How does your soul speak to you?

There are certain points in your life when your soul begins to make itself known to you.  It’s quite possible to ignore your soul through the first 30 or 40 years of your life, however for many people there comes a time when you discover that your lifestyle or life choices are out of alignment with your soul.

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Often this kind of soul awakening comes when you’re at a crossroads in your life. Perhaps for the first time the logical decision doesn’t feel right because your heart isn’t in it.  Or it comes via a crisis that turned your life upside down, changing your reality for good. Sometimes your soul speaks through an underlying sense of disillusionment with life. For many of us, particularly women, it’s the realisation that you don’t know who you are, beneath your smile. You’ve been so caught up looking after everybody else that somewhere along the way you lost sight of yourself.

Soul hints and signs come through in subtle ways not typically understood in our culture.  That’s the confusing part for many of us.  In a culture that values rational intelligence over heart wisdom, it’s no wonder that most of us are (symbolically) cut off at our heads.  The good news is you can learn how to tune into your soul.  You just have to start paying attention in a completely different way to what you expect. It starts with bringing your awareness out of your head and into your body, and suspending all judgment during the process.

At the centre of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want   (Lao Tzu)

Metaphorically, the body is the lighthouse for the soul.  The body constantly gives you subtle hints and tips; it’s their subtle nature that makes them so easy to overlook.  Here are some ways the soul speaks to you:

Through your heart and your emotions: Your emotions are a strong guide of whether you’re aligned with your soul or working against it.  For example, when it comes to decision-making, check how you feel about the choice: If you feel open, excited and expansive, then you’re in alignment.  If you feel closed, anxious, contracted or flat, then you’re off track.

In your body’s overall “sense” of things, eg having a sense of discomfort or uneasiness when you are in a particular situation or with someone.  Listen to that sense – it’s giving you information.

Via your intuition: whether it be an inner prompting, gut feel or flash of insight – all of these provide information on your situation.  Acting on your intuitive hits develops and strengthens the intuitive capacity within you.

Through your dreams:  It’s long been understood that dreams hold the messages of the soul. Over time, the practice of writing down your dreams will expose the patterns and subtle messages held within them.

Through physical symptoms and illness: Here, the body is practically shouting: “Pay Attention!”  The messages don’t get much louder than this.

The best way to hear any of these signs is when you’re silent and away from distractions. But it can also come through in the shower, or whilst exercising or cooking the dinner.  Ultimately, once you start paying attention to your inner senses via the body, you’ll see that you are being drawn out of situations that are no longer serving you and pulled towards situations that will serve who you are now becoming.  And that is the magic of the soul.

 How does your soul speak to you?

I’d love to hear from you.

Has your comfort zone become a prison?

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Do you sometimes secretly wonder if this is all there is to your life? Do you sometimes feel like you’re stuck on a colourless work / family / money treadmill until retirement?  Are you feeling restless and dissatisfied with the status quo? Perhaps you never discovered what it is that you would love to do with your life because things have become so busy and your personal desires were relegated to last place? Yet, if you are really honest with yourself, has your comfort zone become your prison?  

We all have a comfort zone; it’s the part of your life where you feel most at home and at ease.  We are creatures of habit and so the perception of normality and being in control of our lives helps us to feel safe. However, when your comfort zone gets to the point of feeling like a prison, then it’s a big clue that it’s time to break out of it and try something new.  Being stuck here is like being confined in an increasingly shrinking cage; whilst it feels familiar, it can be making you unhappy. Deep down you know that there is more to life, and that there is more of you waiting patiently for you to remember it and more of life waiting patiently for you to live it.   

If the very idea of stepping out of your comfort zone triggers a surge of fear and anxiety, your subconscious mind is likely to be running the show.  The most compelling subconscious pay-off for staying stuck is fear of failure.  If you keep your expectations really low, you can’t be disappointed or hurt if things don’t turn out. If you don’t put yourself out there, you can’t be rejected or judged by others.  It’s a case of what you don’t do can’t hurt you.  Or can it?  Many people convince themselves that if they stay in their comfort zone and ignore their inner promptings to evolve, they will avoid having to face their deepest fear of failure and of not being good enough.

