Genius is childhood recaptured

Our childhood has a massive impact on who we are as adults and with a huge range of factors from our early years impacting who we become. It’s worth reflecting on your childhood from time to time to take lessons into your life today whether that is how to live with passion, how to love with an open heart or on a more technical level how certain things influenced who you have become. In my book Defining You I explore some of those factors and in this blog post look at just two – self-esteem and social skills. 

SELF-ESTEEM

What is self-esteem? Put simply it’s the belief that you can achieve whatever it is you set out to do. If you have high self-esteem, you think that nothing will derail you; if your self-esteem is low, you may be riddled with anxiety about your capabilities. Self-esteem is relatively fragile in childhood, meaning that it can be built or undermined quite significantly by people or events, and the effect can remain with you into adulthood. 

Research shows that if you were lucky enough to have high self- esteem as a child, it will have had a positive impact on your income as an adult.1 It will also have helped build better mental health,2 which is the foundation not only to living a happy life, but also to fulfilling your potential. However, if you reflect on your early life and see a child riddled with self-doubt, that doesn’t mean you can’t succeed or become more confident in your abilities as an adult. It’s never too late to bolster your self-esteem and have more optimism in your ability to achieve your goals, whatever they may be. Simply being able to pinpoint events or people that knocked or built your self-esteem as a child will help you overcome obstacles that had a negative effect, and reap further benefits from things that had a positive impact on you. 

Think about the following questions. Don’t worry if you can’t answer them right now, just reflect and come back if anything springs to mind: 

  • How much self-esteem did you have as a child? Were you self- confident? For instance, did you throw yourself headlong into activities or hold back? 
  • Why was that? 
  • How do you think this relates to your self-confidence now? Is there anything that really helped build your self-esteem as a child that you could build on? Was there anything that held you back that still affects the way you see the world today? 

SOCIAL SKILLS 

Your environment when you were growing up also influenced the development of your social skills. These include a wide range of characteristics (e.g., empathy, kindness, and cooperativeness), but in a broader sense they refer to your interpersonal effectiveness and ability to forge friendships. Research shows that the social skills you developed as a child have an effect on your satisfaction with life, well-being, and mental health.6 Social skills are a critical foundation to being able to fulfill your potential and be successful.7 They are at the heart of all daily interactions, from deal making and engaging stakeholders to getting people to buy in to whatever it is you set out to achieve. 

When it comes to family influences on your social skills, research shows that if you had a close relationship with your father, you’re more likely to develop better relationships as an adult. If your mother left you to your own devices, you’re likely to be more effective at dealing with other people, whereas if you had a more demanding or critical mother, it may have had a negative impact on your ability to relate to others.8 The research has been carried out on these particular relationships, but most likely can be extrapolated to other situations. 

It’s important to point out that this is not about blaming your parents: most parents want the best for their child and that’s more likely than not to have been the case for you. Exploring how your parents influenced you is more about understanding yourself and the major influences on you than it is about pointing the finger at anyone. 

Although interpersonal skills are in part genetically influenced, they are modified by who we interact with and the situations we are exposed to, and this modification continues to happen throughout life. While profiling I’ve heard many stories of social skills altering as people grow up, such as those who were incredibly shy as children becoming outgoing as adults. If your interpersonal skills are not as fine-tuned as you’d like, don’t worry, this is something you can work on. It is worth investing time to think through when and how you developed your skills in order to build on what has worked, and to overcome or accept and move on from what hasn’t worked for you. We’ll be looking at this in more detail again later in the book. 

Think about the following questions, and if it helps take some notes. Don’t worry if you can’t answer them right now, just reflect and come back if anything springs to mind: 

  • What was your relationship with each of your parents (i.e., mother, father) or significant figures in your childhood? 
  • Was there anything that helped you become more sociable as a child that you could build on now? 

There’s so much to explore in who we have been and what we have learnt through life. Not so much through introspection and over analysis more from observation and curiosity. I hope you find some insights that are helpful. 

Extract taken from my book Defining You which I’ve been lucky enough to have won two awards for (Business Book Awards UK and Axiom Award USA). 

Defining You which is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

Image: pexels.com by June Intharoek

Quote: Baudelaire

References:

1 Jo Blanden, Paul Gregg, & Lindsey Macmillan (2006) Accounting for inter- generational income persistence: Non-cognitive skills, ability and education, CEE Discussion Paper, London: Centre for the Economics of Education, London School of Economics and Political Science.

2 A. Goodman, H. Joshi, B. Nasim, & C. Tyler (2015) Social and emotional skills in childhood and their long-term effects on adult life. London: Institute of Education.

3 T.E. Moffitt, L. Arseneault, D. Belsky, D., et al. (2011) A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108(7): 2693–98.

4 Goodman et al., op. cit.

5 M.B. Rutherford (2009) Children’s autonomy and responsibility: An analysis

of childrearing advice, Qualitative Sociology 32(4): 337–53. J.M. Causadias, J.E. Salvatore, & L.A. Sroufe (2012) Early patterns of self-regulation as risk and promotive factors in development: A longitudinal study from childhood to adulthood in a high-risk sample, International Journal of Behavioral Development 36(4): 293–302.

6 Goodman et al., op. cit.

7 D. Goleman (2003) What makes a leader? In L.W. Porter, H.L. Angle, & R.W. Allen (eds), Organizational Influence Processes, 2nd ed., Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 229–41.

