The Power of Perception

I recently attended a discussion hosted by a therapist who works with women in abusive relationships. She described how one of the common challenges which she faces is in trying to introduce the concept of existential choice to women whose belief that they do not have a choice has restricted their perception of their power to control their circumstances, specifically to change them; for a host of reasons, individual and general, leaving their abusive partner is simply not an option for them. This limiting belief plays a large part in creating the psychological conditions that condemn the individuals in question to enduring treacherous and sometimes fatal relationships, and which hinder them from taking the necessary steps to allow them to change their circumstances.

In these instances, it is quite literally a mindset, albeit one that has been extensively manipulated and conditioned through the medium of mental and physical abuse, that anchors these individuals to a relentlessly painful situation. Upon reflection of this concept, it struck me that the idea of a mental construct limiting our potential is apparent in many areas of our lives. Although the context above is indeed a particularly grievous example, it occurs to me that so many of us continue to perpetuate life circumstances contrary to our preferential dispositions. Most notably, perhaps, in our careers. I know people who are heatedly passionate about what they do for a living, and their motivation, drive and obsession is inspiring. However, I know many more for whom the term ‘career’ is synonymous with ‘pay cheque’. Exploring this with colleagues and acquaintances, those for whom their work is merely a means to a financial end frequently lament the career they ‘could have had’ or the academic and professional choices they ‘should have’ made. The very language employed indicates defeat and resignation to a figurative ship that has long since sailed beyond the horizon of possibility and opportunity. If I proffer that they should take deliberate action to redirect their career path, such as returning to college, taking a course or undertaking a business venture of their own, the universal responses can almost always be narrowed to a few catch all cliché excuses: I’m too old/It’s too late, I can’t afford it, I don’t have time. The truth is that these reasons are analogous excuses, borne out of subscription to a limiting mindset. The belief that there is no option available other than to continue along the same path results in sympathetic behaviours which serve to reinforce and further perpetuate the belief, effectively giving rise to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A strategy that has proven effective in counselling women in abusive and fearful circumstances is to encourage them to embrace a new mindset, through which the possibility of choice can empower and embolden them to feel capable of making the necessary changes and to achieve conviction in their power to control the situation and incite change in their circumstances. This is achieved through helping to reframe the variables they had considered as obstacles or preclusions, and to instead view these challenges as consequences of the decision; ultimately acknowledging that whilst the variables about which they are concerned (such as financial instability, loss of residence, loss of partner, etc.) may exist, they do not result in a negation of choice, but rather represent unfortunate but necessary consequences of the decision of leaving. This transformative mindset shifts the dilemma from a perceived lack of choice, diminishing the associated feelings of hopelessness and resignation, and begins to introduce a new perspective, whereby they are faced with a difficult choice. The subtle but significant shift means that a difficult choice is introduced to a previously hopeless situation. This introduction of choice to a mindset that had been manipulated and compressed over a cycle of abuse to the point of desolation and resignation is the seed of empowerment for these women to find their inner strength and nourish the bravery they need to change their circumstances. Though the process can be arduous and requires tremendous emotional strength, support and courage, the dissipation of limiting beliefs and the introduction of the ability and possibility to change and regain control is the critical catalyst to impel the current of change.

The principles here are appropriate to motivational coaching and indeed as a strategy for inciting change in any area of our lives. Motivating ourselves to take the initial steps to make the changes must first begin with a desire to do so, and a belief that it is possible. These basic beliefs are paramount to achieving our goals and in ultimately realising professional and personal fulfilment. We must first allow ourselves to envision that change as a possibility, to empower us to act and effectuate that change. We must raise our standards of productivity, ethics, and commitment that inform and empower our belief constructs. We must reject the concept of fate as a predetermined course. Our future is not predetermined by our past, nor our present. Our paths are governed by a continuous, dynamic flux of interacting elements, informed by our choices, our beliefs, our willingness to commit, and our dedication to make the decisions and accept the consequences necessary to achieving our desired outcomes. Try altering your inner monologue and reframing your thought processes around the rationale for why you have not yet begun pursuit of your dreams. Rather than telling yourself you cannot do X because of Y, tell yourself that you could achieve X if you were willing to accept the consequences and sacrifices necessary to overcome the challenges presented by Y. Now ask yourself which outweighs the other; your desire to achieve X, or your unwillingness to assume the responsibilities and sacrifices necessary to achieve it.

I guarantee you will find it a lot more difficult to reason why you shouldn’t chase your dreams when you reclaim the power to believe in your control of the situation, and cease relinquishing that power to passivity. If these women can overcome extensive and pervasive psychological abuse to become empowered with the incredible mental strength to reclaim control of their minds, bodies and lives, to alter their previously held convictions of the indomitability of their circumstances, I am certain that actively choosing to amend your mindset will unlock limitless potential and reveal a spectrum of possibilities which you never allowed yourself to think possible. Achievement is borne of the seed of believing it possible.

Getting back in the saddle; How to take back the psychological reins!

This week has been ‘one of those’ weeks for me.

I have recently returned to horse-riding, dusting off my boots after 10 years of virtual dormancy save for the odd casual trek here and there.

As a young rider, I was fearless, competitive and brave – all of the requisite hallmarks for a progressive rider. I was confident in my ability and I never shied away from a challenge. On the inevitable occasion where things didn’t go as planned, I dusted myself off, hopped back in the saddle and powered on, all the more determined for the mishap.

