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How can I stop over-thinking everything?

Your very best and most detailed worrying can’t change the past or the future no matter how hard you try. Instead, you can take control of the here and now; you deserve to live a less stressful life.

If you’re reading this you’re already working towards managing your over-thinking habits, and a habit is exactly what this is. We all fall into patterns in the way we think and respond to life. You’ve recognised over-thinking as an issue and this awareness is your key to change. You’re already half-way there.

To begin with it may help to ask yourself, how much of my day do I spend with my internal monologue and worries? And, how does this benefit me, if at all? You could keep a diary for a week and see what you notice – What do you spend most of your day thinking about? How much time and energy does this thinking take up? What does all the over-thinking achieve? 

If you have noticed that over-thinking and dwelling on past or future events takes up a lot of your mental energy, it may be time to practice focusing your attention outside of yourself.

What does that really mean? The image below is taken from Catherine Lepange’s book Thin Slices of Anxiety: Observations and Advice to Ease a Worried Mind and it represents the idea.

thinslicesofanxiety10

I’m not too keen on the ‘normal person’ tag in the image as there really is no such thing but a more outward focused mind may represent a more mentally healthy person, with a more balanced view of the world. Of course, some level of introspection isn’t a bad thing, it’s how we learn about what makes us tick and develop as people. It’s when that over-thinking persists that we see problems such as panic attacks, lack of sleep or avoidance of social situations.

The idea of looking outwards is about adjusting your focus; what might you be doing with friends or for your community, who might you be spending time with, what might you be feeling if you spent less time caught up in your own thoughts. The idea can be liberating, if you allow yourself to let go. Your very best and most detailed worrying can’t change the past or the future no matter how hard you try. Instead, you can take control over the here and now. You deserve to live a less stressful life.

So how do you let go of the worrying?

Kicking any sort of habit can be really hard and over-thinking is no exception. Often over-thinking can act as a safety net, for example, you may believe that if you think something through enough then you’ll be prepared for all eventualities, or you’ll actually feel less anxious.

Consider for a moment then, what the worry and stress is doing to your body. You may find you get frequent tummy upsets, tension in your neck or back or you always pick up the cold that’s going around. As we generate stress through worry, our physical health can suffer too.

Finding your motivation to let go is really important. You need to set your intention and be willing to  commit, whether that’s for your general health and wellbeing, your values as a person and who you want to be or simply to make life a little more bearable.

Write it down. What is your motivation to stop over-thinking?

post it motivation

Once you find your motivation the next step is to consider what you’re actually willing to do. You’ll need to take action; this won’t magically go away on its own. It’s all very well reading a nice blog but it’s very easy to discard and scroll on to the next thing you aren’t going to do! My challenge to you is to try to start one new habit today.

Re-focus your attention.

Imagine a volume dial in your mind. Next time the over-thinking kicks in, visualise the image of turning the volume down inside your mind, then pro-actively do something else to re-focus your attention – put the radio on, call a friend, do ten star jumps – whatever works for you. Focus your energy outwards instead of inwards.

Take time out to practice relaxation.

Yoga and meditation are often recommended for a busy mind and can be a huge challenge at first as they push you to slow down, focus on your breath and create stillness. For meditation try the Headspace app and for yoga try Yoga with Adriene – free videos you can do at home specifically designed to help you manage depression, anxiety, self-doubt, stress and more. Or, join a local class, push yourself to take one action today.

Visualise a day in the life of you, without excessive worry.

Take a piece of paper and draw yourself in the middle. From there put down everything that could be different if you let go of some of your over-thinking. It might be more time doing things you enjoy, more time for yourself, increased freedom to say ‘yes’ to things, better sleep, better connections with friends. How would you feel and what would you be doing differently? Stick this picture up on your fridge or somewhere you will see it every day. Being able to visualise a better future is another important step.

Do one thing this week that is just for you.

Who are you without worrying? You may have forgotten who you really are, what you care about, what you want to do with your time. Worrying has the ability to rob us of the here and now by keeping us in the past or in the future. Don’t miss out on living for the moment – watch the sunset, go and see a film on your own, go to a cafe and read a book for half an hour, get in touch with something that you enjoy.

Put yourself first.

