Psychology, Social Media

How To Wake Up Motivated, Even When You Feel You Can’t Get Out Of Bed

how to wake up motivated
How to wake up motivated.

Lying in bed, left cheek on pillow, I’m perfectly positioned to see the tree outside my window. Each morning I admire its leaves dancing in the wind, their varying colours indicative of changing seasons. It’s a pleasant start to my day, a moment of stillness and appreciation before I’m vertical.

Yet, sometimes, morning admiration dissolves into apathy. The tree’s leaves blur into a multicoloured canvas for my wandering mind. Attentiveness gives way to a distant gaze as I become occupied by the land of thoughts; I’m reliving social interactions, ordering mental to-do lists, fantasizing about perfect futures. I’m daydreaming before the day’s begun.

Before I know it, an hour’s passed and I’m still in bed. Then comes the guilt.

It’s possible to learn how to wake up motivated

At this stage of my life this happens rarely. Mostly I spring out of bed before my alarm, ready to brew coffee, eat my porridge and carpe diem the hell out of my day. But when this does happen, it’s a reminder of how difficult it was to get out of bed when in the midst of depression and anxiety.

Recently, I’ve had a number of conversations with loved ones who experience this frequently. It motivated me to write this article and explore reasons why. I’ve included a wealth of techniques anyone can apply to help learn how to wake up, and get up. This guide is written for loved ones. It’s written for you.

Note: If you regularly struggle to get out of bed when you have obligations, this could be a sign of clinical depression. Consider talking to a doctor if you’re missing work or regularly cancelling plans.

Bedroom rumination and the spiral of anxiety

“Oh, I could hide ‘neath the wings,
Of the bluebird as she sings,
The six-o’clock alarm would never ring,
But six rings and I rise,
Wipe the sleep out of my eyes,
The shaving razor’s cold and it sting.” — The Monkees — Daydream Believer

Not all thoughts are equal. Our minds can be a source of wisdom. Our minds can also be a source of meaningless junk, in the form of intrusive, repetitive thoughts with no substance. Fears, inner-criticism, indulgence in past and future. Eastern spiritual traditions refer to our default thinking processes as the “monkey-mind” for good reason.

On the mornings when the leaves blur, I fall down the rabbit hole of thinking. Me and my thinking become one, but not in the bliss or creative insight or problem solving. Often, I’m visualising premonitions of the day’s events or facing an inner-battle; excuses to stay in bed — “just five more minutes…” — fight incessant inner-dialogue, where I chastise myself for laziness.

Ever lie in bed, paralysed by thoughts bemoaning how much time you’ve wasted… lying in bed? In psychological terms, this is rumination, “a negative, repetitive style of thinking about present and past symptoms, loss, and failure.” It’s heavily linked to an increased possibility of depression and anxiety.

Depressed people may sleep excessively to cope with rumination, when the only escape route seems to be the world of dreams.

I think because I’m unhappy, and I’m unhappy because I think

Rather than leaving you feeling more spacious and more connected with being, as meditation does, daydreaming embroils you more actively in the drama or your life.” — Stephan Bodian — Meditation for Dummies

Rumination is also associated with avoidance. We fall into the trap of believing if only we think enough, all of our problems will go away! This is a poor coping mechanism. In fact, chronic rumination increases indecision and inactivity. A 2003 study found that, when faced with a task “fraught with uncertainty and performance pressure,” nonruminators delved into problem solving. However, ruminators focused on the distress, which “amplified it and enhanced its subsequent effects on their thinking.”

Applying this study to pillow procrastination (term trademarked), I speculate those prone to rumination are particularly triggered by the uncertainty of the blank slate of a full day ahead. The nature of an anxiety disorder is the notion of “I can’t cope.” I remember many mornings spent fearfully rehearsing every perceived threat the day would present — often accompanied by visualisations of a worst case scenario.

If you find yourself ruminating, remind yourself it’s a coping mechanism with little benefit. You won’t find the answers you’re looking for. This may sound obvious, but it’s surprising how easy it is to become entangled in this cycle. Set the intention to break the cycle the night before. Write a post-it note as a reminder: “action is the answer” or “you can’t think your way out of a paper bag, so get up” are two options.

Could improved, realistic goals be a solution?

Jonathan Rottenberg, psychologist and author of The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic, provides an interesting theory on why depressed people struggle to get out of bed. Rottenberg pays close attention to the functionality of mood, arguing low mood is the result of poor progress or the response to an important goal being threatened.

Low mood may be the result of poor progress towards goals.

“Depressed people don’t end up lying in bed because they are undercommitted to goals,” he writes. “They end up lying in bed because they are overcommitted to goals that are failing badly.” The reason this is so debilitating is because humans override mood function to continue pursuing unattainable goals. Without this override, Sisyphus would’ve stopped pushing that bloody rock after it became obvious it wasn’t a good idea.

I’m on board with Rottenberg’s forward-thinking. I’ve experienced paralysis caused by unrealistically high expectations of what should be achievable in a day. And paralysis based on the fear of not living up to self-imposed expectations. Both of these are signs of perfectionism — in the context of goals and behaviour. We don’t stay in bed because we don’t care. Quite the opposite.

SMART goals and accountability

One way to explore if overcommitment is a problem is to assess your goal setting standards. Do you follow the SMART technique (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant)? Would your to-do list make Elon Musk tremble with performance anxiety? This applies to short and long term goals. To wake with purpose, try writing your daily goals the evening before. Check if they follow the SMART guideline.

