Category: Self-improvement

Conditional wellbeing

Conditional wellbeing
Feelings of enjoyment should not only follow an act of effort or good behaviour

Do you have a habit of putting your happiness on hold until “something good” happens? Do you say to yourself, “When I buy a house/get married/have a boyfriend/girlfriend/make more money etc., then I will feel good”? If yes, you suffer from what I call conditional wellbeing. Conditional wellbeing is to make good feelings about yourself, the world and other people dependent upon external factors. This approach to life is often at the centre of much of our unhappiness, however, and general discontent. So if it is so unproductive to our emotional health, why do we do it?

I believe that our culture of delayed gratification, as well as our rigid beliefs, have great influence on how we approach our wellbeing on a day-to-day basis. As children, we are often made to believe that good feelings of enjoyment should only follow an act of effort or good behaviour. Parents use rewards to make us do what they want us to do, as in “You can have ice-cream after you have done your homework/tidy up your room”, etc. When such schemes are reinforced through consistent practice, our brains automatically create an association between work and fun, as if we were only entitled to the latter if we did the former.

Our beliefs about “happiness” and “being worthy of feeling good” also interfere with our ability to enjoy ourselves for no reason. What do you usually associate with pleasure and good moments?  Does it tend to involve free time, people and things, eating and drinking? Are you always engaged in some kind of (special) activity when you create this mental picture? If yes, your beliefs about personal wellbeing could be limiting the way you perceive and experience it, making it conditional.

Some people only allow themselves to feel enjoyment after a long day’s work, at the weekend or when away on holiday.  Without noticing, their lives become all about chasing that reward, as if they did not deserve to have it without sacrifice. You need to earn it to enjoy, right? “No pain no gain”, so they say. Those beliefs are, of course, cognitive traps. While they keep you running on that wheel like a deluded hamster, the true satisfaction of living that comes from true, uncompromised self-expression become even more far-fetched.

If you identify with the above, and would like to reconnect with a healthier sense of joy and wellbeing, I suggest the following:

1- Stop over identifying with negative feelings: have you lost touch with life’s little pleasures because you are so focused on the negative? When you only have time for the big fish, life becomes a tedious and unsatisfying waiting game. Try maximising the pleasure that comes from waking up in the morning and having that delicious cup of coffee, or refreshing shower. Anything that gives you a good feeling is worth your attention and can change your experience, moment by moment.

2- Master the art of feeling happy just for being alive: make a point of taking a few moments throughout the day to feel good about being you. To achieve that, show gratitude and appreciation to yourself mentally, while you connect with good feelings in your body. If they do not come up naturally, create them, consciously, and experience them mindfully for a couple of minutes.

3- Drop the perfectionism: challenge thinking that revolves around “If I…, I would…” and “When I…, I will…” and start valuing yourself for who you are and not who you “should have been” in an unfortunate past, or “could be” in an idealised future. The same applies to the people and material things you convinced yourself you should have in order to feel happy. Tell yourself you are worth happiness and joy, right at this moment. When you genuinely feel that way, you attract good things, effortlessly.

How to accept negative emotions

How to accept negative emotions
Mental health is all about emotional connection and acceptance

Mental health is all about emotional connection and acceptance. Our habit of judging and neglecting negative emotions, as well as our obsession with controlling them, often makes us more unhappy and unbalanced. If you are tired of fighting against yourself and the way you feel, and would like to rebuild a healthier relationship with your emotions, here is how to accept negative emotions:

1- Connect with the body

Emotions are expressed in the body. Therefore, anyone who wishes to fully connect with their emotions does so, primarily, through a reconnection with the body. You can achieve that through exploring bodily sensations such as those of tension and lightness. If you struggle to identify emotions, exploring your bodily sensations will give you a good sense of the impact your own thoughts and experiences have on you.

2- Become consciously aware of the presence of negative emotions

Instead of diverging your focus away from negative emotions or doing your utmost to repress or control them, become fully aware of their presence. You can do that by moving your attention towards them and creating a mental map of where they are felt in the body through direct observation of their intensity and movement, as well as the effect they have on you.