But isn’t that selfish? No. No it isn’t. You matter and you need to allow yourself to come first sometimes. If you worry about other people’s expectations or judgements too much this can get in the way of your desired change. Carl Rogers called these restrictions our ‘conditions of worth’, the unwritten rules we learn growing up. For example, ‘I’m only successful if I am busy all the time’, I’m only loved if I take care of everyone’, ‘I’m only likeable if I’m outgoing’, ‘I’m only loved if I’m interesting and clever’, ‘I’m only okay if I always get things right’, ‘I’m only accepted when I’m life and soul of the party’.

Have a go at identifying your own conditions of worth and consider if you want these to hold you down any longer. Drop the perfectionism and begin to listen to your own needs.

This all sounds great but…

This sort of self-development can be daunting, painful, hard work. You’ll need to dig deep to break this habit. However, making changes can also be hugely rewarding as you begin to take back control of your time, energy and attention. You’ll relapse into old habits now and then and that’s okay. Notice it, give yourself a break, and then do something about it. You won’t be starting from scratch this time.

Having someone to support you with making changes can also help to provide the structure and commitment you need to bring about the change you desire. You might tell a friend or family member what you’re trying to do and ask for their support, get them to call you out when they notice you retreating into your own head, panicking or being quieter than usual.

Counselling can also provide a safe space to explore what’s behind your over-thinking and support you to make change. If you’re interested to find out more please get in touch.  Good luck!

What is outdoor therapy?

The act of moving through an outdoor space can remind us of our connection to the natural world as well as our place within a much larger picture.

Being outdoors can be a mindful and grounding experience. We can’t help but feel the sun or rain on our skin, the wind in our face and the ground beneath our feet. The act of moving through an outdoor space can remind us of our connection to the natural world as well as our place within a much larger picture.

For me, therapy is about observation. Observing ourselves and noticing what makes us tick, exploring our motivation, and the values we strive for, in more depth. By taking therapy outdoors we are gifted with a natural backdrop of change and renewal. Landscapes rarely look the same from one day to the next. Our internal landscape is also constantly changing and in motion.

With careful and compassionate observation we can notice what gets in our way and what patterns we want to let go of. We can begin to create our own change and renewal. We find ourselves reflected in the environment around us.

Of course nature is rich with metaphor and finding a way to conceptualise our internal struggles can often be a useful tool. Outdoor therapy is open to engaging with nature in a variety of ways and different therapists will be more or less directive in terms of involving the environment more explicity in the therapy.

My approach often begins by simply walking and talking, noticing our surroundings and experiencing the flow of thoughts and feelings that movement can provide. Over time our relationship with the outdoors and with each other can deepen as we build trust and work collaboratively to shape the sessions in a way that works best for you. We may take more time to stop, to sit or to connect with the environment around us.

Outdoor therapy can also present challenges that wouldn’t occur in a traditional therapy setting. We might encounter bad weather, obstacles, mud, ice, other people or animals. An ability to adapt and respond to the unexpected when working outdoors is something we navigate together each time we set out. These challenges can also become great opportunities for learning and growth.

My Therapy Services section contains more information on where I practice counselling outdoors and why you might choose this type of therapy.

How to expand your comfort zone

Comfort zones have that name for a reason: they’re comfortable, safe and non-threatening. However, as we grow into our existence, the comfortable places can become increasingly restrictive. Imagine the trunk of a tree: if the protective bark was not able to adjust and adapt to the tree’s growth, the growth would become stifled until the tree exploded under the pressure!

Personal growth can sometimes be painful. Feelings of anxiety, frustration, exhaustion, sadness and loss can often accompany change. At the same time, growth can also be a joyful, liberating experience, stirring a new sense of empowerment and influence over your own life. 

Your personal growth lies at the edge of your comfort zone. Don’t let fear hold you back. Go to the edge and push it further out.

Come back to the centre to recharge. Breathe, ground yourself and find your calm. Next time you step out that far you’ll see your comfort zone has expanded – and so has your zone of calm.

Dr Aaron Balick, Little Book of Calm

In this blog post I’m going to explore some of the things that can get in the way of personal growth and how you can use self-awareness to begin to expand your comfort zone.