Yet doing nothing is still a choice; it’s just a passive one. It’s a choice to ignore your feelings, to avoid the signs within and around you and to pretend.  The thing is you can only keep up the pretense for so long before it starts to affect you. It shows up in different ways, such as discontentment and unhappiness, headaches, anxiety and depression, and in conflict with the people around you. It can be challenging to make sense of your symptoms in a society that is accustomed to quick fixes and pills for every complaint. Viewed symbolically though, symptoms like these can be a wake-up call from the soul letting you know that you’re off course and something needs to change.  Essentially, the most effective way to grow as a person requires stepping out of your comfort zone from time to time. 

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A common assumption in our culture is that you should have your life figured out in the early years of adulthood.  That once you get older and take on responsibilities, it’s too late to change course. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Whilst it is true that having more responsibilities like family and financial security places limitations on you, you always have options within the limitations to make more creative and original choices. The changes you make don’t have to be massive ones; small shifts can make a big difference too.  Regardless of what stage of life you are at, it is always possible to live more fully and find more contentment and meaning in your life.  

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone”  (Neale Donald Walsch)

Luckily, there are many ways of breaking out of the comfort zone prison. But first you must believe that it is possible. The wonderful thing about your mind is that once you believe that something is possible, your mind works hard to figure out ways to go about achieving it. Of course you can dive in and just do something new.  But if your need for change is big and your fear equal in size, then your imagination and your intuition are two of the best in-built tools at your disposal.

Give yourself permission to imagine all the things that you would love to do if there were no obstacles in your way. Park your judgment and critical mind whilst you do this and just allow all of your ideas to flow, no matter how silly they might sound to your logical self. Sometimes it can be helpful to take yourself back to your childhood and remember the things you always wanted to do. Write them all down. Be curious and playful and most of all, have fun with the process. Once you have come up with some ideas, spend some time imagining the ones that stand out to you, and notice how they make you feel.  Clue:  if your heart responds with some form of excitement, you’re on the right track!

The other issue is that of your beliefs.  Your beliefs are those tiny but powerful statements that you believe as truth about yourself and others. As beliefs are largely subconscious, most of the time you’re unaware that you even have them, yet they strongly influence your behaviour.  Examples of beliefs are “personal fulfilment happens to other people, not to me”; or “I only trained in one profession and so I can’t do anything else” or “I’m too old for change” or “I’m not smart enough”.  If you have a program of beliefs like these running, (and we all do in some form), they will be contributing to your comfort zone prison.  They limit you with their lack of hope and keep you small.

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right” (Henry Ford)

Beliefs only have power to the extent that you believe in them, and so finding out what your beliefs are is the prerequisite step to breaking free of them. The quickest way to become aware of your negative beliefs is to imagine what you would love to do, and then notice the thoughts that pop into your mind to talk you out of it.  You might be surprised how quickly they come and how many you have!  However, once you are aware of your beliefs, you have the power to change them.    

Ultimately, whilst it’s risky to follow your dreams, it’s far more risky to live an unlived life. To get to the end of your days and regret that you didn’t act on your dreams when you had the freedom and the health to do so.  It takes enormous courage to follow your dreams, and yet it’s always worth it, not just for the wonderful people you meet along the way, and the unique opportunities that arise when you step up and take action, but also for the immense personal satisfaction and contentment that comes when you step out of your comfort zone and into a more expansive version of yourself.

My top 7 self-help books

One of my all times favourite activities is to read, so it’s really no surprise given my profession that I have an insatiable interest in books about the human condition. Here is a list of books that I highly recommend for their ability to inspire, teach and translate sometimes complex concepts into practical tools for living.

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  1. Daring Greatly, Brené Brown

    I had so many aha moments reading this outstanding book that I had to physically stop myself from highlighting the entire book.  Brené talks about the values of courage and vulnerability and explains how to develop shame resilience, which is crucial for our psychological health as well as that of our kids.  Brené Brown is not only funny and insightful, she really knows her stuff.  In this book, Brené’s main premise is that as human beings we are wired for connection, yet to actually experience deep connection, intimacy and joy in our relationships, we need to be open, authentic and vulnerable with each other.  Being open and vulnerable can be risky and scary and can easily trigger shame, particularly for men, who have often learnt the hard way that vulnerability equals weakness.  Ultimately though, Brené emphasises that the rewards far outweigh the risks.  This is a very important book for our times.

