connection

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

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/

 

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

Why being connected to your why stops your marketing from being icky

How being connected to your why stops your marketing from being icky.jpg

Because it's real, it's you, it's authentic.

 

Because it's not a performance. It's not some show you put on in exchange for money, clients, likes, customers, shares, metrics and ego strokes.

 

Because it's not some dancing monkey wearing an uncomfortable little tuxedo, jumping through hoops while playing a miniature tambourine. Well, you get my drift.

 

Because if you actually care about what you're doing, what you're creating, what you're pouring yourself into and how you're directing your life, then there's no need to perform, no need to do tricks. You just do you. Really, really well.

 

It’s because when you care about what you’re doing and you know why you’re doing it, then it doesn’t feel sleazy or stagey to tell people about it - you WANT to tell people about it and you’re proud to be sharing your thing.

 

Your “marketing” turns into sharing what you know, what you do, what you create, what you believe in. And if that thing can help people, help them to solve a problem, help them to be healthier, happier, find more hours in the day, make more money, look after their bodies better, think clearer, dream bigger, be a better parent, fix their car, paint their roof, express themselves, find the best deals, write better, create their art better, feel like they belong, know they’re not alone … then don’t you kind of have some kind of social obligation TO share what you know? Isn’t it right that you should find those people you can help and go do that?

 

Because when you’re connected to the reasons that you do the thing you do, you’re more likely to say, “Hey, I’m not an expert, but I really, really believe in this this stuff and this is what I’ve made - I think you’ll really like it and I’d love you to try it out”. Ok, that might sound a bit vulnerable and not like much of a sales pitch, but if it’s your truth, then it’s your truth. Truth can’t be wrong. And just because we’ve all become so conditioned to expect hyped-up sales and marketing, doesn’t mean it’s right … for YOU.

 

Because when you start with that inner why, that inner belief, maybe even that inner vulnerability, you’re creating a foundation of authenticity that’s rock-solid and ready to grow and expand. If you choose to start with a dancing monkey act, what can you do? Learn more tricks.

 

Because when you really understand, care about and value what you do, what you make, what you say and how you show up in life, then you stop trying to please everyone. Pleasing everyone isn’t the point, you know it and you become really ok with that when your why is crystal clear. You no longer need permission, ego strokes, likes, shares, ranks and metrics to tell you it’s worth something - you already know. You already believe. And man, belief is fascinating and contagious - think about that for a sec.

 

And guess what? All that love, all that permission, all that liking and supporting and sharing and ranking and selling comes back to you when you give it out first. That’s because when you put your values and yourself front and centre of your business and inject you and those values into every aspect of that business and in every way you show up, you’re giving people something to connect with and that’s what we all want. People can’t connect with ‘things’, they connect with people. They don’t connect with tricks and slogans and performances - they connect emotionally with other humans and that’s because we all want to belong and matter.

 

… Because we all want to belong and matter. 

Related posts: If this resonates, you might also like my post on Icky marketing.

Image credit: Courtesy of 'Lost on Planet China' at https://lostonplanetchina.wordpress.com/tag/dancing-monkey/

Icky marketing

My friend is petrified of marketing. Petrified. The word itself makes her feel icky, to put it nicely. The jargon makes her sick, marketing ‘experts’ give her the creeps and she’s downright overwhelmed by the noisy swathe of marketing approaches for her business. Frankly she’d just rather get on with running her business, doing what she loves and ignore the whole marketing fanfare … except she knows she has to market her business to continue to grow her success. So she’s stressed and she feels kind of crippled by what she perceives as a gaping hole in her otherwise very pleasing venture.

 

Her story or situation, her perception, stress and problem is not uncommon. Social media platform and engagement is a check box on her to-do list. Branding means logo. Networking means obligations. Marketing means sleazy, technical and expensive voodoo, and self promotion, apart from business cards, is arrogant. Basically, she doesn’t want a bar of it, and yet, her heart is heavy because somehow she thinks she must.

