Are you really grateful?

I’ve spoken to a lot of people recently who use gratitude journals and I use a gratitude app on my phone.

I am all for gratitude – but are there times when gratitude is not really gratitude?

A short while ago, I spoke to a client who was using a gratitude diary but rather than feeling happy, connected, or content afterwards, she was left feeling worse.

When we looked closer at how she was using her gratitude journal, she was actually drawing a comparison against people who were ‘worse off’ than her.

For example (mine, not the client’s):

‘I am grateful to have food on my plate because there are people starving in the world’.

This may be true but when we compare what we have against others, we rarely feel good. (Whether we judge ourselves to be better or worse off than the people we are comparing ourselves against)

This seems to me like guilt masquerading as gratitude.

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Of course I am not saying we shouldn’t think about these kinds of issues, but in my opinion, a felt sense of gratitude is more likely to be experienced without drawing comparisons.

However, if we were to act in a way to help those in need, for example by donating an item of food to our local food bank, the ability to do this may be something we feel genuinely grateful for.

Contrast this against doing nothing but thinking about people who are going hungry whilst trying to feel grateful for your tea!

 

Comparisons may not be the only gratitude pitfall

There is also the potential to frame gratitude in a negative way, which may take the edge off the feeling of gratitude.

Contrast:

‘I am grateful the kids didn’t misbehave in the car’

with:

‘I am grateful for a peaceful and enjoyable car journey with the kids’

When we frame our experiences as an absence of something negative it is probably not going to feel as nice as framing our experiences in terms of gaining something positive.

 

Last of all…

If (like me) you tend to fall into a pattern of starting your gratitude journal entries with the same old ‘I feel grateful for…’, we could be missing out!

Gratitude comes in different flavours and comes along with other positive emotions too. It might be nice to recognise them all!

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So maybe the next time you and I write in our journals, we could ask ourselves ‘do I feel ‘grateful’ or do I feel’:

Appreciative

Blessed

Content

Enjoyment

Fortunate

Glad

Happy

Honoured

Love

Lucky

Pleased

Priviledged

Proud

Recognised

Thankful

Understood

Validated

Or something different?

 

Thank you for reading!

Image credit: Pixabay

It Isn’t All Bad

Blue Monday is just around the corner and is said to be the most depressing day of the year. But maybe it isn’t all bad?

I’m guessing the immediate reaction for some of you will be along the lines of ‘it bloody well is’!

Certainly, if you happen to be going through a difficult time in your life then it is likely to feel that way. Even if you are not going through a major life event you may still feel like this from time to time.

It is very easy to get bogged down in the day to day hassles that life presents us with.

When someone simply tells you to look on the bright side or some similar well-meant but largely unhelpful platitude, my guess is that you internally tell them where to stick their bright side.

That said, there is something about the way our attention works that could prevent us from seeing a bright side if we think that everything is going wrong or if we are feeling bogged down.

 

Focus of attention

Our focus of attention is not an objective thing; it is subject to numerous biases and we tend to filter out some information while paying particular attention to other information.

This is a very necessary way for us to operate because if we took in all of the available information to the same level, we would struggle to process it all or to get anything done!

Our brains, sometimes helpfully but at other times less helpfully, tend to take short-cuts.

I will talk about 3 short-cuts in particular that work together to maintain the belief that everything is awful.

  1. We pay particular attention to the things that support what we already believe and these things are generalised and magnified.
  2. We largely ignore information that contradicts what we already believe.
  3. We distort neutral information to fit in with what we already believe.

 

To flesh this out a bit, let’s imagine person A has the belief that everything is going wrong and person B has a belief that things are going pretty well.

Now let’s say that the same 3 events happen to person A and to person B.

  1. They each go for a job interview and don’t get the job.
  2. They each get positive feedback from the interview despite not getting it.
  3. They each get stuck in traffic on their way home that night.

Person A will definitely turn their full attention to the fact that they didn’t get the job but it is unlikely to stop there.

If they have a belief that everything is going wrong they are likely to be thinking:

‘I knew it’, ‘I never get the jobs I really want’, ‘I’m always really bad at interviews’, ‘I’ll never be able to get a promotion’, ‘nothing ever works out in my favour’, ‘what’s the point in even trying’.

It becomes about more than just this one job interview. It becomes about every job interview they have been unsuccessful in and it about every job interview they will go to in the future.

It may also be generalised to other unrelated events that are not going well – maybe the boiler broke last week or their car needs to go into the garage – it all becomes lumped together and gives more weight to the belief that everything is going wrong.

