Life is a work in progress

 Facilitating change, Setting and achieving goals  Comments Off on Life is a work in progress
Dec 242013

Well, here we are at Week 52. 2013 has come and practically gone. How has it been for you?

I had high hopes for this year and not all of them have been fulfilled, but I still feel far more stable and positive than I usually do in December. I think the big difference is I finally have the sense of having made genuine progress. For so long I’ve been stuck in a strange sort of sleep-walking cycle of making fantasy ‘plans’ that I know will come to nothing (because I’m going to sabotage them), living a few months pretending I believe in them, while making no concrete effort towards them, and sliding into frustration and depression at the end of the year because I’m no further on than I was twelve months ago.

For the first time since about 1994, this year I did things differently. I analysed my fantasies and separated the goals I really wanted from the ones that I’d set up only to sabotage and bring myself down. Then I made realistic action plans and worked towards them. All the while, I was also being very strict with myself in terms of not allowing negative thoughts to pass through my mind unchallenged. Gradually, I’ve changed my outlook and taken more and more control of my own destiny. It works! Turning around a life that had run aground as deeply as mine had is not something that can be achieved overnight but the secret is to cultivate patience and optimism, while making sure you are actually moving and not just sitting there waiting for someone else to rescue you.

Something I’ve found useful is to keep a diary. This helps me to focus my thoughts and feelings, and it also gives me a record of the journey I’m on. I’ve been writing at least a page at the end of every day since 1st January 2008 and, whenever I get disheartened about the slow pace of my recovery, I look back over my entries from a few years ago and I see that, in fact, I’ve come much further than I’d remembered.

Small changes can yield enormous results, given enough time. Recovery is a process, not an event. As we head into 2014, keep your eyes on your destination, the life you want for yourself. I hope you too feel you’ve moved some way towards it during 2013 but, satisfied or not with your progress this year, you can certainly make the next twelve months count. Discipline is crucial – keep up the good work and you’ll thank yourself later – and so is self-nurturing. This may sound contradictory but it isn’t at all. If your goals are good ones, truly your heart’s desire, then keeping yourself on track is obviously in your interest. Equally, loving, valuing and respecting yourself are fundamental both to identifying the right goals and to getting you there. Discipline and self-nurturing combine to form the carrot that I find so much more effective as a motivator than the stick.

So, there we are: the last post in this blog. Thanks for reading and I hope you’ve found something in it to help you. Best wishes for the Christmas season and may 2014 be even more successful and fulfilling for you than 2013 has been.

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Healthy body, healthy mind

 Facilitating change, Health  Comments Off on Healthy body, healthy mind
Dec 172013

Body and mind, mind and body… they’re linked in a myriad mysterious ways and we can’t hope to achieve health in one if we ignore the other. True health flows from the balance and harmony of body and mind.

A healthy mind understands the importance of a healthy body and enjoys nurturing the body’s health. When I was depressed, saw myself solely as a mind; my body was no more than the vehicle that carried my mind around and I neglected it. As a result, I put on five and a half stone, my skin became rough and I went down with a cold or virus every few weeks. Now that my mind is in much better shape, I’ve lost most of that weight, my skin has cleared up beautifully and I get ill only two or three times a year. And I feel much more integrated, whole and, well, normal.

Keeping your body fit and healthy is an act of love that you owe yourself. Your body is you and if you don’t value yourself it can be difficult to give your body the kind of attention it needs. In fact, the tug can be to punish ourselves by eating too much or too little, by exercising too hard or not at all, by overdosing on alcohol or taking drugs, by staying up late and sleeping in the daytime, by failing to wash or groom, even by cutting or otherwise self-harming.

