Know Thyself!

Getting to know yourself is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself. Paying attention to your thoughts, your feelings, to the bodily sensations created by these same thoughts and feelings to increase your awareness. If you know what direction your thoughts are leading you, if you’re aware of the tension these thoughts may be imposing upon you, then you can start creating other thoughts and making choices that support you.

Napolean Hill’s quote: “most people are the servants and not the masters of their emotions”, tells us that what we lack is self-awareness. Another quote from him illustrates this also: “Life either rides or is ridden. It never stands still. What choices you make determine whether one becomes the horse or the rider.” A powerful metaphor. In order to make choices that ensure you are ‘life’s rider’, you must take the time for self-reflection. And what better way than by immersing yourself in solitude, even if it’s just for a few minutes each day?

In these days of being constantly electronically connected to the world, with noise pollution a common factor, finding time to connect to ourselves isn’t something we can take for granted. We need to plan for it.

A while back, I was having lunch with a friend and she commented on how addicted she was to checking her emails and especially her telephone for text messages. Both of her daughters are in their 20’s yet still she needed to feel connected, at all times. But what she had come to realize is that she had very little time without distractions. She promised herself then and there that she would take one day of the week to commit to being ‘offline’. Laptop out, mobile out. Contemplatively enjoying the time alone, with just herself for company.

Disconnected for one day might be a big stretch for many of you. It would be for me. So plan carefully when you can give back to yourself. It’s the best gift you can possibly give to the person who is most important in your life.

Remember that as you ‘indulge’ yourself in this practice, you are re-wiring your neural hard wiring. As you increase your awareness in these moments or hours or during a day, you will notice that you’re more alert even during the busyness of your day. You will be able to bring yourself back into a harmonious state much more quickly when confronted with one of life’s many challenges.

And remember in these precious moments, to go to your heart, breathe deeply and slowly in and out and activate a ‘feel good’ feeling for yourself. You are worth it. More than you might even know.

“Know thyself” Socrates

What’s your chemical soup mix?

Photo Els ‘t Hooft: used with permission

One of my favorite parts in giving a workshop or training, is when I get to the ‘chemical soup mix’ part. I truly believe that when one understands what is going on physiologically, as a result of a stress reaction, then we’re more inclined not to let our reaction hijack us.

Did you know that when we have a stress reaction – say you run out of hot water while your hair is covered in shampoo; or you spill hot coffee on your newly laundered pants on your way to an important meeting; or your teenager is two hours past their curfew; or you’re on a walk in a nature reserve and come across this very large bear – that in the instant in which we ‘lose’ it, about 1400 biological, biochemical processes take place.

A Choreographed Symphony
YES, you’re reading this right – about 1400! Almost instantaneously. Without us having to ‘do’ anything. We are so amazing. Our autonomic nervous system kicks in and the brain starts choreographing a whole new symphony of reactions. Which is absolutely great. This is exactly what we need when the bear confronts us during our walk in that nature reserve. But listen up – it’s not such a supportive reaction when it’s happening for non-life threatening reasons, like worrying about things we can’t control. Or creating fiction for the future. Or beating ourselves up about things that happened in the past. Or letting someone push our buttons.

When we have a stress reaction that’s not for a physiological reason – in other words there isn’t a bear we’re being confronted with, or a car isn’t about to run us down – then we need to be able to choose our response. It’s called emotional agility. Most of our emotions don’t just ‘happen’ to us, though it often feels they are. We perceive something as being threatening and just by thinking that it is, our brain kicks into stress mode, conducting its business as if we were truly under a threat.

Why is this Important?
A body experiencing a chronic chemical stress soup mix is going to wear out much faster than one which has a supportive chemical soup mix with lots of feel-good hormones. Our creative, logical thinking skills aren’t maximized, our memory is affected (where are my car keys!), our immune system is affected. These are just a few of the consequences of not learning how to self-regulate our emotions.

Learn what signals your body is giving you, indicating that you’re having a stress response. Become aware; stop being on automatic pilot. Take time to listen to what your body is telling you.

