Connection

Express your truth

2017.11.27 PSS blog image - Express your truth.jpg

Surely you’re over being told that. I am and can’t really believe I’m about to write about it, but I’ll tell you why I’m going to to do just that … it’s because the easiest and hands-down most effective way to create content, and content that actually engages people, is to find your truth, and then practice expressing it.

I know, I see you with the eye-rolling after reading that first paragraph, and no doubt I’ve lost some of you by now, but I wouldn’t be writing it if I didn’t think it was true and worth thinking about.

On one hand, it sounds so easy and basic, there’s a tendency to ignore it. Like, yeah, yeah, got it. Yep, heard that, already know it, read it before, 10,000 times in fact, and have definitely earned the right to now ignore it. 

Yes, that was me too. It makes so much sense, it’s easy to trivialise and disregard. I do it too, and yet, as a content creator for my own brand and others, it’s something I’m starting to realise is more of a fundamental content creation skill (and being a proper human being online skill) than just a throw-away, woo-woo, content fodder line.

Because actually doing it can be surprisingly tricky. I mean for a start, you have to know what your “truth” is, right? And even if you know that, why does it matter to anyone else anyway? Besides, on top of everything else, it then takes courage and guts to express that stuff, doesn’t it?

But here’s the thing; it’s not actually all that hard, but it does take practice and it does make content a lot easier to produce and a lot more engaging. In fact, in that way, it’s a lot like the effects of meditation on life.

On the surface meditating, that is, in essence, not thinking, or letting thoughts go without getting ‘involved’, is both extremely simple, and yet something that takes a lot of practice to master. It’s worth it though because even if you’re not that great at it (who’s judging anyway except for you?!), the practice itself is good for you. Just practicing it makes you feel better.

It’s the same thing with your truth and the content that expresses that - it takes practice, but the practice itself is good for you. It’s not an end-game thing, it’s the journey. And when you practice expressing your truth, you’ll get better and better and expressing it, whatever the subject at hand is.

The truth is that we’re communicating and connecting more often and with a far more diverse variety of people than ever before because of the channels and conduits available to us. Therefore we’re all having to evolve so that we can work out what’s relevant to us and what’s not. With so much choice and so much information, so much content, the way we’re getting really good at coping with it all is by finding what really lights us up, resonates and connects deeply. We look for something personal, we want real people, real connection.

Information is gigantuous, overwhelming - it’s too much and at the same time, not enough. We need to step back into our human instincts to make sense of it all, to filter what we’ll take in and what we’ll ignore. And our instincts are emotional. We sum people up on gut feelings, in the blink of an eye, and we do the same with content and information.

Your truth, who you really are, and what’s actually important to you is the way you connect with people. It’s in the subtle things you say and nuances in how you say them. It’s the stuff that lights you up. It’s the things that don’t change no matter who you’re talking to, what business you’re in or why you’re creating content. It’s also in the things that make you stand out, the things that are truly unique, and the things that can never be copied.

Yes, it does take some practice, no, actually, it’s an ongoing practice, like meditation, but one that benefits you unquestionably and one that allows other to connect with your meaningfully, which is, after all, the point of creating content in the first place.

Ok, I hear you say, that all sounds well and good, but how does one actually practice expressing said truth in one’s said content?
 
Here’s an idea - try this;

For the next 2 weeks, create one piece of content every day that’s purely based on expressing your truth, in whatever form that may take.
You don’t have to publish it, or do anything with it at all, just do it.
Make it, say it, write it, record it, paint it, design it - whatever it is, just do it as if no one else will ever see it. Complete freedom, complete privacy.
Just you, what you care about and how you feel like expressing it.

Do this once a day for 2 weeks and see what comes up. Write it in a journal, in Evernote, record your voice, or a video, create draft posts in Facebook or your blog - whatever, just allow yourself to create without constraint. See how it feels, see what comes up - be open and brave and remember that no one’s watching so go for it.

This should be a very revealing and inspiring exercise. You may end up with a heap of content that’s perfect as it is and ready to use. You may end up with recurring themes and ideas that you hadn’t noticed before. You may find that it was the easiest and the best content you’ve ever produced and be wondering why you haven’t done this before. You may even have revealed a slightly new path, opportunity or passion that’s been dying to be given wings.

Go on, try it - what have you got to lose?
Nothing, but you just might come across some well-deserved and really valuable insight.

So if you’re keen to do this and want daily prompts within a community of people doing the same, join the Not Rocket Science Facebook group. No one’s going to make you post your stuff, but it can be really inspiring seeing what comes up for other people on a similar journey.

Also, if you think you might need a bit of a kick-starter for thinking about your truth and your mission, you can download the ‘What’s your mission anyway?’ workbook here.

You can also download my flagship content framework right here. It's a simple visual PDF that shows how to start with your mission, create flagship pieces, align your other and link it all together to create that journey and experience for your audience. ... and it's kinda pretty so you can stick it up where you can see it when you're creating to keep you on track :)

For more about what to write or say, the Stuck For Words blog post gives some suggestions for getting unstuck, and Say What You Want to Say is more riffing along the same tune.


Thanks to Neven Krcmarek for the photo via Unsplash.

Connection is value

Recently I pulled right back from social media and took a break. I felt fried and like my well of creativity had completely dried up - I had nuthin. I don’t think the creativity actually went anywhere, or ceased to exist, it’s just that I think I got so tired that I couldn’t access it anymore. They say that you need to create space to be creative and I wasn’t really. I felt more like I was punching it out on a production line and it wasn’t feeling good.

This was pretty confronting on one hand because I’m a social media marketing person and well, that’s what I do so … But also on the other because I realised that I have a massive fear of not being of value. It might have been a vicious loop - I may have worked a bit too hard to create content constantly out of the fear of not being of value, but in the process, inhibited my ability to be creative and therefore, of value.

Anyway, it got me thinking all the same about creating value and this fear of not, and what value and creativity is anyway. Yep, it all got a bit deep and weird there that week and so I let it be. I thought the thoughts, and stopped striving, and I just pondered and took my time about things. I never really came to any major conclusion, or path-altering bolt of enlightenment, I think I was actually tired and needed a break, but here are the main thought packages;

Connection is the ultimate value

Humans need to connect with other humans, it’s just the way we are. Now that the internet and social media has been around for a while, our use of it is changing. Yes, it can be a noisy, superficial place, but it can also be the source and opportunity of great connection.

When we hear about ‘being of value’ and ‘value marketing’, we’re really hearing about tools and ways of doing things to achieve connection. But the connection is the real value. The free downloads and webinars and special offers and this and that, none of them mean anything unless there’s a connection and all of these things are trying to achieve that.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that at all, but the point is that if you can connect with people just by being yourself, saying hello and asking them how they’re going, then isn’t that value too? I say yes. I reckon that’s actually what we want and again, no problem with all the other stuff, but when you think about it, it’s all just stuff we use to get noticed and to help find the right fit.

The power of connection is when it’s real and personal

I’ve never been a big fan of customer avatars or personas. Yes, I understand fully the theory behind them and I can see they can be of immense value, but I’ve personally never felt motivated or connected to any of the ones I created, until I just copied real people. When there really was a connection and the person was real, then it made a difference. This is what I recommend my clients do when they develop personas for their business, but more to the point, connection is the important bit.

So coming back to value, I think that the real value is connection - it’s what we all crave. And that all the other stuff we call ‘value’ are the flags and streamers we use to get attention so we can have that connection. That’s not the say that there’s no value in the flags and streamers, nor that they don’t serve a purpose, they do. It’s just that we need to connect with real people on a basic human level before we need much of anything else and when we do, that’s how learn and understand for sure that our flags and streamers are the right ones to attract more real connections.

Ok, so that might have seemed like a bit of waff, I am feeling a wee bit more philosophical than usual, but I do believe it whether or not I’ve managed to express it very well. What it means for you and me is that I think we can relax a bit with the flags and streamers knowing that our true value is always and will always be in our ability to connect with other.

 

If that idea resonates with you and you’re keen to connect and enjoy a community that’s all about genuine connections and using social media for the forces of good, come over to the More Fabulous with Friends Facebook group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/morefabulouswithfriends/

Thanks for reading,

Andrea

Tell me again, why exactly is defining your target/audience so critical?

It’s critical because it’s deep and the deeper you can go, the better at providing a service or making a product that not only solves a real problem, but in doing so enables you to make deeper human connections that lead to a sense of identification and belonging, and foster genuine loyalty.

It’s incredibly easy to mistake defining your target market purely as a business function. The thing is, it is a business function and an incredibly, undeniably critical one, but one nonetheless that’s based on human behaviour and emotion. After all, there is no business, no such thing without human behaviour. For all the ideas, products and services in the world, none of them make a business without human behaviour. And human behaviour is governed by relationships and emotion.

The reason it’s so common not to give proper gravity to defining and understanding your market or audience is because business and commerce have become bigger, or seem more important than the underlying drivers. ‘Business’ in that regard has become very corporate, clinical and technical, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be both intimidating and confusing. In small business, we often develop a mindset and expectations that our business is just a smaller version of those big businesses, those corporate players. In some ways that’s true, but one of the dangers of that kind of thinking is that we can overlook the fundamental realities, like actual relationships with customers, for the ticking of boxes on a business plan template.

On this I’m speaking from experience. With a formal education in business and marketing, you would think that I’d know better than to skim over this point, but I did exactly that. I was so keen to get started on doing the work and building my business, that I wrote a few things down, ticked the box, so to speak, and moved on to the ‘real’ stuff. And then it wasn’t long before I got stuck, became lost and confused and had to come back to this fundamental step. The one advantage I had was that I knew what the problem was. Many people won’t and they’l flounder around trying one thing after another, wasting time and energy trying to figure out why nothing seems to be working and why they’re feeling so miffed.

So let me try to explain it this way;

1. All business direction, marketing, branding, positioning and communication is a form of human connection.

Whether it’s a commodity, like selling gravel to construction companies, or a customised consulting service,  the reason customers and clients choose to do business with you is because they perceive your business/product/service to be a good match for whatever their problem is. That is, they’ve made a connection between what they need and what you have to offer.

2. All human connection is a product of the way we feel.

That seems pretty easy to understand for a customised consulting service say, where how we connect or gel with that consultant has a massive impact on how likely we are to engage their services, but the same principle applies to commodity-type products. We have tangible needs that have to be satisfied, like price and speed of delivery, but we also rely on our perceptions for how well we believe our needs are met and the satisfaction of quality. You can tick all the boxes for a great product or service, but if a customer perceives your business to be disorganised and unreliable, then it’s through those eyes their final decision will be made - the way they feel.