8 University of Haifa (2007) The quality of a father–child relationship affects intimate relationships in adulthood, https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_ releases/2007-02/uoh-tqo021907.php

Is social media destroying our mental health?

Earlier this year I was interviewed for a piece in DigitalSpy about about social media and our mental health. Following the publication of research by the BBC today showing the rising issue of self-harm I thought I’d share the thoughts that I prepared for my interview. 

Would you say that there needs to be more awareness around the potential effect that social media can have on a person’s mental health? 

Yes definitely. A few of the impacts include:

Normalising harmful behaviours– social media can also normalise dangerous behaviours such as self-harm and even suicide. This is something that has been brought up as an ever increasing issue with a report from the BBC today stating that there ‘has been an “alarming” rise in the rates of self-harm in England.’

Continued exposure to messages of any sort makes them seem far more ordinary and as a result such behaviours become incorporated into the everyday elements of how people live their lives. They are accepted as opposed to being seen as something harmful. Research also shows that self-harming behaviours are contagious. In a real-world setting this may mean that they spread to two or three people but online this contagion can quickly spread to thousands of youngsters. 

The cumulative effect – on mental health. A bit like filling up a glass of water a drop at a time. Each drop may seem inconsequential but eventually the glass will overflow. This is the way in which social media can, for some, eat away their well-being. For example, self-esteem is lowered through comparison – seeing other people living happier more connected lives than us can make us feel socially isolated in contrast (Shensa et al., 2016). Another example is the way in which stress iteratively adds up. Stress from remaining constantly alert for new social media messages triggers our fight or flight system releasing the stress hormone cortisol. Over time this leads to chronic stress which in turn can lead to anxiety and depression. Similar stress levels can also be triggered by the constant need to project an unrealistic image within our social network. Always trying to look like we’re having fun, doing interesting things, travelling etc as a result, ‘our profiles reflect how we want to be perceived, rather than showing an honest picture of who we truly are’ which eats away at self-worth and causes identity diffusion.  

Addictive nature– we all know how hard it can be to put down our phones once we start scrolling through twitter, Instagram or any other platform. This becomes similar fodder as for addictive behaviour as drinking, smoking or over eating. 

Advice from non-experts– while it’s great that everyone now has a voice, the issue is that people who have no real expertise are dishing out advise to anyone who will listen. We are swayed by number of followers rather than proficiency of who is delivering a message. The biggest problem when it comes to this is psychological advice being doled out by people who (however well-meaning) are not trained. This can lead to people going down completely the wrong track with their thinking and behaviour which can cause or exacerbate a whole range of mental health issues. 

Would you say that there are any links to social media behaviour and a rise in any particular mental health issues?

Yes, the research shows that there are links to both anxiety and depression. One study carried out in 2017, which looked at over 12,000 young people found a statistically significant correlation between social media use and depressive symptoms. Another study conducted by psychologist Dr. Mark Becker, of Michigan State University, found a 70% increase in self- reported depressive symptoms among a group using social media and a 42% increase in social anxiety. 

Research has also found that when we focus time on building social media networks it can negatively impact our ‘real life relationships’ with our close family and friends. Our time is spent with virtual connections which tend to be more superficial in nature. As a result we begin to lose the social support available to us in real terms and that social connection is essential to living a fulfilled and emotionally resilient life. A number of studies have shown that these virtual connections can even result in long-term emotional and psychological problems. Dr. Steven Strogatz, a professor at Cornell for example worries that social media is creating a growing confusion between our weak ties (e.g. people who might be useful in referring us to a good restaurant) and our strong ties (close family and friends).  Strogatz says “The distinction between genuine friends and acquaintances is becoming blurred. Users are spending more time maintaining relationships with people they don’t really care about.” 

In addition to all that’s been mentioned above other issues linked to social media include: use of devises close to bedtime resulting in poorer sleep quality (which impacts mental health), negative impact of body image creating poor self-esteem and anxiety and of course vicious bullying enabled by anonymity and a lack of social accountability. 

One study sums up the current situation up well by saying that ‘despite the positive benefit of rapid information sharing, social media can and does lead to increased issues with mental health’. With most large-scale empirical work in this area suggesting associations between social media use and increased symptoms of depression and anxietyand decline in subjective well-being (e.g. Andreassen et al., 2016; Block et al., 2014; Kross et al., 2013; L. Y. Lin et al., 2016; Woods & Scott, 2016). It’s unrealistic to suggest that we don’t use social media or that there are no benefits. We should however be mindful of how much time we (and our kids) spend on it, how we (and our kids) use it and make sure that we (and our kids) still invest time to building our real-life relationships. 

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-48514349?intlink_from_url=https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/topics/cnx753jenxzt/self-harm&link_location=live-reporting-story

Image: Pexels.com

Fast fame…

In March I was interviewed for a piece in DigitalSpy about reality TV and how it impacts contestants. Following the cancellation of the Jeremy Kyle show this week I thought I’d share the thoughts that I prepared for my interview (link for the article is at the end). 

Reality TV shows such as Love Island and Big Brother can create overnight celebrities – what kind of impact could this have on an individual’s mental wellbeing? 