Remember to Breathe!
When you feel that there are circumstances which could become stressful, remember to breathe. Slowly. Just 2 – 3 minutes of breathing slowly, will allow your brain to switch off the toxic chemical soup mix and turn on a mixture that’s much more supportive.

Feeling Safe, Feeling Valued, Builds Trust

Why are these qualities needed to ensure that employees flourish? What is it about these basic human needs that makes it so important for organizations to recognize how toxic the environment is without them?

Much has been said regarding the importance of trust in the workplace, in building relationships that thrive. Yet trust remains elusive in most work places. As a leader, if your people don’t trust you or each other, then you must know you aren’t getting quality performance from them. A lack of trust creates a culture of fear and fear will only motivate for mediocrity.

Neuroscience knows that when we don’t feel safe, the pre-frontal cortex shuts down. It’s where we do our creative, logical thinking. Shutting down as a response to fear, narrowing our focus, is part of our human survival mechanism.

In the documentary ‘Everybody Matters’, Simon Sinek says in an interview, for those who aren’t interested in the human side of business, that there are enough business reasons to adopt measures for caring: “People who like coming to work are more productive. People who feel safe amongst their own, who can trust the people they work with, are more likely to offer bigger ideas, take better risks, be more innovative and be more productive.” What isn’t to like about this?

What is one simple step you, as a (personal) leader, can take towards creating a higher trust culture within your organization? Well, organizations are comprised of organisms (in this case, people). A thriving business is built on thriving relationships, both internally and externally. The answer to my question is simple as well: value your colleagues by showing you care. Give recognition for work well done or for a small gesture of collegiality! There is no large investment of time, energy or other resources needed. Honest, sincere, and clearly stated appreciation will earn you huge credits in the trust department.

The image here gives a good indication as to why you might want to address your culture of (dis)trust sooner, rather than later.

Source: Everybody Matters

Barbara Fredrickson, a distinguished Professor of Psychology at the UNC Kenan-Flagler School of Business, has developed a theory called the Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions. Her research shows that negative emotions narrow our focus. Positive emotions such as gratitude broaden our attention; they broaden our awareness and they help us to be more creative and more cognitively flexible. As an extra benefit, one of the variables for resilience is mental agility. By adding positive emotions to your daily interactions, you create greater resilience in yourself and in others.

If you still think there isn’t a reason to create attitudes of gratitude for happier, more trusting and highly engaged workplaces, please go back to the quote above by Simon Sinek.

To paraphrase a statement by Bob Chapman in the documentary ‘Everybody Matters’: What a difference it would make if businesses would focus more on human value, than on shareholder value.

More Thoughts about Thoughts

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The influence and power of the quality of our thoughts is such an important topic, that I decided to share some thoughts more about thoughts with you. I first published a post on this topic here.

Every day we are subjected to a huge dose of negativity and fear-based news. If it’s not the politicians with whom we’re upset, then it’s the crisis in the middle-east that has us reacting in anger and fear. The list of possibilities is endless. And as if this isn’t enough, we also endlessly play the blame and shame game. We either beat ourselves up over something that has or hasn’t happened or we’re blaming someone else for our problems.

Our thoughts create our reality and they also affect our physiology. So many wise people have shared this lesson with us. Robert Sapolsky who has researched stress in humans, says that we are constantly bombarding our bodies with a stress reaction, not from any imminent danger but from the imagined danger our minds have created.

“It isn’t what you have, or who you are, or where you are, or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about.” Dale Carnegie 1888-1955, Author and Speaker

“Your living is determined not so much by what life brings to you as by the attitude you bring to life; not so much by what happens to you as by the way your mind looks at what happens.” Khalil Gibran 1883-1931, Artist, Poet, and Writer

“And every day, the world will drag you by the hand, yelling, “this is important! And this is important! You need to worry about this! And this! And this! And each day, it’s up to you to yank your hand back put it on your heart and say : “No. This is important” Iain Thomas

“As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” the Bible

I could go on and on sharing quotes from eminent writers, researchers and philosophers (sorry that I couldn’t find a wise woman quoting on this – they’re out there too!) but I think you get my point.

