skype, even What’s App or Facebook communities – it may be you already have more at your disposal than you realise.
Finally, think about your future business – what can you reasonably spend your time on now, especially if you are a bit light on client work, to invest in the future of your business. It might be getting round to creating resources to support your main client offerings, it might be creating a digital version of what you sell, it might be learning to use your software and tech more fully, or it might even be investing time in yourself and your own development – personally I quite like the idea of reading, researching, catching up on things going on in my industry and beyond.
Whatever you are doing over the next few weeks, protect yourself – both emotionally and physically, take the opportunity of a quieter time (if you have one) to stay connected with those you serve, to build relationships and to spend some time on your business infrastructure and offerings.
If you don’t fare well working alone – ie. you are easily distracted or demotivated, in addition to our existing Braver FB group, I’m hosting weekly Brave virtual coworking & coffee sessions. These are an open, no agenda co-work session, bring questions, ideas and challenges – let’s connect and lift one another. Join us here at 11am every Wednesday. One plea, there are plenty of places online you can talk about Covid -19 and its impact, this is not one of them, give your brain a break for an hour.
When thinking about this week’s blog I had a wee debate with myself – do I address the elephant in the room for many of us, or do I carry on with my planned neuroscience and connection theme. The reality is these are uncertain times.
Whether you are worried about the Covid-19 virus itself, the impact on your business or the effects of mass purchasing seemingly essential supplies, whether you are irritated by what feels like hysteria, annoyed that others don’t seem to be taking the risk seriously or happily trying to bury your head in the sand, it is unlikely you will be totally unaffected.
Uncertain times create stress and tension – as humans we don’t do well with ambiguity, in fact our unconscious will do it’s best to fill any actual knowledge gaps and create a cohesive story upon which we can act, (or react). This is in part why you can share an experience with someone and yet have conflicting memories of it.
Neurologically most people have an aversion to ambiguity when it comes to decision making. Back in the 1960s Daniel Ellsberg’s famous decision-making game demonstrated this beautifully. The game is predicated on simple gambling known factors against unknown factors.
In 2005, Colin Camerer, a neuro-economist tested this paradox while monitoring brain activity, he found that the less factual information people had to rely on, the more amygdala activity there was. Your amygdala is associated with emotion, particularly fear, aa well as the storing and sorting of memories, often ‘filed’ through their association with emotion. It also balances risk and reward and, by default, prioritises fear responses. Unchecked your unconscious will fill gaps in your knowledge with fear. It is this, seemingly irrational, by-product of not knowing that stops you focusing on the possibility of future rewards.
In our ordinary lives most of us don’t actually deal with much actual uncertainty. Most of what you feel uncertain about is, in fact, predictable, it’s socially based and related to how secure you feel. As your brain likes patterns, or habitual responses to certain triggers it is easy to repeat the same cycles, drawing on stories created from emotion, memory and incomplete information.
Of course there is a huge variance in how much uncertainty people can tolerate. Two people can have the same circumstances but a totally different experience, think about someone you love being late home, not answering your attempts to contact them, where does your brain go – are you catastrophising, are you unphased – or simply the parent of a teenager! Seriously though, your reaction will totally depend on your tolerance of uncertainty. Most people, even when excited by something, will also feel a little uncomfortable with uncertainty. At the other end of the spectrum anxiety induced by uncertainty is thought to affect 1:20 of the population.
Even if you are not particularly risk averse, most people will try to control circumstances to include more known variables and reduce the likelihood of surprise, just as demonstrated in the Ellsberg Paradox. The more you know the more you can predict what will happen and decide on ways to deal with it. When the outcome is unclear it is difficult to prepare, especially if you are splitting your brain processing between several possible outcomes.
When significant uncertainty arises, like major financial difficulties, significant health issues or major relationship challenges, anxiety increases across the board. The less control you have over a situation the higher the increase. Which brings me back to our current situation. Whatever your views around the newly declared pandemic, one of the things we should all be watchful of is its effect on mental well-being, our own and that of those around us. What is unfolding is the perfect storm of uncertainty – health risk, potential financial risk for many of us, lack of control and lack of knowledge.
Your brain will create a story or stories that enable you to process what is happening around you, it will fill in the blanks based on what you have previously experienced, what you choose to believe, and your emotional drivers – whether that be fear or something else. You will then unconsciously seek to prove your story right – it is no coincidence that you see more of what you focus on.
Our tolerance of uncertainty has diminished over the last decade, in part because we have so much technology at our disposal, it is easy to stay in touch with the people you care about, it’s easy to find ‘facts’ to support whatever you say, and it’s easy to create echo chambers from the places you consume ‘news’ – especially social media. Emotions are just as contagious as viruses and excessive or extended bouts of fear are bad for you. It is exhausting, quite literally weakens your immune system and prevents you enjoying your life. They might manifest as paralysing anxiety, but much more likely you will notice symptoms like poor concentration, increased excuse making, procrastination, irritability, finding distractions, refusing to delegate, double checking yourself, being distant or disengaged – this is not an exclusive list.
There is no magic button to turn off uncertainty anxiety, but the good news is that because it is created and driven through your brain’s limbic system you can go some way to creating healthier, more empowering responses to uncertainty. There are two key factors, self-awareness and control. Self-awareness requires you to understand the stories you repeatedly tell yourself, the excuses you make and the triggers you own. Control requires you to understand what you can impact, where you might have some control and what you might be concerned about but can’t change right now.
Here are a few strategies to help you maximise your awareness and control:
Understand your triggers, they are the start of an emotional reaction – good or bad. When you are aware of the things that send you into a more anxious state you have a better chance of knowing when it happens and consciously intervening in your brain processing. Even a simple word with yourself – ‘I recognise this is fear talking and choose to let it go’ or a sentence that works for you.
Focus on what you can control – you always have control over some aspect of a situation so to decrease uncertainty anxiety, focus on this. In the current situation it might be washing your hands , choosing what you read or give air time to. It might be building up your mental resilience. Choosing to act on what you can control calms your limbic activity and done repeatedly becomes your default way of responding.
Stay positive – not for hippy, happy, clappy reasons, but because it raises your resilience, mentally and physically, start by consciously looking for and finding the small positives in everyday activities – there will be many you take for granted. This focus amplifies over time and creates an easier transition out of fear into calm.
