Choose Actions, not Words

It’s quite often that when we meet someone new that we choose to see what we want them to be rather than what they present us with. More often than not, it’s what they want themselves to be too, however the reality is that they might not be willing to put the work in to actually get there. This message seems to be reeling around my universe at the moment, in my own relationships and those of my friends as we meet new people though personal and professional encounters.

It’s so easy to get carried away with the vision of what can be, as we listen to self proclaimed virtues, even though what is staring us in the face is sometimes contradicting evidence. It’s something that seems so ingrained in our self obsessed culture, as though the marketing of something takes over the reality of what it is, leading to illusions and false pretences as the norm. It’s not that I want to be sceptical of the people I meet, or that I think this is something that people do maliciously. It’s just so easy to claim things which haven’t yet been earned, and we are in a society that celebrates it. We literally live in a world that values word higher than action, and condemns any honesty which might blow away the smoke screen.

Another fact to note in this situation is the sense of urgency that comes with it – a tell tale sign of an illusion at play. A trick used by sales people, to try trick potential customers into parting with their money for something whether they need it or not. To create the fear which directs the need for the solution which can be bought at a price so urgently agreed upon that the value and necessity isn’t even considered.

But how many of us fall play to this in our personal relationships too? When we are pressured to commit to loving someone on the premise of who they are? And I don’t just mean romantic love either. I mean the friendships that hold unspoken truths. The families who’s conversations consist of ‘everything’s fine’ when the writing is on the wall that all is not.

The thing is that this lack of honesty stops us from being the best version of ourselves. In fact, it’s the difficult feedback which we so often hide away from that holds the valuable information we need to take action and grow. The question that we need to ask ourselves is why do we hide away from the truths that are sometimes so obvious? What is it that we’ll lose if we acknowledge and even voice these truths? And if there are things that are being exchanged under dishonest words, is it serving us to believe them?

In recent times I’ve annoyed some friends by telling them what they didn’t want to hear. In fact, I haven’t restricted this to personal relationships either; I’ve rustled the same feathers in my family and in organisations that I work with. It hasn’t been an easy ride, especially when the commitment to the illusion is so ingrained, but it’s something which is a necessity to voice if we aim to grow, as a person or a business.

So as I sit here this morning, writing this post with my coffee I wonder to myself what dishonesty lies in my life? What relationships have I created which tell me what I want to hear rather than what is? What evidence is there in my life that I’m ignoring this? And most importantly what work do I need to put in to get me to the version of myself that I want to be? It’s only by looking for these answers and being honest that I can direct myself towards the best, and authentic version of myself.

Photo by Yoann Boyer on Unsplash

 

