How to make better decisions

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The key to making better decisions is to respect your emotions and allow yourself to be informed by them, without letting them rule you.

Have you ever wondered what it would be like if you always knew the “right” thing to do in any given situation?

One of my “superpowers” is the ability to see multiple perspectives (no doubt enhanced by my experience as a lawyer), but the downside of this is that I can often get caught up in indecision. To make matters worse, I am a natural “optioneer” – I like to look for possibilities and can become overwhelmed by the paradox of choice. And the kicker is that I also have a strong need for certainty. How is this all going to work out in the end?

[Read more: How to kick your addiction to certainty]

I have spent many hours, days, even weeks chasing my own tail as I tried to figure out which path to take. I have used spreadsheets and complex rating/ranking systems to decide on job options (I wish I was joking!). I have researched restaurant and hotel options in infinite detail, cross-referencing TripAdvisor/Zomato/Google reviews until I could be confident that I would have a good meal or night’s sleep. And I have driven myself (and others) crazy in the process.

Can you relate to any of this? 

A few years ago, I even bought a book called “The Decision Book: Fifty Models for Strategic Thinking”. Fifty? Seriously? How am I supposed to decide which one to use?! While fascinating, it was not particularly helpful.

We’ve got it all wrong

The problem with the way most people approach decision-making is that we assume it's a rational process.

When it comes to breaking the deadlock in our own minds, we tend to rely on rational strategies – for example, the good ol’ “pros and cons” list or even a decision tree if we want to get a bit fancy. We seek and weigh up advice from friends, family, experts, and maybe even strangers. And – if all else fails – we might consider flipping a coin.

But these approaches are limited when it comes to making decisions that really matter.

Why? Because they fail to take account of our emotions.

Science shows us that our ability to make decisions is fundamentally emotional. In the early 1990s, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio challenged the long-standing belief that humans are primarily rational by demonstrating that people who have suffered damage to the emotional part of their brains (the limbic system) have difficulty making even simple decisions, like which restaurant to go to. We need our emotions to make good decisions.

You see, while reason (rationalising) can give us the pros and cons of a particular decision, our emotions reveal our desires – what we want, what we care about and what’s important to us. And even to the extent that we could make every decision analytically, our thoughts (including our perceptions) are strongly influenced by our moods and emotions. It follows that being aware of and having the ability to manage our moods and emotions is essential to making better decisions.

And yet many of us (especially in the corporate world) are strongly conditioned to ignore our emotions, treating them as pesky irritations at best or with deep mistrust at worst. I built the first half of my career on my ability to quarantine my emotions, barely giving them a chance to register before I locked them away as something to be dealt with – well, hopefully never. This served me well until it didn't - and then I learned a better way.

I learned to make emotionally rational decisions.

It happened a few years ago.

I was having a conversation with one of my mentors about why I was struggling to say a definitive “yes” or “no” to a job opportunity. The opportunity made sense on paper, but it just didn’t feel right.

My mentor then shared a quote with me, from the acclaimed Chilean biologist-turned-philosopher, Humberto Maturana:

“We live in the flow of our desires and preferences, which are fundamentally emotional.”

Hang on a minute.

Was he actually saying it was okay to make a decision emotionally??? 

That’s when the penny dropped.

Here I was thinking that my emotions were getting in the way of my decision-making when actually they were giving me loud and clear information about what I wanted and what I didn’t want. I just wasn’t giving my emotions the respect that they deserved. Suddenly, I appreciated that it’s okay (and even healthy) to honour my emotional preferences. And maybe I don’t even have to be able to explain or justify them either.

It’s okay to want what you want.

And it's also okay to not want what you don’t want.

Once I recognised the validity of my emotions, I started to develop my ability to identify and explore them in order to gain valuable information about my underlying preferences, which in turn has helped me to make much better decisions. 

Now I have just one simple test when I make a decision about something:

“How do I feel about it?”

If that almost sounds too simple, let’s break it down:

1. Learn how to feel your feelings

Making “emotionally rational decisions” requires you to be in touch with your emotions – and this takes practice and patience, especially if you have a tendency to overthink things.

[Read more: How to stop overthinking]

I am a highly analytical person and taught myself at quite an early age that it was beneficial not to feel my feelings (in my case, to limit/avoid the pain of childhood bullying and racism). What began as a psychological survival strategy as a child turned into emotional numbness as an adult – and, consequently, difficulty in making decisions. It was like my GPS was on but the volume was turned right down so that I couldn’t hear it.

Over the past 3-5 years, I have re-learned to feel my feelings, mostly by engaging in somatic practices (including yoga) and journalling to identify and enquire into bodily sensations and explore their relevance to my life. Not only has this provided me with a rich source of data for making better decisions, but I am also able to experience life in a deeper, more engaged way – including Kleenex commercials with those damned cute puppies!

I’ve noticed that listening to my emotions requires me to be very vigilant about the first thing that comes up when I am faced with a decision (in other words, present). That first impulse, which can be quite subtle, is often the most “pure” signal of the decision I want to make. If I leave it too long, I can become easily confused as my head intervenes and tries to take control of the process.

2. Treat your emotions with respect

Your emotions are a legitimate and healthy part of the decision-making process.

Once you learn to feel your feelings (if you weren’t feeling them already), the next step is to respect them. This means all of them – even the ones that you wish you didn’t feel. Your emotions are telling you something, even if that something is that your thinking is flawed (more on that below).

3. Listen to your heart and validate with your head

Now I’m not saying that we should always act on every emotion that we experience.

Emotions can definitely be misleading when they are based on a flawed premise. For example, if someone swerves in front of you in traffic, you might experience an immediate emotional reaction of anger. But if you later discover that they were swerving to avoid a hazard on the road, you might feel less aggrieved.

Our emotions are based on our interpretation of what’s happening around us (our perception) – and that can change as we learn more about what’s actually happening.

I find it helpful to distinguish between desire-based emotions and fear-based emotions. (Some may see a parallel with the “moving towards” and “moving away from” distinction from neuro-linguistic programming.) Sometimes, fear-based emotions can suck our attention towards a particular doomsday scenario so tightly that we develop tunnel vision and can’t see the other, more positive possibilities that are also available to us.

[Read more: How to cultivate courage and make fear your friend

It can be tricky to disentangle desire-based emotions from fear-based emotions (using the mind that created them!), and that’s where having a coach, mentor or trusted friend to support you can be useful. But don’t substitute their opinion for yours – the value of another person’s opinion is to gain a more objective perspective on the situation; to gather more data before referring back to your own emotional experience.

4. Accept that there is often no “right” decision

Life is not a multiple choice test. There is no answer key.

Sure, if you are approaching an amber traffic light, the preferable view is to slow down and stop if it is safe to do so. But it depends on the context, doesn’t it? And we don’t always have the full context when we are making big decisions.

That means that the only reasonable strategy is to make a decision, take a step forward in that direction, and then re-assess when we have more data.

The other thing I've learned is that the definition of a “good decision” depends on whether you care more about the immediate, short-term outcome or the learning and growth it produces. For me, the latter is infinitely more valuable, which is why I believe that the only "bad" decision is to make the same decision over and over again - which includes continually making no decision - if this is not getting you the result that you want (a variation on Albert Einstein's quote about the definition of insanity).

5. Finally, the key to making good decisions is to make them yourself

Yes, of course, there are times when you’ll need to consult others for expert advice and guidance. But it’s more important that you learn to recognise your own legitimacy (that is, taking ownership of your own decisions) and trust yourself to make a wise decision.

If this basic premise of legitimacy and self-trust is missing, you will needlessly struggle with decision-making because you’ll probably be paying undue weight to the opinions (or assumed opinions, because sometimes we just make this stuff up in our heads) of others whose experiences, values and priorities may be different to your own.

***

When I look back on the significant decisions I’ve made over the course of my life, I can see that most of my better decisions have come about when I allowed myself to be informed and guided by my emotions. That doesn’t necessarily mean that those situations unfolded easily or worked out perfectly. Life is a journey and sometimes the best decisions are the ones that take us into new and challenging terrain; the decisions that give us the greatest opportunities for personal growth.

