Do You Know The Value of ‘Brand You’?

Do You Know The Value Of Brand You?

Ask the owner of any successful business what their most valuable asset is and the smartest among them will give you a one-word answer: brand.

Brand is not a one single thing; it’s a collection of attributes – some physical, some material, some emotional – that together create the relationship that exists between a business and its customers and clients.

Any business that understands its market will invest in developing and defining its brand – and it will (or should) go to extraordinary lengths to protect it.

The reason is quite simple: a business’s brand represents the personality of that business, and personality is about values, ethos, ambition and loyalty.

If I asked you what brands you admire, there’s a good chance some familiar names would make the list.

The reason why the same names tend to make lots of lists – shout outs to the likes of John Lewis, Versace, Stella McCartney, IKEA and Lidl among a great many others here (there’s no rule to say a successful brand always has to be upmarket or a household name) – is because they’ve got a reputation for living their values.

And the reason a business protects its brand at all costs is because bad things happen when they don’t either live their own values or they allow others to undermine them.

Anyone who had even a passing interest in current affairs in 1991 will have seen precisely what happens when you don’t pay attention to your brand health.

Seven years after inheriting his father’s jewellery retail business, Ratners, Gerald Ratner had turned the company into a multi-million pound powerhouse on the UK’s High Street. Then, on April 23rd 1991, he was a guest speaker at the Institute of Directors.

“How is it possible,” someone asked from the floor, “that can you sell a sherry decanter for the extraordinary price of £4.95?”

Ratner, for reasons known only to himself, decided to utter four words that would undo everything he had achieved: “Because it’s total crap.”

If his shareholders believed they might have been able to sweep the remark away with a bit of well-spun PR, Ratner put paid to that hope by going on to boast that his company had sold a pair of earrings for £1, which was “cheaper than a Marks & Spencer’s shrimp sandwich, but probably wouldn’t last as long.”

Trust in the Ratner brand evaporated faster than a light rain shower in 100-degree heat. Within days, £500 million had been wiped from the share value of the company, Ratner as a brand disappeared from the High Street almost overnight and the man himself now does after-dinner speaking gigs where he talks about how to deal with adversity.

A strong and well-protected brand, then, is critical.

So, what does this mini business history lesson have to do with you?

The simple fact is that as individuals, we’re all our own brands and how we live our own values has a distinct bearing on how others perceive you and how you perceive yourself. It’s great to talk the talk but, as Gerald Ratner discovered to his cost, you also need to walk the walk.

More than that, how you perform as a human brand also has a massive impact on how you perceive yourself. Understanding how your human and emotional values fit with your behaviour will have an exponential impact on how you value yourself. In other words, your own self-worth and self-esteem is defined in large part by values you have committed to live by.

That isn’t about always taking the moral high ground or being whiter than white or never making mistakes. It’s about having honesty and integrity and the ability to acknowledge that you’re not perfect but to try to be better every day than you were the day before.

In the end, that comes down to personality and to resilience and to the ability to be able to recognise when there’s something in your life which is having a negative impact on your brand identity.

Just as John Lewis doesn’t stop being never knowingly undersold when its doors close for the night, so your personal brand isn’t a mask or a uniform you put on at 9am and take off again at 5pm.

You don’t pretend to be the things you want to be in order to give the right impression, you try to live your values in order to always strive to be the person you want to be. To be happy. To be proud of who you are and what you represent. To be authentically you.

And when you fall short? You know what – that’s okay. It’s okay if mistakes are made honestly. It’s okay if your mistakes are part what you do every day to try to be the person you were always meant to be.

All of those values and all of that personality make up our own personal brand, and we work every day to improve it, to protect it and to share it with others. People are human and they understand that to err is human.

What they can’t tolerate – and what we tolerate least in ourselves – is when we fail to place enough value on ourselves and who we are.

It’s when we live a lie by behaving in a way that damages who we are striving to be. That develops issues like poor self-esteem, anxiety, depression, addictive behaviour and the other myriad emotional problems that I see and deal with every day.

Understanding that there are things which might get in the way of our personal brand journey – such as unresolved issues which create ceilings on success and impair behaviour, for example – and asking for help in resolving them is all part of caring for Brand You and ensuring you’re able to continue living the values you aspire to.

So when you feel as though there’s something stopping you from living your values, or you’re behaving in a way that doesn’t chime with the path you’ve set your heart on, we can help you to make sure you don’t ‘do a Ratner’ on yourself, and destroy your own brand through a mistake that could – and should- be avoided.

The Truth Behind The Triple Smackdown

The Truth Behind The Triple Smackdown

Here’s the truth about life. Sometimes it turns up wearing camouflage gear and a balaclava, armed to the teeth and hell-bent on hurting you.

Or at least, that’s what it feels like.

We all experience this at least once in our lives. And if it only happens once, then consider yourself fortunate, because it happens to most of us more than once.

This is the moment where everything seems to be going well and apart from the minor day-to-day issues everyone’s dealing with all the time, there’s not much to distract you from the rather pleasant job of enjoying life.

And then, suddenly, everything seems to go to hell in a hand cart in a very short time.

I call this the Triple Smackdown, because it generally seems that these seismic moments arrive in threes, in very quick succession, and there’s nothing remotely routine about them. They are significant, often life-changing events that will, for a time, send you reeling. And you never saw them coming.

Things like the breakdown of your marriage or relationship, losing your job because your company was in a whole heap of trouble no-one knew about, your Dad running off with his best friend’s wife, your business crumbling or the diagnosis of a serious illness.

And when life goes rogue like that, it does it in really creative ways. The problems you suddenly find yourself facing are almost never on the list of a thousand and one things you do worry (probably unnecessarily) will happen.

They’re the fast curve balls out of left field that are almost impossible to get a bead on and deal with before they hit you where it hurts.

Yet although the Triple Smackdown can make it feel like the end of the world has arrived and leave you wondering if you’ll ever be able to get back up, dust yourself down and get on with life normally again, they’re part of life’s great uncertainty – and so part of being truly alive.

Or, as the American Tibetan Buddhist, Pemra Chordron, so eloquently put it: To be alive is be continually thrown out of the nest.

That may feel like cold comfort in the eye of the Triple Smackdown storm, but even though you can’t possibly imagine it at the time, the biggest challenges life throws at you when it goes guerrilla on you can often be its greatest gift.

Life isn’t a movie. There’s no pre-determined script to follow. We set out on a path and to a greater or lesser extent we are the product of the way in which we deal with life’s choices. The big moments – the Triple Smackdown moments – might also be great opportunities: to reassess, reprioritise, reset and then resume on a different path or tangent.

Pemra Chodron, wise owl that she is, also observed that ‘nothing goes away until it has taught us what we need to know’. If you’ve followed my blogs for a while, you’ll know this is a theme I return to often.

To interpret that message less eloquently, shit will keep happening to you until you learn from it.

When life comes dressed in combat uniform, there’s usually some sort of reason. It’s a decision point. A moment to question the path you’ve taken and to take a moment to put your head over the parapet and see if there’s another, better route.

When these gut-wrenching, panic-stricken moments arrive, it’s easy to look at life as the enemy when in fact it’s more accurate to look at it as your teacher. A bitch of a teacher, admittedly, but a teacher nevertheless – and one who’s got your back.

it’s painful not getting what you want, it’s agonising having things ripped away from you. But what we want isn’t always what we need.