3- Observe them without judgement

Most of us were raised in a culture of emotional neglect in which “negative” emotions are thought to be an inconvenience that should be dealt with as soon as possible. Such attitude tends to be unproductive, however, since it has the potential of creating an even bigger problem. Avoiding, denying or repressing negative emotions are dysfunctional behaviours that often lead to emotional and physical problems. To prevent that from happening, just let them let them be and resist the urge to do something about them.

4- Validate their right to exist

Because all emotions are part of us, when we deny their wisdom and value, openly rejecting them through repression, avoidance or denial, we do so to the detriment of our own selves. Even when they do not seem coherent at first glance, they have a right to be brought to awareness. Every time you recognise a negative emotion with openness and respect, you become whole and complete in yourself.

5- Befriend your body

To become more tolerant of negative emotions, it is essential that you see your body as a friend. Self-love and acceptance is only viable through a strong alliance with our whole selves, mind and body. To befriend your body, change your beliefs about “negative” bodily sensations and emotions by regarding them as normal expressions of the self. Seeing them as fleeting also helps you approach them with patience, understanding and kindness.

The benefits of focusing your attention on emotions go beyond emotional regulation and wellbeing, but also help enhance your concentration abilities and regulate impulsive behaviour. To get the most out of the above, be mindful of how you feel and do what you can to remind yourself to think and act differently when worrying excessively or feeling anxious.

Understanding negative emotions: anger

Despite enabling us to identify our needs and act in our best interest, anger is a misunderstood emotion. Because we tend to see anger in all-or-nothing terms, it is often perceived as a dysfunctional emotional expression. While anger tends to be connected to relationship problems and even abuse, it is not at all times experienced in its extreme form or linked to irrational behaviour. Anger also comes in a wide range of feelings and intensities, each with its own function and message, some of which are very powerful and motivational. To help you gain a greater understanding and respect for you anger, this article is dedicated to exploring it in detail.

Understanding negative emotions: anger
Anger is a sign that we feel wronged by something or someone

The role of anger

Be it in its passive or more active form, anger is a sign that we feel wronged by something or someone. When angry, we are reacting to an attack – real or imaginary – to our self-esteem, which leads us to feeling rejected, ignored, isolated, hurt or criticised. Anger also works as to give us back what we have lost from that (perceived) violation, namely, the respect and love for our own selves. Furthermore, anger is there to help us regain a sense of control over ourselves, as well as the negative emotions that surround it, such as sadness and fear. For that reason, anger also helps us regulate feelings of inadequateness.

Feelings related to anger

Frustration, irritation, resentment, annoyance and rage, for instance, are all forms of anger. When we are exposed to a great threat to our self-esteem for a long period, anger may be felt in its highest intensity and turn into hatred.

How anger is felt in the body

Like fear, an angry reaction is triggered by the amygdala. When we become angry, our brain prepares us to fight an enemy or flight the scene. As you will notice on the below list, the bodily sensations associated with anger are also the ones we tend to experience when taken by fear, another emotion connected to the fight or flight response:

  • Fast heartbeat
  • Short breathing
  • Increased body temperature and blood pressure
  • Armouring (tense muscles, especially back and neck)
  • Headache
  • Stomach ache
  • Clenching the jaw and grinding teeth
  • Shaking, trembling
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness

Adaptive and maladaptive anger

Adaptive anger is like any other negative feeling that is experienced in a functional manner. When we experience anger healthily, it lets us know that something is not right and, then, it fades away after a little while (on average, 20 minutes). In that sense, healthy anger is productive, because it serves a specific purpose at a particular point in time, so it is short-lived and context dependant. That type of anger also directs our focus to change, or helps us start contemplating it. When we are stuck with maladaptive anger, however, it is neither felt nor regulated in that fashion, but it tends to last longer (build-up anger) or shorter than needed to create awareness and motivate us to act, or it is used as a sole means for regaining a sense of power and safety. Our failure to process and deal with the problems highlighted by our anger – when it arises – might result in behavioural, physical and mental health problems, such as relationship difficulties, migraine headaches and depression.

