Are positive affirmations hurting you?

Are positive affirmations hurting you?

‘I am a good person. I am loveable. I am enough.’

If you’ve just read those sentences and you rolled your eyes – good for you! A little healthy cynicism is no bad thing. Shows a strong sense of self regard.

If you read those words and felt a stabbing sense of inadequacy, a haunting flash of ‘not me, never me’, if you wondered (yet again) what was wrong with you, why positive affirmations weren’t working for you, no matter how many times you said them…. YOU! You are who I’m writing to here…

Dear You,

There is a reason why positive affirmations aren’t working for you and ‘it’s not you, it’s them’, as they (very nearly) say.

Take a moment. Let that in.

Because it’s ‘widely believed’ x = y does not make it true. Positive affirmations are not for everyone. 

Like crop tops, dungarees, or Take That… Just because you see them everywhere does not mean they’re a good fit for you.

It’s widely believed the Earth is a perfect sphere. That’s not true, it’s actually quite lumpy. People used to believe the Earth was flat. Didn’t make it true either.

So positive affirmations make you feel better… Do they? Hmmm… Let’s have a look at the data. 

Positive affirmations work for positive people. Yes.

Positive psychology found its feet in the 1990s and since then some of its widely held beliefs have since been researched and found to be questionable.

For instance, research published in 2009 by psychologist Joanne Wood and her team, ’Positive Self Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others’, discovered that if you have high self esteem, repeating ‘I am a loveable person’ multiple times resulted in ‘slightly’ improved mood.

So, yes, there’s merit in them. For people who already have strong self-esteem.

But what Wood and her team also discovered was people with low self esteem felt worse when they repeated the positive affirmation. Why? Wood concluded that it was because the phrase just gave their inner critic more ammunition, it served only to remind them of a limiting belief they held about themselves. Like mentally poking yourself in the eye with a sharp stick. Over and over again.

So, dear You, please stop. For you, positive affirmations are likely to be more like a way of self-harming, if anything. Look for another solution – and there will be one for you, please do believe you can be a happy, healthy human being, I do believe that – but repeating positive affirmations when your self esteem is on the floor is unlikely to be the key that will free you from your unhappiness.

Photo by Rae Tian @Unsplash

Dysmorphia, self-love, myths and the magic of mirrors

Dysmorphia, self-love, myths and the magic of mirrors

‘I weep for Narcissus, but I never noticed that Narcissus was beautiful. I weep because, each time he knelt beside my banks, I could see in the depths of his eyes, my own beauty reflected,’ Paulo Coehlo: Goddesses of the Forest

Since being a little girl, I’ve loved fairy tales, myths and fables… haven’t you? I was frequently caught red handed as an eight year old; head under the covers long after lights out, with a torch, nose-deep in Enid Blyton’s Tales of Ancient Greece. 

As I grew older, my fascination grew. Not so much with the stories I read as a child, but the older, darker folk stories in which I realised there were deep, dark warnings… and not just for children.

Last week, I spoke at the Bavard Bar in my new hometown in theUK; an event to entertain audiences in a TedTalk-style evening, with a few asides of games besides. I wove a few of these old myths into my talk as it’s a light evening; not one for delving too deeply into issues such as body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), an anxiety condition impacting on between 1-3% of theUK population, according to NICE figures. Or the ferocity of inner critics, which effects far more men, women and children each time they look in the mirror.

As I’ve travelling through Europe, and then North, Central and South America over the years, I’ve put together quite a collection of local folklore books. I discovered that they told me so much about the people who lived in those countries today. If you want to know a culture, look to its ancient vision of life, god and its explanation for how the world came into being.

You’ll also start to notice that often the psychological and ethical issues we face today (and carry on like we have just invented them) have been echoing in the past for millennia. 

For instance, those stories by The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson are mostly based on ancient folk tales. But certain elements, often sexual or violent, were erased from the versions these authors published. Probably to meet the moral tastes of 19th century European parents.

In the older versions of Rapunzel our heroine is cast out of the tower with her two children. The children? A result of her relationship with the prince who came to visit. Sex before marriage? Hmm… out!

And take the Queen in Snow White… is she a raging narcissist, pathologically jealous of her stepdaughter? Or is she a woman lost in self loathing as she stares into the mirror? Does the mirror literally speak, or is it her own inner critic she hears condemning her to torment? Whatever her crimes, in the original tale she is the cabaret at Snow White’s wedding, forced to dance in red hot iron shoes until she drops dead. Seems a little extreme a punishment for an attempted murder conviction.

