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.

The One Thing You Need To Do To Improve Your Life Instantly

Boxing Gloves

Give a man a fish and he’ll feed himself for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll feed himself forever. Or so the saying goes. It’s probably true, but who really knows? Fish can be damned smart. Particularly the ones that have been caught before.

Here’s a saying which I know is absolutely true:

Give someone five minutes with nothing to do but think and they’ll find a way to beat themselves up about something, no matter how small or trivial.

It’s a sentence or thought that starts with the words If only I hadn’t

… said that, done the other, been mean about Rachel’s new hairstyle, bought that dress, maxed out my credit card, asked out the guy/girl in the Costa queue on an irrational impulse, inhaled an entire packet of Hobnobs in a single sitting, been quite so unkind to my mother, jumped to that conclusion about Dawn Smith when we were ten, poked the cat with a stick, got back with her / him for the 30th time, thought bad things about that woman before I knew she had cancer, turned down that job promotion, frittered away my teens … the list is endlessly long.

More than that, it’s unfailingly and ineffably pointless and if I could only follow one spiritual or self-care practice for the rest of my life it would be to never beat myself up about things ever again. Because apart from being a long and pointless process, it’s also a process that is inarguably toxic.

Living in perpetual self-flagellation is like driving through life with the handbrake on.   

But regrets are good, right? It shows I’m human, for God’s sake! That I have empathy and sympathy and humility – all that good stuff that makes people realise I’m not the self-centred narcissist I think I am.

And guilt! Oh, God yes – lots and lots of that. After all, why should the good Catholics have the monopoly on guilt? There’s plenty for everyone – we just need to dwell on stuff awhile and soon enough it’ll engulf us and make us feel … what? Better? More worthy? More human? More deserving?

No. It does none of these things. Self-flagellation – the supreme art of giving yourself a hard time about stuff you can’t change – not only kills your relationship with yourself, it’s the best possible way there is to keep yourself stuck in the horrible decisions and emotions of the past. And that, in turn, keeps you locked into the very thing it is that you want to change.

Your relationship with yourself is the absolute basis of a good life. You’re stuck with being you, so if you’re going to learn to love the person you are, the minimum you need to do is to make peace with yourself.

And if you can’t do that for yourself – and there are a lot of people who can’t – then accept the help of others to help you find that path. It’s all very well me saying you just need to stop doing whatever it is that makes you berate yourself, but if it were that easy you’d probably have stopped already.   However it is important to set the intention no matter how you do it.  

In the end, sometimes we need a bit of a helping hand to see ourselves for who we really are rather than who we think we are. When you’re ready to start down that road, people like me are here to guide and help you.

A happy and fulfilled life comes from being your own best friend and celebrating the good things you represent. The odds are they’ll significantly outweigh the bad things – but we seem to be world masters in obsessing about the imperfections.

So, stop. Have your own back. Be there for yourself because when all’s said and done, you’re the only person out there you can reply on to be that guy or girl.

So why do we behave in such an obviously destructive way, replaying the car crashes of our emotional past with no apparent resolution? The reason is that guilt seeks punishment and the cycle goes something like this: 

1. Feel bad about yourself

2. Binge eat a packet of biscuits, feel terribly guilty about it, swear off them, then beat yourself up harshly.

3. Eat another packet of biscuits in a desperate attempt to feel better after giving yourself the beating

4. Decide the biscuits aren’t working and open a bottle of wine

5. Indulge in a 40-minute compare and despair binge on Instagram

6. Repeat whatever it was that made you feel bad in the first place.

7. Rinse and repeat.

The other thing is that this self-torture is more effective at chewing up your life-force, vitality and self-worth than a year on crystal meth. So, if that’s the vibe you’re going for, jog on. But if, like most of us, it’s absolutely not how you want to spend your life, then it’s imperative to make a deal with yourself to find a way to stop doing it.

As Jeff Brown so beautifully puts it, when dealing with your issues:  eat your stuff, or it will eat you.    

Stopping beating yourself up is the one thing that will improve the quality of your life instantly. As in this very second. And, quite unlike crystal meth, it’s free. The high of liking or even loving who you are is better, too.    

That isn’t to say we shouldn’t all look for self-improvement, success and growth – that’s an essential part of the human experience. And it’s not realistic or even desirable to stop wanting more from your life, because that’s also part of the human condition.