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The Value of Creating Space

It’s been a while since I’ve posted. In fact, it’s been a while since I’ve written at all. It’s due to a combination of factors, mainly working full time for the summer which hasn’t allowed me the time to sink into my writing space. Instead I’ve resided in my marketing space and focused on doing the best job I can. It’s not such a bad thing, seen as now I have some money in my bank account and the feeling of some financial security while I constantly try to create balance on the scales of my creative pursuits and actually earning living. I also recognise that I’ve gained some confidence credits as our department hits our extremely ambitious targets and I can see the fruits of my labour – a combination of many marketing campaigns that were produced on minimal budget without many resource,s but instead achieved because of team that works well together and has an abundance of passion steered in the right direction – this is the reality of working for independent charities. Still, it’s a life choice that I wouldn’t sell out on for money because deep down I know that my efforts in work reflect my values, and that means that I’m true to myself.
The thing I’ve come to miss, is the vacant space that I once would have done anything to avoid. The old Shereen would have filled this space instantaneously, and sometimes I still try to, forgetting the value that each breather holds. At my most emotional state I made sure that I was filling the smallest of gaps and sometimes it’s a fight to change this pattern. To resist trying to tidy up, calling a friend or turn on an audio book (I don’t own a TV and film has never been my go-to-escapism-vice), anything to not sit in this space and deal with whatever arises. A common pattern of mine was to try and plan out the future, in an effort to control what might happen next, rather than letting things arise naturally. This a common fear trigger that I’ve noticed when I come to the end of my work contracts, as though I think I’ll never find work again, strange.
It’s not often that we have the space to sit back and reflect, especially not when we’re working full time jobs and managing personal commitments. Let alone, write, which is what I discovered this summer. But to me, these gold nuggets of time are the most important throughout life. The time when projects end or relationships break up and we’re left with a gap to breathe, reflect and take stock of where we are.
The reality is that without taking the time to stop and sink into the vacant space, we can’t gain the perspective needed to clearly direct our next move going forward. We also can’t open our eyes wide enough to see opportunities that are approaching us that might be bigger and better than anything in our current direction. We can’t listen in to ourselves and separate our thoughts from the constancy influx of external messages. Thoughts that often hold the key to the dilemmas we allow ourselves to stress over. Without this space, we’re simply not available to creativity, opportunity or connection.
As I sit back and write this, I’m at another cross roads in my life. My rent period is coming to an end, my work contract tying up and there is a blank canvas in front of me. I could frantically worry, plan and scramble to control what happens next but instead I’ve decided to spend a month creating the space. A month to revive, reflect, and take stock of where I am now, because I know that doing so will create its own opportunities that’ll take me to where I need to go.
Photo Credit – Shoot ‘n’ Design

Emotional Intelligence is Nothing Without Awareness

I’m always chirping on about emotional intelligence. How understanding our emotions can be used as an opportunity to grow through life’s challenges. How it can help us better understand each other. How it can bring us together through compassion and help us lead more fulfilling lives. But something that I see often as this term gets tossed around is the lack of awareness in the people who are talking about it, and without personal awareness, it’s nothing.

If someone had spoken to me about emotional intelligence a few years back I probably would have nodded and said I’d got it, because I would have thought I had got it. I would have logically processed it in my mind and thought ‘yeah, I know how I feel most of the time, I’m in tune with my body and my emotions’, but in reality I wasn’t. In fact I didn’t even know what I didn’t know back then, and this is something which I see around me often these days. That so many of us think how we feel, rather than feel how we feel. In fact, some of us have made an art out of it to the point where we’ve even convinced ourselves that we are actually feeling, when the truth is that we’ve completely blocked off our senses all together. It’s no one’s fault that we’re doing this, we’re simply doing the best we can with the knowledge that we have, and unfortunately the majority of us in the west have been taught through social conditioning that this is how we find out how we feel.

This could be due to many factors such as the post war generation children learning to lock down emotions from their parents who would have experienced horrific traumas. This then being passed on to future generations as ‘the norm’. The introduction of industry and the desire to maximise production through robotic behaviour, slowly omitting any kind of emotional expression within the work place. The Victorian school system favouring science and maths over arts and music (mind over heart, or logic over feeling), seen as creativity is physically expressive form of emotion. The reinforced perceptions that this is the norm, seen as to question it might risk the consequence to be ousted from the community. I could go in to many more theories of how and why I think we’ve arrived at this point in the western society but I’ll reserve that for another time.

So what does it mean to become aware? To me, it means to gain an understanding of what our body, mind and heart are trying to tell us through signs.

It means to check in with our physical senses – touch, taste, sound, sight and smell, and understand what each sense is experiencing in the present moment.

It’s understanding what our mind is telling us through our judgements, commentary and instructions on how to behave.

It’s noticing what our emotions are telling us through our creative outputs and expressive behaviour.