While you’re caught up in the maelstrom of grief over what is being taken or has been lost, and the bereavement of wanting to regain it, time will often present us with the ability to know that you emerged better, stronger and – eventually – happier, and that things worked out for the best.

And if we can’t – then time will hopefully bring acceptance and peace.

Hindsight is also a bitch, but also your ally.

Vulnerability is part of the human condition. In the howling wasteland of despair, we find the resilience we need to go on once the storm has passed.

If we can ask ourselves what the Triple Smackdown teaches us, rather than asking why me?, we can use that experience to open new doors and gaze at new opportunities and possibilities.

Trying to avoid or drive away pain only defers it. Locking it in the cellar only makes it knock harder on the door and by the time you’re forced to open the door – or the pain breaks it down – and forced to face it (and you will be forced to face it, make no mistake about that), it will have grown into a monster that will be that much harder to beat.

Life takes pleasure in exposing our demons. It presents us with situations and events – or lessons – that leave us raw, vulnerable and scared. And it’s only then, once we’ve confronted those demons, that we can suit up and move on to the new challenges that await.

Children’s Emotional Resilience

Young Business Girl On Stage Lifting Barbell

When you were learning how to ride a bike as a kid and you fell off and skinned a knee or an elbow, did you just brush yourself down, get back on and try again, knowing that eventually after some practice, you’d get the hang of it?

Or did you do what most of us did, and cry a bit and refuse to get back on the saddle until your mum or dad forced you to?

For most of us, learning to ride a bike was a painful and undignified affair that involved much wobbling, some falling off, lots of tears (some of pain, most of frustration) and a good deal of anxiety before we got to the elation of two-wheeled, confident independence.

In fact, for kids, most learning experiences are like that.

But many people seem to think that children develop resilience purely through the act of failing. That’s not the case. Children actually develop resilience by learning how to deal with failure successfully.

Sometimes, as in the case of the bike riding example, we have to learn to deal with failure temporarily, but occasionally we have to deal with it permanently – like the kid who’s been told they’re the best football player in their school, but don’t make it through the trial for Arsenal.

Most parents want their children to be resilient, to have a growth mindset and to have oodles have self-belief – but just how do we help them achieve that? How do we help a child to convert failure into a successful outcome (where success is sometimes learning what went wrong rather than achieving what they set out to do)?

When children feel overwhelmed by their emotions, they break down; but a child who knows how to regulate their emotions can accept losing in a game or not being top of the class and is better able to overcome those setbacks.

What we’re aiming for as parents is to gift our child with the ability to one day be able to look back and remember how they coped with various problems and challenges and have the knowledge and self-belief that they’ll be able to cope with each and every failure they encounter – because as sure as eggs is eggs, failure lurks around every corner!

Knowing that, then, what help can you give your child to give him or her the confidence and resilience to know they can handle what life throws at them – to enjoy the successes and to learn from the mistakes?

Here are a few suggestions:

When your child comes up against a disappointment, setback, failure or problem, don’t jump in and try to solve the problem for them. Instead, help them to solve it themselves, but give them the support they need to have the best chance of succeeding.

Resilience isn’t something you’re born with – it has to be learned. Anxious parents try to protect their kids and keep them from challenging situations, but that really doesn’t help them in the long run. As a parent, be brave enough to allow your child to face difficult situations whilst also ensuring he or she knows you’re there to support them if they feel they need it.

Help your child to work out how to cope with challenges – give them opportunities to do this regularly from a really young age so they learn how to figure things out for themselves whilst always ensuring you’re there to catch them if they fall..

Instead of providing your child with every answer when they ask you something – start with: I don’t know – but why don’t you try to find out and I’ll work it out with you.

Failure isn’t the end of the world – it’s simply a stepping stone to success, and while standing by while your children and teens mess up can be really tough – after all, you’re hardwired to protect them – it’s much better in the long run if your child can make and learn from their own mistakes so they get it right next time.

Resilience helps children to survive life’s stressful situations and navigate the difficult times in life – in the end, resilient kids become resilient adults – and gives them satisfaction that comes from their success and the confidence to get back on the bike when they fail.

Trauma Is Chemistry

Ice Cube In Flames On A Spoon

Hands up if you ever played doctors or nurses – and focus at the back, there … we’re talking about role-play when you were six, not cosplay when you were, well … older (that’s a whole different article).

Most of us acted out the part of a doctor or a nurse or a dentist when we were kids, and I bet that even though you probably won’t remember or associate it in this way, when you did, it was often just after an appointment with your own doctor or dentist.

More than that, I’d be willing to stake a little money on the fact that on those occasions, you acted out whatever treatment you’d just received. An injection, maybe. Or drilling a tooth.

Even now, you probably think that was just a simplistic process of taking a ‘new’ childhood experience and contextualising it in your own relatively new world.

Actually, what you were really doing was detoxing a negative and potentially traumatic experience. Maybe you succeeded, maybe you’re still nervous around needles and the dentist’s chair.

But regardless of the outcome, that time you spent immunising a doll or perhaps an unwilling sibling was practical, tangible evidence of your subconscious processing your ‘negative’ experience to try to resolve it. Because in resolution lies immunity.

When trauma goes unresolved, the process of trying to deal with it never actually stops. Instead, your subconscious quietly gets on with trying to find a mental hack that will finally allow it to lay to rest the ghosts of the past. This can and often does take place over many years, without you ever being aware of it.

The simple, unavoidable truth is that trauma is actually chemistry – and it’s a chemistry that’s as addictive as any when it comes to messing with your head.

Take love, for example.   

We like to think that when we fall in love it’s something akin to the planets aligning, an unstoppable destiny-defining force of nature that we always interpret as something unremittingly positive.

Spoiler Alert: it’s not.

Well, not always, at any rate, and not always in the way we think it is. Without wishing to be unnecessarily forensic and unromantic about it, love and relationships are often like a petri dish … full of really interesting things but riddled with fungus and bacteria.

Having stumbled upon such a delightful analogy, let’s wring it dry.

Some of the fungus and bacteria is good – for example, the challenging partner who’s the pragmatic Yin to your wild-hearted Yang (or vice versa). This is the guy or girl who’ll calmly ask you what you’ve done with your parachute before you jump out of the plane. 

He or she is the Actimel or Benecol in your relationship – doing you good even if it’s not the tastiest thing in your fridge.

But for those of us who’ve been laid bare by serious trauma, some of the darker, more damaging emotional fungus is only visible under a microscope. And as unromantic as it sounds, when people in this group fall in love, it’s often not love at all but rather our damage locking into theirs.

If you grew up in a loving family with parents who loved each other, loved themselves and loved you and who, crucially even if accidentally, taught you that it was all right to love yourself, too, then you’re likely to have a much smoother route to romantic happiness.

But people who’ve been affected by trauma (and especially trauma with a capital T) may begin to notice patterns in their behaviour which, if they ever get the chance to lift the bonnet on their own wellbeing, they’ll find are the product of the subconscious trying to heal the past.

That may play out as tending to attract people who display the same character and behaviour traits of whoever was responsible for hurting them – emotionally, physically or both – all those months or years ago.