3. The way we feel about a brand/product/service is determined by the way we experience it.

Talk is cheap and what you say, especially about yourself, isn’t enough. You can say your gravel is the cheapest, and it might be. You can say it’s the best quality, and it might be. You can say you achieve fast and reliable deliver every time, and you might, but if your website is a mess and the person who answers the phone in the office sounds like they’d rather be anywhere else, but there, it’s highly likely that potential customer will never find out.

And that’s for a commodity - think again about the consultancy or any sort of personalised service. The sakes are even higher because that potential client is looking not only for their needs to be met, but they want their values to be matched. They’re making a judgement call and they want to feel good about making the decision to work with you, to buy your product. It’s not a check-the-box situation, they want more - they want to feel like you’re the perfect solution and they’ll make that judgement according to the way they experience your brand/product/service. They’ll be looking for evidence of your values in everything you do, in every touch-point with you and your brand. They want a certain kind of experience and you need to know what that is is you’ve any hope of providing it.

4. Our experience is determined by how well a brand/product/service matches our world view and the things that matter to us.

Our world view is like the filter through which we judge and value things according to how well they appear to match our own values and the value we place on the needs we want to satisfy. Gravel might just be gravel, but does that mean you don’t have to worry about values, just because it’s ‘just gravel’? No, because there are plenty of other places to get gravel. After all, it’s just gravel. But if you understand why your customer needs the gravel and that it’s important that he can trust in your delivery efficiency because that’s what he’s promised his clients, then you have a chance to make a difference. It’s not up to you to decide what gravel means to him, it’s up to you to understand his world view and how gravel fits in.

To deliver the kind of experience your customers want, you have to understand how they think, what they value and how they want to feel. Yes, they want your product or service to do certain things and match certain criteria, but they also want to feel a certain way as a result of engaging with that particular brad/product/service. You have to understand what they value and why they value it so that you can communicate an understanding of, a match between you, your brand and their world view.

 And when you think of it like that, it’s pretty clear that it’s not a check-box on a business plan template, right? Or rather that there’s a lot more to it than a mere check-box would suggest. Yes, it’s deep and yes, it can definitely seem daunting. And absolutely yes, it can be very tempting to skim over, but can you see how important it is not to skim? Can you see how important it is to take the time to go deep?

 

The more you know about your ideal client or customer’s world view, their values, their preferences, their desires, the more you understand about how they want to experience your kind of product or service, the more you know about how they feel, the greater connection you’ll be able to make with them. Connection is the aim, not because it’s a business function, but because it’s what we humans seek, it’s how we’re wired. And we’ve figured out along the way that without that connection there is no business, and seeing there’s no connection school or degrees, only business school and degrees, we gave it a business term and put it under the heading of ‘marketing’. I’m not knocking that at all, it makes sense, but if you’re going to make it work, then you have to understand that it’s a human thing first, and a business plan heading or check-box second.

 

I hope that makes some sense to you. It really bugs me when really smart small business owners, who are really good at what they do, second-guess themselves about what they know to be true because of intimidating business and marketing jargon. It makes me weep to see these bright sparks waste hours cranking out some meaningless business mumbo-jumbo trying to smarten up their act, become more ‘professional’, when the real answers, with the real feeling and the real knowledge of what they actually do and who their actual people are is so much more valuable. Business, commerce and marketing are just frameworks to explain, test and implement commercial outcomes, and we need them, they’re fascinating and very useful, don’t get me wrong, but underneath all of the terms and the systems and concepts is, first of all, human connection.

 

Back yourself and what you know to be true. Serve your people better than anyone and have a brilliant day.

Andrea

How your brand story helps define your audience

Maya Angelou said that there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you. Sometimes we don’t even know what those stories are until we start telling them, but a pretty cool kind of magic happens when we start engaging our imagination in story.

 

My friend called me out of the blue the other day. “I’ve got this idea for my business”, she said, “What do you think?” … And what ensued was about an hour-long call during which we crafted a story. A story that came from an idea, was questioned, teased out, explained and injected with the wide-eyed wonder of “What if …”

 

“What if …”, comes from the space of creative imagining. It’s a juicy alternative to the "What IS…” question, which is often what we ask, and which often gets us stuck, when we’re trying to think of business ideas and solutions. We get the idea, the creativity happens, we get all inspired imagining the possibilities … and then we stop imagining, become robotic and serious (AKA clever and astute business people), and start trying to nail down the characteristics of the ‘target’.

 

And sure, I know it has to be done and I completely understand the value in doing it. Knowing your audience is critical so it’s worth getting right. You absolutely need to, no question. But I also see how dry and ineffective addressing questions about the problem you’re solving, the profile of a person with this problem and why they’d choose you to solve it can get. Ironically, the ‘personality’ you’re trying to paint and bring to life through this questioning is at grave risk of becoming, well, rather lifeless and one-dimensional.

 

When you’re imagining and wondering “what if …”, you're naturally thinking in terms of story, a good story. Unconstrained by what’s plausible and measurable and even realistic, your values and desires start to show up all by themselves and if this is a story you’re creating with another person, then all sorts of good starts bouncing around between you. What’s happening is that you’re engaging imagination with inner values, and that stirs up emotion. Once you’ve got the emotion happening, you’re starting to tell a pretty compelling story. It’s believable because it’s got a bit of heart in it and humans connect with their hearts, not business analysis.

 

And keep talking! Now that you’re in there, telling that story, seeing the vision, try asking one of those targeting questions. Now try asking what problem your product or service is trying to solve. How does your answer sound now? Long? Detailed? Passionate? And what about describing the person who experiences this problem? What are they like? Who are they? What does the problem look like and how does your brand show up for them? When you’re in the story, these questions take on a whole new dimension. Your answers are juicy and ripe and full of the thing that’s going to allow you to stand out - heart.

 

Knowing your brand ideals and enveloping them in a brand story emblazoned with detail starts with imagining that story. Wondering “What IF …”, rather than asking “What IS …” can unlock the heart in an idea and craft a story that really comes alive. A story that makes it easy to pin-point your target audience because you’ve allowed them to become real in that story. And when the story’s real with real characters and real heart, that’s when you’ve got the seed of potential for real connection and serving your audience with outstanding usefulness and personality. 

Photo credit: Image by johnhain via pixabay

Your brand story is not for everyone

Within every brand story are its core benefits, beliefs and values. The story begins with these, they’re its foundation, at the heart of the matter and they represent the core of why a brand exists. The reason developing that story is critical in developing a brand that people want to engage with and which they will come to love is all about the things that make us human. Truly loved brands are those that go beyond doing and making stuff to doing stuff that matters to people and making them feel good about having that brand in their lives.

 

When you first start thinking about your brand’s values, beliefs and ideals, it can be daunting and confusing. It’s not something that’s going to bring any benefit if done superficially, you have to go deep. Going deep and getting real about why it is you do your thing and why it’s important people know about your thing and the message you’re bringing to the world is sometimes confronting for people. It feels hard to think about something that deeply, but stick with it. Take the time and the effort and keep at it until you start some momentum because once you get some flow, once you start hitting on the things that really matter to you, it gets much easier and you know you’re getting there.

 

The reason it starts to feel much easier is because you’re starting to touch on core values and ideals that resonate and reflect your own values and ideals. Your business doesn’t have to have the same core values as you do personally, but they will and should resonate with and reflect your own. When you start to feel that, you’re onto something you genuinely care about and the reason this is important to distill is because these are the things that other people will resonate with and care about. It’s that human connection and reflection of values that’s at the heart of every really outstanding and truly loved brand.

 

The reason you have to take the time and energy into drawing out your brand ideals is of course because it’s the thing that people connect and identify with, but that won’t be possible unless you’re able to communicate those values and ideals in a way that people understand and resonate with. It’s no good to create a heart-drenched mission with your values and ideals meticulously set out if no one knows about it. That’s why you have to turn that mission into a story and that story becomes your map, your guide, your beacon and your message in every single thing you do. Your brand story is what wraps up your brand values and ideals and gives them to your customers and clients in a way that connects with and reflects their values and ideals.

 

Your brand story, therefore, is not for everyone. Not everyone will understand, connect with and resonate with that story and that’s ok because it’s not about pleasing the masses. What it is about is being crystal clear, stoically true and utterly committed to the ideals that underpin the very existence of your brand, your business. That’s the human thing about business and the only thing that makes business real; human relationships. Being authentic and solid in who you are doesn’t attract or please everyone; not everyone will like it and in fact, many won’t like it at all. But what it can do is initiate the potential for deep connection, engagement, loyalty and trust based on shared values. 

Photo credit: Image by tsg1 via pixabay

Brand ideals: no longer a touchy-feely "option"

I was talking to a good friend of mine today, about all sorts of things, it’d been a while, but our conversation eventually came around to social media. She LOVES social media and even admitted to what sounds like a slight addiction and ‘sneakily checking her phone behind the cereal box’ … you know who you are my friend, but I don’t stand in judgement and neither will I tell a soul, promise. The truth is actually she’s definitely not alone and I’m sure many could, and would, relate if they were as candid and honest as my friend.

 

The really interesting thing to me about the magnetism of social media were her reasons. She said she was drawn to the multitudes of interesting people doing good and interesting things in the world. People who stand for things that matter, people who are starting movements, people who are making a difference in their own and other people’s lives in many different ways. She described how inspired she felt to see the stories of these people in her news feeds and how she felt that social media gave her a way of surrounding herself with people who inspired and lifted her with the missions they’re on and the stories they tell. How it’s given ordinary people a vehicle for their voice, their message, and in doing so have allowed others to connect, identify and resonate with, and in, their own voices.

 

Of course there’s a lot of opportunity to see just as much negativity no doubt, but our current ability to choose who to read, who to follow and what, and who, you wish to be influenced by is unprecedented. And that’s a really important point - with the opening of communication channels, greater accessibility and connectivity, I believe people are, collectively, becoming a lot more aware of the many different voices, opinions and view points that the world is made up of. Awareness is core to identifying our own ideals and we’re naturally drawn to people and organisations that reflect those ideals back to us. When my friend feels inspired by the people she wants to surround herself with, via social media, or in person, or any in other way, she’s feeling like that because she resonates with the ideals they’re espousing and she therefore feels connected to them. She feels connected to them because they’re acting as a conduit, in a way, and a mirror for her own ideals.

 

Once upon a time, but not all that long ago, marketing students were taught the 4 P’s of marketing - I was, and actually I wouldn’t mind betting that even if you’ve never studied marketing formally, you’ve probably come across the 4 P’s in one form or another. Price, product, placement and promotion. So if I were to turn this story into one about marketing and branding, as I always do, then where exactly do you think ideals would feature amongst those 4 pillars?