Trust yourself – if your internal alarm bells are ringing listen, go through the steps above and ensure you are not reacting to an unhelpful story and then take the wisdom your ‘gut’ or intuition is sharing.
Take action on decisions you make it removes ambiguity – even if it turns out to be the wrong action.
When all else fails stop, take a breath, well a few breaths really. This activates your parasympathetic nervous system creating a sense of calm, calms your sympathetic nervous system and reduces anxiety.
We may have an uncertain few months ahead, and I don’t write this from some place of judgement or even direction. I do believe we each also have a responsibility to each keep our own house in order, we need to look after each other’s wellbeing and resist spreading harm, viral and informational. I also recognise that it can be a concerning time, if you need to talk, want to share ideas or challenges as part of the Brave community you are very welcome to do so.
Seriously – food allergies, medicines we’re on it aren’t we? Whether it’s life threatening, causes mildly inconvenient symptoms or anything in between, it’s a physical trigger causing a physical reaction and we pay attention to it. We know what we are allergic to, we know what we need to do about it and generally we avoid contact with the substances involved.
Have you ever considered your emotional allergies? I believe we all have them, you might even be having one right now reading this. Put simply, an allergy is an uncontrolled inflammatory reaction to a specific trigger. Think about this from an emotional perspective – a specific person or a specific topic repeatedly trigger negative responses in you. It might be anger, discontent, inadequacy, sadness, fear, it might be something else for you, but left unchecked all of these impact both your judgement and your decision making.
I have spent a happy evening researching new neuroscience evidence – a favourite pastime which often sends me off down some interesting – but not often relevant – rabbit hole. Tonight’s rabbit hole reminded me why rabbit holes can sometimes be a good thing.
Many years ago I decided to study an extra course in radical philosophy while at college – just because it was interesting, (and probably because it was not part of the curriculum I’d been told to study). Anyway, the understanding of philosophy, and specifically Plato’s Metaxy, paid dividends tonight as I got engrossed in truth and post-truth impact on connection and increased social anxiety – you can expect a more intelligent blog on this once I’ve digested my findings.
For now, it got me thinking about emotional allergies, the things you react to and create meaning around which might just be based on the B*lls**t your brain is feeding on.
Your reaction, whether good or bad, habitual or unexpected comes from the stories unconsciously (or consciously) run. Here’s the thing, it’s not how you feel that makes something true – or even right or wrong. It is consideration, analysis and judgement or all the truths or the evidence – internal and external. It is very easy to trust your intuition and make a quick decision and, to be fair, most of the time you will be right. Just check you don’t have an emotional allergy – otherwise faster than you can say ‘processing power’, your brain will have responded to your emotion and constructed reasons for your decision or action that you will call intuition.
Remember your brain is biased and your emotions tell lies – or at least not the whole truth.
It’s not hard to find your emotional allergies, and the great news is it is often easier to do something about them than with physical allergies. You may have realised you have an allergy while you’ve been reading this. If you’re not sure how to work out whether you have an allergy give this a go. Do it honestly, trust your first reaction and don’t judge – this is an exercise in awareness, nothing more. Below are just a few words, test out the exercise with your own words if you prefer.
Look at each of the words below and become aware of your emotions:
Entrepreneurial Spiritualism Money
Capitalism Feminism Freelancer
Authentic Conformist Whining
Profit Activist Rebellion
If you felt a negative reaction, or the need to justify why the word is bad in some way then the chances are you have an allergy – the extent of your reaction may determine the severity.
Like many things relating to your brain, you can choose to do something about your allergies once you know about them. Let’s face it the very fact you know about something changes the way you process it.
Things to try:
Know your triggers and how much exposure you can handle. Try an emotional ‘patch test’ – nothing with high stakes, test out your reactions, and have an exit strategy.
If you are triggered, give your brain time to catch up before you respond – I’m referring to the BS intuition your brain presents as evidence. Taking a pause may prevent you from reacting in a way you later regret.
Know that those who best push your buttons are those who put them there – family, partners, close friends. You won’t always be able to avoid them, but you can know those buttons are to serve their ends not to benefit you – awareness might stop you reacting.
Finally, congratulate yourself for your successes, keep a sense of humour and don’t ever judge yourself – we are all work in progress.
I hope you enjoy this journey of self-discovery and if you want to share what you find do join me in the braver group.
No idea what I’m talking about? I bet you’ve eaten a pancake or two in your time. Maybe enjoyed a pancake race, or tossing ritual?
Being shriven is to be absolved of your sins – it’s an Anglo-Saxon Christian ritual where on Shrove Tuesday, 47 days before Easter Sunday, you confessed your sins and sought absolution. This was followed by a period of fasting known as Lenten. It later became a day of feasting and celebrating preceding Lent. Making pancakes, once a practical way of using up eggs etc, became central to the celebrations. Similar rituals of celebration, food and parade can be seen in Mardi Gras and Pre-Lenten in Europe.
While we often associate ritual with religion, ancient tribalism or even the occult, it is actually in small everyday things that rituals are at their most powerful. Rituals give us a sense of order, control even, and in some small way they help to make sense of the chaotic world we experience, whether that be grand scale ceremony or a very personal routine. They are often symbolic enactments to which we attach a meaning.
Historically we see rituals where the outcome is important – like being absolved of your sins if you are a Christian. We see rituals when the outcome is uncertain – like dancing around the Maypole, an ancient pagan fertility ritual, designed to bring good luck to crop growing. We see rituals where the outcome is beyond our control – like the ancient fire walking tradition, a rite of passage in iron age India, purification in Malaysia and a modern-day empowerment activity.
These kind of rituals exist because they create a sense of connection, or belonging to something bigger, even if only for a moment. This is really important to human well-being.
In principle, rituals are a good thing, in practice not so much, unless we are prepared to get both conscious and intentional about what rituals we engage in. It is daily practice that shapes who we are, it is daily practice that determines how we show up and contribute to the world and it is daily practice that has the biggest impact on our mental wellbeing.
