By Liezl Thom
Kindness is defined as the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate.
But kindness means so much more …
Kindness is also empathy, acceptance, kind gestures, thoughtfulness. Kindness might look like being helpful or showing empathy. It may mean doing nice things without expecting nice things in return. In fact, it’s easier to recognize kindness than it is to define…
Kindness is more than being nice.
Kindness goes beyond merely being nice. Think about it – would you prefer people to describe you to be “kind” or “nice?” Nice is okay.. nice is bland… the bare minimum. Whereas, being kind is doing intentional, voluntary acts of kindness. Not only when it’s easy to be kind, but when it’s hard to be.
Kindness creates movement.
Has someone ever done something kind to you and all you wanted to do after was pay it forward? That’s because kindness is a chain reaction. It’s a wave that keeps rolling, and all it needs is one person to start it. One small kind act can cause a ripple effect that impacts an entire community. Unexpected kindness is the most powerful, least costly, and most underrated agent of human change – Bob Kerrey
If we are all focused on being kind, we are creating a movement of change. Mahatma Gandhi said “Be the change you wish the see in the world” That quote isn’t just about change, and it isn’t only about one person being able to change their world. It’s bigger; it’s about a movement that can be started from one person acting with intention.
How do we change the world? One random act of kindness at a time – Morgan Freeman
Kindness is love; love is kind.
Think about what love entails and what it means to love someone. Got it? Well, that’s kindness. It’s being selfless, caring, compassionate, and unconditionally kind. We share love with others through kind acts such as a smile, a nice word, an unexpected deed, or a planned surprise. When we offer these acts to others, we make people feel good; we pass along hope; we promote peace; we show the power of kindness.
Kindness is a practice
It is something that we get better and better at, the more we do it. When we practice something, it becomes a habit, and I can think of a few habits more worthy of pursuing than being kind. We know that habits become our character and our character becomes our destiny. How do we create a habit? By repetition and consistency. The Dalai Lama says: “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible”
Kindness is grace.
We are humans, and therefore, we make mistakes. We can be kind in our response to ourselves and others when those mistakes occur. This means thinking before speaking, forgiving before seeking revenge, and thinking about long-term relationships instead of short-term pride. If we could all remember that none of us are perfect, we would be a lot kinder to each other. Brené Brown once said that every person you meet is doing the best they can. Now I know this isn’t always easy to believe – especially not when people are acting mean or spiteful – but we have a choice what we think and believe and I choose to believe that regardless of their actions, people are doing the absolute best with what they have, where they are in their lives and what they know. You can only do better when you know better.
But kindness doesn’t just feel good. There are several, science-backed benefits to being kind…
Kindness boosts the release of several neurotransmitters, including oxytocin, which aids in lowering blood pressure and improving our overall heart health. Oxytocin also increases our self-esteem and optimism, which is extra helpful when we’re anxious or shy in a social situation.
It makes you feel more energetic. In one study, about half of participants reported that they feel stronger and more energetic after helping others; many also reported feeling calmer and less depressed, with increased feelings of self-worth.
It increases happiness.
Kindness can increase your lifespan and your quality of life.
It increases pleasure by releasing dopamine. According to research, when you are kind to another person, your brain’s pleasure and reward centres light up, as if you were the recipient of the good deed – not the giver. This phenomenon is called the “helper’s high.”
It also stimulates the release of serotonin, which calms you down, and makes you happy!
Kindness decreases pain. Engaging in acts of kindness produces endorphins, the brain’s natural painkiller!
It relieves stress. Perpetually kind people have 23% less cortisol (the stress hormone) and age slower than the average population!
It lessens anxiety. In a study at the University of British Colombia, a group of highly anxious individuals performed at least six acts of kindness a week. After one month, there was a significant increase in positive moods, relationship satisfaction and a decrease in social avoidance in socially anxious individuals.
Kindness can lower depression. Research by the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine found that when we give of ourselves, everything from life satisfaction to self-realization and physical health is significantly improved. Mortality is delayed, depression is reduced and well-being and good fortune are increased.
Committing acts of kindness lowers blood pressure. Remember I said earlier that kindness releases oxytocin? Oxytocin causes the release of a chemical called nitric oxide, which dilates the blood vessels. It protects the heart by lowering blood pressure.
Oxytocin also reduces inflammation. Inflammation in the body is associated with all sorts of health problems such as diabetes, cancer, chronic pain, obesity, and migraines. Even small acts of kindness can trigger oxytocin’s release.
Kindness is not just doing… it’s a way of being. It starts from within… it sprouts from the thoughts we allow ourselves to think… it grows from the words we speak…
Lao Tzu said Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love.
When we respond with kindness, we become unforgettable. Maya Angelou reminds us that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. Make someone feel good today by responding with kindness.
LOVE IN THE TIME OF CORONA
By Liezl Thom
The first time I heard about the COVID19 – or Corona – virus, I thought “this sounds like something we can expect a movie about in a couple of years. Imagine it: a romantic drama with the name: “Love in the time of Corona’”
As a storyteller – and a hopeless romantic to boot – I could already see the plot: two star-crossed lovers who were kept apart, not by their feuding families, but by the fears this virus seems to provoke and stoke in a large segment of the global population.
Love in the time of Corona. I liked the title – I won’t claim it’s too original, but I really liked the title of my fictional movie…
That was months ago. Now that the world seems to have gone to hell in a handbasket, with borders being closed, flights being cancelled and the mounting fear triggering panic buying, leading to empty supermarket shelves, my fictional movie title becomes so much more relevant – so much more pertinent – not because of any imaginary storyline, but because Love is the only way we’re going to get through this as a collective.
The only antidote to fear is Love. Not the romantic kind of love I had in mind when I thought of the title, not even the all-encompassing love we as humans have for our children (whether they be biological, non-biological or furry) – in fact, not Love as an emotion, but as an expression of Divinity.
The kind of Love the scriptures tell us is patient, kind and compassionate. The kind of Love that says I value, honour and respect other people as much as I value, honour and respect myself. The kind of Love that informs difficult decisions and infuse them with grace. The kind of Love that keeps us in the Present, where we’re not obsessing over the past or worrying over the future, so that we can make calm, rational decisions.
There are two ways we as humans learn – we either learn through pain and fear (which is the default way of learning for most of us), or we learn through love. To learn through love is tough for us – because Love comes softly, she comes gently, her signals are easy to miss if you’re not paying attention. They’re easy to brush aside as imaginary or something we can get to later. Love doesn’t come with a sledgehammer – and she only taps you on the shoulder once…. Twice if you’re really lucky. Learning through Love takes awareness – and we, as a collective, are still blissfully unaware.
If we don’t pay attention to Love’s soft cues, then pain and fear step in a whack us over the head. Think of your health…. How many times have you worked yourself into a stupor, knowing it’s not good for your physical wellbeing? And how often have you ignored the soft whisperings to slow down, to take some time out? And then? I bet there have been times when you ignored your common sense, soldiered on and got ill – whether from a common cold, or from something more serious.
Even if this example doesn’t resonate with you, I’m sure there have been times when you ignored your intuition, those divinely inspired thoughts we all get from time to time, only to have things go pear-shaped.
We as a species, have been ignoring the messages we’ve been getting from Love for a long time. We’ve known that our uncontrolled population growth is unsustainable, we’ve known that our unmitigated greed and disregard for our planet’s delicate balance cannot continue unabated, we’ve heard the warnings, seen the signs and yet we chose to close our ears and eyes to it, to continue the path of exploitation. We have ignored Love – and now pain and fear have stepped in to teach us, because this is a lesson humanity has to learn.
As a life and transformation coach, I deal with change every single day – and the unfortunate reality is that most people only change when their situation becomes unbearable. We, as a species, have a tendency to resist change – often to our own detriment. The biggest reason for that, in my experience, is fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of what other people might think – fear, fear, fear.
When two or more people start energizing this fear, it becomes bigger than the parts, the fear starts to amplify – and the more people are scared, the bigger this negative energy becomes, until it almost becomes a separate entity with a mind and will of its own. Add to that the herd mentality that develops in groups or crowds, and you have a recipe for disaster – because when we act out of fear, our rational minds are being overridden and hijacked by our primitive brains, what the experts call our reptilian brain.
