Connection is the key to happiness

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True happiness comes from the quality and strength of our connection with others. We’re not made to be alone – we have all come into this world wired for connection. Recognising our deep interconnectedness with each other helps reduce the false sense of separateness, isolation and powerlessness that can come over us when we’re struggling with a personal challenge.

At the end of the day, everyone is struggling with something, and we’re all in this crazy beautiful world together, so why not connect with the people around you and share yourself; share your life, and become vitally nourished in the process. It makes all the difference.

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The limitations of a label

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I often notice people freely using labels to define their own or someone else’s suffering, ie “she’s ADHD”, “I’m depressed”, or “he’s anxious”. It’s easy to forget that a label isn’t an actual thing or object; it’s simply a name given to describe a set of symptoms. Yet a label can have a very powerful effect on your sense of self-worth and identity as well as how you’re perceived by others.

A label is useful to the extent that it gives you appropriate access to treatment for relief and healing of your symptoms, to funding for services and to community and online support. It’s also useful to the extent that it provides validation that the symptoms you experience are valid, understood and treatable.

Yet when you start to over-identity with the label you’ve been given by a professional and believe that it is who you are, ie I’m depressed or I’m anxious, and that label starts saturating the lens through which you see the world, then it’s time to take a step back. I don’t wish to diminish the seriousness or suffering that symptoms cause, rather to make the point that you are not your label.

The majority of us are likely to be given a diagnosis or a label at some point during our lives. You may be diagnosed with depression, but you are not depression. You experience a number of symptoms which, when combined, are called depression. You may be diagnosed with cancer but you are not cancer. There is a huge difference here. 

You disempower and limit yourself immensely if you take on any label as your identity, no matter how debilitating or serious your symptoms are. If you have a mental illness or a cancer diagnosis, part of the challenge is in managing how this label impacts your identity, ie how you now view yourself post-diagnosis. The same applies to using labels to define the people around us. We disempower others when we see them through the eyes of the label, especially children.

What about the labels you use to describe your appearance (ie fat, thin, plain…) or your relationship status (single, divorced, married…), your sexuality (gay, hetero, bi…) or your beliefs (spiritual, atheist, feminist…) How do these labels define how you see yourself? How others see you? The danger with labelling is that it can increase your sense of separation and isolation from others with its narrow focus on what’s different about you and what’s different about others. It doesn’t take into account our common humanity.

You are always more than a label and just a small shift in how you language your problems can provide space for the symptoms to be present and for the rest of your experience to be here too. It’s understanding that you have a problem, but you are not that problem. You are a human being first and foremost, with many roles: friend, worker, parent, daughter, son, learner, adventurer, etc. and many strengths. Don’t lose sight of the other aspects to you! Over the course of your life, you will experience highs and lows and that’s part of the journey we’re all on. Collectively. 

Therefore a label should always be held as lightly and with as much care as possible lest you forget that at the end of the day it’s just a word that serves to get you the right treatment and support, so that you can get back to the business of living.  

Why you should pay more attention to your emotions Part 2

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In Part 1 of this post: http://wp.me/p3ckDt-3C, we explored how your emotions hold important information about your current state of wellbeing. So how do you access that inner information when you have spent years avoiding your uncomfortable feelings? Here are some quick tips to start you off: 

Slow down

When you’re all worked up inside, see if you can take 5-10 minutes for yourself where you’re not doing anything. Find somewhere you can be alone so that you can feel into what’s going on for you.

Be in your body

To feel your emotions you have to be in your body. The quickest way to drop into your body is to pay attention to your body’s sensations. A useful starting place is noticing your breath – one minute of paying attention to your breath will bring you into your body pronto!

Don’t think, just feel

Most of us think we are feeling our emotions, but what we’re actually doing is analysing and rationalising them so we can solve the problem with our minds. If you’re trying to work out why you’re feeling the way you do, then you’re actually thinking about your emotions. Having said that, it can be useful to ask yourself why you’re feeling this way, then wait and feel the response in your body rather than with your mind. To extract the guidance from your emotions, you need to feel your feelings, which is a sensory experience, rather than a mental process.