Dark mirrors

In the Snow Queen we can get so wrapped up in the story of Kai and Gerda, we forget how the sliver of glass that turned a boy’s heart to ice came to be. The glass, just a speck of a speck, was a minuscule fragment of a vast spellbound mirror, created by a demon who wanted to reflect wickedness and envy, jealousy and meanness and all the sins that you might imagine, and many more besides. The mirror shattered, thwarting the demon’s plan to shine the mirror into the face of God, but tiny bits of it fell to Earth, washed into sand which in turn became glass, used in spectacles and mirrors, and forever distorting our vision.

So yes, the trouble that comes from judging ourselves by our reflections has been around for a long time.

Narcissus, of course, fell in love with his own reflection and wasted away by a pool; perhaps a metaphor for what happens when we don’t look deep enough. His future was predicted by a blind prophet, a man with only inner vision; a telling paradox.
Like many of us I spent a lot of time, while I was growing up, criticising the woman I saw in the mirror.

I met my partner when I was 18 (we were a six-month pash back then, but we got back together when I was in my Forties; it’s a long story) and while as a student then I was quite convinced I was ‘fat’, although as my observant partner has said more than once ’you were stick thin and you never ate’. It took me a long time to see that whatever the scales showed, whatever the mirror reflected, I was seeing myself as ‘other’ and the bottom line was I didn’t think I was enough. Thin enough. Pretty enough. 

Using mirrors for good

Oh yes, there’s another way to use a mirror. Hold it up to your face. Really close. Or walk up to the mirror so you’re almost nose to glass. Now look deep into your own eyes…. Ah yes… that’s where you really are.

Because when you look into your pupil, you see deep into yourself. You can catch a glimpse of your inner self; the part of you that is deeply you. They talk about the eyes being the windows of the soul; perhaps they are, perhaps that is your soul you see. But it is certainly a deeper way of seeing your self in the mirror, that is for sure.

And perhaps that’s where self love can start from, because the inner critic somehow struggles to speak when confronted with the depths of the self.

Transform your experience

Inspirational speaker, Lisa Nichols, has an exercise using this intimate use of the mirror. One that can transform your experience with yourself because it you start a deep conversation at this level – nose to mirror.

Look yourself deep in the eye and tell yourself; ‘I am proud of you for’ and think of anything from your life for which you’ve accomplished a moment that gave you a glow. Even if you’re struggling to get our of bed in the morning, the act of doingAnd you can go way back to childhood, because you have 7 of these to find. Now repeat this on ‘I forgive you for…’ and let go of that self-judgement you’ve been holding on to. And one more… ‘I commit to you that…’ Now repeat daily. Lisa Nichols swears this prescription for self love was one of the practices that saved her from being medicated for depression.

I’ve tried it. I recommend it to clients too.

You will find it an emotional connection and you may surprise yourself. Healing our relationships with ourselves and turning that relationship into a life-long love affair, has to be a worthy goal, doesn’t it? We are certainly in a relationship with ourselves for a very long time; and turning mirrors into a force for good in our lives has to be a powerfully positive step in our self love journeys.

The No1 cause of limiting beliefs

The No1 cause of limiting beliefs

‘Why do you always have to be such a diva?’ the mother hissed at her daughter as the little girl, still in her slightly-too-big school uniform, looked down at the floor and cried. Just a little bit harder.

It was early evening on a Friday in my favourite, end of the week pub tea and unwind venue, in our currently quite sleepy seaside town.

I’ve a finely practiced ear for listening in to other people’s conversations; the habits of former newspaper reporters die hard. Pubs are a primary source of what’s going on beneath social surface so I’m frequently doing this without even realising.

And on the surface that’s just a mother losing her temper with a child who’s having a moment. The whole family trailed out the pub, the menus abandoned on the table, because the little girl clearly couldn’t stop crying and the mother wasn’t in a place to manage her child’s distress.

But as a hypnotherapist, I hear more than ‘Why do you always have to be such a diva?’ I hear the seeds of trouble ahead being sown, for a little girl who may well grow up with a diva streak a mile wide and wonder why she can’t form friendships and relationships the way others can.

Here’s the why.

When we ask a child ‘why are you always slow’. ‘why do you have to be so greedy’, ‘you’re no good at maths, why can’t you even add up?’ they can take on these labels and they can stick. Because at the time they’re just a little kid, they don’t know ‘why’ so they assume that’s their identity and they wear it.