This is where our freeze, flight or fight response is seated – and each response could have unintended consequences, especially when it’s amplified by numbers. Imagine the chaos when an entire crowd tries to evacuate a venue at the same time – or worse, when fights break out… and we’re already seeing flare ups of this – normally rational, friendly people literally beating each other up over toilet paper! Like reptiles, when we think with this part of our brain, we become cold and selfish – trying to ensure our own survival.
The Corona virus is the disruptor that is going to force us to relook at how we do things… Already economies are taking a serious knock, flights are cancelled and, in many countries, large gatherings are restricted or prohibited – and this is just the beginning. My crystal ball fell and broke a while ago (JOKE!!), so I cannot predict what the future holds – but I can keep myself and my immediate circle of influence calm enough to avoid panic and give Love a chance to manifest. I can leave some soap on the shelf (I’m working on the assumption that I find some soap on the shelf) for the next person, because if we don’t get through this together, we’re not going to get through this.
Love tried to teach us and we – as a collective – did not pay attention, so pain and fear stepped in to teach us. I invite you to join me in allowing as much Love as possible in. We all know we have to wash our hands several times a day and for at least twenty seconds. I’d like to challenge you to, every time you wash your hands for those twenty seconds, allow yourself to think thoughts of kindness, patience and compassion.
RESPONSE-ABILITY (Part 3)
Equality vs Equity
Imagine you’re up for a promotion at work. You’ve smashed your sales targets and your employers have made it clear that they’re more than impressed with your performance. You look forward to the rewards attached to the new position – a higher salary, a company car and your own private office (we’re not talking about a corner office with a view yet – we’re not going to stretch your imagination THAT far!) and you’ve already started looking at renovating your home.
Then your direct manager calls you in, asks you to close the door behind you and breaks the news to you that Susan in accounts have been promoted to the position you thought you were earmarked for. You’re in complete disbelief. Susan has never even made one sale in her life! How could this have happened? It’s completely unfair!
Even if you struggled to imagine the scenario I’ve just painted, I’m sure you would agree that to promote someone to a position they’re clearly not qualified for, ignoring a candidate who is obviously suited for the position, does not make any sense. It’s not fair – to either of the two parties involved. I’m sure you’ll agree that the person who deserves the promotion has every right to feel aggrieved, but the situation is also not fair on Susan, as the likelihood of success is slim to none.
Miranda Olsen said “Life isn’t fair. That’s just how it is. It doesn’t mean you stop trying to be a good person. Because when you’re a good person, you make life a little more fair for everyone else.” Now, I’m not sure who Miranda Olsen is, but I happen to agree with her completely.
We all seem to have some innate idea of the concept of fairness – even if our thoughts around what is fair and what is not is largely dependent on our own inner moral compass.
The Oxford Dictionary defines fairness as “impartial and just treatment or behaviour without favouritism or discrimination.” The word itself comes from the Old English fæger, meaning “pleasing, attractive.” This makes sense given that the word is also used to describe physical beauty.
It seems that we are hardwired with a sense of fairness. Researcher Matthew Lieberman and his colleagues at the University of California Los Angeles developed an experiment to study participants’ reactions to fair or unfair treatment. Research participants played a game in which one player was given a sum of money and asked to split it with a second player at a rate that both can agree on. If the target refuses the offer, both get nothing. At the same time, the target’s brain is scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner that can detect dynamic brain processes in real-time.
When offered a fair share of the money, the reward centres of the test subject’s brain lit up. The affected areas of the brain that were reacting, are associated with automatic, intuitive reactions, rather than learned responses. You’d be forgiven for thinking that any offer would be accepted by the second player – as it would be an unexpected windfall – but the researchers found that most people rejected offers that they deemed to be an unfair portion of the total.
When the second player saw the offer as unfair, it resulted in activity in an area of the brain associated with contempt or disgust. The more this area lit up, the greater the likelihood of the target rejecting the offer. You can read a summary of the experiment here.
Humans are social creatures and our success as a species can be attributed to our ability to co-operate. This co-operation is, however, easily compromised if we perceive a situation to be unfair. As the experiment above clearly demonstrates, fairness elicits a response in our reward centres, while unfairness makes us feel contempt or disgust.
There are two strategies to attempt to promote fairness: equality and equity. Equality is treating everyone the same. Equity is giving everyone what they need to be successful.
You may have seen these two pictures: in one, three people of different heights each stand on a box to watch a game on the other side of a fence. The tallest person can see over the fence without the box, the middle person can see well while standing on the box but the shortest person cannot see a thing. In the second picture, the tallest person has given his box to the shortest person, so they all can see the game. The first picture illustrates equality – the three people are all being treated equally, they are all standing on a box. The second picture illustrates equity when each person gets what they need to see the game.
Equity and equality might be only two letters apart – and many people use the two terms interchangeably – but when you boil it down, they mean two very different things and these differences go much deeper than mere semantics.
Equality aims to promote fairness, but it can only work if everyone starts from the same place and needs the same help. Equity appears unfair, but it actively moves everyone closer to success by “levelling the playing field.”
Let’s take the example of runners sprinting around an oval track during a race. The equality approach – which would have us treat the runners in exactly the same way – would be to ensure that everyone starts at the same place on the track. On the surface, this seems fair. But if you’ve ever run around an oval track, you’ll know that runners in the inside lanes have a distinct advantage over those in the outer lanes because the distance they have to travel is shorter. As a result, equality – starting at the same place – doesn’t result in fairness.
The equity approach, in contrast, would lead us to stagger the starting positions of the runners in order to offset the disadvantages facing those in the outer lanes. At first glance, it might seem unfair to put the runner in the outer lane ahead of the competition, but when the actual distance everyone runs are measured, it becomes clear that this is the only way to ensure the playing field is level.
Albert Einstein once claimed that “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Essentially, equity and equality are both points along a continuum that starts with diversity and inclusion. As South Africans, we live in a society comprised of people from different ethnic backgrounds – but diversity is about much, much more than race. It’s also about more than gender. These two markers of diversity get the most airtime in our daily discourse, but diversity also includes concepts like age and physical and mental abilities.
The next step on the continuum is inclusion. An inclusive society is one in which leaders encourage the population to be actively involved and, when done well, makes citizens feel valued. My personal opinion is that we, as South Africans are floundering in this regard – mostly because, apart from political leaders, we don’t really have all that many great leaders. We don’t live in an inclusive society and politicians are dividing us far more than they are encouraging us to work towards a common goal.
Equality – the third step on this continuum – is when everybody is empowered and feels empowered to make their unique contribution and feels acknowledged and appreciated for that contribution when their input is valued equally.
Once all three steps have been fulfilled, the equity should theoretically occur naturally. Equity is more of a state than a step – it’s what happens when all members of a diverse population have equal opportunities and support to succeed and grow. Ultimately, that sounds like the fair and just society we all would like to live in.
RESPONSE-ABILITY (Part 2)
Responding vs Reacting
Newton’s Third Law states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction – and while Newton was a physicist and describing the laws of motion, this also holds true for the majority of human interactions. You do something to (or for) X, who then reacts in a specific way, depending on what it is you did to (or for) him or her.
The only time when this does not hold true for human interactions, is when X has the wherewithal and emotional intelligence to respond rather than react.
Some people seem to think that the words reacting and responding can be used interchangeably – that they have the same meaning and implication – but, for me, there is a world of difference between these two words that are too often used as synonyms.
A reaction is instinctive, typically quick, without much thought, and tend to be tense and aggressive. A reaction generally elicits more reactions – perpetuating a long line of hatefulness with nothing accomplished. Reactions are instant. They’re knee-jerk retorts and snappy replies. They’re driven by the beliefs, biases, and prejudices of the subconscious mind.
In his book, The User Manual To your Mind (available here: http://nlplifecoachingtrainingcourse.co.za/the-user-manual-to-your-mind/), Burk Esterhuyse compares the subconscious to the crew of a ship, with the conscious mind as the captain, tasked with steering the ship. All too often, our captain is missing in action and our ship is left at the mercy of the currents of the sea of life. (You can also download the audiobook version of The User Manual to Your Mind – read by yours truly – from my website www.liezlthom.com).