As an adult rider, I am astonished at how my ‘riding personality’ is utterly polarised from that of my younger self. I am cautious, self-conscious and (arguably) overly self-critical. I was always a careful, diligent and respectful rider in my youth, yet I the confidence in my ability was strong and rarely wavered. Now, my default mindset is self-doubt and a confidence deficit.

Horses, being the majestic, clever, intuitive creatures that they are, are acutely attuned to our emotions. Even though we may be able to thinly veil our fears and doubts from other riders and instructors, there is no chance of blinkering a horse to the underlying emotional reality.

This fear has translated to my riding performance. As a result, I find myself in a negative loop whereby the fear is causing a disconnect between myself and my mount, which has resulted in a situation where the horse, picking up on these emotions and nervous energy, is acting on this psychic charge and running with it – quite literally. Due to my dip in confidence, my skills and capabilities as a rider are being blunted, and I am not asserting myself as a rider. After the initial incidence, the fears bubbling under the surface were effectively validated. This in turn caused a downward spiral whereby my fears and anxieties began to escalate, and the next day, the same issue occurred once again, reinforcing the issue and compounding my nervous energy ten fold. And so the cycle has continued for the past three days – just yesterday in front of an arena of fellow riders, all witness to my ill-controlled jaunts and rushed catapult over the simple combinations.

So, what to do? Dismount and hang up my hat?

No chance.

Fighting back the sting of embarrassment, and admittedly a bruised ego, I tried again. Same result. And again. Same result. AND AGAIN.

Each time I tried and failed. Each time I bit my lip and fought to crush the butterflies and snakes of fear and shame rising from the pit of my stomach up through my chest. Each go-round chipped and gnawed that little bit more at my radically diminished self-belief and what was left of my tattered confidence.

As I untacked my not-so-trusty steed, sympathetic nods and supportive words passed from my fellow riders, my spirit pooled in my boots. I had tried so hard, I had showed up, I had refused to give in to fear and doubt and embarrassment.

And yet, and yet.

After I got home, I began to approach the situation with a fresh mindset. Rather than wallow in my defeat, I decided to take a step back and view this from the perspective as if this were a challenge presented by a client. What advice would I offer?

I contemplated what I know of Goal-Setting Theory, Deliberate Practise, Grit and Growth Mindset. I thought of the application of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, of negative thoughts, of breathing exercises and of visualisation. I thought on the complexity, reach and impact of our psychological meanderings on our behavioural outputs. When I reframed my equestrian challenges in the context of this knowledge, the emotional charge began to mellow and the obstruction to rationality began to dissipate.

I began to consider the fact that this problem, of the horse running with me and my relative inability to control the situation effectively, has only become an issue this week. Prior to this, in the weeks I have been riding since returning to the sport, I have not experienced this issue at all. I began to tease this out and accept that perhaps my equestrian excitation may perhaps be a manifestation of nervous energy stemming from outside sources, adapting and translating to other areas of my life, namely my riding technique/confidence. It is true that animals, and particularly horses, are incredibly sensitive to such energies, and this subconscious transference has resulted in an embodiment of challenges arising in a different ‘arena’ to that from which it stems (pun wholly intended, no apologies!). This got me thinking about my work with clients, and how in many instances, the issue as presented is merely the surface value of what is really going on, and as we delve into the challenges at hand, the intrinsic root of those issues can often be far reaching and oftentimes stem from covert or unacknowledged places.

I began also to break down the cycle of events, much akin to the ‘Hot Cross Bun’ Five Aspects Model developed by Padesky (1986). Identifying the manner in which I was processing these incidents and how I was ultimately managing my reactions was insightful. I teased out some integral issues that were contributing to the recurring cycle which had been established, namely my self-admonishment following an incident and thereafter my negative biases and visualisation preceding the subsequent attempts. Though I was persevering insofar as making another go at the exercise, I realised that my mental preparation for these subsequent attempts were seriously lacking, and proving detrimental to the process. I have simply been repeating the same action without making any alterations to the approach. As Albert Einstein is attributed as sagely positing, ‘the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results’. I realised that where visualisation is an integral part of success, so too it can be the pivot of ones downfall when used, subconsciously so in this case, adversely. I had been picturing things going wrong before I had even started. I have been replaying the negative sequences over and over in my mind so that these unfavourable outcomes had taken root. I also identified that my goal had moved from completing the technical exercise successfully to simply ‘not falling off’ or ‘surviving’ through the attempt. My focus had been utterly sullied and my performance was suffering as a result.

I have decided that over the next week, I will be placing particular emphasis on positive visualisation and focused, specific goal-setting in conjunction with diaphragmatic breathing (see my last article for more on this!) and working on those outside psychological factors feeding into my confidence levels in all areas.

Sometimes, we just need to step outside of ourselves a little to gain the perspective we need to adjust, recalibrate and dive back in with a fresh mindset!

Use your breath to improve mental clarity, boost energy and improve sleep

Diaphragmatic breathing, more commonly known as ‘deep breathing’ or ‘belly breathing’, occurs when the inhale and exhale of breath is controlled by the contraction and relaxing of the diaphragm. The diaphragm is the primary respiratory muscle and is the dome shaped muscle separating the thorax (chest) from the abdomen. The diaphragm plays a key role in effective breathing, and helps to give more power to empty your lungs, in turn creating more space for inspiration (taking air into the body). When we breathe deeply, the diaphragm is working effectively, evidenced by the expansion of our belly as we inhale through our nose, and the contraction of the belly as the diaphragm pushes the air back out. A good example of this technique at work is to observe the breathing patterns of a new born baby, you will notice how their chest rises and their belly expands gently as they inhale through the nose to fill the lungs, and the belly contracts as the air is pushed back out in exhalation. However, as we grow and begin to navigate the challenges of life, this instinctual breathing technique devolves and, more often than not, we find ourselves in a position where active effort must be undertaken to reinstate it.