If you’re struggling with goal setting, consider hiring a coach. A skilled coach can provide the skills, resources and guidance to uncover meaningful, attainable goals. Better still, outside support can have a galvanising effect — a study by The American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) revealed accountability can increase goal success by 95 percent.

Find a higher purpose to get your head off the pillow

He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

Goal setting won’t see you leap out of bed each morning unless imbued with a deeper sense of purpose. Lacking direction or a connection to “something bigger,” is a key hindrance to having motivation to wake up and get up. Identifying a lack of purpose doesn’t have to be a lightning bolt of divine intervention — it may be as simple as accepting your employment or lifestyle isn’t fulfilling.

Find your North Star; find that thing, personal to you, that gives you meaning and purpose. This discovery is a process, but if you make the effort to reflect on your values, and times when you felt truly aligned, you will begin to understand what drives you. With clarity comes direction as you are pulled towards your guiding Star.

north star
Find your North Star.

As a personal example, my North Star is serving others to help improve their mental health and make sense of suffering. It’s a sensation unlike any other, as if driven by an energy outside of my control. Discovering this purpose has added deeper meaning to my life and made sense of years of my own suffering. In addition, spiritual practice has increased my connection with the world and with others, and cultivated the mental clarity to understand what I truly value.

Banish the smartphone — and social media — from the bedroom

Got the phone. You’re never alone with a phone. Look at that, no calls. Everyone I know doesn’t want to talk to me.” — Mark Corrigan, Peep Show

If you can’t get out of bed and want to learn how to wake up with motivation, banishing your phone at bedtime needs to be a priority. A study by Reportlinker found 46 percent of Americans check their phones as soon as they wake up; rising to 66 percent in the millennial age bracket. The most common usage was to check emails or social media.

I’ve previously explored the addictive quality of smartphones, plus the negative impact social media has on mental health. It’s long been suggested social media can lead to depression and loneliness, without quantifiable evidence. Well, as of this month, a study from Penn State has linked Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram to reduced wellbeing.

Furthermore, multiple studies have found a positive correlation between mobile phone use and procrastination. If not staring into the abyss and ruminating like a trooper, your day may be delayed by browsing Twitter, scrolling Instagram, reading news or playing candycrush.

Decisions, decisions, decisions…

Ditching the phone, writing to-do lists the night before, and other solution suggested have a similar aim — to simplify the decision making process. There’s a reason for this. Social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister discovered a correlation between decisions and decreased willpower and self-control. Constant decision making tires us out.

Morning decisions can be overwhelming. We decide what to wear, what to do on an unexpectedly sunny Sunday, what to eat for breakfast, whether to go to the gym. If our phones are at our bedside, we may tap in to another form of decisions: what time do I meet my friend? How should I respond to this WhatsApp message?

A consistent morning routine is a great way to reduce decisions. I go a step further and follow a morning ritual. What’s the difference? You could argue semantics, I’d argue devotion. Rather than a routine I blindly follow because I believe it’s good for me (boorrriiinnnggg) I devote myself to cultivating joy in the sacred moments after waking.

ritual stove press
Rituals can cultivate joy.

It begins with the dedication to be mindful and take time for myself. I stretch, move, focus on the breath, get blood and oxygen flowing. I meditate, sometimes. I assemble my morning oats, with the same ingredients, in the same order. I carefully set up my Italian Stovetop Espresso maker. I listen to the noise of boiling water, close my eyes and enjoy the scent. I wake up and smell the coffee… with a few added steps.

If tiredness is the culprit, assess your lifestyle

It’s unlikely the reason you can’t get up exists in a vacuum or is caused by one single factor. But if you feel physically drained, applying any of the above actions will be more difficult. If tiredness is the problem, you may have to cast the net wider and address your lifestyle.

Are you getting enough sleep? Are you getting enough downtime? Are you cutting back on caffeine and reducing alcohol consumption? Are you drinking enough water? Are you eating well? The better the quality of fuel we provide the body and the better rest, the more resources our hearts and minds have to work with, metaphorically and literally speaking.

Piecing it all together

I’m hopeful this article gives you something to work with. I can vouch for the above actions, and I believe they can have a positive influence and increase purpose. But I’d like to end with a reminder for self-compassion in the process. These steps are a designed to move you towards where you’d like to be.

It’s important to celebrate each step in the right direction; if you struggle to get up five days a week and reduce that to three or four, celebrate! If you start writing a SMART to-do list the evening before, celebrate!

And, importantly, if you read this article and nothing changes, remember rumination, and guilt, won’t fix the issue. Only action will.

Carpe diem. But first, wake up.

Have you tried any of these actions? Or do you have tips of your own? Let me know by commenting below.


Psychology

The Self-Critic Screams When Expectations Aren’t Met

self critic
When does your self-critic scream?

Forget Ghostface this Halloween. Most of us are bullied by a screaming ghoul of a different nature — the self-critical voice. Netflix’s animated gem, Bojack Horseman, offers surprising insight into its destructive nature. As the title, Stupid Piece of Sh*t, suggests, Bojack’s self-critic isn’t particularly friendly.

Those who pay too much attention to the noise become extremely vulnerable to depression, with Bojack levels of excessive self-criticism acknowledged as a huge factor behind major depressive disorders.