Consider how you see yourself

During my training to become a counsellor, I came to realise that I had a relatively fixed idea of who I was. I saw myself as having certain traits that weren’t really likely to change over time. We were tasked with imagining the title for a book about our lives as a way of exploring the beliefs we held about ourselves. I realised that my thoughts quickly turned into a narrative about a quiet and unassuming person, perhaps not fulfilling her full potential, and always staying under the radar. I felt sad about this prospect.

I had already noticed feeling of envy towards others and yet I would quickly talk myself out of pursuing similar goals to those people I admired. I justified this by saying things like, ‘ I could never do that’, or ‘I’m just not that kind of person’. I realised that by saying this to myself I was in fact reinforcing these fixed beliefs which demanded I stay in the background. Ultimately, I was getting in my own way – avoiding change and limiting growth.  What we need in order to grow and expand our comfort zone is to see ourselves as flexible, adaptable and able to learn.

Our self-image can also be affected when we become preoccupied with how other people view or judge us. Our friends and family may ascribe labels such as the ‘quiet one’, ‘the funny one’, ‘the clever one’. The dynamics of many of our relationships may function well based on these mutual expectations, and if we begin to change then these relationships may be disrupted.

You may find it hard to even imagine a life in which you behave differently, the idea can feel alien and out of reach. The path to being authentic in yourself can often be paved with some degree of confrontation and disruption, and we can learn how to manage this rather than avoid it. 

It’s important to remember that the beliefs we hold about ourselves are there for a reason and to some extent they do keep us safe. There are reasons why some of us feel happier under the radar and others feel at home in the limelight. These reasons often have to do with the way we have adapted to our environments whilst growing up, how we have learned to ‘get on’, to survive and to be accepted.

Expanding your comfort zone involves letting go of fixed beliefs and behaviours that are holding you back in the here and now, and reimagining a different future for yourself.

Allow yourself to fail

By sticking to the limited view I had of myself when I started my training, and my belief that my personality was fixed, I could conveniently avoid the risks involved in growing into a better version of myself. That way I would, at least, be safe: I wouldn’t let anyone down and I wouldn’t have to experience the shame and vulnerability that can come with potential failure.

Taking risks requires a willingness to accept responsibility for ourselves, to tolerate some level of anxiety, to own our failures, and to be curious and even excited to learn the valuable lessons that come from new experiences. Comfort zones have that name for a reason: they’re comfortable, safe and non-threatening. They may have served us well for a long time. However, as we grow into our existence, the comfortable places can become increasingly restrictive. 

Ideas to get you started

The first step in expanding your comfort zone is working out what obstacles you’re putting in your own way. This will require some self-reflection, either on your own or with someone you trust and can be yourself with. 

Self-reflection

Spend some time with a pen and paper writing things down, drawing a mind map or simply talking and reflecting using some of these questions to prompt you:

  • How do you describe yourself?
  • What parts of your personality seem fixed/unchangeable? 
  • What do you envy in other people? These feelings can point to areas of growth for you.
  • How much do you truly care about other people and their opinions and judgements of you? After all, other people’s opinions are really none of your business, your opinion is the one that will have the biggest impact on your life.
  • What are the practical obstacles to change and growth? Who or what may get in your way and how can you manage this? For example, your finances, family responsibilities and dynamics or time constraints. You may need to start small and seek support, or re-prioritise.

Take some time to really get to know your own views about yourself and what might be holding you back.

Visualise ‘future you’

Seat yourself comfortably and once you’re settled, close your eyes and imagine a version of yourself that you really like, are happy in, and are proud of. Where are you? What are you doing? How do you feel in yourself?

Try role-playing this person in your own mind and writing down the sorts of things this version of you would do or say differently. Pay attention to small shifts in body language or behaviours and consider how you might start to bring these into the present.

Journaling

Draw two circles, one inside the other. In the centre one, write down things that are currently in your comfort zone. In the outer circle write down the things that currently feel out of reach , that you avoid or that cause you to have anxious feelings. Next, consider a life where these things remain outside of your comfort zone, forever. What are you going to miss out on in life as a result? It might be new experiences, new wisdom, new relationships? How does that make you feel?

You may find that channelling some of that emotional energy into your motivation can help provide a kick start. You can also use the diagram to select a starting point, what will be the first thing you learn to be comfortable with?

