Two types of confidence

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Here’s why the ego is weak and vulnerable; it depends upon external stimuli to boost it. It goes up and down according to the feedback it gets from the outside world. Thus, when our confidence is tied to the ego, our confidence too depends on the outside world. Our self-esteem is entirely dependent on how people behave towards us. It goes up when we are paid a compliment. Goes down when we hear someone talk ill of us. It is fragile and fickle. It can balloon up, but just easily burst and leave a person in tatters. Think about it, it means that our opinion of ourselves is inexorably tied to the opinion others hold of us. Other people can build us up, or tear us down.

 

I believe there’s another type of confidence. It’s a type I’ve seen in Buddhist monks, such as Thich Nhat Hanh. Sometimes I see it in prominent leaders, who are so self-assured, and yet seem so humble with it. This type of confidence is not dependent on our external world, but on our internal world. It’s a confidence that can only come from self-awareness and self-understanding. From self-acceptance. It is not so easily influenced by others in our external world. I’m sure these people still have ego (I believe it to be a fundamental part of evolutionary human nature), but they do not rely on it for their self-worth. How liberating…to not fear how others judge us. To try to be the best we can be individually, not the best that others think we can be.

 

As such, this confidence grows from deepening our acknowledgement of ourselves. Of accepting and embracing our weaknesses, just as we like to embrace our strengths. It grows as we grow in to ourselves, and try to be the best version of ourselves. When at peace with ourselves, we are not concerned with whether a person ‘likes’ us or not. In fact, some will dislike us for it simply because they envy that way of being. More likely, people will be drawn to it though. For all our differences, I believe at some level we are all looking for that sense of self-acceptance and inner contentment.

 

The ego can provide quick bursts of confidence that feel great. This inner type of confidence takes time, work and a lot of patience. But unlike that of the ego, it is real confidence. It stays with us and enables us to flourish.

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Drive

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The realisation crept up on me recently that my frameworks around what defines a ‘good’ day have changed quite dramatically.

Going through my early teens, I recall that as I lay in bed at the end of the day, the question I would ask myself was ‘was I happy today?’ That was how I framed whether or not it had been a successful day. Of course when you’re a teen, simply attaining happiness is no easy feat – your hormones are going crazy and of course, no one understands you…especially not your parents. It’s not like they were ever teenagers.

As I matured and progressed through my mid-teens towards adolescence, this schema changed once again. I learned that one of the most fundamental forces behind my feeling good was the richness and variety of experience. It wasn’t just happiness I was after, but the whole spectrum of different emotions. Whether or not I attained that variety of emotion was determined by novelty and depth of experiences – new places, people, conversations, learnings, challenges, activities. I wouldn’t say that happiness and richness of experience were necessarily distinct, there was a great deal of overlap, but the scales certainly began to weigh more heavily on the latter.

My framing was completely shaken up when I went through depression at 18/19. The questions I asked myself were things like ‘was today better than yesterday?’ or ‘am I getting closer to feeling ok again?’ and at its lowest points, ‘was there one good thing about today?’ or ‘did I feel something positive today?’ It took some time – years – before I started asking myself again whether it had richness of experience.

But I remember that around 17/18 I began to notice another motive creeping in, one that grew stronger and stronger over time. The question was ‘have I helped someone today?’ or ‘have I had done some good today?’ I recall that I spent more time wanting to listen to how people were, understand them and try to support them. And then after – and even during – my experience of depression as I tried to make sense of it, tried to see something positive out of what felt really shit at the time, this motive gathered momentum. It told me that if I used my painful experiences in some kind of positive way, then that would help me feel better again. And it did. Enormously so.

As more and more of time went to volunteering, and particularly volunteering based around youth mental health, this motive of ‘doing good’ shaped up as the main driving force in my life. Richness of experience, happiness were still there, but this started to weigh heavier than either of them.

Now unquestionably this is how I define my days. It’s not about whether I’ve had a ‘good time’, but by ‘what good I’ve done’. And it’s all inexorably linked, the more of a positive impact I feel I’m having, the greater emotional richness I get to experience and I guess, the more happiness I feel. It’s a neat cycle.