But beating yourself up for where you are just because you’re not yet in the place you want to be will keep you exactly where you are. Because the other truth about self-flagellation is that what we resist persists.

Telling ourselves we’re somehow wrong, deficient, ‘less than’ or defective because we aren’t where someone else has reached is the most powerful thing we can do to shame ourselves and keep us stuck exactly where we are.

Yes, we need to be true to our own values and standards and it’s right and healthy to want to be better at those things and to want not to repeat some of our mistakes – just as long as we’re not punishing ourselves when we fall short.

If you have experienced trauma in childhood, however large or small, the negative inner critic – aka The Superego – will be especially prevalent in your life. The role of the superego is to protect you, but the way it executes that task can feel especially malevolent at times. It’s the voice of fear and, as I often explain to my clients, fear is the strongest emotion we can experience.

The problem is it can often get translated as truth and I’ve found through my own work with clients that the white noise of persistent self-criticism diminishes once trauma and inner child work has been performed.

If our friends behaved like our superego, they wouldn’t be friends for long. Yet many of us tolerate this constant belittling of ourselves without complaint. Why would we treat ourselves in ways we would never tolerate from someone else? The answer is almost certainly that we’ve been listening to what a friend describes as the committee in the head for so long that we think what it has to say must be true.

But it’s possible to say not today thanks and take a different path that starves the superego of its power over us. If you cannot do that consciously, then do the therapy work to negotiate with it and it will set you free in a way you could never imagine.   

When you point blank refuse to beat yourself up really wonderful things start to happen. You naturally set better boundaries; you allow yourself to do more things and you get more done; you feel bolder and freer and you care much, much less about what others might be thinking of you. 

More than that, it also ‘unsticks’ you, so whatever you are stuck in – bad job, bad relationship, weight you can’t lose, habits you can’t shake – you can begin to wriggle free from.

Living a life that’s the stuff of a Kafkaesque doom narrative is no fun, but liberating yourself by not beating yourself up allows you to live in reality much more comfortably and means you are more grounded and less likely to go off on those oftentime disastrous flights of fantasy.    

There are a trillion goals we can have and so many things we can look at in ourselves and want to improve, but the reality is that you only need one goal to transform your life in the most radical and remarkable way possible: to be really, really comfortable in your own skin.   

Being the person who is really, truly, wonderfully okay with all of who they are is hands down the most magnetic and attractive quality in the world.

Let me put it a different way. If beating yourself up is like driving through life with the handbrake on, choosing to like who you are is the sheer joy of releasing it and putting your foot down. And after everything that’s gone before, isn’t it about time you floored your life?

This White House Legacy Will Be Felt For Generations. And Not In A Good Way

Shutterstock 1034329486

There are times – many times, in fact – when the current Presidency of the United States feels like a practical joke that has gone spectacularly and tragically wrong.

How we all laughed when he started his run for the White House. How we snickered at the impudence of it all. How we guffawed when he talked about the ‘big, beautiful wall’ he was going to build between the US and Mexico, not realising the punchline was still to come: Mexico would be made to pay for it!

We branded him a clown. But a man in greasepaint driving a small car in circles until the doors fall off is actually funny (unless you suffer from coulrophobia). Watching the doors fall off the supercharged Buick 8 that is the most powerful country in the world has been a long way from funny.

There have been times when watching the leader of the Free World has been akin to being in the audience the night Tommy Cooper collapsed during the Royal Variety Show and everyone thought it was hilarious. Until we all realised it wasn’t and that it was too late to save him.

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Why Pretending Is Bad For Your Health

Woman's Head Replaced By A Black Balloon

Last week, TalkRadio presenter and former contestant on ITV’s I’m A Celebrity Iain Lee published a blog which laid bare his struggles with his mental health.

Reading it is a deeply uncomfortable, moving and raw emotional experience and if, like many, you’re someone who is disinclined to have sympathy for well-paid celebrities who seem to have it all, I can’t suggest strongly enough that you take some time to read it.

It will teach you more about what it’s like to live with depression and low-self-esteem than you can possibly imagine.

Iain Lee often polarises opinion. He can be outspoken and provocative. His views and opinions can sometimes appear obnoxious or ignorant. But, like so many of us and as those of us who watched his journey through the jungle last autumn saw for ourselves, at heart he just wants to be liked and loved.

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The Path Is Not The Punishment

Lovcen Mountains National Park At Sunset Montenegro

I have a friend whose favourite theory is that Hell isn’t a place you go to when you die, it’s the place you go to live. And you get to do it over and over again, until you become a decent human being.