Research shows that even fame that occurs via organic growth can be hard to deal with. For example, one study in the Journal of Phenomenological Psychology looked at well-known American celebrities finding that many stars find ‘themselves ill-equipped for and struggling with the deluge of attention that comes with fame.’  It’s an unfamiliar world where all eyes are suddenly on that person. This is for people pursuing a career in acting or music for example, not necessarily in it for the fame itself. When people enter reality TV a large part, if not their only driver is fame, but that doesn’t mean they know what to expect if and when they get it. 

The sudden fame can feel confusing like they’ve literally lost ownership of their own life. More mainstream celebrities report feeling like they are no longer a person but instead become a ‘thing’, an object that people can comment on and obsess over without any consideration of the person beneath. Suddenly they cannot just go anywhere and do anything without being recognised which may at first feel exciting but can quickly feel extremely threatening.  Ultimately this can result in a hyper vigilance of people who want to befriend them and a mistrust of others intentions. In turn leading to isolation not just from a ‘normal’ social network but from anyone who may be able to understand what they are going through. 

There’s been talk of feelings of a ‘come down’ after the show, can you offer any insight into what this might mean and why it could be experienced by contestants?

Being on a reality TV show involves close knit interaction with other people over an extended period, a high level of competition and an awareness that you’re constantly being ‘observed’ or performing. All of these things trigger various mechanisms within the brain releasing a flood of different neurochemicals. For example, one neurochemical, oxytocin is released when we’re in social groups such as the groups ‘created’ on reality TV. Oxytocin is linked to human bonding and makes us feel really good. Another neurochemical, adrenaline, is released in response to constant pressure and competition such as that found on reality TV. A surge of adrenaline makes us feel alive, it’s literally exhilarating. 

When the show ends these neurochemicals stop being released and contestants will feel like being taken off a drug that makes them feel good. A bit like sobering up after a fun drunken night out. Added to which they will most likely have feelings of sudden isolation. They have left an intense social setting where they are with people 24/7, experiencing exactly the same things as them to being alone or with people who haven’t been through the same thing and cannot empathise with that experience. This will at times feel daunting and very lonely. 

On top of all of this, contestants have gone from having a clear goal to focus on – winning or staying in until the end, to nothing. They leave the show and there is nothing concrete to look forward to. They suddenly lack purpose which makes anyone feel at a great loss and can generate feelings of anxiety and even depression. 

Social media trolling seems to be a real issue, particularly when viewers form an opinion based on what they have seen on television – how could this affect someone that’s suddenly receiving an influx of negative comments? 

Firstly, the television show itself removes the context around conversations. It’s easy to see how something can be warped in completely the wrong way without the entire circumstance being clear.

An article written called ‘Perspectives on Context’ written by Professor Paul Bate gives illustrations of how take things out of context plays out. 

‘In the National Post in 2008, details of a murder were published :

“a man fatally shot his wife in the chest and got away with it”.

Our reaction is an immediate sense of outrage at the ills of modern society.

However, the reality is that the accused was an elderly man diagnosed with a terminal illness, married for many years to a woman who had developed Alzheimer’s disease. He was fearful she would suffer unduly without his care. Knowing, too, that his own death was imminent, he chose to end her life.

Or another simple example

If a man in the street starts yelling “move” it’s rude, but it’s what you would want someone to be shouting if someone was yielding a gun or a building near you was about to collapse. 

Within a TV editing suite many things can be taken out of context for the purposes of exciting viewing but to the detriment of contestants. 

Secondly social media itself doesn’t provide context or meaning and allows people to make comments that we just wouldn’t face to face in ‘real’ social settings – for fear of upsetting someone and having to deal with the consequences. In addition, in ‘real’ life only one or two people are able to speak to us at one point of time, then the conversation moves on building on what has come before or how responses have been made. On social media everyone can pile in at once, without any regard for any of the other comments made and not allowing ‘the person’ themselves to respond. In short, social media removes the natural barriers a) allowing raw cruelty without any social consequences for the commentator b) an unnatural number of responses which in ‘real life’ just wouldn’t be possible c) no context allowing perceptions to be skewed and d) allows no natural retort or defence to alter the course of the conversation. This can have a massively negative impact on an individual. 

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https://www.digitalspy.com/tv/reality-tv/a26892670/reality-tv-love-island-duty-of-care-social-media-trolls/

image: pexels.com

Nothing will work unless you do…

…and yet we’re still not teaching kids how they work.

Having profiled hundreds of leaders as well as people from across a range of backgrounds, I have seen the clear patterns and links between life success, well-being and fulfilling potential with the psychological skills learnt in the teenage years. However, it’s not just what I have seen myself, this is backed by a huge amount of data and research. Literally hundreds of studies of what is often referred to as social and emotional learning (SEL) have documented the short-term benefits and more recent studies have shown the benefits lasting across time with both economic and societal return on investment for SEL in schools (e.g. Belfield et al., 2015).

One study analysed data from 82 schools involving nearly 100,000 students looking at the impacts of SEL across a time span of 6 months to 18 years and clearly demonstrated the benefits to students from all types of backgrounds, both underprivileged and wealthy. Social emotional learning was shown to prepare students to move successfully through school and college, and to be productive workers and good citizens with positive mental health. The only catch being that without ‘quality implementation’, not using people who really know what they’re talking about or using evidence based schemes, the potential positive impact of any learning is significantly reduced (Taylor et al., 2017).