When you say or do something “without thinking” your subconscious mind is running the show. A reaction is instantaneous and doesn’t consider the long-term effects of what you do or say. Reactions are survival-oriented and on some level a defence mechanism. If you’re lucky, they turn out okay but often a reaction is something you regret later.
A response, on the other hand, is more thoughtful. Responses are calm and non-threatening. It’s based on information from both the conscious and the subconscious mind. A response will be more “ecological,” meaning that it takes into consideration the well-being of not only you but those around you. It weighs the long term effects and stays in line with your core values and often provokes discussion that could lead to a constructive resolution, instead of the destructive conflict that often results from a reaction.
A reaction and a response might look the same, but they most definitely don’t feel the same. Let’s take the example of a beggar approaching your car at the intersection. If you give the beggar money as a reaction, you’d be acting from guilt or fear – but let’s say you give that money out of a true sense of altruism, then you’re responding to the situation. Even if you decide not to give any money to the beggar, if you’re motivated by fear or disgust, you’re reacting, while if you don’t give money because you’d rather spend it where it can make a difference, you’d be responding to the situation.
Another example: you’re driving your brand new car, when another motorist bumps into you at an intersection. You have two options: you could jump out, yelling angrily, swearing at the other driver, which in turn, causes him to react in a similar manner, which could quickly escalate in physical violence – or you could notice your anger, take a deep breath and calm yourself before getting out and speaking to the other driver, assessing if he’s injured, checking out the damage on your vehicle before getting out of the traffic and exchanging details. Which scenario do you prefer?
When we react to situations, we don’t operate from a place of power, whereas responding is all about personal power and wielding it. When we look at the way our bodies react to the two different ways of dealing with situations, reacting makes us feel constricted, while responding feels expansive.
Let’s take a look at the literal meaning of these two words. Reaction = re (again) + action (doing something), so reaction literally means doing something again, and as we’ve seen in those little balls that continually hit each other (it’s called a Newton’s Cradle, by the way), it can take quite some time before one of the parties lose enough steam for the situation to calm down.
Response or respond come from the Latin word spondere, which means ‘to pledge’ or to give your word; so re (again) + spond (promise) means that you undertake something again. For me personally, that which I undertake again when I respond to a situation is to act with kindness and fairness – well, at least to the best of my ability in the moment.
Reactions often lead to further re-actions, which could quickly cause a situation to spiral out of control. A measured and calm response, diffuses situations. But how do we teach ourselves to respond rather than react?
The first – and admittedly the most difficult – step is awareness. Become aware of how you react and how it makes you feel. Are there certain triggers that you encounter repeatedly? Is there a different way of dealing with the situation? Become aware of your thoughts and the urge to re-act.
Once you’ve become aware of the situation and the triggers, just pause for a second or two… you don’t have to do anything just yet, very few situations demand an immediate action. Just pause. Stop. Breathe. Deeply. Take another deep breath and exhale slowly.
Sometimes the urge to act irrationally goes away in seconds, other times we may have to remove ourselves from the situation to cool down first, but that moment when you pause, you are giving yourself time to choose a different outcome.
One of the absolute, inalienable rights you have is your right to choice. You get to choose how to react or respond to any given situation. You might not have a say in what life throws at you, but you, and only you can decide how you choose to deal with it.
Once you’ve given yourself that moment to choose whether you’re going to react or respond, consider what the most intelligent, compassionate response might be. What will help the relationship, make the situation better and calm everyone (including yourself) down?
Look, I’m not going to lie to you and tell you it’s easy – but what worthwhile endeavour ever is? You’re going to fail at this A LOT! We all do. It’s not the failures that matter, it is our willingness to try to do better next time. And it does get easier over time – it just takes practice.
Rick Hanson is well-known for the phrase “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” In this context, it means that the more you can practice being calm and nonreactive and the more you invite responses rather than reactions, the better at it you become. Training yourself to respond rather than react is like any muscle, the more you train it, the stronger it gets until, eventually, it becomes a reflex.
A famous quote, often attributed to Viktor Frankl, states that: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. And in that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” When you are mindfully present, you have access to that space between the trigger and the response.
We often tell our children to count to ten when they get angry. This is some sound advice – if only we’d apply it too. Counting to ten gives the conscious mind something to do, while giving the powerful subconscious mind time to calculate all the different ways of responding and their likely outcomes.
The easiest way to stop reacting and start responding is to remember your ABC’s: Become Aware of your emotions. What are you feeling? Is it anger, anxiety, frustration, fear? Learn to recognise your triggers. Ask yourself; “Why am I reacting like this?” Is it the event itself? Or is there something else behind the reaction?
As you take that moment to pause, Breathe in deeply and exhale slowly. Breathe in for four to six counts, exhaling for six to eight counts. Count to ten. This will not only give you time to regroup and reconsider, it will also oxygenate your brain, which will make it easier to think clearly.
Consider your different options in that moment and remember you always have a Choice. In stressful situations, you can either respond or react. You cannot do both simultaneously. Which will you choose?
If you’re looking for more ways to help you manage your stress and find balance in your life, you might want to consider partnering with a certified coach to help you do just that! Learn more about how coaching can help you reach your goals and schedule a free, 30-minute coaching session with Liezl.
Until next time, may you be surrounded by Love and Light!
RESPONSE-ABILITY (Part 1)
Living in a VUCA world
One of the first steps in teaching or learning emotional intelligence and getting a grip on your emotions and responses, is to label the emotion – to examine it and give it a name, so the next time you feel that emotion, you know what it is and how you dealt with it the last time. The same goes for just about everything else in our lives. If we can put a label on it, you’re already starting to deal with whatever it is and start thinking about how to respond to it.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the news and the happenings around the world, bombarded by constant electronic communication and the demands it puts on you and generally just feeling a vague sense that everything is going to hell in a handbasket – and perhaps sooner than you think – it might be useful to consider that you are operating in a VUCA environment.
Before I explain what the term VUCA means, I’d like you to imagine driving a car in thick, dense fog. Your three children are arguing in the backseat, which is threatening to spill over into physical violence. The radio is blaring, and your cellphone is ringing. You’re looking for your cellphone, which somehow seems to have slipped under your seat when your spouse tells you you’ve just missed the offramp to your destination and the next place you can turn around is at least a hundred kilometers away. Can you feel your anxiety levels rising yet? That is what VUCA does to all of us, all the time.
VUCA is an acronym for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. There are plenty of explanations including a Harvard Business Review article by Nathan Bennett and G. James Lemoine and a page on Wikipedia, but I’d like to take a quick look at the concept to help you get a handle on the label in order to start formulating your own unique response to it.
The idea of VUCA comes from the US Army, coined to describe the post-Cold-War world. The idea of VUCA has since been embraced by thought-leaders in all sectors of society because it succinctly describes and explains the nature of the world in which we operate: the accelerating rate of change (volatility), the lack of predictability (uncertainty), the interconnectedness of cause-and-effect forces (complexity) and the strong likelihood for misunderstandings or misinterpretation (ambiguity).
Volatility indicates our exposure to frequent, rapid and significant changes. The word volatile mostly indicates a change for the worse. It can also mean a sudden change in emotional state, specifically becoming extremely angry, violent or unpredictable. In a volatile market, for example, the prices of commodities can rise or fall considerably in a short period of time, and the direction of a trend may reverse suddenly. Volatile, from Latin volatilis meaning “fleeting or transitory” always gives the sense of sudden, radical change – it is the opposite of stable.
Uncertainty arises when there’s an unknown element in the equation – because it makes things unpredictable, which means possible outcomes cannot be foreseen or calculated. When the outcome is unsure, our ability to make a credible, calculated prediction is compromised, which causes doubt – which in turn, leads to anxiety; that uncontrolled fear that spreads like a veldfire through your mind. Anxiety, provoked and fuelled by uncertainty is highly contagious – I’m sure you’ve seen (or personally felt) how a herd mentality can affect our ability to respond rationally to a situation.