So later, when they receive feedback that they did very well in the interview and that it was just down to the other candidate having a little more experience, person A doesn’t really acknowledge the positive feedback. It is simply discounted.
Later still when person A gets stuck in traffic (which I am classing here as something fairly neutral) they are likely to give that their full attention and interpret it as being terrible because it fits with the way they already think and feel.

Maybe it goes something like:

‘Oh, this is all I need after such a bad day’, ‘what else can possibly go wrong’, ‘I hate being stuck in traffic’, ‘now I’ll miss out on time this evening’.

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Person A still holds the belief that everything is going wrong and probably feels pretty de-moralised.

 

A different focus

On the other hand, person B is less likely to focus as much attention on the fact that they didn’t get the job. They may feel disappointed but if they already believe that things are going well they are more likely to dismiss it:

‘It is disappointing but there will be plenty more opportunities out there’, ‘It wasn’t the right kind of job for me anyway’, ‘it was good experience to go to the interview’, ‘I’ll do better next time’.
Later, when they receive positive feedback and are told it was just down to the other candidate having a little more experience, they will give that positive feedback their full attention and they are likely to generalise and magnify it.

‘That was nice feedback’, ‘I am pretty good at interviews’, ‘They seemed impressed with me, I’m sure I’ll get the next one’.

Then, when person B gets stuck in traffic they may think:

‘I don’t mind having a bit of time for my brain to unwind before I get home’, ‘I can listen to that podcast I have been wanting to listen to’, ‘I’m not in any rush anyway’.

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Person B still holds the belief that things are going pretty well.

Neither way of looking at these events is right or wrong. They are both biased. But person B is going to experience far less negative emotion than person A.

 

Changing Focus

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So, if you wanted to challenge the belief that everything is going wrong, it is going to take a change of focus.

Not so much looking on the bright side, but purposefully seeking to alter the attentional biases at work.

Step 1: State only the fact, rather than generalising and magnifying.

Step 2: Acknowledge the positives, rather than discounting them.

Step 3: Ask yourself if there is a different way of seeing the same situation. How would you view it if you felt better? How would someone else view this situation?

Have a not so bad day!

Lemon Squeezy makes wellbeing easy!

Christmas Comparisons

Whatever your views on Christmas and whether you celebrate Christmas or not, it is pretty unavoidable.

I actually love Christmas as a rule, but it can be a tricky time for wellbeing for a number of reasons.

There are the more obvious ones such as financial pressure, hectic schedules and hangovers. But here, I will focus on a process that can be particularly challenging at this time of year.

Drawing comparisons

Now, at any time of year, drawing comparisons with others is not too helpful. In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy we use the term ‘compare & despair’.

When we make comparisons, we are usually seeking to come out of it in a favourable light. Unfortunately, due to our brain’s tendency to focus on threat, we can often come up short.

If you are concerned about your weight, you may end up comparing yourself against others who weigh less or look slimmer.

If you are concerned about being liked, you may end up comparing yourself against more popular people.

If you are concerned about money, you may end up comparing yourself against that friend who goes on three holidays a year.

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The result?

You end up feeling much worse.

 

Christmas comparisons

For many people, Christmas represents a time of year ripe for comparison against others.

The common perception of everyone else being happy at Christmas can be particularly crushing if you don’t feel that way.

If you are single at Christmas (and don’t want to be), you will inevitably compare yourself against your loved-up friend at Christmas.

If you are away from family at Christmas, you will probably have ‘chocolate box’ images of happy laughing families in your mind’s eye when you think about your friends with their families or your own family without you.

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Comparisons with yourself

And the comparisons don’t stop there…

Not only do people compare themselves against others, people will also compare against themselves at other times in their life.

  • This time last year I was still with my boyfriend.
  • This time last year all the family was together.
  • This time last year I was so much happier.

 

This is clearly not going to help us to feel good at Christmas.

 

So what is the answer?

Step 1: Recognise what you are doing

Quite often, we are drawing these comparisons without even realising what we are doing.

If you can catch the comparison, you can do something about it.

 

Step 2: Calm your fight and flight response

Your fight and flight response wants you to focus entirely on threat so that you can keep yourself safe. When you are in this response, it is difficult to think any differently.

Taking a few slow, relaxed breaths so that your stomach moves more than your chest can help to calm this response and make it easier to think differently.

 

Step 3: Recognise that the comparison is just a thought and that your thought is not necessarily factual.

Some or all of the comparison you are making may be completely opinion-based or happening in your imagination.