From the other end of the spectrum, the impact of a lack of SEL in schools has a huge economic cost. A recent Cabinet Office report revealed that the government in England and Wales is spending nearly £17 billion on the short-term costs of ‘picking up the pieces from damaging social issues affecting young people, such as child abuse and neglect, unemployment and youth crime’ which extends further still when looking at the longer-term impact or the wider social or economic costs’. The report suggests that the solution is to ensure that ‘everyone is able to realise their full potential by developing the range of skills we all need to thrive’ namely the following social and emotional capabilities:

  • Self-perceptions, self-awareness and self-direction (including self-esteem and the belief that one’s own actions can make a difference);
  • Motivation;
  • Self-control/self-regulation (generally characterised as greater impulse control and fewer behavioural problems);
  • Social skills, including relationship skills and communication skills;
  • Resilience and coping.

The report found that teaching these skills led to ‘top’ job advantage, qualifications, adult mental health, life satisfaction, socio-economic benefits, labour market health and other health related outcomes. It concluded that their findings provide a robust case for increased local and national commitment to supporting the social and emotional development of children and young people.  Further support was offered by the current education secretary in February 2019 setting out the vision for building character and resilience being ‘as important as academic achievement’. The question remains however, what is actually being done?

Added to all of this I would argue that it’s critical for children to understand how the brain works. Without this knowledge the picture is far from complete. Children need to learn how to work with their brain, optimise their performance and understand the fundamental mismatch between the brain and the world we live in. This provides the backdrop to why we do many of the things which feel odd or work against common sense. For example how even a strong willed independent person can end up conforming to a group, why our emotions don’t always make sense, why analysing things in the outside world helps to create resolution but analysing things in our own head can cause massive issues.

I don’t believe it should be just leaders who learn these skills i.e. those who already have a pretty good grasp of their social and emotional capabilities.  So, I am starting a school tour where giving free talks to sixth formers. The aim is to help them understand some of the basics and provide them with access to tools and materials to support this in a more ongoing context. If you know a school that may be interested, please do let us know.

Contact: lorna.walls@aroka.co.uk

References:

Cabinet Office report, Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission 2015 ‘SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL LEARNING: SKILLS FOR LIFE AND WORK’ edited by Leon Feinstein, Director of Evidence, Early Intervention Foundation

Taylor, R. D., Oberle, E., Durlak, J. A., & Weissberg, R. P. (2017). Promoting positive youth development through school‐based social and emotional learning interventions: A meta‐analysis of follow‐up effects. Child development, 88(4), 1156-1171.

“Nothing will work unless you do” Maya Angelou

Photograph: Pexels.com

The Power of Reflection

Written for Karren Brady’s blog strongfemaleleadership.com

This week I had an email from a university friend who I haven’t spoken to since I left uni’ (and that’s a long time). One of those people who played a significant role in my life yet also disappeared from it. I’ve caught up with and reconnected with various friends over the years. What seems different this time is that this is someone I knew in my adult life, yet so much of my adult life has happened since I knew them. It made me reflect and then reflect on reflection. 

It’s easy to think of reflection as day dreaming or reminiscing over what has already happened in life, whether that’s yesterday or years ago. Something that may be ‘nice’ to do but that doesn’t really have any consequences.  However, around the turn of the last century American philosopher John Dewey described it as more of a purposeful activity a ‘dynamic and intentional process that profoundly influences one’s experiences’. This point of view has now been backed by decades of research showing that there’s far more to reflection than mere daydreaming and that it significantly improves learning and performance (e.g. Aronson, 2010; Schippers, Homan, and van Krippenberg, 2013). As a result, it’s a very useful, ‘free’ tool when it comes to developing and fulfilling our potential. 

Reflection is more powerful than action

Dewey (1933:78): “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.” 

What I found fascinating when I dug a bit deeper into the research is that reflection can actually help us learn and improve our behaviour more than experience itself (if we already have some experience in that area). One research study described the phenomena using the example of a surgeon: 

“Consider for an instance a cardiac surgeon in training. She has completed ten operations under the eye of an instructor. It is in everyone’s interest for the cardiac surgeon to get better as fast as possible. Imagine she was given a choice in planning her agenda for the next two weeks. She could spend that time doing ten additional surgeries, or she could take the same amount of time alternating between a few additional surgeries and time spent reflecting on them to better understand what she did right or wrong.” (Stefano et al., 2014)

While time spent reflecting takes her away from actually ‘doing’ surgery and helping the unit she works in, it is more effective than working the additional hours in the operating theatre to her professional development.  In other words, if we actually pause and take time to consider what we’re doing it improves our performance more quickly than ploughing on and just doing. This, to me, is amazing. It’s an example of slowing down to speed up.  

The brain

Scientists have shown that this works with the way our brain naturally functions. If we engage in deliberate reflection the brain has an enhanced ability to develop our cognitive (i.e. thinking and problem solving) abilities (Immordino-Yang, Christodoulou, and Singh, 2012).  We begin to understand the task better and we also improve our confidence in being able to carry out the task. 

Beyond improved performance there are many other benefits. For example, reflection:  

  • helps us process worries and concerns in a constructive way
  • makes us notice things that are draining us or causing us problems which means we can move away from the toxic things in our life
  • reminds us of what we really want to do and where we want to head
  • helps us to make sense of our own and other people’s actions
  • allows us to work out where we thrive, what we’re good at and what we love most, meaning we can plan to spend more time focussed on them
  • allows us to identify and work through psychological blockers which may be holding us back 
  • enables us to learn from mistakes more effectively helping us not to repeat the same thing again
  • means we can recognise and then celebrate our small successes
  • helps us to keep things in perspective 
  • provides us with a greater level of clarity over who we are and what we’re about

Reflection in practice

If you look into the biography of any of the worlds’ greatest leaders and minds, reflection was part of their daily or at least weekly routine. Take for example Benjamin Franklin who would conclude everyday with reflection or Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Einstein, Tchaikovsky, Maya Angelou to name but a few others. 