"Decision is the ultimate power." (Tony Robbins)

How to cultivate courage and make fear your friend

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If there’s one thing you could give up that would make the greatest positive impact on your life, what would it be?

Last year, I did something a bit weird.

I asked myself this question (that’s not the weird part) – and the answer I came up with surprised me. The answer was “fear”

A bit of context: It was late January and my social media feed was starting to feature posts about “FebFast” – an annual fundraising event that challenges people to fast from sugar or alcohol for an entire month. I enjoy challenging myself, but, as a low-level social drinker with some degree of control over my sweet tooth, neither of these options seemed particularly impactful to me. So I decided to do a different kind of fast –  I decided to fast from fear.

Now you may be thinking (a) that’s weird, and/or (b) why the heck would she spend a whole month focusing on something that most people spend their whole lives trying to avoid?

Well, I have developed quite a fascination with fear because it’s so fundamental to our experience as human beings. Whether we know it or not, and whether we admit it or not, all of us (except this lady) experience fear at some point in our lives – and some of us much more frequently than others. At best, fear is a nuisance; at worst, it can be completely debilitating and prevent us from living happy, satisfied, purposeful lives.

And I’m fed up of some of the conventional approaches to dealing with fear. Like:

  • “Fake it ‘til you make it”

  • “Feel the fear and do it anyway”

  • “Do one thing each day that scares you”

I’m not saying that these modern-day proverbs don’t have their place. But isn’t life stressful enough without constantly putting our heads into the lion’s mouth (metaphorically – don’t try this at home!) to prove that we are “fearless”? Not to mention the inauthenticity that these attitudes tend to breed – the sense that we have to appear invulnerable at all times.

The thing is: fear is normal. It is our body’s navigational system doing its job. To habitually override our fear is like trying to drive at 100km/hour when our satellite navigation system is telling us that we’re approaching a peak-hour traffic jam. You wouldn’t usually argue with your GPS, would you? You would just notice the data and respond appropriately.

So what if we could do the same thing with fear?

That’s what I wanted to find out.

Before I could change my mind, I told a few friends about it and put the word out on social media that I would be running it as an online challenge. To my surprise, about 20 people signed up to join me for my first fear fast. 

A slightly unconventional fast

Now, to be fair, it wasn’t strictly a “fast”.

Aside from some sort of radical brain surgery, I’m not aware of any technique or tool that will enable you to eradicate fear completely. So the “fast” was more of a commitment that I wasn’t going to try and avoid the unavoidable. If I experienced fear during the 28 days, I would simply notice it and explore it with curiosity. I wouldn't hide from it and I wouldn't fight it. Beyond that, I had no idea what was going to happen. I would simply allow the experience to guide me.

So what did I learn in 28 days?

Well, not surprisingly, something came up a week or so into the challenge that really triggered my fear. My initial (habitual) reaction was to catastrophise – to imagine the absolute (almost ridiculous) worst-case scenario and start planning for that. My mind started to spiral out of control. But because I was on the fast – and particularly because I was doing it “publicly” – I caught myself mid-spiral, took a few deep breaths and started to apply the principles that I was sharing with my online group.

After a week of witnessing my fear rather than allowing myself to become absorbed in it, I had taken constructive action to deal with the situation and learned some extremely valuable lessons along the way.

Here are some of the highlights:

  1. Concerns: The ultimate purpose of fear is to keep us safe, whether physically or psychologically, but it also serves another purpose. It tells us what is important to us (in ontological coaching, our “concerns”). If you are feeling fear, it is because something that you care about is being threatened. When you can identify what that thing is, you are in a better position to proactively take care of it. Without going into the specifics of my situation, my fear revealed to me a whole range of things that I considered to be “at stake” – some of which were genuinely important to me (and which I then took steps to protect) and others of which were only important from an ego perspective (that is, I was concerned with what others would think of me). I’m not dismissing the latter (ego concerns) as unimportant, but I realised that they were secondary concerns in the scheme of things and didn’t let them dictate my response to the situation.

  2. Curiosity: When fear is triggered, there can be a tendency to focus on the worst-case scenario. It took me a while to realise that while I was focusing on what could go wrong, I was paying no attention at all to what could go right. The thing is, there was a better than even chance that things would work out in my favour (and they did) but, for some reason, I was completely oblivious to this. It was as if my fear had put a set of blinkers on me. By choosing to be curious about my fear (which is one of the strategies I had shared with the online group), I realised that I wasn’t being curious – or open – about the situation itself. I was simply assuming the worst-case scenario was inevitable and living as if that was a fact rather than a mere possibility. When I brought curiosity to the situation, I suddenly became aware of all the resources (people, processes, etc) available to me to create a more positive outcome. I became empowered again. [Read more: How to kick your addiction to certainty]

  3. Compassion: One of the most significant insights I gained during my fast was that my fear is a part of me. Some may disagree with this, but there is a school of thought that says that those parts of ourselves that we reject become our “shadow” (in other words, subconscious drivers that become buried and therefore more difficult to manage) and that it is only in fully embracing all parts of ourselves that we can be truly empowered (whole). Normally, I would have tried to rationalise my fear away – or suppress it – and in doing so, reject that part of me that is fearful. But when I simply allowed my fear to be there, I noticed that (a) I didn’t die, and (b) there was another part of me that was not fearful – and that latter part of me had the capacity for compassion towards my fear. Since that time, I’ve done further studies that have enhanced my understanding of how this works at a psychological level – but, at that time, I was doing it intuitively and, somehow, it worked. My compassion for my fear soothed my fear, diminishing its power over me and my response to the situation.

  4. Courage: Following on from compassion, I realised that the part of me that was “not fear” was actually the part of me that I would later identify as “courage”. When we think of courage, we might think of people who don’t appear to experience fear (at least in a particular context) – people who are apparently “fearless”. Or we might think of people who choose to push through their fear – “feel the fear and do it anyway”. For me, being courageous is a bit more nuanced than that. The word “courage” comes from the old French word “corage”, which refers to “heart, innermost feelings; temper”, and the Latin word “cor”, which also means “heart”. So I interpret courage as being a heart-centred emotion that enables us to hold our fear with compassion and drive forward with passion – both emotions of the heart. Courage is not about denying or getting rid of your fear. It is about rising up around that fear using the energies of compassion and passion.

Ultimately, one of my most significant takeaways from the fast was the power of “trust” – or, as I have come to accept it, “faith”. (These are not words I use lightly.)

When I really dug into my fear, I realised that it was coupled with a deep-seated lack of faith in Life (also known as “God” or “the Universe” or simply “the laws of nature”, depending on your orientation). The challenges of the previous few years had eroded my expectation that things would work out for the best and had conditioned me to expect the worst. I also lacked faith in myself – in my ability to take constructive action and recover from any negative consequences that might unfold.

This realisation really shook me. I mean, if it was 95% to 5% that things would work out just fine, why was I so focused on the 5%? Why didn’t I believe I was entitled to the 95%?

Since then, I have worked on developing a more positive relationship with myself that is based on a strong foundation of faith – that ultimately, things will work out for the best, as long as I am being and doing my best. I also cultivated (and validated) the belief that “life is happening for me not to me”, enabling me to find the gifts in any challenging situation. [Read more: How to recover from a major setback]

So I’m curious to know...

How does this resonate with your own experience of fear?

Have you learned any strategies to help you work with fear rather than against it?

“Fear makes us feel our humanity.” (Benjamin Disraeli)

How to recover from a major setback

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Have you ever lost your faith in life? 

You’re doing all the right things – working hard, taking responsibility, supporting others – and you’re making strong, steady progress. Then, out of nowhere, life throws you a curveball that smacks you right in the face.

Or maybe it happens more gradually than that.

A few years ago, it felt like my life was on a steady (and sometimes steep) upward trajectory. After 12 career- and character-building years as a lawyer, I had made a challenging but successful transition into a new career as a coach and facilitator. Not only had I found my calling - work that didn't feel like work - but it was also opening up opportunities (experiences, travel, growth) that were far beyond what I had anticipated. More importantly, I felt like I was making a difference in the world - the holy grail, in my view. Life was sweet.