Just do it!

The most important stage in the process is taking an action. Start small and build from it, for example by making a commitment to take an action with ‘future you’ in mind. There comes a point where we just have to do it, take a risk and trust that we will be okay; even if things go wrong we still have an opportunity to learn and improve for next time.

For me, the tipping point arrived when I became so frustrated with ‘not doing’ the things I was admiring or envying in others that I finally channelled my energy into taking some of these small steps outside of my comfort zone. I can happily report that I survived! Small wins and achievementsquickly create a positive feedback loop and mastering new skills has been hugely rewarding.

If you’re struggling with motivation it can also help to involve someone you trust to help support and encourage you. Introduce some external accountability to begin with, until you feel ready to be accountable to yourself.

It also helps to have someone to vent to when things don’t go to plan. Resource yourself and enjoy the new life experiences awaiting you as you expand your comfort zone.

Preparing for a phone or video counselling session

Having a counselling session on the phone or online will feel very different to coming in to see someone face to face. Rest assured, many therapists work in this way and it’s still possible to have meaningful sessions together even if you’re not in the same room as your counsellor.

I’ve put together this list below with some things to think about before your first phone or video session.

  • How will you protect your confidentiality? This is one of the most important considerations. You will need to find a quiet, confidential place for your sessions where you feel safe to talk freely and are free from interruptions or the fear of being overheard. If you are going to be at home, you may need to consider how you let other members of the household know that you do not wish to be disturbed.  Sitting in your parked car is a great option if your house is busy. You could even have a telephone session whilst walking in the park or sitting in the garden (weather permitting!).
  • Do you have a good connection? Video counselling requires a strong and reliable connection. If you are using WiFi make sure you have a decent signal. If you’re opting for telephone counselling and using your mobile, make sure you have a good signal and that your battery is charged!
  • What device will you use for video? I use a piece of software called Zoom for video calls and I use this on my laptop.  I would recommend a laptop, desktop computer or tablet if you have one so that you can see your counsellor on a good sized screen. It’s possible to use a mobile too if necessary.
  • Do you have a headset/headphones or earphones to use for video calls? This helps to protect your confidentiality and also makes it easier to hear your counsellor clearly. If you have them I would suggest using them. 
  • Does your webcam work for video calls? Make sure to check your webcam is working so that you can see your counsellor clearly during the session. If you don’t have a webcam then having a session over the phone might be more suitable.

Getting started on the day

  • Get yourself ready 5-10 minutes before. This gives you time to make sure your technology is working. Get yourself comfy, take a few deep breaths and settle in to the moment.
  • What if we have technical issues or are disconnected ? This can raise anxiety if it happens, especially if you are in the middle of sharing something important. Be sure to discuss a back up plan with your counsellor so that you know what to do if this happens.

If you have any questions about phone or video counselling or are interested in booking a session please do get in touch.

Regulating strong emotions

In our day to day lives, our brains are constantly monitoring the world around us and looking out for threats in order to keep us safe. Sometimes these threats can be real (a hole in the pavement that we need to avoid) and sometimes these threats are perceived threats – this means that we have interpreted a situation and decided that we are under threat, either consciously or unconsciously, even when we may not be.

For example, you see a group of people talking and looking in your direction and you quickly assume they are saying negative things about you, when in fact one of them is admiring your coat.

How we interpret interactions with others and situations in our daily lives can have a huge impact on how we feel, and ultimately how we behave.

When we experience a surge of emotion, there are two ways of managing this. We can either react or respond.

REACT – FAST AND FURIOUS!

An event occurs >> Our emotions rise up and can feel overwhelming >> We have a quick reaction and we act on it.

We might run away, shout insults, destroy something or any number of impulsive reactions. This type of reaction may or may not be useful and often happens quickly without any thought and from a place of intense feeling.

Consider what you usually do when you’re feeling overwhelmed, do you lash out, run away or something else?

RESPOND SLOW AND STEADY.

An event Occurs >> Our emotions rise up and can feel overwhelming >> We recognise what is happening in our bodies >> We take time to acknowledge and regulate our emotions – slow deep breaths, step away from the situation to generate space to think, tell ourselves the intensity will pass and let the emotion swell up and fall back down, ask yourself – what is happening here? What am I feeling and what is it telling me? >>

With increased awareness and understanding, you will be able to consider your options for action and make a choice about what you do next.