What does deliberate reflection look like?

While reflection can be a more passive behaviour (i.e. looking back and realising how much time has passed) the type of reflection needed to boost our capabilities requires more conscious involvement. Researchers have found the most helpful way to reflect in order to learn and improve performance is to ‘attend to our feelings’ (it’s important that this is as an observation of what we felt not an analysis which can take us down an unhelpful introspective route), evaluate the experience and how effectively we think we performed, ask ourself questions and where necessary reframe experiences with the specific purposes of improving how we do things.

How does this work in practice? 

There are a number of different ways of approaching this but really it’s up to you to find what works best for you and your life. Here are a few ideas to get you started.  

Reflection on the go. You may want to incorporate reflection into daily activities when you’re driving, running, taking a shower or even as a distraction when you’re annoyed about something at work. Simple questions to ask yourself when you’re out and about may include ‘What went well in the last day or week? What did not go well in the last day or week and why? What can I do differently?’

Written reflection. You may choose to take time each evening or weekend to write down your thoughts, reflections, feelings. You could do this on a notepad, a computer, tablet or even record your voice. You could even write it into a blog or an Instagram post if that helps. The point is to choose a method that works for you and when reflecting make a conscious effort to find patterns, make connections, think constructively about what has happened and take learnings from it. 

Learning Journal. You may want to capture your reflections in a journal. You can write in free text or if you prefer a bit of structure you may find it helpful to divide the page into two columns, writing the description of what happened in the first column and a more critical reflection in the second e.g. What worked? What didn’t? Why? How did that make me feel? Have I come across this situation before and did I feel the same way? How could I improve or do things differently? What’s stopping me from doing the things I set out to?

Talking about your thoughts and reflections. Sharing them verbally with a friend will help you process them. You can also get feedback from a friend on how you see things as opposed to how they see things. This will help to make sure that you’re not skewing your reflections with an overly positive or negative bias and allow you to think through the actions you might want to take in response to your reflections. 

Whichever approach you use it’s helpful to write out or explain the lessons learnt and plan for how you’re going to do something in the future. Although reflecting is more powerful than doing, you still need to try out what you want to do differently to find out what works and what doesn’t and then adjust your behaviour accordingly (following a little more reflection). 

Reflection could be considered a dying art given the fast paced and immediate world we live in, but given the richness it provides us with and the opportunity to perform more optimally, it really is worth making the time and space for it in your life. 

References – to come

Photo – pexels.com

Guest Blog – In Memory of Ann Elizabeth Hemmings

My dear friend Liz who I met when I did my undergrad at Warwick University wrote this piece about her Mum. She (Liz) doesn’t remember but I stayed with her at her home one holiday sharing her bed because she was struggling so much with not sleeping and missing her Mum. The reason she doesn’t remember is because that’s how painful grief is. This piece is by her in tribute to her Mum on what would have been the month of a special birthday. She was only 45 when she died. The rest – is from Liz……

This February would have been my mum’s 70th birthday. When I imagine her as a 70 year old, I’m certain there would be little difference; for one thing her hair would still be a new colour each month! I want to mark the birthday that should have been, to express the pain and joy that thinking of her brings. I wrote this piece seven years ago, and the journey brought me great comfort. For all those who have felt the desolation of bereavement, I hope it brings you comfort too.

I was eighteen when my mum died. Before her funeral my step-dad gave away everything she owned. His crushing grief was of course responsible for what he did, but the cause could not alter the result: all that remained of her was gone. There was nothing left for me to see, touch or smell. Even the bowl of her nick naks, kept by the telephone for years, was donated to the charity shop. As with the contents of that small bowl, which I can no longer recollect, memories of my mother’s image and more profoundly of who she was and how we were together, have begun to fade into my subconscious over the years, as if they were disappearing into quicksand. 

That there has been no one to share my grief has added to my struggle to truly remember my mum. With the exception of my step dad and my dad (my parents divorced when I was three), no one in my present life ever knew her, and neither of my dads finds themselves able to talk much about her. She had no siblings, same as me. There is no one to remember my mum with, to laugh or to cry over that beloved life. My paternal grandmother, almost one hundred years old and now insensible to the present, often asks me how she is. This one small acknowledgment of my mum once owning a life and creating my own, temporarily warms the cold corners of my body created by her absence. This is the only time she is mentioned or remembered and it is not enough. How is it possible to remember her true likeness then; her absolute essence, when there is nothing left but the whispers of a treasured past buried deep under desolate grief?  

The answer may have now presented itself, finally after eighteen years. In an attempt to distract my grandmother from her illness with memories of a happy past, I discovered, with the thrill of serendipity, boxes of old photographs containing the life of my mother. This discovery has come just in time. My mother has been gone almost as long as I knew her. I find that I can’t even dream about her. I only remember a handful of dreams and in them there is always something dark and portentous; death is waiting in the room with us. The pain of my prolonged bereavement, caused I am sure by the solitude of my grief, is responsible for this I think. So I must take some action, before she fades too far from my memory and I lose the essence of her completely. Perhaps through the discovery of these photographs, and so the rediscovery of her image, I will find a peace that lets me find her again in my dreams; how she truly was and not with the shadow of what is to come darkening every moment of light.