If you are imagining all your friends cosying up with their families while you are away from yours, you are likely comparing against what you imagine their Christmas is like, rather than the reality.

Your friends may not be able to stand spending time with their family!

If you are making the comparison based on an image in your own head, then it is not factual.

If it is not factual, then there is an alternative (more helpful) way of looking at it.

But What if it is Factual?

 

Step 4: Add context

We often draw comparisons based on one factor and we neglect to take other things into consideration that put it into any context.
For example: I’m single now and I wasn’t last year.

What you may be neglecting to factor in is the huge row you had with your partner last year on Boxing Day or that you have actually been quite happy to be single throughout the whole of November!

 

Step 5: Recognise that social media only portrays an edited version of reality

Like step 4, this is partly about acknowledging that there are other things we are not taking into consideration.

If you find yourself comparing yourself to social media posts, remember that these are not an accurate and unedited version of reality.

The picture of the smiling child could have been followed by an almighty sugar-induced tantrum.

The smiling couple may just be staying together because neither one of them wants to break up with the other at Christmas.

The co-ordinated Christmas jumpers could be itchy as hell!

 

But beware…

The idea here isn’t to replace unfavourable comparisons with favourable ones – it is just to recognise that most of the time, we don’t know.

There is an alterative opinion if we have formed an opinion that ‘everyone else is happy at Christmas’.

In my opinion some people are, and some people are not.

But, focusing entirely on either those who are happy, or those who are unhappy, is not ultimately going to help us to feel better about ourselves.

If you focus purely on the fact that others could be having a miserable time, it is difficult to gain any real joy or wellbeing from that.

 

Step 6: Making your own meaning

So, the most important step of all is to step away from comparison and to re-connect with meanings and values that are important to you.

If you are on your own at Christmas, can you think about what you would really enjoy doing just for yourself?

Can you think of a way you can meaningfully connect with someone if you want to?

If you are feeling unhappy at Christmas, can you re-connect with something you value that could help you to feel better?

And it doesn’t have to have anything to do with Christmas!

Ultimately, Christmas can mean whatever you want it to mean.

 

Wishing you all a meaningful Christmas and wellbeing in the New Year!

Lemon Squeezy Wellbeing is launching wellbeing workshops and guided relaxation sessions for the workplace in Jan 2019! 

Image Credit: Pixabay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Recognise Survival Mode

Are You In Survival Mode?

I’m not sure where the term ‘survival mode’ comes from but it is a phrase that seems to resonate for a lot of people I speak to in my work as a therapist.

Have you ever had that feeling that you are just treading water and that if you stop kicking you could sink at any moment?

Ever feel that it would only take a fairly small wave to swallow you up altogether?

Then survival mode will probably resonate for you too.

This analogy seemed particularly pertinent a while ago when I was listening to the radio and the Royal National Life Guard were talking about a campaign giving some survival advice if you get into trouble in the water.

They were advising that rather than thrashing about, people should float, conserve their energy and gather themselves in order to enable them to swim or until help arrives.

You can find more about the RNLI Fight or Float advice here: https://bit.ly/2yxNsrI

However, this is also a brilliant analogy for our emotional state and the psychological concept of survival mode too.

All too often, the thing that we automatically do when we are in survival mode is to try harder, push ourselves, do more, work longer hours or use the same old strategies that may have worked for us once but are not working any more.

In essence, we are thrashing about in the water.

 

What is survival mode?

First, I should probably explain a little more about what I mean when I am talking about survival mode.

For the most part, I think survival mode looks a lot like functioning and can even feel functional too but survival mode will leave you:

  • Exhausted
  • Stressed out
  • Overwhelmed
  • Snappy
  • Restless
  • Unable to concentrate for long
  • Forgetful
  • Making more mistakes…

…but it feels like you are doing something nonetheless.

 

From personal experience…

Survival mode looked like never stopping for air –

Rushing to work, not taking breaks, rushing from work to collect the kids, then cramming in as many activities for them as I could before getting them to bed, doing as much housework as I could fit in once they were settled then collapsing into bed (probably being woken up 3-4 times) then starting the whole thing all over again.

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One of the problems with this approach is that it can work to some extent, giving us little reason to change until it becomes unsustainable.

I could still be a good therapist, a good mum and have a reasonably tidy house when I was operating in survival mode but it was difficult to enjoy it. Instead, it felt like being on a treadmill. Working hard but getting nowhere.

I wasn’t enjoying it, I was just surviving it.

There is no balance when you are in survival mode.