But it’s only since I arrived in Sydney, and looked at the almost completely blank slate of my new life in front of me, that the considerable impact of this drive to do good became obvious. Some of the more ‘fun’ activities I used to take part in – drinking, watching films, playing sport, travel – no longer appealed to me anywhere near as strongly as they used to. This core drive is so fundamental to who we are and how we spend our time, that it shapes every little activity and decision we make, even when we don’t realise it. I find myself now more drawn to networking, learning, personal development and trying to further the good I do. Indeed, I understand very well that in order to help others, we have to first look after ourselves. So I even look at the time invested in taking care of myself as again something that facilitates my having a positive impact in the world. It’s a gradual shift, but the effect is enormous.

And even now as I appreciate the value of long-term thinking more and more, I notice the question shifting from not just ‘what good have I done today?’ but also including ‘has today enabled me to do more good in the future?’ I have little idea how it’s going to develop next, and I’m actually pretty excited by that.

What drives you?

The most simple and powerful ‘cure’ for mental illness: Looking after ourselves

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Last week I was invited to speak at Vibewire’s FastBREAK event; a monthly breakfast event in which five speakers blitz five-minute presentations on a particular topic, this month’s topic being cure. My background over the last few years having been mental health, I had one or two thoughts on this one. The great thing about these sorts of opportunities, is they force you to consider your own views on the topic, and articulate those thoughts in to something coherent and with a message behind it.

I think modern society’s obsession with fixing things and finding a ‘cure’ is not an altogether healthy one, and in the mental health sector I’ve seen evidence of that. The medical model takes the view that mental illness is a physical malfunction of the brain that needs to be corrected. As a starting point for how we view mental illness, I think this is bullshit and can do more harm than good.

Sure, the evidence is solid that many psychological disorders (to varying extents) have a genetic component, and some people are more predisposed to them than others. I don’t dispute that. But it nonetheless needs a life trigger to happen, and that comes down to personal circumstances. This model in isolation does not explore the life circumstances that triggered the problem in the first place. It’s like giving someone who is obese weight-reduction pills, and ignoring the fact that they spend all day on the couch eating fast food. You’re treating symptoms, not the cause, and as long as that’s the case then the problem will repeat.

The other major gripe I have with this model, is that it waits until there is a problem before looking for a solution. What has become increasingly apparent to me over the years, is that the best solution is ‘prevention’. The smartest investment may not actually be in finding the best drug treatments, but in showing people how they can better look after themselves in the first place.

Now I’m not saying here that the medical model has no value, not at all. Research in to mental health increases our understanding, and helps us to see where the triggers lie and what aspects of our life might have caused the problem. And in some cases, the mental illness is so debilitating (and long-term), that drug treatment is the only way in which to give that person decent quality of life, or to get them to a stage where they can start looking at more holistic techniques to better understand what triggered the problem and the life changes they can make. But I want to use this blog to demonstrate why I think simply taking better of ourselves is the most obvious, and underused, ‘cure’ for mental illness out there. Heck, it’s probably the best ‘cure’ for physical illness too. You’ll see that mental health and physical health are so inexorably linked that when it comes to maintaining them, it’s little use to differentiate.

The positive effects on our bodies and minds of exercise are incredibly profound. Other basics such as our diet and getting enough sleep are also tremendously impactful on our wellbeing. Lack of sleep is correlated with all manner of psychological disorders, and I’m sure we’ve all experienced feeling crap when sleep deprived.

From a more psychological point of view, I think enormous value should be placed on our social relationships with others – family, friends, colleagues. The drive to be accepted, appreciated and part of a community is at the core of humans. We’re fundamentally social creatures. Also having purpose, feeling like we’re contributing something positive, learning are all deeply important to our mental health.

The New Economics Foundation put together a ‘Five Ways to Well-being’ project, which is nicely presented and based on the strength of research. It’s worth a look.

I’ll also jump back to a blog I wrote a while ago on acceptance, and why this is so important. As Seema Duggal explained in her talk, somehow we have developed a culture in which we expect to feel happy – it is deemed the ‘norm’. This is ridiculous and unrealistic. The whole premise behind the evolution of emotion is for the adaptive advantage it gives us. The ability to recognise whether something is good for us or not. Inevitably, there will be some of the latter. It’s healthy to feel sad when we experience loss or disappointment, and there are valuable lessons in the painful emotions too. Accepting our emotions, whatever they may be, is an important aspect of taking care of ourselves.