Thoracic breathing, more commonly known as ‘shallow breathing’ or ‘chest breathing’, occurs when only minimal amount of air is drawn into the lungs through the mouth and rapidly expelled to various degrees of severity. In more serious cases, this rapid, shallow breathing is called tachypnea or where rapid but deep breathing occurs, this is called hyperventilation. Such breathing anomalies can occur due to stress and anxiety among other causes, and can have negative effects on both our physical and our mental wellbeing.

One such way in which this change in breathing impacts on our wellbeing is the influence which it has on our sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The interconnection can lead to a negative cycle whereby stressors detected by the SNS releases hormones which trigger certain responses, such as increased blood pressure, heart rate and – you guessed it – rapid, shallow breathing as the automatic nervous system (ANS) prepares the body to ‘fight, flee or freeze’. In turn, our breathing patterns communicate with our SNS to indicate a potential threat, with shallow breathing interpreted as a possible sign of trouble, causing the SNS to relay the message back to the adrenal glands and so the cycle continues in a negative spiral. Traditionally, our body’s acute stress response would be triggered in the face of genuine threat, enabling the body to react and preserve itself from danger. Once the threat was removed, the response would slow and our systems would equilibrate. However, due to the culture in modern society, our bodies are subjected to perpetual stressors, and so our systems are not afforded the time to recuperate, and this is further damaging our ability to regulate effectively as a result. The long-term effects of shallow breathing can be detrimental, including fatigue, headaches, aggravation of respiratory problems, may result in panic attacks and has been linked to severe cardiovascular illness.

Where shallow breathing alerts the SNS to distress and sets off a chain reaction that perpetuates maladaptive breathing habits, deep breathing, on the other hand, works to communicate with the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), which controls our relaxation response to calm signals to the ANS. The phenomenon whereby breathing acts as both a product of the messages received by our nervous system and an influence in those messages is part of what is commonly referred to as the Breath-Brain Feedback Loop.

Learning to control our breathing and taking active steps, such as implementing breathing exercises and breath ‘check-ins’ throughout the day to identify and correct your breathing technique, is imperative for our mental and physical health and offers huge benefits to our fitness, psychological resilience and our overall wellbeing. Diaphragmatic breathing can assist in lowering blood pressure, reducing heart rate and decreasing stress as well as centring our mental focus, improving sleep quality and fortifying our self-awareness and capacity for relaxation and mindful enjoyment of life, and boosting energy and mental clarity. Recent research also suggests that nasal breathing (breathing through your nose) is linked to cognitive functioning and can improve memory and that breathing through your nose in times of stress or panic may help to respond more quickly to the threat in your environment.

Try to incorporate some breathing exercises into your morning and night-time routines, to set yourself up both mentally and physically for the day ahead and to unburden yourself of the rigours of the day to prepare for quality rest, respectively. Yoga and meditation also focus on the regulation and control of breath and work towards establishing and re-learning effective breathing techniques. Over time, these efforts will become second nature, and will hopefully feed into a more balanced lifestyle in which the automation of our instincts become reinstated somewhat.

The following exercise known as the ‘Three-part breath’ when practised regularly may help to adapt thoracic breathing and encourage diaphragmatic breathing instead, and the associated benefits discussed above. This is a nice simple exercise and a good way to start if you are new to breathing exercises.

 

  1. Find a calm and quiet space.
  1. Sit in a comfortable chair with your back straight and supported with both feet on the floor or lie on the floor with a straight spine.
  1. Inhale deep through your nose and imagine the air filling your belly from the bottom up, allowing the belly to expand. Feel the breath fill slowly, right up through your rib cage, up through your chest until you are completely full.
  1. Slowly exhale in the opposite direction, allowing the air to escape first from your chest, then down through your rib cage and up from your belly. Contract your abdominal muscles to squeeze out every last drop of air to make as much space as possible for the next inhale.
  1. It may be helpful for the first few times to place one hand lightly on your belly and the other hand on your rib cage to encourage and connect with the direction of the inhalation and exhalation.
  1. Begin by practicing for one minute and then gradually build this up to five minutes.

And remember, when life throws challenges your way, Just Breathe.

 

References

 

Calm Clinic. (n.d.). Hyperventilation: *The* Anxiety Attack Symptom. Retrieved July 19th, 2018 from https://www.calmclinic.com/anxiety/symptoms/hyperventilation

Gorman, J. M., Askanazi, J., Liebowitz, M. R., Fyer, A. J., Stein, J., Kinney, J. M., & Klein, D. F. (1984). Response to hyperventilation in a group of patients with panic disorder. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 141(7), 857-861. http://dx.doi.org/10.1176/ajp.141.7.857

Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School. (n.d.). Understanding the stress response. Retrieved July 19th, 2018 from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response

Holt, P. E., & Andrews, G. (1989). Hyperventilation and anxiety in panic disorder, social phobia, GAD and normal controls. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 27(4), 453-460. https://doi.org/10.1016/0005-7967(89)90016-8

MacKinnon, M. (2016). The Science of Slow Deep Breathing. Retrieved July 19th, 2018 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/neuraptitude/201602/the-science-slow-deep-breathing