He’s fond of arguing that reincarnation is simply the re-taking of life’s exams. Then again, he’s also fond of arguing that the people who learn the fewest lessons in life are destined to live in Middlesbrough, so I’m not sure how much credence we can attach to his ramblings.

But if you ignore the religious context for a moment, there’s something of truth in the notion that life will continue to give you the same lesson until you finally learn it.

Giving in to human nature and casting ourselves as victims of life ‘continually’ might elicit more sympathetic hugs on Facebook, but it’s also a sure-fire way to guarantee missing the key lessons we should be learning.

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Is Your Child Getting An ‘A’ In Anxiety?

Worried And Sad Student Online

Next week, teenagers up and down the country will be sitting their GCSE mocks. 

This may come as a surprise to those of you who don’t have a 15- or 16-year-old in the house and have been blissfully unaware of the unfolding drama being played out behind closed doors. 

But for those who do have such a creature hibernating behind a closed bedroom door, the weeks since the end of the summer must have felt a little like watching a gathering storm edging every closer.

These days, Year 11 pupils (that’s the 5th Year for those of us who still work in old money) are under pressure to do well from the moment they walk through the door of their secondary school as a fresh-faced 11-year-old. And they’re under pressure to perform measurably well. 

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Anxiety Isn’t Love

Red Bondage

I have a question for you, but before I ask it, I want you to picture the scene.

Imagine that every evening at 7pm you leave your house and take a 30-minute walk into town to the same bar. You sit in the same chair at the same table and you order the same drink, because it’s your favourite and it’s the only place for miles where you can buy it.

But the problem is that every night, at 9pm, a well-dressed and apparently normal guy walks into the bar, comes over to your table and punches you in the face.

This happens every night, every week, every month. Without fail.

My question is, would you stop going to the bar? Or would you keep going, but ask your doctor to prescribe something to help you cope with the pain you know you’ll be dealing with every night?

You’d stop going to the bar, wouldn’t you? Forget the fact it’s the only place where you can get your favourite drink, it’s not worth the pain. So, it’s a stupid question, right?

Well, not really.

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Does The Financial Wellbeing Of Your Business Mirror The Mental Health Of Your Team?

London Cityscape At Sunset

On Monday I had the privilege of being asked to lead a session on mental health in the workplace for the TruMunity Unconference in London, a recruitment event for HR leaders and recruitment professionals with informality and learning at its heart.

When thinking about what to talk about, I kept coming back to the role business has to play in tackling the mental health crisis the UK faces.

A study into wellbeing in the workplace recently estimated that around 97 million work days are lost each year in the UK to mental health issues.

Imagine the impact of that figure for a moment. It equates to more than a quarter of a million years. And if you’re having trouble processing that, it’s around 50,000 years longer than we’ve been on the earth.

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Why We Must Educate The Government About Education

Girl having problem with learning

I’m rarely driven to the point of invective, but recently I’ve read about two pieces of bewildering Government policy the logic of which, no matter how hard I try, I’m unable to rationalise.

Worse, I’m genuinely worried that together they could, If I’ve interpreted them correctly, produce the most emotionally damaged generation of people we’ve ever seen.

First came the news that  100,000 teenagers will be provided with mental health training to help them cope with the pressure of exams.

Before we get to the second policy that’s troubling me, let’s just dwell on that, for a moment. Consider the process that has led the Government to that position. Consider the number of people who must have been involved in the process of constructing the financial and political argument so compelling that the Cabinet Office felt bound to adopt it. Consider what the implications of that are.

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Have You Got A Mental Health Issue….Or Is It Your Lifestyle?

Have You Got A Mental Health Issue….Or Is It Your Lifestyle?

It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? Perhaps one you’ve never asked yourself before. Maybe you’ve never felt you’ve needed to. After all, you might not be displaying any obvious sign that your emotional wellbeing is at risk and perhaps your lifestyle is a predictable drumbeat punctuated with an occasional burst of high octane.

In other words, you’re just … normal. Right? Okay. Maybe you are. Maybe you’re not. Only you know for sure. Or maybe, just maybe … you don’t.

Now I’ve put the question out there, indulge me and take a few minutes to really think about your answer.

And while you’re doing that, let me explain why for a great many people – maybe even for you – their lifestyle is anything but normal and why it’s creating an unnecessary risk.

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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.