We all have mental health so let’s take proper care of it; doing so has a huge impact on every day of our lives. I learned this lesson the hard way when I went through depression, however my life has been so much richer since then because of the care I’ve given to acknowledging and building my own mental health. It’s been tough, and I have to be proactive with my mental health. I take time out every day for activities such as meditation, walking, cooking/eating good food, cycling, time with friends and view these as essential parts of my day.

My final thought is on how we might teach people the importance of and techniques that assist us to look after our mental health? Should this be part of public education as we grow up? It has such enormous consequences, and if we could learn these things early…

So a final question. What will you start doing every day to look after your own mental health better? You can’t use the excuse of being short of ideas – there are about ten in this blog alone! Good luck with it, and enjoy the rewards.

Making the most of each day and why less really is more

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There’s been an inescapable realisation creeping up on me this past week. That there’s more. Yes, you know exactly what I mean right!? An explanation then.

I know there are times when I feel extra tuned in and sensitive to life. I notice things I ordinarily wouldn’t; the body language of someone I’m speaking to, connections between people and activities, a conversation off in the corner, the flavours of something I’m eating, previous situations that are similar. It’s being in the moment. Almost an animal-like extrasensory state of being. It’s incredible, but I have no idea what triggers it, and eventually it seems to wear off. When I’m in it, I’m creative, incisive and inspired. I get more out of every little experience taking place around me. It’s as though there’s this extra level, an extra 5% that I get access to.

Where the more lies, is not outside in the world – this is where I think is where so many go wrong. We have no shortage of access now to incredible people, inspiring literature, art, magnificent places. Our days and lives are more varied than ever before, and there is no shortage of sensory input. Yet, somehow on the journey that sensory input takes to reach our consciousness, much of it is filtered out. Neurologically, that makes sense, as our brain receives an incomprehensible amount of information and has to filter out what we are aware of. Can you imagine if we noticed every single time a bird shouts, or the precise actions of our fingers as they type, the pressure on our feet as we stand? It would be incredibly distracting. From an evolutionary perspective, I do wonder if this sensory overload is the reason why we can’t be more tuned in to what we’re experiencing. The brain has had to adapt to this incredible amount of input, and with only so much energy available, that means that there is less to be given to feeling in the moment. Every now and then though there’s a glimpse of it, and it’s phenomenal.

Sometimes I’ll listen to a piece of music and it will trigger off a strong emotional reaction, in turn giving me this heightened sense and with it greater creativity and inspiration. Or I’ll see other people go through an unexpected and emotional experience, which will provide them with greater insight. What is it exactly, about these experiences, that triggers our access to this extra layer?

Many people I meet seem so lacking in self-awareness. They don’t understand why they feel as they do, and can’t connect the dots. When they feel miserable or disillusioned they can’t figure it out. I see people repeat the same behaviours and choices time and time again, and then end up surprised when it leads to the same feeling they were hoping to avoid. It’s utterly bizarre. I see it in work decisions, relationships and even simple daily habits such as sleep. I wonder if this and the sensory overload/lack of consciousness are interconnected.

I see people rush through their lives. Dashing from one task to the next, one person to the next, one place to the next. They soak up the sensory input that’s out there, and in the process completely miss out on a whole level of sensation, experience and awareness that would come from paying more attention to how they feel inside. Often when people slow down that’s when they have these great realisations and epiphanies. A vacation, a break between jobs, a long walk. So many times I hear people come back from a holiday and express excitedly all these new realisations about themselves and their lives that they have discovered, just because they took the time to slow down. Imagine if you could do that every week…?

And if you slow down and allow those realisations to sink in, then with less stress comes greater creativity. I’ve heard it said that the first thing that goes when people cut down on sleep is creativity. Stress makes you productive yes, but how often do our greatest insights surprise us by appearing in the middle of a peaceful moment – a walk, when we get in to bed, cooking dinner? Compared to say… a busy period when we’re drawing up some document or ploughing through emails.