Complexity arises when there are various different parts connected or related to each other in an intricate way. Examples of complexity are our sophisticated infrastructure (like our rapidly expanding communication and transportation systems), social and economic organisations (such as political systems and systems of governance) and the myriad of ecosystems around the world. Complex systems are inherently difficult to control and shape due to the dependencies, competitions, relationships, or other types of interactions between their parts or between a given system and its environment.
Ambiguity is the absence of explicitly defined information, making several interpretations plausible. It’s vague – it’s the inability to have a clear understanding of a situation or concept. A common aspect of ambiguity is uncertainty, for example a temporary or pert time worker who is uncertain or unsure whether he or she will have a job after the holidays.
We live in a world where the concept of human rights has formed the bedrock of democracy. The United Nations define human rights as “rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more.”
Although every right has a related responsibility, very little emphasis is placed on those responsibilities. It’s essential that people know and appreciate their inalienable rights, but I would argue that it is equally vital to focus on the concomitant responsibilities – as I believe an unbalanced approach to human rights creates unbalanced societies, and ultimately, unbalanced, dissatisfied people, which in return, contributes to the rise of the VUCA world as it adds to the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.
Our greatest power lies in our ability to choose how we respond to the world around us and I have a strong hunch that once you start acting in a response-able way, the effects of VUCA would be greatly ameliorated in your life.
Over the next few weeks, I will share some tips and tricks with you to increase your ability to respond to this VUCA world we live in.
From Your Head, Through Your Hands, To Your Heart
The longest journey in the world is the one between your head and your heart – and it goes through your hands.
There’s a saying that the longest journey in the world is the one between your head and your heart – transmuting knowledge into action and habits, which ultimately leads to wisdom.
There are literally millions of books, written by psychologists, life coaches, self-help experts, spiritual teachers and self-proclaimed gurus who offer advice on how to improve your life, attain happiness, attract money and whatever else we as humans yearn for – and the majority of those books have wonderful insights and profound truths in them. The advice they offer most likely works – IF you take the actions recommended by the author.
Just before we go any further, I’d just like to pause a moment to touch on the topic of giving and receiving advice. Especially when it’s unsolicited (yeah, I do get the irony of trying to give unasked for advice about the topic of advice – but it is something I have to point out.) As a Life Coach, I don’t give advice, I might make suggestions of possible actions, but I firmly believe that only the individual knows what is right for him or her. People will only take advice when it confirms what they already believe or supports an action they’ve already decided upon. Advice, while often well meaning, tends to tell people “act like me, do what I did, this is what I do and look how successful I am.”
Look, I’m not saying there isn’t some great advice out there – but, as Baz Luhrmann says in his wonderful song Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen), “advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts, and recycling it for more than it’s worth.” Having said that, it’s still one of the best pieces of advice on how to live a happy life. J
When you’re looking for answers, searching for meaning, desperate to change your less than perfect existence into the life of your dreams, there are a myriad of avenues and approaches to explore. For years, I read one book after the other, filling my head with the most wonderful and enlightening ideas. Much of what I read made perfect sense to me and I could almost feel myself physically changing every time I read something that resonated deeply with me. ALMOST. Yes, the ideas – many of which, by the way were not new or earth shattering, but remember, the Soul loves to hear what it already knows – rubbed off on me, changing the filters through which I saw the world, but the real changes I was looking for remained elusive.
I had a lot of theoretical knowledge about how to create the life you want, and a wide array of tips and tools to increase joy and lessen suffering, but it remained in my head – it was theory that I suspected might be true, that felt true and sounded true but it could have been a map to the mythical city of Atlantis for all the good it did me.
Without taking the actions, without doing what needed to be done – weeding out negative and limiting beliefs, replacing them with positive and empowering beliefs, getting to really know myself and learning to unconditionally love myself – all the money I had spent on all those books and all the time I spent reading them, were a complete and utter waste. (Okay, okay, there’s not really any waste in the journey to self-discovery and self-mastery – but I’m trying to be melodramatic here, so indulge me!)
Admittedly, I did try some of the tips. I repeated positive affirmations until they came out of my ears (more about affirmations in a while), I meditated (only occasionally, when “I could find the time”), I appreciated the beauty around me (appreciation is one of the key ingredients for creating and increasing joy), I learnt and internalized the laws of the Universe, I questioned every single limiting belief that I could identify, I took steps to heal my body to become healthy and fit – in fact, I actually did a lot of the things suggested by my favourite authors. And look, I’m not saying taking those actions didn’t worked. In fact, I shudder to think what my life would look like if I hadn’t taken those steps – but the dramatic, almost miraculous changes I were expecting remained ever so elusive…
The thing about miracles (which in my frame of reference is the same thing as magic) is that they only work when you’re not looking. You know, that old adage of a boiled pot never boils? Yes, you can try to monitor the process of change every single second, but it become s boring after a while – because one of the magic ingredients of transformation is time. If you plant a carrot, you don’t dig up the seed every day to see how far it has developed (for the agricultural purists out there – I’m not really sure if you can plant carrots from seed, and it’s not important enough for me to look up, as it’s really not the point J). If you dug up a seed every day, you’d most likely not only significantly delay the process of growing the carrot, you’d possibly even kill the poor developing plant.
The same with change – apart from doing the work, we have to give God time to work His magic. There’s an old Arabic saying, “Trust in God but tie the camels” – we have to do our bit, we have to tie the camels, but we also have to step away sometimes and allow the process to happen.
About affirmations – look, they do work for some people, but they require extreme self-discipline: you have to repeat the affirmation EVERY DAY for months, sometimes years. The best I could do was about four months of diligently saying my daily affirmation that I’m a TV journalist, and then, when nothing in my reality changed, I started to doubt the process and my daily affirmations became more and more sporadic until I completely dropped them. On top of that, it took massive amounts of self-discipline to continue saying the affirmations while I was racked with limiting beliefs (“I’m not good enough” being the prevailing one) and my inner critic was having an absolute field day with the lack of evidence that the affirmations worked – which gave that seemingly ever-present self-sabotaging voice even more ammunition. Ironically, many years later, I am a TV journalist, working for one of the world’s biggest news organizations and having appeared on news shows watched by hundreds of millions of people. The reality looks a bit different from when I envisioned myself with a microphone in hand, talking to a camera while some or other dramatic scene played out behind me – or when I visualized myself in a news studio, with a blue headband in my hair. I mean honestly! I don’t even wear headbands – but this image was one of the ones I fervently clung to while I was diligently saying my affirmations. The fact is, somehow almost two decades later, I am living a reality that includes a slightly altered version of those affirmations I chanted while I was still driving a little red Volkswagen, earning what in today’s terms would be considered as a minimum wage.
I am not sorry for one second of those four months, or the time I spent learning, growing and loving since. If I look back, I can see how much better my life is now than I had ever imagined – and I can also see how Divinely protected and guided my path has been. A few years ago, I had a nervous breakdown following a particularly harrowing news story, preceded by months and months of absolute senseless and atrocious violence that I had to report on. If my life followed the path I so desperately wanted in my early twenties, I have no doubt that I would have either have lost my sensitivity – which is an essential ingredient to being a great coach, or my heart (which is the part of me I value most) would have completely broken and possibly never have mended.
But back to the path between the head and the heart… so after all the books, half-hearted attempts at following other people’s recipes for change and thousands of Rands, I had a lot of knowledge, a bit of wisdom and a whole lot of frustration that my life isn’t unfolding the way I wanted it to. It’s not that my life was horrible – absolutely far from it! I had an amazing life with a wonderful husband, adoring children and the most supportive friends anyone could ever ask for! It’s just that I had this nagging feeling that I’m here for a purpose and that I’m missing some deadline, that my life is going to slip past me without me having fulfilled my destiny.
I had two extremely important lessons to learn here: firstly, there’s no deadlines in life. As a radio news reporter, I was so used to deadlines that I could not imagine any other way of being. On particularly busy news days, I sometimes had half hourly deadlines, where I had a file a new story every half hour. It took me months to get the message from the Universe that life doesn’t work on the same frantic timeframe, that in life, the only deadline is death – you can make changes, create the life you’ve always dreamt of and live your purpose until your very last few minutes on this planet.