I may not have many of her actual belongings but, like history itself, belongings are perishable. Once they are dislocated from the owner, they can inflict pain when seen and touched in such disassociation. Yet, viewing them in a photograph, in their rightful context, allows the scene to come alive again and so too the person within that scene. If I want to rebuild her life, our life together, then I can use these photographs to rediscover what she wore, the activities she liked, the perfume she wore and so how she smelled even. Remembered objects are no longer dislocated but reclassified through the photographic scene; I am able to take back control of my memories and she is returned to me in a richer form. Her facial expressions are telling of an incomparable personality. These, coupled with the clothes she wore and the objects she owned, spark the memory of occasions from my early life when I saw these things and felt that love first hand. 

The writer, Roland Barthes, describes such emotionally loaded details within an image as the punctum. The punctum attracts you and stays with you; it bruises you. It is not always seen consciously but when it is, it fills the entire picture. Experiencing the punctum is like being wounded. Barthes says, it is, “an element that shoots out of the image like an arrow and pierces me. My delight and my pain.”I experience all of these things as I gaze at an image of my mother standing next to a horse when she was about eight years old. The shape and light of her eyes and the curve of her lips; everything about that expression, even on such a young face, possessing no comprehension of future motherhood, brings her back to me so completely that her presence fills my body like a warm, dancing flame. 

Interestingly, I found that I could not bear to reproduce that photograph here. Somehow the details became lost in the reproduction as I attempted to scan it on to the page. But as I looked at the original image I started to wonder; would the image have ever reproduced truly? I then recalled Barthes having the same feelings when considering the photograph of his mother in the winter garden and to my surprise I found his feelings to be completely valid. As the punctum is essentially personal it can only wound the individual experiencing it. Therefore, the image of my mother with the horse, will only wound me,as it exists only for me. 

As I examined more and more of these old photographs, I realized that I hadn’t known my mother as completely as I’d previously thought. Such images of her before I ever knew her, before she was even a mother, reinforced how history separated us. She had a life before I existed, and not just that, but even after I was born she had an identity other than simply, ‘mother’.

While history often divides us, it can also offer a glimpse of something previously unknown. I only ever saw my mum through a child’s eyes, but looking through these old photographs has allowed me to discover the woman I had never known. The knowledge that I never was, and never will be, an adult with her, with neither of us experiencing that deepened relationship, I began to realise that these images of her other lifewere exactly the clues I needed to piece together who she truly was; to build an understanding of her as a whole individual with a past, present and future, however short the latter turned out to be. She was a daughter, a wife, a mother, a friend, a woman. Through this new ‘knowing’, perhaps I could, at least in part, reconstruct the adult relationship denied to us both by her premature death.

Photography therefore has served a multi faceted purpose in this journey of rediscovering my mum. In the photographs of the woman I knew, I am pricked through the memories they release. I recognise her in them, just as I recognise her in myself when I catch an expression of hers on my own face in the mirror. And in the images that existed before me, I am again reminded of her through traits, which I recognise, and am also delighted by new revelations about her. For it is the punctum again, which allows the viewer to define the life outside of the image. Barthes describes it as a kind of subtle beyond, taking the spectator outside of the photograph’s frame, to the life beyond the moment and identity captured in that particular image. 

Photography then, is capable of so much. It permits consciousness and memory and in my case has begun the vital exploration process of reclaiming the memory of my mum; to prevent her from fading under a blanket of grief that I was unable to work through, as the physical proof of her existence diminished every day. To this has been added the chance to discover, and so to remember, her, in a more complete version. Through exploring these photographs I have accompanied my mum on the journey of her life, and through this journey she has been brought back to the foreground of my memory, almost as if I had pointed a camera’s lens toward my own heart and re focused her presence there.

Ann Elizabeth Hemmings, February 21st1949 – March 7th1994

Groundhog Day

When flicking through Linkedin and twitter do you ever get the feeling that you are being bombarded with the same message over and over again? I do. It struck me first when I was doing my business masters many years ago. I felt like the theories were repeating themselves while being vaguely morphed and renamed to suit the current context. The fact that philosophers such as Lao Tzu uttered words regarding leadership thousands of years ago (e.g. 600BC) that have stood the test of time is case in point:

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

A few years later when I did my MSc in psychology I got the same feeling. While the theories we were learning were adapted and updated the words that resonated centuries before still make sense. Take for example:

 “Ignorance is the root and stem of all evil.” Plato

 “Time is the wisest counselor of all.” Pericles

 And the one perhaps most relevant to today:

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” Socrates

It makes sense that these still make sense. After all people are people and the human brain has evolved very little (if at all) over the centuries, so the fundamentals of good leadership, behaviour, citizenship remain largely unchanged. What threatened people centuries ago will threaten today, what motivated then will motivate today. The difference in 2019 is the environment we live in. The rate of change itself  and the volume of data we have to deal with is increasing exponentially. As a result those fundamentals of behaviour once central to people’s way of life are getting lost in an onslaught of fads and surface level demands

What the 21st century also brings is the ability to research what works and what doesn’t, an improving capability to look at the brain (which often helpfully confirms what we have thought to be true and dismisses the theories sitting on the peripheries) and centuries of experience on which to draw. And yet we don’t.