Here’s the rub. Most daily practice is completely habitual, it is often unconscious, and we don’t think about its impact – on ourselves or others. Think back to being shriven for a minute; how often do you continue to beat yourself up for something long after others involved have moved on? Is part of your ritual to beat yourself up, or can you learn what you need to learn and forgive? The latter of course is far better for you.
Many of our rituals are unconscious, habitual acts, yet we feel a bit out of sorts if we haven’t performed them. Think about cleaning your teeth for example, you probably have times of the day when you do this – when you get up, when you go to bed, you might have a way you do it and order in which you move round your mouth and so on – it’s habitual and a ritual. So might be the way you prepare for certain activities – I know many speakers who have a pre-stage ritual to get themselves in the right place to do their best work, musicians, actors, athletes, people who have grounding, connecting rituals prior to something important.
Rituals are a powerful internal conversation (no words necessary) about your self-worth, about the way you treat yourself, whether you are prepared to invest in yourself.
However busy you are, you can find a few minutes to be conscious about your rituals.
Think about your habits and rituals for a moment, how many have you got? How many create control, a sense of order? How many make you feel calm and /or connected. What have you been doing unconsciously and does it enrich or empower you or are your rituals keeping you stuck?
If you have some enriching rituals in place already well done, if you are alarmed by what you are habitually doing to yourself or not doing for yourself, it’s never too late to start investing.
Uncertainty, and the fear that comes with it, drives your sympathetic nervous system –your fight/flight, stress response. Your body is designed to operate here in exceptional circumstances, it can’t differentiate between actual physical threat and psychological threat, destructive self-talk, judgement and fear keep you stuck and have a detrimental impact on your long term well-being so watch out for destructive rituals.
Creating certainty, even for a few minutes, has a powerful impact on your neurological function. It trips you back into parasympathetic – rest and restore mode, where we ideally operate from most of the time. Ritual is a great way to create a few minutes of certainty.
If you need to upgrade your rituals here are a few things to try –
Wake up and consciously smile, it changes the chemicals floating around your brain.
Create tea / coffee / water time out routines for yourself (I love my 5 minute start my work day routine, of a coffee, my aim for the day and some affirmations – it sets my brain up again with the right neurochemicals sloshing around to keep me empowered and on track)
Set your intentions – some people say this is a morning activity, I believe it is a regular, but what works for you activity – the important bit being setting yourself up to succeed.
Exercise whether it be yoga, running, football, the gym, a regular routine for yourself is a great ritual.
Your self-talk – we are predisposed to focus on negatives, positive self-talk often takes a bit of conscious processing.
Getting outside and breathing fresh air.
Pick one of these and try it. you might find you have to try a few before you find the right fit, have fun. This is not an exhaustive list, if you have others you think people might like please share them in the comments or the Braver group.
You don’t have to join a ceremony or embody an ancient custom to enjoy ritual, unless you want to, but you do have to absolve yourself or your perceived shortcomings and wrong doings and invest in your well-being a little. Spend a little time on yourself and if you are having pancakes or joining bigger ceremonies have fun, as we will be with our own who can actually catch their pancake once they’ve tossed it competition.
I am constantly fascinated by narrative, language and storytelling, as they are key to the reality we create for ourselves – even when we are not the originator of the narrative. Our narrative frames possibility, both creating and limiting our potential to live our best lives.
Somewhere in the middle of all that sits ego. There are several differing interpretations of what ego is in psychology and neuroscience, so to be clear for the purpose of this article, I am talking about ego as your sense of self, the opinions you have about yourself and your abilities, and your sense of self-worth. I am not talking about ego in terms of conscious mind or psychoanalysis.
Humour me for a minute; stop reading and just jot down somewhere who you are, how you might describe yourself – your words, not what you think others might see or think.
Don’t read on until you’ve done the exercise!
Now have a look at what you’ve written – how does it read?
It’s probably a bit of your personal story , the things that define you. For example, I might write: I’m a mother, a teacher, an author, an enabler. I’m big into neuroscience, spent many happy years working in the NHS leading emergency care. I hate rules and being told what to do, I’m stubborn, curious and love creating – words, photos, food, décor – just creating. I have big dreams, a bigger heart and the courage to follow through – most of the time. The longer you give yourself the more you will come up with, the deeper into yourself you’ll probably go – and I often get clients to spend much longer doing this, it can be a very interesting voyage of self-discovery.
If your ego is your sense of self, then it is the story you create about yourself – create being the salient word. It’s not real, it is simply the illusion – or the story, you create in your mind. Your story is, of course, your lived reality, so reflect again on what you wrote above and think about the stories you repeatedly tell yourself – are they empowering, supportive of who you want to be in the world or are they fear driven limitations and excuses that hold you back?
Most people have some and some; you might believe you are great at what you do, you might also believe you are no good with numbers or money, you might think you are really clever and that you are too old to make a difference, you might believe you are kind and loving and also that nobody listens to you – do you see how these contradicting, but potentially real internal stories can create confused ego?
Your ego is in play every time you say I can do this or I can’t do that, it is being formed everytime you think I’m not good enough or I’m too good for this, and for the most part you will be oblivious to what is going on. Your ego is an evolving part of who you are, and it can be difficult to see, mostly because you are not looking; introspection is a hugely undervalued activity in our society.
Your ego plays a massive part in how you show up and engage with the world, it is fundamental to how you connect with those around you personally & professionally, face to face and online. It is also responsible for many of the emotional reactions you have to circumstances, other people’s behaviour, perceptions of fairness, feelings of insecurity. To protect from the confusion created by both empowering and disabling stories you may well have created one or a series of masks you pull on in different situations to protect yourself and your fragile ego.
It is these masks that are often the destroyer of connection, because the you that is showing up is playing a part, fitting in. However practiced you are – and you may have been wearing some of those masks for a long time, people can’t quite connect, they don’t feel entirely safe or like they can trust you. When your ego puts up a mask it creates a barrier to genuine connection, your ego fields behaviour and emotion driven by fear and self-protection. When people think about ego it is often over inflated opinions, or arrogance that come to mind – ego can keep you small just as it can make you big yourself up.
If ego is going to be the creator of connection then you have to drop the mask, you have to get comfortable paying attention to your ego and treating it as your friend – as the integral part of you that it is. You have to nourish it, not punish it and this comes down to what you feed it – the stories you chose to believe about yourself, the stories you repeatedly tell yourself.