The other lesson I had to learn is that we’re put on this planet for two reasons: the first is to learn and grow from our experiences and the second is to serve the our Creator – and the only way we can serve God is by serving His creations, using our unique gifts and talents.
Since we have a responsibility to serve others, we also have a responsibility to look after ourselves – to use the analogy of an airplane emergency, we have to put on our own oxygen mask before we can help others put theirs on. I have found that it’s by taking care of myself (my body, my thoughts and my heart), honing my talents and skills and diligently taking time to plan, to dream and to write down my goals, that I’m slowly starting the process of putting all that knowledge into practice. It’s by doing – small things, like writing a paragraph – that I’m traversing that longest journey between my head and my heart. Do something – anything – that you know is good for your soul! And if I can give you advice on what to do (J), it would be to start a gratitude journal, because gratitude and appreciation are the quickest ways to connect to that realm of infinite possibility that we tap into when we manifest our dreams. Don’t just make a mental list of things that you’re grateful for – write it down! It’s by doing that we become adept and it’s by repetition that we become great – so continue doing whatever it is you’ve decided on until it becomes part of your being.
Finding Your Troupe of Cheerleaders
Growing up I was definitely not one of the popular kids, so if you had told me that I would write a blog about cheerleaders I would have laughed in your face – yet here I am, cheerfully writing about something I know virtually nothing about.
That’s not completely true, though. In fact, most of us have, in one way or another, experienced the value of a cheerleader – someone who rallies support and unites people in their passion for a singular goal. Whether that goal is cheering the team on to win, or supporting an individual to reach greater heights, a good cheerleader can help us muster the courage or summons the last little bit of energy to carry us over the winning line.
You may have heard the analogy of life as a race in which you, ultimately, only compete with yourself, but just like a marathon runner might need some encouragement to continue, we all sometimes need a little bit of support when we hit an uphill in the race of life – we all could do with a little bit of cheering on, and at times, cheering up.
And while you’re at it – consider those people who regard you as their cheerleader. They too will benefit from your team of mental supporters…
You wouldn’t necessarily expect your shopping buddy to share your passion for animal welfare or the environment – although I personally expect my friends to care about these issues and I not-so-silently judge them if they don’t. The point is, we have different friends for different reasons, as each person we resonate with fulfills some role in our lives.
Anais Nin put it beautifully when she said, “Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”
As much as we try to ignore the opinions of others, those opinions always seem to find their way into our heads. The trick here is to prevent them from strengthening your inner critic’s snarky messages but rather to listen to the positive feedback we do get – after all, research shows that it takes ten positive comments to cancel out one single negative comment.
One of the ways to deal with the (sometimes negative) opinion of others is to grow a rhinoceros skin – or to cover ourselves in duck feathers so that criticism can simply glide off us. The unintended consequence of this approach can be that we disconnect ourselves from others. If we have a wall around your heart, it becomes very difficult for other people to truly connect with us.
As a life coach, one of my favorite interactions with clients is to question every single thought doesn’t serve that client – limiting beliefs as well as the opinions of others. Is it really true? How does your body react to the thought – does it expand or constrict? Can you find any evidence to suggest that the thought might not be true? Is there a way you can rephrase that thought so that it better represents your own truth?
Another way of dealing with what “other people” say or think about you, is to dissect your mental image of those “people”. If you visualize “other people”, whether they’re your family, friends, random strangers, the members of the local bowling club or whatever other group of “other people” you envision, how many faces can you identify at any one point? I’m betting no more than a handful, right? The rest of the “other people” are a bit like computer-generated images (CGI), replications of the faces you can identify.
So what would happen if you change the faces in the front seat? If you choose your own personal cheerleaders to represent the opinions of others to you, how would that make your body react? I’m guessing if the “other people” are in our corner, their opinions feel less judgmental and more supportive. It might even energize you – the way in which only a team of dedicated cheerleaders could.
And while you’re at it – consider those people who regard you as their cheerleader. They too will benefit from your team of mental supporters…
Failure, Fear and Freedom
I was raised with a deep seated fear of failure. Without going into to much story fondling about my childhood, failure was regarded as any behavior outside the conformities of a very repressed society. Standing out and taking risks were more than frowned upon and failure was punished with the ultimate sanction – rejection and withholding affection. As a result (remember, my superpower is stating the obvious), I’ve never been comfortable with the idea that it’s ok to make mistakes, that mistakes are part of the curriculum of life.
Luckily, life has a way of teaching you – whether you’re a willing participant or not – so, despite my best attempts to blend in, to avoid failure, I’ve messed up more than I care to remember. It’s just… you know, I can’t help but feel that if I had embraced failure and not have been such a reluctant student, I might have learnt the lessons and succeeded in ways I can now only imagine.
The first time I became aware that this absolute aversion to failure might not be the best way – or even the only way – of being in the world, was when Mary, a former colleague of mine, resigned to start her own business during a very tough economic time.
It took me years to finally understand her gay abandon and the way in which she accepted – even embraced – the possibility of failure. Her business did fail, we lost contact and I met other people who also shared her appetite for risk. I ran into Mary at an airport earlier this year. Today she is a massively successful business woman and the lessons she learnt from failing at her first business, – and several others since – still serve her to this day.
Mary knew the secret of Robert F Kennedy and millions of other people who harnessed the power of failure. Kennedy said: “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” It pains me to think that I could have reached far greater heights if I had engaged with this fear of failure earlier in my life – but I’m learning… slowly, but I am learning.
“Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” – Denis Waitley
“When you take risks you learn that there will be times when you succeed and there will be times when you fail, and both are equally important.” – Ellen DeGeneres
Possibly the word most closely associated with failure is fear. I sometimes think that fear of failure is a bigger hurdle to overcome than dealing with the actual act of failing. Fear is defined as an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain or harm. That threat doesn’t have to be real to trigger the fear emotion – very often it is the scenarios our imaginations conjure up that create fear, and when it comes to the imagination, the sky is the limit.
Fear is generated by the ancient, reptilian part of our brain, the amygdala. Martha Beck calls this part of the brain – the one that keeps on sending us “lack or attack” messages – the Inner Lizard. This Inner Lizard comes in very handy when we truly are in imminent physical danger – it literally kept our ancestors alive when they were under attack from a Sabre-Toothed Tiger, by triggereing their fight-or-flight response. The cocktail of hormones secreted once the fear response kicks in, oftentimes enable ordinary humans to perform quite astonishing and heroic acts to save their own lives and the lives of their loved ones. These days we have a decided lack of Sabre-Toothed Tigers so most of our fears are generated not by imminently dangerous external circumstances, but by our minds – our thoughts to be specific.
A big part of my coaching practice is helping people to face their fears. More often than not, examining our fears makes them disappear – the same way shining a torchlight under the bed made the monsters vanish. Other times, when the fear does not quite pass into oblivion, scrutinizing it makes it shrink into a manageable challenge. Of course that is far easier said than done but there are several tools to deal with this Inner Lizard.
One of the ways to deal with fear is questioning it. How realistic is it? What is the worst thing that could happen? Is that really so bad? As an expert in experiencing fear, I’ve come to realize that fear and excitement are felt in the same part of my body. Both of them kind of creates a fluttering in my stomach – and depending on the severity of either the fear or the excitement, the intensity of the flutter increases or decreases.
I cannot for one second claim that this realization is a new discovery. One of my favorite quotes about fear and excitement is attributed to self-help author Peter McWilliams who said that the only difference between fear and excitement is our attitude towards it. Author Robert Heller pointed out that fear is excitement without breath – so if you want to stop fear from stopping you, take a deep breath and jump!
The nature of fear is such that it often stubbornly resists all our efforts to root it out – but once we’ve managed to dislodge it, we can stop it the Inner Lizard from dictating to us and step into freedom. Kris Kristofferson said that freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose – and if our fears are the last thing we shed, I fully agree with him.
Freedom from fear is listed as a fundamental human right according to The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nobel Peace Price Winner Aung San Suu Kyi says in her book Freedom from Fear that: “Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day. Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear of death, fear of losing friends, family, property or means of livelihood, fear of poverty, fear of isolation, fear of failure. A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man’s self-respect and inherent human dignity. It is not easy for a people conditioned by fear under the iron rule of the principle that might is right to free themselves from the enervating miasma of fear. Yet even under the most crushing state machinery courage rises up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilized man.”