Surely we should return to those fundamentals that have been uttered over thousands of years, resisting the need to continually rename and reframe which simply leads to  concepts becoming diluted into a myriad of un-actionable ideas. Shouldn’t we instead refine and build on what has been ‘evidenced’ to be true, adapting only in order to meet the demands of the world we live in. It’s a bit like remodelling a house to keep it up to date, rather than knocking it down and building it from scratch every few years. When it comes to behaviour taking this approach would allow us to advance our understanding both as individuals in order to really leverage our potential, and as a society.

What could you do to help this and to help yourself?

  • Check your sources. Is the information you’re taking on board from a well-meaning idea junky or something that’s properly tried and tested through either the passage of time or scientific research. What do I mean? Well take meditation – a technique that has been passed down through generations with benefits now backed by scientific research. Today we have hundreds of mindfulness apps to choose from. Some are based on proper research and knowledge (e.g. Headspace) which help people to actually learn how to meditate and progress their mental robustness.  Others are just nice to listen to but really don’t do much. It’s really important to find out whether what you are using works otherwise it’s just like throwing mud at the wall to see what sticks.

 

  • Understand what’s core to who you are as a human (i.e. here the same philosophical texts and the functioning of the brain is true for all of us). Everyone is trying to come up with something new, a different angle to try and get themselves heard – but if you capture the key principles, you can filter the information coming at you. This will allow you to pull out what is truly useful (using the techniques above), what is actually new and what will really help underpin a positive life.

 

  • Capture what’s core to you as a unique individual. While your preferences, goals, and areas for growth will morph and evolve through your life – your values, personality, natural strengths, narrative and purpose will remain more stable and consistent. So, it’s worth capturing these. You may think that they’re obvious but we forget them and without having them front of mind it’s easy to lose our way and impossible to perform at our best.

 

My book Defining You is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

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The Sisters

I was recently asked to write for ‘The Sisters’ magazine by the wonderful and truly amazing around the world rower Roz Savage. Here’s what I said…..

Over the course of my career I’ve worked as a psychologist with leaders from all walks of life. I love my work, and I’ve always had a deep-seated desire to share what I’ve learnt with a wider audience which has become a large part of my life’s mission. My starting point was writing Defining You, a book which shares the tools and insights I’ve gained from my work and garnered from psychologists across the world with people across the world. In this article, I wanted to share with you a snapshot of what makes female leaders successful and how that could help you.

As a psychologist, I’m often asked if I see differences between the sexes. What I’ve observed is that women, more or less without exception, have higher levels of self-doubt than men. Yet female leaders also tend to be the feistiest of their peer group. Hearing the life stories of hundreds of women, I’ve learnt of exceptional grit: the girl who at school stood up against the bully in spite of the repercussions on her own life or the girl who refused to let dire circumstances prevent her from fulfilling her intellectual capability. Many of these gutsy and spirited girls go on to make it to the top of their field as women. Women who, nevertheless, still have a lower self-esteem than men. So, where does that leave the rest of us? How do we fulfil our potential?  Do we have to develop a cast-iron sense of will and capability to stand up against the odds?

Not at all. While those women who do ‘succeed’ in leadership may not fit the norm, they don’t necessarily tower above other women in terms of confidence. What they do have is an accurate level of self-awareness. I say accurate because this is something we women tend to get wrong, focussing more on our weaknesses than our strengths. While it may seem counterintuitive to know your strengths and not be self-confident, they are separate entities. So, it’s worth understanding yourself better as it can help you get to wherever it is you want to go.

Reflecting on our strengths can feel uncomfortable and is an area that women often struggle with. When we’re good at something, there is a tendency for it to just feel like it’s ‘something we do’ – that there’s nothing special about it. Because it comes easily to us, we don’t realise that it’s not something that everyone can do. We also often move away from these things, focussing on what we’re not doing well or even what we don’t like or enjoy, rather than celebrating what we’re good at. As a result, we don’t make the most of our strengths and can end up going down the wrong path.

As a personal example, I loved psychology and studied it at university. I also had an interest in business, so I did a business Masters. Then I made the mistake of doing what I thought was the ‘best next step’ – joining a business consultancy, which didn’t make use of my natural strengths or interests. As I gradually became more miserable, I realised I had to leave. I went back to university to become a Chartered Psychologist. Now I love what I do and although I have self-doubts, if I hadn’t pursued this career, I wouldn’t have been able to help all the people I have, I wouldn’t have written a book that I hope will help even more people, and I wouldn’t have been able to focus on giving back. Instead I would have been a ‘reasonable’ management consultant, not an exceptional one, not fully making use my natural strengths, and not very happy. I don’t hold myself up as a gleaming example, but this gives you a flavour of what I mean.

Of course, it’s important to know what we’re not so good at, where we can grow and develop, and what to watch out for in terms of tendencies that can trip us up. But that doesn’t mean we throw ourselves headlong into something that goes totally against the grain. When it comes to ‘weaknesses’ it’s important to initially identify the things we need to be aware of and that may never change. For example, I have a tendency to burst with ideas when I’m talking to people. Consequently, I often butt in or speak over others in my excitement. This for me is a crucial behaviour that I need to be aware of. I’ve tried to change it, but I can’t, so I accept it as part of who I am and am very conscious of managing it. Next, it’s about looking at which expertise to develop in order to do what we love. For example, to do psychology I had to go back to university. Then, and this can be the hardest part, it’s knowing what to leave behind. For me that was trying to be a good management consultant which was just never going to fit with who I truly am.

