1. WHO - Who am I?
As we transcend into marriage, parenthood and the world of work, we can lose sight of ourselves as an individual. So much of our identity it dictated by who we are to other people, we become lost in a sea of alter egos. I'm not suggesting that we should not value how other people see us and our importance to them, not at all, but we can invest so heavily into the role we play for others that we entirely lose our sense of self.
One of the exercises I go through with my clients, comes from acceptance and commitment therapy. It is called the funeral exercise...a bit morbid I know, but there is nothing like the idea of our funeral to help us consider how we will be remembered and whether those memories reflect who we really are!
So let's really think about this. What music would your loved ones pick? Is it Adagio for Strings or is it Another One Bites the Dust!? Would they get it right? Would the stories your school friends told be entirely different to that of your mum friends? Would your kids know how you dreamed of travelling the world, or how you once skinny dipped in the moonlight?
The point is, that when we build a life with people we love, for people we love, we mould ourselves into who those people need us to be. Of course we do and that's ok. But never lose sight of who you really are in the process. If you aren't even sure who you are anymore, don't panic. It is an exciting journey of self discovery that awaits you. One of the most empowering experiences I have come across is to try new things alone. Since turning 40 I go to music performances by myself and I love it!
2. WHAT - What is important to me?
Right then, now we have thought about who we are as an individual, let's reflect on what is important to us. Another exercise I do with clients is called "The Wheel of Life". it is designed to help us recognise that there are many aspects to life and often, when we feel out of balance, it is because we are investing too much energy is some areas while neglecting others.
An example of when I have used this exercise is when I was feeling overwhelmed at work. I found that my marriage was suffering and I was not being a very good mum. I considered the other areas of my life that were important too, my personal development, my own health and wellbeing, my financial situation and my spirituality. The pressure I was under at work, meant I was not getting time to invest in my health, wellbeing and spirituality, this in turn was causing me to carry stress, which I was taking out on the people I loved most. I went through the wheel of life and looked at how heavily I was investing my energy into my work. I spoke to my husband and we both agreed that I should reduce my hours. I used my new time to look after my own needs, which meant I was able to find the energy to reconnect with my husband and be more present for my kids. Although I was worried about the financial impact, I needn't have been because, I stopped internet shopping at night, I used to hope it would make me feel better, but I realised I no longer needed the dopamine because I was getting to the gym more and getting my hit there!
3. WHERE - Where am I going?
This seems like a bit of a deep question, but two of the most powerful questions I ask as coach are these?
In an ideal world, where will you be 5 years from now?
If you carry on as you are now, what does the future look like for you?
This visualisation technique really helps us to focus on what it is we want to change in our present and create for our future. Once they have gone into great detail in answering the two questions, what I then do as a coach is get the client to explain in as few words as possible, sometimes just one word , how they feel about the futures they have visualised. This process helps the client identify the emotional attachment to the their vision.
4. WHEN - When did I develop this behaviour/pattern of thinking?
It's funny how we rarely reflect on when we developed our belief systems and who influenced them. The truth is, most of us develop our core values and beliefs when we are children and they are based on those of our primary care givers. When we are children we learn the map of our world from just a handful of people. They will influence, not only our core values and beliefs, but our political views, our behavioural responses, our internal dialogue and much much more. It is in childhood many of our cognitive distortions are created however, once created they are rarely questioned.
When I ask my clients to consider their relationships with food, they are often formed in childhood and are a response to difficult emotions. Now as adults, the same food/eating response is relied upon when facing difficult emotions, even though as adults we have so many other tools that may not have been available to our child selves.
We make assumptions about the world based on what we learned as a child, yet rarely as an adult seek the reliable evidence to support that assumption or dispel it. I use the word reliable here because there is such a thing as confirmation bias, which means we will seek evidence to support beliefs and filter out evidence to the contrary. But let's take a closer look at a cognitive distortion; e.g. "I am hard to love." Now, we can look back at failed relationships as evidence to support that assumption. However, let's look at how our belief in this so called fact, influenced our own behaviour in those relationships. Let's look at the evidence that contests that belief, let us consider the people who do love us. When relationships have broken down have we considered the other reasons behind why that might be? It is unlikely to be for one reason only. If that belief has come from a difficult childhood, it is important to remember that the parent is likely to have suffered their own cognitive distortions. It is likely that, if you break it down, they found it hard to love, not that you were hard to love. The truth is, this type of self exploration is better done with a therapist, as there can be a lot to unpack and work through but my point is, we all carry thoughts and behaviours that are impeding our progress and we need to be aware of them.
5. WHY- What is my why?
Our brains are marvellous super computers. We create neurological pathways like river paths. Some are so old, like the connections that enable walking and talking, that we can do those things without any conscious thought. Some are old habits, embedded over time and some, like new habits, need to be practiced everyday. Motivation is short lived. It is designed to kick us into action, but it will not in itself create change. Only discipline and repetition can create change. If we are attempting to forgo old habits and create new ones, just like forging a new river path, we need to work constantly. Understanding our why, will enable us to remain disciplined.
Connecting the answers from our previous WH questions will also help us to better understand our goals and why we must strive to achieve them. We are intrinsically motivated, meaning we are motivated by what is important to us. We cannot begin our journey unless we first, really consider who we are. Once we know who we are, we can then consider why achieving the desired outcome is important, which area of our life will be improved when we achieve what you are working towards. Where will the journey take us? It's important to think about, the journey itself, not just the destination. No great change was created without some hurdles to jump! Some people close to us might feel threatened by our keenness to change, they may even think it reflects how we feel about them (remember we ALL carry cognitive distortions). It helps to explain why it is important and ask for their support. Our relationship with change is complex, initially we fear it, because our brains like familiarity...it keeps us safe! But our brains cannot tell the difference between fear and excitement, they are chemically the same! It is our thoughts that differentiate the two, so work with that. Reflect on the journey, remember that some of the river paths we have forged, come from our childhood. Some are useful and healthy and some are not. The power of self reflection is really the key to success. Because it is what we learn on the journey that enables us to achieve any goal we set ourselves.