I’d like to think of myself as civilized and thus – understanding that fear is ultimately a choice – I’m choosing to engage with and control my Inner Lizard to stop fear from stopping me. As I (cautiously) throw my fears to the wind, I plan on failing spectacularly in the near future – stay tuned!
“If you’re feeling helpless, help someone. ”
― Aung San Suu Kyi (from Freedom from Fear)
I sometimes get the impression that we as humans are no longer interested in experiencing the full range of human emotions – that we only want to have pleasant experiences. When we’re angry, we suppress it, when we’re feeling sad or anxious, we try to find ways of lessening the intensity or avoiding the emotion altogether. I’m not talking about clinical depression – I’m not qualified to have an opinion about the use of anti-depressants to treat a medical condition – I’m referring to the use of substances, whether it is prescription or self medicating with food, alcohol or drugs to avoid feeling emotions that are uncomfortable, or deemed inappropriate.
To be human includes a whole spectrum of emotions, ranging from euphoria and joy to guilt and shame, and it’s the ones that hurt us or make us feel uncomfortable that we try to avoid, sometimes at all cost, but in avoiding those strong emotions we have somehow decided are unwanted, we often also stint our own emotional and spiritual growth.
I strongly believe that the human spirit has two main ways of learning and growing; the one way we grow is through pain and fear and the other way is through love. Unfortunately, it seems that by our very design, our default way of learning and growing is through pain and fear.
Let’s take the example of Hester*, a client who was trapped in a loveless, abusive marriage. Even though she knew she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life married to a man who belittled her at every opportunity and used money to manipulate her, her fear of the alternative prevented her from mustering the courage to walk out. In her mind she was powerless and would end up on the street with no roof over her head and no food to eat.
Hester spent months in coaching agonizing over her decision to leave her husband – struggling to muster the courage to take the plunge. It was only once she realized her true value (and came to understand how her husband was trying to detract from her value in order to prevent her from leaving) that she finally filed for divorce.
The journey to healing was slow and painful, and there were many times when she doubted herself and the wisdom of her decision – but, as a compassionate bystander, I couldn’t help but notice a tender beauty throughout this entire process. There was something profoundly precious in Hester’s pain – something I, to this day, find difficult to describe in words. While I was witnessing her death, rebirth** and transformation, it almost felt as if I had a glimpse into the sacred act of creation – as if I was a part of the caterpillar’s metamorphosis into an exquisite butterfly.
You might know that cutting open a cocoon or chrysalis renders a butterfly’s wings absolutely useless – it needs that struggle to crawl out of the protective casing in order to strengthen its wings. In the same way, I could see how Hester’s struggles to extricate herself from her marriage strengthened her belief in her own worth. Today, six and a half years later, Hester still looks back on that time as one of immense growth – a time she would not have had differently even if she could. She could see the valuable lessons she had learned from that pain and fear.
Pain, loss, anger, guilt, shame. All these emotions are part of the human experience, and despite our efforts to avoid them; they have a way of sneaking up on us when we least expect it. Our unwillingness to experience the darker, less pleasant emotions is also taking away our ability to fully feel the wonderful ones. I’m not saying that we don’t feel, happiness, excitement etc., but if we don’t have the lows, how can we fully appreciate the highs?
I often advise my clients to undertake a little experiment – to sit with their emotion, whatever it might be, and to fully feel that particular emotion to manifest in their bodies. Try it for yourself, if you’d like. Emotions are a little bit like needy children in this respect – they want your undivided attention. Once you allow the emotion to be “heard”, to manifest in your body, to be fully felt, you’d be amazed how quickly it dissolves.
By allowing painful emotions to manifest and to be fully felt and experienced, we start transmuting them into their polar opposites – the opposite of sorrow is joy, the opposite of anger is gratitude, the opposite of bitterness is forgiveness. Of course when we talk about the alchemy of transmuting emotional baggage into pure emotional gold, there is some work required from our side – like facing the emotions we fear to show.
We frequently resist going into what Martha Beck calls the Ring of Fire***. Imagine your emotional reality as three concentric spheres or layers. The outer layer, Beck calls the “Shallows” – the world of form and physical objects and the thoughts clustered around them. This is the material world in which we live and for some people it is the only reality.
The inner core of these three circles Beck calls the “Core of Peace” – that deep seated knowingness and peace we sometimes glimpse when we are fully relaxed and completely in the moment. According to this theory, the only way to move from the “Shallows” to the “Core of Peace” is to go through the “Ring of Fire”.
Some maternity ward nurses refer to that moment when a baby is crowning as the “ring of fire” – because it hurts like hell – but just like giving birth, once you’re in that process, there’s no turning back, and as soon as it is over, there is the wonderfully blessed reward of a new-born baby.
Many people choose to stay in the “Shallows” because they fear the “Ring of Fire” but the point of life is to grow and learn so often we find that life either nudges or pushes us into the “Ring of Fire” to burn away our pretences and self imposed delusions. Just like the Yin-Yang symbol reminds us that there is the seed of sorrow in our joy and the seed of joy in our sorrow, we know that even in the throws of emotional pain, as the fire cleanses us from beliefs and thought patterns that no longer serve us, there is a beauty and the promise of a brighter future.
* Not her Real Name
*** Beck M 2008, Steering by Starlight, Piatkus, Great Britain
Onions, Manure and Compost Heaps
If you view life as a classroom in which you have certain life lessons to learn, you might agree with me that some lessons are significantly harder to learn than others. Sometimes it feels as if we have been handed a big old pile of turds – and if we don’t have the ability to transform that waste material into something useful, we remain stuck with a rather crappy load (and outlook) on life.
Most people (in fact, I’d like to say everyone, but the journalist in me refuses to allow absolute generalizations without substantiation, so I’ll stick to saying “most people”) have some painful issue that has been festering in their hearts and minds for years. It could be a childhood trauma – and most of our life lessons do originate in childhood – or it could be something that only happened to us much later in life, but somehow, somewhere, we all sustain emotional injuries that, if left untreated, could scar or even cripple us for life.
Very often, the people that hurt us had absolutely no intention of causing us harm. These people, who actually are our teachers in this school of life, do the best they can with what they have and know. In many cases, our first teachers are our parents.
No parent would harm their child on purpose, unless there is something seriously wrong, but for many people the hurts caused by their parents’ words, actions or choices continue long after they’ve grown up and left their childhood homes. I once voiced my belief that all parents mess their children up in one way or another to a woman who claims to have had an absolute idyllic childhood, with no conflict whatsoever. She was horrified by my opinion that parents should make peace with the fact that they are, in one way or another, causing their children some emotional discomfort or distress.
I was quite taken aback by her vociferous insistence that, as a life coach, I am behaving unethically if I tell parents – and especially women – to cut themselves some slack as most of us harm our children (unintentionally, of course) in some way or another. As a coach, it is my job to help people examine their beliefs and to help them reformulate or change beliefs which no longer serve them – so of course this incident made me take a very critical look at this belief and gave me the opportunity to refine it.
The way I see it, if you want a plant to survive, you have to give it enough water and sunlight – but in order to grow and thrive, it needs food. For me, the emotional bumps and bruises caused by our parents’ particular way of raising us serves as manure, which can help us to grow – if we allow it. You don’t have to accept or embrace the way you were treated as a child – but you don’t have to suffer as a result of it either. The Japanese writer Haruki Murakami said: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”
I’m not a particularly adept gardener – but my brother is a soil revitalisation expert and he tells me the best way to use manure is to first compost it. I’m speaking under serious correction here, but if I understand the process correctly, bacteria and microorganisms break down the manure, causing a heat reaction. If you want the raw material to be turned into compost sooner, you have to turn it, to give it oxygen.
If we equate this process of turning waste material into usable plant food with emotional transformation, the heating up of the compost heap can be likened to those times when – as adults – we think back about those incidents in which we were hurt (whether it was by our parents, a teacher, a school ground bully or whoever). This process of thinking back gives us the opportunity to “turn” the rotting material by adding air (in some esoteric traditions, the element Air represents our intellect, our ability to think, so by thinking about the incident, we are already helping along the process of breaking it down).
