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Have we become too passive and disconnected?

The question, ‘have we become more passive as a society?’ Is one that keeps coming up time and time again. The more I reflect on it, the more it seems as if society has unknowingly encouraged passive behaviour and disconnect. It’s having huge ramifications for us in every aspect of our lives. With things like mental health issues and depression being at an all-time high, and more and more people reporting feeling isolated, alone and losing their sense of belonging, is it time we stopped and did something different?

When I look at the work I do with my clients, a lot of it revolves around trying to heal from trauma that they have been subjected to, or it involves processing events which were outside of their control. This requires my clients to use all the skills, knowledge and techniques that they learn with me, so that they can then apply them to their own everyday life. This isn’t easy, and it requires determination to change things, motivation to keep going, and bravery to face the dark places in their thoughts, or the fear within their bodies. When I sit and think about what they’re up against, and what support is available to them outside of our sessions, it makes me realise that there is a multitude of complications they have to face, that might get in the way of their healing.

Let’s just look at a small number of factors and explore the impact they’re having and the messages we receive along the way:

  1. The moment we begin school, we are expected to sit quietly and listen to learn. We are often discouraged from arguing or being different, as this is disruptive to the rest of the class. We are taught the rules and are maybe punished if we try to deviate from them. The only time it seems like we are encouraged to be expressive is through art, music, dance, language or drama, but there are often limits there too. We are taught how to watch and take in information, this then extends out into the way we are entertained in our own spaces. We watch television, films, and theatre, where it’s beneficial to be passive.
  2. There are norms set for us with fashion too. There are rules, if we go too far outside of these we may risk ridicule or bullying. Because of that, we often try to avoid standing out and being a target. Standing out is often judged negatively, when really it should be applauded.
  3. The same with goes for food. Lots of people don’t cook and have very little motivation to learn, but who can blame them when there is either ready-made meals at the supermarket, or a delivery is just a few clicks away? This isn’t how we should be interacting with food, or learning how to have a relationship with what we put into our bodies. It’s hard to reverse behaviours like this, as it’s made so easy for us. In fact, we are often encouraged to be passive, which can be very habit-forming, making it a difficult loop to get out of.
  4. Technology has taken away a lot of the need to learn, because every answer you’re looking for is just a few clicks away in the palm of your hand, available whenever you need it. There’s also no need to learn complicated math when we all walk around with a calculator in our pockets.

It’s not that this has all been completely halted, that people no longer cook or learn, but it has created a change in behaviour and a disconnect, where more people are becoming reliant on other things, rather than doing things themselves. The problem with these behaviours, is that the more we do them, the harder it is to stop and change. The harder it seems, the greater the effort required and the further away it feels as an achievable goal. It’s a classic vicious circle and a pretty seductive one.

This programming makes it really hard to make any real changes in our lives. When we have always done things a certain way, it’s really hard to even think about what ‘different’ might look like. We often keep things quiet and to ourselves, in case the changes don’t work, or we don’t see any progress quick enough, or even that we’re too scared of failing.

The passive habit can also mean that we are often waiting for something to change around us rather than us being the change ourselves. Waiting for the right time, the right weather, the right moment. We often just don’t feel ‘ready’, and end up coming up with endless excuses of why now is not the right time. This can feel very disempowering and leads to self-criticism. It’s not our fault, but it’s something we really need to keep in mind before we start thinking about trying to implement any change going forward.

So how can we do something different?

One way we can try combating the passive behaviour, is by doing things as a collective, or a group. A lot of us find it much easier to do things if we know others are either supportive, or doing the same thing too. It increases our energy, motivation and support. Let’s take for instance, some of the popular habits that spring up every January, exercise and going alcohol-free. If the gym is too overwhelming, exercise classes can be easier to keep going to. That way you don’t have to worry about putting your own gym programme together, and it’s especially good to meet new people and get on with the others in the class. Dry January is popular because so many people are trying it together, supporting each other through it. Doing team sports also work, because we’re part of a team, they depend upon us but we get encouragement and a sense of belonging from our team mates.

When we think about the difference between passive and interactive, two of the common denominators are relationships and connections with others. We all stare at screens, phones, laptops, and TV’s, often alone, way more than we did years ago. It can be isolating and passive. If we really want to make any changes this year, whether that be physical, emotional, spiritual or psychological, then we need to think about what would make it easier to get started and to maintain. We have to think about the support we’ll need and how we can put that into place. How can we feel part of a bigger collective, even if it’s remotely? How can we build more offline connections?

We have been encouraged to be passive for far too long, to be happy with ready-made things and ease of access. 100 years ago we grew our own food, made our own clothes, built furniture, cooked everything, washed clothes by hand, and walked miles to get anywhere. Whilst we still do aspects of this, have we maybe swung the pendulum too far the other way? Becoming reliant on technology or other people doing things for us? Maybe it’s time to consider a middle-ground in which we are both online and utilising what we have, but also being offline and being more connected to what’s around us. It might require a little effort from us, but this can also come with a sense of achievement.