You may choose to express and articulate your feelings and needs clearly when needed: “I feel_______about_______And I need_______.”

HOW DO I REGULATE STRONG EMOTIONS?

It sounds simple in theory but we all know that in reality, when our feelings take hold, it can be really difficult to think clearly. The very first thing to practice is to recognise that something is happening, to say to yourself ‘I am having a strong emotional reaction right now’. This small window of awareness can help you to slow down the whole process and get your body out of fight or flight mode.

Once you have calmed down, you can get your thinking brain back online. This is an essential part of managing your emotions.

The following ideas take practice and you will need to find what works for you.

  • Change your state. If you are sitting down, stand up and walk. If you are indoors, step outside and feel the fresh air. If you are on your own, connect with someone your trust. The key is to ‘do’ something to kickstart a shift.
  • Communicate. If you are in conflict with another person, share with them what is happening and what you need to do. ‘I am feeling really overwhelmed right now, I need some space to think and I will be back.’
  • Breathe it out or shake it off. Sit down, feel your body in the chair, your feet on the floor and your hands on your lap and focus on taking a few long deep breaths. As you breathe out let out a big sigh, or whatever sound feels good. If sitting still is too much, stand up and shake it off, shake your arms and legs until the intensity has decreased. 
  • Focus on objects around you. Name at least five objects you can see that are a certain colour. This helps shift your attention and allows your emotions to regulate to a more manageable level.
  • Imagine a soothing presence or person – what would they say to you right now? Work on cultivating a nurturing inner voice rather than a critical one. 
  • Focus on a soothing object or place from your memory. You may carry something with you that connects you to a calmer state of mind – it might be a pebble from your favourite beach or a piece of jewellery from a good friend. 
  • Get outside, breathe the fresh air and walk for 5 -10 minutes. Pacing can help us organise our thoughts and the physical movement will help to disperse the adrenaline.

These responses take repeated practice and may feel strange and clunky at first. What you are doing is paying attention to your body/mind connection and learning how to self-regulate.

Learning to turn towards your emotions and sit with them rather than block them out or avoid them will be a valuable skill that helps you throughout your life. It will enable you to operate in a more authentic way with the world and the people around you. Counselling can also provide the invitation and opportunity to practice this in a safe space with direction and support. 

Some people also find that practicing things like meditation, mindfulness or yoga enables them to get more in touch with where they feel emotions in their body, as well as becoming more accepting of uncomfortable emotions, allowing them space to be felt, processed and managed in a healthier way. 

Fundamentally it is important to remember that your emotions matter. Putting pressure on yourself to be ‘fine’ all of the time and present that version of yourself to the world is unrealistic and will eventually lead to poor mental health.

It is far more authentic to embrace the full range of your emotions and accept them for what they are and learn how to express them.

Befriending your emotions

This post was inspired by the wonderful Emmy Van Deurzen – a philosopher, artist and existential psychotherapist who I had the benefit of hearing talk at an event put on by the Brighton Therapy Partnership last year. You can watch her lecture to the Weekend University on ‘Managing your Emotions’ if you’d like to hear more!

Emotions are not just extreme responses to special situations. They are actually essential daily messages

Emmy Van Deurzen

People often come to counselling for reasons such as wanting to reduce their anxiety, prevent their angry outbursts or ‘get rid’ of their depression. Whilst these are understandable goals, they are framed in a way that implies that our emotions are to be avoided, dampened or dismissed. The main message that I took from Emmy’s talk, and that I want to pass on to you, is that all of your emotions are valid and important. There are no good or bad emotions. Consider befriending your emotions, tune in, rather than block out.  

Emmy describes emotions as signposts, daily messages, proof that we are alive, that our body, brain and nervous system are working and reacting to the world around us and to our needs as human beings. The complexity and variety of our emotions is what makes us human and our emotions have something to tell us. In this way, counselling can be an opportunity for growth and learning, time each week to work on understanding what drives your emotions and what messages they have for you.