It’s an unconscious, but very resolute, attempt to relive the past in the hope of a better outcome that heals the wounds inflicted in childhood or youth.

To achieve that end, the subconscious seeks out and pushes you toward what is ‘familiar’, even if ‘familiar’ is a toxic neurochemical cocktail that starts with a combined oxytocin/dopamine high and is followed by a massive cortisol adrenalin dump crash that’s accompanied by dynastic levels of drama.

The end result? Horror-struck friends and family who can’t understand why this otherwise rational and grounded human they know so well always seems to wipe out on love’s great surfboard. 

What are the signs that something’s wrong in your own personal petri dish? You may find yourself passing up or passing over really good women/men because they don’t give off that familiar neurochemical cocktail that matches the drama (actually, trauma, but you just don’t know it yet)  of childhood, and they feel ‘dull’.  

When your damage connects to someone else’s (I’m done with the petri dish analogy now), you enter a cycle where the toxicity of the traumatic relationship in your past is reinforced. That may be defined as abuse, emotional toxicity, abandonment or something else – and it’s known as a trauma bond.

Trauma bonds are addictive and they’re addictive because they trade on the powerful – almost superhuman – brain chemistry that’s created by equally powerful emotional experiences.

Breaking that connection is really hard to do on your own, because those connections are so much stronger than the connections you form with other people in your life – and so the pain of giving them up by ending the relationship (or having it ended for you by the other person) is infinitely more painful.

Simply, we’re not done with trauma until the work to resolve it is done – and until then we unconsciously ‘fetishise’ our trauma in the now by recreating the traumatic dynamics of our childhood.

So, the principle is much like that role-playing of the doctor in childhood, but with often catastrophic outcomes.

When both people in a relationship are ‘unprocessed’, it’s a bit like going to the Grim Reaper for a cuddle: it’s not going to be pretty and you can bet your bottom dollar on cosmic levels of drama.      

So what are the danger signs of a trauma bond relationship?

1.  Massive intensity – I often describe this as the process of trying to hotwire intimacy. It’s the mutual first-date oversharing of the gory details of each other’s childhood

2. On/Off cycles: The relationships that are unpredictable and involve regular making up and breaking up. This is intermittent reinforcement hell.

A 1950 study using rats discovered that reward plays a large part in reinforcing behaviour. The experiment found the rats pressed a lever for food more steadily when they didn’t know when the next food pellet was coming than when they always received the pellet after pressing. This proved that consistent rewards for a certain behaviour actually produce less of that behaviour over time than an inconsistent schedule of rewards.

3. You just can’t say goodbye: Even when your friends and family are Whatsapping WTAF? about you and you know you should be ending the relationship, you just can’t bring yourself to do it.

The good news is that if you have big T trauma and this has played out across your relationships, resolving the problem is entirely possible – though it’ll take time and effort.

Here’s what you can expect when you do the work:

The healthier you are the healthier the partner you will attract. Relationships are always mirrors and as you heal you’ll feel a natural chemistry for healthy available people.

The potential to find an amazing and conscious relationship: Partners who’ve been through trauma and worked on their trauma prior to meeting will usually continue to work on their trauma in the relationship, which also involves working on the relationship itself.

We’re hardwired to heal: We need the right conditions to do it, but some of the most amazing people in the world are those that have overcome trauma and come out the other side with compassion, wisdom and positive awareness of their own flaws 

Relationships are the most amazing vehicle for growth: When you can see them as being less Mills & Boon and more as a reflection of where you are in your emotional journey, you’re much more likely to be able to recognise and stick with something really good when it comes around.

A wonderful reality check on the past: When you’ve done the work, you’ll see your toxic relationship for the s**t-show it really was and realise its ending was just the beginning for you.   

Why It’s OK To Just Tell People To F*** Off

Shutterstock 648177022

When you ask most people what advice they’d give to their younger self, you tend to hear a lot of words from the self-affirming end of the spectrum: be more confident; trust yourself; be proud of who you are; be true to your own beliefs. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

When Michelle Lee, a feature writer with New York’s Allure magazine, asked Dame Helen Mirren the same question as part of a press junket for her new movie The Leisure Seeker a couple of years ago, she was probably expecting something equally inclined to the gently persistent art of self-validation.

What she got instead was, in true Mirren style, something much more direct, though no less heartfelt:

“I’d advise her to tell people to fuck off more and stop being so bloody polite.”

Quite apart from the delicious sense of mischief that pervades her answer – behaving counter-intuitively to others’ expectations of her is, of course, a trait long associated with arguably the popular favourite among British theatrical royalty – there’s also a refreshing honesty in that response.

After all, you don’t become a pin-up for feminism by playing it safe with your public persona. And anyway, isn’t there a difference between going full Anglo-Saxon to strike a blow in the name of equality and opportunity, and simply being vitriolically boorish in a Russell Crowe kind of way?

When Mirren gave that response, she wasn’t talking about being pejorative for the sake of it. She was talking about having the balls to stand up and say ‘No’; to refuse to take the predictable, emasculatory bullshit that women the world over put up with every day – and that she put up with as a young actress setting out on her career; to call people out – men and women – for the unsavoury truth of how they behave or what they represent.

And I think that’s something from which we can all learn.

As another hero of mine, the novelist, satirist and poet Erica Jong, once said: ‘Women are trained to be uselessly nice.’ Except it’s not just women, of course. As Brits we have a whole cultural history of niceness that dates back to Tudor times and applies to the male and the female of the species equally. 

Most of the things that we might define as being terribly British can also be defined as being terribly nice. Queueing. A disinclination to cause a scene. A morbid fear of being seen to complain. An expectation of an upper lip that’s as stiff as one’s collar.

Here in the UK, we’ve turned taking other people’s shit into an art form, and we certainly don’t tell people to fuck off when their narrow-minded purview conflicts with our broader sense of social acceptability.

At the risk of paging Captain Obvious, that doesn’t mean you should walk around being a grade-A 1980’s ass about everything. This isn’t a clarion call to ride the wave of an ongoing ego trip. Nor is it a call to arms to instantly develop a superiority complex – which in any event is nearly always an inferiority complex with a wig on.  I’m a great believer in kindness, it’s an incredible life-hack and quite frankly the world needs far, far more of it.    I’m also a believer that if being kind to someone else means being really unkind to yourself it’s an absolute no-go.   

This is about boundaries. It’s about identifying what yours are, establishing them and then being brave enough to have the conviction to defend them.

I like to call this being ‘boundary-fit’.

Without ‘boundary fitness’ you’ll end up emotionally and/or physically spent, twisting yourself into a people-pleasing pretzel, potentially on-your-arse broke and in all sorts of situations that, if you took the time to properly assess and rationalise, you would never do in a million years.

Using a rare day off to carry cardboard boxes up and down 6 flights of stairs to help someone you don’t even like that much to move house? No. Tell them, metaphorically, to fuck off, instead.

Sleep with someone because you felt sorry for them and didn’t want them to ‘feel bad’? No. Tell them, metaphorically, to fuck off instead.

Listen to someone spouting the kind of misogynistic crap that wouldn’t seem out of place coming from the current occupant of the Oval Office? No. Tell them to fuck off. Literally.