It is time to stop confusing your ego. Think about who you need to be, how you want to show up in the world, how you want to connect and feed those stories to your ego, create that reality for yourself.
If you are not sure who this is go back and repeat the earlier exercise as if it were the very best version of yourself. You might start by jotting down everything you believe about yourself, then cross out the things that are not true – other people’s opinions you have chosen to own, or old stories that are no longer true. Look at what is left and choose to keep the best version. This way there is no need for a mask, the real you shows up and connection is created.
If you falter along you journey, be kind to yourself, your ego has been a lifetime in the making, remain introspective and work on your stories a bit at a time.
Your ego is not your enemy, it is simply your story – make it a good one.
Depending on how loved up, romantic or cynical you are, Valentine’s Day will hold differing levels of significance for you. One thing is for sure, the increasing levels of commercialism around it make it hard to ignore – from cards, to gifts, to restaurants, your online and offline world is bombarded with pink & red hearts and flowers.
This, of course, is not how it all started out and while I’m not opposed to honouring romantic love in whatever way you see fit, I am calling on you to think about how you love yourself.
If you’re interested, St Valentine’s Day is really about Christian Martyrdom and honouring sacrifice. In 496AD, the Pope deemed the 14th February a day of feasting in honour of St Valentine of Rome who had been executed some 200yrs earlier – it was not until the 14th century that St Valentine’s day actually became associated with romantic love.
Think about this, what if instead of martyring yourself – or over working, over criticising, under nourishing, under valuing – whatever you do that threatens your mental and physical wellbeing; you make this a week for self-love.
Self-love is fundamental to our functioning as a human being. It is an integral part of our neural programming – if you want to be able to show up, to be real and truly belong, then at your very core you have to feel internally aligned in order to connect with the world in a meaningful way. It’s very difficult to do that if you don’t love who you believe yourself to be.
It can be very easy to feel down on yourself or self-critical if something has not panned out the way you expected or wanted, when you spend too much time comparing yourself to others, and when you don’t feel good enough in some way. I believe there is a clean distinction between self-love and liking yourself at any given moment. Liking yourself is much more about your behaviour, your reactions and your emotional responses, which, let’s be honest, can sometimes fall short of the high bar many of us hold ourselves to.
In just the same way as it is possible to love your children or partner unconditionally, but not like them very much on occasions; it is quite possible to love yourself and not like something about yourself or your behaviour in a specific moment. Because we operate from our limbic brain most of the time this can easily get amplified, focussed on and become a recurring pattern of behaviour.
Like many of the things that threaten our mental wellbeing, not loving yourself is learned behaviour. As a baby and very small child you knew you were perfect as you were and you knew how to get what you needed to survive. As a growing human you are also very connected and receptive to the responses you get from people and quickly get socialised into what is acceptable, what is approved of and what keeps you liked and safe.
In a perfect world these would be all the same things that help you flourish, enjoy life and make your contribution. In the real world they are not always the same, so to fit in, to be liked and to stay safe, you adapt your behaviour to meet expectations – yours as well as those of people around you. When this doesn’t fit with who you feel you are, your values or what you want to do on this planet, your mental wellbeing can suffer. Your ability to like who you are and what you stand for will certainly take a hit. You may even start to feel you have lost part of yourself, you are playing roles for others and showing up how they want you to. This internal disconnect messes with how you process information, where your unconscious focus goes and ultimately what you do more or less of.
You may recognise this in yourself as negative self-talk, never quite making time for the things you personally love, putting others needs before your own, not nourishing yourself, not sleeping enough, exercising enough – I suspect there are a few more I have not thought of. All of these send you and those around you a clear message that you do not love yourself enough to treat yourself well. It also gives others permission to, unwittingly or otherwise, take advantage or not treat you well either.
I know for most of us there is a balance to be struck between our own needs, caring for others, and looking after our businesses, and I know personally it can be a tricky thing to balance, too far one way and you might feel selfish, but too far the other and you martyr yourself, or the best version of you can’t show up, or you might even harm your wellbeing to the extent you can no longer serve others.
It is OK not to like yourself all of the time, we all do, say or think things we are not proud of occasionally, we all have bits of ourselves we might not like, whether that be our wobbly bits, our inability to do something, a quick temper, an inability to say no – insert your own here…
These do not make you unloveable.
Because you are neurologically predisposed to focus on the negative – just in case they put you in harms way, it is easy to focus on what you don’t like, amplify it and find increasing ‘evidence’ to support your thinking. Your unconscious mind will always look for evidence to prove it right, this might involve the most tenuous of links, but it will make them all the same.
Deep down, most people have as many parts of themselves that they do like or love. These don’t put you under perceived threat so they don’t get the same focus.
This week when we celebrate love, how about looking at elements of the St Valentine’s Day differently, think about honouring and feasting. Honour yourself by focusing on the things you like or love about yourself by being conscious about them, focused on them and feast yourself on the evidence that supports them and really allow yourself to feel the beautiful lovable being that you are.
Notice how much better you feel, how much more able you feel and know this, love is a basic human need, we may survive, but certainly can’t thrive without it. Each one of us deserves love and this starts as an inside job, the more we are able to love ourselves, imperfections and all, the more love we have to give to others.
Channelling my inner hippy, I leave you with this –
“There is no such thing as too much love in the world, the more there is the more we share around”.
There are a lot of great, well researched, business life cycle models available and this blog is not aiming to usurp them. My simple analogy is to demonstrate the importance of staying connected.
I’ve built my business on three core values courage, connection and contribution – although I certainly didn’t know that when I started (my infancy phase) and even a decade in, during adolescence, I probably couldn’t have articulated it. As it has matured, and is starting to move into its legacy phase, everything we do as a business has to pass the values test. This is mostly an unconscious neural process and when it is a conscious test, that in itself, is usually a warning that something is off – it isn’t really connected or congruent.
It is this true connection with my business values, mission and legacy that has enabled me (and my business) to weather rough times, change course when necessary and embrace the journey. It is also this connection with a bigger vision that has enabled me to grow and mature as a business.
My vision is for a world where we are each brave enough to act on the things that matter to us. We contribute to this a number of ways through education, particularly neuroscience, through mentoring, though coaching and with practical support – and all that we do has to lead towards a braver world.