 

Tricky huh. I guess you could argue that all 4 must cohesively and consistently communicate a brand's ideals, but it’s still pretty, well, you know, clinical maybe, isn’t it? Perhaps that’s because ideals would be better accounted for in the 5th P - People. The one they don’t teach you in business school. However, without people there is no business because every business is about relationships with people. People connecting with one another for some shared reason. Possibly, and more commonly now, as my friend describes, over shared ideals. If this is the way people are communicating and connecting with one another, then how can business be separate, different, play with another set of rules, when business IS people?

 

When you think of it like that, ideals become really important. Not just to have brand ideals, that is, for your business to be on a mission to bring higher order benefits, beliefs and values to the world, but to be able to communicate those ideals in a way that people that understand and connect with. We accept that the best performing brands in the world have strong brand ideals, a bigger purpose or mission, but part of their mission is also to meaningfully communicate those ideals in everything they do. The more consistent they are in delivering that message, the stronger the message is and the greater the connection.

 

The 4 P’s is, or was, all about mass marketing, but it’s different now. Mass marketing was about things and stuff and volume and the masses, but now we’re more about connection marketing. It’s about how we feel, how we connect and how we tell and identify with a story. Brand ideals are no longer a ‘touchy-feely’ option and neither is the crafting of a solid brand story and brilliant strategy to communicate that story.  Brand story is the key to communicating ideals in a way that reflects what people are already genuinely feeling and caring about. It’s more than product, price, placement and promotion - it’s about people, our need to connect and have our values reflected back to us. 

Disclaimer and note: For the picky ones amongst you, me being one myself, please note that I realise the image more accurately represents brand attributes than ideals, but hey, I was pushed for time and I think you'll get my gist :-) Forgive?

Photo credit: Image by johnhain via pixabay

7 reasons why your existing customers are your number one marketing priority

Your existing customers are gold. They’ve already voted to spend their time and money with you, or on your product or service, and this is no small thing. No matter how wonderful you think you are, no matter how great your product or service is, or whether it’s without a doubt the best there is, your customers usually have many, many other options. Options not just in terms of your competition, but in terms of not purchasing that product or service at all. In a world of endless products, noise, promotion and global markets, the fact they chose your thing is rather something, and no matter how big or small you are, gone are the days when you could get away with thinking that providing your customers with what they paid for was all you owed them.

 

Sure, there are product and service categories, indeed whole industries that are characterised by highly transactional, commodity-type markets where on face value you could be forgiven for thinking deep customer loyalty, engagement and community are not necessary. But I would argue it’s just as important. Ok so maybe we’re not talking about group hugs and exclusive membership programmes for some sectors, but solid, reliable customer service goes a long, long way, especially when you’re trying to differentiate somewhat generic products in a price-sensitive market. The loyalty you foster in your existing customers might just be the thing that sets you apart and affords your brand the longevity your competition lacks.

 

Here are 7 reasons that your existing customers should be your number 1 marketing priority;

 

1. Because your existing customers hold the key to getting more like them. The way they think, the reason they choose your brand, the problem your brand solves for them, or the desire it satisfies, is all stuff you need to know and your existing customers are THE people to tell you. Understanding your existing customers even better than they understand themselves is the way you find more customers like them. Gold.

 

2. Because your customers can tell you what else they want or what you could be doing better, how to make them happier, what additional products or services they’d love you to create, you have an enormous opportunity to respond to exactly what they ask for. Don’t follow the market. Responding directly to your own customers is how you become a market leader … but you need customers to do that.

 

3. Because your customers actually want to engage. Meaningful engagement leads to trust and loyalty, which is not only very hard for your competitors to compete with, but because people want their choices to reflect their values, it turns out they’re ever so willing to be loyal and trusting in exchange for that. It’s a basic human need.

 

4. Because through that dialogue and engagement and making your customers feel like they’re really cared about, they get to know the personality and the meaning behind the brand and that takes you from being known about to being loved. Again, gold.

 

5. Because your existing customers are the ones who are going to tell their friends. Treat them like royalty and they’ll do your marketing for you in the most powerful, trusted and resonating way possible. Remember word-of-mouth? Well, nothing’s changed - it’s still the holy grail. When your customers do your marketing for you, they’ve gone beyond customers and have become advocates. Gold with diamonds.

 

6. Because your existing customers are not only your customers today, but by the way you make them feel, they’re highly likely to also be your customers well into the future where every contact they have with your brand continues to nourish a legitimate relationship. Gold.

 

7. Because it’s your existing customers, that through trust, loyalty and sharing, become your community, your tribe, and that in itself is a magnetic force for attracting new customers, followers and advocates.

 

The way I see it, your existing customers are without a doubt your number one marketing priority and that’s because at the heart of each of the 7 points above, are basic human needs that always come before and underlie any business plan, strategy or transaction. Business is about human relationships and it’s only through nurturing the existing relationships that we can attract more of the same. 

 

Don’t ignore the people who’ve already given you their time and money while you scout the masses for more traffic, more conversions, more customers, more sales. Start with the gold you’ve already got because in doing so you increase the longterm value of your customers and expand the intrinsic value of your brand. This inside-out approach is the bedrock of any good marketing strategy and massively contributes to your results and growth into the future being much, much more reliable, not to mention more meaningful. 

Photo credit: "First customers" by Stavos via Flickr

 

Leave the heart in - Part 2: The myth of 'if you love it, it's easy'.

What is it? An adage? A maxim? Perhaps it’s a myth with just a sprinkling or hint of truth left in it. That in terms of work, if you love it, it’s easy.

 

And so it goes that if you want to love your work, then you have to find something you love doing … And it will be easy, breezy, lemon squeezy. Right?

 

Well let's just qualify that. Yes, when you love what you do, it is a lot easier - you only have to think of a day in a job you hate or doing work that bores you to death to understand that. But it's also slightly simplistic and probably even somewhat mythical as well. Yes, I do agree that if everyone was doing work they loved, then the world would be a brighter place. Everything clicks into place a lot better when we do what we love -  our talents are naturally utilised, we have a lot more internal drive, natural motivation and creativity. Agree.

 

However, there is another side to that belief and that is that when you really care about something and your heart's fully in it, it can get hard. Very, very hard.

 

Caring deeply about something, your mission, a message, your brand, your vision, can get very emotional. It’s the heart and the emotion that gives it life and inspires others to connect and invest their emotions too. It makes what you do real and the connections you form with other people real because it really matters. It’s the heart in things that make them stand out.

 

But it’s not always easy.

 

Yesterday I was writing about how doing things a bit differently (Leave the heart in - Part 1), doing things from the heart, can sometimes feel a bit uncomfortable, even a bit wrong, but that just because it feels that way doesn’t mean it is wrong and definitely doesn’t mean you should quit. Having your heart in something can make it difficult to separate yourself from the opinion of others, especially if it's negative, and not take things personally. You can get too caught up in it, too close, and lose your perspective. The truth is, you can become a little obsessed. Brightly inspired is good. It comes from something deep inside and resonates with meaning that acts like a magnet to others, but having your heart in something also means you can get hurt. It can be extremely stressful just because you care so damn much and will do almost anything to see that vision to reality. And sometimes that bright inspiration can tip over into white knuckle obsession. That's when you can't let go, maybe you can't sleep, it's hard to slow down and small things seem enormously upsetting.

 

When having your heart in something starts to feel like this, you can start to doubt whether it's worth it and whether you really actually care about it like you thought you did after all. It's confusing and it can all feel very, very wrong. The really sad thing is that when people who really care about something and have fully invested their heart and soul start to feel like this, they often start thinking their thing is wrong. That their heart was wrong after all. That actually they can't really love it because if they did, wouldn't it be easy? No, having your heart in it can be a lot harder than not because with your heart in it, you've got more skin in the game - a whole heart in the game and that is certainly not always easy.

 

But does that mean it's wrong? Does that mean the thing you loved and believed in is no longer worth it?
Probably not. So here's the thing, before you give up on it because it feels too hard and therefore feel sure that clearly it's wrong, ease the load first. Talk to your good friends and supporters and clients and customers who believe in what you do - they'll remind you of its worth because they're not as close to it as you are and won't have lost their perspective. Outsource the stuff that you're not so good at, the stuff that saps your time and energy, leaves you feeling deflated, spent and robs energy from the parts you put your heart into.

 

Get rid of some of the sand, the jobs that don't utilise your unique strengths, but keep the heart in it. The whole thing's not wrong, heart's not wrong, it's just been overwhelmed by all the demands of loving and really caring about something. Don't make the mistake of thinking that because it's no longer easy, that it's wrong. Change it around, iterate, improve, but leave the heart in it. If you take the heart out of your business, take the heart of your marketing and communications, then you’ve left nothing for people to connect with … and then what’s the point?

 

Heart is not the problem. Get rid of some of the other stuff so that keeping your heart in the game is easier, more sustainable, but leave the heart in. At the end of the day, it’s the only thing that keeps your business human. 

Photo credit: BruceEmmerling via pixabay - http://pixabay.com/en/new-york-city-building-tower-224396/

 

Leave the heart in - Part 1: How to tell if it's actually wrong or whether it just feels wrong because your heart's in it

Sometimes doing things a little bit differently can feel pretty uncomfortable and often downright scary. Just because it’s different can make it feel bad even when it’s right. That’s why in business especially, we tend to avoid that feeling and go with what we know, or what we’re told we should know and what has always worked … for everyone else. With what the stats say, what the analyst says, the market indicators, the current condition, the economic climate. You know, business is business right? We’ve always done it this way - question that wisdom at your own peril … or would you be brave enough to do things differently if you really believed something was important enough? Even when doing it feels all weird and confronting and, well, like it’s wrong?

 

I had this experience recently with something totally unrelated to work, but it made me think about how it feels to do something different and why it can feel wrong even when we’re sure it’s good or right. This year I wanted to do something different to the usual teacher thank you cards passed around for parents to sign at the end of the school year. That works really well and actually we still did that again this year, but I wanted to do something that was from the kids, that they’d created and contributed to themselves. So my kids and I came up with this idea to cut out lots of butterflies and hearts for all the kids write on and decorate. Once they were all done, we thought we’d make a collage of thank you messages.

 

Great idea and everyone was enthusiastically onboard. It’s just that when it came to making the collage, it became clear that my talent as an artist extends only as far as the idea. I do have some wonderful, visionary (ok, maybe lofty) ideas, but my skills in actual implementation means it’s often a good idea to outsource (and that leads me to another discussion about knowing your strengths and outsourcing your weaknesses, but I’ll post that tomorrow). Anyway, after all this organising and collecting and coordinating the hearts and butterflies, I was sadly disappointed when I came to put it all together.