What your anger says about you

The anger warning reminds you that your needs are not being met. The nature of those needs may vary, from feeling loved and valued, to emotionally balanced, in control or safe.  Anger highlights vulnerability and feelings of powerlessness, like a reminder of our limitations as individuals. Therefore, we feel angry when we cannot meet our goals for happiness and wellbeing. When our core beliefs are too rigid and do not match objective reality, we feel let down and angry, not only at ourselves, but at others and even life itself.  The relationship we have with our anger – be it by repressing it or becoming reactive and acting out – is also connected to a history of unresolved childhood trauma.

Before rushing to judge, deny or hide your angry feelings, check in with yourself and try asking the following questions:

  • What needs have I got that are not being met?
  • What feelings of inadequacy may my anger be masking?
  • Is my anger productive or maladaptive?

By understanding your anger and registering its message, you start building a healthier relationship with it and yourself, so that all that energy that it so effectively triggers can also be directed to learning, better relationships and personal growth.

3 facts about core beliefs that will make you reassess your own

3 facts about core beliefs that will make you reassess your own
Core beliefs not only reflect our history, but also help define it

We organise information about ourselves, the world and other people through core beliefs. Core beliefs are cognitive units of knowledge that allow us to make sense of reality in a way that is coherent with our perspective. They affect how we interpret and store information that is processed by our senses, as well as our feelings and behaviours in relation to it. As they are a product of culture, the environment and the quality of our experience and the relationships we have had over the years, core beliefs not only reflect our history, but also help define it. Because they are so hugely influential on the way we think, feel, relate to others and lead our lives, expanding your knowledge about them can be a productive exercise. To help you achieve just that, here are 3 facts about core beliefs that will make you reassess your own:

1- Core beliefs are often unrelated to objective reality

Because you feel strongly about something, it does not mean it reflects an accurate approach or evaluation. In fact, strong convictions are supported by rigid beliefs. Those beliefs, in turn, are deeply connected to our experience and subjective perspective. Experience is then given significance by emotions, which play a big part in convincing us of the “veracity” of something, even when there is little or no concrete proof to validate it. We are able to observe that process in practice, when we are quick to agree with or reject something or someone without further deliberation. When it comes to making a decision or formulating judgement, the quicker and more automatic your reactions, the more subjective, intuitive and emotional.

2- Core beliefs are stored in the “emotional brain”

Core beliefs are stored in the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system. The amygdala is responsible for behavioural and emotional reactions such as anger, fear and responding to stressful situations (fight or flight response), as well as encoding, storing and retrieving memories of events that define our personal experience. Those memories – loaded with emotional significance – are what shape our core beliefs about ourselves, the world and others. When we take into consideration subjective perspective, our past predicts the future. Core beliefs reflect that principle accurately, since they tend to remain rigid throughout an individual’s development, and are indifferent to the changes he or she experiences. For that reason, a single or multiple traumatic events in childhood have the potential to define one’s view of himself or herself as an incompetent and unlovable adult, for instance, and remain unchanged for many years after their occurrence.

3- Core beliefs are at the root of mental health problems

As core beliefs are formed in childhood and are of an inflexible nature, they are prone to filtering information in an extremely biased and often irrational manner. Depression and anxiety sufferers, as well as trauma victims, for instance, tend to hold a very negative view of themselves, the world and others. Individuals who believe not to be good enough and, therefore, are terrified of “looking silly” and being judged by others in social interactions are highly likely to develop anxiety problems. When that anxiety becomes unbearable, they may feel the need to isolate from social contact, a dysfunctional behaviour which is also at the heart of depression. Similarly, trauma victims whose core beliefs about emotions are centred on denial are naturally resistant to approaching their own suffering honestly and proactively. That tendency compromises their ability to manage the effects of trauma in the long term, which may result in debilitating and life changing mental health issues, such as addictions and eating disorders.

If you suspect that your core beliefs are interfering with your psychological and emotional wellbeing, it is worth taking some time to reassess them. To evaluate whether they enhance or hinder your self-esteem, as well as personal growth and development, check in with yourself every time you feel a change in your mood. Ask yourself, “What was I thinking just now?” and analyse your automatic thoughts as objectively as you can. What do they say about the views you hold about yourself, the world and others? What is the tone of the rules, attitudes and assumptions that guide your thinking and behaviour? Are they too strict or flexible? Do they reflect a compassionate or overtly critical perspective?