Now might be a good time to consider how passive our own behaviour is, and start learning to be more connected to ourselves, to others, and to the world around us. It might increase our energy day-to-day, our sense of purpose may wake up, our self-satisfaction might improve, our imagination might spark up more and our sense of belonging might just anchor itself. We might actually enjoy ourselves more. If even just one of those things happen, isn’t it worth it?

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How we can build a better relationship with ourselves

“The relationship with yourself is the most important one of all”.

Just reading that statement will probably bring up conflict within. Your intellect might agree but other parts of you will flinch, and come up things like, ‘that sounds selfish’, ‘I should put others first’, ‘I don’t even like myself’, an endless list of reasons to disagree.

This can be particularly difficult if we have a strong empathic nature because we are so tuned into other people’s feelings and we worry about what they think. It can be very difficult to focus on ourselves. This will show up in technicolour when empaths then get into relationships, as they focus so much on the happiness of someone else, they get lost and their own needs or sense of self seems to dissolve. Empaths are givers and will often get genuine joy from doing things that make someone else happy. It’s a lovely trait so long as they don’t lose themselves in the process. If they do, they’ll often begin to feel invisible or taken for granted, which leads to resentment.

The only person who can keep our own needs, feelings, and sense of self, is us, so we need to know how to do this. It isn’t something that’s selfish, needy, egotistical, or self indulgent. In fact, it’s the opposite. It means that we can take full responsibility for ourselves, making it easier to spend time with us. We’ll ensure we’re always treated well and we’ll make sure the people we surround ourselves with are good for us.

Many people say they aren’t happy with themselves, for a whole variety of reasons. Weight, the way they feel, their energy levels, motivation, the way they look, the list goes on. The only person who truly can do anything about this is us. We are responsible for what we put into our body, how much we allow ourselves to sit around, or to do too much. We are responsible for taking ourselves off to bed, or to get up in the morning. Yes, there are many factors that can influence this, but ultimately we have the vast majority of control.

The more dissatisfied we become with ourselves, the more disconnected we become. This is a negative cycle. The more disconnected we are from our body, the less we care what we do with it or how we treat it, which only makes our head more critical. Bodies can’t change by themselves, they need our input. Our body is the most important resource we have, it comes everywhere with us and we rely on it to do what we want to do and get us to where we need to be.

How can we start building back a relationship with ourselves?

We have to rebuild back the connection to our bodies. When we get a closer connection and can tune into how we feel from the bottom up, it’s then easier for our empathic part to come back and treat ourselves with compassion and respect.

If we were to tune in and just sit with all of the sensations that are being communicated from our body to us and just be curious, we have that sense of connection. If we can learn to value each of these sensations, then we can begin the process of putting ourselves first again. To start to get the connection back again we can do things like using our senses. Using our noses to inhale lovely smells and notice how it feels inside. We can use our skin to feel soft fabric, or touch something warm or something solid. We can use our ears to listen to the birds, to running water, or to the music we enjoy, just feeling the connection with our senses and the way it feels on the inside. We can have a go at exploring different things, being curious and trying different sensory experiences to see if we like it or not.

If, for example, you go inwards and notice the way you are breathing, make sure you don’t judge it. Just accept that however you’re breathing right now, is the way you need to breath right now. Put aside any thoughts of correcting it. It can really help you to keep the focus on yourself when you are with someone else. If you can train yourself to keep tuning into your own breath, or feeling your feet on the floor, then instead of always focusing on another person, you’ll be focusing on you. You’re then less likely to lose your sense of self or your own importance.

We have to be able to keep focusing on ourselves. Not only will it keep us in the present moment and on an equal-footing, but we will have a much better sense of what’s right for us, because we’ll be able to read what our body is telling us. Things as simple as listening to our breath and not being judgmental about it, can be a massive step towards not getting lost or swallowed up. It can help us use our gut instinct to its full advantage, and be able to properly trust it.

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Why we should listen more to our bodies and less to our minds

When Catriona works with people, whether that’s face-to-face or through Skype or Zoom, the way she works stays the same. With some people, she is teaching those who are completely new to any aspect of body work how to tune in and be aware of what’s happening inside them. With other people, she’s tracking along with them, all the sensations they are currently feeling and then noticing if anything changes when they do something that either helps them or doesn’t help them.

No matter where people are on their journey the same things come up, just in different ways. The thing that Catriona does with everyone is teach them to listen and to not interpret with just their heads and thoughts. The reason for this is, for example, when we notice a tightness in our chest, most people will name it ‘anxiety’, ‘panic’, ‘fear’ etc, that then automatically sets off a narrative about what’s wrong, or what might happen, which in turn increases the anxiety or panic. It then goes round in an increasing cycle. When we label a feeling in our stomach ‘dread’, ‘disgust’, or ‘overwhelm’, then we believe it and will act accordingly, we’ll look for things going on in our lives that could be the reason, and might end up attributing blame to the wrong thing. If we can’t find anything however, we berate ourselves with a lot of negative thoughts, none of which is helpful or settling.