 

Recognising survival mode thoughts

Survival mode can be so busy it is difficult to recognise it when you are in the middle of it. Here are some of the thoughts you may notice in survival mode:

  • I just don’t have the time
  • I ‘should’ be doing…
  • I can’t cope with anything else
  • It is just one thing after another
  • There’s too much to do
  • I never stop
  • My head is too full

 

How to break free?

If this sounds like a place you are in right now, then you are faced with the problem of how to change it.

Maybe you try to take on something new to try to get your balance back?

Do the things you believe that you ‘should’ do rather than the things you truly want to do?

Try to cram in even more to re-gain a social life or exercise routine?

You might try a different angle and look for ways to escape by…

  • looking for a new job
  • putting things off (usually the hardest or the most important things)
  • turning down opportunities to see friends because you are just too tired
  • collapsing in front of Netflix and zoning out with a bottle of wine and a big bag of crisps.

All the while neglecting to do the things that help you to float.

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What we really benefit from when we are in survival mode is to pause.

Float, breathe, gather your energy and resources.

Connect with your emotions and find time for relaxation. Then maybe it will be easier to swim in the direction you want to go when you have recovered.

Looking after your wellbeing doesn’t feel like a priority when you are in survival mode.

You believe that if you stop, you will sink.

Maybe there is an alternative – maybe you could float.

Lemon Squeezy makes wellbeing easy!

Image Credit: Pixabay

Why I Don’t Like the Terms ‘Stressed’ and ‘Depressed’

First of all, I am not denying that many people feel stressed and depressed and I am not suggesting for a second that these terms are not valid descriptions of people’s experience.

I have used them to describe my own emotional experience and within my blogs!

The difficulty I have with the terms ‘stressed’ and ‘depressed’ is that we have come to use these words as a shorthand for too many of our emotions. As a result, I believe we are in danger of losing touch with our emotional vocabulary and with our emotions themselves. 

OK, they are useful umbrella terms in day to day conversation but underneath the ‘stress’ or the ‘depression’, there is likely a myriad of emotions going unrecognised, un-named and unprocessed. 

Whats more, when we overuse terms like ‘depressed’ in day to day conversation to mean sad or fed up, it can diminish the meaning of depression if you are experiencing an episode of clinical depression.

What happens if we lose touch with our emotions?adult-blur-business-986831

It may feel safer or more socially acceptable to tell someone you are feeling stressed or depressed than it is to say you feel:

  • dejected
  • furious
  • terrified
  • despondent
  • lost
  • flat
  • empty, deflated, defeated, bereft, sorrowful, rejected, apprehensive, bored, or have a sense of impending doom.  

But what happens when we only acknowledge the label ‘stressed’ or ‘depressed’ to ourselves?

We could miss the nuance of our experience…

We could avoid acknowledging and feeling emotions that could help us to understand something about ourselves or our situation…

Or we may just feel overwhelmed and confused because we don’t really know how we feel. 

Think for a minute about the difference in how it feels when you think of the word ‘depressed’ in comparison with ‘bereft’.

What do they feel like? Can you tell the difference?

 

When we don’t define the emotion it hinders appropriate action

When we can’t express what we are feeling to ourselves or to others, it could also prevent us from taking appropriate action or having our needs met. 

For example, I have recently noticed that my 6 year old will tell me he is hungry when he is actually bored. 

He is expressing to me that he has a need and he wants his internal state to change but he sometimes mis-labels what he is experiencing.

If he is actually bored but tells me he is hungry, I will give him something to eat but then in 10 minutes he will come back to tell me he is still hungry. 

His true need has not been met. 

If, on the other hand, he can identify and tell me that he is bored, the solution to this problem is different!

We might get out some different toys or activities or go out to play! (He has now started to differentiate between hunger and boredom with a little prompting).

 

Emotions are there to be felt!adult-change-clown-1990

Even the emotions we experience as negative are there to help us make sense of our internal and external world. 

Just identifying our emotions helps us to acknowledge and process them. Being specific about what you are experiencing is far more helpful than using a catch-all term. 

Of course, you may actually feel stressed or depressed, in which case these descriptions are absolutely valid.

But if you find yourself frequently using these words with other people or to yourself, or if you rarely use any other ways to describe your emotions, see if there is anything else hiding beneath them. 

Don’t stop at negative emotions either! Identify your positive emotions too!

Don’t you think elated, ecstatic, overjoyed, victorious, invincible or carefree feel better than ‘good’?

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Have a lovely, emotional day!

Lemon Squeezy makes wellbeing easy! 

Image Credit: Pixabay