And then there were some major disappointments. It wasn’t one thing in particular but rather a series of changes or losses. I felt like the bottom had dropped out of my life. Relationships ended, once-plentiful opportunities dried up, and the things that used to excite me felt old and stale. I started to wonder whether my luck had run out, whether perhaps I had peaked too early, and whether the rest of my life was doomed to failure. What was happening?

To make things harder, the strategies that I had used to get to where I was didn’t seem to be working anymore. The focus that had been so effective before felt like forcing. It was as though my own life was resisting me.

I kept trying to mentally retrace my steps to figure out where my life had gone off track. But I couldn’t even see the track. It felt like there was no track – at least not for me.

I started to doubt myself and lost sight of my dreams.

In the scheme of things, it could certainly have been worse and I’m grateful that they weren’t. But they were about as challenging as they’d ever been. 

And that's when I discovered a new perspective that changed everything:

“Life is happening for you, not to you.”

Apparently, it was Byron Katie who said this, although I can’t recall exactly where I heard it. And when I really sat with it, it had a profound effect on how I viewed my own life.

At a surface level, this is just a slightly more refined version of “Everything happens for a reason.” But whereas that can sound like a tired cliché, the idea that life is happening for me and not to me was revolutionary because it completely changed my relationship with life.

The way you relate to something is everything.

When you think that something is happening to you, it tends to put you in a more passive role. Even from a purely grammatical perspective, you become the object of the sentence - the thing that some action is being done to. This construction can subtly influence our perception of how much agency - or choice - we have in the situation.

On the other hand, when you think that something is happening for you, you gain a sense of control - not necessarily control over the situation but control over how you respond to it. I would even go as far as to say that it's a sense that the circumstances, events and people in your life are happening for your benefit. You become a more active player in your own life.

And because I have such a strong orientation towards learning (both in terms of formal education and learning through experience), the idea that life is happening for me aligns with the idea that life is our teacher. We aren’t just taught through life – we are taught bylife. The circumstances, events and people in our lives are all capable of generating enormous learning if only we are willing to be the learner. Being a learner involves having the humility to realise that you don’t know everything and the curiosity to know more.

Now you might be thinking, “Well, that’s easy for you to say. But I’ve just lost my job/house/marriage/health/loved one, and NONE OF THAT is for my benefit.”

I hear you.

And I’m in no way saying that you should gloss over your loss. A setback usually involves a loss of some kind – and significant losses are likely to trigger some form of grief (not to mention the entire grief cycle). Grief is natural and healthy to the extent that it allows you to honour what you’ve lost and “digest” the emotions that come with it. But it’s important to be vigilant against becoming stuck in grief and unable to move on.

The perspective that "life is happening for you" gives you an opening to consider how you could move through this challenging emotional space in a constructive way.

Some questions for reflection

Now when something happens that is undesirable, unpleasant or unwanted, I ask myself these questions:

  • How is this situation of benefit to me? (Or: How is this situation serving me?)

  • What is my life trying to teach me right now?

  • What is my life asking me to become (more of)?

  • What have I become too attached to in my life?

  • What is my life asking me to let go of? (This could be a person, a situation, an attitude, a belief, and so on.)

  • In what way is life inviting me to shift my perspective on life itself?

Of course, the value of this approach is not to know it but to live it. 

What started as an “a-ha” moment several years ago has now deepened into “the way I live my life”. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have days where I wonder what the heck is happening – but those moments are fewer and further between, and I can usually bounce back from them quickly when they do occur. Whereas at one time I would have reacted with anxiety, I now have the ability to step back from that anxiety and hold it lightly while moving myself into a more constructive, creative mindset.

When I applied this approach to my own setbacks, this is what I realised:

  1. Rest & Renewal: One of the most obvious ways in which life was happening for me was to give me an opportunity to rest and recharge after what had been an intense and emotionally taxing chapter in my life. I was mildly burned out and hadn't realised it, because I genuinely love what I do and had a misguided belief that this made me immune from exhaustion. The setbacks I experienced forced me to slow down and invest in restoring my wellbeing, both physically and emotionally.

  2. Re-direction: After two years of freelancing, I had become way too comfortable with the steady influx of work and wasn’t doing the more challenging work of building my own business. This would have been fine, except that I have a strong sense of mission/purpose that seems to be calling me in a different direction to the work I was doing. The past 12 months - while challenging in terms of the uncertainty - has given me the time and headspace to truly get to the heart of what I want to create in the next stage of my career and life. (This is still a work in progress!)

  3. Resilience: Ultimately, I have gained a tremendous amount of strength from these experiences. My experience as a lawyer had trained me to handle the stress of long hours, intellectually demanding work and sometimes challenging people/personalities. But none of that prepared me for the stress of not knowing where my career and life was going, not to mention the lack of social and financial stability that is involved in pursuing your own path. But by being open to what life is trying to teach me, I have developed a deeper, more durable resilience that has enhanced my ability to absorb the shocks and tremors of life, and to use these experiences as fuel for my growth.

But there’s more...

Without a doubt, the most significant benefit of the setbacks I experienced has been the opportunity to reconnect with my sense of self-worth. In the past, my self-worth had been attached to external things like my education and achievements, as well as the approval that I’d gained from others, whereas now my self-worth is far more securely anchored in the deep love and respect that I have for myself. (Please subscribe to my blog if you’re interested in hearing more about this!)

These benefits did not arise overnight. But staying in an open enquiry about how my life is happening for me has helped me to gain those benefits much sooner and more easily, and without leaving it up to chance.

Are you struggling to recover from a major setback in your own life? If so, what would be different for you if you could accept (even just hypothetically) that this aspect of your life was happening for you rather than to you?

“Everything that happens to you is your teacher. The secret is to learn to sit at the feet of your own life and be taught by it.” (Polly Berends)

How to stop overthinking

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Hey, I don’t mean to brag, but… I’m a world-class overthinker.

On the one hand, I’ve always wanted to be world-class at something, so I’m pretty chuffed about this (!). #lifegoals

On the other hand, it can also be a major liability.

Someone once told me that the mind is a double-edged sword. When used well, it gives you the power to “cut through” to what really matters. When used poorly, it can inflict a considerable amount of pain.

If you think I’m exaggerating about the pain, here’s just a sample of the “symptoms” of overthinking:

  • Inability to focus

  • Difficulty making decisions, feeling “stuck”

  • Procrastination due to perfectionism or fear of failure

  • Trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep

  • Headaches and muscular tension

  • Fatigue/exhaustion, even when you’re not “doing” anything

  • Anxiety and/or depression

  • Low self-esteem caused by self-doubt and self-criticism

  • Inability to relax and rest (“rest resistance”)

That sounds pretty painful to me!

And aside from all of these direct consequences, overthinking also prevents us from being present in our own lives and building genuine connections with the people around us. 

Why conventional strategies don’t work (for long)

The trouble with overthinking is that it’s a mental habit that stems from a process that is generally valued in our society – namely, thinking. And it occurs in the very place that has the ability to deal with it – namely, the mind. And that’s why conventional strategies for managing overthinking are often limited in their effectiveness. 

Most of these strategies fall into one of two buckets:

  1. The “stop it” bucket: If you’ve seen Bob Newhart’s “Stop It!” skit, you’ll know what I mean! Even experienced mindfulness practitioners know that it is virtually impossible to stop thinking. Our minds are just too powerful (especially if you have a habit of overthinking) and will eventually override this basic command, especially when we are tired and lack the willpower to keep our minds in check.

  2. The “fight thinking with thinking” bucket: The majority of strategies belong in this bucket because they involve thinking something different to what you’re currently (over)thinking. This can work, to an extent. I mean, overthinking is typically a response to uncertainty – when something is uncertain, our minds tend to keep spinning until they find a level of certainty – and by bringing curiosity to the uncertainty, it is possible to relax into the “not knowing” and find some sort of peace there. (Read more: How to kick your addiction to certainty) But have you noticed how once you’ve resolved one issue, your mind goes searching for something else to stew on? It’s like I playing “Whac-a-Mole” in your head! It’s effective but not necessarily sustainable.