At first, when we start paying attention to our body, mind and emotions it can be overwhelming, especially if we’ve been living a life which is in-congruent (with conflict between the head and the heart). For me, inner conflict was something that I’d lived with for a long time, especially as I strove more towards what I thought society wanted of me, rather than what I wanted for me. It was like opening my eyes in a room which had a whole load of mess in that needed clearing up. I felt exhausted just knowing about the mess, a mess which I had unconsciously been adding to for years. Part of me wanted to bury my head in the sand and pretend that I hadn’t seen it, but the problem was that I couldn’t un-see it and deep down I knew that the only way to feel better about the situation was to start clearing up the mess that I had created. That’s when I made a conscious effort to increase my awareness, learn the best techniques on how to tune into to my mind, body and emotions, and ultimately start to live a life that was true to me, no matter how ‘emotional’ or messy it seems on the outside. It’s the moment when I finally embodied the words my Mum had told me all my life and thought ‘Fuck what people think, I’m doing this my way’.

There are plenty of tools you can use to start becoming more aware. Mindfulness is one of the most spoken about tools to practice, but questioning ourselves and reflecting on our behaviour are also important too. I also find that journaling, and talking things through with friends is an important process to practice because sometimes I’m still not sure how I feel and it helps to have a little feedback.

The truth is that without inquiring into these areas of ourselves and really becoming a-tuned to what is going on inside us, emotional intelligence just becomes another subject matter to give lip service to. We may as well be talking about the weather, and it’s this disconnection to ourselves that is stopping us connect with others, with our inspiration and with greater fulfilment.

Photo credit: Kelly Searle

How To Use PTSD As A Platform For Growth

First things first, let’s bust a few myths on PTSD:

Post traumatic stress disorder is not something permanent.

It is not an identity (seriously #Iamnotashamed – let’s not create identities out of emotional experiences that pass)

It does not affect a person for the rest of their life

and it certainly doesn’t mean that someone has to live in a life full of safeguards which keep them away from any potential triggers (urgh, what a boring life that sounds like!).

At least, not if you let it.

Post traumatic stress is the reaction of the brain to a situation where it has had to go into survival mode. If you want the science, it’s where the emotional response has been so strong that the brain has created new and stronger neuro-pathways that were previously there. It’s like speed-building a motorway over a whole network of roads which took years to intricately build. However with the motorway, all the cars now speed across it to get from A to B, regardless of whether B is where the car wanted to go. It means that every possible sense trigger (sight, smell, sound, taste and touch) that could remind a person of the initial event takes their subconscious brain back there and automatically they react in the same reaction that they did at the time. For me that’s revisiting the night a man violently tried to rape me where I had to psychically fight for my life. Can you see how this might cause a potential hiccup in my dating life? (Although in reflection it’s actually quite funny and there’s definitely a book there… ‘How to date a PTSD nightmare…?’ Stay tuned for updates on that one!)

The trick with PTSD is to re-train the brain one trigger at a time. So for me, rather than avoid triggers and live a life of hiding because I’m scared of my own response, I created a safe environment around me (physically and mentally) to face every trigger and bring myself out of it, until I created the new neuro-pathways that allow me to feel safe in the world again. Think, deconstructing the motorway, brick by brick, and using it to create new roads back to the road network that was originally there. Here are my three top tips on how to turn a PTSD experience in to a gift of growth and exploration.

  1. Drive your own recovery

To anyone who is currently suffering from PTSD and is listening to Doctors, ‘survivors’ and people who just want to offer their inexperienced opinion- listen up! I had so many people tell me ‘you’ll never recover from this’, or ‘it’ll take years’ or ‘this will affect you for the rest of your life’. If you have people like this in your life – STOP LISTENING TO THEM RIGHT NOW because their opinions are total Bullshit! Even if it is your Doctor, your Psychologist or a family member. Don’t let their judgement stump your recovery time because the fact is that you will start recovering from your PTSD as soon as you start unpicking the triggers. The faster and more thorough you do this, the faster you’ll recover. Think of it like a pile of work on your desk. If you do one piece every month, yeah it’ll take forever to get through. If, like me, you want to get on living your life you might race through the work as fast as your physical form allows. If I listened to half the people who gave me their opinion on my recovery I wouldn’t be anywhere near as clear minded and emotionally resilient as I am today. When I think of what advice to take on I remember listening to a friend of a friend who had published a book about taking advice off people about publishing a book.