MacMillan, A. (2016). Take a Deep Breath: Inhaling the Right Way May Improve Your Memory. Retrieved July 19th, 2018 from https://www.health.com/mind-body/breathing-memory-fear

Rapee, R. M. (1986). Differential response to hyperventilation in panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 95(1), 24. 24-28. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0021-843X.95.1.24

Rifkin, R. (n.d.). How shallow breathing affects your whole body. Retrieved July 19th, 2018 from https://www.headspace.com/blog/2017/08/15/shallow-breathing-whole-body/

Young Diggers. (n.d.). The fight or flight response: Our body’s response to stress. Retrieved July 19th, 2018 from http://www.youngdiggers.com.au/fight-or-flight

Zelano, C., Jiang, H., Zhou, G., Arora, N., Schuele, S., Rosenow, J., & Gottfried, J. A. (2016). Nasal respiration entrains human limbic oscillations and modulates cognitive function. Journal of Neuroscience, 36(49), 12448-12467. https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2586-16.2016

 

 

 

Are you a Boss or a Leader?

In an article published by Harvard Business Review (2018), some of the top ‘People’ people at Facebook discuss employee retention and share their findings on the key factors that managers should focus on to retain top talent and nurture loyalty.

The research identifies 3 key ways that managers can enhance the experience of their employees and ultimately retain top talent:

  1. Enable employees to do work they enjoy
  2. Help employees play to their strengths
  3. Carve a path for career development that accommodates personal priorities

As the old adage goes, ‘People quit bosses, not jobs.’ I find the theme of unsupportive and limiting management styles a common one in coaching my clients, and the impact that this can have on an organisation (burnout, high turnover, drain on time and economic resources, disillusionment, loss of cohesion and declined performance) is monumental.

Some people may have good natural inclinations for people management, but more often than not, and even with ‘natural talent’, management skills need work. Simply promoting a stellar performer into a management role is not a recipe for success. We must appreciate the importance of supporting and developing our managers, so that they can in turn cultivate a progressive culture from the top down.

If you are losing talent, productivity is diminishing or performance is dipping, it may be time to ask – are you promoting Bosses or Leaders?

I’ve written the following little verse to illustrate the point so that hopefully it may stick in your mind!

 

A Leader elevates, educates and motivates

A Boss intimidates, directs and alienates

To motivate staff one must contribute, encourage and be seen

Not simply bark commands from a corner office and harass one’s team

A Leader does so by example, by demonstration and design

A Boss penalises, criticises and micromanages your time

To get the best out of people you must give them room to breathe and grow

As a Boss, fear, doubt and resentment are the only seeds you’ll sow

To avoid high turnover, improve loyalty and culture innovation

Next time try collaboration, unification and open communication!

 

 

Gale, L., Goler, L., Grant, A., Harrington, B. (2018). Why People Really Quit Their Jobs. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved July 19th, 2018, from https://hbr.org/2018/01/why-people-really-quit-their-jobs

 

 

Calming the Chaos: Mindfulness in the Modern Whirlwind

Too many of us can get sucked into the chaotic pace of modern life, constantly racing to simply survive the day, living for the weekend, counting days, weeks, months to vacation or pockets of solace, a ‘break’ from our lives. We are conditioned to always look forward, to chase – qualifications, promotions, social and professional status upgrades, car, partner, marriage, house, children, better house, better car, better status – it never ends.

Until it does.

And therein lies the problem; our societal values are misguided. We need to educate ourselves and the generations to come on the value and importance of self-care, mindfulness and the capacity to acknowledge, appreciate and enjoy the process, the journey, the experience. Life must be lived in the present if we are to create a life of value and fulfilment. A life lived in the future brings only hollowness, and much as a car cannot run on fumes, nor can we humans run on empty. Failure to engage with our lives in a meaningful way, to truly participate in our daily routines rather than merely complete the day, encourages a mindset focused only on surviving, never allowing us the space to thrive and flourish.

Try to infuse the hectic flurry of your day with a little calm and peace. Here are some simple tips for calming your mind and establishing balance and mindful participation in your day:

 

  1. Take the time in the morning to start your day with a breathing exercise to centre your mind and fortify your mind and body for the tasks ahead.
  2. Wake up a few minutes earlier and have your coffee sitting at your table, reading a few pages of a book or simply meditating, rather than grabbing a coffee amidst the chaos of your commute.
  3. Implement a ‘technology curfew’ an hour before bed to free your mind of the associations of the day, and to give your body time to switch off and decompress to encourage more rested sleep to recover from the day.
  4. Practise gratitude by writing down or saying out loud each morning one thing you are looking forward to that day, and at night before you go to bed, do the same but this time something you were grateful for that happened during the day.

 

Simple changes can have a big impact, and provide a solid, manageable foundation for greater changes in the long run.

 

Life is more than a checklist.  

Decision-Making: Rational or Emotional?

Are you stuck in a rut, miserable in your job, unhappy with your weight/health/fitness levels, stressed out and fed up?

Are you making any changes to improve your situation?

Or are you trapped in the prison of inaction?

So many of us settle, ‘put up and shut up’ – or worse – continue to lament, whine and labour about how miserable we are, without ever taking any strategic action to change our situation.

There are several factors that influence our decision-making processes and the follow on from those decisions, namely our willingness and likelihood of effectuating the necessary changes to realise our goal and see those decisions through to fruition.