And this boundary-setting needs to happen early in life. It’s the stuff we should be teaching our children because although, when we’re younger, we generally have energy to keep the corrosive effects of compulsive people-pleasing at bay (and we can shape the reasons why we do it into instantly more pleasing justification), it can chew you up hard as you get older.

I have got to the point in my life when I would rather have ‘honest conflict’ than ‘dishonest harmony’.

I talked earlier about our inclination toward phrases and thinking that is positively self-affirming, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong in living by principles of home-spun philosophy that keep you emotionally insulated.

But however much velvet you encase them in, your boundaries must be enforced with an iron fist and an iron will.

Because if the elephant in the room isn’t addressed – if you’re not true to yourself, to go back to a phrase I used earlier in this piece – then we can quickly find the elephant has become part of a herd that wreaks havoc on its stampede through your psyche 

In a relationship with healthy boundaries, you often won’t have to set boundaries. I have many friendships and business relationships which have never required me to set a boundary. Yet I’ve had other relationships where boundary setting has been necessary. In those cases, after an initial wrangle, we’ve worked it out.

And then there have been the relationships where I’ve set a boundary, they’ve ignored it, I’ve reminded them or I’ve reneged because I felt guilty about setting a boundary (we women can be great at majoring in ‘feeling guilty’), and then the boundaries have been ridden over roughshod until I’ve run out of patience.

And then? Well, then I’ve had no option other than to be firm. And those are the times when it really is okay to tell people to fuck off.

That doesn’t mean you have to say the words. You can be gracious or you can do it by not responding or engaging. But when someone seriously violates your territory or constantly then anger is actually a wholly appropriate response, and clear, unequivocal language is absolutely necessary. 

And yes, in some cases where someone won’t respect the line you’ve drawn then sometimes the boundary has to be: You are no longer in my life.

When is it okay to tell someone in no uncertain terms to cease and desist in their behaviour? 

1. Anyone who tries to ram conspiracy theories down your throat are always ripe for direct communication. These people suck time and emotional space, have an inclination to infect your own sense of self, disrupt your moral and ethical compass and generally vacuum your goodwill.   One thing we don’t need in this world of ours is more paranoia

2. The people who won’t listen to or abide by your polite, kind or gracious declinations of whatever it is they want, are selling or are angling for

3. Absolutely anyone who gives you unsolicited for advice on your life or body. Just point to the wastepaper bin and say: The suggestion box is over there

4. Anyone – and I mean anyone – who has shown themselves to be untrustworthy or disloyal to you. It’s perhaps obvious, but treachery says a good deal about how a person feels about you and the respect they have for you and your needs.

5. Anyone who tells you how you are feeling. It’s fine for someone to share how they feel with you, but when they presume to know how you feel and, worse, how you should feel, then there’s trouble in town.

6. Anyone who falls into all five previous categories. This is pretty much limited to politicians and high-interest loan companies.

A shorthand for deciding who should get your verbal hairdryer treatment is to pay attention to how they make you feel. If someone is making you feel something you don’t want to feel, then the chances are they’re overstepping a boundary.

At that point, set out the boundaries you want them to observe, ask them politely to observe them and, if they don’t?  well you have my full permission to go all Helen Mirren on them and tell them to fuck off.

Infertility, PTSD…..and me

Ivf Acronym On Colorful Wooden Cubes

We tried for a baby before turning to IVF for three years. In that time we had nothing for 18 months and then two missed miscarriages and an ectopic.

To say we were pretty desperate by the time we made the decision to go for IVF would be an understatement, and we had four cycles in 2014 that culminated with the transfer of Baby Bee on December 29th that year.

It would probably come as no surprise to know that I was unbearably anxious throughout my pregnancy, and so we scheduled a C-section for his due date so I could avoid any  additional labour anxieties.

As it happened, the dramas were few and far between. His due date came, I was unzipped and – at last! – there he was. My beautiful, bouncing, baby boy.

Music swells. Curtain falls.

The End.

Except it wasn’t.

They handed me my baby and all those years of expectation, of wanting, of keening, of pure gritted teeth determination were over. Because the child that I had imagined for so long was finally here: the baby come true.

I looked at him. And I looked at him. And I looked at him.

And I felt nothing.

I left it for a little bit. Looked again.

Still nothing.

He was just … a baby.

Things ticked along with no big dramas – we did baby groups together, took nice smiley photos together, watched a lot of CSI: New York together; but it was like I had a gaping hole inside where everyone else seemed to have an overflowing well of love. I couldn’t feel it. I knew I should. I knew that I was a terrible mother for not feeling knuckle-gnawing love for my baby. Because how could I not? I had been obsessed with having a baby and with each loss I had become more and more dedicated (sociopathic) in making that happen.

There had been periods of time when I hadn’t been able to work because Having A Baby had utterly consumed me. ‘We don’t just want a baby,’ I remember saying when I was trying to convince my husband to look at adoption. ‘We want to be a family.’ And I believed that.

But when we finally became that family of three, all I wanted to do was go home, have a cup of tea and watch Pirates of the Caribbean (I have no idea why I was jonesing for that film, but I was).

What the hell was wrong with me? My little boy lay in the bed next to me for those first few hours of his life, and I just wanted to be on my own.

With hindsight, what I needed was a moment to catch my breath. I had careened for five years through failure after failure in a permanent state of high anxiety and hyper-vigilance – four years of trying, four losses (I had a chemical pregnancy with the third round of IVF), four rounds of IVF, 40 weeks of terror.

Of course those numbers added up to me being totally not ready to be a loving mum. How couldn’t they?

I now believe I was suffering from a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. If I’d been through a five year long traumatic event where my emotions had been under siege every single day, most people would concede that I needed time to recover.  But when your infertility journey ends, there’s absolutely no time for that because motherhood kicks in. Immediately. No handbook. No training. No time to learn other than on the job.

And the result, for me, was that after all those years of planning, it turned out that I just wasn’t ready. I was exhausted, emotionally spent and all I wanted to do was retreat: yes, the baby was here but I was still dealing with the agony of every negative pregnancy test, every empty sac on a scan, every patronising ‘I’m sorry’.

I had never believed that the baby would ever arrive safely, right up until the moment they passed him to me. I had never been able to give up the belief that I was never going to be a mother.

And I’m not alone in thinking this a possibility. While the traditional symptoms of PTSD as usually described don’t necessarily fit what I was experiencing, in researching this post, I came across a study of 142 women who had experienced infertility in 2012 suggests that close to 50 percent of participants met the official criteria for PTSD, meaning they could be diagnosed with the condition.

Another paper, published in 1997 by a New York collective of hospitals, supports this position:

‘We have observed the development of PTSD in women who have experienced a variety of reproductive problems, including infertility, miscarriage, complicated pregnancy or delivery, and multiple births’.

It goes on to say:

Symptoms may manifest as extreme distress under seemingly innocuous circumstances, such as seeing a pregnant woman, menstruating, or visiting the doctor’s office …’

The physical pain I’d experience from an out-of-the-blue pregnancy announcement was so awful, I became phobic of being in any environment where I might hear or see one. When I was pregnant, I would experience panic attacks before and during scans and would go into freefall at the sight of the midwife’s doppler.