He said, ‘What are people telling you about publishing your book?’

I replied honestly ‘To not bother because it probably won’t make any money’.

Then he asked ‘And how many of them have even written a book?’

‘None’ I replied.

‘So why are you listening to them?’ He asked.

‘Fair point’ I laughed.

From that point on I never took advice from people who were not in a position I aspired to be in after going through something similar to what I’d been through. Advice from people about my PTSD and my recovery? I tell them to mind their own business – especially nosey opinionated onlookers who can’t even talk openly about their own emotions. The only expert on your recovery is you – so make sure you drive it, not anyone else.

  1. Create your winning support team

Lucky for me I have a best friend who is a psychologist for high performance teams who helped steer me through my recovery. Not everyone has this kind of resource to draw upon, however I can offer you the advice that Dr Jenn gave me and this is a golden one – create your winning support team. When you’re in a PTSD trigger, you’re living in a parallel reality where everything looks and smells the same but your reaction is as though you’re under attack. So it might be completely rational for you to defend to the death – because in your mind you’re under attack remember. However, to everyone outside of your head (and perspective) it will be obvious that you’re acting completely irrational to the situation in question That’s why it’s imperative that these people are part of the winning support team and know how to approach you when you’re experiencing a trigger and compassionately make you aware of it.

This takes a little organisation and some very honest conversations to work out a team plan of how to manage this but it is totally worth it in the long run. If you read my original blog Trauma on Tour you’ll know that I introduced the BS card which was a simple gesture – placing a business card in front of me so it reminded me to sense check and reflect upon my behaviour… and question whether I was bullshitting myself and acting from a place of fear, rather than a place of authenticity. As well as calling me out of my patterns, I also asked my friends to call me out if they thought I was being destructive to myself, or if I was doing anything in fact, that wasn’t serving me. It was like we had a team plan to get Shereen back and everyone had a part to play. It was extremely vulnerable for me to give this kind of authority over to other people and it required a great deal of trust, authenticity and open conversations to get there. In fact, it meant that to stay part of the team, each friend was required to face some hard truths within themselves as well as some difficult emotional training, but they all stepped up and grew along with me (thank you guys). Now I’m part of lots of winning support team as I root for every one of my friend’s successes; telling them when they’re off course and helping them strive to be the best version of themself.

  1. Start training with Mindfulness and CBT

Before you sign off on this third point, I’m not talking about barefoot meditating with hippies in a field, or lying on a leather couch while someone unpicks your darkest dreams so drop your judgements right now and read on.

There is a reason why this winning combination is in the spotlight at the moment and it’s because it works. What happens is that it allows your mind to unpick patterns, while observing the unpicking of the patterns in a way that is outside of the intense emotional feeling. That means, rather than re-feeling the feelings that you experienced in the incident that gave you PTSD, you instead observe the emotions, which means that you are much more equipped to deal with the unravelling of the event. If we go back to the motorway analogy it means that rather than painstaking remove every brick by hand, it’s like you’re watching someone else do it. Or if you’re impatient like me, you’ve hired a construction team with heavy machinery to get the job done efficiently. There’s no secret to mindfulness and CBT, it’s just re-training the brain and getting a bit of perspective on the training. It’s the same approach that top athletes use to train their psychical form – train it, analyse and measure the training and keep checking in to tweak it. The effect is extremely quick – within one week I went from unconsciously attacking a guy who triggered me (FYI – he groped my ass in a bar) to being able to acknowledge and control an intense feeling of fear inside me. The best thing is that it teaches you how to reflect, self manage emotions, explore your true passions and ultimately work to being the best version of yourself.