Taking out your misery, frustration, fear and whatever else afflicts you on your body is the opposite of the solution. Even if we can fool ourselves these things make us feel slightly better at the time, over the long term they make everything so much worse. Yes, we have to stop hiding in self-abuse and face the underlying problem but, hand in hand with that, we also have to start treating our body with the respect it deserves. What’s so great about this is that as soon as you really get serious about looking after your body, your mind will begin to reap the rewards and you’ll be onto an upward spiral. Investing in your physical self will pay dividends to your mental self as well, dividends which can swiftly be reinvested in the body and more return generated. The positive result is guaranteed – provided you don’t sabotage the process. If your heart isn’t in it, if your mind is playing games and you’re going through the motions without really meaning it, without putting any love into it, it’s not going to work. In this case, all you’re doing is proving to yourself that the world stinks, just as you knew it did. If this is your secret purpose, don’t bother trying. You might as well stay on the sofa with your whisky, pizza and spliff – or whatever your poison is – because nothing is going to improve for you until you can find what it takes to give yourself a chance.

Once you genuinely start to nurture yourself, the process will gather momentum. Of course, you’ll have bad days and progress will zigzag but it will zigzag in an upwardly direction. Be patient, stick with it. Your new self may take a while to emerge from its chrysalis. But, in the meantime, the inherent advantages of eating well, being physically active, getting enough sleep and so on, should be a constant encouragement. The lift brought about by endorphins, the money you save on medicine and skin-care, the gradual realisation that you’ve got more energy and stamina and that, in fact, life isn’t such a struggle as it used to be, will all lead you inexorably to a permanently better state of mind.

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Thinking outside the box

 Facilitating change, Setting and achieving goals  Comments Off on Thinking outside the box
Oct 292013

A trip to the dentist a few days ago reminded me of the value of thinking outside the box. I’ve always hated having my teeth X-rayed because the equipment is somewhat cumbersome and I gag on it, turning what should be a quick and efficient process into an ordeal. Imagine my relief, therefore, when my erstwhile torturer suggested we try a new approach this time and took the shots with me sitting up instead of lying down. The upright position allowed me to breathe more easily and to feel more in control and the images were done before I’d even had time to worry about it.

How often in life do we force ourselves to endure and struggle through tasks and experiences that really needn’t be so difficult? Speaking for myself, when I come up against an obstacle, my first (and often only) idea is to push harder and harder, to whip myself on until somehow I blunder out the other side. I chastise myself for being feeble, lazy, cowardly – whatever fits the situation – but it very rarely occurs to me that perhaps I could do this differently. I’m aware, at one level, that if I always do what I’ve always done, I’ll always get what I’ve always got, but my answer always seems to be try harder!

If at first you don’t succeed, stand back and look at the big picture. Start by analysing the objective: what are you trying to achieve? Is it actually feasible? And necessary? To take a banal example, if you want to tidy this room, you might try to shove all the extraneous stuff into that cupboard. It won’t fit. And there is absolutely no point in keeping on trying to make it fit, getting crosser and more frustrated as the door won’t shut and every time you open it something falls out. You’re failing not because you’re rubbish at stashing things but because it’s a bad plan. So change it.

This is a lesson I’m still in the process of learning but it’s such a useful one. I’m grateful to my dentist, both for finding a solution to the X-ray problem and for prompting me to shake up my own thinking.

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Embracing change (2)

 Facilitating change, Sense of self  Comments Off on Embracing change (2)
Sep 172013

Last week I was talking about the need to embrace external change. Today I want to address the need to foster change on the inside too.

As AL Kennedy indicates in the episode of Radio 4’s A Point of View I quoted last time, one reason people are resistant to changes taking place around them is that they result in changes to their own identity. If I am accustomed to having status, money and a spouse, the removal of one or more of those will cause me huge emotional upheaval, not just in coming to terms with the new situation but also in recalibrating my sense of who I am.

As Ms Kennedy also points out, during times of uncertainty people often become more superstitious, turning to fortune tellers and tarot readers for guidance. Gambling is another area where people seek solace from life’s turmoil. In both cases, magical thinking becomes a refuge from reality and provides a spurious impression of being able to engineer the future we want. The problem with putting one’s faith in ‘psychics’ and tipsters is that it involves giving away the power (and responsibility) we have to shape our own destiny.