‘Avoidance [one of the symptoms of ‘traditional’ PTSD]’, says the paper, ‘may result in failure to bond, or a delay in bonding, with a newborn’

That risk. The risk of not bonding? That’s present with all pregnancies, but the odds are clearly stacked against you if you’ve been through trauma. And yet, not a single fertility clinic that I could find in the UK offers post-birth support: they consider their job done when you get to your 12-week scan. The assumption is that your pregnancy, birth and motherhood is now the same as anyone else’s. But how can it be? The emotional savaging an infertile couple can endure simply getting to that point just isn’t the same as starting a pregnancy through natural conception.

When you’re in the IVF bubble, you can be as supported as you need: clinics offer counselling services, there are forums and websites and friends who have been through it. You may feel isolated from those not going through IVF, but in the digital world and at your clinic, if you want a sympathetic ear, there are thousands of them out there who want to hear you.

When you become a mother after IVF, the expectation – not just your own, but that of every single person around you – is that you’re going to be even more over the moon because of what you went through to become a mother. How can you disappoint your audience by saying that you’re not? How can you be so bloody ungrateful to say, you know what, this is not what I expected?

None of the health professionals I met with after my son was born saw his origin story as particularly interesting, psychologically speaking. In fact, if I mentioned it, it was treated like an anecdote.

None thought it was relevant to my motherhood.

I eventually sought help when my son was six months old because I was tired of feeling numb towards my baby and shit towards myself. I knew that he deserved more (even though I had managed to convince myself at that point that he didn’t like me very much anyway).

I spoke with my GP who directed me to the NHS iTalk website where I could self-refer. As a new mum I was seen really quickly for CBT, a process I found somewhat helpful but which was interrupted when I found myself inexplicably pregnant with a surprise second baby at 41.

Once I was beyond the first 16 weeks, my second pregnancy was far less traumatic and when my little girl was born, I felt such a distressing, primal need to protect my son that I realised that I could feel. Just like normal mothers.

It was as though she opened the door, and now I tell my children I love them all the time – and I really, really mean it.

I never expected to fall apart after I had my IVF baby. But I did.  And those studies show me I’m not alone: for too many women, motherhood collides with the culmination of a hugely traumatic experience, one they are not given the space or time to recover from.

We need to start talking about this, giving voice to these women whose distress is going unacknowledged by not just themselves, but everyone around them.

I want other mothers who might be struggling in those first few months following the birth of their IVF baby to know that it’s okay to not feel that every day is a miracle. You’re normal if you don’t take to motherhood straight away, just as you’re normal if you do.

But if you feel like you’re struggling and are ashamed to say anything because you’re supposed to be so happy? Throw caution to the wind and talk to someone. Having a baby after IVF has its own complexities and, honey, you are not alone.

Lucy Barker is the baby sleep specialist at Zoe Clews & Associates. To book a session with Lucy, please click here. If you have been, or continue to be, affected by the issues Lucy discusses in this blog and would like to talk to someone in confidence, please contact us


‘Examining PTSD as a Complication of Infertility’ – New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, New York City; Manhattan Psychiatric Center, New York City; New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, Cornell University Medical College;  Advanced Fertility Services, New York City DISCLOSURES  Medscape General Medicine. 1997;1(2) 

2012 study by Allyson Bradow, director of psychological services at Home of the Innocents, a nonprofit organization that helps families in need in Louisville, Kentucky, USA.

The Perils Of Co-Habiting With Your Hobby

Beautiful Landscape With Tree Silhouette And Reflection At Sunset With Alone Girl And Bike Under The Tree

“Well, there were three of us in the marriage, so it was a bit crowded.”

If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember the famous (or perhaps infamous) Panorama interview that Princess Diana gave to Martin Bashir and that answer, in response to his question about whether she felt Camilla Parker-Bowles, now the Duchess of Cornwall, was a factor in the breakdown of her marriage.

Relationships can be crowded enough with just two people in them, never mind an unwanted interloper who sucks love and mutual respect from them. But it’s not always other people who overcrowd a marriage or long-term relationship.

Sometimes it’s obsession.

We all know someone who’s discovered a new passion. Their enthusiasm for whatever diversion they’ve stumbled across converts them into instant experts – crusading evangelists for whom every road leads to Damascus and the conversion of others.

They are the animated, gushing advocates for their new-found hobby who seem to harness more power than the most tyrannical of fire and brimstone preachers. We might even have been that person ourselves.

We probably admire their dedication, but we wouldn’t want to live with them because the thought of having to live with an apparently unending dialogue about fishing or cycling or macramé is just too awful to contemplate. Yet if that person is in a relationship, that’s the fate that befalls their significant other.

Now, for most people a new hobby becomes all-consuming (and, let’s be honest, really irritating) for short time and then it relaxes into something more considered and reasonable and that person is once again able to find a balance between the interest they have and the need to be able to engage more broadly with life.

But for some people, the obsession grows until it dwarfs – and then obliterates – everything around it. In this sense, the hobby becomes an addiction which can be every bit as destructive to a relationship as alcohol or drugs. 

Personal fitness and sports are common examples, largely because of the naturally addictive ‘drug’ – endorphins – exercise produces. The more people exercise, the more they need to exercise in order to get the natural ‘high’ that comes with it.

But there are others – golf, music, travel … anything that captures the imagination has the potential to become an obsession. And when this happens, there’s a danger that we’re entering into a new relationship – only this time the relationship is with a hobby rather than a person.

This is time and energy we could be potentially taking away from the ’emotional bank account’, a term coined by renowned couples’ therapists John and Julie Gottman which describes the daily moments when we connect with our romantic partner, talk about our day, express affection.

Adding a hobby into the relationship mix – one from which the other person is excluded (whether intentionally or through their own lack of interest) – we can end up generating unresolved feelings of resentment, of being left out and of jealousy.

If these feelings are left unexpressed, they can potentially wreak havoc in a relationship as resentment and the pain of exclusion builds up over time.

What follows is a domino effect. We end up arguing over who used the last bit of milk, or who left the toilet seat up (or down) or who didn’t put the bins out, when really it’s got nothing to do with those things at all.

Ultimately that turns into regular conflict and the creation of distance in the relationship. The more we fail get to the root issue, the more likely it is that the conflict increases or the distance and sense of leading separate lives grows.

But what is it that causes us to develop an excessive relationship with a hobby? There are a few possible reasons.

First, it feels good – like when we release endorphins during exercise. We’re spending time doing something we enjoy and that gives us a sense of achievement.

But if we begin to indulge a hobby to the exclusion of other parts of our lives, it’s a sign that unconsciously we may be avoiding intimacy. We may be using our hobby as a distraction from what’s really going on.

There could be underlying issues in the relationship that need to be spoken about but we don’t know how to approach those issues or start the conversations we need to have in order to resolve them. This is where seeking support and advice could be the essential next steps in moving forward in your relationship. 

One option to find a way forward is to take some time alone or with someone we trust to talk and reflect on what it is we may be avoiding or distracting ourselves from.

Did we already feel the relationship was faltering, making us want to spend more time outside of it? Were we experiencing an increase in conflict that was not being addressed or resolved? Maybe we felt our partner was also spending time and energy elsewhere and so we felt forced to do the same thing and develop our own hobby? 