In fact, once you’ve come through the first few triggers and you get attuned to your new training regime, it’s really insightful process and it becomes exciting to work through the triggers and explore the mind. It’s a type of exploration that I wouldn’t have gone on, had I not been attacked. That’s why to me, it’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever received.

 

Let’s talk about integrity

The word integrity gets flashed around a lot these days, but I wonder how many of us understand what it means and really know what it means to practice it?
To me, it’s like a constant questioning of my intention. A questioning that gets increasingly harder to answer as I delve into the various layers of emotional depth. The stronger my fear is, the more it’s running the show and often it’s only after that I can reflect and say ‘that wasn’t the best version of myself and it’s not who I want to be’. That necessary reflection is usually kicked in by a feeling of shame. A necessary feeling. If you read my word often you’ll know that I’m a huge admirer of Brene Brown and her work on shame, vulnerability and emotions in general and something that I think that is often overlooked in her work is the necessity of shame and how important it is that we feel it. It’s literally our signpost to align us back with our moral, our integrity.
I feel like there’s a convoluted message in society these days, as though we’re all striving for perfection to be the best human that we ‘should’ be. Appear to have integrity. Look good. Make money. Say the right things to please people. But along the way have we forgotten that we’re human? That the trick isn’t to act how we ‘should’ constantly, and thus avoid ever feeling shame. But instead, to look out for that feeling of shame (or guilt which it sometimes can be), acknowledge what it that’s triggered that emotion and reconcile what wasn’t aligned with our values.
The thing is that this constant awareness is actually a daily struggle and it takes a whole lot of self policing to stay on top of it. Was that me or my ego? Am I sabotaging or acting intentionally? Am I happy with the person I am right now?
It’s difficult for me. I’m still very much run by fear somedays. The fear that I’ll get hurt emotionally or physically and the stronger the fear, the more conflicted my emotions. At least with the questioning and reflecting I can look back and decide which version of Shereen I like best and make reconsiliations if necessary. To me that’s the real meaning of integrity. But as always I’m open to comment, call outs and debate. After all, I’m still only learning.
Photo Credit: Massimo Mancini

When Not To Judge Someone’s Character

One of the things I find really interesting these days is how easy we are to judge each other without any internal pre-vetting. It’s as though we lost some kind of conscious filter that used to be delicately balanced in our throats. A filter that would create a necessary lodge if we were about to say something particularly judgemental. A lodge that when we’d feel it, would require us to flick on the ‘reflection and question’ switch in our brains and vet the words before they flowed out. I’m not entirely sure if this did exist but if it did, I wonder if it got removed in the free reeling speech that this new technological era spun us into?

While we scramble for new social rules and how to treat each other respectfully in these new and challenging times I thought I’d start with the instructions below. Feel free to add, share and question – I’m only human too remember. We make mistakes, oversights and we need feedback to improve, me included!

Things you cannot judge someone’s character by:

Gender

Age

Skin colour

Sexual orientation

Sexual preference

Nationality

Religion

Profession

Family heritage

Their appearance

You can only really judge someone’s character by their actions. And even when you do that, remember that you might not know what they’ve been through, what their story is, or what they’re trying to cope with right now. If you did, you might not judge them at all.

That is all.

Photo Credit: Jose Moreno

Why We Need To Stop Calling Mental Health, Mental Health. 

I’m all up for ‘frazzled cafes’, talking openly about our emotions and any intervention available to help people process their emotions in an open, authentic and non-judgemental fashion. However, this is when the marketing personality inside me intervenes and points out an obvious flaw that a lot of support groups (with great intentions) seems to overlook: the words ‘mental health’ are so shameful in our western society that many of these support services don’t reach the people who need their services the most.

To talk openly about mental health means first acknowledging that we need help and in our society this is one of the most shameful things you can admit.

The term ‘mental health’ holds a strong association with being weak, broken or out right crazy. So with all that predetermined stigma are you really going to admit that you have a ‘mental health’ issue? I mean, are you freaking crazy?!??!? Of course you’re not.