 

I sit across from her, look her in the eye and tell her this;

 

Everything you need to know about marketing is already right there inside you. It’s in your heart. It’s how you live your life, what you value, what you love, why you do the things you do, what you dream of, what you desire, how you want to make the world a better place. It’s in your art, the way you treat people, the way you love people, the way you write, cook, craft, nail killer deals, pull off the impossible. It’s in the things people thank you for doing, in the way you make them feel, it’s in your essence - it’s YOU.

 

There is no expert, competitor, peer, wizened sage, academic, world leader, best-selling author, Forbes business woman of the year 7-times running, no mentor, no coach, no NO ONE who can be who you are nor who can replicate what makes you you.

 

This is your life and your business and your legacy, and what makes it special and unique is the fact that it’s yours and it comes from you, because no one else can do that, ever.

 

You already possess all you need to know and already hold all the answers. It’s like taking your baby to see the 100-year-old community nurse with over 10,000 years cumulative experience - she is an awesome resource, no doubt about it, she’s an expert, but for all that experience and all that knowledge, you’re still the superior expert on YOUR baby. And really, her job is to draw on all her masses of experience and expertise to extract from you the courage and confidence to accept and step into ownership of your own expertise for your own baby.

 

Your business is like that baby. Even with all the experience of the world at your fingertips, the only way that any of that can make sense and lead to something positive and meaningful is if you draw on and incorporate what you already know. Your values, your desires, your why. Without this, any marketing tactics you apply are just that, tactics. You don’t need tactics, you need real connection with real people between what you do and why you do it. Those are the things that people care about and those are the things that set you apart, give you wings and let you soar.

 

Business without the connection to your why coming through in everything do, everything you say, everywhere you show up, is dry, dead and boring. And yep, very often it's kind of sleazy. It’s the same as everyone else using tactics to blab out their need for attention. Forget attention right now, forget metrics to start with, just focus on connecting with your inner drivers and the people who already care about what you’re doing. Start there and everything else will follow, I promise.

 

Yes, it can seem like a scary, kind of fantastical, idealistic woo-woo way of thinking, but actually it’s the only sustainable way of thinking about something you really care about. Start inside of you and start with your people first. Reconnect and define what matters to you and why you’re doing it. What your dreams are for those things that matter, and what you’d love your legacy to be. Write it, say it, feel it. And then tell your people, show your people, connect with the people you already have who care about what you’re doing. They might be your friends, or maybe just one friend. They might be a handful of loyal clients, or employees you know are special. Tell them. Tell them they’re special, tell them your vision for what you’re doing and tell them why it matters. Thank them for supporting you this far and ask them to help you go further, invite them to step onboard.

 

Amazing zing happens when we give ourselves permission to focus on what matters to us and when we have the courage to be real and honest in saying we really care about something. That kind of connection is innately human - we need it and we thrive on it and it creates magic.

 

Block out the noise and start here, start on the inside with what you already know for sure. I promise you you’ll feel lighter, more focused, more confident. And once you got that going on, then you can think of exciting and innovative ways to share your message that feel good and right and most of all, authentic. That’s when marketing becomes your work as opposed to something separate. When you’re connected to your why and your people, the marketing of your business IS your business, not something you do on the side. It’s in every single thing you do, for real, no icky about it. 

Photo credit: Peeling advertising wall, Marine Line Station, Mumbai, India by Cory Doctorow 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

I like how I've become more adaptive

I wrote the following post a little while ago, but I thought I'd share it today because it's a lot about awareness and many of my thoughts here echo my last post. I'm talking here about adapting to situations and feeling relaxed and free as a result. I bet I also felt a greater sense of connection with my kids that day too. 

 

There are so many things that I wish I knew as a much younger mother. You know, like that it's impossible to have a tidy house with toddlers, and to release that unrealistic expectation. And how to *really* *actually* let things go, as opposed to saying it and knowing logically that you should, but remaining emotionally attached to it all the same.

 

Sometimes it feels like I only really learn something as I'm moving out of that phase and into the next the one, but I guess that's what life and learning is all about. When you really get something, really learn something, then that learning is the thing that opens the door up to the next thing. The lesson, the getting it, is the thing that moves you on and if you haven't learnt it, then you can't move on, it'll be the same problem until you do.