Now, if you’ve had success with either of these approaches, that’s great! Keep doing whatever works for you. But if you’re reading this article, it’s probably because you’ve found that these approaches aren’t enough. Maybe you’ve just accepted that you’re wired to overthink and you manage it as best you can – in ways that are healthy (like exercising) or not so healthy (like polishing off a bottle of rosé every couple of days).

But fortunately there is a way that you can curb your overthinking. I discovered it by accident a few years ago and the peace of mind it created was indescribable – literally indescribable, because I was no longer in my head. And, as it happens, that is the key…

How to get out of your head

For as long as I can remember, people have been telling me to get out of my head. But this begged the question: Where else was I supposed to go? 

The short answer is: “get into your body”.

Let me explain...

Most of us live in the realm of our thoughts. We are constantly analysing, judging and labelling everything that happens within and around us. The weather is good, the traffic is bad, and so on. We tend to live primarily in language – much like having our own personal David Attenborough in our heads, except with far less wonder and far more fear and judgment.

But there is another option (which I dare say is unfamiliar to most of us) – and that is to experience life through our direct physical sensations rather than indirectly through the filter of our mental assessments of those sensations.

This is what happens when we are “in the body”. We experience the raw information coming in through our eyes, ears, nose, skin, and so on – and instead of judging it, we simply observe it. So rather than thinking, “the weather is good”, we simply notice the warmth of the sun on our skin, the freshness of the air, the sound of a car engine humming in the distance, and so on. (Now, even these observations are somewhat subjective, but they are more direct and – importantly – require more presence than simply accepting our head’s edited version of events.)

There are many ways to get into your body. The thing is – you are probably already doing this several times a day without even realising it. So the trick is to become conscious of how you do this and do it more deliberately to “get out of your head” when needed.

Personally, I’ve learned how to do this by practising yoga. For me, yoga isn’t about achieving perfect physical alignment or contorting my body into increasingly uncomfortable configurations. It is simply an opportunity to be present in my body and notice what is happening within it. This doesn’t necessarily mean that my mind stops chattering altogether. At the beginning of a class, my mind could be quite active as I transition from the outside world to the world that exists on my yoga mat. But I have learned to use the physical poses to detach from my thoughts, which in turn tends to reduce overthinking because I’ve withdrawn my energy from it. This creates a sense of peace that lingers well after the class is over and is also a reference point for those times when I feel stressed or overburdened.

If yoga isn’t your thing, then you can access this state through many other physical activities – for example, walking, running, hiking (which gives you the double benefit of movement and nature), dancing, singing (which is surprisingly physical), playing.

The activity itself is not so important – it’s the choice to be fully engaged in it that matters. For example, you could be walking and still ruminating over a problem. While the walking could help to soothe your thinking and perhaps even generate fresh insights, it’s not as powerful as choosing to focus on the physical sensations associated with walking. So, whatever you do, choose to be present in it. 

If it’s not convenient to engage in one of these activities, that’s okay too. There are many simple mindfulness techniques that can help you to shift your focus from your head into your body. For example: 

  • Bring your attention to your breath and notice the temperature of your breath as it passes through your nostrils or the back of your throat. Is it warm or cold?

  • Imagine that you were invisible but that the energy in your body still has a “presence”. What would that presence feel like?

  • Place the soles of your feet flat on the floor and imagine that there are roots growing out of your feet and burying deep into the floor and the earth below. (You can do this even if you’re on the top floor of a high-rise building or on an airplane!)

  • Focus on the pinky toe of your left foot and listen to it carefully. What is it trying to tell you?

  • Do a quick body scan. Start with your toes and move your attention through your body, noticing any sensations – for example, hot/warm/cold, tingling, pulsing, tightening, expansion, and so on. There’s no need to change anything; just notice what you notice.

These techniques might seem simple – even strange, at first – but they can also be life-changing. Choose one that works for you – or create a technique of your own!

Is there are downside to not overthinking?

Now, you might be wondering whether not overthinking will make you – well, a bit stupid. I suspect that those of us who overthink do so because we’ve learned to value our intellectual powers and rely on them to navigate life successfully. So it’s worth addressing this briefly.

The short answer is “no” – you’re not going to become less intelligent or miss something because you stop overthinking. On the contrary, your conscious mind will get a much-needed (and well-deserved) rest, which will free up a huge amount of energy and creativity to invest in other things – like actually living your life!

Your subconscious mind will still be doing its thing under the surface of your awareness, and you’ll probably find that the space you create by reducing your overthinking will free up your attention to take in more – both from your external environment and your subconscious mind (in the form of creative inspiration). 

***

It’s not always easy to break our long-held habits. And yet learning to curb your overthinking is ultimately an investment in your mental health and your ability to be, do and have more in the future. As you become more familiar with how to shift your focus from your head into your body, you are building a new “mental muscle” that will be there to support you in times of stress and turmoil. And that’s worth thinking about!

How to speak so that others (really) hear you

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What do accountants, bankers, engineers, lawyers, marketers, project managers, and salespeople all have in common?

No, this is not the set-up of a joke! It’s a genuine question.

As a coach and facilitator, I’ve had the privilege of working with people from a diverse range of industries and disciplines (including all of the above), and I’ve noticed that we all have one thing in common. 

We all want to be heard.

Actually, we all need to be heard.

In life – and in the workplace, in particular – our ability to meet our own needs and get things done is primarily through conversations. And a critical element of an effective conversation is that you (and the other person) are heard. You can’t order your morning coffee unless the barista hears you. You can’t execute your business plan unless your team hears you. And you can’t build your reputation in your industry unless your clients and peers hear you.

And, of course, I’m not just talking about hearing as a mechanical process of converting soundwaves into brainwaves. I’m talking about the feeling we get when we know that the other person has truly understood us.

Because being heard is also a basic human need.

Author David W Augsburger said: “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable.”

While this might sound a bit intense, think back to the last time you truly felt heard. How did it feel? If you can even remember such a time, I’d say that it was probably an extremely inspiring experience. (Read more: How to inspire others to be their best)

The problem...

...is that we are living in a world in which attention is a scarce resource – perhaps even more so than time or money. We are constantly being bombarded with information – whether in the form of conversations, emails, text messages, social media posts, advertisements, and so on. The demands on our attention are increasing exponentially while our capacity to manage these demands hasn’t really changed.

In this context, your ability to be heard depends on how well you manage two basic parameters:

1.    The other person’s capacity to hear you

2.    The other person’s willingness to hear you

If you want to improve your chances of being heard in the conversations that matter, here are some tips for managing these two parameters.

1. Capacity: Can they hear you?

It’s virtually impossible to be heard by someone who doesn’t have the capacity to hear you.

Again, this is not so much about whether they can physically hear you – although this could be the case if someone has a hearing impairment or is wearing headphones (which is fairly common in some open plan offices). This is more about whether they have the mental and emotional bandwidth to take in what you’re saying.

Have you ever tried to pour water into a glass that is already full?

(If not, try it... Just be sure to clean up afterwards!)

What happens to the additional water?

It spills out of the glass, right?

The glass of water is a metaphor for the human brain.

The human brain has a finite capacity for conscious thought – a bit like the random-access memory (RAM) in a computer. This is our “working memory”. Once that capacity is full, it’s hard for us to take in new information. The only way to free up working memory is to let go of something that’s already there or move some of the items into long-term storage (which takes time, repetition and usually sleep). 

Now, let’s assume that the mind of the average person is filled to the brim with ideas, questions, musings, plans, conversations, commitments, doubts, fears, regrets, and random songs that they heard on the radio that morning. 

How do you add your idea into that full or near-full glass of water?

Here are some suggestions for creating capacity for others to hear you:

  • Choose your timing – Growing up, we had a rule in our home. Never ask Dad for anything before he’d had his dinner. Now, it was the ‘80s, and there was undoubtedly some sort of gendered double-standard in there, as both of my parents were working. But that’s not the point. The point is that it taught me about the importance of timing conversations for when people are more likely to receive them well. It’s partly strategic and also partly a matter of respect for the other person’s psychological state. By noticing how full the other person’s glass seems to be (and even asking them, if we are unsure), we can better align our conversations with their capacity to engage in them.