Don Miguel Ruiz refers to this as the parasite. Jungian psychologists The Saboteur. Spiritualists the Ego. Call it what you will, all of us can fall victim to the self-critic.

You smash a plate. Dick. You fail an exam. Stupid idiot. You’re rejected by someone you were convinced was The One on Tinder. Unlovable fuckwit. You accidentally call your boss mum. Weird Freudian-slipping manchild freak.

Certain situations fuel this voice. Maybe the self-critic perks up when in work, in social situations, when public speaking, when meeting the in-laws.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGalix-sVXs

This nagging, judgemental, stupid piece of shit affects the quality of our relationships, lowers our self-esteem, limits the scope of our life choices and provides a barrier to inner-peace.

During a recent coaching conversation I had a realisation: the self-critic is fuelled by unrealistic expectations. Specifically, the self-critic is constantly comparing you to an idea of perfection, in which you will always be second best.

Expectations are flawed perspectives

The self-critic thrives on comparison. Think about it — without anything to compare yourself to, how can you come off worse? You can’t fail to meet expectations that don’t exist. Whether you’re not enough or too much, judgement requires an external element to compare yourself to.

Often, it’s not a direct comparison to some actual living, breathing human being. It’s an idea of who you should be. And, for bonus points, the negative bias and never-satisfied nature of the egoic mind means who you should be is perfect.

Always perfect.

Always on the ball. Always funny. Always getting absolutely everything right. Always saying the right thing. Always productive. Always happy.

The self-critic is like an overprotective, neurotic parent desperately living vicariously through their child in a maladjusted attempt at love and discipline.

Like the neurotic, control freak of a parent, the self-critic wants the best for you. But with the expectation to be always perfect, best is unattainable.

Further still, the greater the distance we perceive ourselves to be from these lofty expectations, the louder the voice screams.

So how do we make it shut up?

Amplify the voice

If the self-critic screams, it appears counterintuitive to increase the decibels. However, the results may be surprising. Rather than tensing up and trying to ignore the critic, by amplifying its voice, we’re tuning in to its thirst for attention.

I’ll assume the typical dynamic is similar to how you’d respond to a real-life bully; feelings oscillate from fearing its presence, to feeling angry and frustrated at its attitude, or occasionally complying and taking what it says as truth.

Applied to the self-critical voice, amplification is really paying attention to the voice, and the myriad of ways it manifests in the mind. Amplifying the voice is saying: “I’m not afraid of you. And I come in peace.”

Identify the self-critic’s expectations

The peace treaty has been initiated, now it’s time to negotiate. The first step is to identify what expectations the self-critic has that aren’t being met.

For example, let’s say you amplify the voice and notice a recurring theme — the self-critic calls you stupid. A lot. When you trip in public, don’t register an intellectual joke, forget your keys. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

Make an honest assessment of the underlying expectations to this theme, preferably in a journal. Perhaps the self-critic believes humans should never trip, and trip frequency has a direct correlation to one’s IQ. Perhaps the critic believes knowledge is power and to be anything but stupid, you have to know everything. Perhaps not being stupid is remembering everything all the time.

I can almost guarantee these expectations will always be always perfect.

Speak from the critic…

In 2013, a psychotherapy study specifically explored therapeutic methods related to managing the self-critic. One of their recommended treatments was to “speak from out of the inner critic.” That is, for a psychologist to encourage their client to talk about themselves in third person, from the perspective of the critic.

excessive self criticism
Speak from the critic.

I know this works because my coach used this technique on me. By the time I heard myself say “I’m afraid people will think Ricky is pathetic,” I realised I was on to something. I’d like you to try this too. It’s a little trickier without someone to guide you through, but it’s doable. You can try this in your head, out loud, or better still, written.

… To understand what it wants

The main aim is to engage in dialogue. After all, the critic is a separate part of the psyche. If it wasn’t, phrases like “you idiot” wouldn’t exist; who’s the you in that scenario?

An inner-dialogue may go something like this:

“You keep saying I’m stupid. I made one slip up during the presentation and you were saying I’m completely useless and a waste of space. I was just wondering what would be good enough for you?”
“Sorry, what?”
“Well it’s just… I’m clearly not enough. So what does enough look like?”
“Oh, we’re going there. Well, seeing as you asked, mistakes aren’t tolerable.”
“I’m not allowed to make any mistakes?”
“Sure. Yeah. No mistakes.”
“That’s impossible.”
*Silence*
“What scares you so much about me making ‘mistakes’?”
“Look, I just want you to be loved, and to be loved, you have to be perfect.”

Bingo. It might not be this straightforward but you see the intention for this exercise. The critic wants you to be loved. However, this is underpinned by the mistaken belief that only perfection is loveable.

To action any “aha” moments coming from the dialogue, challenge the belief by reframing. For example — “I am imperfect and loveable. In fact, everyone is imperfect, and everyone is loveable. Equating perfection with lovability is a fallacy.”

Befriend the critic

In Godfather 2, Michael Corleone recounts fatherly advice: “keep your friends close, but your enemies even closer.” I wouldn’t usually advocate applying wisdom from the fictional Mafia, but, this works well for handling the self-critic.

Once you’ve understood its needs and discovered underlying expectations, it’s time to call a truce. And the best way to do that is to counter self-criticism with its polar opposite — self-compassion.