 

I was almost overwhelmed by the feeling that what I’d created wasn’t good enough and that I’d wasted people’s time in trying to do something different. I felt embarrassed about putting myself out there and I was wishing I hadn’t. What I wished was that I’d just stuck to what we’d always done - buy a card, pass it around for the parents to sign and kick in some cash. I really regretted trying to do something with more meaning and although I knew it was the thought that counted, I didn’t feel that way. I felt like I’d done something wrong.

 

The truth is that sometimes that weird feeling, that vulnerability, is a good thing because it shows that what you're doing still has the heart left in it - that it's a real, living and breathing thing that matters. It feel wrong not because it is wrong, but because we’re not used to feeling that way. We have a tendency to play it safe, toe the line, do what’s done because we equate fear with an indication that something’s wrong. It comes from our crocodile brain that had to protect us from predators way back in the dark ages, but hasn’t changed much with the times. Actually we’re mostly pretty safe now and sometimes that feeling's just discomfort about showing heart when we've been conditioned to think that's a risky business.

 

Ok, so maybe showing heart is "risky". Maybe you are being vulnerable, but is that necessarily bad? What if your intentions are pure and you really care about this thing, should you not do it because it feels awkward and weird? Is that enough of a reason to retreat back into ordinary?

Well here's a test; does that fear of being vulnerable open your heart or close it? Do you feel expansive or smaller? Closer to what's true and real and on your path, or further from it?


Compare that to the alternative. How do you feel when you think about going safe, toeing the line, keeping the heart out, tried and true, 'best practice'? A little bit dead perhaps? A little bit deflated? Smaller, blander, safer, more ho-hum? Constricted by any chance?


Is that the way you want to connect with people? Is that the way you want to show up? Maybe it is, and that's fine. You'll know if it's fine for you because you won't have a weird feeling of fear and there really won't be an issue. If that's the case, good for you, go for it. But if your inner voice is shaking its head and saying, "We could, but I don't know, it just doesn't feel right", then that's your guy. You've got to put the heart back in and listen to that inner voice.


And what's the worst that could happen? So what if it's not perfect, polished, praised by the analyst and approved by the board? Leaving the heart in takes some work, it's a bit rougher than the polished tried and true. So iterate. Get comfortable with the feeling and learn. Improve. Make it better, polish it, argue the point, sell it, solve it, ship it. But leave the heart in. You're trying a new path, a path that feels a bit scary, but which has the potential to connect more and be more meaningful. It feels weird because heart’s not always common, not because it's wrong. You can make it better, you can SEO it, polish it more, edit it more, research it more, analyse it more, but leave the heart in it - that's the bit that's right, not the bit that's wrong. 

5 unmeasurable, unscaleable and idealistic business practices that feel good

Why is it that when you start talking about how things feel, how much real connection matters and how far a little bit of love goes in business, you’re often met with varying degrees of eye rolling, glazing over and comments that involve the word ‘idealistic’?

 

They want to know how you measure that, what’s the ROI and is it scaleable? But what I want to know is why caring about the way things feel, and connecting for real with real people, and injecting love into what you do idealistic? I would have said they were fundamental. After all, business is about people. Marketing is about people. Life is about people. People, people, people. How we connect, what matters, how we feel, what and who we love. So why is it idealistic to build a business on these very human foundations?

 

Ok, I agree, they are hard to measure, but that’s because we’re trying to measure the impact and effect of these things using tools and scales that were designed for things that are not emotional. The exact impact they have is hard to measure in terms of directly associated sales, return on investment, customer loyalty etc etc. But I just can’t accept that therefore they’re not worth much. Maybe it’s worthwhile enough to do things in a way that feels good and is in line with your values and your mission because then you’re more authentic, it’s more sustainable and you feel happier about what you’re doing. When that’s the case, it shows through in everything you do, and for that alone, isn’t it worth it?

 

But there are more reasons, yes, still hard to measure, I agree, but nonetheless worthwhile pursuing for the simple reason that business is about human relationships. How do you feel when someone thanks you for something you’ve done for them? When your efforts are recognised? When someone asks your opinion because it’s valued? When someone listens. When someone helps you, or you help someone else? These things feel good because we’re human.

 

Based on this fact, here are 5 things that are wildly unscaleable (debatable), extremely difficult to measure in terms of returns, and loftily love drenched and idealistic that you can do today just to remind yourself that you are indeed human and well, because it just feels good;

 

1. Call a client or a customer personally to thank them for their business. It could be a note or an email if you’re not able to call them, but it has to be sincere and personal. Don’t ask for anything, just thank them for doing business with you and let them know how much you appreciate them.

 

2. Take an employee, or someone who has helped you in your business, out for lunch, or buy them a thoughtful gift, just to let them know they’re valued.

 

3. Connect with a client or customer and ask them for their opinion about something you’re working on. It could be something you recently launched, or how their experience with your product or business was, or an idea for the future. Be open and really listen to what they say without qualifying or explaining.

 

4. Share. A problem shared is a problem halved. Use your social platform to share something real with your people. Maybe something you’re struggling with, perhaps something personal, something about you, not your business. We all love to know we’re not alone in our struggles and sharing our experiences is paramount to meaningful relationships.

 

5. Encourage someone you know who’s working hard, trying to make a difference, maybe who’s struggling a bit - let them know you care, that what they’re doing is worthwhile and that you believe in them - you never know what a massive impact you might have on someone’s life at just the right time.

 

Business is a human pursuit. It’s about relationships and belonging and believing and yes, even about love. We absolutely need to measure the impact of the things we invest our time and money in to grow our business, but we also need to invest in the things that are difficult to measure. Don’t overlook the little things that feel good. It’s not a bad thing that they’re hard to measure and it certainly doesn’t mean they’re worthless, in fact I have more than a hunch that those ‘little’ things are actually the big things. If that’s idealistic, then isn’t it ok to contribute to a more ideal world? I think so, I really do. 

Consistency matters

Happy employees make a difference to the customer experience. We hear it all the time and I’m constantly writing about the importance of starting inside with what’s important, crafting that into a meaningful brand story and telling it in every way possible, including through your staff and how much they buy into and feel they represent that story. It’s important because people connect with emotion, and it has to be real. People care less about stuff and more about how they feel. Much, much more.

 

I know that it’s for this reason that it’s next to impossible to stand out and make a difference with tactics designed to interrupt people and strategy designed to get attention when it’s not based on something that comes from the heart. Getting noticed is pretty useless anyway unless people actually believe what you’re saying. Creating messages that actually mean something to people is important because our number one goal is to connect and engage. Because well, that’s what people do. That’s how we are and have always been. 

 

But your ‘messages’ aren't just the things you write; your copy, your slogans, your catch-phrases, your advertising. Your message is in everything. EVERYTHING. Every contact your customer has with you or your business and your brand, sends a message. If you want to be believed, then that message needs to be consistent. That is, you need to tell the same story in everything you do.

 

My inspiration for thinking about consistency of story and brand message came from a recent experience with a plumbing supplier. I’ve been renovating my bathrooms and walking that line between creating a thing of beauty and not blowing the budget … too much :) I’d finally found a mixer that I actually liked and which was in my budget because it had been heavily discounted as a discontinued item. The matching bath spout however was in Palmerston, NT and was one of only two left in the country. This was no problem though because the staff were very diligent in organising it to be sent to Perth, and even when it took a wrong turn and ended up in Adelaide, they kept me posted and assured me they’d get it to me. And they did.

 

When I went into the store to pick it up, not only did the lady who was looking after me do a brilliant job of making me feel looked after on top of everything she’d already done, but about 3 other employees at varying times during my visit, commented jovially about this bath spout, one of the last of its kind, doing a tour of Australia before it ended up here. They were happy I’d got it because they knew how important it was to me and do you know how that made me feel? It made me feel really happy because I felt like they really cared.

 

As I left the store, amidst wishes of “Enjoy!” and “See you next time”, I noticed the company’s brand message on the wall. It said, “Bathroom Happiness”. And I thought to myself, damn right. I am happy. I love the bath spout, but I loved the way I was treated more … and I believe them. I believe them when they say they create bathroom happiness because that’s what I felt. It wasn’t the bath spout, or the brand message, it was the connection those employees created with me that made me believe their story. They were consistent.

 

Consistently telling your brand story in everything you do is what fosters trust and loyalty, over time. Authentically making real connections is what makes people feel what you want them to believe. Otherwise, it’s just words. 

Photo credit: "Life for me ain't been no crystal stair" by downing.amanda via Flickr

The Secret to Ninja Marketing Strategies

Feeling like you want to pump up your marketing efforts? You know, really put the kick into it, bust out? Be everywhere, be amazing, make waves, get noticed and of course, sell more stuff?

 

Hell yeah! I want ninja tactics too! Yes! Ninja tactics put the R into ROI, the C in conversions and the capital T into traffic. Gimme some of that fo’ sho'!

 

But here’s the thing … even with your black belt and and all your impressive chops and kicks, even Ninjas look kind of pathetic if they’re just dancing around in front of you trying to get your attention for reasons apparently unknown, right?

 

Ninjas need context. Connection and engagement is always your goal because tactics without connection will be ignored, especially if you’re employing disruptive marketing tactics. 

 

Disruptive tactics, designed to push in, to shout for attention even though the product or information is not sought, are, on their own, risky business. Tactics like this are likely to be ignored for the simple reason that we’re overloaded by them and have therefore become very good at tuning them out. Without the underlying reason and meaning of your brand message communicated in the way, place and time your audience wants to be communicated to, your odds of being ignored are very, very high. Awkward Ninja.

 

Not only can this be extremely expensive, but worse still, it can actually damage your brand. They may ignore you, but they’ll probably associate that disruption and subsequent ignoring with your brand and be even more likely to ignore it in the future. This is not sustainable and it doesn’t feel good for anyone. We’ve got to stop being the things that people are trying to ignore and start focusing on the things they want. Pare back and lean in, Ninjas - you can’t get your black belt without connection because all that flashy jumping around in front of people just makes them feel uncomfortable and annoyed unless you connect with them with meaning and context.

 

Tactics without connection are just that, tactics. Tactics alone aren’t enough - they’re not sustainable.

 

Tactics that focus on connecting with, engaging your audience and building community is what makes your tactics Ninja. Being laser focused and precisely efficient starts with genuine connection and that’s the secret that puts your tactics on steroids. 

Photo credit: 'Ninja' by Dani Armengol Garreta via Flickr

But I'm an introvert!

I'd love to do marketing and get my sales rocking, but I'm an introvert, it's just not me.

 

Oh how I hear you. I know it because I’ve felt the same. But guess what. 

 

What if I told you it doesn’t matter?

What if I told you it’s not even close to the point?

What if I told you in fact that it could be an advantage to feel like that?

What if I told you that having an aversion to self promotion and branding could help to set you apart?