These sensations coming up in our body may well be a response to stress, or something that we are dreading, but it doesn’t help us to manage these responses if we totally believe what our head is telling us. If we can start to separate the two things and say things instead like, ‘there is a tightness in my chest, is it a gripping tightness, or a pulsing tightness? Is it like a weight on my chest, or constriction inside?’ We can then try to notice what effect it has on the way we breath, as we can get more information. Is it harder on the in-breath or on the out-breath? Does it make it hard to move the shoulders or the upper arms?

How Catriona does this with clients

Asking these kind of questions allows Catriona to then ask the person what they notice about their response to this body sensation, do they feel reluctant or fearful of the sensation? Are they scared they might make it worse? Are they dismissive of it? Sometimes the answer comes from the things she’s told, or sometimes from the things she observes. If our heads are nervous about the body being the focus, the person might suddenly remember something they wanted to tell Catriona and try to divert away from the body. Sometimes they just notice how much they don’t want to do the body work.

All of these responses tell us a lot about the relationship we have to any sensation we feel and the way we will automatically deal with it. This is also very revealing about the relationship we have with ourselves. Our heads will often put up quite a battle, saying things like, ‘I’m feeling worse’, ‘this is silly’, ‘I have lots to talk about, this isn’t real work’, ‘talking is the only way to figure things out’. Its Catriona’s job to gently allow the body to have a voice, to be able to tell its story, which will be very different to the story told by the head. She lets people know that their head will get some understanding and that things will make sense, but that can only happen when we let the body communicate. If the head could have figured this out, it probably would have done so by now.

How we can manage sensations with the body

Once we have this information we can begin to work with the sensation coming up and keep the head, and any interpretation of what is actually happening, out of the present-moment experience. We can try different resources to see what ones might help the sensation settle. For example, any tightness will soon let you know if applying pressure helps or doesn’t, because you will feel the result. The heads response to feeling tightness is to usually stretch it out, or to just rub it. If the head has labelled the tightness as ‘panic’, then when stretching or rubbing doesn’t help, we really do start to panic, thinking ‘nothing works’, ‘what am I going to do?’. Or even, ‘I’m going to die’, and the chest will be so tight that no breath can get in or out, resulting in all our blood rushing to our internal organs and our brain going offline. If however, we try to just feel the tightness, noticing the physical properties of it and how it’s affecting us, we can actually see what might help. Tightness can sometimes be relieved by applying pressure, or feeling strength by tensing our muscles. Sometimes it just needs you to hold it with your hand or arm, or to use heat on it. Sometimes working with a different part of the body helps, for example, the stomach or legs can be a good resource and may relieve any tightness. We only know what works by allowing the body to tell us and keep the head out of the naming process.

In Catriona’s first year and a half of training, for the whole trauma module they were taught to put all the thoughts to one side and only listen to the body. In the second training, developmental work, they were shocked at the first demonstration which included the question ‘what thoughts go with that sensation?’. The wise and wonderful trainers knew that if they allowed everyone to think at the beginning of the training, then they would solely rely on that. The only way that they could retrain everyone to listen and to understand the language of the body, was to listen only to the body, with nothing else getting in the way. This is the work Catriona continues to do with all of her clients, and this is the message that she wants to pass on to anyone who would like to hear it.

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How to face your fears of being seen and being visible

Being seen or being visible is something that a lot of us struggle with, myself included. As some of you may be aware, at We are Vega, we recently launched our YouTube channel, talking about lots of issues to do with mental health and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy. Both my daughter and I had our own issues with being seen and we had many discussions around this. Being seen or visible is also something that comes up a lot in my therapy sessions with different clients.

To begin with I had to really confront my own issues, which often sounded like,’I look rubbish’,  ‘my hair is all wrong’, ‘I’m too old’, ‘people might not like this’, ‘I’m boring’. The list went on and on as I thought about it. I also realised that I could have replaced any of these with other concerns that I had twenty years ago, and they weren’t in fact the underlying reasons. I was afraid of being harshly judged, criticised, ridiculed, or shamed. When I looked at the likelihood of this actually happening, I realised the chances were minimal as most people I interact with are kind and respectful. I also considered how much I don’t judge people on these things, I admire people for stepping up and putting themselves out there, so why was I concerned that others would be doing the opposite to me? I admire people who can just be themselves and be comfortable in their own natural way, therefore, I concluded that I was probably typical of most people, and that my fears were unfounded.

Why do other people struggle with being visible or seen?

This process isn’t so simple for a lot of my clients however, who have been traumatised and left with deep wounds around being humiliated. For many of these people and their past experiences, the consequences of being noticed or seen was catastrophic and their best defence was to be as quiet and as invisible as possible. For anyone who was bullied at school, their experience of being seen was terrible, as they were often picked on and laughed at. Going unnoticed was usually the best defence in this case.