  • Help them to empty their glass – If a person’s cognitive capacity is full, anything you can do to reduce that will create more capacity for them to hear you, in the same way as deleting all of those cat photos from your iPhone will enable you to take more cat photos (or is that just me?!). One way to do this is by asking or allowing them to speak first. Once they have offloaded what is on their mind, they are more likely to have space to take in what you have to say.

  • Minimise external distractions – These days, most of us live in an overstimulated, even hypervigilant, state. We are incredibly prone to distractions. These distractions can have "fill the glass" even when our cognitive load is relatively low. So if you want to be heard by someone, try speaking with them at a time and in a place where distractions are minimal. (That said, some distractions seem to operate as “white noise” and can actually help people to focus – for example, the background chatter in a busy café or the external noises when taking a “walking meeting” in a park.)

2. Willingness: Do they want to hear you?

Even if someone has the capacity to hear you, they may not be willing to do so.

This unwillingness could show up directly or indirectly in the form of:

  • rejection: when they refuse or decline to speak with you (“I’m too busy to talk”)

  • avoidance: when they won’t take/return your phone calls or respond to your emails

  • resistance: when they appear to be listening but are doing so with a closed (or even oppositional) mindset

Think about some of your recent interactions with the people around you. Aside from how busy or preoccupied you were at the time of the conversation (your capacity to hear them), what else made you more or less willing to hear what they were saying?

A person’s willingness to hear you often comes down to their assumptions about how your message or request might affect their concerns. And by “concerns” I mean the things that are important to them – their needs, drivers, interests, fears, doubts, and so on.

To improve the likelihood of being heard, it can be helpful to try and anticipate some of these assumptions ahead of time by asking yourself:

  • What concerns might be getting in the way of them hearing me? (And how could you address, or at least avoid triggering, these concerns?)

  • What concerns might make them more willing to hear me? (And how could you frame your message to better align with these concerns?)

After working with hundreds of clients to unpack the concerns that are affecting their ability to be heard, the most common one would have to be trust. If you are finding it difficult to be heard by someone, you might consider whether some work needs to be done on building the trust in your relationship. I often think of trust as a bridge that needs to be constructed between two people – and the stronger the bridge, the more weight it can carry.

Also, it’s worth bearing in mind that sometimes the reason others aren’t willing to hear us is that we’re not really willing to hear them. When we are too single-minded (read: forceful) about our ideas, we can inadvertently trigger the other person's resistance according to the relational equivalent of Newton’s Third Law (“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”). Of course, this isn't necessarily intentional and can occur simply due to an excess of enthusiasm. To manage our impact, we might need to pour something out of our own metaphorical glass of water in order to engage in a genuine and meaningful dialogue with the other person – so that we both feel heard.

A final thought…

While there’s a lot that we can do to influence others’ capacity and willingness to hear us, our ability to be heard starts with us feeling confident (and legitimate) in what we have to say. And the more we feel heard, the more we feel encouraged to express ourselves clearly and constructively, without resorting to aggression, manipulation or other potentially destructive tactics. We become a person of influence.

But it has to start somewhere – and that somewhere is with us.

As Victor Hugo said: “Not being heard is no reason for silence.”

Now, over to you... 

What are your challenges when it comes to being heard?

What strategies have you used that make it easier for others to hear you?

I'd love to hear from you!

How to stop comparison from stealing your joy

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Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live someone else's life?

After falling down the rabbit hole of the internet (yet again), I recently came across an advertisement featuring an Australian jazz singer whom I’d met at a jazz piano course about 15 years ago. She is currently living in Europe, singing jazz in French, and looking flawlessly beautiful in all of her photos and videos.

Even though I barely know her, I found myself comparing my life to hers. I wondered what it would be like to be that beautiful, that talented and that successful – in other words, to be that perfect. Not surprisingly, I didn’t feel better for the comparison.

A few minutes later, I had to physically shake myself out of my contemplation when I noticed that my mood had dropped. I knew that the comparison was unfair (to both of us) and unhelpful (to me), so why had I allowed myself to engage in it?

Then I realised that I had just experienced an attack of “comparisonitis”. (Ironically, this happened while I was in the process of writing this article - thank you, Universe!)

If you have ever had a similar experience and would like to learn how to manage it more effectively, please read on...

What is "comparisonitis"?

Comparisonitis is that feeling you experience when you receive news of someone else’s achievement or success and, instead of (or despite) feeling happy for them, you end up comparing yourself to them – usually unfavourably.

It presents as a sense of resistance and can range from mild resentment to full-blown envy, jealousy or even shame. It’s usually accompanied by a generous side-serving of self-doubt.

While commonly attributed to social media, it can also arise in other social situations such as networking events, family gatherings, and high school reunions – any time when people tend to share brief “status updates” about their lives.

Why do we compare ourselves to others?

Humans are social animals.

We are hardwired to engage in certain behaviours that promote social cohesion, which includes comparing ourselves to others in order to monitor and manage our place in the social hierarchy. So it is normal to compare ourselves to others.

The problem is that it’s rarely a fair comparison. It tends to overlook the complete and unique circumstances of both people and, in doing so, erode our individuality.

Comparisonitis often highlights an insecurity in the person making the comparison – a sense of not being “good enough” – and can exacerbate that insecurity with the guilt of not feeling generous enough to celebrate the other person’s success. It can also drive a wedge between friends, colleagues and family members when heartfelt congratulations are withheld or tempered as a result of this insecurity.

As Theodore Roosevelt put it: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

And I would add: “…on so many levels.”

So, with all of that said, would it surprise you to learn that comparisonitis also bears a gift?

As with so many so-called “negative” experiences in life, I have discovered that you can use comparison for your benefit. Here's how.

What is the gift of comparisonitis?

The gift of comparisonitis is that it tells us what is important to us. It is a marker of our needs, values and priorities. It is like a signal being sent up from the depths of our subconscious mind to remind us that something we care about is at stake.

But in order to fully explore and embrace this gift, we must choose to be curious.

Curiosity creates the opportunity for us to learn from the comparison rather than using it as a form of self-flagellation.

For example:

What if you’re feeling unsettled by a friend’s recent promotion?

Upon noticing your discomfort, you can use it as a prompt to shift into curiosity and ask yourself: "Why is this bothering me?" Perhaps it is highlighting your own discontent in your current role and could instead motivate you to apply for that job you’ve always wanted. In other words, use the comparisonitis to find out what you really want and invest your energy in moving towards that rather allowing it to damage your friendship.

At a deeper and even more powerful level, comparisonitis is an opportunity to practice self-acceptance and self-compassion. By accepting yourself as you are, you can unlock considerable energy to become the person you wish to be.

On the other hand, have you ever found yourself wondering whether there’s something wrong with you because you don’t want what others have?

Sometimes comparisonitis can be triggered when we see others making choices that are different to our own – especially when their choices represent the “norm” in your country, culture or community. I have experienced this form of comparisonitis quite a bit over the past few years as my commitment to being true to myself has led me to take the "road less travelled" in certain areas of my life. And yet that doesn't mean I don't occasionally compare my life to what "might have been".

In this case, the comparison could simply reveal a need to feel accepted in your society and is another opportunity to practice self-acceptance and self-compassion. It is also an opportunity to affirm your own priorities and step forward in courage to live and enjoy them.

These are just a few examples of the gifts of comparisonitis.

Next time you find yourself experiencing an "attack of comparisonitis", here are some questions that might help you to unearth its gift:

1. To whom are you comparing yourself?

First of all, get specific about the comparison so you know what you’re dealing with.

2. Is this a fair comparison?

Consider whether you’re taking into account your complete circumstances and the other person’s complete circumstances.

We often compare our “insides” (our internal experience, with all its messiness) with others’ “outsides” (the edited, maybe even Photoshopped, veneer that others present to the outside world). As pastor Steven Furtick puts it: “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” This is clearly an unfair and even damaging comparison.