 

Letting go, as in really letting go and being able to enjoy the freedom of being pretty adaptable is probably a characteristic of the older mother, wouldn't you say? Of course there are some very special young mothers who, by dint of their personality and their own character, are very adaptable and 'flowy', but usually it's more common in mothers with a few more years' experience.

 

Part of that experience and also the ability to let go, I think, comes from being able to appreciate your own growth. I know I am hardly a Buddhist Lama, but I also know how far I've come. I can recognise that the way I deal with many situations and incidents these days is a far cry from how I would have reacted once upon a time and that, in itself, feels good.

 

My son discovered he has nits this morning before school. It is his year level's assembly this morning and I was on the canteen roster, but none of my kids are going today. And I'm so fine with that, in fact, even a little happy. A surprise break from the morning rush of breakfast and lunches and a day in the sun because no one's actually sick! I don't feel great about letting the canteen manager down, but I don't feel bad either. I'll help out another day; stuff happens when you have kids.

 

Anyway, I felt good this morning for the simple fact that, 1. this wasn't an issue for me, the nits and the kids staying home, and 2. that I had the presence of mind and the self-awareness ,in practice, not just words, to appreciate that I've grown enough for it to not be an issue and to actually feel good about me.

 

It's a small thing, no earth-shattering achievement here - boring in fact, you may say, but it's funny how being aware of the little things can make, and do make a huge difference. I'm convinced that it's these little, tiny, seemingly insignificant things in life, where we actively practise a positive mindset with awareness, that are actually the big stuff. This is what life is really about. This is part of what's meant by living well. I reckon anyway and I'm sure I'm right because I feel good, aligned and relaxed. If you can find things that make you feel like that with zero negative side-effects, then do it again and again. We are what we repeatedly do.

 

I like how I've become more adaptable and I appreciate the feeling of happiness and freedom it gives me. It feels close to how I felt as a child; when we would adapt without thinking about it - kids are really good at that. And right there is another very good reason why getting back to the child within us is another way of finding our true essence and a very good idea! But that's another fascinating story for another day..... Now off to the pharmacy to buy some nit killer!!! :-D

Photo credit: From Tony Alter via Flickr 

Seeking connection as a perspective changing strategy

It never, ever ceases to amaze me how critical it is to be well connected and how much of a difference it makes to outlook on life, everyday experiences and happiness in general. No, I'm not talking about 'connected' to the Internet and its various tools of connectivity at all. What I'm talking about is that deep connection we have with the people we love, primarily our partners, or spouses, and children.

 

You know when things start to feel overwhelming, when life seems too busy and too noisy, and pretty much just plain hard work? When little things bother you way more than than you know they should, when negatives are magnified and positives seem almost non-existent? Well I wonder, in those times, if you stopped for a moment and honestly assessed how connected you are to your spouse, partner, significant others, kids, friends etc what you'd find. I wonder because I think there is a distinct and definite connection between how connected we are to our key people and how happy, resilient and positive we feel.

 

My husband and I had drifted and our 'connection', our tuning in to each other and giving to each other had ebbed away. It happens in a busy life, doesn't it? The tide's going out and things just don't feel as good as they should. You lose your zing. But then we talked, we got back on the same page and we reinvigorated ourselves with the motivation to GIVE to each other again and what a difference!

 

It’s amazing how much of a difference being aware of and taking notice of this can make. I think that often all those annoying things, all that feeling of overwhelm and of things being just a bit too hard are not the things themselves, right? We know this; it depends on our state of mind, our perspective. But consider how much being deeply connected to our number 1 people can totally change that perspective - it's MASSIVE. It's like having a team, that we're not alone, and being reminded of that, somehow, can suddenly make things seem exciting again.