When people have had experiences like this, it’s not just simply an exercise of reassurance to change it. Being seen can be triggering and it sets off the fight, flight or freeze responses. The work to heal and repair these traumas has to be safe, gentle, and in no way a replication of the initial trauma. When we understand how these things play out and that they are just a part of our survival response, then we also know that it’s going to take some work to repair and change things. For some people, it can feel threatening or uncomfortable to try and notice themselves. Their head may tell them that it’s because they don’t like themselves, or that they can’t stand the way they look. This tells us that we need to begin repairing this relationship to ourselves.

How can we start learning to be okay with being seen?

We can start this process really simply. For example, using what I do in Sensorimotor work, we can try moving our feet in a pattern, and just observing them and feeling them as they move. We can then try creating a different narrative in our head. So, instead of criticism, we say something a little bit softer and more accepting like, ‘I can see my feet moving, and it’s ok’. I also get clients to try and notice how tight their shoulders are, making sure they are wary of any voice that might pop up to say that they are wrong. If it does pop up, then they can just let it pass, and try to just notice how tight their shoulders are and what might help to relieve some of the tension. Sometimes, they might like a supportive hand resting there, they might like to feel a bit of pressure from the hand, or feel like their shoulder is being held. Our shoulders will soon let you know what is working and what isn’t.

When we can start to observe ourselves and not criticise ourselves so much, it enables us to hear the information that we get from our body about what starts to happen when we are seen. Some people will feel themselves disconnect from their environment, their vision might become blurry, or they may start to shrink or go very still, which is the beginning of a freeze response. The key to finding resources which will help us get out of these responses, are going to be things that we do, but no one can see us doing them.

How our body can help us

When we start to disappear in our own unique way, we will have likely become disconnected from our body, therefore, the most effective thing we can do is to stay connected to our body and help it to function and move. We can get connected back to our body using small, simple resources, thing like tensing the muscles in your arms and releasing them can help. Another could be, keeping your toes moving inside your shoes, or tensing and releasing your stomach muscles. Another thing to try could be to gently rub your arms, to try to get the feeling back in them. If you can find something to lean on, you can try pushing yourself against it to help you feel more solid.

It’s just about finding an access point through your body and through your senses. Once you can change that initial response, your body will spontaneously move and work again. This way, instead of it being something that you have no control over, you can actually manage it and stay present. Being noticed isn’t then so terrifying, because you are managing it. It will automatically make you feel less vulnerable and more able to stand your ground. You don’t have to be locked into the shadows of your past, once we understand what’s happening and why, we can do something really positive about it.

I still feel nervous when a video is going out on We are Vega, but also excited. The more we do and the more we put out, the easier it feels and the more confident I feel about doing different things.

The kinder we can be too ourselves and others around us, the easier this process of being seen and being visible will be for everyone.

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How past experiences can still affect us today

It’s been an established fact by a lot of therapeutic modalities that our past experiences can have a profound effect on the way that we behave, react and relate to others, in relationships. A lot of talking therapies require clients to dig deep into their past to try and explain their present day symptoms or behaviours. This can be helpful for a lot of people and can also assist with making sense of things happening to them right now. However, it’s not always that simple, and it isn’t a good option for people who have no memory of their experiences. A lot of Catriona’s clients have little to no memory of their childhood, their recall can be sketchy or even non-existent. All they are aware of is their repeating patterns of behaviour, or that their reactions to things or people seem to make no sense. They usually find that these behaviours are really hard to change. They aren’t aware of how their past experiences are affecting their lives today.

When Catriona is working with clients, whatever behaviours they are exploring, whether it’s eating patterns, obsessive traits, anxiety about certain things, she always views them with an acceptance. Accepting that at some point in the clients lives, this behaviour was a solution to a problem and it made sense back then. Therefore, if that was a solution, we can then be curious about what it was a solution for. If you have grown up in an environment which was unpredictable or volatile, then a good solution will have been to shrink yourself and be as quiet, still, and invisible as possible. It may have even been the best solution to freeze and be completely still, or to dissociate. These responses don’t then simply disappear when you change your environment or when you grow up, as our coping mechanisms can follow us and play out wherever we go. If it feels like these coping mechanisms or behaviours are no longer needed but still keep happening, they change from being a solution, to something that actually gets in the way or causes problems.

The freeze response might show up again in the present day at any sign of potential conflict, or in a situation that you would have perceived as threatening when you were much younger. Clients will notice that their breathing gets tight and shallow, or they may be unable to move or think about what to do, or even speak to ask for help. They may be completely oblivious to the trigger that’s just come up and just come to the conclusion that there’s something wrong with them. These responses can then very easily get misdiagnosed, or treated with the wrong medication, resulting in no understanding about what’s happening to them and no improvement in their condition.

It’s very hard to just stop behaviours if they are hard-wired into our survival system, even if we can have some success, it usually takes a huge amount of effort. It feels like an ongoing, never-ending battle, which can be exhausting and demoralising.

However, sometimes when we grow up, go to uni, get a job, meet new friends, or get into relationships, these behaviours and coping mechanisms can start to fade and sometimes even stop. But if we then have a new traumatic experience or something happens in our life that reduces our resilience, or triggers any past events, then these behaviours can suddenly reappear. When this happens to us, we always blame it on what’s going in the present and we often don’t recognise that something from our past might have been triggered, as there isn’t always an obvious connection between the two.