Status quo bias is a cognitive bias which deals with our preference for the familiar and a resistance to change. This bias can play a role in decision inertia (failure to make objective decisions based on the information at hand in favour of repeating old decision patterns, in other words staying the same rather than making an active informed choice) and is one of the underlying influences in our decision-making (or indecision) behaviours which can lead to stagnation, failure to capitalise on opportunities, and at times negative consequences, due to our aversion to change.

Research shows that people feel greater regret for unfavourable outcomes resultant of change than for consequences resulting from inaction and that “losses loom greater than gains” (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979,1982). Loss aversion is one of the primary tenets underpinning Prospect Theory.

Sunk Cost Fallacy builds on these theories and describes how our rationality in respect of decision making is interfered with by the emotional values we ascribe to the factual data. Put simply, we find it difficult to separate the knowledge of our investment (time, money, efforts) into something from the objective realities of its benefit yield. This may explain why you may find it difficult to move on from an organisation for which you have spent a significant portion of your working life, even if it makes you miserable. Why we don’t cancel that weekend break even though we are sick, because rather than taking the rational decision of writing off the deposit to reschedule for a time when we can maximise our benefit from the holiday, we proceed with the additional costs for a trip that we are not healthy enough to enjoy. Why we continue to eat beyond the point of enjoyment, often to a point of discomfort, when we order too much, rather than ‘waste’ food for which we have already paid.

Fear of change is great and caution of the unknown indeed serves a purpose in protecting our security and ability to meet with our obligations. However, when caution extends beyond rational consideration and our emotional responses begin to interfere with our ability to logically assess our situation, we wind up in a place of fraught inhibition. Over-cautiousness and hyper-sensitivity to our emotional impulses of fear, aversion and doubt can have a devastating impact on our ability to progress and to flourish. Failure to identify the difference between reasonable risk and carelessness can sensor our capacity to listen to our gut, to afford ourselves the opportunity to succeed, to develop and to learn, and all too often can cost us our happiness.

It is important to build the tools to gain confidence in our ability to decipher appropriate risk, and to have faith in our abilities to succeed. We are often much better at identifying our shortcomings and knowledge gaps than at emphasising our strengths and capacity for development and learning. If you have been feeling stuck or lost in your current situation, it is time to shift your focus and energy to clearly defining your goal and identifying the necessary changes that you must make in order to reach that goal. Dreams are destined to remain so if we do not take the tangible steps to translate those ideals into a goals, and to catalyse that transformation, you must have a plan; clear visualisation of where you want to be, the necessary requirements to effectuate that reality, identifying the skills and resources at your disposal and the steps you must take to bridge the gaps along the way. Not taking action is a decision to remain unfulfilled. Decide one way or the other – either own your decision to remain as you are, and take steps to improve your situation within its current confines, or make the decision to change your situation and commit to action. The worst thing we can possibly do in this life is to waste our opportunities by allowing life to happen to us. Take back the reins and assume ownership of your own direction.

Conservative analysis takes us only so far, and then comes confidence and self-belief. After all, as Erin Hanson so adroitly encapsulates the sentiment;

 

“What if I fall? Oh, but my darling, what if you fly?”

How to get SMART about your goals.

Dreams.

We all have them. They may change or transform over time, but in our innermost thoughts, we all hold on to those shimmering desires that make our hearts race and our gut ache and our head spin. Dreams vary in scope and scale in as many variations as there are individuals. Some dream ‘big’, others ‘small’; some expansively and others relatively. Wherever you fall on the dream scale, we are all alike in entertaining a vision beyond the scope of our current reality. What differs, however, is our willingness and effectiveness in turning those dreams into goals, and those goals into a reality.

How do you begin to effectively begin to ‘work on a dream’?

The first step in realising any dream begins with the mindset of believing it can be done. When we engage the idea that our dreams are possible, we alter our perception of those dreams and our mind begins to work in solutions. Visualising ourselves in that position, achieving our dreams, functions as a kind of permission to ourselves; when we imagine our dreams coming true we grant ourselves permission to believe in the possibility, and in doing so, we set the wheels in motion for devising ways to make that happen.

So what catalyses dreams to become reality?

In order to make our dreams come true, we need to take them out of our head and get them onto paper. Dreams that become reality first must become goals. Goal setting is a vital part of the process for effectively transitioning dreams into reality, and for goal setting to be effective rather than a languishing ‘wish list’, clarity is key. This may sound obvious, but many people do not take the time to really think clearly and definitively about what they wish to achieve. To devise and execute a successful strategy for achieving your goals, you must have a clear vision of what you wish to achieve, why you want to achieve it and the dedication to make it happen. You must sit down and really think about what specifically it is you wish to achieve, what your motivations are, what is involved in pursuing that goal and your willingness to endure it. You must perform a thorough and realistic analysis of the costs and limitations so as to adequately prepare for any challenges and potential obstacles. Only then can you begin to create a strategy for getting to work.

SMART Goals: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely.

The SMART Goals model is an effective tool for goal setting and strategy conception, which will lay the foundation for clarity, accountability, appraisal and performance.

Specific: As I have mentioned above, in order to effectively work towards a goal, you must have absolute clarity around what that goal is. Defining your goals in specific detail will enable you to accurately analyse the requirements for attaining that goal and the resources and input involved, which will garner you with a realistic view of the task at hand and allow you to craft an appropriate strategy.