What if I said that all that matters is that you believe in what you’re doing - believe in your product, your service, your mission, your art, your message and let that come through in everything you do?

 

Well it’s true and here’s why …

 

Blurting out messages to the world at large and vying for attention from the masses by disrupting people in their everyday lives is just adding to the noise and clutter. And there’s a lot of it. So much in fact, that people are getting really good at tuning it out, ignoring it, pressing delete and carrying on. We have so much noise and so much connectivity to technology and devices and marketing, that what we’re really looking for, what really stands out and gets our attention is real connection. REAL being the operative word.

 

I love working with people who are introverted or shy, who don’t like to promote themselves and who worry that marketing is, well, too ‘out there’. I love it because these people tend to be much more inclined to look inside first. They usually feel much more comfortable with being in touch with their passion and their reason for doing what they do and much more inclined to tell an authentic story and make connections they’re genuinely proud of. 

 

Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not bagging extroverts here by any means, but as far as introverts and extroverts go, it’s just that introverts are usually much less attracted to the big splash, the glitz and the slick than our more extroverted comrades … and that’s fine, absolutely fine. You can do a killer job of splash, glitz and slick, but you certainly don’t have to if that’s just not you. As long as your message is coming from, has its roots in something deeper and the message is genuine, it doesn’t matter if its loud and flashy, or quietly compelling. Unfortunately though, being starstruck can sometimes mean the genuine core drivers are overlooked and you end up with empty noisy glitz that gets tuned out.

 

The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service sells itself
— Peter Drucker

That famous Peter Drucker quote, exemplifies the connection philosophy and starting on the inside first. How can you have any hope of achieving this if you don’t pour your energy into connecting with your customers? Pour your energy into knowing them, understanding them, delighting them? And I always circle back to the fact that in order to do that, you have to know yourself first and that’s because you can’t have genuine connection when you’re not being genuine. Being able to sniff out a fake is part of we human’s incredible skill of tuning out masses of noise.

 

In all this noise, we seem to have moved away from the understanding that it’s the connection we make with our customers that’s the important thing. Hands down, no doubt about it. For every product or service you sell, your customers will usually have a plethora of other similar options available to them. What they want, what sets you apart is YOU. It’s the connection they seek and a perfect product at the perfect price point isn’t enough because you’re not the only one. What keeps them coming back is connection and trust.

 

Feeling uneasy about disruptive, attention-seeking marketing tactics is a good thing and it doesn’t matter a twitch if you’re an introvert or an extrovert. Starting on the inside, focusing on your existing customers is not only a viable alternative, but probably a better way to go. By being cognisant of your true mission and making the creation of a strong and loyal community your ultimate goal, you’re building a brand around a culture that’s deeply connected to the customers you serve. When your customers are deeply connected to a brand, or a cause or mission if you don’t like the term brand, then they become evangelists. Imagine that! Imagine YOUR customers and clients being so stoked with what you do that they’re out there voluntarily telling the world about it. I want that, don’t you?

 

So please introverts, don’t think marketing is not for you. Marketing is in everything you do so if there’s stuff you don’t feel right about, it’s ok to go inside and get closer to what matters to you. Delight the customers you already have. Ask for their help, let them know you care, seek to understand them. Be genuine and build trusting relationships in a way that feels authentic to you. Build your brand from the inside around a culture of shared values. Get passionate about it and do it exceptionally well. This is the type of marketing that both you and your customers will flourish in. 

Photo credit: How Not To Manage An Introvert by Nguyen Hung Vu via Flickr

Who's on your bus?

Imagine having a passionate, engaged, creative and loyal tribe of people behind you who care about what you do and who want you to keep doing your particular form of greatness.

 

Imagine if you weren’t sure about the next turn to take, or how the last turn you took was going down, you just had to ask your team. A team who were already riding on your bus and were therefore invested not only in where you’re going, but in getting there safely, and with a bit of spunk.

 

Imagine if in the hard times, the times when you’re personally stretched and challenged, you had a crew to remind you to keep going, that what you do matters. Imagine if serving your community was a two-way street that nourished you with as much of a sense of purpose and belonging as them. Imagine if the meaning, beauty and importance of what you do was reflected back to you by a tribe of people who ‘get it’, who ‘get’ you. Inspiring, huh - seriously, who wouldn’t want that?

 

And there you have it, in a nutshell - who wouldn’t want that? The fact is that it’s a basic human need to want that. We are all infants and we just want to be snuggled (as Chase Reeves from The Fizzle Show perfectly sums it up in episode 002 - funny!). But all jokes aside, for all its ‘touchy-feeliness’, the need to belong and to be a part of something that matter is a fundamental human truth and that for me is why working with that natural law, instead of against it, not only feels good, but it makes a difference.

 

I’m absolutely passionate about the fact that if you have something to tell the world about, something to contribute, something you care about, something you believe in, your number one priority in getting that message out there is to find your tribe, build your community. Speak in the way that’s you about the stuff you care about and immediately you start something. People are inspired by people who care about a thing and who are passionate about that thing, even if the ‘thing’ isn’t what they’re into so much. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, that’s because it’s not the ‘thing’ as much as the meaning and connection created around that thing. It’s about the shared story.

 

What I love about this way of thinking is that it keep things real and its based on real human emotion. I hope, and feel that we have, got to point in time and evolution where people want real meaning in their lives. We want to know other people’s stories and we want to believe that the choices we make and the visions and dreams we have can make a difference. I believe that when we buy stuff, most of us would like to know that it was produced ethically and that in making that buying decision we’re also somehow making a small contribution to the expansion of that cause and that it reflects something of our own values and principles. What’s lovely is that we live in an age where that’s not only becoming more possible, but more common.

 

When people connect with an idea, shared values, and a vision, bonds are formed and big things can happen; indeed the world can be changed. But don’t be put off by that lofty ideal - everything, but everything starts small - from little things big things grow. So whether you’re a small business just trying to establish your customer base, or a big business with a slick brand and marketing plan, or just starting out on your own creative endeavour, focusing on growing your community first can start today, right now. 

 

Start telling your story, the real story, in everything you do. Go out of your way for a customer, or a friend who supports you - make them feel how much you care about them for caring about your thing. Share something real via your social media followers, or face to face, over the phone, or by email. Show your gratitude. Share your vision. Personally ask one of your customers for their opinion. Be prepared to feel vulnerable, to look silly, to go out of your comfort zone, but just be real. Let creating a strong, loyal and passionate tribe be your guiding light in all your actions. Have the courage to be the leader for what you believe in. Reach out and connect - initiate something small right now. And then repeat.

 

And you know what? If leading a tribe that’s going to change the world all seems a little too far fetched for you, then ask yourself this; how would it feel if I took this this approach anyway?

 

Maybe it’d just feel a little bit more YOU. Maybe it’d feel just a little bit more real. Maybe it’d make your messages a little bit more personal. Maybe you’d feel just a little bit more proud of what you do. Maybe you’d inspire yourself. Maybe you’d remind yourself why you started doing this in the first place. Maybe you’d find that meaning and purpose reflected back to you. And maybe, just maybe your ‘marketing' would feel good again.

 

Establishing your community is where it’s at. Clean up your bus and invite them onboard.

 

If you want to find out more about building communities and the ‘tribe’ philosophy, Seth Godin has a really great free resource at http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/files/TribesQA2.pdf.

 

And you’ll find Episode 002 of The Fizzle Show here; http://fizzle.co/sparkline/finding-your-voice-pt-2-the-fizzle-show-002. This episode is not solely about tribes and community, but their belief in this philosophy comes through in everything they teach. 

Photo credit: School Bus by Beny Shlevich via Flickr

Be kind. Always.

Robin Williams’ death was tragic news. It was particularly emotional for many people and started lots of discussions about depression and mental health. It’s an extremely difficult thing to accept that someone so wonderful, so brilliant and so loved was so plagued by his own mind. His death was the ultimate tragic culmination of a ruthless disease, but maybe one of the gifts he left behind was the impetus and permission for people to talk about it. Seeing it as too difficult to broach and leaving it in the dark only magnifies its hold over people and makes it more menacing.

 

It’s so important to reach out and connect with people who are struggling. One of the worst things about my own experience with depression is that I lost my ability to connect with people and became very isolated. It wasn’t until I began to get much better that I realised that’s what was going on and indeed that I was even depressed. That’s because you lose your perspective, it’s all you see. My friend described it as if you’re sitting in a room, so dark that you can’t see your own hands. You know there are doors and windows that, if opened, will brighten the room and the door will in fact allow you to leave, but you can’t move because the pain has paralysed you with its tricks and lies. There is no perspective, but your own dark one.

 

Connecting with others can be the thing that offers a perspective you can’t see for yourself. It can be the thing that gives you the courage to open just one window, and then another. It’s also why connection is so important to me now. Connecting with people is like a mirror for the things you can’t see for yourself. You see darkness, but they remind you there is a window, there is hope, there is light. This is especially important when you’re depressed because part of the illness is that your mind distorts everything negatively. It’s not the truth, but you can’t see that - you need other people to give you that message, in small, but persistent ways.

 

There was one discussion in particular that really touched me. One of the people had been struggling with depression for a long time and was only just coming to the point of telling anyone about it. This is incredibly brave and something that I was never really able to do - it’s only fairly recently, with enough distance between that time, that I’ve been able to talk about it at all. Part of the reason is that for me, it was only by coming out of it and getting much, much better, that I was even able to properly recognise that’s what it even was. I understand the distortion of perspective well. This brave person also commented that because feeling like shit was just so familiar, it enabled him to go on for so long without doing anything about it - it had become his usual perspective. I know what he’s talking about. when you feel that terrible all the time, it does become normal. There’s nothing else to compare it to and sadly, eventually for some, that feeling becomes all too much and it really truly does feel like there is indeed no good reason to be alive.

 

Depression will try to isolate you. It will undermine your worth and fill your head with compelling lies about your value as a human being. It can make people withdraw completely from friends and family, indeed life altogether. It can make people self-medicate themselves with drugs, alcohol and other addictions just to get some respite and alleviate the pain. It can make people treat the people they love in ways that hurt and which are extremely hard to live with. It can make people go crazy trying to put on a front and pretend that everything’s ok, everything’s fine, while the internal war rages on incessantly, day after day. And all of this can be going on inside someone without the outside world ever knowing, reiterating the lie that people will only like me, only love me, can only tolerate me if I’m ok. If they knew I wasn’t ok, they wouldn’t want anything to do with me and I wouldn’t want to burden them anyway. 