‘I don’t know why I can’t keep up, I must be slow’.
‘I don’t know why I want more, I must be greedy.’
‘I must be terrible at maths because I don’t know why I got that sum wrong.’

How many of us can read perfectly well, but will insist we’re not great at spelling? Where did that come from? When you think about it, how can that be true? Doesn’t make sense, does it, when you apply logic… (having a ‘lightbulb’ moment?).

Children don’t think like adults, their minds work differently. A child of six won’t be able to rationalise why she’s having a meltdown at teatime, after a long day at school (although I could hazard a guess) and she will have no idea why she’s being ‘such a diva’.

Children’s minds don’t develop the ability to think critically and consider abstract ideas until they’re past 11. This sort of reasoning is one of the last to develop, as they mature into young adults. And although  the stages of cognitive development in children may be flexible to an extent, I’d be very surprised if our sobbing little girl, who looked about six or seven, could raise her head and say: ‘I’m not being a diva mummy, I’ve had a long day, my blood sugar levels are somewhere on the floor and frankly I’m overwhelmed by the idea of sitting in a crowded pub, when all I want is something to eat and a lie down.’

And so she takes on the shame of the label and it being her fault everyone had to leave. Shaming is very powerful, but it seldom leads to positive outcomes.

Episodes in our childhood where people highly influential in our lives, such as family members, teachers or even other kids, label us and shame us are invariably the root cause of limiting beliefs we hold onto in adulthood.

I don’t work with children, but I do work with adults carrying labels they collected as children. I’m fat; I can’t cope, I’m stupid, I’m unloveable… the power of working with clients in hypnosis is they can see the bigger picture, because now they have the ability to apply logic to the scene that set the stage for living with a label that’s not theirs.

They can take off the label, once and for all.

Mind your language! How to ‘let go’ of weight with more ease

Mind your language! How to ‘let go’ of weight with more ease

If you want something, you have to want it. I mean really want it. In capitals. 

And that means creating new ways of thinking and new habits of action that will take you to your goals.

You know this. You’re bright people, I know that. 

And you’ll know, when the going gets tough; the tough very often get up and stand in front of the fridge or pantry, scanning for what’s got the most carbs in!

Sometimes we can find ourselves in front of that cupboard and we don’t even remember getting up!

Be assured. You are not alone. Because when life gets difficult, your mind will work fiercely to move you away from pleasure and towards pain.

There are ways to make this process a pleasure, not a pain. Tips and tricks which bring your mind on board with the way you want to change so your mind, body and soul are all cheering for you in this journey.

Here’s one – stop equating what you want to stop eating with love.

Anyone who wants to be slim cannot ‘love’ cake. Because here’s what happens every time you have a problem. Your mind starts waving the idea of cake in front of you as a solution.

Because the mind wants you to be happy. If it thinks you love cake, every time someone’s mean to you, every time you feel sad, mind will come up with a solution to make you feel better. It’s called ‘cake’.

If you keep telling yourself ‘food is my best friend’ you will struggle to let go of excess body weight. Every time you say that you are reinforcing your mind’s very literal interpretation of everything you say.

Food is fuel. It is not your best friend. If you don’t have a best friend, if, when you think about it, you feel lonely, that is the emotion that needs your attention. You can call a friend, join a Meetup group if you’re a stranger in town but don’t give food qualities it doesn’t have.

And here’s another. The renown hypnotherapist and author, Marisa Peer, advocates this; don’t say you’re losing weight, say you’re letting go of excess body weight.

They sound similar, but, she argues, the mind associates loss with something bad. We lose money, we lose people, we lose in love… all loss situations are seen by the mind as negatives. But, she says, the mind accepts ‘letting go’ as a liberating and freeing action and so it’s more relaxed and comfortable with that notion.

What do you think? Do you use words around food that hold back your progress?

Do you over eat when you’re sad? How would changing your food associations help you?

Why hobbies are pure gold

Why hobbies are pure gold

Ever felt burned out? Sucked dry of ideas for your work?

My career path has taken many twists and turns over the years. And once or twice I’ve stumbled into the desert of depletion.

Perhaps you have too – or will do by the time you reach your Fifties and beyond without seeking to protect your creative mind as well as your body.

Ageing is a beautiful thing. Wisdom, patience and a strategic canniness for the long game are all strengths that come with career experience and maturity.

But get a creative hobby and you’ll develop superpowers that protect you from burnout, like invisible armour.

Why? Because you’ll develop anti-burnout skills and train your mind with regular, powerful exercises that create resilience, familiarise flow and immerse you in mindfulness exercises where you regularly step through fear and experience vulnerability. 