We can look at creating the time and space when their partner is in a good space to listen and talk things through.

That means letting our partner know there’s something important we want to talk about and then creating the right context for that conversation – no distractions, phones off, kids in bed, both feeling as prepared as possible to have an important discussion free from interruptions. 

If you initiate a conversation without warning it can lead to defensiveness and the person feeling like they are under attack. And when we feel like we are being attacked, our decision-making, logical-thinking pre frontal cortex brain literally goes offline. So, at this point it will be very difficult to have an adult, calm and respectful conversation. 

Then there’s the actual process having the conversation. Communicating with each other. Giving space to each other and when the partner is sharing what’s going on for them – allowing them to share freely without reacting immediately to what’s being said.

The conversation is an opportunity for both people to share how the hobby is impacting on the relationship and also for the person with the hobby to share any underlying issues they feel might have contributed to their excessive relationship with the hobby.

Sometimes it can be really difficult to have these conversations, and this is where working with someone such as our Love, Relationship & Sexuality Coach Emma Spiegler, can not only be the provision of a safe space to explore the issues lurking behind the conscious or unconscious avoidance of intimacy, but also a good place to discover how to resolve these issues and turn towards their partner with openness and love and invest into the emotional bank account.   

Are You ‘Fed’ Up With Twixtmas?

Female Feet Standing On Electronic Scales For Weight Control In Red Socks With Christmas Decoration

How are we doing over there? Have you managed to make a dent on the mountain of snacks and nibbles that made your cupboard look like a post-apocalyptic food store (who knew the shops would only be closed for just one day, right?)

If you’re like most of the country, you’re probably wedged into an armchair watching The Sound of Music (which, by the way, you hate), ploughing through a tin of Quality Street you don’t need or want – because, well, it’s Christmas, dammit! – and muttering darkly about losing weight.

Over the past few weeks there’s been a lot of online chat about exactly this subject. How to rid yourself of the extra pounds that pile on while you digest the aperitif that is Christmas and await the entrée that is New Year. A time of year known by some as Twixtmas and by others as the somewhat ruder perineum. Go ahead and look that up. We’ll wait.

It occurred to me that there was a common theme to all the social media, blogs and online articles, which was the assumptions they made about what causes weight gain and what motivates us to then lose it.

By and large, the overriding message is a bit simplistic: if you really want to lose weight, just eat less.

Biologically, of course, that’s completely true. In the end, the metabolic science behind gaining and losing weight is about as simple as it gets:

If you consume more calories than you burn, you’ll put weight on. If you consume fewer calories than you burn, you’ll lose weight. So far, so obvious.

Things get a bit more complicated – though only slightly, in truth – when you factor in individual metabolic rate (some people have a slow metabolism, others burn energy more quickly). And we can ramp up the complexity a bit more by adding in particular health conditions that impact the metabolism.

But in the end, the formula is the same and from a purely metabolic, biological perspective, if you adjust your calorie intake so that it’s either equal to or less than the calories you burn, you’ll either maintain or lose weight.

It may not suit the story we tell ourselves, but steroids, an underactive thyroid, Cushing’s Syndrome or diabetes – four common conditions often ‘blamed’ for unwanted weight gain – aren’t responsible alone for how you might look or feel. That’s down to how you mitigate their impact.

Shedding some of the mince pies you’ve consumed during the two weeks of Christmas is one thing, but habits like comfort or binge eating that you find impossible to change are quite another.

On the surface, it’s not difficult to see how obesity and the food consumption that leads to it can be interpreted as laziness or indifference. 

Yet, what the ‘just stop eating so much’ brigade fail to either understand or acknowledge is that for many people who struggle with weight, their relationship with food isn’t about greed or gluttony. Neither is it an inability or disinclination to temper their eating habits.

It’s about a psychology that is so deeply and fundamentally ingrained they don’t even associate their ongoing weight issues with the state of their mental health.

Yes, on a visceral level, people who are chronically overweight probably have a sense that they’re not entirely happy in life.

Some, though not all, will struggle with the way they look and feel. If they step on the scales at all or look in the mirror (avoidance of both is actually far more likely), they won’t necessarily see that the extra pounds are the calling card of some distant emotional trauma or unresolved emotional disappointments that the subconscious has long-since erased from the memory.

These damaging experiences often, but not always, relate to pent-up disappointments in the vast library of a subconscious that remembers everything – particularly everything that is painful, confusing or negative.

Troubling or just flattening experiences in our past can become so deeply buried that we either have no longer have any recollection of them or we do have conscious recollection but just have no idea e haven’t processed the event or disappointment and moved on.

Then there are the unhelpful beliefs that shape our behaviour – old time classics like believing we’re not good enough, that nothing works out for us, that there’s something wrong with us, that we can’t get what we want in life.

We may not spend our daily lives consciously thinking these negative thoughts, yet they still sit lodged in our subconscious, perfectly formed hand grenades that were created by disappointing, flattening or even shattering experiences from which we have not fully healed.

(A word to the wise here: don’t believe what they tell you about time – it’s not always the great healer people like to believe it is because the subconscious has absolutely no concept of time whatsoever. As far as your subconscious is concerned, that damaging experience might just as well have happened yesterday).

The result is often a daily feeling of boredom – which, when you dig a bit deeper and investigate it properly, is usually impotent rage and/or frustration – flatness, mild or not so mild depression or anxiety.

And what do we do in response? We eat on! 

The subconscious works hard to keep things that way, offering appealing (and sometimes not-so-appealing) distractions designed to block any prospect of having to face them down.

Food isn’t the only soother, but it’s often the drug of choice, especially for women. In many ways it’s the least harmful drug of choice – it’s obviously far better to be eating too many slices of pizza than banging the gak on a daily basis – but it’s still a life inhibitor.

If you don’t feel happy with your own eating habits and your body then the risk is a compromised sense of self-respect. And it can delay you actually living your life. Many people I work with put off doing things until they have ‘lost the weight’ – things like looking for a relationship, for example – so it can be a real life-stopper.

It’s important to love the body you’re in, and that’s fine as long as you do – but if you’re unhappy then it’s your prerogative to do something about it. 

That doesn’t mean beating yourself up about how you look (that’s a whole other blog), but if you want positive change and want to feel good about yourself then that is absolutely something worth fighting for.

If losing weight healthily is part of that – and I want to stress the word healthily here, since so much emphasis is put on looks and body image, and the last thing I want to do here is add to that – then more power to you.

Any addictive or negative compulsive behaviour can be a candidate: alcohol is a common one; shopping, gambling and drugs are others among many.

Lots of us have a love/hate relationship with food and alcohol that manifests itself in weight gain and can probably be described as ‘normal’ even if it’s not exactly ideal and in those cases a healthier lifestyle is the important step that’s needed to get back into shape.

But where food consumption (and therefore weight) is governed by trauma, life becomes an emotionally draining rollercoaster of crash diets and punishing exercise regimes that work for a while until the subconscious pulls up the mental drawbridge and convinces you that what you really need is cake. 

Food (or any other coping behaviour) becomes the currency of reward. Got through a challenging day? Well done, says the subconscious, you’ve earned a pizza.