How to improve emotional health in 2018

How to improve emotional health in 2018
A healthy sense of self can only be perceived through feeling

Learning how to build a healthy relationship with yourself is all about developing emotional awareness and respect. In order for you to feel whole, it is vital that you learn how to listen, validate and regulate your own emotions.  A healthy sense of self can only be perceived through feeling, be it negative or positive, or an ambivalent combination of both. Since there is no means of learning or even becoming ourselves without it, the value of our emotional health should not be underestimated. If you are determined to live a more fulfilling and pleasant existence, here is how to improve emotional health in 2018:

Become more emotionally aware

There is no better way to become more emotionally aware than simply taking the time to notice how you feel. If you are not able to identify your own emotions with the help of your intellect, direct your attention back to the body. Bodily sensations can often tell you what your brain sometimes struggles to explain through words. How does it feel to be you in this particular moment? Scan your body from head to toe – especially the regions that are prone to registering emotional disturbance, such as the stomach, chest, neck, shoulders and forehead – and analyse what is there. Do you feel a lightness or heaviness in those parts? Is your breathing short or deep? Are those regions relaxed or tense? What can they tell you about your needs and emotional state?

Respect negative emotions

Feeling whole is not viable without emotional congruence. Contrary to popular belief, emotional neglect is not an effective way of dealing with emotions, but a dysfunctional coping strategy that only leads to unhappiness, as well as mental health and relationship problems. If you feel uncomfortable, inadequate, sad or anxious, there is, most likely, a good reason for it. Even if your feelings are dysregulated, exaggerated or do not seem to reflect reality, that in itself is information of a potential mental health issue that needs your attention. Life and self-improvement are unattainable when you ignore or try to repress negative emotions. Being attentive to what is not a good fit and stands in the way of personal contentment, growth and development is a clever attitude for those who want to empower themselves through feeling.

Learn how to self-regulate

Validating your emotions does not mean being completely at their mercy. There are times that they have to be to dealt with and not only felt. Learning how to self-soothe and control your emotions independently is true autonomy. Not dealing with your feelings consciously and proactively often leads to addictions and other mental health problems. In order to deal with negative emotions healthily, motivate yourself and be creative. There is no fixed recipe for relaxation and well-being, since as individuals; we experience emotions in our own unique ways. Discover what works for you and fits your personality through exploring new ways of finding inner peace, be it through exercise, physical activity, relaxation or breathing exercises, meditation, reading, dancing, taking a hot bath, etc.

Seek emotional support

Life is often also made of stressful and even traumatic events that may be difficult to deal with emotionally. If you feel overwhelmed and nothing seems to ease your pain or anxiety, it may be time to seek the help of a mental health professional. There is no shame in feeling vulnerable and in need of a fresh perspective. Most of us go through tough times in our lives, even when we are too proud or ashamed to admit it. If you feel the need and have the means to go see a counsellor, I highly recommend it, especially if you do not feel comfortable talking about your feelings with others or were raised by emotionally neglectful parents. Therapy can be a productive environment in where to learn new problem-solving skills and coping strategies, which become yours for life.

The festive period might not be a cheerful time to everyone, but it has the potential to incite a feeling for positive change in a lot of us. If you “have had enough” of feeling demotivated and empty inside, following the above may help you reconnect with the whole of you, including those parts that have been neglected. To honour who you are in 2018, let go of beliefs about feelings that rob us from our humanity, or the ability to feel and connect with ourselves, others and the world around us. After all, being emotionally healthy is nothing that requires super extraordinary powers, but an honest and open attitude to interacting with the inner and outer world through feelings.

5 signs you were raised by emotionally neglectful parents

Every single emotion we feel, be it negative or positive, has its purpose. Negative emotions tell us when something is not quite right with our bodies. Like positive emotions, they help us interpret information and connect us to our inner and outer worlds. While negative emotions are highly sophisticated alarms that let us know when to move, act or think so to protect ourselves, positive emotions direct our focus to what we like and is important to us. Overall, emotions not only makes us human, but also help us grow and develop, as well as become who we truly are.