Put simply, be kind to yourself. Work on cultivating supportive self-talk, not destructive self-talk. It’s definitely not easy. It’ll take constant practice to master, such is the nature of the mind. Yet small steps can make a big difference in mood.

Like the unlikely protagonist of a Hollywood horror surviving against the odds, one day, when the self-critic tries to scream, it won’t have a voice.

How’s your relationship with your self-critic? Do you use any different tools to manage it?


 

Psychology, Social Media

The Subtle Ways We Seek Salvation From Our Smartphones (And How To Stop)

obsessive phone checking
Hello… is it me you’re looking for?

There’s a universe at your fingertips, brimming with promises of digital delights. How hard it is to resist the lure of bright lights, shiny icons and pleasant pings! Every aspect of this universe is the deliberate result of Silicon Valley exploiting behavioural psychology to hijack our habit-forming tendencies. Knowing how to stop being addicted to your phone seems an impossible task.

Our phones may be in the palm of our hands, but the truth is, we’re the ones under the thumb. I’m all too familiar with the iPhone’s gravitational pull. There have been occasions where I see a familiar glow in my peripheral vision. My attention immediately diverts, only to realise the screen was alight because I’d pressed the ‘home’ button seconds before, like a dull, first-person Black Mirror.

Sometimes, I catch myself in the middle of a disturbing ritual; I unlock, scroll through the icon screen, open ‘photos’, close, open WhatsApp (despite no notifications), scroll, open an old conversation, close, open Instagram, no new notifications, scroll, close. Then I realise what I’m doing and feel mild shame.

The human equivalent of a dog chasing its tail.

Although embarrassing to admit, I’m not alone in this bizarre ritual. Research suggests we touch, swipe or click 2,617 times every day, spread across 150 sessions. Holland Haiis, a digital detox expert, refers to technological addiction as “the new 21st century addiction.” Without a doubt, my tail-chasing icon-swiping is a sign of addiction — I’m seeking salvation from boredom.

Proactively checking vs. reacting to notifications

Notifications are highly distracting. Studies have illustrated this for a while, and more and more of us are turning off notifications to reduce stress. However, obsessive phone checking is proactive. Often I unlock my phone when I don’t have new notifications, consciously aware I won’t find what I’m looking for.

I follow a similar process on my laptop — checking for new emails, logging onto Facebook or browsing BBC football without purpose. However, this behaviour is much, much more prominent when associated with a mobile device. The UX universe becomes a black hole of temptation in my pocket.

Am I setting myself up for a fall by turning off notifications, allowing space for a perpetual “what if” mindset?

I’ve made steps to reduce this behaviour. I receive notifications for messages on WhatsApp, Telegram, iMessage, or SMS (from one friend — you know who you are). But I don’t have Facebook on my phone, and don’t receive notifications from any other apps, including Instagram and Twitter.

Most studies focus on the distraction of checking our phones when notified. But why do I find myself opening an app without notifications? Am I setting myself up for a fall by turning off notifications, allowing space for a perpetual “what if” mindset? Would it be better if I actually knew, for sure, whenever something occurs in iPhone universe?

Opening WhatsApp and scrolling aimlessly through old conversations, unconsciously browsing old photos, mindlessly swiping the icon screen, double tapping ‘home’ and closing apps for no apparent reason… That’s just weird. I know it is. Clearly, there’s more to obsessive phone checking than a thirst for notifications.

Is a problem a problem if you don’t think it’s a problem?

This behavioural loop is subtle, and identifying it as a problem is… a problem. If your addiction is deeply intrusive — injecting yourself with heroin or blowing your life’s savings on a 10-match final score accumulator in the Romanian second-division — alarm bells will ring.

These types of addiction pacify deep-rooted, intense emotional states such as clinical depression. But what about feelings on the “slightly below average” part of the emotional spectrum? Boredom? Restlessness? Frustration? Agitation? These states induce behaviour matching their tenacity.

“There are those of us where addiction has completely taken control of our lives,” Valerie Mason-John, author of Eight Step Recovery, told MindThatEgo. “Then there are those of us where addictions are hidden. We don’t even acknowledge them as addictions,” she added. Obsessive phone checking is in this category, subtle, easy to dismiss.

The balancing act of dopamine and subtle emotional states

Dopamine is the reward chemical flooding our brains when we have sex, eat, exercise and socialise successfully (not at the same time, though I’m sure combining these activities would feel great). Clinical depression may lead to an attempt to “balance” the state with a heavy dose, turning a Class A drug such as cocaine. Boredom, however, may be balanced the tiny hit of dopamine our phones provide.

“If you understand people’s internal triggers, you can try to satiate them,” Nir Eyal, author of Hooked, told Wired. Eyal specialises in creating “habit-building” products. “If you’re feeling lonely, we can help you connect. If you’re feeling bored, we can help entertain.” Creating a landscape primed to form habits, whilst promising connection, has manifested the inevitable. A 2014 study discovered cell-phone addiction (CPA) is driven by the urge to connect socially.

But is there harm in mindlessly picking up the phone and swiping? Are we nullifying human traits and striving for Jesus-like perfection? Let’s return to those mildly unpleasant states. The same study compared smartphone addiction to shopping or internet addiction. These addictions begin in a benign manner, until a “tipping point” is reached and a few dopamine-seeking swipes down the line, you’re dependent.