Airing our emotional manure also helps us find the lessons we can learn from it – if we are open to this process and are looking for the lessons. Speaking to a psychologist, life coach or even a compassionate friend might make the “composting process” a little easier – but in the end, it’s up to you whether you end up with emotional compost or manure.
I’m not pretending for one moment that this is an easy process – and it most certainly is not a once off event either. In fact, I often describe dealing with emotional baggage as similar to peeling an onion. Once you’ve dealt with a particular issue (or person), another layer or aspect of the same matter crops up when you least expect it. Then you deal with that aspect and think the matter has been settled – merely to find that you’ve only uncovered another layer of the same issue.
As with peeling a real onion, this peeling away of layers of emotional pain is very often accompanied by tears. Allow them – as Dr Judith Orloff explains in this article in Psychology Today, crying helps us in more ways than we can ever imagine the health benefits of tears
Travel Tips for your soul
I’d like you to come on a road trip with me. Imagine you’ve packed your bags, we’ve decided on a destination, the soundtrack has been selected and the car has been loaded with everything you and I would need for our journey. Before we depart, we drive to the nearest filling station to have the tyre pressure and oil levels checked and to fill up with fuel. We both get out at the filling station to stock up on snacks, water, cold drinks and perhaps some coffee to keep us awake on our drive.
Now if you’re thinking you do not know me from a bar of soap and would rather chew your toenails than to get in a car with me, much less go on a long journey, I promise I won’t be offended, as I too am reluctant to get in the car with strangers – but just go with the analogy for now, or imagine someone else in my place, someone you actually know and like. Better yet, leave everyone else at home, or at the office or wherever and go on this road trip alone.
As much as most of us are reluctant to think or talk about it too much, as self-aware creatures, we humans know that our existence on this planet is temporary. Regardless of our religious beliefs or life view, most people know that our physical bodies are going to die. Whether or not you agree with the French Philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, when he says that we are spiritual beings having a temporary human experience, there is a sense that what animates us, our thoughts and emotions, what some would call the soul, is separate from the physical body.
Just like a car, which requires regular maintenance, our bodies also need to be looked after. That obviously includes taking care of our outward appearance but it also involves taking responsibility for our health. Knowing our key numbers for heart health – cholesterol, blood pressure and waist size – as well as our risk for diseases like diabetes, cancer etc. and, most importantly, doing something to reduce and manage those risks, increases your likelihood of getting more mileage from your body.
Talking about optimizing your body, the kind of “fuel” we put into it is also a key component. Our relationship with food is so complex that fuelling our bodies is only one of its roles – food is also a major source of pleasure, worry and stress. Food can be seen as a form of social currency. We offer others food to show them that we care. We reward our children – and ourselves – for a job well done with a special treat. We use it as a bribe; if you clean your room, I’ll take you for pizza. Food plays so many roles in our lives – we eat when we’re happy, we eat when we’re sad, we eat when we’re bored.
I’m told that if you put petrol in a diesel engine, or vice versa, the entire engine seizes. Likewise, the right kind of food leaves us feeling energized and full of life, while the wrong kind leaves us feeling sluggish and can even make us sick. My father once said about someone that she is digging her grave with her teeth, a mental image that made an indelible impression on my young mind.
Unlike (most) motor vehicles, which can run for hours and days on end, only needing to stop to refuel, our bodies need physical rest to perform at its peak. Getting enough, quality sleep is crucial for:
- Learning and memory: Sleep helps the brain commit new information to memory through a process called memory consolidation. In studies, people who’d slept after learning a task did better on tests later.
- Metabolism and weight: Chronic sleep deprivation may cause weight gain by affecting the way our bodies process and store carbohydrates, and by altering levels of hormones that affect our appetite.
- Safety: Sleep debt contributes to a greater tendency to fall asleep during the daytime. These lapses may cause falls and mistakes such as medical errors, air traffic mishaps, and road accidents.
- Mood: Sleep loss may result in irritability, impatience, inability to concentrate, and moodiness. Too little sleep can also leave you too tired to do the things you like to do.
- Cardiovascular health: Serious sleep disorders have been linked to hypertension, increased stress hormone levels, and irregular heartbeat.
I’m no mechanic, but it seems to me that controlling the temperature of the engine is quite important. Antifreeze not only prevents the engine from freezing but also protects it against overheating (it makes no sense to me whatsoever, but I’m told this is the way of the car and for lack of knowledge, I shall accept it). Relaxation would be the body’s version of antifreeze as it prevents us from overheating emotionally. If you aren’t getting enough time to relax, you may find yourself feeling tense and stressed out. The long-term effects of unaddressed stress on our health include chest pain, headaches, digestive issues, anxiety, depression changes in sexual desire and the ability to focus.
A lack of relaxation also sucks the fun out of life – you know, “all work and no play makes (insert your name here) a dull boy/girl. But what if you struggle to relax, or find it difficult to find the time to relax? A quick way to lower the stress hormone cortisol and increase the feel good hormones serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin is to pet an animal for 15 minutes. Physical touch does the same – so book that massage, or even just hug it out with a caring friend or relative.
Deep relaxation, like meditation, when practiced regularly not only relieves stress and anxiety, but also is shown to improve mood. Meditation also has many other potential benefits – it can decrease blood pressure, relieve pain, and improve your immune and cardiovascular systems.
My father is a lifelong member of the Automobile Association, so I grew up with this idea that there’s this entity called the AA, which will help you out in your hour of need. When I started driving, a friend’s father insisted that she becomes a member of the AA before he would agree to buy her a car, saying one never knows when one might need their help. I cannot recall the first time I heard about the other AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) but it kinda made sense that this entity too would help our people in need. What both these organisations have in common (apart from their abbreviations) is that they offer help – but only to those who ask for it.
Asking for help is something many of us struggle with. We’re afraid we might look weak, or foolish, or incapable, or somehow less than perfect. Yet we all need assistance at some point or another. No one on this entire planet knows absolutely everything or can do everything. There comes a time when we all need advice or assistance (get it? AA) and the only way we’re going to get it, is to ask for it. The auto guys would have no idea that you’re stuck next to the side of the road unless you called them – and likewise, the other AA wouldn’t know you needed help unless you take the first step and ask for help. I fact, as far as I know, admitting that you have a problem and asking for help is a prerequisite to becoming a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Before technology came and saved us from ourselves – you know, with men being unable to ask for directions and women being unable to read maps – you would have to plan your route carefully to make sure that you reach the next filling station before your fuel tank ran dry. Whether you are one of those people who only stop for fuel and body breaks or whether you like to meander through the countryside, stopping at every little town and village, you have to have a plan of sorts to get you to your destination. Even though GPS technology makes it easier – showing us exactly which road to drive, how far the next stop is, how long the drive is – we still have to have a destination in mind.
The type, model and colour of the car you drive should actually be irrelevant – as long as it gets you where you want to be – but, living in a material world and buying in to the false myth that we can measure our own worth by our material possessions, we as humans have attached value and judgement to the brand of vehicle in our driveway. In much the same way, we tend to judge people by their outward appearance.
As unfair as it is, study after study has shown that attractive, slim and young people get preferential treatment over their less attractive, fat and older counterparts. If you don’t believe me, Google it – I tried to cite a few studies, but there is just so many that choosing which ones to include became tedious. Many of them are summarized and discussed in the 2011 book Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful, written by Daniel Hamermesh, an economist at the University of Texas in Austin.
The problem with this is obvious; we get so fixated on outward appearance that we overlook and undervalue people who have a great deal to offer – like loyalty, honesty, empathy, kindheartedness etc. etc. etc. And while we can trade in our old jalopy for a new(er) vehicle, we cannot trade in our bodies (just yet) – so judging people by something they had absolutely no control over is not only unfair, it’s also cruel and unkind.