Measurable: You must be able to track your progress. Milestones and benchmarks are important indicators of progress. Awareness of deficiencies in the plan or shortfalls in the execution and dedication to the strategy are crucial for accountability and flexibility for long term success. Acknowledging and celebrating milestones are vital for sustaining motivation in the long run and preventing burnout, frustration or disillusionment.

Attainable: In order for a strategy to be successful, the ultimate goal must be achievable. Striving for the ‘big picture’ goal is an ambitious undertaking, and in the case of lofty or expansive visions, chunking these down into attainable phases is often the most effective way to effectuate the attainment of the big picture goal as this will nurture sustainable motivation and sense of fulfilment in the short term, essential for long term stamina.

Relevant: Goal setting and pursuit takes time, energy, sacrifice and patience. Make sure that the goals you are setting for yourself and into which you are channelling your resources (time, money, energy, emotional, physical, psychological) are goals that hold true value for you, and align with your values. This may appear to go without saying, however many of us invest so much into chasing goals and dreams that may not be our own; we can often find ourselves influenced by external pressures, norms and trends, chasing a vision with which we do not authentically relate, whether it be to fulfil the wishes of our parents, our family, a partner, to conform with societal dictations or to impress our peers or colleagues. This is part of the reason why it is so important to clearly understand our motivations that drive our ambitions and the underlying reasons for the goals we set ourselves.

Timely: It is important to set targets within which you wish to achieve your goals. This ensures ongoing commitment and progression, avoiding complacency, losing sight of the end goal and compromising on your true passions through the distraction and urgency of other life events.

Remember, we choose our own boundaries; we can either impose limitations on our dreams, focusing on the obstacles and making excuses, or set about making those dreams a reality through tangible measures and sustained effort.

Which will it be – a daydream or a plan of action?

I’m working on a dream

Though sometimes it feels so far away

I’m working on a dream

And I know it will be mine someday

 Bruce Springsteen, ‘Workin’ on a Dream’

This is why we need Feminism.

I recently attended an event for women in business with some female friends. I recently quit my job to pursue a business venture and establish my own psychology and coaching practise, my friend has been Managing Director of her own successful business for some years, and her friend in turn has recently gone out on her own having curated an accomplished reputation in her own respective industry. It is fair to assert that we are educated, independent and ambitious ladies.

Following insightful individual presentations and a stimulating panel discussion delivered by four charismatic and accomplished women, the floor was opened to questions. The audience, a cohort of intelligent, industrious ladies gathered with the shared motivation to seek inspiration, guidance and witty, intellectual wisdom from like-minded women, posed poignant questions to the panel, and interesting conversation ensued. On the topic of leadership and decisiveness, one woman referenced a lecture delivered by a celebrated academic which she had attended, wherein it was discussed that throughout history, men have seemingly made better leaders, quite possibly due to their ability to employ decisive strategy and commit to their decisions. Women, on the other hand, appear to waste much time on deliberation, with a deficient capacity for trusting their gut. How is it, this woman raised, that women appear to hesitate in trusting their gut, and struggle with indecision, when it is acknowledged that of the sexes, we are generally more emotionally intelligent? Shouldn’t logic dictate that this would serve to alleviate concerns or doubts about our emotional and gut reactions? After all, research tells us that decision making is an emotional process, not a logical one. And as we know, in business (as in life), making a decision – ANY decision – is better than not making one at all. The Q&A continued much in this fashion, with thought-provoking questions leading to reciprocally interesting conversation.

And then.

For the final question, a seemingly confident young woman took the microphone as we turned our focus eagerly to her in expectance of a satisfying dessert for thought to fittingly finish an empowering and intellectually fulfilling morning. She began by introducing herself and her business, then proceeded to proclaim that she had a confession to share, rather than a question to pose. As she continued to her confession, the air in the room sizzled with scarcely suppressed disdain and palpable shock and appal. This young, outwardly bright and confident professional woman stood in a room of similarly educated, ambitious women, and declared that up until a few weeks ago, she had been under the impression that men were more intelligent than women. She discussed how she is currently struggling with this belief, and though her previous conviction has faltered, she has not yet been able to accept that women and men share equal capacity for intelligence. A stilted silence hung briefly in the air before the panel composed their thoughts enough to formulate a sensitive response with a firm message to assure her that her unfortunate misconception was of course untrue.

As I sat there, taking this in, my first feelings were reactionary. I turned to my friends in disbelief and pure incredulity; they stared back at me with mirrored expressions of wide-eyed awe. As my brain fought to process the information it was receiving, I could barely contain my confusion, then my disdain.

Later that day, the event remained burning at the fore of my thoughts. I couldn’t stop running it over in my mind, grappling desperately with the revelation that had unravelled before me in the most unlikely of places, a forum for ambitious women to share experiences, learn from other successful females and collaborate with one another in a professionally driven social environment. I am sorry to admit that it wasn’t until I recounted the story to my husband that evening, with a sentiment of disgust, that I realised the profound sadness of the reality of what had transpired. After I had explained the incident, my husband’s response was to admonish my reaction, asking ‘don’t you think it’s sad that through her experiences, a young woman has been lead to hold such a damaging untruth as a core belief?’. I stopped dead in my tracks. He was right.