I believe your business has four phases – we don’t all move through all four and, unlike human life phases, it is quite possible to regress as well as progress. These four phases are pregnancy, infancy, adolescence and maturity.
There are clear functions and activities that belong in each phase. Each of these phases tests your courage, your commitment and your connection with yourself, your goals and your greater purpose. Each of these phases bring you their own rewards and challenges.
Phase one – Pregnancy
This is the incubation and growth of your business idea. It’s getting it to take its first breath. This is a period of anticipation, of investing in your idea, of preparation for birth. Do the right stuff and you give your business the best change of thriving. The right stuff includes a birth plan – what are you delivering, how are you going to start, where are your first customers coming from, what are your hopes and dreams for your baby?
Every parent knows you can only plan so far, as you enter the birth phase things can change rapidly and unexpectedly, you may have to adjust course to survive, it may take longer or be harder than you’d hoped, and this is just the beginning. The thing is you may never feel fully prepared – especially if it is your first, or you may feel totally prepared – only to find you have prepared the wrong stuff.
At some point you have to give birth, you can’t just keep preparing, over thinking, or waiting for everything to be perfect – if you want a business you have to start.
Phase two – Infancy
This is exciting and often terrifying at the same time. It will probably have you eagerly looking for and ticking off early milestones – things like going live online – whether that be website or social profiles, your first client, going into profit. You’ll also hit some not so welcome milestones, your first complaint (we all get them), sleepless nights because life isn’t tracking with your plan or your ideal. Then there’s the isolation because looking after your business feels all-consuming, especially when your friends or family without a business just don’t get how hard it can feel. They don’t understand that, just like being a new parent, in your head, your self-worth, your confidence, your very identity are completely wrapped up in your success. Somehow you are it, your business is about you – if you don’t do it ‘it’ doesn’t happen!
It can be very tempting at this stage to slip back to the pregnancy phase, you had control, they were your ideas you felt really connected. The reality is much more messy. In my experience business infancy is trial and error, and there is likely to be more error than success – even if you follow models and rules. My advice, get comfortable with failure – it is part of growth, stay nimble enough to adapt to your baby’s needs and – the critical bit, stay in control. There may be the odd emergency where your circumstances determine your actions, but most of the time stick to your core values, do what you believe in and own your business – don’t let it own you.
The only way through this phase is to put the effort in, establish what works and what doesn’t and do more of what works – provided it brings you satisfaction and a sense of contribution. If it doesn’t you may want to return to the pregnancy phase – you have more of an ideal what to expect second time around.
Phase three – Adolescence
This is scary stuff, your beautiful baby is developing a life of its own, you are not making all the decisions – there are external influences at play. You’ve had to get help in order to keep growing, this might be outsourcing admin, it might be marketing or sales help, tech support, more people making your product or delivering client work. Here’s the real rub, none of this help does stuff exactly how you would, they have their own expertise, ideas or ways of behaving – you are on a crash course in managing many moving parts as well as probably taking a bit of a profit dip because you are paying for help.
This is one of the most painful stages for a business, it is where many small business owners circle back to infancy. You’ve forgotten those all-consuming first few years, you remember the control, the confidence from the routines you’d developed and the glory of being all things to all people. Settling back into late infancy is incredibly common. You know how to make a reasonable living, you know who your clients are and it kind of feels comfortable and successful.
The other common characteristic of adolescence is believing you are indestructible – this is also true of adolescent businesses, you take on too much, diversify too widely, and expand too fast, believing you can do anything – or everything. This has been the undoing of many well known young businesses. My advice, introduce something, consolidate, introduce the next thing consolidate and so on – you can add in pretty much anything you want to, but not all at the same time and not without knowledge and experience.
Surviving adolescence is about purpose, it is about connecting with your values, and knowing what you are prepared to do and what you are not prepared to do to make the contribution you want to make. Then you just have to get courageous enough to hold the hell on and grow into the person and business you are meant to be.
Phase four – Maturity and Legacy
Just because you grow older doesn’t mean you mature. A mature business understands its journey, how it got to where it is and how to reproduce itself. This might be by way of continued expansion, it might be by way of diversity – this very much depends on the you as the business owner and what you want to contribute. What is for certain is that a mature business has systems, it doesn’t rely on you for daily operations. You and your business have to have grown through the first three phases to get here.
Most businesses do not get here. They get stuck and circle back or they settle. The businesses that make it here are birthed and nurtured by people who are connected to their own values, to their mission and to the people their business serves. They know what impact they want their business to have – they understand legacy. I don’t mean all these businesses have to be huge and world changing, but I do absolutely believe all of these businesses have an impact on their chosen bit of the world – the thing that matters to the you as the business owner, your legacy.
It is this perceived impact that attracts great team members – they connect with the mission, they want to be part of what the business stands for, not just what it does. Sure, people come to work for a pay check – but in the small business world, I believe most who just want a pay check are in adolescent business, employees in mature business got there because they are connected, their values align, they are there for the mission.
People increasingly make values driven choices, your clients make value driven choices, so if you are not already, get clear about what your business values are, about what you really stand for, and about your impact, then use these to connect. I’d love to hear about where you think you are on your business journey, if you’ve found yourself stuck in a particular phase – or even recognise yourself circling back. I’d also love to know about your legacy, the more we know about each other the more we are able to help one another.
Whether you call yourself an entrepreneur, a business owner or a freelancer, when you work alone – or are the ‘boss’ of a small team, it can feel very lonely. You are the decision maker, maybe the breadwinner for your family, you’ve gone out on a limb, you may seem like a risk taker or rebel to your family and friends, the bottom line – you have something to prove! Whether you identify as lonely or not, this ‘aloneness’ can create a serious lack of perspective.
You might feel like a small fish in a big and busy pond, a pond where the water keeps moving and if you don’t, you’ll get sucked down the whirlpool in the middle. There are a few superstars in your industry who have claimed islands around the pond, a few more who have tiny moorings they anchor to, but most are circling the whirlpool working hard not to get sucked in.
It’s easy to get caught in the whirlpool. You swim faster and faster to make sure you don’t get sucked in, but without perspective you can’t see beyond the whirlpool you are spinning in, no matter how many times you swim round the edge just keeping everything together.