5 signs you were raised by emotionally neglectful parents
If you struggle to feel whole and connected, you might have been raised by emotionally neglectful parents

Despite its obvious relevance to the maintenance of our physical and mental health, our culture promotes a mentality of repression, denial and even rejection of emotions, especially when negative. We are taught already from an early age – even without direct instruction – to do what we can to supress anger and sadness, for instance, as if they were something to be “managed” and not felt. Our parents learn from their parents how not to address emotional states so not to upset them, and with time become intolerant of their very own negative emotions. When they have children of their own, they feel easily uncomfortable or lost when exposed to their suffering, anger or other feelings of inadequateness, often choosing not to accept or even acknowledge their existence and purpose.

If you struggle to feel whole and connected, be it with your emotions, with what you do, with your own body, self or others, you might have been raised in an environment of emotional neglect. To find out if that could be the case, here are 5 signs you were raised by emotionally neglectful parents:

1- You perceive most negative emotions as purposeless

You are judgemental concerning negative feelings. You see the ones who honour them as weak, temperamental, volatile or irrational. You think that everyone, including yourself, should make their utmost to be “pleasant” and exercise total control over their emotions, as if negative feelings, especially, were wild animals that should be tamed at all costs. You equate intelligence and strength to such “qualities” and emotional awareness and wholeness to vulnerabilities.

2- You find it difficult to tolerate emotional discomfort

If frustration, stress or anxiety suddenly befalls you, you do what you can to deal with such feelings as fast as possible. According to your belief, negative emotions should be extinguished immediately. You achieve that mainly via dissociation, self-medication, denial or avoidance, or through any other quick fix or diversion that makes you feel instantly better. Your reactions to other people’s negative emotional states are as straightforward as your own. If you happen to notice what is going on around you, you find it easier to pretend unawareness or not get directly involved. When dodging them becomes impossible, you downplay the importance of others’ negative feelings with polite but shallow comments, or with the help of platitudes and a stoic attitude. In some cases, you might even feel irritated by their supposed inability to deal with them as “effectively” as you do.

3- You rationalise your emotions

Because you fail to recognise the value of emotions, you use reason alone to justify and explain behaviour. “Plausible” reasoning motivates everything you do, and never an emotion such as insecurity, unhappiness or fear. You left that job not because the work environment made you super anxious to the point you could not sleep at night, but because “it was not a good fit”. You decide to stay in that broken relationship because deep down you cannot even envision the idea of being alone, but to yourself and others it is because “you invested in it for so long”. Anything reasonable enough so that you and those around you never associate how you act on the outside, with how vulnerable you truly feel on the inside.

4- You struggle to connect emotionally with others

Naturally, the distance you keep from your own emotions also makes it difficult for you to communicate how you feel. When you are required to express them, you struggle. That is because the tendency of explaining your behaviour without ever linking it to emotions, be it in relation to your own acts or others’, creates and aura of detachment in which emotional connection becomes virtually impossible. Relationships suffer in such scenarios, regardless of their nature. Loving relationships, particularly, are hard to be kept healthy without emotional closeness and intimacy. In the long term, emptiness and loneliness tend to take their toll, pushing decisions and actions into a new direction. The result of such reassessment is often high resentment and thoughts of separation.

5- You do not feel understood or validated

Even without noticing it, you are betrayed by your own beliefs concerning emotions. The need for being seen, heard, loved and understood will not go away just because you made an effort to invalidate your emotions and supress their expression. We also exchange information about ourselves through feelings, and not only through language. How can anyone recognise and even address your needs when you yourself is reluctant to acknowledge and accept them? Neglecting your emotions, especially when negative, does not favour you or your relationships, but it only turns you into an unavailable automaton.

Even if you have identified with some or all of the above, you can still change the relationship you keep with yourself, and, consequently, the ones you nurture with others. Respecting and honouring your emotions by allowing yourself to feel will give you a renewed sense of self, one that is more balanced and in harmony with your own body. Everyone can learn invaluable lessons from emotions, as well as benefit from their wisdom. To reconnect emotionally, start monitoring how you feel with honesty and an open mind. Do not give into the temptation to rationalise or deal with them as quickly as possible, but stay with them for a while. Then notice what happens, if they linger or fade away by themselves. What are they trying to tell you? Have you taken the time to consider the real implications of ignoring them? What can you learn from them?