Instead of trying to control the world by resisting change or trying to steal a march on Fate in some mystical manner, we need to focus our energy on shoring up our own psyche and building our resilience and confidence. If I have a strong sense of who I am, rooted in me and not in my external circumstances, I will be less shaken by a change in those circumstances. This is not to say I won’t still be terribly sad or angry, but I won’t have my Self thrown into question.

If we get too hung up on labels and pigeon holes, we can end up stifling growth, in ourselves and others. It’s easy to go along with the stereotypes written by parents and friends – A is the clever one, B is the sporty one, C is the attractive one, and so on – but this is just another example of people wanting to understand the world around them and know what to expect from it. ‘Positive’ labels such as the ones I’ve mentioned are better than negative ones, of course, but they come with a lot of pressure to perform and, less obviously, they can be restrictive in not allowing the people to experiment in other fields. Within groups and families, those without the reputation for achievement in a given area can feel there’s no point in even trying. Good at something or bad at it, our destiny is already charted if we accept these labels.

Once we realise the power we have to change ourselves and be who we want to be, it becomes much easier to accept external change. The key to peace and happiness is knowing that we will be all right whatever comes our way. We can’t control what life throws at us but we can control how we handle it.

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Try something new for 30 days

 Facilitating change, Setting and achieving goals  Comments Off on Try something new for 30 days
Jul 022013

A few weeks ago, I was discussing the pros and cons of a single-minded approach to moving life forward (see Are you fighting on too many fronts?). Some goals lend themselves better to the full-immersion quick fix than others, of course, but the short, hard push has a great deal to recommend it, as is shown here in this 3.5-minute talk about what can be achieved in 30 days:

Matt Cutts: TED Talk

I agree with Matt Cutts that the 30-day commitment can be an excellent way to make things happen, on two levels. Firstly, it’s a useful method for introducing small, sustainable changes, such as taking the stairs instead of the lift. Often, the only obstacles to adopting better habits are inertia and psychological concern about the effort involved. In these cases, trying something for 30 days can be quite enjoyable because it’s different and we can anticipate the satisfaction of achieving a short-term goal. Once we’ve been doing whatever it is for a month, though, our synapses will have changed, we’ll realise it really isn’t such an effort after all and the good habit can stick.

As Matt says, if you really want something badly enough, you can do anything for 30 days. This is true but it’s crucial that we really want it; it’s no good trying this with things you believe you ‘should’ do because, even if you make it to the end of the month, the chances are there will be no long-term advantage. For this reason, I don’t advocate Matt’s idea of negative goals – cutting out sugar, not watching the news – if that’s all they are. As he found himself, Day 31 after no sugar for four weeks was a splurge, which does nobody any good. Subtracting things you like from your life feels like a punishment and is not inspiring. Cutting out whatever it is is never the true goal, so look beyond and identify what it is you want to achieve. For example, instead of “to consume no sugar”, what you really want may be “to have healthy, glowing skin” or “to get into those trousers I love but that have become a bit snug”. Obviously, taking the stairs instead of the lift is not the ultimate goal either – it’s a small change that takes us closer to the big goal of being fit and healthy – but it’s a good mini goal because it’s clear and measurable (unlike “being fit and healthy”) and it’s positive (taking the stairs) rather than negative (stop taking the lift). The latter point may seem semantic but psychologically it’s important.

Secondly, giving ourselves 30 days to complete some discrete project we’ve been meaning to get around to is a great way to focus our mind and get it done. Writing a novel is a good example because it’s so clearly quantifiable but I think the method is also valid for reaching a certain standard in a skill such as a foreign language or a musical instrument. A lot of the benefit comes from simply giving priority to that goal and tightly focusing your attention and energy on it – something you probably wouldn’t be able to sustain over a longer period but which we can all manage for a month.

The rewards for achieving the 30-day goals we set ourselves are big and deep.  I particularly like the two Matt mentions: that his confidence grows as he meets bigger and bigger challenges, and how instead of the months flying by forgotten, time spent working on a challenge is much more memorable. Trying something new for 30 days can help you to expand your comfort zone. Not only that, you will not just be drifting through the routine of your life, you will be living.

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