Life and business can start to feel repetitive – you may even know it’s your own story / excuses that have you circling the whirlpool, but while you’re busy swimming, the water is moving too fast to reflect what you are actually doing – hence your perspective disappears.
Your little whirlpool is kind of like your social media echo chamber, or the rhetoric from the same people you have the same conversations with over and over, the things you regularly fill your head with, the habits you repeat whether they serve you or not – these all limit your perspective.
This is where connection is vital, whether it is a partner or family member, a friend or fellow entrepreneur, a formal mentor or business group, having someone who understands your dreams and aspirations who can see what you are doing from beyond the edge of the whirlpool will give you a totally different perspective than your own.
The key to here though is that the person or people supporting you are actually able to hold space for you, you feel safe enough to be vulnerable, to explore what you are doing – or not doing, and that they have the right experience or expertise to help you to find perspective. This might be because they know you well, they’ve shared some of your life journey, it might be that they have an island or mooring already, or previously swum in the pond that you are navigating, or it might be that they are a professional ‘space holder’.
It is definitely not the people who love you dearly and want to keep you safe. It is not the people who want you to do things their way – and in there I include many ‘coaches’ selling solutions for this, that and the next thing without even understanding your issue. Neither is it colluders, those people who when you say it’s tough will immediately share their hardships or horror stories, agree about how tough it is and encourage you to swim faster round the whirlpool, or worse, sink into it with them.
Most entrepreneurs and business owners I work with crave safe space, somewhere to gain the perspective that enables them to swim in their own lane and not round in circles. I believe that connection with others who understand the risk, the loneliness and the rewards of having your own business is critical to perspective, success and mental wellbeing and I actively encourage you to seek out this connection. You are welcome to look in the Braver Business group for starters.
Perspective is a neurological habit, a way of thinking – often when busy, tired or stressed you take the neurological shortcut – which is to keep doing what you’ve always done and keep doing it the same way. It’s easy, but madness. Not only does this default keep you stuck, it can prevent you considering new things in your industry, from finding better ways of working and from connecting with people who may help you. Like all habits, your default perspective seeking habits can be changed.
Here are my favourite ways of ensuring I (nearly always) keep an expansive perspective:
Understand what takes me close to the edge of the whirlpool – for me this is usually self-inflicted – I have not saved enough space for perspective, either I’m busy with client work or I’ve taken on too many different things, or underestimated how long I needed to do something.
Know that it is ok to have the occasional meltdown – it’s part of the growth cycle, if you are growing, out of your comfort zone, or things are not going to plan you are going to feel vulnerable. You are a human being – it’s normal. The key here is to find a safe place to lose the plot temporarily and know what grounds you and allows you to regain your perspective.
Have trusted people, who get the entrepreneurial journey and are prepared to hold space for me – for this to work you have to feel safe, not judged and know that they are in your corner but won’t tell you what to do – unless you ask of course.
Be prepared to be that person for others – the more you are able to see perspective in all situations the better you train your brain (or get into the habit of) to look for multiple answers or ways of doing things. The more you learn to listen, to hold space the better you will be able to do it for yourself. Let others be heard and the chances are they will reciprocate.
Finally, keep your sense of humour – laughter is a great neurological release, it changes our internal chemistry and floods our bodies with positive more expansive hormones – literally expanding our brain’s processing capacity – creating more perspective.
This is not by any means an exclusive list, please do add your own in the comments or the Braver Business group and lets help each other stay out of the whirlpool and find our island or mooring.
Today’s blog is really about connection with stories. It is Blue Monday, the day that we – as a nation, are collectively feeling at our most miserable. It’s January, Christmas is gone, the credit card bills are in, we’ve broken most of our New Year’s resolutions and it’s cold and dark out there. Add to this general concern about the environment, hostilities and politics – it is easy to feel a bit out of control and down. It’s also fair to say that we as humans are affected by our environment and circumstances. It’s not fair to say we have no control over the affect these have on us.
Blue Monday is a story, a PR stunt by Sky travel in 2005, something which over the past 15 years has grown into a real ‘thing’ – story that has fed many, many marketing and PR campaigns over the years – most of which are ultimately trying to sell you some version of a better life, whether that be travel, home improvements, personal development. Not all of these are asking you to part with money, some are asking you to make a change, offering different options or inviting you to look differently at a situation. Mine (this blog) included, to be fair; I am asking you to look at the stories you tell yourself.
When you own a story, your brain looks for ‘evidence’ to prove you right – and usually finds it. Once you have this ‘evidence’ your story becomes your reality. Why would you set yourself up to be miserable – even for a day? When you buy into the collective misery of Blue Monday you amplify it, for yourself and for those around you. Even the psychologist & happiness guru, Cliff Arnall, who did the original calculations for Sky Travel admits it was not helpful to have named a day as ‘the most depressing day’ and in recent years has campaigned for people to use it to think about creating positive change.
Like most good stories, ‘Blue Monday’ is believable, it reflects an element of truth – some people are affected by the dark winter months, some people are feeling the effects of a more sedentary life or are feeling the financial – or physical, aftermath of an indulgent holiday period; it’s easy to use this as an excuse for not taking responsibility for yourself. It is also an incredibly unhelpful story to buy into. Those who have ever experienced mental illness – as opposed to poor mental well-being, will know feeling low is not the same as depression, anxiety, neurosis or seasonal affective disorder. They will also know that one day – even a titled one like Blue Monday, makes little difference to the trajectory of the illness. A low mood is different, it is something you can choose to enjoy, something you can choose to do something about and ultimately something which will lift. I believe it is this low mood that Blue Monday exacerbates.
In the end you choose what stories you tell yourself – consciously or unconsciously. If you feel great and inspired in January, if you are storming ahead with business and personal goals well done – keep doing what you are doing. If, on the other hand, you are feeling a bit low, look at what you are feeding yourself, literally and emotionally. Are you being kind and empowering in the stories you tell yourself, are you getting enough connection with nature, your environment and the things that enrich you? Decide if you need to tell yourself a slightly – or radically – different story in order to be the person you want to be.
Remember your brain will hunt for (and find) evidence to support whatever you are focussed on – so focus on something that empowers you today and every day.
