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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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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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Mental health needs more than just a week

Last week was mental health awareness week, but the conversation shouldn’t just stop there, awareness needs to be raised all the time. It’s great that mental health is being given a platform, but things around this subject are slow to change in ordinary, daily life. We all still feel the need to put on a brave face and this is especially true if we are in any position of authority or leadership. The pressure to be fine can be immense, often if we show a crack, people who depend upon us wobble. Sometimes there is an inference that we are not looking after ourselves properly, that we have let things slip if we dare say we are struggling. All of these things need to be discussed openly, honestly and with all the judgment taken out.

For most of us, when we feel overwhelmed, down or anxious, we want to withdraw, we don’t want to be seen. This is a protective measure and makes sense, as this can be helpful sometimes. However, if this is for a prolonged period of time, coming back out into society, work etc, can be really daunting. There is an element of this happening for a lot of us now with us coming out of lockdown and things opening back up. A lot of people are scared, if they haven’t been out for a long time amongst groups of people, it’s all very unfamiliar. Add that on top of all the new rules and regulations we are supposed to know about and follow, as if they are normal. It’s somehow not ok to be seen not having a clue how things work. If we feel as though we are coming out of hiding, the last thing we want is to be told off, shouted at, or called out in front of others. For this reason some people are avoiding getting back out there and staying inside instead. When we feel fearful, we get more hyper-vigilant and scan around for danger. We loose the ability to be curious, take in our surroundings and feel relaxed, this in turn increases our anxiety.

So what can we do?

Firstly, we need to start connecting with things again, opening up our curiosity and feeling a part of things. The theme of this years awareness week was nature, which is brilliant, especially as its spring time and all the trees and plants are emerging, just as we are. Nature gives us the perfect opportunity to be curious, engage our senses, and feel involved. We always know what we will get with nature, it’s not unpredictable or hard to read, unlike the way humans can be. It can really help us to become more mindful in a very relaxed way, by just taking notice of what’s around us. When we plant things and watch them grow we feel involved in the process. We plant the seeds, we water them, and we watch them emerge and grow. We have to nurture them to keep them alive and we feel responsible for them. Planting cress seeds on damp kitchen roll is one of the quickest ways to do this, they begin growing so quickly. When we go out for a walk or into the garden, we can really notice the leaves growing and changing. We can feel them, smell them and notice the difference between the two sides. Touch things, notice textures and scents, listen to the rain falling, or notice the way the wind moves the trees. As you do this, notice the way you are breathing, let yourself really take in the connection, be curious about what feels good and how your body tells you this feels good.

If we practice being really present in nature, it can help our hyper-vigilance stay under control, if we can always find something to focus on, to really allow our awareness to be engaged, it is settling for our nervous system. We can use these skills when we go out amongst people, instead of worrying what might happen, focusing on what is actually around us right now. When we learn to be observant, it can help us feel less like a rabbit in the headlights and more of a part of what’s happening.

We do need a bit of a retraining programme but it’s so important that we connect back with people, isolation is so damaging to us and has a dramatic impact upon our mental health. If we are going to be more aware, then we have to be able to communicate with each other. None of us will open up or reach out if we don’t feel safe, we have to be able to smile at each other, let the people around us know we are there and we are approachable. The more we can make going outside a pleasant experience, the easier it will be for those who feel scared or nervous. Just making the effort to smile at people we interact with helps us and helps them. Smiling is very underrated, it’s more tricky in a mask but people can see the smile in our eyes. If we bear in mind that there are nervous people around us, pretending to be fine, we might remember to smile more and be open to engagement, it might make a huge difference to someone’s day.