I'm not suggesting that you perform an inventory of your life every time you feel triggered by someone else’s success. On the contrary, this is about reminding yourself that no two individuals are exactly the same and so any comparison is ultimately futile.

3. Is this a helpful comparison?

As mentioned earlier, comparisonitis can highlight a need, value or priority that wants to get your attention. But sometimes it flares up out of habit – based on something that used to be, but is no longer, important to you.

In the latter case, the comparison is probably not that helpful. So are you willing to let it go?

4. What is the gift in this comparison?

If this comparison relates to something that is important to you, how could you use it to move forward in your own life?

What could it inspire you to do or be?

How could you use it as a learning opportunity?

And if the comparison were trying to teach you something, what would it be?

“Every minute you spend wishing you had someone else's life is a minute spent wasting yours.” (Unknown)

Where does comparisonitis show up in your life? And how do you deal with it?

Now I'm off to go and enjoy some jazz...

What "The Lion King" can teach us about leadership

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Warning: This article contains spoilers. LOTS of spoilers.

In three weeks’ time (that’s 21 sleeps!), the remake of The Lion King will be released in Australia.

I am VERY excited about this.

Not just because it features the voices of two of my personal heroes (Beyoncé and John Oliver), and not just because it’s based on one of the most spectacular nature documentaries of all time (!), but also because I recently discovered that it’s a film about leadership.

When the original film was released in 1994, I was in Year 12. I saw it three times at the cinema and was so obsessed with it that my classmates bestowed upon me the title of “Lion Queen” at our valedictory dinner. (Seriously!)

Twenty-five years later, I realised that what I thought was a fairly simple tale about loss, love and adventure also contains some powerful lessons about stepping up and being the leader you were born to be.

Here are some of them:

1. Real leaders LEAD

One of the most fundamental leadership lessons in The Lion King is that leadership is less about title (positional power) and more about action (personal power).

While Mufasa makes a point of informing young Simba about the order of succession and his birthright as king, the story demonstrates that simply holding a title doesn’t necessarily make them a leader. When Scar manipulates young Simba into fleeing the kingdom so that he (Scar, as second-in-line to the throne) can take over, he assumes the leadership position but does not take any leadership action. This results in the degradation of the savannah and the near-starvation of his “people”.

Ultimately, Scar is rejected as a leader and betrayed by his closest allies (the hyenas). Simba, on the other hand, demonstrates his leadership through action rather than relying on his royal pedigree, and the kingdom is restored.

2. Real leaders are courageous (when it matters)

Early on, Simba gets himself (and Nala) into a dangerous situation with the hyenas. His father, King Mufasa, comes to their rescue at the last minute.

After the incident, Mufasa sees an opportunity for a “teachable moment” and gives Simba a firm (yet compassionate) lecture about the importance of obedience. When Simba explains that he was only trying to be brave like his father, Mufasa says, “I’m only brave when I have to be.”

This scene highlights an important distinction between fearlessness and courage. As as lion, and as the King, Mufasa is assumed to be fearless. But, as he explains to Simba, “Even kings get scared”.

Mufasa demonstrates that being a leader is not so much about having a large comfort zone - it’s about having the courage to take action outside that zone when the occasion calls for it. (He adds that it’s not about looking for trouble, as Simba had done.)

The theme of courage returns later in the movie when Simba prepares to return to Pride Rock after a period of exile.

Simba is weighed down by the guilt and shame of believing that he is responsible for his father’s death. (It isn’t until the end of the film that Simba learns that Mufasa was actually murdered by his jealous, power-hungry brother, Scar.) He tells Rafiki (the royal knowledge-keeper with the bright blue butt), “Going back means that I’ll have to face my past.”

Rafiki helps shift Simba’s perspective on his past by demonstrating to him that it can be an important source of learning. He says, “Oh yes, the past can hurt. But, the way I see it, you can either run from it or learn from it.”

This enables Simba to step into his true power as leader - not by virtue of his lineage but through his willingness to overcome his fears.

3. Real leaders step up and take responsibility

I hate to break it to you, but Hakuna Matata is a cop-out.

For several years, I enjoyed Hakuna Matata as an uplifting interlude after the seriously heart-breaking death of Mufasa. I didn’t realise that this “problem-free philosophy” was (at least partly) holding Simba back from being a leader.

When Timon and Pumbaa first meet young Simba, he is broken from the experience of seeing his father killed by a herd of running wildebeest. In Hakuna Matata (it means, “no worries”), Timon and Pumbaa create a safe space for Simba to heal from the traumatic experience that sent him fleeing from his family and community. It’s light and fun, and it’s exactly what Simba needs at that time.

But later, when (as adults) Nala encounters Simba and challenges him on why he stayed away from Pride Rock for so long, “hakuna matata” becomes a weak excuse. “Sometimes bad things happen and there’s nothing you can do about it,” Simba says, “so why worry?”

Nala quickly calls him out on this and reminds him that it is his responsibility, prompting Simba to reflect on where his priorities lie.

4. Real leaders are authentic

One of the most powerful and poignant scenes is when Simba is grappling with the decision about whether to return to fight his uncle Scar and claim his rightful place as King of Pride Rock. Mufasa appears to Simba as an apparition and tells him, “You are more than what you have become”, before reminding him that he is Mufasa’s son and therefore “the one true king”.

As the apparition disappears, Mufasa’s parting words are: “Remember who you are…”

On the surface, this could be interpreted as a simple reminder of Simba’s royal heritage and birthright as a leader. But perhaps there’s a deeper meaning to consider.

In a world where leadership is no longer based on lineage (except in some limited circumstances), “Remember who you are” could be interpreted as a call to exercise authentic leadership. It could be a reminder to tap into our true selves (not the masks that we might be inclined to put on in professional or social situations) and lead in a way that is aligned with our values and sense of personal integrity.

5. Real leaders serve their people

One of the most important leadership themes in The Lion King is less explicit than those mentioned above – the theme of service.

When Simba is a cub, Mufasa tries to impart upon him that they are all part of the circle of life. He says, “Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance, and respect all the creatures - from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.”

Later, Simba’s journey culminates with the realisation that he must return to Pride Rock in order to serve (and save) his community, which has been suffering under Scar's ego-driven rule.

As Mufasa put it: “There’s more to being a king than getting your way all the time.” 

***

Who would have thought that a “children’s film” could pack such a powerful punch?

Now, I’m curious…

What other films have inspired you as a leader?

How to inspire others to be their best

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“You got this!”

Have I inspired you yet?

I didn’t think so. But judging by how often I hear this phrase, you’ll forgive me for thinking that it might actually be effective.

Maybe I’ve been spending too much time on social media, but it seems like the “inspiration industry” is everywhere. Every day, we are bombarded with books, movies, podcasts, blogs, events, memes, videos, quotes, articles, and so on that urge us to be our “best selves” and live our “best lives”. And some of this is nice and makes us feel good, temporarily. But is it really having any lasting impact? Or is it just entertainment?

If we have virtually unlimited access to “inspiration”, then why are so many of us feeling worn down, burned out, stressed, anxious, and depressed? Why aren't we climbing more metaphorical mountains? Why aren’t we more inspired?

Inspiration is an inside job

My theory is that our concept of inspiration is flawed – or, at the very least, incomplete.

The inspiration industry has conditioned us to look for inspiration outside ourselves, when real inspiration comes from within. Our job - as leaders, coaches, parents, and decent human beings - is not to force someone to accept our inspiration as a substitute for their own; it is to provide the conditions that enable their own spark to ignite.

Ready for the good news? (“Are you really ready? Rah-rah!” Just kidding.)

The key to inspiring someone (including yourself) is simpler than you think.

To inspire others to be their best, we must first accept them as they are. In doing so, we create a space of psychological safety that, in itself, can be profoundly inspiring.

If that sounds counterintuitive, let me explain…

My search for inspiration 

A few weeks ago, I was feeling stuck; really stuck. I’d been struggling with a personal issue for months and finally agreed to meet with a family friend (a “wise elder” type) for a cup of tea and a chat. Confused and frustrated, I was doubtful that our conversation would change anything. After all, I'd been grappling with this situation for months, so what difference could she possibly make in an hour?