Want some of that?

But if you’re holding back because your first thought is ‘I can’t draw… I don’t have an artistic bone in my body, I’m not good enough to…’

You are missing the point.

It’s not about what you create. It’s about the process of creating. Think about that. It’s about the process. it’s not about the result, which you are already judging before you’ve even tried! It’s about the path to the result.

I come from a family where creativity is fully expressed.

My grandfather was a cooper – making wooden barrels from slats so tightly bound you could carry liquids without losing a drop. It was a craft that died in his lifetime  and so he completed his working days cutting aluminium but he made furniture for us while I was a child and he built me a magnificent dolls house. He also drew, specialising in roses.

My mother worked in a bank, mostly working on the tills and helping people better invest their savings. But her passion was creating clothes and occasionally her colleagues would pay her to whip up a vogue pattern creation. Even my English teacher had dresses by Barbara and she still creates  the occasional, but beautifully tailored jacket for herself, when the occasion calls her as she approaches her 80th year. She also paints and draws. 

I draw too. Unlike those two, I am not good at drawing. I did not somehow inherit their ‘talent’ but I know if I keep at it, I will get better. On Thursday nights I go to life drawing, a two hour battle with my attempts to recreate what I see on paper.

It is hard. And I mean like grandmaster chess hard. Drawing the human form makes your brain jump hoops like you can’t imagine. And then sketching to the clock – the drawing equivalent of speed chess! 

What it teaches you is to let go; let go of your perfectionism. Let go of fear. Let go of excuses. You jump and you jump fully, expecting to see something less than perfect at the end. And that is all part of the magic.

But there is more! Oh yes, hobbies are the gifts that keep on giving.

It’s been proven that a creative past time, that has NOTHING to do with your job, builds creative muscle and resilience. In these places bright sparks ignite, moments of ‘flow’ are experienced and they build and build and, with any luck, spill over into your working life too.

I love my creative non-work life so much I’ve taken up pottery. A passion from childhood. And I love that too. Mostly my creations have been exercises in the craft, although the odd pot has been a pleasant surprise. And now I’m learning to throw on the wheel, an extraordinary experience in using your hands as sensing, creative tools. The power of your touch. How you draw up the clay. A completely different way of ‘knowing’ and just try not being in the ‘Now’ when you’re drawing up clay.

But do not do what every entrepreneur suddenly gets the urge to do. Monetarise it. That, my dear reader, is the equivalent of cutting off the unicorn’s horn, cutting Aslan’s mane, biting the hand that is feeding you.

The well of creativity, the pool of beautiful, magical ideas lies in the space where you find time making. Not in the object itself.

It’s in the journey, not the destination. A bit like Life.

Photo by Kristopher Roller

A therapist’s top three books for strong mental health

A therapist’s top three books for strong mental health

‘There is no friend as loyal as a book,’ Ernest Hemingway.

Here’s a shocking piece of knowledge for you: you can buy book reviews.

Perhaps you’re not shocked. Perhaps you’re wise to this and you’re rolling your eyes at my apparent naivety.

But for me, this was a ‘have they no shame?’ moment. ‘Books are sacred’, I protest. ‘Don’t pollute the book world. But no, cynical sales leveraging is everywhere.

Apparently, if you look on freelance sourcing sites you can employ people to write reviews for your book. Which they may or may not have read, and flood bookselling sites like Amazon with glittering praise you’ve paid for.

So in the spirit of pushing back the ‘know and trust’ tide, I’m taking a little time to recommend three books I read last year which are worth reading, will give you better insight into mental health and might just change your life for the better.

The Joyous Body: Myths and Stories of the Wise Woman by Clarisa Pinkola Estes

This is the third in the series of four books exploring female archetypes by this extraordinary psychoanalyst who specialises in post-trauma recovery. For any woman past the first flush of womanhood and wise enough to know she’s now being sold a pup by a youth-obsessed culture, this book will be salve to your ears. Masterfully weavng myth, wise words, metaphor and truth into a womanifesto for claiming back power, every woman over 40 should take power from this book.

I have the audio, which is a wonder as the author has a beautifully soothing voice. And she has a podcast, I’ve just discovered. More manna.

Essentialism by Greg McKeown

Everyone I know who has read this book is a raving fan. If you’re stretched too thin, facing burn out, sick of your own patterns of overwhelm, read this book. It’s a keeper. You’ll come back over and over again. Yes, here are one or two moments when you realise he’s missed the point (the Concorde argument comes to mind) but this book is more than 90 per cent gold.