Dependency and seeking low-risk comfort

This dependency is the real issue. Valerie Mason-John refers to this process as “seeking refuge” — the source of addiction becomes a place of comfort, a coping mechanism to escape troubling emotions. You choose your smartphone because it has provided comfort in the past; the timeline of dopamine rewards become hardwired into the subconscious. Chemically, smartphone addiction creates an imbalance in the brain.

Unlike drug, alcohol or gambling addictions, checking your phone is about as low-cost as it gets.

Trevor Haynes, of Harvard Medical School, likens obsessive phone checking to a psychological framework known as the “variable reward principle.” Habits form easily when we believe we will be rewarded at random (in this case, new likes, followers or messages) and the cost of seeking the reward is minimal. Unlike drug, alcohol or gambling addictions, checking your phone is about as low-cost as it gets.

Whilst writing this article I’ve stopped to check my phone numerous times. This behaviour isn’t much different from someone leaving their desk every 30 minutes to smoke. The hit of nicotine is replaced by the hit from a new notification. These moments reinforce the behaviour. When the tiny buzz wears off, as it always does, I’m back to square one. Swiping. Clicking. Tapping.

How to stop being addicted to your phone

break smartphone habit.
We can learn to break the phone checking habit.

Break the cycle by journaling habits

So how do we break the cycle? Begin by catching yourself when you pick up your phone. You may find yourself suddenly staring at the home screen with no recollection of how you got there — I feel you, I do it too. But the more you become aware of the process, the more you seize control of auto-pilot. Try this for one week. Journal how many times this happens in a day. Use meditation and mindfulness to increase space between thoughts and action.

After detecting moments of obsessive checking, explore your underlying thoughts, emotions or desires. Return to your journal and note the context of each moment. For example: “Today I realised I habitually reach for my phone when I’m tired. It’s almost like I need a pick me up, something to stimulate my brain. Thoughts usually centre around the hope of someone contacting me with something amusing to brighten my day. A little laughter would give me energy.”

Explore the context of underlying thoughts and emotions

Next, challenge your perspective. Look at the bigger picture and reframe. Using the above example: “I didn’t get much sleep so I was more tired than usual. Tiredness is more of an issue than I thought; I definitely rely on others to pick me up whenever I feel drowsy… It’s as if I’m running away from the feeling of drowsiness.”

In Buddhist philosophy, seeking pleasure to avoid pain is a prime cause of suffering. To free ourselves, we need to embrace the impermanent nature of craving. Then, confront our emotional triggers.

“I’ve associated drowsiness as something inherently bad. Like I shouldn’t feel that way. That makes me feel restless and I get the impulse to turn to my phone. In reality, drowsiness is fine, it’s part of being human. To help, I can sleep more and eat better. I’ll pay attention to fluctuations in energy without magnifying the lows. Now I think of it, many times I perk up after a spell of drowsiness.”

What are you expecting to find?

iPhone addiction
The universe at your fingertips.

Another technique is to explore your expectations. When you pick up your phone, what are you expecting? A reply you’ve been waiting for from a friend? A retweet from the celebrity you mentioned on Twitter? Likes on your latest Instagram photo?

Looking at your expectations can shine a light on what you’re seeking. Maybe you are lonely. Maybe there’s social anxiety around the selfie you shared, and you’re awaiting a like or a comment for validation.

There are practical steps, such as using apps to limit mobile usage. Apple even introduced “Screen Time” as part of iOS. As useful as they are, these apps don’t stop you picking up your phone and checking. Until smartphones can physically restrain users, we’ll need to consider another option.

I always put my phone in another room when I’m working. On days when I’m particularly weak, I turn it off and hide it from myself (sometimes in my sock drawer or food cupboard!) and set a time when I’ll consciously check-in. I bought an old-school alarm clock and I turn my phone off an hour or so before bed. I won’t check it until I’ve eaten my morning oats — at the earliest.

You may find your own tricks, and please let me know if you do. The universe at your fingertips is intoxicating, but with a little conscious effort, it doesn’t have to control us.

Hang on a sec, my phone’s glowing, I think I have a new mes-… never mind.


 

Psychology, Spirituality

Three Soothing Sentences For When Life Feels Out Of Control

out-of-control
Are you the waterfall? Or the trees?

We’ve all been there; the swirling thoughts, the heaviness, the tightness in the chest. Feeling overwhelmed is a natural cycle of life. Sometimes, it’s necessary to stop us in our tracks, to give us space to reflect on the balance of our lives. However, if you’re finding you regularly feel like your life is out of control, you may be caught in the trap of trying to control the uncontrollable.

This is a dead-end. It wastes energy, wastes time, and causes unnecessary stress. Acknowledging this truth was one of the most significant “aha” moments in my recovery. For anxiety sufferers, trying to control everything is common; we worry about a million possible outcomes, tell ourselves “it shouldn’t be this way” when things don’t go to plan, and bemoan the unjust nature of life.

When life feels out of control, remember there’s always a choice

Truth is, we have a choice. Choice begins with identifying what we can control and letting go of what we can’t. This is one of the biggest catalysts to finding inner-peace, a path to freedom. To jolt myself out of a sense of hopelessness in times of hardship, I continually find myself soothed by these three sentences:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

This passage is taken from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, commonly associated with Alcoholics Anonymous and various twelve-step recovery programs. Those three sentences concisely strike the balance between responsibility and self-acceptance. It encourages us to diligently identify when we are wasting energy and causing ourselves unnecessary stress, and when to act to change our environment.