To vandalise the art of Fat Boy Slim, it’s an exhausting and, ultimately, futile cycle of eat, sleep, crave, repeat that is destined to continue until we deal with what’s really causing us to behave as we do.

Trauma therapy untangles the carefully-constructed web the subconscious has weaved, supporting you to recognise and acknowledge what’s happened in the past and helping you to reach an acceptance that allows you to process the event or events.

The processing – or resolution – is central to the healing process and hypnotherapy for trauma or feelings you just don’t want to face facilitates this in a safe, secure environment designed to protect you.

However much we might like to believe it’s possible to change the way we respond to trauma without going through this process, I know from experience that it’s not.  The only way is ‘through’.  

Treating the symptoms might mask the problem for a while, helping you to convince yourself that you’re free from the shackles of food or drugs or bad financial decisions. But the thing about trauma or unresolved emotions is that eventually it will come calling again.

And it might be obvious, but we’ll say it again anyway: not all weight issues are linked to trauma. If you’re carrying a few extra pounds you’re struggling to shift but you’re broadly happy with yourself and your food relationships, then hypnotherapy for weight loss could be the little kickstart you need.

But if you’re eating even though you’re desperate not to, can recognise damaging patterns in when and how you eat, know your weight makes you camera-, mirror- and scales-shy and the problem is a daily issue, it could just be there’s something in your past that you need to deal with to be able to move on as you’d like.

By asking for help and support to resolve the issues you’re dealing with, you’ll find yourself better equipped to live life to the full and no longer compelled to ‘eat on your feelings’.

If you feel like you need help and support in your relationship with food, or if you simply want to shed a few pounds to shake off the excess of Christmas, then our amazing weight loss expert Sandy Robson is someone you need to spend some time with.

From tackling entrenched eating disorders to providing the small mindset change needed to kickstart a healthier lifestyle, Sandy offers tailored support, which can include the amazingly effective and non-invasive Virtual Gastric Band. You can find out more about Sandy and book a consultation with her by clicking here.

Unwrap Your Zen This Christmas

Broken Christmas Ornament

Well done, you made it! To misquote John Lennon, another year over and a new one just about to begin. Now there’s just the tricky issue of Christmas to navigate and it’s plain sailing all the way into 2019, right?

Well, yes – but that’s easier said than done.

Over the last two weeks or so, I’ve seen quite a lot of stuff online about why Christmas is a terrible time of the year.

I don’t know, maybe the mood of the moment is to be fed up with life. I don’t know why that should be the case, and maybe we should blame Brexit for it, since that seems to be responsible for everything else that people perceive to be wrong in life generally these days.

I think for most people, Christmas is a wonderful time of year (though, as I said in the article I wrote this time last year, we should be careful about setting our expectations too high and constructing an ideal that the festive season will never match), but there’s no doubt that for others it can also be a something to be dreaded.

Bereavement, grief, loss and isolation are all obvious triggers for issues around emotional wellbeing at Christmas. This is, after all, the time of year that trades heavily in the currency of togetherness and companionship shared in the warm glow of fairy lights and flaming Christmas puddings.

But because those raw emotions are so all-consuming, they’re easier to recognise even if they’re not easy to resolve. Support, empathy and care are always much more forthcoming when the symptoms of emotional discomfort are in plain sight.

It’s the invisible emotional damage that carries the heftiest price tag at Christmas.

So, what are the things that can make up the worst that this best of seasons has to offer?

Your bank account is empty, and your credit cards are maxed out

Yep. Christmas is ridiculously expensive. But a lot of us get sucked into the artificial bauble-strewn dream that the advertising executives create in our heads. In this fantasy, we are the kings and queens of the big gesture. It’s the marquee gift we can ill-afford and would never buy in a month of Sundays.

It’s the heady whirl of office parties, bring-a-bottle Christmas gatherings, meals out, the ridiculous must have bird-within-a-bird-within-a-bird roast (what the hell is that all about, anyway?), the Kuwait-sized oil reserves needed to fuel your car on the endless round of family visits to far-flung corners of the UK.

It’s the constant whirl of party invitations you feel you must attend if only to stop everyone getting all judgy behind your back. It’s the several dozen new dresses you need to buy with money you haven’t got (because you spent it all on presents for other people) so you don’t commit ultimate fashion faux pas of being seen out in the same frock twice (celebrities have much to answer for here).

In supermarkets, stress levels go through the roof to the point where people actually fight over the last turkey. I’m sure there are large numbers of people who think Armageddon is just around the corner. How else do you explain someone bulk buying 48 loaves of bread and enough double cream to bathe in?

And it goes on, and on, and on. Christmas is officially a crazy time of year when all rational sense goes out of the window.

What that leads to is stress and worry about how you’re going to afford the things that really do matter. So, here’s a thought: don’t spend as much as you think you should.

Maybe it’s too late to send back the marquee present, but if it isn’t, send it back. If you haven’t bought it yet, don’t. Get people to come to you. Be a rebel. Say no to the infinity-bird nonsense and buy an affordable joint of meat for Christmas dinner instead – you’ll probably enjoy it more anyway.

Do we really have to spend Christmas with your parents?

Uh-huh. Christmas. The season of spending precious time you haven’t got with people you’d normally go to great lengths to avoid. And all right, the in-laws are an easy (and therefore lazy) stereotype, but whoever it is you’re spending time with begrudgingly this Christmas, that’s who we mean.

Family are the friends who get chosen for you and the dynamics aren’t always easy. If you’re in a relationship, the pressure to play happy families is intense, every interaction a potential emotional grenade. Especially if the conversation turns to Brexit.

If your Christmas social commitments might be a trigger for conflict, it might just be worth reaching an understanding with your partner ahead of time about putting a sensible limit on the amount of time you’re each expected to spend with the people who you find difficult.

And it’s not just about having an agreement with your partner, either. It’s also about having an agreement with yourself about how and when you take a break from situations and people who trigger strong negative emotion.

Christmas is a joyful time, but it’s also a time when we’re expected to get along with everyone – and the fact is there are people who’ll do your head in whether it’s Christmas or not. Many a falling out has been avoided by a strategically-taken head-cooling walk round the block.

Can I pour you another?

I think I must have missed the memo where it became compulsory to consume the entire stock in the Sainsbury wine and spirit aisle in a single week. Yet such is the stress associated with this time of the year that over-enthusiastic self-medication seems to be the order of the season.

Beer, wine, whiskey (or more likely, given the trend of 2018, herbal-infused gin), cider, it doesn’t matter as long as it numbs the stress, right? Wrong. Because before long you’re going to be Jagerbombing your way to acute embarrassment, more stress and pitiless self-recrimination. All of which you’re going to need to face with a hangover.

Alcohol is probably best avoided altogether in stressful situations – it’s rarely the answer to the problem you’re trying to resolve.

Molehill, meet mountain

The thing about Christmas, from a mental health perspective, is that it’s the world’s largest magnifying glass, and it comes with a festive soundtrack. Chris De Burgh may well be on the radio singing about peace on earth and goodwill to all men, but that counts for nothing when you’re alongside Chis Rea, top to toe in tailbacks (tailbacks, your partner helpfully reminds you, that you could have avoided if you weren’t such a bloody slave to the satnav).