So when I talk about there being more, I don’t mean that there’s more out there in the world, I mean that there’s more inside of us. More awareness, possibilities, potential. Every now and then I meet someone who seems to have found a way to access this, and they give off an incredible energy.

I don’t think we’ll access it through being busier or having/doing more. That distracts us and negates our self-awareness. I think it may come from taking time to slow down, allowing for spontaneity, and through spiritual practice such as meditation. From living a more minimalist life, and cutting down on distractions. Keeping things simple, and demanding less of our energy for processing all this stimuli, so it can instead be redirected to conscious awareness. Buddhist monks are some of the most self-aware, wise people you’ll ever find, and yet they live remarkably simple lives.

We ought to pay more attention to what’s inside, rather than outside.

The marvelous powers of intuition

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I recently finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. After receiving a surprisingly hostile automated email from the UNSW library informing me that I had to return it by Monday, I quickly finished it off over the weekend. Writing a review seemed like an appropriate and logical action to take afterwards, but as I began to shape that review in my head I noticed a strong theme imbued within that review; intuition against logic. And so appropriately, I’m taking the intuitive route, and constructing this piece of writing around that theme.

To set the tone, have a read of the following quote from Jobs I’ve picked out about his return to America after a year-long trip to India:

“Coming back to America was, for me, much more of a cultural shock than going to India. The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead, and their intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world. Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.

Western rational thought is not an innate human characteristic; it is learned and is the great achievement of Western civilization. In the villages of India, they never learned it. They learned something else, which is in some ways just as valuable but in other ways is not. That’s the power of intuition and experiential wisdom.”

The way that Jobs used and trusted his intuition throughout his life completely gripped me. It seems entirely incongruous that you could shape a huge commercial enterprise, based initially around computers of all things, largely on one man’s intuition and instincts, rather than the power of analysis. Many of Jobs’ most incredible breakthrough products came about because he sensed the need for them before others – or saw the opportunity to do them as they should be done. iTunes, iPod, iPhone, the early Macintosh….to name a few.

The process of delivering these products was not based on spreadsheets, financial forecasts or market trends. It was instinctive. He infamously declared market research to be useless, stating that you couldn’t research what people wanted, because you hadn’t shown them it yet. Many of Apple’s marketing techniques were counter to what people expected from the industry. But they really, really worked.

Jobs often had such a precise vision of how things ought to look and feel, and would force people to redesign over and over again until it was just perfect. Often he would struggle to explain it, or give reason to the need for those changes. But as soon as it was right he knew.

There are similarities with Branson, who again explains that many of his best decisions were instinctive. Whenever Virgin was struggling, they would make a bold and risky move based as much on intuition than reason, and it got them out of some enormous holes.

I’ve grown up – as have, I believe, most around me – with the view that reason and logic can conquer all. The notion that you could instead (and dare I say it, would be better off doing so) rely on those things called feelings in order to make decisions and solve problems took me some time to get my head around. Certainly I’ve come to trust my intuition a lot more, and it’s served me very well. Even when it leads to in to a mess, I know that I’m learning and it will get better for it.

Recently, I wrote about mentally healthy living, and the importance of starting with acceptance and awareness of our feelings – as well as how deficiency in these areas can lead to mental illness. This is a kind-of-follow-up to that blog. I hope to illustrate in later blogs that on the other end of the spectrum there are those who are very finely tuned in to their instincts and that their trust in their intuition is so strong that it can lead them to make the right decision when the tide of ‘rational’ opinion is against them. That’s not to say that they don’t ever make mistakes, but doing so actually improves their instincts, rather than puts them off using them.

When I was studying Neuroscience, we had a module on decision-making. A fascinating theme emerged from the research; that even when people make impulsive decisions they do not recognize that this is so. They dress them up in logic and reason, when their actual motive was instinctive. Sometimes the logic was amusingly flawed, and yet they were convinced of it.

Intuition and instinct do have a big part to play in the modern world – bigger, perhaps, than society currently acknowledges. I think forms of meditation, such as mindfulness, can really facilitate these attributes. It’s a huge subject and I’ve barely even scraped the surface of it here, but I hope it’s piqued a little interest. Plus, if Einstein digs intuition (what a man), then it’s got to have some value.