 

Another person in that conversation shared that he had lost his sister due to mental health issues and reiterated this extremely important point. Sometimes people with mental health issues can’t reach out and they can’t seek the help they need. It’s all part of the disease. This wonderful and caring person also went on to share a list he’d created to help him be a positive influence on this issue. Little things he tries to do every day to make a difference, to make small connections with people who might be unable to do it for themselves. These are not his words exactly because I wasn’t able to ask his permission to publish his actual list, but I’m hoping he won’t mind me re-creating his ideas …

 

1. Smile and say hello to people you see whether you know them or not - you never know how much that small act can mean to someone and whether it might be the only smile they see all day.

2. Engage people you meet through the course of your day in a little bit of conversation (e.g. people at the shop, a neighbour) - why not be something positive in their day?

3. Make an effort to talk to and connect with family, even if you’re not close - family is important and you never know when you may stumble on something they need help with.

4. Ask the opinion of others, even if that means admitting you don’t know everything and need some help yourself - it makes people feel good when they think their opinion is valued and you might learn something!

5. Always offer support, even if it’s only moral support - you don’t need to be able to solve the problem, letting someone know you care often half solves the problem anyway.

6. Offer to spend time with people - even if they don’t take you up on it, it’s usually received as an indication that you care and could make all the difference just by asking.

7. And most importantly of all, if you know someone who is depressed, susceptible to depression, or struggling with mental health issues, never give up on them, even if they hurt you.

 

I know it’s hard to talk about, believe me, but I also know how dangerous it is to become isolated and disconnected from people. I also know that it’s not just the people with depression whose job it is, whose responsibility it is to reach out. The truth is that sometimes and often, they can’t. It’s therefore up to people who are well to reach out to them. Be kind, always, because you never know what someone is struggling with, what internal war they’re battling that you can’t see. I reject wholeheartedly and challenge anyone who says they just can’t understand because they’ve never felt that way, never experienced depression themselves. Sure, maybe not, but everyone, everyone has feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, low self-esteem, stress, overwhelm, anxiety, even if they’re rare and even if it’s only a glimmer. And good for you too - that really is fabulous if you rarely feel these negative thorns, but that doesn’t mean you have nothing to offer someone who does. Stop for a second and think of a time you felt that way, and then imagine that feeling on steroids. Imagine it didn’t go away, ever. Imagine you lived with it every single day and there was nothing you could do about it. Just imagine. Don’t you think you could spare a smile? Ask how someone’s feeling and really listen to the answer. Let them know there is a window and a door, that there is light. It could make all the difference to someone.

 

Little things do count and they can make a difference. You may never know the effect, but small kindnesses don’t cost you anything either. In fact, making intentional positive connections with people in everyday life, both with people you do and do not know, makes us all happier, healthier and more mentally resilient. In small ways, we can all make a big difference to someone and over time with the compound effect of others doing the same, we make the world a much, much better place. 

Photo credit: Robin Williams by Hot Gossip Italia via Flickr

Connection as a mirror

My husband said to me this morning that he noticed I was checking my phone in the middle of the night and he wondered if that was really a healthy thing to be doing. I brushed it off. I wasn’t really checking it, it’s just that there was a notification and as I happened to be awake anyway, I quickly glanced at it to see what it was. This was the truth. But then he went on to say that he’d noticed I seemed to be pretty ‘connected’ a lot of the time and even our son had made a comment about mum and 'her phone'. A frown and furrowed brow from me. Hmmmm. I think you could be right, I said.

 

Although I felt a great deal of resistance to what he was saying, I knew that probably part of the reason I was resisting was because there was truth in it. The way I’d seen it was that my connection with people was important, I mean I have a blog about connection, of course it’s important! Especially when much of that connection centred around ‘important stuff’, and things I care a lot about, like my blog, my kids’ school and my role in the P&F, for example. But the truth is that I just like that stuff. I care about what I put out there and how I communicate with people about the things I care about. It’s my way of being connected to the things that matter to me, and this is a good thing … as long as it’s not to the exclusion of the other things I care about … like family.

 

My husband knows I like this stuff and I know I have his unwavering support - he’s my cheer squad, but he’s also my mirror. When he cared enough to point out something he could see I was probably missing, he was holding up the reflection of something I class as the most important thing, family and my role as a mother, and questioning whether I was renegotiating its priority without even knowing it. It’s easy to do with things we like, things we love and which we consider important. Time flies when you’re doing them, they creep into time meant for other things and they’re easy to justify, all without even knowing you’re doing it. Without even knowing you’re changing your priorities by your actions.

 

Balance and flow is important in life so we can somehow juggle our roles and responsibilities and manage our priorities. Part of achieving that flow means connecting with those special people in our lives who can hold the mirror up to the things we can’t see from our internal perspective. I can’t see a bit of parsley or a chia seed stuck in my tooth without a mirror, but the person I’m talking to probably can and they can, and hopefully do, kindly point out that it’s there despite the fact that I couldn’t detect it myself. It might be an uncomfortable moment and I bet I’d wish the stray bit didn’t lodge in the first place, but this resistance doesn’t change the fact that it’s there and now that I know about it, I have the opportunity to do something about it. So what am I going to do? Say it’s not a problem and leave it there???

 

It takes courage to hear and see what our mirrors are showing us sometimes and that’s usually because the mirror reflects something that’s different to the way we see ourselves. When my husband held that mirror up to me this morning, I felt a great deal of resistance because I pride myself on putting my family first - they’re the most important thing in the whole world to me. But what that mirror was showing me was that even though that priority is what I say and certainly what I believe, my actions could be telling a slightly different story. Ouch. And at the end of the day, it is our actions, what we do, that defines us.

 

I’m not proud to say that I needed this to be pointed out to me, but I’m willing to admit it and also glad to say I overcame that initial resistance and found the courage to look into that mirror truthfully. I’m glad I did because what I saw was a truth resistance could have blinded me to. I love writing and I love the groups I’m involved in and my roles in my communities - they bring me great joy and stimulation. I love to be involved and I love doing a job well. But my priority is my family and just because my interests feel good and are important, they’ll never top what matters most. Thankfully I was shown a mirror this morning that perhaps suggested a slightly different picture, or at least the potential to develop into a very different picture. The point is, I couldn’t see it myself, but someone close to me could and now I see more than if I was looking with my eyes only.

 

Make the time to do the things that are important to you, honour your priorities and commit to them fully. When you’re with that thing, or with that person, be with them fully, give them your whole attention. You can’t connect with people fully, you can’t get jobs done properly, neither can you feel the full benefit of the things that are really important to you unless you give them your best. Listen to your mirror holder-upperers, be brave enough to look and have the courage to see resistance as a sign of something you need to address.

 

And on that note, you may notice that this is a shorter post than usual. Well that’s no coincidence - I would love to write all day because I do love it, but have other priorities that also need my best attention ;-) 

Photo credit: Mirrors from Bhaktapur, Nepal, by Sukanto Debnath via Flickr

Know thyself

Thank you to everyone who read, shared, liked and commented on my last post. I was really surprised by the response and also really heartened by the support and also the interest in something that obviously strikes at the heart for so many. The response to that article really got me thinking about the importance of connection in motherhood, and indeed parenthood. The amount of page views and shares really showed me that this is important and something that people really do care about. I never had any intention of writing about motherhood as such, except to touch on it occasionally in the bigger conversation about connection, and because I’ve written about motherhood in the past, felt a bit ‘over it’ actually. However, this article got me thinking about motherhood in the context of connection and I realised it's something I’d overlooked in my quest to unpack and explore this topic.

 

There was one comment in particular that really caught my attention and taps into my whole fascination and theory about the importance of connection. That comment was that the perspective in that article  [http://www.andreakelly.org/andreakelly/2014/8/1/the-courage-to-connect-and-courageously-support] had the potential to change women’s personal journeys of motherhood … and from there the world. And from there the world. Bingo. That’s what I’m talking about. She went on to say that if women could ‘get this’, then think of the harmony and the love and how deeply connected it could make families, communities and more. I cannot tell you how amazing it feels when you’re trying to explore, explain and share an idea that you truly believe in, when someone, somewhere says something in response and you know they 'get it'. The way I felt when I read that comment, as well as the comment itself, illustrates perfectly why I am so obsessed with connection and why I believe it’s our number one hope of bringing more peace into our own lives and indeed the world.

 

I’m talking from my own perspective as a mother mostly to other mothers, so while I don’t mean to exclude fathers and other guardians, because all are heroically important, I will mostly refer to mothers and motherhood and leave it to you as the reader to slot your own situation in. 

 

At the heart of the last article was the importance of connecting with and supporting new mothers in not striving to be everything to everyone and get 'everything done' at a time when, especially with an unsettled baby, just surviving seems to be the only thing that we’re realistically able to tick off the list … and that’s ok. It’s so important for more experienced mothers to connect with and share the wisdom of hindsight with newer mothers to help bust the myths on what motherhood is, what’s important and in doing so, reshape the all too often unrealistic expectations. Expectations that can lead to pressure, frustration, isolation and depression.

 

The first point I’d like to make is that this feeling is not unique to new mothers. Of course a screaming newborn is a rude shock into the world of motherhood emotions, but the expectations and distorted perceptions of priorities persists throughout motherhood. Unfortunately you don’t get to a point where you ‘get it’, tick it off and move on, at least I haven’t, not yet anyway. Nope, it goes on and on and is in many ways one of the shared experiences that defines motherhood. I even think, with the advantage of hindsight and my own experience with a grumpy bugger of a baby, if you have an unsettled baby, and this frustration and feeling of being torn becomes a part of your life from the get go, then maybe, just possibly, it’s mother nature’s way of giving you a head start. Better start practising, better get used to this, she’s saying, better figure out how you’re going to cope because this ain’t going away!

 

Sure, I know a screaming baby is a pretty in-your-face, heart wrenching horror of an ‘opportunity’ in bloody good disguise, but that could be a very handy way of looking at it. Your baby won’t cry forever, but crying baby or not, you will feel this way again … and again, and again. And whatever happens, in whatever way, you will get through this. You may find the miracle cure, you may not. You may come through unscathed, but you may also be scarred for life. But no matter what, while you will undoubtedly learn a lot about your baby, you’ll learn most about yourself.

 

It’s a worn out phrase that babies don’t come with a manual and of course it’s true, but it reminds me of of how sometimes there’s too much focus on the baby and not enough focus on the mum. Bear with me, I’m not saying for one moment that we should ignore our babies and indulge ourselves, that they’ll sort themselves out while we carry on with our lives as if we don’t have a screaming baby. Besides, screaming babies are pretty hard to ignore - that’s the problem, right? But what I am saying is that sometimes focusing all our energy on ‘fixing’ an unsettled baby while ignoring ourselves won’t do anyone any good either, and that focusing our energy, and at least a reasonable portion of our brain space, on understanding ourselves can be a much better investment. One of the reasons is that we may never find the magic solution for our unsettled babies and by seeking to find the ‘cure’ day after day, we run the risk of setting ourselves up for failure on a deep and dangerous level. The other reason is that while the baby will definitely, I promise you, stop being unsettled, at least at some point, the feelings of expectation as a mother, the juggling of priorities, the sense of overwhelm and frustration will come again and again in different forms and for different reasons, and the best chance any mother has of coping constructively with these feelings and learning to thrive in spite of them is by knowing herself.