The most common belief is that asking for help means admitting failure or a weakness – because through mass marketing we’ve been sold the idea that in order to be a ‘successful’ member of society we should be able to deal with everything life throws at us independently. Also, for any little problem we have, we are told we can buy a solution for it.

Thanks consumerism, big Pharma, and all the top dogs in corporations who are creaming the profits off this dysfunctional belief. I hope the Superyachts and sports cars fill the gaping void of thriving emotional connections. 

However, we’re starting to realise that this idea we were sold was an illusion. In fact, there isn’t a quick fix for emotional situations. We can take a pill to lessen the blow temporarily. We can avoid through substance abuse, temporarily. We can even project our pain out in ways to deflect attention from ourselves, until we are eventually held responsible for this. But the truth is that to resolve these emotional whirlwinds and be authentically happy we must validate, own and process our emotions. And guess what the real beauty in all this is – it’s a fundamental part of the beautiful human experience that we are all living. If this kind of personal development and emotional intelligence was marketed this way then we might not have the mental health, depression and suicide rates that we do.

If I’ve not yet won you over with my argument then let me give you some examples. Any one who is familiar with the work of Brene Brown, her TED talks and audio book will understand the concepts I’ve explained above but I wonder if you know why this knowledge reached you?

Brene Brown’s TED talk exploded over the internet (currently more than 6.5 million you tube hits). While her research is ground breaking, I believe much of the success was the way it was branded – authentically, vulnerable and in a way that aspires people to jump on board. Brene Brown’s work is all about emotions, specifically the emotion of shame, how we avoid it and that by doing so stifles our abilities to connect as humans. Brene Brown didn’t call her first talk ‘Shame – the emotion stifling our wholeheartedness’, instead she framed it in a way us marketeers are told to market: Sell the benefits, not the features. Instead her flagship talk was titled ‘The Power of Vulnerability’, and her whole approach draws you in and inspires you to live more openly and vulnerably, like she does.

Another brand that does this very well is motivational life coach Tony Robbins.

‘Want to be more successful in your personal and business life?‘ -Tony Robbins.

Well, yeah of course. Who doesn’t want that?

‘Want to come on a 5 day immersive course and face the demons you hide inside and expose them in a safe and none judgemental environment to overcome and develop as a fully authentic human being?’ – My interpretation of what happens from watching the Netflix documentary and lots of his YouTube videos (I haven’t yet gone to one of his workshops but will soon, I hope).

Urgh, no thank you. I’ll stay put pretending like I’m fine and everything in my life is as perfect as I’m led to believe it should be while I slowly crack under the pressure of this illusion.

The difference between this marketing and that of mental health awareness charities is that one lifts it’s market out of the shame and fear cloud without them realising, while the other one points it out for all to see. Not cool if you’re the person underneath it. This is why I believe so many mental health charities fall short of reaching their audience. I mean, they’re literally selling the opportunity to admit failure and weakness openly in a society which will judge and shame a person for ‘coming out’ and admitting that they have these normal human emotions. Or at least that’s how many of the market might see it. (If you don’t believe me, try suggesting counselling or therapy to any British person and see how you offering fairs – I’ve heard it’s different in the States but I’m writing from and for the UK so my observation is from here).

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be talking openly about difficult life situations or that help shouldn’t be advertised. I am however saying that there is a call for marketing these services in the language of the market listens to, and that is one of aspiration. The marketing these services needs to be done with the same psychological marketing approaches that many corporate companies have been using for years. In fact, it’s about time that we used these tools for good intentions, rather than solely that of quick fix consumerism. Maybe it’s time to start selling the authentic human experience rather than an illusion which only a few people benefit from. I don’t know, they’re my thoughts. I’ll leave the the conclusion for you to decide.

If you like it, please share it. Share the emotional intelligence!

Photo Credit Edu Lauton