A light bulb in hands representing energy levels

The great thing about working with the body, is that your body will tell your story. When you can learn to notice and track what your body is doing, you can then question why a certain behaviour might have been a really good response in the past. You can then begin to make links to the present and try to make sense of what’s happening to you. Once you can do that, you can explore different resources to find a new solution which allows the body to have a new present-moment experience. If you are in a freeze response, then you can find something that will help you to unfreeze, in a new, safe way. That way, when the past triggers you again, you will recognise the early signs of the trigger, as they will be consistent, and you can then resource yourself so you don’t freeze or shut down. This allows you to be in control and not let past events take over what is happening right now.

Just because you don’t know why you might react in certain ways, we can always assume that there was once a good reason for this, and it was a solution at the time. If you tend to get overly anxious, or you have panic attacks, then you can find some resources to help your breathing and then use them before the anxiety gets a chance to build. This way you can heal from the past without having to go over all the details of what happened to you.

Our past will always be there but the influence it has over us can be massively reduced and we can heal from the past experiences that have happened to us.

Our Body Work Course is a really way to start understanding your body and connections to your past experiences, we put it together to help you learn to understand the different behaviours and messages from your body, to help put you back in control of yourself. You can check out the course here, or send us any questions you may have here.

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Different ways of managing a sensory overload in a world full of instant information.

Sensory overload is something I don’t think that we give enough attention to. The world we live in has evolved massively over the last 50 years, each year seems to accelerate the speed of that change. The more technology advances, the more it speeds up, and the more we then have to run to keep up.

If we go back 50 years, back then we barely had computers. There weren’t any mobile phones or even colour televisions, let alone ‘digital’ anything. The speed at which we communicated with each other was slower, we weren’t looking at bright LED screens. Life was slower, not so bright, maybe quieter in some respects. There were more family businesses and less huge shopping centres. With all change there are different pros and cons, but as humans we have had to do a lot of adapting in a short space of time.

All the information we take in is through our senses, through our sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell. This information is what we use to make sense of things, to communicate and to regulate our nervous system. When we consider this, then it’s not hard to see how sensory overload could be a real thing and could affect the way we feel, how functional we are and our general wellbeing. Some fast food chains deliberately use brash colour schemes, which initially looks inviting and attractive but quickly makes customers feel uncomfortable and like they want to leave soon after they finish eating. Specialist autistic schools have only pastel colours in their classrooms, as primary colours are dysregulating for children with autism. This obviously does not stop when these children leave school, but they have to learn to live in a very bright sensory jangling world.

I have many clients who are becoming aware of their own sensory overload. It makes sense when we live with the effects of trauma, as we are used to being on edge, or hyper vigilant, taking in all kinds of information at a high speed. We are likely going to be super sensitive to sensory stimulation. I know how disorientated I get inside shopping centres and sometimes supermarkets. I lose my already poor sense of direction, I go offline and begin feeling very tired and confused, especially if it’s busy.

If we are looking at screens, our mobile phones, our laptops or TV’s for several hours a day, that’s a massive amount of sensory information coming at us. Maybe what we need to do is be more mindful about taking a proper break from these sources of stimulus. With so much amazing technology available, we expect each other to be available 24/7. If we don’t get a text back within minutes, we wonder what’s wrong. It’s almost unheard of to not carry our phones with us everywhere. It’s an immediate world, where we don’t have to wait for anything. We get immediate replies, we can order food in minutes, we get next-day deliveries and can access any information instantly. Time out needs to be the opposite of this so we can give our brains, bodies and our nervous systems a break, and time to just settle, not having to constantly work so hard.

So how can we manage a sensory overload?

In order to slow down and avoid a sensory overload, we need to start doing things slower. Starting with something simple like walking slower, deliberately taking our foot off the accelerator so we can take our time. If we go for a slower walk, it means we can take in more of our surroundings, be more curious and in the moment. We could also try eating slower, or drinking slower and savouring what we are actually eating. That way we can feel the process of eating and pay more attention to it.

We could try looking at only natural things for a while, studying things like the grass around us, or plants, trees, stone, wood or water. We can study them with our eyes and touch them with our skin. We can smell the different smells they bring. Children love playing with water, we could learn something from them and just see what it’s like to swish our hands around in cool water, or put our feet into a bowl of warm water. We can close our eyes and just feel some objects lying around the house, soft things, hard things, cold things and rough things, just to heighten the sense of touch.

If we all gave our senses a 15 minute break every day, it would be interesting to see what affect this would have on us. If we put it at the top of our priority list and made a point of looking after our senses, it might help us to feel calmer, more settled and not in such a rush all the time.

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Why it’s important to be aware of our intentions

Sometimes when we are communicating with others, we get the sense that there is something else in the message that doesn’t exactly match with the words. How many times do we hear, ‘it’s not what was said, but the way it was said’? Very often the intention behind the message isn’t evident in the narrative being spoken.