Start observing your thoughts. This is what mindfulness is all about. We think it’s something vague but actually it’s the most important thing you can do for yourself. Ask yourself: are my thoughts serving me or hindering me? What you focus on really does create your reality.

If they’re hindering you, then there is a good chance that not only are you not very happy but they’re also creating a toxic chemical soup mix in your body. This is at the root of so much physical and mental illness. And it’s something we do have control over. No-one can ‘force’ us to have a certain thought. But they can certainly influence you, if you let them.

By creating an awareness of our thoughts and by focusing on the positive aspects of our lives, we can rewire our brain to see and experience greater positivity.

Do the gratitude exercise as one step towards self-reflection and to creating a brain that is hardwired for positivity. You’ll be amazed at what an affect this will have for your emotional and physical state. Every day focus on 3 things that went well. Feel the gratefulness in your heart. Life is good.

How Full is Your Battery?

Image courtesy of

“People spend too much time finding other people to blame, too much energy finding excuses for not being what they are capable of being, and not enough energy putting themselves on the line, growing out of the past, and getting on with their lives.” J. Michael Straczynsk

My newsletter/blog is all about things related to thriving. We have many challenges in our lives – but usually only the blame and shame game as a coping strategy. It’s not very supportive.

The first step to creating more harmony and balance in our lives is through awareness. Start with something ‘simple’: what gives us energy and what drains our energy? Low energy levels make us more susceptible to reacting to stressful situations.

If you take this one step towards developing insight into ‘what makes you tick’, then you have a greater chance of taking the necessary steps towards ensuring you have more energy gainers in your life.

What can’t you say no to? What do you say yes to that might drain your battery? Is it a lack of exercise or a friend who weights you down with their problems? Is it too many late nights? Fast food? What unhealthy choices are you making for yourself? It comes down to what brings you short-term pleasure but coupled with long-term pain? We all know what we should be doing, often we just don’t do it.

If you’re not even aware of what’s triggering your energy drain then you can’t do anything about it. Stop and make a list of habits, situations, people, and environments that aren’t serving your best needs. Analyze the list and ask yourself what can you do to change just one of the items on your list. Once you have thought out a game plan, put it into place.

Search for help. If it’s a habit you want to change, then research how habits can be changed and how you can develop new ones that are more supportive. Charles Duhigg wrote a book about this and there are a couple of great videos on You Tube describing the process of change.

Perhaps you might need coaching. There are a lot of us ‘out there’. You need to find the one best suited to you. It’s an investment in yourself – don’t wait for your boss to reach into their budget to help you. Take the initiative for yourself.

If it’s an improvement in your diet, then look to a nutritionist/food specialist for help. And there are thousands of books on the subject. Ask someone who seems to have a good handle on their personal nutrition what they are doing. You know them! They are that person who looks great, exudes energy, doesn’t get easily irritated and has enough left over at the end of a long work day to still do something interesting for themselves. See if just one thing they are doing will make a difference in your life.

The bottom line is this: if our battery is running low then we won’t be able to come up with creative solutions to the challenges life throws our way.

Please share your comments and questions in the comments section below.

A New Day: A New Chance

We’ve entered a new calendar year. Fixing our eyes forward, I’m wanting to share with you some inspiring words of wisdom to enter 2018 with a different mindset, a different perspective, and perhaps with more grit and creativity.

New Year’s resolutions, goal setting, and good intentions are on almost everyone’s minds. We know that the majority of us will give up on our resolutions before 6 weeks have passed. At which time, your inner critic, that voice in your head, starts calling you on the fact that you’ve failed, again.

In the spirit of keeping it truly short and sweet, I’m going to quote my husband. He greets the start of every day, and I do mean every day, along with most people he sees (including me) with: “it’s a new day, a new chance”. He’s done this for so many years, I’ve forgotten how long ago he started. The staff in the fitness club where he works out every morning, have heard this so often, they greet him with these words. It’s become almost a competition: who gets to say it first.