Safe to say, I’m a big fan. I find these words soothing. And you don’t have to be religious, or a recovering addict, to benefit from these words.  From my stance as a secular, non-dogmatic spiritualist (I’m sure there’s a way to condense that) I will explain my interpretation of the Serenity Prayer, comparing it with favourably with the locus of control, a concept from within personality psychology.

It’s outside my control to make you like this quote as much as I do… all I can do is try my best to explain its value. So here goes.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…

Reinhold was sharing this prayer at a sermon, so it was part of the contract to begin by addressing God. Casting aside religious connotations, I see this as a call to have faith in a way that works for you. Perhaps you’ll address the universe, oneness, unconditional love, or the divine feminine. The important point is recognising faith gifts us calmness (“serenity”) and clarity.

Serenity isn’t a magic consequence of faith alone

A clear mind allows us to rationally deduce which situations are outside of our control — and encourages us to accept them. Resistance is wrapped up in trying to control the uncontrollable — we’re denying the reality of our situation. Your bus breaks down, you get angry, curse, look impatiently at your watch, ask the heavens why this always happens to you. You lack the serenity required to accept this is something you cannot change. Buddhist philosophy refers to this as unnecessary suffering.

It’s worth noting serenity isn’t a magic consequence of faith alone. Yes, prayer and surrender create the soil for serenity to grow, but ultimately we have the choice to cultivate skilled states of mind via meditation, mindfulness and self-reflection. Try it now — think of the last time you were angry. What was the cause of that anger? Reflect on whether there was additional upset caused by trying to control the uncontrollable.

Courage to change the things I can…

I particularly like this sentence because it’s a clear call to action. It changes the dynamic from passive beholder of life, to someone who takes the courageous stance of enacting change. You’re not enjoying your work. You’re constantly stressed. You’ve worked in this job for years. Leaving is out of the question… or is it?

You decide acceptance alone won’t change a damaging environment, so you find the strength to take a risk, hand in your resignation and find another role which is more fulfilling and less stressful.

How does courage to change apply to the bus example? Instead of sitting with anger, you ask the driver for an update. They tell you there won’t be replacement transport and the mechanic will take 30 minutes to arrive. So you use Google Maps to search an alternative route and see your destination is 20 minutes by foot. It’s a nice day outside. You switch perspective and see this as an opportunity for an unexpected stroll in the sun.

And wisdom to know the difference

“Equanimity’s strength derives from a combination of understanding and trust. It is based on understanding that the conflict and frustration we feel when we cannot control the world doesn’t come from our inability to do so, but rather from the fact that we are trying to control the uncontrollable.” — Sharon Salzberg, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness

Third and not least, wisdom. An ability to exercise solid judgement works both ways. Take the first sentence to heart, you absolve yourself of responsibility and become a victim. Life is something that happens to you. You wave the proverbial white flag, accepting everything with resignation. No, no, no…

Wisdom is the catalyst to discerning when action can be taken, or when acceptance needs to be cultivated. Born from practice and experience, wisdom acknowledges acceptance and action are two sides of the same coin. Crucially, wisdom tells us not taking action when we have the opportunity to do is equally damaging. We can think of this as appropriate responsibility.

The locus of control — a psychological explanation

Social-learning theory provides a psychological explanation for the importance of these three sentences. The locus of control is a framework of personality developed by Julian B. Rotter, describing an individual’s belief system in relation to events in their lives. Someone with an internal locus of control believes their actions are primarily the cause of events. Those with an external locus of control primary believe events are outside of their control, the consequence of fate or luck.

External loci are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and anger

Though originally theorised around student learning, Rotter’s concept is easily applied to all areas of life. Interestingly, studies have shown the external loci (I’m sure this isn’t the scientific term) amongst us are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and anger. External loci is a breeding ground for powerlessness, which, you guessed it, leads to the paralyzing feeling life is spiralling out of control.

Bi-locals: the meeting point of responsibility and faith

The good news is these personality types aren’t black or white. Rotter noted internal and external are part of a continuum, with a third group sitting in the middle. Referred to as bi-locals, this group mixes internal and external attribution. For argument’s sake, this is the “Serenity Prayer” group. I may be bi-ased, but I see myself in this group, and I believe many on the spiritual path to be the same.

Why? Because the spiritual path combines personal responsibility with faith in something much, much bigger than ourselves. It doesn’t encourage us wait for life to do us a favour as we pray for the universe to be on our side. It encourages us to do the work, heal, increase self-awareness, cultivate skilled states of mind. Then, with our work done, we have faith external factors will be on our side; be it synchronicity, karmic law or manifestation.

Empowering ourselves to take control

“If I really want to improve my situation, I can work on the one thing over which I have control — myself.” — Stephen Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Perhaps you’ve realised you’re on the extreme end of the internal – external continuum. Great! Belief systems are not fixed, and this is a perfect opportunity to identify what needs to change. It’s time to use these three sentences to sooth and improve (I’m a poet and I know it). Begin with acceptance, move on to action. Rinse, repeat and gain wisdom.

Belief systems are transient. The Serenity Prayer and the locus of control remind us we are never powerless. We can empower ourselves. Paradoxically, a huge, huge part of the process is accepting what we can’t control. Fortunately, as personal development guru Steven Covey suggests, there is one thing we can always control — ourselves.