I bet your inbox is full of ways to beat Blue Monday, so I’m not going to go beyond asking you to look at what stories you buy into because they become your reality. I am going to ask you to think about what you amplify and spread, because as humans we are unquestionably energetically connected – one person’s mood and energy impacts another. And finally, I am going to suggest that today, and every day, we all choose kindness. We may not know all that is going on for those around us, what stories they are owning, whether or not they are feeling low. When we choose kindness we spread kindness, we are more open to connection and we may just make someone – or ourselves, feel better.
Whatever you are doing today I hope it’s a good day – or has some good bits.
Many of you will know my favourite pastime is retreats: running them, designing them, being in them. I have been very lucky to spend the last few days with some incredible people in the forest, a luxury lodge in the forest to be precise. We have taken full advantage of the new year and decade to work on intentions, vision and accountability for 2020 and beyond. The power of focus is an incredible gift and being able to take yourself out of the ‘busy’ even for a few hours – ideally for a few days, is a great way to become intentional about your life and your business.
I stand by what I said about New Year’s day last week, it is not an all or nothing, change or be doomed day – you can make change any time you choose. When you do choose to change, it has to be for yourself, – it might be a benefit to others, but the outcome has to matter to you, for you.
One of the hardest things about the change and growth you make on your journey is living up to your own expectations. It’s one thing to commit to an “improving” version of yourself or your life – whatever that looks like – it might be a habit, fitness, money management, weight loss, smoking, writing a book, starting a podcast, being kinder – whatever it is for you. It is another thing to live it every day, to progress every day – you will have off days, days where the best version of yourself stayed in bed and the cranky early version showed up – you are human, you are allowed.
The challenge is to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start over. Kindness to yourself and perspective are needed here – if a thing is important enough to you, love yourself enough to start again. I believe that this is where great intention setting really helps – when you are clear about why you are doing something and the outcome is intrinsic to who you are or the contribution you see yourself making in the world, you will endure any setbacks and conquer any obstacles along your journey.
The real win from being intentional is a neurological one. You are quite literally priming your brain to help you succeed, you are focusing your Reticular Activating System (RAS) – the part of your brain that connects with external stimuli through your senses. Put simply, your RAS filters out the noise so the important stuff gets through, it focuses on, firstly, what might harm you and, secondly, on whatever you are consciously or even unconsciously thinking about or dwelling on. Once it has created this filter you will become more consciously aware of the opportunities, connections and activity around your focus.
Try it – think about a type of car, or a specific colour of car, then go about your day as normal and just see how many you notice. If you are not likely to see cars think about something you do come across on your daily travels – the principle will work the same.
When you spend the time to really connect with yourself, to reflect on what you want your life or business to be like, on how you want to show up, on what you want to make a difference to, you will become clear about what your intentions for 2020 or your next decade are. There is no right or wrong way to set intentions, but connection is key! It is not just a cognitive thinking process – you need to feel in to it too. This might be an emotion like excited or scared, it might be a physical sensation – goosebumps perhaps, or a change in physiology like temperature or breathing. This is your gut (or enteric nervous system), your instincts (limbic system) conspiring to ensure you are on the right path. You need to be able to trust yourself and value yourself enough to go with these instincts and use them to set your intentions.
They might be very specific and tied into goals, they might be thematic – like visibility, what you want to be known for – they are your intentions. Be sure of this, once you set them you will start to notice things linked to your intentions and opportunities around them. Be ready to act.
For me accountability is key for follow through, where ever there is greatness there is accountability – to a cause, a community, another human being. I believe the great antidotes to failed New Year’s resolutions – aside from not making them, is accountability. While we are all accountable to ourselves, often that is not enough, especially when we fall short of our own expectations.
Having trusted allies in your corner who will help you stay on track, check in with you around your intentions – and not let you make excuses, makes a big difference to your success. These people might be your family, they might be your friends or colleagues, you might have a coach or mentor, or an online community you share this with – use them.
Intention setting can be done at any time, it is a neurological activity. There is no time like the present if want a bit of a boost. Today (Friday 10th) is a lunar eclipse which makes it a great day for releasing what no longer serves you and setting intentions.
I am very lucky, I’m leaving the forest now for a weekend by the sea where I will be doing a day of business planning followed by a couple of days chilling, before returning to the office next week. It is intention setting and accountability that give me the freedom I have in my business, that make us open to the many opportunities around us and that help us to choose and pursue those which are most beneficial to our mission.
If you would like some help or have questions around intention setting, or you want someone in your corner holding you to account join me in the braver business group.
It’s tempting to be all or nothing over New Year – big plans, resolutions, new starts, giving up vices, many of which don’t last far into January. In my experience, it’s lots of little but consistent tweaks to your behaviour that actually make a sustained difference; not boom or bust, not all or nothing, not great declarations of a new you.
For me, New Year is not an opportunity for fixing everything you don’t like about yourself or your life and it’s certainly not a time for trying to become the person you think you should be. It is a time for reflection for sure, it is a time for looking at what you might want to bring with you into the new year and what you might leave behind, and it is a time for honouring and celebrating all that you are, all that you have done and all that you have learned over the last year.
When you do this it becomes easier to focus on the human being you want to be (and I do mean ‘want to be’ not ‘think you should be’ here), the tweaks you may have to make to be that person and the outcomes you get from being that person. The crucial motivator here is, like many things, the reason behind it. When this is driven from a place of value – you truly understand why you are doing it and why it’s important to you, then you have a much greater likelihood of consistency into 2020.
Here’s an example, two smokers both vow to quit – the first understands it’s bad for his health, he knows it’s expensive and he truly intends to stop for good this time. Somehow stuff gets in the way, a few days off – then one cigarette in the pub won’t hurt, then another and he never quite quits. The second man overhears his teenage daughter say she & her friends aren’t sitting by him because he stinks of cigarettes – he stops the next day. These men were my uncle and father – it took my uncle a further 20 years and respiratory illness to actually stop. My father didn’t share his reason for stopping until several decades later – but in that moment he decided to stop, the price of enjoying a cigarette was too high. In the days and weeks that followed many little tweaks to my dad’s routine, to the way he showed up, to the rewards he gave himself made it easier, but his reason for changing was the thing that kept him going.