 

No, babies don’t come with a manual, but by the time you have a baby, you will have accumulated a fair bit of data about what makes you you. What makes you happy, what makes you frustrated, where your strengths and weaknesses are, what your issues are. Any stress in life will magnify the things you know about yourself as well as highlight that which you didn’t know, and that which surprises you. Motherhood, if nothing else, is an epic journey in self discovery and self development. And therefore, if one thing’s true, and this applies just as much to dads and guardians, is that knowing thyself is probably your greatest tool for connecting with that baby, with your children and making this roller coaster ride of parenting as positive and fulfilling as possible.

 

Connection is the key, but it starts with yourself. It starts with listening to your inner voice, to your instincts and often, you will have to actively practise listening in order to even hear that voice, but it is there and it needs to be heard. This is where your truth is, and the more you can intentionally connect with and listen to that inner voice, the louder and more easily heard it will become. It is your first and most important mission as a parent, as a mother, as a woman, and you will need to draw on it time and time again. No one else can do it for you and it will take courage to learn to commit to it, but it’s the most important thing you can do because it’s through this voice that you will know how to nurture yourself first. By nurturing yourself first, you can mother your baby in the way that you are at peace with and have the courage to teach your partner the way that’s best for you and your baby. It will give you the courage to question the expectations you place on yourself and to make decisions that feel right for you.

 

When we connect with and support new mothers, and indeed all mothers and parents, to tap into their inner wisdom, their inner truth and peace, we enable and encourage them to parent in a way that is most unique, heart-centred and most effective for them. This is the most perfect form of parenting any parent can gift their children. It creates happy, secure and nurturing homes and enables us and our little people to go out into the world and connect with our communities from a place of greater understanding. By knowing thyself, by having the courage and commitment to listen to ourselves first, we create a feedback loop that changes not only our own lives, but those of our kids, those of our communities and indeed the world. When I have the courage and commitment to listen to my heart and let my words and my actions be guided by its truth, I allow others to tap into a primal human desire to do the same. Our kids need us to be true and at peace, whatever that means to us, so that we can guide them authentically. And kids know, babies know - they haven’t lost that instinct, it’s still raw, in tact and functioning for them; it’s us adults that have many a time lost touch with our inner truth. It takes courage to listen, it takes courage to believe and act, but when we do, things change. Life becomes easier, more enjoyable, more peaceful.

 

I know screaming babies are awful and I wouldn’t want to go back to that, but I can see with hindsight that I did miss an opportunity. I missed the opportunity to begin the journey of nurturing myself and listening to my inner truth much, much earlier than I did. We learn things at precisely the time that we’re ready to learn and I can’t turn back the clock anyway, but I do hope that my own hindsight can make someone else’s journey a little less prickly. I hope that the small amount of peace and wisdom I’ve found inside myself thus far can help just one other person see the importance of knowing thyself, trusting their instincts and in doing so, help others to do the same. True connection starts within ourselves, inside our own hearts, and the magic of doing this is that once we do, we can’t help but form more authentic connections with others, whether that’s our own kids, or people reading blogs on the internet. It’s a way of saying, “It’s ok, I understand”, and if that’s not a way to make better homes, better communities and a better world, I don’t know what is. 

Photo credit: Fe Ilya, "All My Loving" via Flickr

The courage to connect and courageously support

I often think about mothers of newborns and very young children and wonder how smartphones and the advent of Web 2.0 has impacted and changed the experience of early motherhood. When I first became a mother, smart phones were only just entering the market so Facebook and all the other social media icons were not yet as ubiquitous to every day life as they are now. I see posts from friends with babies and toddlers sharing milestones, cute photos and videos, and also the not-so-cute times. The sleep deprivation, the frustration with teething and sickness, the inability to ‘get anything done’, the urgent and dire need to ‘get out of the house’, the overwhelm of trying to fit too much into a day and then think of something to cook for dinner. Whenever I read these posts, it takes me back to a time when I too shared the same experiences, but didn’t have a smartphone to be able to tap into a willing cheer squad.

 

 

I was thinking about all this recently when a friend of mine with a very young baby wrote a post about being worn out looking after her unsettled colicky baby. Her post and replying comments took me right back to when my second child was a baby and also very unsettled. It reminded me of how I felt during that time and how I became isolated and depressed, even though I didn’t really know it at the time. My overwhelming desire was to reach out to her and help her in the way I wished someone had have been able to reach out to me. I wanted to tell her what I wished someone had have been able to tell me.

 

When my baby 'turned' from being a content, quiet little baby into a tormented, frustrated, crying little red ball at about 6 weeks, I think I would have liked my older self to have looked my younger self in the eye and tell me about the necessity of having the courage to trust my instincts and prioritise self-nurture. That this, regardless of what I believed was most important and what being a ‘good’ and ‘capable’ mother meant to me, that these things had to come first. I know what the younger self would have thought too. She would have brushed it off as obvious to the point of being irrelevant because the real priority was to figure out how to settle this baby so I could get all this other stuff done. In other words, I, like many others, I daresay, theoretically saw the importance of nurturing instincts and understanding unrealistic expectations, but not to the extent of being able to prevent myself from becoming isolated and depressed. Making the link between instincts, self-nuture and maintaining meaningful and healthy connections with others, along with the active pursuit of accountability for your own well-being is probably difficult to do without the 20/20 vision of hindsight.

 

And so day after day I’d try something new, looked for those magic gripe drops, tried the swaddling technique that was slightly different to the 7 others I’d tried, upset myself and my baby with control crying, soothing music, a more rigid feeding routine, altering my own diet, stressed myself out by trying not to be stressed and read yet another article telling me my baby was upset because I was stressed and that he was merely taking cues from me, so I should sit down and have a cup of tea. Viola! Not.

 

Looking for solutions is fine, but there's rarely a silver bullet and sometimes not even a name for ‘it'. The truth is some babies cry, a lot, and sometimes we never really find out why. Just when you think something’s ‘done the trick’, you’re just as likely to have the wheels fall off and have to head back to the drawing board … again. Early motherhood is demanding, even when everything’s smooth sailing, and downright treacherous when it’s not. When you're new to this, to this enormous, relentless job, your instincts are probably your best friend. But we can’t see instincts, were never taught instincts at school and they were possibly not even mentioned, or merely skimmed over at your anti natal class, they’re not to be found in the baby isle at Coles and your mum probably brushes them off as inferior to actual experience. But your instincts are important and they need to be honed and developed, and the only way to do this is to practise listening to them. It means being kind to yourself, it means being your own mother in a way, and making that your first priority because in truth there is no other time that you need to mother yourself more than when you become a mother yourself. If you’re so tired and exhausted and confused that you can’t even imagine having instincts, but you know you need to breastfeed and bond with that baby, if that's all you can manage, well that's absolutely enough and that’s more than ok.

 

It's all so intense and magnified when you're 'in it', but time marches on and when you look back you realise how small a time in your whole life it actually was, and therefore so precious ... and tiring, and hard, and scary, but always never the less, precious. I wish new mothers were told more strongly and relentlessly that if "all" (as if it's nothing!!) you do is sleep, breast feed and talk to your friends during this time, punctuated by some walks outside, and snuggles and talks with your partner, best friend or significant other, then you're doing a brilliant and perfect job. So ingrained is the expectation that we will be ‘super mums’ immediately (whatever that means anyway), that we’re not even explicitly told to have these expectations, we just automatically do. Now that you’re a mother, you’re supposed to have everything sorted - a perfectly content baby whose different cries you fully understand and efficiently respond to, an immaculate house, a tidy pantry, delicious and nutritious dinners, washing and ironing up-to-date, a tidy social life and coffee calendar, an exercise regime, baby weight lost, swimming lesson and baby yoga, blissful breastfeeding with copious amounts of milk, a nice fat baby, and let’s not forget, extreme happiness because everybody tells you these will be the best years of your life. 

 

Now I hate to sound cynical, but seriously? I’m skeptical and I feel strongly that these often unspoken expectations are not only unrealistic, but dramatically increase new mothers’ likelihood of experiencing feelings of failure, isolation and depression. It’s often said that failing to do anything about a problem is the same as contributing to it, and it seems to me that while most of us would agree that these kinds of expectations are unrealistic, we tend to smile and go along with them anyway. What we really need to be taught is how to unlearn them. We need to be told the way it really is and supported in being much, much more realistic in what the job actually entails, its excruciating demands and what’s actually important.

 

We are living in a period in time where most of us were brought up being told we can do and be anything. We’re used to technology and with that comes a certain impatience and expectation that everything can be ‘fixed’. If you don’t like something, don’t tolerate it - get an app, read an e-book, find a guru, fix it! And again, I’m a modern woman and I not only like that approach, for the most part, but I employ it often in everyday life to huge advantage. However I’m also becoming increasingly aware of the need for real connection in life to tap into the collective human wisdom that remains essentially unchanged through the ages. It’s so easy to get caught up in ’stuff’ and become deaf to the knowledge that has accumulated through millions of lives lived. What mother looks back and says she really should have done more housework! No mother, ever. There’s something in that, why ignore it?

 

For me, I felt like everyone had a million suggestions as to how to 'fix' my baby and I felt enormous pressure to 'solve' his problem, which in turn lead to nothing but an enormous feeling of failure and depression when I couldn't. This feeling was further compounded by my expectation that I could also get everything else done, but I couldn’t, and neither did I let it go. What I wish someone would have said to me was to stop focusing on trying to 'fix' him, and instead shift to focusing on how I was going to get through this. I needed to bring down expectations and nurture myself so I could stay relaxed and solid for my baby. I now know that it's absolutely ok if that means that all you do for days on end is sleep together and feed. Let it be. Or sleep together when possible and play blocks with your toddler. Whatever, the point is it’s just a moment in time and this too will pass. Take the time to intentionally trust yourself and nurture your instincts. Your mental health and ability to cope will be greatly strengthened and your baby will respond to your focused, calm attention. 

 

Perhaps even if this had have been said to me, perhaps I wouldn’t have been able to hear it anyway because I know how ingrained my own expectations of myself were and I now also know how unrealistic and dangerous they were. It takes great courage to question your beliefs, to interrogate your modus operandi and that’s because within it we entwine our identity. Our identity as a ‘good’ mother, a ‘hard working’, ‘organised’, ‘thriving’, ‘natural’, ‘capable' mother are all wound up in our expectations of ourselves and compounded by a society that both praises these apparitions and expresses awkward discomfort with being different.