The queue for the tills at Boots are so long you need to bivouac overnight to reach them and TK Maxx looks like Glastonbury, but without the really great bands.

Everything that’s annoying gets magnified. As a result, tempers fray, sensible heads overheat, and words are said that will still be quoted back to you, accompanied by a savage expression, the following June.

Because these miss-you nights are the longest

After a few Pernod & Blacks, there’s a good chance you’ll start to feel nostalgic about an old relationship. You’ll forget that neither of you had been happy for at least three millennia and the whole thing imploded in a carnival of finger-pointing and shouting that lasted well into the early hours, when you left their house and spent the night sleeping in your car.

Christmas is a time when the memories we create are most vivid, and because we spend a lot of time around people who are also pretending to have the jolliest of jolly times, we start to convince ourselves that whilst the grass on the other side might be covered in snow, it is nevertheless almost certainly greener than what’s currently growing under our own feet.

And so, for some of us, Yuletide is a time when we mourn what we once had and consider ourselves poorer for it. But a bit like the Christmas fantasy we’ve been conditioned to believe in, it’s not reality.

Since when did it become a requirement of Christmas to be in a relationship, anyway? If you are, and you’re happy, then fantastic. I’m genuinely pleased for you. But if you’re not, you shouldn’t be feeling like you’ve failed in some way.

It’s totally okay to be single. In fact, it’s healthier to be happily single than it is to be in some awful relationship just because some idiotic social convention says you really should be seeing someone. That’s not actually a thing. It never was.

In short, Christmas is a time when it’s easy to lose sight of what’s good in your life. It’s a time when we feel pressure to be happy and joyful and carefree actually feel worse because our own reality doesn’t shape up to that expectation.

If you really want to be happy this Christmas, you’ll need to make sure you’re serving up a good dose of realism with the chestnut stuffing. That doesn’t mean you need to be the Grinch. But it probably does mean putting yourself first when every instinct is telling you not to.

Whatever your take on Christmas, we wish a merry one for you. But to really enjoy it, you have to remember that it’s just one day. Just one period of 24 hours. It’s not some kind of witching hour where you have to have everything in your life figured out.  It really doesn’t have to mean so much.  

You’re a work in progress. We all are. As humans, we are things of beauty because we are imperfect. Christmas is chaotic, but it should be chaotic in a way that leaves you breathless in a good way. So, be kind to yourself – you’ve earned it.

No, really…. it’s absolutely OK to love who you are

Red Heart

The ego can be a thing of terrible beauty – rampantly cocksure one moment, fragile as parchment the next.

It is capable of inspiring and propelling us to moments of true greatness, leaving others around us lost in the backwash of its afterburners. And then, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it instant, it can plunge us into self-doubt and self-loathing.

Ego defines our emotional and psychological essence, a wild animal that paces the cage we lock it in. We feed it and it grows. We starve it and it shrinks. We neglect it and it becomes savage.

Often, its food of choice – or, perhaps more accurately at least, the diet we choose to feed it – is the approval and love of others. Our daily interactions with other humans – and machines, actually – can be boiled down into simple transactions of approval and disapproval, an ongoing exercise in the mutual business of validation, judgement, recognition and acknowledgement.

For the most part, these things are largely trivial. It’s the smile from the barista when they hand us a skinny white decaf. It’s the grateful flash of headlights from another driver when you stop to let them through. It’s recognition from a slight acquaintance who remembers you. It’s when someone likes your Facebook post or retweets you.

Other elements of our transactional relationships have more weight: praise and emotional or financial reward at work, the spontaneous show of unconditional and unsolicited affection from a partner, the return of romantic interest from someone we find attractive, the pride of a parent.

And just as this apparent positive validation of our worth to society feeds our ego, fattening it that it might grow, a lack of validation or, worse, active disapproval of our sense of being and value brings self-doubt and, in extremis, self-loathing when we are not anchored by a healthy foundation of self love.

If the essence of who we are – the ego – really is a wild animal, then it’s in our own self-interest to tame it.

But we also need to understand that ego can never be truly housetrained, because there are emotions as volatile as quicksilver that inherently make up its DNA – anger, passion and love, for example – and these are not only an intrinsic part of who we are but are also, in moderation, part of a healthy psyche.

So, what does it take to temper, if not wholly tame, the beast? Ultimately, it comes down to understanding that the most important validation we receive is the validation we give ourselves.

In short, it’s about realising – and then accepting – that it’s absolutely all right to love ourselves.

We are conditioned by society to believe that self-appreciation is ill-disguised vanity, a character trait more deserving of scorn than respect.

But there is a fundamental difference between self-validation and vainglory. The quiet self-reassurance that confirms our own worth and value and integrity as a human being is the polar opposite of wanton boastfulness that is the progenitor of envy.

Like all things, we need to practise self-love daily in order to turn it into habit. We do that by choosing not to beat ourselves up, by not abandoning ourselves through the choices we make and by removing ourselves with dignity from harmful or toxic situations and people.

Self-love is about having the strength of character, psychologically and emotionally, so that the positive view of yourself is unaffected – or, at the very least, less affected – when someone in your orbit decides to be a dick about who or what you are.

And in turn, we find we can recover from painful situations more quickly because we don’t become lost in their afterburners.

An absence of self-love leaves us horribly vulnerable to the ego’s swings in response to validation or disapproval.

That makes for a rocky road through life, one paved with a corrosive and submissive need to please everyone in the pursuit of their love and appreciation. It is the road upon which we develop an anodyne and vanilla mask behind which our true self hides.

With self-love we understand and accept we can’t please all the people all the time, that we will piss people off and that the world beyond the parapet is sometimes an unforgiving place in which we absolutely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

It’s about allowing your self-belief and self-respect to be absolutely unshakeable despite the fact someone else might not see you for who and what you really are.

It’s about not letting someone tell you that you can’t do something.

It’s about learning to trust yourself and always listening to your intuition above all else no matter how experienced or demonstrative the person giving you advice.

Above all, loving yourself for being you doesn’t mean others will also see you as you see yourself. It doesn’t mean your boss or your colleague or your lover or the barista will treat you as you deserve to be treated. Bottom line? It won’t stop that dick being a dick.

You won’t suddenly be without flaws. You won’t find yourself exalted to a pedestal or adored, Kardashian-style, on social media. You won’t necessarily be everyone’s must-have friend.

Self-love doesn’t make you exempt from criticism and it doesn’t mean you won’t experience toxic behaviour.

But it does mean you won’t tolerate that, and the effects of others’ behaviour and actions won’t be something you stick in your emotional suitcase and wheel around with you for evermore.

Self-love isn’t about being perfect (and what the hell is that even, anyway?) It’s about being good enough for yourself to live with, and strong enough to choose not to live around the people who’d prefer to see you as something less than that.

The festive season is almost upon us, so do yourself a favour this Christmas and give yourself the gift of self-acceptance. Walk tall and proud and relax, knowing you’re already enough, regardless of how much you might want to still improve.

Be you. It’s the most exquisite gift you’ll unwrap this year.

Additional Credits

Video by Weeks360.

Photography by Liz Bishop Photography.

Production by Mark Norman at Little Joe Media and Joanne Brooks.

Hair by Jonny Albutt.

Make up by Olly Fisk and Nabeel Hussain.