We can learn to listen to our emotions, feel their intensity, let it pass and then exercise curiosity rather than judgement. We might ask: What message is behind this emotion? What task do I need to take on? What is really going on here? What do I need right now?

Many of us have never learned how to pay attention to our internal world and we may also have internalised the stigma around asking for help or expressing our so called ‘negative’ emotions. You might believe that you should be able to cope better, that you shouldn’t be struggling or that other people are worse off so you shouldn’t be feeling sad. These mindsets are both unhelpful and unrealistic. It also happens that reaching out for help can provide the very thing we are often seeking – authentic connection to others,  one of our basic human needs. If you feel you have a version of yourself that you try to show to the world and a ‘real’ version inside then over time this will become exhausting. 

How do I tune in to my emotions?

Facing your emotions can be scary for a number of reasons. It can often seem less painful to look the other way, minimise them, or discount them entirely, so that in the short term at least, you don’t have to deal with them and the discomfort and pain this might entail. You may have learnt to do this to survive growing up, perhaps certain emotions were frowned upon in your family or you needed to switch your emotions off in order to cope with your environment. Whatever the reason, as an adult, you may find that your emotions come in intense waves when you can no longer hold them at bay or you may feel disconnected from the world around you. 

In the same way that it is necessary for us to attend to our physical selves (we must eat, sleep and exercise to avoid illness), it is also necessary for us to attend to our emotional world so that we can be mentally well. When we let ourselves feel, we are being our authentic selves, this may be uncomfortable at times but being true to ourselves also feels good. The first step is to slow yourself down and name what you are feeling.

Emotions provide both the fire and the light inside us. We need to learn to tend the fire.

Emmy Van Deurzen

Take envy for example, often seen as an ugly, unwelcome emotion. We may feel ashamed to admit our envious feelings, we might put ourselves down for feeling envy. Emmy points out in her talk that in fact, envy reflects our aspirations and our personal values. Envy can lead us to energetic motivation in our own lives. What are we working towards and what do we want to achieve? Embrace your envy, be curious about it, accept it and work out what it has to tell you. Take action. 

Similarly with anger, this has the potential to be an explosive and impulsive emotion. Anger often comes with a lot of energy that we need to learn to contain and then channel into a healthy expression of our resentment, disappointment or frustration. You might want to consider what is going on in your life that is resulting in these feelings? Your anger, like a siren, it’s telling you that something isn’t okay about your current situation. Perhaps someone is violating your boundaries, disrespecting your values, taking advantage of your good nature – the task then is to consider what you need to change in order to tend to your anger. 

Finally, one of the most common feelings that we fight against is anxiety. We can become consumed by worry and fear: What will they think of me? Will I get it right? What if I fail? The task with anxiety is to welcome the rising energy within, the butterflies in your stomach, the racing heart and to find the courage to keep going. Your threat response system is working which is a good thing! You may however, need to remind your brain that in fact you have the tools to cope. Suppressing your anxiety, or trying to switch it off, will only intensify it. Instead, learn to trust your ability to handle unexpected situations and see each one as a chance to grow, to improve and to expand your comfort zone. Take responsibility only for yourself and let everyone else take care of themselves. You deserve to live a full life, not one where you shy away from the action or stifle your potential.

We cannot expect ourselves to know how to handle every situation the first time around and remain calm. This knowledge and confidence only comes with experience and the courage to work with our emotions rather than against them. 

On a practical level, it also helps to find safe places and people to go to and recover from the adrenaline after a difficult experience. I like to run or walk in nature or reflect on my experience with a trusted friend or colleague. A little reassurance can be helpful and a reminder that we are loved and respected in all our messiness.

Get used to noticing your emotions, naming them and being curious about what’s driving them. Whatever you do, don’t judge yourself badly for feeling something. Feeling is what makes you human.

Talking to your friends and family

Behind every dismissive ‘I’m fine thanks’, lies the internal emotional world of a complex human being. Sadness, fear, loneliness and pain are all part of being human; you’re not alone in your struggles. By bringing them out into the open you can not only find relief, but you can also show others that they’re okay to do the same. The question is, how do you do it?

Have you ever opened up to a friend or family member with a problem, hoping for a listening ear, a hug or the chance to vent? Did you receive advice you didn’t ask for, worse still a judgement, or an ‘I told you so!’, a ‘Pull yourself together!’ or even a ‘Come on now, all you need to do is…’.