I was aware of this when I used to run group therapy sessions. I would ask people to be really honest with themselves about what their intention was before they delivered any feedback to the others. It’s something we should all be considering and asking ourselves routinely, before we communicate with others. If we are honest about how we want the other person to feel, then it could alter what we say and how we say it. If we want to give someone a poke, we can do so with quite innocent-sounding words. There are some really obvious red flags, for instance, if someone says, ‘I don’t mean to be rude’, or ‘I hope you don’t take this the wrong way’ we know that we might be getting a rude or insulting comment, veiled in something sounding innocuous.

If we have an exchange with someone and we come away feeling negative or talked down to, then quite likely this was the intention meant by the other person. If we were to trust the way we felt and the signals we were getting from our body we would get a more accurate measure of what is actually being communicated to us. Instead, we allow our heads to tell us that we’re imagining things or being silly, but often these first signs prove, in time, to be correct. Some people are really good at delivering insults with a big smile with nothing directly in the things they say that could be challenged, but we know we have been insulted.

How we can change our intentions

During our sensorimotor training, we did an exercise where we stood behind someone and placed a hand on their back. We then had to energetically communicate an intention through our hand, without altering the pressure. We communicated things like kindness, frustration, anger, hope, understanding and acceptance. The receiver guessed right every time because they could feel the intention through the hand. It was an incredible exercise and a real eye opener.

It’s really important to be aware of our intentions, because if we are feeling frustrated or negative, then anyone we are communicating with is likely to pick it up and may feel it’s something they have done to cause this. If we can be aware of these feeling or states, then we can make sure that it doesn’t get projected onto the person behind the checkout in a shop, or anyone else we might come across over our day. In addition, if we are tuned into our own emotional state and have a sense of our own body, then we can pick up the intentions that are being projected onto us and we’ll know that they don’t belong to us, we didn’t cause it.

If we could be more honest with ourselves about what indirect, underlying intention we are projecting then it might stop us having a dig at someone, and instead be more honest about how we are feeling and why. Our suppressed emotions have a way of leaking out, especially an emotion like anger. We end up displaying it not only through verbal communication, but through our behaviour. If we want to annoy someone, we usually find a way but try to make it look very innocent. Narcissists are experts at this, and the gaslighting is the denial of it, turning it back onto the person on the receiving end as paranoia or oversensitivity.

Honesty is the missing piece. If we can be honest with ourselves about what we are trying to deliver, it can give us time to reconsider what we say and the way we say it. We can replace a negative intention with a much kinder one.

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How our childhood experiences affect our adult lives

We’ve probably all heard about the nature nurture debate, are we the way we are from our genetic code, or is it our upbringing that plays the dominant role? Whatever we believe, there is no doubt that our childhood experiences play a major part in how we operate in our adult lives. Every day I help people understand the ways that these experiences affect them in all aspects of their life, finding ways to function and do things differently.

These early experiences can result in developmental trauma. We don’t have behaviours and coping mechanisms for no reason, we have them because they were needed and useful at the time. The more extreme the coping mechanism, the more extreme our experiences were. For a lot of my clients, they have very little memory of their childhood and find it hard to recall how their carers or parents behaved towards them. For those people, we have to rely on the body, and the way it moves and reacts to get some kind of clue as to what growing up for them must have been like.

For instance, if they are asked to make a decision, they will often try to work out what the right decision should be. They may fear getting it wrong or that they’ll make the wrong decision. If they can’t get the clues or affirmations from the people around them, then they might panic or get stuck, not knowing what to do. This tells us that either their environment was unpredictable, the rules may have kept changing, or they were expected to take responsibility for things that they just weren’t ready to take. They may have been told off for not making the right decision, therefore feeling a huge responsibility for the enormity of even the smallest of decisions.

These experiences can actually be seen in a physical way in the body, when asked to make a decision, the person might begin to look quickly around the room, they might stare intently at the person in front of them. This might then be followed by a shrinking or a slump in their body. They might then say, ‘it’s all too overwhelming’, or ‘I just don’t know’ and have multiple different examples of not being able to make a decision. Their head will have some pretty critical things to say about this, none of which are helpful, and so the cycle continues.

For some people, they do have some childhood memories. This can be useful, as they can then recall how their carers reacted or behaved in situations. It can be helpful to ask them what was expected of them growing up. Some people were encouraged to be grown up and they were praised for doing more adult things. Some were pushed to do better, but often didn’t receive praise for the achievements they actually made. Some were criticised and shamed if they did things wrong, or they were told off for being spontaneous and childlike.

Whatever the message, we internalise it and are are deeply affected by that message later on. These messages become beliefs and they affect the way that we behave and what we believe about ourselves deep down, these then get stored as a lived experience in the body. The job of the therapist is to notice these unconscious movements and responses, and bring the clients awareness to them.