 

Mothers however, if nothing else, must be courageous, and let me tell you, even though I for one often felt as far from courageous than is humanly possible, it comes with the job; mothers are instinctively courageous. One thing you learn about courage though is that it’s not as sexy as brave. It’s often unseen, unheard and often feels exactly like fear, but the difference is that it’s relentless. It doesn’t go away and deep inside you know to trust its voice. Sometimes it sounds very different to your own voice, the voices of your friends, your family and even the voice of the world, but you’ll know it because deep down, you know it’s the truth. This is what mothers need to know.

We've got the apps, we've got Google, we've got the medicine and the natural remedies, we've got the research, we've got the studies, we've got society at large telling us what’s right and what’s wrong, but what we perhaps haven’t got is the connection that none of that can ‘fix’ anything without the ability to tap into and trust our own instincts. To share what hindsight has taught us about what’s important at a time that’s so fleeting. To help develop the courage to define our own priorities based on love and self-nurture, rather than an unrealistic and impossibly outdated super-mum machine ideal. It’s probably easier in a lot of ways to go along with the machine, but it doesn’t change anything and it unnecessarily contributes to the already present and inherently unavoidable risk of post natal depression. New mums need to be told that it’s ok to not do it all, it’s ok to not even want to! It’s ok to not be ‘perfect’. It’s ok to feel overwhelmed and depressed. It’s ok if your baby cries a lot - he won’t cry forever so let’s just now see how to get you through this in one piece, with your sanity in tact.

 

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we’re all more technologically connected than ever before, and while this definitely presents challenges for people becoming more isolated despite and maybe even because of all that connectivity, it also represents an unprecedented opportunity for meaningful connection. Mothering new babies, whether it be for the first time, or with a small tribe of toddlers, pre-schoolers and older kids, is extremely demanding. We get through it and come out the other side with wisdom and stories, regrets and triumphs, myths and myth busters. No two stories are quite the same because we’re all unique, but we all have something to share, something that might just resonate with someone who’s in the thick of it and who needs to be told, quite simply, it’s ok. And perhaps if it’s said enough our collective wisdom will impact the expectations placed on new mothers and increase their support and well-being. It is, after all, without a doubt, one of the most important jobs in the whole world so it need to be kept real and courageously supported. 

Canteen therapy

I had a bad dose of PMT the other day (wow, that's another whole topic, but let's not go there today!) and felt awful. I woke up with the devil and all his negative force inside me, had a big cry in the shower feeling I couldn't possibly go on (you know those cries), followed by a big snuggle and talk with my man to stabilise, then went off to a day in the canteen at my kids' school. It wasn't exactly what I felt like doing, let me tell you, but I have experienced the magic of canteen therapy enough to have been able to manage a fairly open mind.

 

I set off feeling grateful actually that I was going to be doing something that would keep me busy and give me a few laughs in a comfortable environment. Although I wanted to curl up, hide from the world and mope for the day, I know that can be a speedy spiral into negativity. Actually, it was better to have someone lead me in completing simple tasks and being productive.

 

Well the short of it is that I was right. It was much, much better to be busy with friends doing something useful. This was very, very good therapy. Incredibly effective, zero negative side effects and a plethora of compounding positive effects in addition to the almost absolute decimation of the original symptoms. Remarkable. And it got me thinking, of course, about connection, again.

 

Group therapy, occupational therapy, diversionary therapy, the importance of community, belonging, acceptance, as well as the sisterhood and women's business, in mental health and managing life's usual and unusual challenges. There seemed to be two key elements of my canteen therapy today that were fundamental in achieving the positive effect it had;

 

1. Being led and kept busy, but not frantic, in continuous, but undemanding tasks (purpose & diversion)

 

2. Accepting, embracing and even nurturing company (belonging & acceptance)

 

These two ingredients gave me something to focus on other than my PMT, allowed me to feel purposeful when I would otherwise have felt lost, frustrated and overwhelmed, and gave me a sense of belonging and of connectedness as the antidote for isolation.

 

When I reflected on this transformation of my mood, I felt like it was deeper than it seemed. Like it tapped into something more ancient and soulful and much bigger than me and my mind. It reminded me of ancient and tribal women brought together around tasks like food gathering and preparation, basket weaving etc, and was struck by the benefits of doing this and how I felt like I'd just spent a day doing the modern day equivalent.

 

Made me think about how depression and PMT and menopause rage and financial pressure and marital unrest and domestic violence and abuse and, in fact, all the things that make us sad and that hurt us are kind of taboo in our modern world. We have bugger-all accessible mechanisms to cope with these things and the things we do have set up to help people are often, unfortunately, repelling, or unattractive, or un-accessible to those who need them, often because they’re designed to remedy a crisis, rather than prevent that from occurring. I’m not knocking that either, we need to help people in crisis, but what I’m getting at are the simple mechanisms in life that serve our fundamental human needs and help prevent little things degenerating into more than they need to be.

 

We are often isolated in our modern lives, ironically when we've never been more technically connected. And that maybe the best preventative measures and most effective therapies for our mental well being are the very things that our modern world has either consciously or inadvertently decided are not important. Communities of people connecting over simple, meaningful tasks. Once upon a time baskets had to be weaved, food had to be gathered and prepared and people had to live in groups or they would have perished, and while we don't have the necessity of those tasks any more, we still have the need for the experiences those tasks provided the framework for.

 

We can shop now whenever we like with earbuds in listening to whatever we choose without an ounce of human connection. We can even operate the check-out ourselves so we can even avoid baseline pleasantries, and sometimes that’s very convenient. And our lives are so busy, we outsource much of our work because our scarcest resource is time. And I'm into that - I love convenience, I like a busy life and all its modern, convenient perks, and I love outsourcing or using machines to save myself some time.

 

But today I thought about it in a different way. I wondered how much that simple act of getting together with friends, or family, or a group of fellow volunteers, or avid hobbyists, or sports lovers, is missing, or overlooked in our modern lives as a way of providing some of the elements crucial to human survival. Things that maybe our modern lives could easily tend to disregard and how I was so glad to have had the opportunity to get my fix today, right when I needed it most. I’m not so much trying to make a sweeping statement suggesting that we’re all devoid of belonging to groups and therefore of feeling purposeful and accepted, but rather just to think about how good these kinds of structures are at providing some of the critical elements of life.

 

It’s good to feel purposeful, to feel like you belong and are accepted. We’re human, these are basic needs and having the mechanisms in our lives to intentionally access these psychological super-vitamins contributes to overall well-being more than I, for one, have given them credit for. And in this technologically hyper-connected modern world we live in, perhaps it’s more important than ever to cultivate an awareness of the unchanging human need for real connection; purpose, belonging and acceptance, and to intentionally seek and create experiences that feed us in this way. 

Connection shows up in forming better habits

A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook a piece about her addiction to her scales and weighing herself. It wasn’t an extensive post, but it was enough to get a sense of the pain behind this habit and how much of a challenge it was for her to quit it. I really felt for her because I know what it’s like to have created a habit in your life that’s based on negative feelings. I knew that it was going to be hard for her to change her habit, especially because the thinking behind the habit had to change too. That’s the hardest bit, I think. But I was also incredibly proud of her for having the awareness of the need for change, the love for herself to recognise what it was and why it was bad for her, the determination to change it even though it would probably be much easier to ignore her soul voice, and the courage to share her thoughts.

 

It doesn’t matter that I’ve never had an addiction to weighing myself and have in fact never even owned scales. It doesn’t matter a bit because it’s not actually about the scales. It’s about the ‘things’ we’ve employed in our lives to please others, out of obligation, because we think it’s right, as a way to push down and ignore our own feelings, out of fear, out of a feeling of scarcity, of feeling inadequate, of striving to be better, to appear better to others … ay ay ay! Always negative at the core and always drowning out, ignoring and sometimes consciously contradicting the inner voice of our souls.

 

That inner voice can be a problem, a rebel. It doesn’t care about conformity, doesn’t care about ease, about comfort, doesn’t care about anything but the health of our soul, our essential selves. But that can be inconvenient, can’t it? We argue with it. 

 

But having a body like that WILL make me happier. 

I’m stressed, I deserve a glass of wine, and then another… 

My family can wait - this report is more important than them right now. I’m doing it for them!

 

So we push it down. We dumb it down. We ignore it. We make it go away … until we can’t hear it anymore. And we keep doing the thing that does not make us happier, it makes us weak because we come to depend on it and we are, therefore, stunted in growth until we become aware of it, reach out and kick away the crutch.

 

We all have our ‘things’ and the only way we can become aware of our own ‘things’, our own crutches, and help each others with theirs, is through connection with one another. By reaching out and sharing her crutch, my friend did two important things;

 

1. She made it possible for others to recognise their own crutches, scales or different - she created an opportunity for her friends to identify with her and in turn, possibly become more aware about themselves.

2. She allowed me to recognise similar feelings and challenges that I’ve faced in my own life, and moved me to connect with her in encouragement and understanding.

 

Sometimes we don’t want to tell people about these things, sometimes we don’t even see them for what they are, so deaf have we become to our inner voice. But when we see others sharing their challenges and their journeys, there’s something that rekindles that inner voice. Something that tells us it’s not so bad, it’s nothing to be ashamed of, I’m not the only one. It may be uncomfortable, we may look at that soul voice askance and wonder if it’s possible that it could be right after all. We could still doubt it, but never the less, at the very least, we wonder and maybe, just maybe we reach out to that person. And then magic starts to happen.

 

The real beauty in this is that it gives us the opportunity to recognise that we are not that different from one another. Her thing’s scales, my thing’s alcohol or striving, but at the core of it, the core reasons or motivations for employing the crutches in the first place, for ignoring our inner voice and ending up with a negative habit, are similar feelings. Feelings that have to do with feeling less, of negativity, of a lack of acceptance and an absence of sufficient connection at the root issue.

 

But guess what? If I feel like that, then chances are that other people feel the same. If I’m not perfect, then chances are that others aren’t either. Nobody is perfect. It’s an illusion we create in our minds as a result of our feelings of scarcity and lack and inadequacy, and they’re fed and bolstered by a society of thousands of humans all doing the same. But if we connect enough to know that we’re not alone, then we can probably connect enough to also see that if negativity and lack and scarcity and inadequacy mentalities are possible, then it’s plausible that so too are the reverse. And that’s how we evolve as human beings. Through connection, we become more aware, braver, more aspirational, more free, more loving and more open. Through connection with others, we see what is possible in ourselves.

 

Photo credit: Marcus Jeffrey via Flickr