So go and be more instinctive! Put that pesky voice of reason aside and see what happens.

Meditation: Why bother?

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Following on from my writing about the importance of psychological awareness; acknowledging our feelings, understanding what triggered them and ultimately using that to drive our decisions, I realized I had to tie in the role an activity that facilitates this entire process. Meditation.

Although I had been doing guided meditation for a few months before leaving the UK, it was only when I got to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand that I really understand the benefits of it. I had generally understood the objective of meditation to simply be calmness – very useful in itself for those caught up in the fast-paced western world.

The retreat I stayed at practiced a technique called Vipassana meditation, also understood as ‘insight meditation’. The aim is much greater awareness and understanding of all sensations that your body perceives; especially touch, sound and sight. You develop the ability to observe each of these sensations, and in time, even to observe your thoughts in the same way – observing all these different sensations at once you are practiced enough.

The whole experience was so tremendously….well, insightful, but I’m going to keep the focus on emotional awareness. As you improve and develop (which does happen when you’re practicing 8 hours a day), you notice the way that your attention is immediately drawn to any new sensation. It could be a bird singing, or an ant crawling up your leg (we were in the middle of forest, so this happen almost constantly). And as this new stimulus arrives, there’s an almost immediate emotional reaction in your body. If it’s a sound you find soothing, you feel a calmness in your body. If it’s a sound that could be dangerous, you feel an edginess. I couldn’t help tying this back to my studies and the neurological underpinnings of the flight or flight response.

This in itself isn’t especially surprising. It’s fascinating to be able to experience this with such focus, but it’s the next stage of learning where the insight starts to come. As I said, in time you can observe your thoughts in a similar way to sounds or sights. And much the same, thoughts can be quite random. I was amazed at how disconnected and jumpy they would be. At one moment a memory a conversation would jump in, ten seconds later I’d think of family, and then it would be breakfast. You wonder just how much processing is going on without your being consciously aware at any one time, and how the brain chooses what to make you aware of and what not.

By adding thoughts to the mix, you can observe their emotional effect on the body in much the same way. So as the thought of my parents came along, I would feel strong warmth. A memory of a break up, and I’d feel tense. Food…well that would be terribly exciting. The response is instantaneous and completely natural. There’s no time for logic or analysis to interfere.

The few examples I’ve just listed seem obvious, but when you’re unsure of a decision, then this process becomes very valuable. At this point in my travels I had grown pretty weary, and wanted something less superficial than brief friendships with other travelers and spending no more than a week in each place. I had no idea what an alternative might be though. When the thoughts of more travel came along, my body instantly felt heavy. Instead, when I thought of settling in one place for a few weeks, of trying to look at a place through the eyes of a local and not a tourist, I immediately experienced excitement. This was counter to my own logic and the advice I was getting from nearly everyone I spoke to about. Logic told me I should be seeing as many countries as possible, and sticking to my original well-thought out plan. I followed my instincts, spent a few weeks working in Singapore almost entirely in the company of locals and it stands out as one of the highlights of my trip.

I began paying attention to all sorts. What I felt when I thought of certain people, places, activities and came away with a very clear vision of how I would like my life to look once I settled down in Sydney. I was able to project in to the future, and predict very accurately how these different features would make me feel.

A lot of people I speak seem to be very disconnected from how they’re feeling; unable to understand what causes them to feel sad or happy. They keep repeating the same actions that produce a negative response in them, and then producing logic to justify it. Often their body language will be in contradiction to what they’re saying, but we’ve learned to pay more attention to words and reasoning than to these signs. We’ve forced experiential wisdom in to the backseat.

I don’t dispute the value of reason and logic, but I don’t doubt that we’ve come to lean on it too much at the expense of our intuition. For me, this certainly contributes to the high levels of mental illness we see in western cultures, and the staggering number of people who admit to feeling dissatisfied with their lives.

The rise of eastern philosophy and spirituality suggests that I’m not alone in feeling that perhaps it’s time to redress this imbalance.