Some of these questions may help you think through your own passions and strengths, and help you identify areas for development:

  • Do you still love doing the same things that you got lost in for hours in as a child? Maybe you haven’t engaged with those things for years or you could use them in different ways now.

  • Which jobs and responsibilities have you most loved and most hated?

  • What is working well for you in your current life and career? What do you find fulfilling, meaningful, enjoyable, and important? What drains you, makes you stressed and anxious, or wastes your time?

  • What are the tendencies you have that you don’t think will ever change? How can you be more aware of them and stop them from getting in your way?

  • What do you need to develop in order to do what you want? How will you do that?

Talking to a friend to explore who you are may help. Be open-minded, curious, and enjoy. Choose your path, leverage your strengths, and reach for the stars!

 

Links:

https://www.thesisters.global/single-post/2019/01/25/Leveraging-Your-Strengths

My book Defining You is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

 

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Why make new year’s resolutions? – you’ll never do them!

New year’s resolutions should be no different to the goals we make at any time of year in order to move closer to who we want to be, how we want to operate and what we want to achieve. The problem is, as soon as its new year we all go a bit mad and create a long list of things that we feel will appease us from the sins of Christmas and New Year. Inevitably we then fail and feel rubbish about ourselves as a result. The reason is, making goals at any time needs to fulfil certain behavioural considerations. I hate the term but they really do need to be ‘SMART’ otherwise they just won’t work. So, for those who are making resolutions, I thought this extract from my book may help. Good luck and happy 2019!!

Key points to consider before you start:

  • Don’t try to change too many behaviors at once. It just won’t work, and the sense of failure you will inevitably feel as a result could prevent you from living out your purpose effectively.
  • The changes you are aiming to make should take you out of your comfort zone and stretch you, but shouldn’t push you to extreme discomfort. It’s better to take smaller, successful steps than a giant leap.
  • Pick the things that you feel intrinsically motivated to work on (as opposed to doing it because you feel you ought to or someone else has told you to).

The headings below are the areas you should consider with each resolution you set. The italics provide an example of what sort of thing you may want to write.

Goal: Becoming more empathic.

The more specific you can be, the easier it will be to fill out the remainder of the plan so this may be expanded to:

I’m going to work on my empathy to become better at relating to other people when I’m feeling stressed and under pressure.

What will success look like and what will the positive outcomes be?
Becoming a more effective influencer and forming more positive relationships.

What obstacles may I come up against and what can I do about them?
Internal obstacles e.g., feeling demotivated, having self-doubt, fear, anger, anxiety. Frustration and impatience. Action to overcome: create a trigger that reminds me to take a step back

External obstacles e.g. lack of money, lack of time, lack of skills, health constraints.
Need to gain skills in the area of communicating more effectively.

Which strengths can I make use of to help me?

Interest in other people
Ability to listen
Desire to grow as a person

Action and by when? How can I break down my goal into smaller steps, how can I action those steps, and when by?
Take the overall area for goal and make it into something that you can carry out a step at a time. It’s very important to make your actions ‘time-bound,’ setting a day, date, and even a time for each of them where you can.

  1. Make sure that I am consciously listening to people at least once a day. Start doing this in my first meeting of the day from tomorrow and continue for two months, until March 3rd.
  2. Show empathic curiosity, really try to understand what the other person is saying and putting myself in their shoes. Continue doing step 1 and from March 3rdbuild in step 2 once a day for two months, until May 3rd.
  3. Go on a communication and influencing course by July 2019.
  4. Bring the understanding I get from the course into my everyday communications—continue with steps 1 and 2 and build the information into the company presentations I’m doing on August 31, thinking through how best to get the message across so that people can connect with it.

What will my review mechanism be?

You need to know how you’re doing against your specific goals, otherwise you don’t know how close or far away you are from achieving them. Measuring behavior change can be tricky, but there are some simple methods you can use, like rating yourself, asking for feedback, and logging progress.

  • Check I’ve completed the actions above by the specified date.
  • Ask for feedback from people who work with me.
  • Make a log in my diary of the interactions I have every day.
  • Rate myself out of 10 in terms of how I think I’m progressing.

 

TIPS TO HELP

  • Create reminders: reminder for your specific actions somewhere that you will see frequently, e.g., on your daily to-do list, in your diary, an alarm on your phone. This is a small but critical step – the difference between making something happen and just thinking about it.
  • Create a cue: tie the actions into something you do every day, e.g., if your goal is to start flossing your teeth, use brushing your teeth as a reminder.
  • Reward yourself: every time you achieve success, however small. The reward should be something that will really provide you with personal satisfaction.
  • Enlist social support: ask a friend, relation, colleague, or even a member of the community to encourage and support you.
  • Persist: repetition is key to making a behavior stick. Research has shown that it can take from 15 to 254 days to truly form a new habit.

 

My book Defining You is available at Waterstones, WHSmiths and Foyles in the UK as well as amazon.co.uk. Elsewhere it’s available on amazon.comamazon.com.au, amazon.ca and in various bookstores in Canada (e.g. Indigo) and the USA.

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Photo Credit: Brooke Lark Unsplash