But what do these words mean? For me, they mean that we don’t have to wait for a ‘new year’ to make changes. Even if we ‘shortchange’ ourselves by giving up early on our New Year’s resolutions, if they are important to us, it means we can start a New Year every day of the year. There is an expression that says “this is the first day of the rest of our lives”. Make each day, that first day. And if you fail today, then wake up tomorrow knowing you have another chance to get things right. In fact, you have 365 chances to get it right.

Don’t beat yourself up, if you don’t make your resolution a reality. Take each day as it comes. Failure is only failure if you don’t attempt again. Giving up is failure.

Thomas A. Edison, known as someone who didn’t give up, apparently responded to a friend’s query regarding the volume of experiments he’d done, that hadn’t delivered any results with: “Results! Why, man, I have gotten lots of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work!”

Stay focused on what you want to achieve. When you lose your focus, regain it. This will mean that you ultimately reach your goal, whatever it may be.

Holiday Needs in Your Time of Need

For many of us, the holidays, which are fast approaching, are a stressful time. Holiday stress manifests itself in a multitude of symptoms due to a variety of causes.
Here is a tip that can help you celebrate the coming days in full holiday cheer: behind any one of your energy draining stressors, lies one or more needs that aren’t being met. If you can identify the need or needs not being met, you can then do something about it. If you choose to.

Needs over time

The list of your needs is long and extends from physical needs (enough food, water, air to breathe, exercise etc.) to emotional, mental and spiritual needs. A need for calm, a need to be seen or heard, a need for connection, respect, humor, compassion, …

The needs which are important to us, developed over time. Your experiences, beliefs, thoughts, attitudes, fears, values all contributed to how you react when a need isn’t being met. Not all family get-togethers are occasions of joy, peace and harmony. Holiday music can be very misleading.

Awareness is key

It’s an interesting concept – that just identifying an unmet need can help you turn around the energy depletion that occurs in its absence. It takes the significance out of the situation to know what is behind your reaction. Of course, every personal development change in life starts with awareness, so why should this be any different? Well, it’s not.

Develop an awareness first, to which needs are important to you. To help you do this, here is a Needs List which you can find at this link.

Your homework should you choose to accept it

Choose the 10 top needs for yourself from this list (if they’re plentiful in your life, don’t choose food, water, air etc.). Then from this top ten, whittle it down to a top five. Then from this top five, choose the one need that is MOST important to you. You now have a workable list.

Take the items on the top ten list and make a copy of it. Carry it with you. Over the coming weeks, whenever you’re triggered by an energy draining emotion, take this list out. As soon as you’re aware of the energy draining emotion, ask yourself what need isn’t being met. Look first to the most important need in your life. Is this the reason for your im/ex-plosion? If not, look further down on your list. In all likelihood, the why behind your reaction will be on this list, because it’s absent in your life.

What you need now

A final piece of advice. In order to stimulate awareness in how you’re feeling, it may help you to ask ‘what do I need now?’. Call upon your inner wisdom in the situation. Once you know what you need – ask for it. Don’t demand it and don’t expect the other person to know why you feel the way you do. Ask for the need to be met in a non-judgmental, non-accusing manner. What I need right now is ——-.

Start practicing now. You will have a wonderful resource at your fingertips to help you find enjoyment amid all the hustle and bustle. Happy Holidays!

The Focus on Stress in the Workplace

Mid-November 2017, many Dutch organizations participated in the Week of Work Stress, dedicated to raising awareness on this topic. It appears that much needs to be done to better equip employees in responding to stressful challenges. According to TNO, stress is the number one organizational sickness. They also report that 36% of absenteeism in the Netherlands is related to work stress. But it’s not really ‘stress’, it is our response to it that matters.