 

Mindfulness, Psychology

Panic To Public Speaking: Breaking The Silence By Finding My Voice

Breaking the silence
Breaking the Silence Panel (left to right): Meryl, me, Farina, Sanya, Isabelle

My sternum reverberates from train-track palpitations. I desperately search an escape route. I avoid eyes. Can they hear the thud? Can they see? This can’t be happening. Not now. I’m not ready. Soon it’s my turn to talk and I’m paralysed: I’ll choke; I’ll be exposed. This is too much to hide.

It’s 2012, around 3pm, an autumnal October afternoon in Sheffield. Second year of university has begun, and I’m in a workshop for radio production. Our group of around 15 are “going around in a circle” sharing ideas for our upcoming project. Uh. How I hate going around in a circle. The anticipation, the rising anxiety. The palpitations and fear are familiar. But this time, something is different.

One spot away from sharing, I stand up. I mumble an excuse and walk out. This is the first time I’ve fled, flight-mode too strong to ignore. I walk out of the newsroom and enter the toilet, hoping my escape wasn’t obvious. I stare into the mirror, my post-panic attack reflection tinged beige by off-yellow fluorescent lights. Fucking beige. Fitting.

I’m hiding. I’m actually hiding. Has it really come to this? Now comes the shame. Now comes the hopelessness.

My sternum reverberates from train-track palpitations. It’s 2018, precisely 6:30pm on a scorching September evening in Berlin. I’m at coworking venue St. Oberholz, minutes away from introducing myself as a member of an expert panel. The anticipation, the rising anxiety. The palpitations and fear are familiar. But this time, something is different…

I’m about to find my voice.

These resources and techniques helped me overcome public speaking anxiety

The short answer to what has changed in those six years would be: a lot. Even with an expanded self-awareness, public speaking is a terrifying prospect — some say it’s feared more than death. Fortunately, my recent experience allowed me to explore, from the inside out, the resources and techniques most useful in managing anxiety, helping me move beyond fear to deliver a talk I never thought possible. These tools, I’m sure, can be helpful for anyone facing a crowd.

Let’s jump back in time, again.

Resource #1: Grounding in the present when pulled into the future

It’s mid-August. I’m in Holy Coffee, Berlin. I’m calm. For a brief respite from work, I check my phone. A missed call and message from my friend, and fellow coach, Sanya. She’s been invited to talk on a panel organised by Vanessa, the founder of Word of Mouth. The panel  Breaking the Silence — is the first in a Deep Talk series. It involves an open discussion on mental health. Vanessa is extending the invite to me.

deep talk
Can you spot my name?

Immediately when I see the message I’m transported to what I’ll call the anxious place. Facing me, a sea of people, baffled looks etched on faces as I mumble inaudibly, voice cracking, words an anxious jumble. My body responds in the here and now. I’m living it. I’m sat in the same spot, but my stomach flutters as my brain reminds me of the times I’ve choked.

From this moment I begin practising the first resource. I bring myself back to the present by noticing the thoughts, images and sensations without judgement, indulgence or resistance. This helps me avoid being caught up in storylines of how I’m going to mess it all up, of how I won’t be able to cope. I breathe. I call Sanya. After words of reassurance and support, I begin to relax.

Resource #2: Embracing impermanence

“Wisdom is the clear seeing of the impermanent, conditioned nature of all phenomena, knowing that whatever arises has the nature to cease.When we see this impermanence deeply, we no longer cling; and when we no longer cling, we come to the end of suffering.” — Joseph GoldsteinInsight Meditation: A Psychology of Freedom

Unlike normal nerves, public speaking anxiety doesn’t begin an hour before the presentation. Or a day. Or a week. It can begin as soon as the event becomes a fixed point in the mental calendar. I emphasise fixed point because that’s what it becomes; though life flows freely and each moment is transient, when an anxiety-inducing event enters the calendar of the mind’s eye, that point becomes rigid and immoveable.

In the past, I’ve had moments where I’ve been paralysed by visualisations of events months away. A glancing thought would instantaneously transport me to the anxious place. The build-up to this panel was a promising sign. I was transported occasionally, but I noticed a number of visualisations had positive associations. Excitement was outweighing fear.

When those projections were anxiety-ridden, I called upon one of the three marks of existence in Buddhist philosophy — impermanence (anicca). I reminded myself the hour I’d be on stage was as transient and flowing as any hour I’ve ever experienced. Like all hours, this too shall pass.

That being said, the event did play tricks on my mental timeline. It was a hard for me to envision beyond the event — a common theme I’ve detected when the anxious mind fears a specific event. As well as recalling Resource #1 and grounding myself in the present, I accepted this fixed point was in my mental calendar. I didn’t try to fight it.

Resource #3: It’s not now… even now

Another common trait I’ve detected in run-up to aforementioned fixed point is obsessing over clock-time. This is a distinct focus on the passage of time, measured by calendars and clocks, not a mental projection of the future. However, it does appear to share a symbiotic relationship with future projection.

For example, I noticed my mind engaging in a countdown, seemingly subconsciously. Two weeks to go! 10 days to go! AHH — tomorrow! This is amplified on the day of the presentation, as days become hours. The closer the event approaches in clock-time, the stronger the pull of the future visualisations.