Forget what others said or did; for now the focus is on what’s been triggered in you

Your feelings are about you, no matter how badly someone else has behaved. Even if another person has been the trigger for your distress, ultimately how you feel is your domain and it’s up to you to take responsibility for your feelings.

One way to do this is to get curious about what the other person has triggered in you. Is it fear of rejection, or of not being liked? Is it a lack of respect for you? Were you misunderstood? Or rudely interrupted? Did you feel invisible? Whatever’s coming up for you, once you realise what’s been triggered in you, then you can go a step deeper and sense into what, for example, being rejected or being misunderstood means to you. 

Bring empathy to your inner judge and critic

That persistent inner judge and critic can create havoc in our system, bringing up feelings of shame and unworthiness in situations where we feel vulnerable. Shame is when we feel inherently bad or unworthy of love and belonging. It’s a toxic emotion that’s strongly connected to addiction, depression, anxiety and even suicide. Brené Brown’s work has shown that empathy is the best antidote to shame. If shame is coming up in your emotions, see if you can have some empathy for that part of you that’s feeling unworthy or bad, as it will go a long way to dissipating those nasty shame gremlins. 

Have patience

Above all, be patient with yourself as it can take some time to adjust to this kind of inner attention if you’re not used to it. Yet the rewards are many, including building trust in yourself, inner resilience, strengthening emotional intelligence and learning to sort through what issues are yours and what belongs to others in your relationships. Not to mention the information your system gives you when you pay attention to it!

How do you work with your emotions? Please share your thoughts in the comments below. 

Why you should pay more attention to your emotions Part 1

ImageWhen life isn’t going so well, often our first response is to go into distraction overdrive to avoid feeling our feelings. If, like most people, you dislike the sensation of being angry, frustrated, uncertain, anxious, confused or overwhelmed, in an attempt to get rid of these feelings you might emotionally eat, have a few too many 5 pm wines, or spend all your spare time online or watching TV. Basically, any addictive behaviour that stops you from feeling your inner turmoil can be, let’s be honest, a relief. It’s an habitual way of dealing with uncomfortable emotions that may have served you well in childhood, but now just keep you stuck.

If you try to bury or avoid feeling your feelings, it’s important to know that whatever’s causing you emotional distress doesn’t actually go away. If only! The issue and the intensity of your feelings might dim for a while but rest assured at some point they come back. Always. So to avoid a bigger personal crisis down the track from years of stored emotions, what could you do now to restore some balance in your system and, more importantly, why would you bother going to the effort?

Firstly, it’s important to understand that when you’re in turmoil, and your emotions are intense and uncomfortable, there’s a reason for it. Your body’s trying to tell you something and it’s worth listening. For example, if you’re angry, perhaps you didn’t speak up for yourself with someone, or maybe you were undermined at work. Anger often represents a boundary issue. If you’re feeling sad, perhaps you’re having to let go of something that was important to you. Until you feel into that sadness, you may not even realise just how important it was to you.

Let’s imagine you’ve been in the same job for 5 years and you’ve been happy there. Then one day you wake up and feel differently about your job. You’re frustrated, bored, dissatisfied and restless. If you paid attention to these feelings, it would start to become clear that something needs to change: perhaps it’s time to move on as you’ve outgrown your job, or maybe you need to have a conversation with your boss about making the role more challenging.

If, on the other hand, you ignored these feelings, because your emotions are energy, and they haven’t been felt or expressed, they build up in your system over time and then come out in more disruptive and dysfunctional ways, often when you’re least expecting it. For example, someone says something minor and you lose your temper; or you project all your “stuff” onto someone else making them the problem in your life; or you constantly feel lethargic from all the years of ignoring your body and it’s wearing you out.

As you can see, when you feel your feelings and accept them as being a valid part of your experience, even if you don’t like how they make you feel, they will always give you information about your current reality. They can be a phenomenal source of personal guidance. Sometimes it’s hard to hear that guidance because the truth can be painful. It can take time to come to terms with what it is we need to change in our lives. However change doesn’t always mean ending something; but it does mean that you have genuine needs that deserve to be met.

When you choose to include your emotions in your life, you’ll get to know them for the remarkable guidance system that they are and you’ll start trusting yourself a whole lot more.

In Part 2 of this post, I’ll be giving you some quick tips on how to feel your emotions.

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.