One of the problems with developmental trauma is that it becomes so natural, it’s not in our conscious awareness, therefore it’s really hard to spot the physical evidence and body responses. The other difficulty with developmental trauma is the same as with any trauma, it doesn’t change in time, the reactions & coping mechanisms stay, the younger parts of us that are attached to the reactions, stay at the same young age. This means that when we react, we are reacting from a much younger part of ourselves but we are totally unaware of it and think it’s just us. We don’t know when it’s a triggered response.

The good thing is that these responses are pretty consistent, which is why they keep repeating. It’s can be really hard to try to behave differently. This means that if we begin to start observing ourselves in everyday life, it makes it easier to begin noticing these reactions and responses. If we can notice where our eyes are drawn to, if our body position shifts, if our breathing changes, then it gives us some clues as to what our body is doing, and why this might have made perfect sense in the past. It gives us a clue about what might be helpful and how we can bring a present moment experience to this triggered past one.

We can try things like, tapping things around us to feel things and hear the noise they make. Moving our feet inside our shoes, shaking our hands. Doing something that we can feel and experience right now. When we understand that we are taking care of a younger inner-self, it can make it easier to engage our adult brain and then try some different experiments.

If decision making is hard, then we have to start a retraining programme for ourselves, where we start with little decisions at first like tea or coffee, wearing a white t-shirt or a blue one, eating a cheese sandwich or a ham one. We’re replacing the fear of a negative consequence with curiosity, giving it a go and seeing what happens. We can also help these unconscious movements by waking up the unconscious a bit. For instance, when we make a cup of tea, we can try observing the order we do things and asking ourselves why we do it that way? If we drive, then we can try noticing the order of each step as we get into the car. Doing this can really help our observing part in its retraining programme. When we begin new experiments, it’s always enlightening and even amusing, it’s such a good way to help the unconscious be more seen and noticed.

When we listen to our bodies, even if we have no memory of our childhood experiences, we can bring some awareness to our behaviours that have come from that time. We can find things that will help us to manage these behaviours or coping mechanisms in our adult lives.

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How to successfully manage your extreme behaviours

I realised recently how much I work on ‘extremes’ with people, managing their extreme behaviours in multiple areas of their lives, a real ‘all or nothing’. One of the areas of extreme behaviours they struggle with is eating. This looks like them either trying to eat a totally clean, organic, healthy diet or finding themselves in a loop of fast food, ready meals and snacks. This can then ramp up to fluctuating between eating practically nothing or binge eating.

Another extreme is exercising, where they really go for it, fitting in as many sessions as possible, or they do the opposite, doing nothing, maybe just thinking about exercising, then watching Netflix instead. Alcohol is another extreme they struggle with, either drinking way more in the week than they were planning to, or going for abstinence. Smoking and any form of drug use also falls into this subject, either doing loads or trying to abstain totally.

There will be all sorts of places in our lives that we can see the same kinds of patterns. If we name the clean abstinence and highly motivated phase as ‘Phase 1’ and the other end of the spectrum as ‘Phase 2’, we can look at how they play out.

The problem with extreme behaviours, is that we end up swinging between the two phases, sometimes slowly but sometimes rapidly. It’s then easy to feel defeated, unmotivated and negative, as we don’t feel like we’re making any progress, or if we do make any progress, we can’t maintain it.

If we are in Phase 1 and we’re really keeping on track with our plan, but then something comes along to interrupt it, it can throw us off course completely. Sometimes one little slip or diversion can send us back into Phase 2. Internally, this might sound like, ‘well I messed up yesterday so I might as well just start again next week’. The more often this happens, the more time we tend to spend in Phase 2. We plan to get out of it but will find various reasons to delay the big shift it takes to move all the way over to Phase 1 again. During this time we’ll be very negative about ourselves. We might be making plausible excuses to tell ourselves and others why it’s too difficult, but we end up just berating ourselves.

So how can we make a change?

Deep down we know that this process isn’t really working, that we’re just going in constant cycles, yet we keep doing it anyway. Most of us have heard things like ‘diets don’t work’, ‘it’s about making changes in our lifestyle’ but it can be really hard to do things differently.

I can relate all these things to regulation issues. Our nervous system doesn’t operate well when we’re in extremes, we work best when we are balanced and in control. Sometimes we know when we need to be more activated and energetic, and then when we need to be more relaxed, we need to recharge our batteries and settle. It’s the same way we go about meeting our needs and managing ourselves. If we know we have a tendency to live in extremes, then we have to be prepared to start building some middle ground, a place where we stop bouncing from Phase 1 to Phase 2, and back again.

To really start to do things differently, we have to be realistic about the things we really want to abstain completely from, the things we honestly know we can’t have moderation with. This is different for each of us, but it requires being honest with ourselves, and it usually includes evidence from our past experiences. We might want to be occasional smokers or drinkers, but if we know that one slip sends us into the extreme again, then we maybe have to accept that we can’t be occasional with it.

We also have to look at what we think or feel about the idea of a middle ground. Could it be that we consider it dull or boring, or not enough? Do we think of it as too easy? That things that are worth having, have to be hard-earned? Do we believe that unless it’s extreme, it might not work? Are we too impatient to build a middle ground? Do we just want fast results?