Often these reactions are well-intentioned, but they can also be extremely annoying or even hurtful, leaving you feeling frustrated, patronised or misunderstood; you may even feel guilt from offloading and it can be off-putting to open up when we can’t be sure of the response we’ll get.

So what’s going on here?

The thing is, when we see people we care about suffering it’s only natural to want to help them solve their problems; we may want to take away their stress or sadness somehow, or we might jump to feeling angry with them or whatever is behind their distress. We can often react quickly, based on our own views, and we do all of this before they have even finished what they want to say. This can result in shutting down a conversation even if we didn’t intend to.

For example, someone in the midst of a break up is unlikely to benefit from a blunt, ‘Plenty more fish in the sea, let’s get you on tinder’ response.  Or a student struggling to choose between universities doesn’t need to be told ‘Well if you can’t make this decision how on earth are you going to manage on your own when you get there.’.

The good news is that we can interrupt this unhelpful dynamic; we can find the courage to speak up and learn the skills to set up a conversation that meets our needs. Or, as listeners, we can learn to really help our loved ones.

In the counselling room I often help clients to play out difficult conversations. This can be a great way to work out what you really want to say, prepare for the responses you might get and find the confidence to start those difficult conversations in a more thoughtful way.

Setting up a conversation…

Two people drinking coffee

Step 1: Choose your listener

Who you choose to seek support from can be really important. Sometimes our loved ones can seem too close to the situation to remain impartial. You may worry about burdening others with your problems or being judged by them. These fears are common, and they are manageable. Showing your vulnerability takes courage and strength; the opposite of weakness. It’s about being real rather than putting on a brave face and trying to cope on your own. There’s no avoiding the risk you take in opening up, but you can manage that risk by choosing someone you trust. It’s important to be absolutely clear about what you need from them and more important perhaps, to tell them what you don’t need!

If you don’t feel you have anyone you trust enough to talk to them you may want to consider counselling as an option. You can also speak to a trained listener anytime of day or night by contacting Samaritans

Step 2: Think about the location and timing

Where and when are you going to have this conversation? Avoid places full of interruptions or places where you might be overheard. Try taking a walk together or finding a quiet time with a cuppa. In fact, research shows that walking is good for the brain. Not only that, but many people find the act of walking an excellent stress reliever in itself, and even better to have someone with you. I don’t know about you but when I’m walking I often find my thoughts begin to take better shape. Car journeys can work well too. The key here is to ensure you have the space and time you need, in a place that you feel comfortable, and make sure you both put your phones away.

Step 3: Don’t be afraid to put some structure in place

If you’re the one asking for help, avoid blurting out the problem with no prior warning. You’ll take the other person by surprise and you’re way less likely to get what you need. Instead try to initiate the conversation calmly at a time that suits you both.

Here are a few useful phrases to get you started:

‘I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something that’s not easy for me. Do you have some time in the next day or two to have a chat?’

I’ve got something weighing on my mind that I need to offload. I don’t want advice or even your opinion really, just some space to get this off my chest, would that be okay?’

If you’re helping someone else, learn to be a good listener. Clarify what you have heard, summarise it back to them and then, only if they ask, help them to come up with solutions or offer your opinion. Focus on them.

Clarify: Make sure you know what this person wants:

Are you looking for advice or would you rather I just listen?’ ‘Can I just check I have understood correctly?

Summarise: Let them tell their story. Resist the urge to take control with your own solutions and don’t weigh in with your opinions or judgements. Instead, communicate your understanding of their situation:

So, it sounds like you’re really angry with your boss and you’re struggling to cope with the stress, and you don’t know what to do.’

This helps the other person feel genuinely heard and understood, this can be invaluable!

Ask questions: Put them in the driving seat.

‘What do you think your options are here?’ ‘Would you like me to help you come up with some solutions or do you just want a hug?’

All of these suggestions should give both sides the chance to slow down, make time for each other and generate more supportive conversations. Give it a try and let me know in the comments how you get on. What might a half hour walk once a week with a good friend, partner or family member do for your wellbeing?