If you are considering big changes, or you have a raft of resolutions, think about why they matter to you, how your life will be different and whether this is a sustainable decision. Setting yourself up to fail is likely to do you more harm than not making a change in the first place. If you have a compelling enough reason absolutely go for it, New Year is as good a time as any, focus on the outcome of the change not just the journey and celebrate your success along the way.
If, on the other hand, you don’t have compelling reasons (of your own) to make changes, or you’ve already given up on New Year’s resolutions, think about this – you can choose to be the best version of yourself any day or everyday; you can decide what you want your life to be like, as well as who and what you want in it, anytime and you can start living towards that right now, or tomorrow or the next day. It is your life.
New Year is a focus not an absolute. You don’t miss the boat if you don’t get on it at midnight or sometime tomorrow. It’s better to understand your journey, why you are making it, what the destination looks like, what you might encounter along the way before you get on the boat. This way you are more likely to stay on the journey. Notice I’m not talking maps or plans here, I’m talking understanding and connection.
Connection is a personal thing, one we get from introspection and understanding ourselves – not from reacting to circumstances or what happens to us – although this can both fuel us and act as a catalyst for change. I believe we can all be the person we want to be – it is about how we show up, what we stand for, how we behave, our attitudes and our values.
This New Year, gift yourself the time to decide who you want to be, what you want your life to look like and what tweaks you might need to make to get there. You have a whole year – it doesn’t have to be today.
I have been reflecting on the things I’m bringing into 2020, the things I am leaving behind – I will be enjoying my usual releasing and forgiving ritual by the fire at midnight. I am looking forward to 2020 and intend to ease gracefully into the new decade.
How ever you choose spend New Year’s Eve / New Year’s Day I hope you are kind to yourself and wish you all the happiness and success you want in 2020.
One of the best gifts you can give yourself for Christmas, and as you move into 2020, is to own your imperfections. We all have them, most of us try to hide or compensate for them – the truly grounded and successful simply own them.
Putting your game face on, trying not to get found out, working to fit in is exhausting isn’t it? Even worse, it creates a sense of lack, undermines your confidence and plays right into the whole ‘not good enough’ script you probably run at least some of the time.
At the end of the day, showing up, being yourself and resisting the need to be liked is a risky business – it’s neurologically counterintuitive, uncomfortable and potentially dangerous. We are taught from a very early age to conform, to fit in and serve others and from an evolutionary perspective, that is reasonably sound advice if you want to survive. It is rubbish advice if you want to thrive.
For most humans thriving is a combination of belonging, significance and contribution; and while it may appear similar, this is very different to fitting in, conforming and serving.
When you truly belong there’s no front, you don’t have to put on an act, you can just be yourself. The evolutionary need to belong probably stems back to our hunter-gatherer days where we were quite literally safer in a group. Neurologically you have not evolved very much – your subconscious brain spends much of its time processing social interactions, checking out where you are safe and valued. It’s no coincidence that those with strong social relationships – and I’m talking about depth not volume here, fare better when it comes to stress, anxiety and mental well-being. Lack of real belonging is a curse of the digital world, it is so easy to compare yourself with another’s perfect life or business, forgetting you only see the bits they want you to see, the behind the scenes it is unlikely to be so perfect. Even when you know this, looking at other ‘perfect lives’ might make you feel vulnerable and either conform in order to fit it and gain a short lived sense of safety, or withdraw and suffer increased isolation.
When you feel significant there is no need to prove yourself, to shout to be heard, a need to be noticed – instead there is a sense of recognition and validation, your fundamental desire to be seen, heard and listened to by those who matter to you is met. I believe you need this in your work life just as much as with family and friends. From a social processing perspective this is the true basis of connection, this sense that you matter is a powerful enabler when it comes to risk and vulnerability. When you matter there is usually someone in your corner or someone depending on you – your actions have consequences beyond yourself, this is a great motivator. When you don’t feel significance like no one will notice – or care, or hold you to account, it’s really easy to sit back and cruise, to play safe or to make excuses.
The need to make a contribution is about purpose, connection with something bigger than yourself, it’s about making a difference and leaving a legacy – some mark that you walked on this earth. Now I’m not saying everyone wants to change the world, but I do believe each of us wants to impact on the things that matter to us. I also believe we all make a difference to someone or something. When it comes to contribution you have to be connected. Whether it is a small act of kindness or a global initiative, it is the intention behind the act that gives you the sense of contribution, of connectedness. You can’t be truly connected, or make the difference you are here to make, if you are hiding behind a mask hoping your imperfections won’t get found out. At best you will water down your actions to fit with what you know you can succeed at, at worse you will undermine yourself, your confidence and your perceived significance.
Imperfection makes you vulnerable, there’s no getting around that, it feels horrible, you can experience a whole raft of things from self-criticism, to embarrassment to deep shame. You can also use this vulnerability to connect with your fellow humans who, however perfect they may seem to you, are probably just as vulnerable, just as imperfect as you are, as I am, as we all are.
We don’t like vulnerability, our own or in those around us, often we try to fix it when really we simply need to hold it, be in it and be true to who we are. There are so many layers to peel back neurologically, so this is very oversimplified: vulnerability shows authenticity, a willingness to share yourself, your imperfections – this fosters trust which in turn enables deeper connection. Putting up a mask, hiding your imperfections, creates an incongruence which sooner or later is noticeable – this destroys trust and connection.
Exploring your imperfections does two things – it identifies your uniqueness, those things about you that make you who you are – whether that’s a physical feature, a way of processing or your way of showing up. Exploring your imperfections also identifies habitual behaviour which may be holding you back in your quest for significance and contribution. You might call them reasons or circumstances but the chances are they are patterns, stories or excuses you have created to protect yourself (and your perceived imperfections).
I believe it is these, your made up imperfections, that create the real problem when it comes to owning your imperfections. Why would you own something that is not really part of who you truly are? In owning your imperfections, I’m challenging you to first weedle out the excuses and do something about the ones that get in the way of your greatness.
Secondly, for the love of humanity – drop the mask, own your differences, and be authentic enough to stand in your own imperfect glory.
We are all work in progress, if you want share your success and challenges do join me in the braver business group.