I am ashamed at how badly I missed the mark, here. As a female and a feminist, it saddens me that I reacted so wrongly. As I ruminated on my mental misstep, and the wider issue of what I had witnessed, I began to realise that, in many ways, those of us who have grown up with a fierce and deeply rooted awareness of our own equality and strength as women are the anomaly. In the face of persistent actions, behaviours and traditions that challenge this truth, from degrading and intimidating cat calls to the random ‘give us a smile, love’ commands of strangers; from the pressure of ‘pretty’ to the ‘leave the heavy lifting to the boys’; from the pay gaps to the glass ceiling and everything in between, is it any wonder that even in 2017, there are young, educated, professional, ambitious women who have been conditioned to feel an underlying sense of insecurity, of unworthiness, of second class citizenship as compared with their male counterparts?

This is why we need feminism. This is why we need to push and fight and not lay down and accept glacial convalescence of a broken and deeply twisted system. This is why we must Repeal the Eight, abolish the pay gap and demonstrate to our mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, colleagues and friends that we are equal. We are strong. We are intelligent. We are capable. We are united.

And we will not be diminished any longer.

What would you do if the world was ending?

‘What are you doing today?’

‘If the world was ending, and you had just this last day on earth, what would you do?’

How many of us, I wonder, could truthfully answer these two questions with the same response? My guess is not many, if any.

With the exception of those with a hidden penchant for apocalyptic anarchy à la The Purge, this begs further inquiry. (We will leave this subcategory undisturbed, or rather, disturbed without interruption, as I believe the treatment of those issues, in my capacity as a personal and business development psychologist, lie just beyond the scope of my reach!). Because, without trying to get too philosophical on this, technically, every day the world is ending. Ending for someone, ending for several someones. Ending in the definitive, finite sense of concept, and ending in the shades of grey between, when catastrophic and subtle shifts alike change everything, and the world as you’ve always known it transforms utterly and completely in a moment, and that old world ceases to exist, making you question if it ever did.

And so this brings me to the reasons behind this disconnect. Why, when life is so uncertain, so unstable and so incredibly volatile, do we continue to lead our lives in such a way that we prioritise the mundane, the prosaic and the routine? Why do the overwhelming majority consistently supress our true desires, neglect our most organic pleasures and pursue the path most travelled by?

Fear.

It appears that somewhere along the way, a detrimental group delusion has been established and continues to be perpetuated generation after generation. For many, subscription to the status quo takes root in the religious and cultural conditioning to which many have been and continue to be exposed. Particularly in Ireland, where state and religion continue to be dubiously synonymous, we have all borne witness to the hard sell of ‘moral’ values and obligations. The reach and extent of religious and political subjugation in this country is an animal entirely its own, a topic relevant to this article yet potentially divergent in its complexity, thus I will not delve into a detailed dissection of this meaty little controversy catalyst at this time. Suffice it to say, we are all aware of the pervasive and innumerous framework of rules and judgments imposed by religious teachings and sympathetic political policies. We are taught from an early age to adhere to the guidelines with stoicism and without questioning. We must fall in line, keep our heads down and, ultimately ‘play it safe’; be ‘good’ citizens, ‘good’ people. Ignoring the obvious rampant hypocrisy, I have to wonder about the manifestation of these early and continuous teachings, about how they shape our world perspective and our personal aspirations, beliefs and behaviour in the long term. Similarly, and perhaps (likely), not unrelatedly we as a society appear to uphold and perpetuate restrictively narrow views on which lifestyles, behaviours and choices constitute acceptable, correct and ‘good’ decisions. This mindset applies to varying degrees on a spectrum of matters ranging from the profound (e.g. human rights and respect for the entitlements of others) to the seemingly insignificant, yet often impactful, represented in the judgmental remarks, snide comments and character assassination that occurs on a regular basis, with the collective power to deter and demoralise the recipients and/or the subjects of such commentary. How many times, I wonder, have we each let opportunity pass us by, denied our hearts and our guts, for fear of upsetting the expectations of societal norms, and/or incurring the wrath of the inevitable ridicule, disparaging monologues and the risk of ‘failure’? I would venture a guess of countless.

We are all aware that nothing in this life is guaranteed, especially the continuation of our individual existence. Yet, the acuteness of this awareness appears to have been collectively dulled. We place higher priority on the fleeting opinions of others than the observance of our own mortality. This, to me, is a bizarre reality with which I struggle to come to terms. It is fascinating to me that we, myself included, continue to choose preoccupation with the insignificant over the profound. We submit to being gorgonised by the banal; job stability, status anxiety, aesthetic presentation; yet we resist the opportunity to be galvanised by the constant potential imminence of our mortality. We have become so afraid of making mistakes that we refuse to take liberating action. So averse are we to the ‘risks’ of instability and change within the confines of our attenuated world view that we are failing on a significant scale to take advantage of our exiguous stint here on the continuum of existence.

In the end, whenever and however that end may come, none of this will matter. Not even the extent to which we exploited or squandered our individual time, opportunities and existence. We will cease to be, and in time, so will our legacy as those who hold our memory also fade. All that matters is right now, today. With grace and luck, there may be a tomorrow, but even so, there is no guarantee that tomorrow’s world will resemble that which we know today. It is wise to observe certain practices for the assurance of our future – investing our time and our other resources well for the benefit of our future life trajectory. I am not suggesting that we all throw hazard to the wind and spontaneously combust in a blaze of irresponsible impulsivity, quite the contrary, rather. I simply hope that this journalistic soliloquy may ground your fears, and in some small way, encourage you to take a step back to take the perspective of the big picture – however briefly – and feel inspired to extinguish that fear of rejection, of ridicule; to ignore the rules of acceptableness and ‘good’ sense, and to set the wheels in motion to take that chance that has been burning in the embers of your heart for as long as you can remember, and fan it into a conflagration that consumes your doubts.