  2. The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle 

    Eckhart Tolle is a spiritual teacher who had an intriguing spiritual awakening in the middle of the night in his late 20s.  This thought-provoking book contains Eckhart’s essential philosophy on the self, as he explains how our minds get in the way, how we get caught up in the same old dramas of our lives, continually re-triggering our old pain.  His teaching is simple:  learn how to become fully present in this moment and it will transform your life.

  3. The Places that Scare You, Pema Chödrön 

    Pema Chödrön might be a Buddhist Nun, but before that she was a schoolteacher living an ordinary life just like the rest of us.  In my humble opinion she’s one of the wisest people on the planet. She gives wise and compassionate guidance within a Buddhist framework on how to live through life’s more challenging moments.  Budddhism has a lot to offer Western psychological thought and Pema Chödrön has the ability to speak to everyone about everyday challenges, no matter what their preference or faith. I love this little book and continue to return to it for inspiration.

  4. Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, William Bridges 

    I read this book a few summers back on the beach and pretty much the only part that was saved from the highlighter was the covers. This is a brilliant book on managing life’s transitions, one of my all-time favourite topics. An important distinction to understand is that transitions are not the same thing as change.  Change happens to you (ie you’re made redundant) or a change can arise from within you (you feel differently about something or someone). A transition is your inner response to that redundancy or change – ie how you feel about it, think about it and experience it.  As you know, life is made up of many different transitions and they can be very painful and challenging to work through.Bridges has come up with a 3 stage guide to help us all manage the transitions in our lives with more ease and understanding.  The first stage is grieving what you have lost.  Grieving losses is important because you cannot move forward whilst you are still holding onto the past. The second stage involves sitting with uncertainty and often chaos because you are in between the two phases of your life. You’re no longer where you were and you’re not yet where you’re going. This stage is the most challenging because of all the uncomfortable feelings that can arise (like confusion and fear) and because it can really shake up your sense of identity and stability.  It’s important to be patient when you are here though because somehow it’s through this murky-ness that the new ideas and potential for living a new way arise. It’s literally allowing a transformation to occur from within you. The third stage is where you step into your new identity or way of being and move forward.  It’s a wonderful book to read when you are going through a transition because it helps you understand that there is a process occurring and it will, ultimately, resolve itself.

  5. Man’s search for meaning, Viktor Frankl 

    This is an incredibly powerful book about our need to find meaning in our lives and how this meaning can save us, even in the most difficult of circumstances.  Viktor Frankl details his harrowing experiences in concentration camps during World War II and the discoveries he made about the nature of being human.  Whilst at first glance this seems an odd choice for a self-help book list, there’s something incredibly moving and powerful in his account of survival against the odds.  His experiences prove that whilst we can’t avoid suffering, we can choose how to cope with it and find meaning in it.  These very human qualities can help us move through situations and look forward. At the very least, it’s a shining example of the strength and resilience of the human spirit. An unforgettable book that should be read at least once in your lifetime. 

  6. The 5 Love Languages, Dr Gary Chapman 

    This easy to read book is a gem for relationship strengthening – the basic concept being that we all have different needs in love and one of the problems we experience in our relationships is that we don’t necessarily speak the same “love language” as our partner.  For example, if (metaphorically speaking) you speak Chinese and your partner speaks Spanish, and you’ve never bothered to learn your partner’s language (Spanish), you’re likely to experience communication issues and have lots of unmet needs in your relationship. This book sets out the 5 main love languages that Dr Chapman devised from his decades of work as a couple therapist.  It is well worth reading as it opens your eyes to your partner’s way of seeing things and needs that you may not have previously appreciated.  It also opens up the possibility of fresh conversation about how you could learn to speak each other’s language and take more interest in each other’s way of seeing the world. When people feel understood it goes a long way towards creating stronger, more connected relationships. 

  7. Intimacy & Solitude, Stephanie Dowrick 

    Here, Stephanie Dowrick brings her wealth of experience as a psychotherapist to issues of identity – which is well worth reading if you are trying to figure out who you are (no matter what stage of life you are at), or if you are keen to achieve greater intimacy in your relationships.  It’s about learning how to be independent and connected in an authentic, meaningful way.  Stephanie is a beautiful writer; I find all her work brims with wisdom and soulfulness.

Are you an introvert?