 

And the best bit about it is that we can instantly turn that connectivity up a notch by giving. Do something beautiful for your partner, listen to your kids, give of yourself, and your connectivity instantly increases and so does your perspective. It is not out of our control - we get to create our level of connectivity and our perspective. Next time I'm feeling low, or overwhelmed, or unmotivated with life in general and it all feels a bit too hard, I’m really going to try to remember simply reconnecting as a strategy. Give of myself, be of service to those I love, show them I love them, open up, invite them in, reconnect. When I nurture my deep connections with the people I love, my perspective and my life changes. I love that because not only is it truly win-win, but completely within my control at any point in time and in any situation.

 

This is new for me, but I see it’s a habit worth cultivating. I know that when I’m feeling cranky, frustrated and negative, the last thing I want to do is connect with anyone. My internal rage is telling me it’s all their fault, whoever ‘they’ are, and that if they could only see all they owe me for causing me to feel so upset, then I might start to feel better. How unrealistic! Like scratching a mozzie bite; if I just scratch a bit longer, it’ll just stop itching. Wrong! If you scratch a bit longer, it’ll get itchier and you’ll end up with a sore and later a scar. You need to go in a totally different direction, put your mind to something different.

 

It’s time to re-wire and make new brain pathways, for me anyway. Imagine understanding that feeling frustrated and negative and cranky were symptoms of not having my desires met. My desire to feel understood, like I matter, that I’m appreciated, that I bring value to the world and to the people I love, and that I am loved and accepted. What if I knew that at the heart of all the superficial goings on and ups and downs of life, that I feel good when these desires are met and crappy when they’re not. And what if when I knew that when they are not being met, that I could simply reach out and seek connection to change my perspective and realign my outlook, and therefore the way I felt. I imagine that’d be a pretty worthwhile thing to practise.

 

So I tell you what; I’ll try this for one whole day tomorrow and then report back to let you know how I went. That is, I’ll practise two things tomorrow; 1, the awareness of my negative feelings and my inner desires not being met, and 2, taking the action of seeking connection as the antidote instead on focusing on the negative. In other words, I’ll try to find ways to fulfil the desires that aren’t being met. That is, I’ll not scratch, but seek connection through giving that which I wish to receive instead. 

Photo credit: Felipe Bastos via Flickr

Connecting on Facebook isn't real connection

Ok so we've all heard it a million times, connecting with people via social media isn't 'real' connection, right? Well, yes that is right, we probably have all heard that before, but is it right? Are social media connections false connections? I would say yes, of course they’re false if they’re false. Unless the connection is ... real. 

 

Whether it's via Facebook, or in a supermarket, over dinner, via email, a game of golf, a telephone call, or text messages, whether the connection between people is real or not has less to do with the medium through which it's conducted and more to do with authentic engagement.

 

For a start, you can't connect with Facebook because Facebook's not a person. We connect with other people. It's a big part of what makes us human. Nothing new. And we 've always needed avenues to facilitate connection, which before technology even existed were all physical, face-to-face interactions, then encompassed written interactions, and eventually telephone interactions. 

 

So without technology you could pretty much talk directly to someone, or write to them, but does that mean that all interactions were 'real'? Real in the sense that they were genuine, authentic and honest engagement between two or more people. Not necessarily. I mean you can be as fake in real life as you can be over the phone, or in a letter, or email, or on Facebook, can't you? You can be dismissive, pompous, guarded, rude and pretentious on the phone, or over a meal, or a game of golf, and you don't even need a selfie to back it up. It's just that sometimes that's the way we are. We're human.

 

But the truth is that since technology has advanced to the point of endowing us with a plethora of tools and vehicles for connection, we're spoilt for choice. Connection is everywhere, on everything, available always and never switches off if you let it. We've got all the stuff we had before; there's still golf and phones (for talking), and letters and supermarkets and dinners and emails and all that, it's just that there's a whole lot more on top.

 

So you see, it's not that social media, or any other conduit for that matter, is not conducive to 'real' connection, it's just that we're still adapting to so many opportunities for connection being available. What this does is makes us 'connect', or be engaged in some form of social conduit constantly, because remember all the old ones still exist, but we've just got technology on top.