Awareness as a remedy against stress

What we experience as stress is often ‘in the moment’. Maybe you’ve had a busy day, a problematic client or a project with a deadline that has to be met. You recover quickly though and carry on without any ill consequences. Some stress is actually quite good for us. Throughout our evolution, it has helped us fight, flight or freeze when a life-threatening situation occurs. It can motivate us to perform better. It can even stimulate our thinking skills in the short term.

However, when incidental stress becomes structural in our lives, it can then have some serious consequences. Putting in overtime every day, a long-term conflict with a work colleague, a strained personal relationship, and/or lack of restorative sleep, can all develop into huge energy drainers.

Becoming aware when we are being hijacked by our stress responses is critical to our well-being. One of Creating Waves’ foundations is that awareness is the first step to creating a healthier response to stressful situations.

The Keystone Vitality Check, developed by KEYSTONE success in 2014, was designed with this in mind. Employees fill-in their responses to 20 statements in 5 areas essential to balance our energy: body, mind, emotions, spirit (values, purpose) and personal leadership.

To date, more than 1300 respondents have filled this check in. Its purpose is to create more awareness among employees about their current state of well-being. By filling the Check in on a regular basis, employees become aware of their own behavior and can then take the necessary steps to change.

Seven worrying outcomes

Over 1300 employees from a variety of organizations have filled in the Keystone Vitality Check until now. Seven striking outcomes show that there is still much room for improvement:

76,2% of employees aren’t creating a moment of rest for themselves by setting out their telephone or not answering emails;
70,5% of employees are not taking short breaks every 90 minutes to refresh themselves;
52,9% of employees regularly work in the evening or in the weekends;
34,9% of employees don’t feel they are appreciated for the work they are doing;
31,7% of employees don’t remain calm and patient at moments when there is much demanded of them;
29,2% of employees aren’t regularly getting enough sleep;
26,5% of employees don’t find their work meaningful.
Do you want to know your level of vitality and compare yourself with the benchmark? The Check is free via or try out our new free app on Google Play.

It’s all about resiliency: Communication

First published by I am Expat 13 March 2013

The problem

  • Have you ever been guilty of reading someone’s mind, assuming you know what the other person means?
  • Have you created fiction for yourself from something you heard someone say?
  • Have you jumped in, offering your two cents worth, not knowing the whole story and ending up with the proverbial foot in mouth?
  • Have you ever been offended and not taken the time to ask for clarification?

Oh what conflicts are caused by ineffective communication. And conflicts of course lead to stress, usually for both sides. They often lead to long term grudges as well, which are hugely toxic to us physically, mentally and emotionally.

There are many aspects to communication and we assume we do them all equally well. What we don’t know is just how ineffective we can be in both communicating what we really want and hearing what the other person needs.

The brain’s perspective

We think we know how to communicate. After all, most of us are pretty literate. We know how to speak, write and read. The first question I ask is, do we really know how to listen?

I fear not. The reasons are many and they are somewhat complicated. They have to do with how our brains function. We carry our own baggage into conversations. Our past experiences, needs, values, language, self-image, beliefs, prejudices, attitudes, wants, fears, mind-sets all influence what we hear and how we interpret what we hear. It’s a long list.

Our brain filters the information it receives based on all of these factors. We think we know what the other person says and means but we can never, ever truly stand in their shoes. Your reality won’t be, can’t be, their reality.

Have you also ever noticed how as someone is speaking, we’re already formulating our responses in our brain? There is a constant barrage of thoughts or judgments. We can’t wait for the other person to stop talking so we can make our point.

If this is so, how can we be listening coherently? From our hearts?

resiliency communicationOriginal photo by Flickr user Gustavo Devito

Communicating effectively

Really effective communication is like a couple dancing in total harmony with each other. It can be learned. But it takes a lot of practice. And we’ll make a lot of mistakes before we master it.

In my work of teaching others how to develop more resiliency in stressful situations, I share how one can become coherent in the moment using their breathing. In past articles I’ve elaborated on this theme. Even in the midst of a conflict, slow and deep breathing opens up a gap between a stimulus (what someone said or did) and our response.