We met in her kitchen. Throughout our conversation, she (let’s call her Irene) did not offer me any advice. She did not try to challenge my thinking. She did not attempt to persuade me of anything. And yet, within no more than five or ten minutes, I started to feel calm and centred. Somehow the confused, teary, constricted “me” who drove to that appointment transformed into the strong, insightful, courageous “me”, and I started to see my problem in a new light. Although my circumstances had not changed, my perspective certainly had.

I felt inspired!

This wasn’t just the temporary emotional high that you might get when someone tells you they believe in you. This was a deep sense of clarity and trust that told me that I was in the perfect place to take the next step, whatever that might be.

So how did this turnaround occur?

Well, maybe Irene slipped something into my tea while I wasn’t looking. Or maybe – as I believe – she had tapped into the power of acceptance. 

Acceptance is a powerful state

In my work as an ontological coach, we talk about acceptance as a mood that occurs when we accept the things that we cannot change. We may not necessarily like what’s happening, but we choose to be at peace with how things are in the moment. This mood is captured by the saying, “It is what it is.”

So why is acceptance so powerful?

Well, first, it’s important to recognise that humans are fundamentally emotional beings. We’d like to think that we are entirely rational, but science (in particular, the work of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio) tells us that this is not the whole story.

All moods are powerful because they operate like presets for our behaviour. When we’re angry (or hangry!), we’re more likely to engage in certain behaviours than when we’re sad. We can override those presets, but it can take considerable self-awareness and effort. So if we want to inspire someone, we need to shift their mood.

The reason acceptance is such a powerful mood is that:

  1. When we’re in a mood of acceptance, we not fighting against things that we can’t change (whether physically or psychologically). This frees up a lot of energy that would otherwise be pouring into the black hole of our frustration, anger, and resentment.

  2. When we free up this energy – especially in the form of attention (mental energy) – we access a space of neutrality that enables us to be open to new possibilities.

Now, some people find the mood of acceptance a little hard to – um, accept!

To be clear, acceptance is not the same as agreement. For example, you may not like the fact that a certain person or political party has been elected into office. But if you don’t accept it, then you’re battling against reality – and that’s a battle you’re going to lose.

The power of acceptance lies in its ability to eliminate unnecessary distractions (things we can’t change) and redirect our attention to what really matters (things we can change).

How to create a mood of acceptance in others

While we can’t control another person’s mood, we can certainly influence it.

Emotions are highly contagious. When we are in a mood of acceptance, we can trigger this state in others through a mechanism that involves their “mirror neurons”. (We are doing this all the time, unconsciously. The trick is to do it deliberately.) 

During my conversation with Irene, her state of acceptance towards me triggered a deep level of self-acceptance in me that freed up my attention to look for possibilities rather than rally against my present circumstances.

Reflecting on our conversation, I identified five things that Irene did that you might consider adopting as practices for promoting a mood of acceptance in your conversations:

  1. Being present – You can’t control your mood (or influence others' moods) if your mind is elsewhere. To use a computing analogy, presence is having only one window open on your screen at a time. In a world where attention is a scarcer resource than money or even time, presence can be a game-changer in your ability to inspire others. [More: How to cultivate authentic presence]

  2. Resisting the temptation to judge – When you feel like someone is judging you or analysing what you’re saying with a critical lens, it can unconsciously influence you to edit your words (and even your thoughts). In this case, Irene came to the conversation without any apparent agenda, opinions, judgments, or otherwise. This helped me to feel safe to think freely and clearly in a way that I hadn’t been able to with others. It enabled me to access the best version of myself and my own wisdom.

  3. Being curious – Despite having the advantage of a few decades of life experience beyond mine, Irene didn't try to impose her own life experience on me. She had the humility to stay curious, asking occasional questions to help me explore and expand my perceptions. I didn’t feel like I had to justify myself or impress her or seek her approval in any way (which is my Achilles heel, going back a loooong way). I could be completely open with her and myself. [More: How to kick your addiction to certainty]

  4. Avoiding unsolicited advice – Humans are natural problem-solvers. When someone’s in trouble, it’s all too easy to dish out advice (as I’m doing here – irony duly noted!) without considering the longer-term impact of this approach. Of course, in some contexts, advice can be appropriate and even necessary – for example, when the other person has no relevant experience or in an emergency. But giving advice, especially when someone hasn't asked for it, can unintentionally undermine them and erode their confidence to make wise decisions for themselves. Instead, it can be helpful to ask questions that enable them to connect with their own resourcefulness.

  5. Seeing the best in others – Sometimes, it can be hard to inspire others when we lose sight of their ability to learn and grow. We take a "fixed mindset" approach, believing that who they are now is who they'll always be. If that’s the case, then reminding yourself of their capacity to learn could make all the difference. By adopting a growth mindset, you can acknowledge where they are and choose to trust in their ability to get to where you'd like them to be (with guidance and support).

A client once told me, "People don't change!" But they can and they do. And, paradoxically, change is much more likely and easier when we start by accepting people as they are.

To quote the great philosopher, Katy Perry:

“Acceptance is the key to be truly free.”

***

In my work as a coach, I often refer to the chrysalis as a metaphor for the space and protection we need when we were undergoing a process of transformation. When we hold a space of acceptance for others, we are providing them with a sort of psychological cocoon that keeps them safe while they are transforming themselves – their perspective, their mindset, their way of being. For me, this is what it really means to inspire someone.

Who needs your inspiration – and acceptance – right now?

How to live a more creative life

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People talk about “life imitating art” -- and it really does.

Last week, the abundance of public holidays inspired me to pull out my treasure chest of art supplies and start playing. My mother is a talented artist, so I grew up painting and drawing. I was quite prolific until Year 9, when one of my art teachers told me that my work was “not creative enough”. (Can you relate to this?) Since then, I’ve dabbled here and there but rarely allowed myself to immerse myself in it completely -- until a few days ago.

As I reacquainted myself with my paints and brushes, I noticed how the process of creating art is similar to most creative activities -- including creating a business (which I’m also doing) and, more broadly, creating a life that we are proud to live. That led me to consider how adopting a "creative mindset" could help us to live more authentic, meaningful and colourful lives.

From the canvas to the keyboard, here are some insights on being an artist in your own life:

1. The hardest part is starting

Staring at a blank canvas can be terrifying. Why? My theory is that it’s because that first mark is a form of commitment -- and many people are afraid of making commitments because they think they're permanent and can't be changed (even though they don’t always act on them in the same way!). They judge their first attempt as if it should be their best work. In other words, they approach art with a fixed mindset.

Art is a constant process of learning. By giving ourselves permission to be a learner -- regardless of our level of experience or assumptions about our innate talent -- we free ourselves to experiment and learn/improve as we go.

2. You can't really fail because you can (almost) always build on your mistakes

The other day, I painted what I intended to be an abstract representation of the Sun. (I like the Sun.) It ended up looking more like a pepperoni pizza. (I love pizza, but not on my wall.)

I was tempted to throw it out, but then my mother encouraged me to paint over it. It turns out that "real" artists are constantly tweaking their work -- shaping it and changing it over weeks, months and even years. And when the "mistakes" are more substantial, you can usually paint over them. This isn’t about obliterating your mistakes -- it’s about building on them. The “failed” layer underneath is what gives texture and nuance to the new layer above. (And it's much better for the environment!)

3. The key to great art is "differences"

Although we might disagree on what constitutes great art, we can probably agree that great art is interesting. And the key to making interesting art (as I learned from a YouTube tutorial) is “differences”.

Art that is composed of elements that are too similar tends to be -- well, boring. Professional artists use differences in the elements -- that is, differences in size, shape, colour, value (tone), texture, etc -- to create contrast and tension. They also take care to balance these differences to avoid visual chaos. So if you want your art to be impactful and memorable, mix it up a little!

4. Art encourages us to be mindful

It is very difficult to paint (or draw or sculpt, etc) unless you are fully present. So, in a way, art is meditation in action -- which is great news for those of us who find it hard to sit still for more than two minutes.