 

Always 'on' means we're not always engaging genuinely and authentically and when that happens, you don't have a 'real' connection. 'Real' connection doesn't have to be face to face, it doesn't have to be voice to voice or even one to one, it just has to achieve connection where two or more people are authentically engaged. You can achieve that on Facebook, just like you can achieve it over the phone or at the supermarket or by writing a book.

 

Social media is just another tool for human connection. Whether that connection is real or not depends on the humans participating in that engagement, not the conduit. Sure, we've never before been more overwhelmed and possibly overburdened by the opportunities for connection, but the quality of the connection itself still comes down to how human beings engage and communicate with one another.

 

You can make real and genuine connections on social media. It's all in the way you use it. For some people it's one of the only way they can make connections with people. Take people who are geographically isolated. Situationally isolated by illness or disability, either their own or otherwise. People who are shy or introverted. Who feel overwhelmed by physical interactions with others. So because they connect with others via social media, their connections aren't real? Ridiculous. I'm sure the the same was said about telephone conversations when they were first invented too, and you know what? Some people still believe it. And that's because your preference for connection is a matter of opinion, but the quality or the 'realness' of that connection depends on you and who you're connecting with, not the medium. Always has, always will. 

Connection requires empathy

Does it? Really? 

 

Absolutely it does and if, when you read that initially, you’re feeling a bit of resistance to the idea, I think it’s probably because most of the time we’re unaware of our empathy for others. Most of the time, it goes unnoticed because it’s pretty natural. Most of the time. But not all of the time. We notice the problem though when there’s a lack of empathy and the primary reason we notice it is because it inhibits connection. Connection feels good, lack of connection or disconnection feels yucky.

 

When we really connect with another person, or even when a group is really connected, there’s a feeling of shared understanding. I feel understood and I feel like I understand you. This makes us feel comfortable, accepted and like we belong. We humans love to feel this way, it’s nice and it’s healthy, and it’s essential to growth and getting through traumatic things that happen to us. It’s why we have friends and want to find more, why we join clubs, play sport, volunteer and share our experiences through writing etc.

 

Sometimes though, you get that feeling that you just can’t connect with someone. You just don’t ‘get’ them and they apparently don’t ‘get’ you either. That’s fine, that’s life. It happens and it doesn’t matter, it’s all part of the greater scheme of things. But sometimes it does matter. It matters whether you connect with certain people or not. It matters because you care about them and therefore you want to connect with them, but perhaps you just don’t understand them. This can be especially confusing when you don’t like, or agree with their behaviour, or decisions.

 

Sometimes what’s going on is that you’re trying to understand them, what they’re saying, what they’re going through, the way they think, before you empathise with them. It’s like using understanding as a filter. Like saying, “If I could just make sense and understand you, then maybe I could empathise with you …”. But the problem is that mostly we use understanding as a logical tool, and empathy, which is critical to connection, is a feeling, and that means making empathy dependent on logic is going to fail.

 

Using logical understanding as a qualifier for empathy means that we essentially want the other person to explain their own thoughts and feelings in a way that ticks the boxes and meets our criteria. It assumes that understanding is essential for empathy, but it’s not. And the thing is that if you block empathy, or apply ‘qualification rules’ to empathy, you miss out on connection.

 

The reason this is true is that logic is limitless and subjective. You can make endless logical arguments for a endless amounts of things in the world. You can explain and explain and explain, and still you’d never get everyone on the same page about this or that. But empathy is based on human emotion and there aren’t too many of those. Yes, of course there are extremes of the same emotion and emotions get tangled up with one another, I know, but at the end of the day, humans feel the same things. No one is inventing new emotions. No one feels something that no one else in the world has never before felt. This is why we can empathise. It’s part of what makes us human. But we shouldn’t make our friends and the ones we love qualify for that empathy through logical understanding.

 

There are times when our desire for logic impedes our human intuition to love and connect with one another. I don’t know what it’s like to care for a mentally disabled child day in, day out. I don’t know what it’s like to balance a high-powered career with being a mother. I don’t know what it’s like to be an 8-year-old boy struggling with bullying. But I do know what it’s like to feel overwhelmed and depressed. I do know what it’s like to feel intense anger and fear so strong it can’t be repressed. I know what it’s like to feel like no one could ever possibly understand. I know what it’s like to wish that someone did, but more than that, that even if they couldn’t understand, that they’d love me anyway.