Instead of the knee-jerk reaction we’re so used to, it allows us to respond with supportive choices in the moment. There is a physiological reason for this: a brain that isn’t engaged in emotions like anger or fear is a brain that can think logically and creatively. That brain helps us find more helpful ways to look for the win-win in situations.

Prevention is the best medicine

Best of all would be preventing conflicts from occurring. Marshall Rosenberg, a U.S. psychologist, developed a method he calls Nonviolent or Compassionate Communication.

Those who practice this way of communicating learn to resolve differences peacefully. It teaches us how to connect compassionately with ourselves and with others. It’s useful in both personal and business conflicts.

One last helpful hint. If you’re not clear what someone meant don’t assume, don’t guess, don’t mind-read. Show your vulnerability and ask for clarity. You can save yourself a lot of heartache and a lot of stress.

Please click here for other articles I’ve written for I am Expat on the topic of developing more resiliency in challenging situations.

Recovery + Renewal = Resiliency

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What would happen if you were to take your car on the highway, press the gas pedal to the floor and drive without slowing or stopping? I think we could make a safe bet that sooner or later, your car would run out of gas…at worst, you could possibly damage the engine.

That’s what we can loosely call a burnout. If we push ourselves to the maximum effort without slowing down, easing off the gas pedal regularly and stopping to refill our ‘gas tank’, then our bodies are going to be so stressed, they’ll have to say NO MORE!

This isn’t rocket science. With not enough fuel, rest and relaxation (especially from our thoughts), our bodies will force us to stop.

What is causing most of our stress?  According to 30 years of research from Dr. Derek Roger (one of the world’s leading researchers on stress and resilience), all stress comes down to something called rumination.

“Rumination is the mental process of thinking over and over about something, which happened either in the past or could happen in the future, and attaching negative emotion to it.

Ruminations about the future are associated with “what if this happens'” or “what if that happens.” Ruminations about the past replay, over and over, some awful experience you had and usually end with, “if only I had …” or “I should have done …””

See the full Wake UP white paper here

In last month’s posting, More Thoughts about Thoughts, I cited Dr. Robert Sapolsky, who has researched stress in humans for more than three decades.  He says that we are constantly bombarding our bodies with a stress reaction, not from any imminent physical danger but from the imagined danger our minds have created.

Add to that, the abuse that poor diet and lack of exercise contributes to what our bodies have to undergo, and it’s no wonder that stress reactions underlie an estimated 75 – 90 percent of all visits to primary care physicians in the U.S.A.

We need to become much more mindful about the quality of our thoughts. We need to stop creating fiction for ourselves. We need to start being kinder to ourselves.

Mindfulness and meditation have been shown to be successful in suspending judgmental  thoughts. Take time for reflection on a daily basis. Focus on just breathing – something so simple, yet so essential that we forget we’re doing it or how we should be doing it.

Don’t beat yourself up because you can’t shut down your thoughts. Our brains are made to produce thoughts. Last week, a participant in a training I was giving shared a metaphor. Trying to shut down our thoughts is like standing in the middle of a highway, flagging cars zooming at us at 100 km per hour from both directions in an attempt to stop. Your thoughts won’t stop (estimates say we have circa 42 per minute). However, you can find the peace that comes when you just sit on the side of the road and watch the cars go by. It’s all about non-judgment. Acceptance. Oeps, there is that thought again. Bye, bye.

Encourage your inner coach instead of letting your inner critic have all the ‘voice’ time. And when that inner critic does speak so loudly that you can’t ignore it, embrace it. After all, what is this voice? Only your subconscious doing its best to protect you – usually in a not very helpful way. So acknowledge this voice without beating yourself up. Go to a quiet place inside yourself and through reflection, you will find peace. That inner voice will become still because it knows (you know) that you’re taking care of yourself.

Just in case you need some more encouragement, check out this Forbes article: Stress Kills – Unless You Choose To Proactively Combat Its Harmful Effects