 

The Purpose of Life and the Quest for Success.

‘Life is too short; It’s all or nothing; Go hard or go home; Stay positive; Be Happy

How often do we read echoes of these sentiments in the multitude of mindfulness centred, self-improvement driven and life coach guidance posts, tweets, books and ethereal InstagramXTumblr posts of wide-eyed idealists, soul searchers and happiness hunters?

A self-classified hybrid of equal parts staunch pragmatist and boundless optimist, the contradictory poles of my emotional and psychological proclivities make for interesting meanders across the nexus of the mindset spectrum. Some days I am 110% motivation, hustle and drive; my focus is laser precise and my vision is HD. Other days, I find myself staring out the window, watching the morning scurry of the worker bees, the suit and ties, the uniforms and the everything-in-betweens, and I find myself high-tailing down the contemplative rabbit hole, considering the purpose of it all, or if there even is one. We are constantly bombarded with directives to ‘be’; happy, positive, successful, humanitarian, (the list goes on) – however, has the omnipotent call to action for us to find our ‘purpose’ and act on it (‘NOW’, nonetheless) driven us to a flurry of misguided activity that lacks engagement and understanding of what motivates us, and what sustains us?

Yesterday I listened to a podcast hosted by a scientist debating the potential implications of the developments in Artificial Intelligence for the masses, from the dystopian to the utopian. For a segment of the discussion, the speaker contemplated the potential benefits to humankind whereby the application of AI to serve our logistical and functional societal needs could give rise to a world of abundance; where ‘work’ is no longer necessary, yet so too does income become irrelevant as the community needs are met by the servitude of our AI counterparts. In this utopian outlook, humans become free to explore and enjoy other pleasures such as spending time with friends and family, travel, reading, sport, etc. Considering the possibilities of this proposed New World Order, I found myself wondering about how humankind would cope in the long term with an abundance of time with which to indulge ourselves, free from the material obligations imposed upon us in our current standing. So many of us feel that our careers, our life’s work, are synonymous with our lifetime goals and major achievements; for many, our professional path provides more than a revenue stream, it becomes a definitive extension of our personality, our identity and our purpose. If this concept and ritual were to be removed, would the paradigm of purpose shift to full time hedonism? Or is the pleasure that we experience when engaging in our preferred leisure pursuits and interests proportionate to the limited availability and opportunity to experience them; does the anticipation and delayed gratification govern the ultimate extent of perceived pleasure?

Have you ever taken an extended break from work or a long holiday, and after the initial novelty of relaxation, exploration and disconnection has worn off, began to look forward to returning to your daily grind and routine? Conversely, we look forward to holidays with much more vigour and anticipation when the time elapsed since our last vacation or downtime has been considerably longer, whereas vacations placed closer together illicit a more blasé lead time. Similarly, for those members of the upper echelons of society who currently or previously enjoy the benefits of a relatively serviced lifestyle, is part of the pleasure not derived from the distinction of hierarchy? The mere fact that they get to experience something that others cannot contributing to the overall experience?  If so, and if we were to find ourselves in this fully-serviced, utopian land of boundless abundance, how quickly do you think eternal leisure and instant gratification would lose its shine? If wars were ended, hunger sated and inequalities eradicated, would we continue our quest for a greater ‘purpose’? Would the result be satisfaction or saturation, and what would be the implications on our psyche as a whole?

In my swirling cloud of contemplation, I was struck by the simple and profound thought that purpose is that such as reality; absolute in its subjection and as mythical, tangible and transformative to the extent to which we appropriate. Perhaps, then, there is no ‘purpose’ to the universe, other than that which we give to it – we are all walking, breathing illusionists, giving rise to ‘realities’ through our internal processes and external reactions, based on the dynamic feedback loop of our emotional, psychological and physical interactions with the world around us. We have all heard the term ‘perception is reality’ regarding the manner in which we each process the same informational input differently, according to a myriad of unique influences and biases formed through personal experience, psychological, biological and emotional differences. These differences mould and filter the input so that the implications and analysis of the input registers uniquely for each of us, and these variations in interpretation can be subtle or significant.

So. How can this web of philosophical procrastination be harnessed as a utility for improving the way in which we live our lives, the actions we take to give our lives meaning and our pursuit of that meaning so as to create a positive, progressive and fulfilling landscape for our life trajectories? This is where that old chestnut of ‘balance’ comes into play. It seems that as we progress through the ages, the focus increasingly shifts towards an emphasis on more. Better, faster, longer, skinnier, richer, more passport stamps, more clothes, more promotions, more degrees, more relaxation, more meditation, more, more, more. Yet, we are in such a blinkered race to more, that we are eclipsing the perilously underrated profundity of enough; and more importantly, of balance. Specialisation and clarity are important, however diversity and expansion are crucial. In all areas of life, it is a condemning shortfall to restrict your participation and energies to one element, and to syphon your resources to the exclusion of concomitantly diverse balancing experiences, relationships and education. In your quest to pursue your ‘purpose’, I urge you to consider the rich tapestry of life that lies available to us all. Narrowing your focus so that you obscure your peripheral vision could result in missed opportunities far greater than the target in your scope. It is important to remain open, present and inquisitive, and to nurture and develop a dynamic and adaptable approach to all elements of life, for you never know from whence the next life changing spark will enkindle. But most importantly, in the insatiable quest for success, purpose and contribution, try to make some purchase on the here and now, and, once in a while, to allow yourself to just simply ‘be’, full stop.