To accompany this, I notice myself occasionally resisting time. Resistance increases the closer the event gets. Of course, with resistance comes inner-tension, manifesting as anxiety, stress, despair. Considering the passage of time is a fundamental law of nature, resistance is like jumping from the top of building and trying to resist gravity. It’s futile. And probably dangerous.

The third resource cultivates acceptance of the moment and the inevitable passing of clock-time. I call it, it’s not now… even now. This is a reminder that even when the event is really close, it’s still not now… even now. It’s easier to ground ourselves in the present when we know we still have a few days to go. The purpose of this resource is to maintain mindful relaxation as the event gets closer.

It’s not now… even now is a useful mindful reminder hours, or even minutes, away from the event.

Resource #4: Let the adrenaline elevate you

This breaks a habit I’d long formed, based on a mistaken belief there is a “perfect” way to prepare. Go to bed by 10:27pm the night before, eat 75g of oats with blueberries and chia seeds in the morning, throw salt over shoulder, etc. This was linked another belief that the only way to perform well was to be on my A-game. In the zone. Amped up. The delusion is believing there’s a magic ingredient that would make everything okay. It’s superstition.

Breaking silence 2
Finding my voice on the panel.

Believing in a perfect way to prepare causes unnecessary suffering because anything outside of the concept of perfection would cause stress. Plus, it’s not particularly empowering to believe the only way of coping is following a strict pattern in the build-up. Preparation morphs into an attempt to control the uncontrollable. So this time, I rejected it.

Instead I opted for a different technique. I put every ounce of focus into being present, courtesy of Resource #3. This was all the preparation I needed. I didn’t need to find my A-game — the event would do that for me. Knowing my adrenaline would kick in as soon as I was in position, I focused on being as relaxed as possible.

After years of believing I needed to get in the zone for events such as this, this approach felt counter-intuitive. But once I arrived at the venue, I knew it was a good call. The nervous-excitement of meeting the other panelists and seeing people fill the room one-by-one, naturally elevated me. Because I was coming from a relaxed state, this elevation wasn’t overwhelming.

No blaring Eye of the Tiger or running up the steps of Rathaus Neukölln whilst punching the air from now on.

Resource #5: Loving-Kindness meditation towards the audience

On the day of the event, I turned to meditation for sanctuary. Fortunately those of us involved met at the venue the evening before, so I could visualise the space. I practised a meditation tailored for public speaking, using the metta bhavana (loving kindness meditation) as a foundation.

The aim was twofold; I wanted to extend feelings of compassion and love to the audience and to cultivate self-compassion. I wanted to erode the barrier between me and the audience. A huge factor in public speaking anxiety is being the centre of attention, all eyes on you, rabbit in the headlights.

Instead of sponging up the attention and feeling overwhelmed, this meditation visualised cultivating loving kindness by sending energy into the crowd. This is a powerful tool because it eradicates one of the biggest barriers I’ve faced in connecting with people in the audience…

Resource #6: Undoing the cognitive distortion of labelling

Labelling is a common cognitive distortion. You could call it overgeneralising. I call it — Me Versus Them. Who’s them? Everyone other than me. Though it happens to all of us from time to time, I learned a harsh lesson in this distortion during a paranoid spell, where Me Versus Them became normality. This mindset is threatening and incredibly isolating.

It blinds you from reality, obscuring the texture in social situations that provide counter-evidence Me Versus Them is a mindset. I experienced this form of cognitive labelling on buses, in clubs, in lectures, in the gym. It was particularly palpable when preparing to give a presentation, such as the walk-out moment mentioned earlier.

Fortunately this mindset is rare now. But I was conscious it could return to some degree while sat on stage, microphone in hand, facing a group of people. Counteracting this possibility, I used the public speaking meditation to humanise each and every member of the audience. To connect, human to human. To cultivate the experience of seeing texture, and transforming them into us.

It worked.

Resource #7: Vulnerability, surrender, finding flow

Back to the final countdown, September 2018, 6:30pm. I’m fortunate to be joined by Sanya, Isabelle, Meryl and Farina, with Vanessa in the wings. The sense of camaraderie and mutual support helps calm the nerves. However, familiar feelings kick in as the panel is being introduced. Oh, shit. This is the moment I’d anticipated, and I knew there was one thing left to do — surrender. I couldn’t control the situation. I had to stop resisting. I had to let go. I had to be vulnerable.

As it’s my turn to talk, I do the one thing I’ve tried so hard to avoid in the past. Each member is asked to introduce ourselves and share how we are feeling, encouraged to answer honestly. Those familiar palpitations thud in my ears. But this is a time for openness, a space to break the silence, a challenge to remove facades. I look up. I see the sea of faces. I’m handed the microphone.

“I’m Ricky.
I’m a Life, Spirituality, and Wellness Coach.
I’m an expert on depression and anxiety via experience. And…
…I feel nervous.”

Initial waves of fear subside. Palpitations cease. Then, something incredible happens. Rather than rushing to get it over and done with, I feel present. I feel a connection with members of the audience, like having 50 one-on-one conversations at once. I see nods of encouragement and attentive expressions. I find flow.

Years ago, I never thought this would be possible. I never thought I’d be able to talk this way in front of a crowd. But thinking is thinking. I’m moving beyond thought, moving beyond fear.

Finally, I’ve found my voice.