Remember, behind every dismissive ‘I’m fine thanks’, lies the internal emotional world of a complex human being. Sadness, fear, loneliness and pain are all part of being human; you’re not alone in your struggles. By bringing them out into the open you can not only find relief, but you can also show others they’re okay to do the same. You might be surprised with the connections you make.

Can you take a compliment?

If you have low self-esteem you may spend a lot of time thinking ‘I’m not okay’ – not skinny enough, not clever enough, not cool enough, not interesting enough, not happy enough, not sexy enough, not fun enough. This sort of thinking, if left unchecked, can lead to feelings of anxiety, insecurity, shame and depression. It’s time to start taking positive feedback on board.

Taking a compliment sounds like a simple thing to do. Someone says something positive about you, you say ‘thank you very much’ and walk away with a fuzzy feeling inside. In reality though, many of us play down our abilities, we say to ourselves:

‘They’re just being polite.
‘They have to say that, they’re my friend.
I wasn’t that good, other people are much better than me.’

Many of us feel uncomfortable accepting compliments through fear of seeming boastful or arrogant and we respond by saying things like:

‘Oh, this old thing, it’s nothing special!’
‘Thanks but it wasn’t really all down to me.’

You may have been on the other side too, as the compliment giver, you can be left feeling frustrated or wondering why you bothered.

The key to all this can often be found in low self-esteem. You may find it hard to recognise anything truly worthwhile about yourself. Or, if you can, these qualities are immediately cancelled out by all the bad stuff which you give much more attention to!

You may focus on feeling inadequate in some way. Or you may feel you’re coasting along just well enough that no one has quite noticed how afraid and lacking in confidence you really are. You often think that if they knew the ‘real you’ they wouldn’t pay you those compliments. You may also compare yourself to others or to the person you feel you ‘should’ be. This internal struggle can be absolutely exhausting and leave you feeling miserable and uncomfortable in yourself. 

How to take a compliment

The following steps can help you to move forward and accept that there may be some truth in the way other people see you and the positive things they say about you.

Step 1: Stop comparing!

These seemingly sorted people you see all around you, on instagram, at work, they aren’t you. They haven’t lived in your body, haven’t had the same life experiences that you have had, and so it’s not an ‘apples with apples’ fair comparison. So stop it. Enough now.

Instead, slow down the process. When you notice yourself comparing in a negative way, rather than speeding ahead to miserable town, allow yourself a choice – you can proceed down that negative spiral, or, you can do something different.

The trick here is in the doing – stand up, take a deep breath, shake your body, go outside, call a friend, make a cup of tea, put some music on, change your energy somehow. When you’re stuck, the only way out is to move and sometimes this means quite literally moving your body. 

Step 2: Say thank you!

Every time you receive a compliment, no matter your mood, notice your initial reaction but challenge yourself to say a genuine thank you. Then, when you have a moment, write it down for later, read it, see it.

Absorb it. Let it in.

The compliment-giver did it for a reason; look for the evidence that backs it up rather than the evidence against it. You may feel really uncomfortable doing this at first and that’s normal, just keep at it. 

Say Thank You

Step 3: Be open and willing to change the way you think.

Perhaps this one should come first! Imagine yourself with improved self-esteem. How do you feel and what are you doing differently? Until you can visualise your desired change it’s unlikely that the other steps will have the desired effect. Making any change requires a decision to do so and a commitment to see it through. Lapsing back into old thinking habits is also part of the process but the important thing is to notice what you’re doing.

Eric Berne, the founder of Transactional Analysis, gives us a simple way of looking at all of this. He believed that we’re all born ‘okay’: good and worthy. Through our life experiences, our sense of ‘okayness’ can become diminished (or elevated, but that’s a whole other blog post!). If you have low self-esteem you may spend a lot of time thinking ‘I’m not okay’ – not skinny enough, not clever enough, not cool enough, not interesting enough, not happy enough, not sexy enough, not fun enough. This sort of thinking, if left unchecked, can lead to feelings of anxiety, insecurity, shame and depression.

Counselling can help you to understand where these beliefs have come from and support you to make a shift in the view you have of yourself. Remember, you’re in charge of you, you’re enough as you are, nobody has it all figured out and you have untapped potential waiting to be unleashed. Take the compliment 😉

 

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