Conscious Living by Gay Hendricks

I read the Big Leap first, which is really about helping you understand why improving your lot can freak you out and is useful, but Conscious Living is a game changer. Here’s a man unafraid of being authentic. In a filter-obsessed world, Gay Hendricks is an elixir in the 21st century with an easy to digest guide to living life. In this book he tells his own story, his own mistakes and his journey to becoming a counsellor and Stamford professor. 

I’ve read many more books, but these are the best of my 2018 list. Many have been good, but would I, on reflection, pass on the baton? I enjoyed Johann Hari’s Lost Connections, and well written and researched though it may be, controversial and confrontational though it most certainly is, it doesn’t make my top three. Nor does Russell Brand’s Recovery. Maybe I’m just a little long in the tooth for brash young men who can’t resist waving their egos about with a ‘look at me, mummy’ sadness. Maybe you love them, millions do and they undoubtedly have views to add to the mental health debate.

So there are my top three from last year’s book pile. Which are yours? Which books were your rescue? I’d love to hear.

Get positive about Lent

Get positive about Lent

How many times have you given up something for Lent?

How well did  you do?

Did you make it through the whole 40 days and 40 nights? Or did you get through the first week and then yield to temptation?

Even if you just momentarily forgot your commitment, did you throw in the towel the instant you realised your mistake and so go back to the way you were before?

Wanting to let go of habits or behaviours that we know aren’t good for us is one thing, but succeeding is something else.

All the language around Lent is setting you up for a tough time. Phrases like ‘giving up’, ‘I’m not allowed’, ‘it’s forbidden’ are like a red rag to a bull for the Mind.

Mind’s role is to move you away from pain and towards pleasure and so the mind will resist anything it thinks causes you pain. Especially if it thinks that action you are trying to resist has been making you happy for years; that’s the evidence Mind draws on.

And as soon as the stakes get raised (you’re exhausted/the boss is being unreasonable/the kids have smashed that vase your mother gave you and if you weren’t so tired you’d have remembered she said it was a family heirloom, as well). You may as well have Satan sitting on your shoulder tempting you, because your Mind is thumbing through the rolodex of ‘things that make her happy in a crisis’ and guess what’s popped up top of the list?

Mind then starts up the ‘Do It’ mantra. ‘Eat the cake, you know you want to. One bite won’t hurt. It makes you happy. Just one mouthful.. just one slice.. well, ok two..’ Sound familiar?

So how do we solve this conundrum, kick temptation’s backside and keep Mind on side?

Firstly, we change the language. We make our mission one of positive action and we lose any language that’s going to push buttons.

And then we get really clear on why we are doing this in the first place, because your mind is not going to be focusing on that when you’re surrounded by broken crockery, screaming children and your employer is on the phone demanding to know where that super-important document is and you know you left it in their office. (I have actually witnessed that scenario and no, I didn’t have the nerve to say ‘Haha, it’s behind you!’ even if it did feel like a pantomime written by Harold Pinter).

So, getting ourselves ready for Lent.

  1. Sit down with a piece of paper and write at the top of it write: I am Choosing to let go of (your vice of choice) because…
  2. Now list every positive reason for making this commitment
  3. Read though this list of reasons at least once a day
  4. When temptation strikes, get it out and read it through again.

So for instance, this year I’m giving up sweets. I’ve a serious extra strong mint habit that needs reining in. So my list reads:

I’m choosing to let go of eating sweets because:

  1. I want to stay slim
  2. I want my skin to look good
  3. I want my mouth to feel fresh when I wake up, not all furry
  4. I want to feed myself real food that nourishes it effectively
  5. I want my energy to feel balanced
  6. I want to keep my teeth
  7. I want to stay free from tooth decay…

You get the idea. This way my mind knows what I want, it knows that this behaviour has a whole host of positives attached to it and when the going gets tough, I can remind myself as soon as I walk into the newsagents and get distracted by the rack of sweets.

You can, of course, apply this technique to any behaviour you want to modify. You don’t have to be giving something up, you could be choosing to go running every day, or focus on the positives of your life or even just smile more.

And if you do trip up, if you give in to caffeine/cake/chocolate/moaning/whatever’s on your Lent list DON’T go all drama queen on yourself. Remember; you are not failing, you are learning – you are being human. You’re, not auditioning for the role queen of all perfection. Laugh at yourself, shake it off and keep moving towards the winning line.

Who knows, you may love this version of you so much that you sail on past Easter and into the bright, blue younger… Bon voyage! x