We have gotten used to a very immediate way of life, we rarely have to wait for anything anymore and can feel quite outraged if we are expected to wait for anything. To create change, we have to know what we really think about building that middle ground, as our thoughts will creep in at any opportunity, urging us to do more or less, telling us it’s a waste of time or not working. We then have to decide what our middle ground will look like, how much flexibility we can have in it, and what signs would be there that tells us that we’re slipping into either Phase 1 or Phase 2. We also have to consider what support we might need to help us build our middle ground, and to maintain it until it feels like the normal. It will be a struggle at some points, but we need to expect that. Regulation takes work, whether it’s keeping us in a settled functional state, or making big changes in our lifestyle. Therefore, we need to know what’s going on in order to help and what isn’t. If we are trying to do less of something, then we need to know what we are going to fill the gap with. We might need to have a bit of structure planned in. If we are forcing ourselves to do something, then we have to accept that it won’t last. Relying on others doing things with us is also precarious, in case they drop out.

The more balance we can get into our lives, the more regulated all round we are going to feel. If we are constantly stressing about not doing something, or doing too much of anything, it’s going to be really hard for your nervous system to keep in balance. A holistic approach is always the most successful and actually, the easiest! Making little tweaks in several different areas can make an overall big difference over time, but we need to be patient and keep an eye on our extreme tendencies. This way we can successfully manage our extreme behaviours.

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How we can celebrate our small wins to achieve big goals

When it comes to achieving goals, sometimes it can seem as if we just aren’t making any progress or it feels like a really slow, long slog. There could be a number of factors that contribute towards this. For one, society throws us very conflicting messages. We are expected from an early age to do well, to try to win and get the best results, but we are also not supposed to be too joyous about our achievements. It’s very frowned upon to say that we’re good at something or to talk about our achievements, as we are then accused of bragging or being big-headed. We’re praised for being humble or by down-playing our accomplishments, especially in the UK, it’s a very British thing. If we then do achieve something, we are usually asked what’s the next thing we’re doing, so the pressure to move on and keep doing better becomes the norm.

There are several downsides to this, firstly, if we don’t win but we’ve had a great personal best, it’s usually dismissed and we end up feeling very devalued. Secondly, if we need some encouragement or validation from others in order for anything to have value, then we’ve stepped into precarious territory, as we might not get it. If we get no recognition, then it’s easy to feel invisible or of low worth.

How can we start to make a change?

When we are trying to make changes in any area of our lives, then we have to look at it as a process. Hardly anything just changes overnight, most things take work and will progress in stages. If we can’t put any value on the first stages, then we also can’t build on those stages. Often these first steps are the most important, they are the foundation stones of what is yet to come. When everything seems overwhelming and it feels like a struggle, but we still manage to get one thing in the day done, even if we don’t finish it, it can be hard to put that in the positive pile. It’s more likely to get devalued by things we say to ourselves like, ‘it’s nothing’, ‘other people managed twenty things, I only did this’, ‘I’m never going to get anywhere if that’s all I can do’. This mindset makes it hard to try working on the same task the next day, as it seems of little or of no value. If however, we could do that one small task every day and we celebrate it, then at the end of the week say we can say, ‘I did that four times this week, maybe I can do it five times next week!’ We can then make progress. If we hold any progress as a positive, then it’s got a chance to develop or become the norm of what we can do. We can build on it. If we keep dismantling the first foundation steps, we won’t be able to build anything. We have to learn to celebrate small wins.

For example, if we were to train for a 10k run, we would never expect to do the whole thing in the first day. We will however, be pleased that we ran to the end of the road. We know it’s a process but we often don’t apply the same principles to other things.

It’s much easier for us to look at what we can’t do and end up feeling less-than. In the last two years, we have had much less at our disposal to make us feel good and uplift us. It becomes very hard to value the little things when we have lost so many of the big things. However, this gives us a great opportunity to start from a foundation level. We can find things that we value and make a point of praising them, giving them the value they deserve. Whether that’s the plants you have grown, the lunch you have prepared, or just that you got showered today. No matter what it is, practice giving it value, celebrate all your small wins. If the inner-gremlins show up to minimise or devalue what you’re doing, then remind yourself of the good qualities, make it important. It’s surprising how differently we can feel about the small things. It’s similar to the idea of having gratitude, it makes us look at things in a positive way rather than a negative way.

We also have to be able to do this for ourselves, as it’s unlikely to come from others. If we are dependant on validation externally, then it can be taken away just as readily as it’s been given. When we hold it ourselves, then no-one can take it away from us because our value is solid, we know why we value the little things. If we can start to do this for the small things, then it naturally becomes easier to value the big things without the fear of ridicule, or fear of being made to feel vulnerable because of what others might say. Celebrating our small wins enables us to achieve our big goals.

All of this is a process and it takes work, but it’s a journey that is well worth doing. It’s something we can all do without much at our disposal.