Having said that, there are cars – and people – who are faster than ours and I think anyone who’s ever driven on a highway would agree with me that there are few things as frustrating as a slow driver in the fast lane. The saying ‘stay in your lane’ comes to mind – in other words mind your own business. It’s often so tempting, standing on the outside looking in, to judge and offer unsolicited advice. As a Life Coach, I firmly believe that the only time people really listen to advice, is when it resonates with what they already know is best for them.
In South Africa, the golden rule is “Keep left, pass right”. In life, the golden rule is “Love thy neighbour as thyself” or “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I’ve taken these from the Bible – but every religion has similar tenets. The Bible quotes the Torah, while the Quran states “Do unto all men as you would wish to have done unto you; and reject for others what you would reject for yourselves.”
For me, there are three components to this; Love, your neighbour, and yourself. So much has already been said about the first two, but I would like to briefly stand still at the third. We are taught from a young age to put others’ needs ahead of ours – especially us women. We spend all our energy looking after the needs of others, very often at the expense of our own mental and physical health. I often say to clients that we allow other people to be the main characters in the story about our lives. It is your story. You have to be the main character. Don’t be a supporting actor in your movie! There is a difference between selfishness and self-love or honouring yourself. My best friend is a very wise teacher who uses a lovely analogy to explain how we give our energy to others. She explains: “The heart is a cup, which God fills with love. That which is inside the cup is for you. That which overflows is to give to others. What we (especially us women) do is to turn over our cups and pour out every last drop for other people – and then we wonder why we feel so empty! When our cups are turned over, God cannot fill it. Keep what God gives to you for you. There is always abundance, there will be more than enough overflow to give to others.”
The fuel we put in our cars – whether we drive a gleaming sports car or a rusted tin bucket with only one working window – determines whether we will be able to drive it. There’s also interplay between the type of fuel, the make and age of the car and the speed we drive that determine how far a tank will take us. Our bodies obviously need physical fuel, in the form of food, and the type of food and our bodies’ individual reaction to it obviously determine how much energy we have to go out and achieve the goals we’ve set out for ourselves.
Just like motor vehicle maintenance is an important factor to keeping our cars roadworthy and in working condition, we have to maintain our physical bodies. I’m not a health expert (see how nicely I’m staying in my lane?), but we know that looking after our health is a key component to making sure our bodies serve us as long as possible. As I mentioned before, we cannot trade them in (yet), so it makes sense to look after them as best we could.
Life is a highway – buckle up!
The Change Cycle
The changing seasons are some of the best reminders that nothing is permanent. Just take a look out of the window… the scenery you’ll see is decidedly different to that of six months ago, and in another six months’ time, it will look different again, as the wheel of time rolls by steadily.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus hit the nail on the head more than 2 500 years ago when he stated that “the only constant thing is change”… or something to that effect.
International best selling author and Life Coach, Martha Beck (PhD), describes the change cycle as a square, divided into quarters. The first block represents the impetus for change, or as Beck calls it, the “Death and Rebirth” square. This is where the change is initiated. Whether it is a physical death of a loved one, or an emotional death – like when you lose your job – this first step of the change cycle can be extremely traumatic.
It’s not to say that it always has to be painful, though. The change can be a wildly exciting event, like getting married or being promoted. The point is, to a greater or lesser degree, there is a sense of loss. Take Sarah, who is getting married in three weeks’ time. Yes, it is undoubtedly a tremendously exhilarating time in her life, but she has to give up a few things to obtain that ring around the finger… like her surname (although this is happening far less nowadays than only a couple of years ago).
She also has to give up her status as single, available, master-of-her-own-destiny girl and forge a new identity as wife. The same goes for entering the physical and emotional rollercoaster of motherhood, being promoted… or any other significant milestone in life. Some part of the self has to die for the new-and-improved version of you to emerge.
According to Beck, the mantra for square one is: “I don’t know what the hell is going on, and that’s okay.”
The second square, according to Beck’s analogy, is the “Dreaming and Scheming” phase. This is what happens when you’ve accepted the fact that your life is changing, and start thinking what you would like out of the situation. Let’s take the example of Joe, who is struggling to deal with the fact that he’s been retrenched. After the initial shock, Joe goes through the different stages of mourning as he grieves not only the loss of income and stature but also his ability to provide for his family and his identity which he so closely associated with his job. Once the denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance (in other words, the entire cycle of grieving) is completed, he starts to make plans again and daydream about what he wants out of life…
Maybe he dreams about being an artist… or going back to university to study archaeology. The sky is the limit here. In this phase, anything is possible…
It’s also in this second square that we start to make plans how to attain those goals. It might not be a complete, fool-proof plan, the details might still be a little foggy… but the first outlines of what your future life could/would/should look like is slowly starting to emerge… a little bit like those buds and leaves in early Spring. In fact, if “Death and Rebirth” is seen as representing Winter, this square undoubtedly represents Spring.
The mantra for square two is: “There are no rules, and that’s okay.”
An interesting trend amongst people in the “Dreaming and Scheming” phase, is the physical changes that occur, like losing weight, changing your hairstyle or wardrobe, or redecorating your living room. (Actually, there are thousands of physical manifestations of change – but seeing as we don’t have all day, I’ll leave you to find a few examples of your own). We’ll return to this square a bit later…
The next step in the change cycle is what Beck calls the “Hero’s Saga”. This is where you actually have to do the work to realise those plans you dreamt up in the previous phase. Now, I consider myself as quite well-read, and I’ve never come across a story in which the hero sets out to attain some glorious goal, gets the job done (and gets the girl) and is back in time for dinner and the seven o’clock news. Oh no! Its not called a saga for nothing. There are obstacles to overcome, monsters to defeat, calls of sirens to ignore… basically, for the first three quarters of any story worth reading (or repeating) it’s a case of one step forward, two steps back.
But a hero is not a hero if s/he does not have more than a bit of tenacity. (I’ll admit, a stroke of luck also plays a part sometimes – but I believe we make our own luck… and that’s a story for another day). The point is, in this phase, we have to stop dreaming and actually do something. If the plan does not work, we refine it, or redefine our goals. This is where you knock on every door and work like a slave to get to your goal. There is a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between this square and the “Dreaming and Scheming” square as you try out your plan, find it doesn’t work, go back to the drawing board to dream and scheme and come up with a new plan…
The mantra for square three is: “This is much worse than I expected, and that’s okay.”
It might sound tedious and like a never ending uphill battle, but if you have found what it is you love, and you are doing it, the line between work and play becomes very blurred and you might end up having so much fun that you forget about the heartache you experienced in square one.
Which brings us to Beck’s fourth and final square: the “Promised Land”. This is when you get what you wanted – like the Israelites who traversed the Middle East for how long? Forty years if I’m not mistaken. (Which again shows you how hard you sometimes have to work in Square Three). Enjoy it – you’ve earned it!
But don’t get too comfortable… remember old Heraclitus? The wheel of change can turn at any minute – and you can be catapulted back into Square One before you have time to savour the sweet rewards of your journey. If you’re lucky, you might spend years in the Promised Land… but be assured, whether its through boredom with all the wealth you’ve amassed, or a personal tragedy, change will happen again.
The mantra for square four is: “Everything is changing, and that’s okay.”
Before we return to the “Dreaming and Scheming” phase, its worth noting that different aspects of your life can be in different phases of the change cycle. You might have an awesome run at work (Promised Land stuff)… while your health or personal life might be in Square One… or Two… or Three. It helps us understand the proces and have patience with ourselves if we can identify which areas of our lives we are dealing with and where that area is in terms of the change cycle.
Remember I mentioned the physical changes frequently noticed in people who are in Square Two? An interesting occurrence is how people who have a physical make-over, (whether it’s to satisfy your bossy older sister or a scissor happy hair stylist), get thrown head first into the change cycle. Linda expereinced this first hand when she lost a significant amount of weight. People started responding differently to her, which forced her to look at herself differently – which catapulted her straight into a Death and Rebirth (with the death of her shy, overweight former self). If this is happening in your life – brace yourself, baby! You’re in for one hell of an adventure!
Martha Beck, 2001, Finding Your Own North Star, United States, Piatkus.
Liezl Thom is a Martha Beck certified Life Coach. If you are battling to deal with change, or are unhappy with certain aspects of your life, you can e-mail her at email@example.com to set up an appointment.