 

This is the point of empathy, this is the beauty of empathy and this is why connection requires empathy. Don’t miss out that connection because somehow it seems that you have to qualify empathy - you don’t. Give it freely. Forget the circumstances, none of those are ever quite the same, but the underlying emotions usually, if not, always are the same. We all need someone to care for us and love us whether they understand us completely or not.

 

Empathy is something to be given freely. It’s what it was designed for. 

 

photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mythoto/7573314434/">Leonard John Matthews</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/">cc</a>

Connection, and how some is better than none

I'm pretty fascinated by connection. Connection as in people-to-people connections with one another, ... and I should apologise in advance because I'm not sure how well I can organise my thoughts, let alone articulate them well enough for you to make sense of them, but I really want to try. The idea has been on my mind for about a year now and it's not going away! I see its effects, its magic, everywhere and I'm super-conscious of my own feelings and experiences with it. I notice its power in different ways, surprisingly small, yet powerful ways and I'm fascinated with how people, including myself, resist it while others crave it, and yet that as humans, we all need it like water and oxygen.

 

I am an introvert. What that means to me is that I need more time on my own than I need to be with other people. I don't think anyone is either an introvert or an extrovert, but rather that we all tend to prefer life somewhere on the introvert/extravert continuum and for most that place is more skewed one way or the other. Because I am more skewed toward introversion, I am more inclined to spend time on my own and sometimes feel a reasonable amount of resistance to social invitations. Admittedly, there are times when invitations feel more like obligations for me and I do struggle with guilt about feeling that way, especially when I really genuinely like the person or people. I'd just rather be on my own most of the time.

 

So hopefully I've framed that well enough to now point out the really fascinating thing; yep, you might have guessed it ... that regardless of the resistance I may feel in approaching or committing to some sort of social event, meeting or use of my time, I mostly always feel better for having done it. In the end, it's good to connect with people and it seems that for all of my feelings of resistance, it's something that stimulates, enlivens and even inspires me.

 

I wonder how much of this resistance has to do with having introverted preferences and whether that introversion has any relationship to the 'lone wolf' mentality? For me, I think the 'lone wolf' mentality is a product of not understanding myself and my introverted preferences enough. Not understanding that I need more time alone than with other people meant it was very hard to understand what that resistance was. Not understanding meant I would feel things like obligation and then resentment, and also overwhelm at the thought of managing these relationships and friendships. These negative associations with friendships and socialising encouraged the 'lone wolf' thinking to set in because it helped me, erroneously, to understand why I was feeling this way. The lone wolf can be a bit stroppy and starts thinking it doesn't actually need all these friends ... why would you with all this negative energy surrounding the inputs to those friendships?

 

But you know that whenever there's negativity around something, it usually means something's wrong. There's resistance to something that identified clearly and worked out properly will be much better and well worth the discomfort. It took a long time, but I began to realise that being a lone wolf wasn't for me and that actually I did like connecting with people and being social so what was the problem? It was simply understanding that I needed more time by myself than I did with fiends and that in order to enjoy friends and all the benefits of being connected to people, I had to make sure I had enough time on my own as well, and often first.

 

It was no longer black and white - I am not a lone wolf and I am not a complete introvert, I just needed to acknowledge and accept that I like lots of time on my own. Not that I didn't want to connect, not that I didn't need to connect, not that I didn't want or like friends even, and not that having them was an overwhelming responsibility ... just that I needed to stop, understand and accept the amount of time I needed to balance that with being on my own.

 

Since coming to that understanding and acceptance, I have felt so much more relaxed around people and have been able to enjoy their company much more by being fully present. And do you know what that means? Do you know what that facilitates? .... Deeper, more meaningful and fulfilling connections that make me feel alive, inspired and like I belong. Isn't that just the most beautiful and fascinating thing?