And like more traditional forms of mindfulness, it changes the way you see. You notice details, nuances, subtleties that you would otherwise miss in the busyness of life. It makes you a better observer -- and the better (more accurate) your observations, the more choices you have about how you respond to them.

5.  Art is messy!

And that’s part of the fun. What doesn’t wash out becomes a testament to your creativity.

6.   The best art comes from the heart

In the end, my high school art teacher was probably right -- I wasn’t particularly creative back then because I wasn’t coming from my heart. Having experienced a fair bit of bullying/racism growing up, I learned to compartmentalise my emotions rather than express them freely. Only relatively recently have I learned to really feel my emotions again -- and this is bringing greater clarity, authenticity and originality to both my art and my life.

7. Art takes courage

French post-Impressionist painter Henri Matisse made this observation -- and he's right.

Art involves a journey into the unknown. When we're young, we're taught to "colour inside the lines". But great art -- art that moves people and inspires change -- takes risks for the purpose of communicating an idea. To do this, we have to accept that not everyone will like or appreciate our work. Great art tends to polarise people (for example, I love Salvador Dalí's work but some find it offensive) -- but that's why it's so powerful. It forces us into our emotions and those emotions aren't always comfortable -- but they are what make us human.

Now, here's a call to action:

If you're dissatisfied with any aspect of your life, consider how these insights might apply to it -- whether it's your career, your business, your side-hustle, your work project, your client meetings, or... Well, you get the picture (pun intended!).

How can you bring more creativity into your own life?

Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art.

~Leonardo da Vinci

How to strengthen your most important relationship

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Love it or loathe it, Valentine’s Day has managed to stand the test of time (for over 1,500 years!) and has become a permanent fixture on calendars around the world.

For those who are single or have a healthy disdain for “Hallmark holidays”, it’s tempting to roll our eyes in frustration.

But what if we could repurpose Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to take stock of and celebrate our most important relationship – the one we have with ourselves? 

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For most of my life, the idea of having a relationship with myself was completely unfathomable. It reminded me of that Sex & The City episode in which Carrie pretends to marry herself so that she can get her friend to buy her a pair of expensive shoes to replace the ones she’d lost at that friend’s party. Yeah – I wasn’t buying it (pardon the pun).

But then I broke up with my inner critic.

As I learned to distance myself from my inner critic and (gradually) amplify and connect with my inner coach, I began to see how the way we relate to ourselves is analogous to how we relate to others. And, perhaps more importantly, how the way we treat others is often a reflection of how we treat ourselves.

For example, as I became less critical of myself, I also became less critical of others. As I became more compassionate towards myself, I began to feel more heartfelt compassion towards others. And, in reverse, as I became better at establishing boundaries with others, the better I became (and am becoming!) at establishing boundaries with myself.

Having been brought up to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, I realised that the reverse might also be helpful: “Do unto yourself what you would do unto others.”

Since then, I've discovered a whole range of strategies for proactively building a stronger relationship with myself - the result being greater confidence, productivity and wellbeing.

Here are some of the highlights that I'd love to share with you:

1. Know who you are (SELF-AWARENESS)

The first stage of any healthy relationship involves getting to know the other person (even though certain reality TV shows would have you believe otherwise!). Similarly, a healthy relationship with yourself requires you to know who you really are.

At a practical level, this is about having a clear understanding of your own psychological wiring. What are your strengths? What are your triggers? What excites you? What are you afraid of? What is your potential?

Self-awareness is not something you “set and forget”; it’s a life-long practice that involves becoming better observers of our own behaviour, the mindset (way of being) that generates it, and the impact we have on others and our environment.

2. Accept yourself as you are (SELF-ACCEPTANCE)

You’re a work in progress and always will be. And that’s not just okay – it’s wonderful!

Self-acceptance gives you the freedom to explore new possibilities (for example, I would like to become more patient) without condemning yourself for what you might otherwise regard as your flaws or shortcomings. And when you accept yourself as you are, there’s no need to pretend to be anything you’re not. This leads to greater authenticity, clearer communication (because you’re not afraid to say what you mean), and the ability to build trust (both with yourself and others) more effectively.

3. Recognise your own legitimacy (SELF-RESPECT)

Self-respect is an overused term that is often thrown around with scant appreciation for what it really means or involves. That’s why the concept of “legitimacy” is so valuable.

In ontological coaching, “legitimate self” and “legitimate other” are terms used to describe the idea that, as individuals, we are equally valid – neither better nor worse. While this is notoriously challenging to apply in practice (our society is rife with standards that we use to delegitimise ourselves and others), it is worth considering how you might be holding yourself as “less than” or “not enough”.

How are you eroding your own legitimacy? What impact is this having on you, your relationships and your life? What would be different in your life if you could recognise yourself as legitimate?

The starting point for self-empowerment is self-respect.

4. Establish healthy boundaries with yourself (SELF-DISCIPLINE)

Having a great relationship is not all sunshine and roses. There are times when it’s hard work! And just as our interpersonal relationships benefit from commitment and accountability, so too does your relationship with yourself.

What commitments are you not making to yourself? How might you be letting yourself down by not holding yourself accountable to the commitments you have made?

If you have trouble keeping your commitments to yourself, it may be helpful to distinguish between your current self and your future self. What might your future self experience as a result of your current self doing or not doing something that has longer-term implications? For example, when I'm tempted to sleep in instead of get out of bed for an early morning yoga class, I remind myself that “future me” will feel the benefits of me going (not to mention the ill-effects if I don’t go). It may also be worth exploring your motivational style.

5. Be kind to yourself (SELF-COMPASSION)

A common trait I’ve observed in high-achievers (especially women, it would seem) is that they are incredibly hard on themselves. When I ask them whether they would talk to their child or a good friend the way they talk to themselves, they are appalled. “Of course not!” Which begs the questions: “Then why are you treating yourself that way?”

What makes you any less deserving of the decency and compassion you extend to others? (See SELF-RESPECT)

6. Take care of your own needs (SELF-CARE)

This is also a natural extension of self-respect, but if that’s not enough to convince you… consider the oxygen mask analogy. (Put your own mask on before you help others, because how can you help others if you’ve passed out?)

For some, self-care has become associated with massages and bubble baths, but it’s much more than that. It’s about being in tune with your own needs and taking care of them as best you can. This includes prioritising your physical, emotional and mental health – for example, getting enough rest, eating well, exercising, and so on. It also extends to the way you interact with the world – honouring your boundaries, treating yourself with kindness and generosity, and avoiding toxic relationships and situations.

7. Love yourself unconditionally (SELF-LOVE)

Ah, finally – the big one: self-love. This is one of the hardest aspects of any relationship. How can you love someone when they’re not exactly who you want them to be?

For many, many years, I thought that self-love came from racking up a list of achievements that I could refer to as proof of my own worthiness. It was only when that list got to a considerable length that I realised how little it mattered. The bar kept getting higher; the list would never be long enough. And so I discovered that real self-love is when you love yourself regardless of the list – and despite the sometimes longer list of all the mistakes you’ve made, the people you’ve hurt, and the times you’ve failed. As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

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Ultimately, the cumulative effect of these improvements is that you are more in alignment with yourself. There's no gap between the private “you” and the public “you”. This frees up a significant amount of energy that you can then invest in being a better leader, colleague, parent, daughter/son, friend, and citizen. And, if that’s not enough, IT FEELS GOOD!

Over to you...

Which aspect of your relationship with yourself would you like to celebrate?

Which aspect would you like to strengthen?

What would be different in your life if you had a better relationship with yourself? 

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Want to learn more?

I'm looking forward to running some half-day workshops that will explore some of these concepts in more depth and bring them to life in a way that you can apply immediately. The first pair of workshops are as follows:

While each workshop is designed to stand alone, they also complement each other. You are encouraged to join both workshops but are welcome to choose one or the other.

Please click the links above for details and to register for the workshops.

I hope to see you there!

Chyonne Kreltszheim is an ontological coach and facilitator who helps people to transform their “way of being” in the context of their leadership, career and life. She is the founder of Being: the Change.

 Change Your Mind ~ Change Your Life ~ Change Your World