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I recently read a fascinating book by Susan Cain called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.  Cain, a self-declared introvert, has extensively researched the world of introverts, and it turns out that one third of us fall into this category.

Whilst extroverts are sociable, outgoing and talkative, introverts prefer solitude, calmness and working independently.  The fundamental difference between the two is that extroverts are re-energised by being with people whereas introverts are re-energised by being alone.

Cain makes the point that our culture is fundamentally geared towards the needs of extroverts, from group learning in schools to team-bonding retreats and open-plan offices at work.  More than that, our culture openly values the sociable personality over the quiet thinker. Cain is deeply concerned that our love of extroversion and sociability comes at great cost to the introverts and their potential contribution to the world.  She wants us to reconsider how the scales could be balanced so that our environment allows for both types to flourish.

Historically, some of the most mind-blowing inventions, creations and original ideas have come from introverted people, such as Sir Isaac Newton, Chopin, J. K. Rowling, Albert Einstein and even Dr Seuss (Theodore Geisel). Could you imagine a world where these people didn’t make a creative impact because they didn’t have the space for their ideas to develop?

Cain advocates the unique qualities of introverts:  their ability to listen (because they talk less) and strategise, their sensitivity, calmness, and their equally effective but different path of getting to the outcome.

She also devotes a section of the book to parents of introverted children, urging parents to take the time to appreciate and understand their child’s unique personality, especially when it differs from theirs.  Shyness or preference for books over socialising does not mean there’s anything psychologically wrong with your child!  He/she may well be an introvert.

If you happen to be an introvert, or are in a relationship with one, or are parenting one, then I think you will find this book to be very useful.  If you are an introvert, there will be a deep sigh of relief as all those little quirks you thought were personal failings turn out to be perfectly normal. And if I may go a step further, you could well feel deeply understood for the very first time.

How many masks are you wearing?

604How often do you hide your real self behind a mask, whether it be pretending that you’re always happy, showing confidence or strength no matter what, or always being perfect? Or perhaps it’s just not having a viewpoint on anything (so that you can’t be held to account)?  How important is it for you to be liked and approved of by everyone around you?  How often are you able to be completely yourself?

It has taken years of conditioning and practice to present an acceptable version of yourself to the world and much of this takes place in childhood and adolescence as you attempt to fit in with others so that you can feel like you belong. Conditioning can take some work to shed.  However all the work that you do on yourself will pay you back a thousand times over. Masks are not real and they are not who you are.  It takes tremendous energy to keep up the pretence of being how you think you should be or need to be rather than just being you.

When books and articles talk about finding your true self or your authentic self, what they speak of is the ability to know who you are, what it is that you like and dislike, what’s most important to you and what you are prepared to accept and not accept. Knowing yourself well helps you to set firm boundaries in your relationships.  It also builds self-confidence because you no longer need to ask others what they think you should do in any given moment; you can work it out for yourself.

Deep within every single one of you is an extraordinary source of wisdom just begging to be noticed so that you can draw on it and bring your gifts into the world.  I liken it to the growth of a tree from a seed.   Given the right conditions, some sunshine, water and a little space to grow, the tree grows up strong, grounded, unique and beautiful.  Whilst challenging experiences in life can block parts of the tree’s growth, the tree will always find a way to continue to grow beyond those experiences. Shedding masks and aligning with your true self is one of the things you can do to help the tree release some of the blocks and continue to grow more prolifically. 

Being authentic in your communications and relationships with others has a positive knock-on effect on your precious level of self-worth and self-esteem.  It’s about finding a way to say how you feel and be able to express your needs rather than pretend that your needs are not as important as others. It can also have a ripple effect on the people around you, because when they experience the real you, it gives them permission to be themselves and to drop their masks.  It’s no longer worth pretending to be someone else just so that you can be liked by everyone.  The truth is that not everyone will resonate with who you are, but at the very least the ones that do will love you for you and they are the ones that really matter.  So, are you ready to step out from behind the mask and show the world who you really are? 

How do you support others when they are going through a life crisis?

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Have you ever been in a situation where a friend or family member was going through a challenging time and you wished you knew exactly the right way to help?  It can be a real challenge to find the appropriate words to say in such situations and mostly there is no such thing as “the right” words.  Life events such as death, divorce, illness, accidents and job loss can place people under enormous stress, chaos and grief.  On the other side of the coin, it can be very painful for friends and family to watch their loved ones suffer; they see them falling apart but are helpless and powerless to change their new reality.

Many years ago, a friend was going through a personal crisis and I was terribly concerned about her.  My overriding urge was to make her feel better but I didn’t know what to say to her.  So I did my best to cheer her up and gave her some advice, all in a vain attempt to rescue her from her distress.  I now understand that my desire to rescue her was driven by my own intense discomfort with her pain. Yet at the time I was overwhelmed and frightened by the enormity of her situation.  My life experience simply hadn’t prepared me for serious suffering and I was in desperate need of some effective life skills.

On the recommendation of a friend, I enrolled in Lifeline’s telephone counselling training and immersed myself in learning basic communication skills in a counselling context. Somewhere along the way I was profoundly transformed by what I was learning. I felt for the first time in my life that I had woken up and was looking at the world with completely new eyes.  That’s transformation for you.  It wakes you up like a splash of water in the face and says don’t look back: it’s no longer where you are headed. So with great fear and much excitement, I left my corporate job and undertook formal counselling studies, and have since devoured everything I can in my quest to understand human nature.

It was on my first phone call at Lifeline that I discovered the profound blessing that is counselling.  At a basic level, a caller is in distress and an empathic counsellor is willing to listen non-judgmentally.  At a deeper level, something sacred is occurring.  It is the privilege of being invited into another person’s world, to witness their life story and to listen deeply from the heart. Simply connecting with another human being with true presence and awareness is a profoundly moving experience.  My clients have taught me much more than I could possibly learn in my day-to-day life.  That to be human is to feel great joy and deep suffering.  As a counsellor, I see human suffering in its many guises and it brings great compassion to my heart and deep gratitude for the blessings in my life.

Whilst my experience led to a career change; not everyone needs to become a counsellor to learn how to support others through their suffering.  The self-help industry is full to the brim with resources on communication skills.  Yet when people are in crisis, their world is so overwhelming that the best thing you can do is to keep it simple.  To have empathy, to show up and to listen.

Empathy is stepping out of your way of seeing the world and doing your best to see the situation from the other person’s viewpoint.  Showing up is giving them your full attention and presence; really being there for them. Listening is giving the person the space to talk, really hearing what they are saying and then conveying your understanding back to them. It is listening with the intent to understand rather than to respond. It can also mean knowing when to be silent.  Sometimes the simple things are the hardest to do. Yet rest assured, your presence is the greatest gift you have to offer.

Am I good enough?

ImageIt’s so easy to get caught up in the compare game.  That person has the perfect house, marriage, career, or body; is the best parent or has the most friends. This is particularly evident on social media. Most people post pictures of their family and friends looking happy, at events, parties or on holidays. It’s easy to come away and think that their life is more fun than yours when that is the snapshot you see.  But let me ask you this: have you ever seen a friend post a picture of her family mid-argument? Or his child having a tantrum?  Or her in the shower crying?  It’s important to remember that social media gives people the opportunity to portray an image, and let’s face it we all take advantage of that opportunity. We all want to be liked and that’s OK.

However, all of this comparing can lead to feelings of being less than and not as worthy as others.  Envy can be very painful.  Envy comes up when you are focusing on what others have rather on what you have. Take a good look at your life: your friendships, your family, your work and really see what you have created.  Often it’s the non-comparable things that are the most important; like kindness, spending time with your kids, learning how to become authentically YOU; much more than your friend’s new car, skinny body, expensive house or 200 Facebook friends.

There isn’t anyone on this planet who doesn’t have issues that they are dealing with. Issues like loss, insecurity, sadness, weight, loneliness, self-worth, etc. The reality is the image of perfection or success is nothing more than just that: an image. It’s not real. It’s just that some people are better at looking successful or perfect than others.  It doesn’t mean that they are; it just shows that it is important to them that they appear that way.  Often it’s these people that are hiding the most stuff.  One thing I’ve learnt in my counselling work is that none of us ever really know what’s going on in other people’s lives.

Let’s face it, no-one gets through life alive, and there are many challenges along the way.  So next time you are checking out a friend’s Facebook page and you notice yourself feeling the twangs of envy, take some time out and turn your attention to your own life. Remember, what you place your attention on grows.  Whose garden do you wish to grow: yours or everyone else’s?