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You Can’t Fill From an Empty Cup.

As a Psychotherapist and Coach, I see many of my clients trying to give out caring and love when they don’t have enough of it to give. They are depleted, resentful, frustrated and tired. And they are mad at themselves for not having more to offer their loved ones. Am I a bad mother?, they ask, whispering. Am I a terrible wife?

If this sounds familiar (at least sometimes) then this article is for you. It is about a very simple truth that often goes unacknowledged.

You have to have it to give it.

In this post were going to explore what this means and how we can get itback with healthy self care habits. If you dont have a solid concept of what self care is, or youve never been able to implement it for yourself, then stop reading here and scroll down to last weeks post on self care.

Ok, youre back? Greatlets move on.

However we perceive the mystery of life, what we know for sure is that we are in this human body, and that this body has needs. If we dont meet these needs we become depleted. It really is this simple, we cannot give out what we dont have to give. And the experts agree: as best selling author and psychiatrist Dan Siegel says, If we dont care for ourselves we become limited in our capacity to care for others.

I think about this mostly in the sense of being a Mum. If I haven’t recharged myself I tend to drag myself toward my children in a way that includes my exhaustion, irritability, short-temperedness and reactivity.

When Im refreshed, clean, well fed and nourished I can show up as my best self: patient, kind, open, responsive.

Yet, none of us live in a vacuum. The reality is that we have people to care for and sometimes we have to do things we dont want to do. On one hand, we are wired to be in relationship and community, and we thrive on the company of others: Family is what brings many of us our greatest joy.

Yet, if were not careful we can be left feeling drained by what our loved ones need, and by what other people crave.

As a mother of four children I know too well that if we are feeling depleted then filling someone elses cup is short lived. Once we run out of everything weve got (which I have done repeatedly) we have nothing left to give. At that point, taking care of others becomes an exercise in martyrdom and comes with very little joy.

While this joyless sacrifice may be necessary at times, we want to keep it to a minimum. Mostly, we want to be a carer, mother, friend, employee, or partner out of a balanced and healthy place that feels energising, not draining.

There is really only one way to do this, and that is to keep your cup full.

First, lets look at some signs that let you know youre running on empty:

+ feeling irritable, impatient, anxious or depressed

+ being forgetful and scattered

+ finding yourself nit-picking your loved ones

+ complaining more than usual

+ feeling tired, even after waking up
+ not being able to sleep, or oversleeping
+ having physical problems (excessive colds, headaches etc)
+ over or under eating

So, what can we do about this? How can we fill our cup when we feel like we have so much to do? Many of us have the mistaken belief that it is selfish to put yourself before your loved ones. This is often heightened if you are a parent and dont want to put yourself before the kids.

Yet this isnt a me vs you situation. We all know the rules of an airplane crash right? You put your own oxygen mask on before the children. Why? Because if youre not getting the oxygen you need to breathe, youre not going to be able to help them either. In this light we can see easily that this was never me vs you. Instead its always me, then you. Its me, for you.

These days I keep my cup full. I do this because Ive changed my thinking to believe that taking care of myself must be done. If I dont put on my oxygen mask then how can I hope to get the right kind of air to my loved ones?

Likewise, filling your cup must become a priority. There are many ways to do this and it doesnt have to be fancy. Some nights it may just mean choosing the movie YOU want to watch. Or when youve really had enough you can tell everyone you have a headache and spend the day in bed.

There are plenty more ideas in last weeks post on self care, so if you havent already done so, give it a read.

The real question at hand is, what kind of parent, wife, husband, or friend do you want to be for your loved ones? Cranky? Resentful? Grumpy?

Or open, loving patient and kind?

The decision is yours. Choose wisely.

The habit of Self Care

Often it is when we most need to take care of ourselves that we dont have the timeto do it. Yet self care is so important, especially when times get busy or tough. In this post, were going to first talk about what Self Care is, and then explore ways you can implement it.

Self Care is really a form of self love. It is letting yourself know that YOU are important enough to take care of. This may go against what you learned about yourself as a child, or how you are used to behaving as an adult. But logically we all know that if we dont take good care of something, it wears out faster, falls apart or fails.

Let me ask you, do you want to fall apart?

I didnt think so.

So, what is self care?

Self Care is the antidote to falling apart. It is the daily, weekly and yearly maintenance you do to take care of your body, heart and mind. This can be small things, big things or anything in between. This maintenance can take a little bit of time or a lot of time, but as with anything, consistency is key.

Your care plan will look different depending on what you have going on. In other words: self care is going to be quite particular to you and your unique life. Lets explore some potential ways to care for you.

+ drink enough water
+ eat in a particular way that feels healthy to you

+ getting x number of hours of sleep

+ take time for meditation, prayer or breathing exercises
+ create a morning or evening ritual
+ incorporate some kind of fitness routine
+ do a group activity (ie yoga)
+ spend time with friends
+ spend time alone
+ spend time in nature
+ read an inspiring book
+ get pampered (ie massage, hair cut, facial)
+ create a bath ritual
+ take time away from children or family responsibilities
+ take a digital detox (reduce screen time)
+ journal
+ enjoy a cup of tea somewhere quiet
+ eat a meal mindfully
+ go on a retreat
+ go to a movie by yourself
+ clean out your closets
+ hire someone to clean your house
+ schedule a daily nap

When reading this it is important to remember that you arent trying to do all of these things. Self care is about knowing when you are feeling run down or depleted, and then knowing what will fill you back up.

Lets use Jodie as a real life example of reasonable self-care. Jodie is a Mum of 2. Her children are both under 5 years old and her husband works full time. That doesnt leave a lot of time left over, yet Jodie knows how important it is to keep herself nourished.

Jodies self care

DAILY

+ 6-7 hours of sleep at some point in her 24 hour day. Sometimes this means she leaves the tidying up for later and naps with her youngest.
+ Instead of meditating, Jodie does two sessions of intentional breathing each day. She aims for three minutes but doesnt always get there.
+ drinks 2 litres of water per day and limits to 2 cups of coffee

WEEKLY

+ Jodie uses a sitter for 3 hours a day, 2 days per week so she can take some time for herself to sleep, run, or take a bubble bath on her own
+ she has one outing per week with a close girlfriend while her husband watches the kids, and
+ one date night every other week with hubby while her close girlfriend watches the kids.

None of these are easy to implement. Her youngest is still up frequently at night, so 6-7 hours seemed more realistic than 8. The sitter required lengthy negotiation with her husband to budget out the right amount. And the breathing exercises were better than nothing, even though Jodie would much prefer to meditate. The date night with hubby is a swap with their close friends: one week Jodie takes their kids and then they switch.

How about you?

Take a look at your own life and see, what could you implement right now to ensure your body, heart and mind are taken care of? How can you prevent wear and tear, damage or burn out?

It might take a little creativity, and good communication with your partner, children, work colleagues or friends. Just remember self care is whatever gives, not takes away.

Feeling good in the body.

Like most other animals on our earth we survived by being part of a pack. Our biology evolved to encourage us to work together, to be a clan. In other words, we’re supposed to be together. 

 

Our body is a complex system: brain, spinal cord, nervous system and hormones all playing a part in sending us messages for survival. Our body communicates to us using hormones and it uses one in particular to drives us to reproduce, to stay safe and to work together. It’s called oxytocin. 

 

Oxytocin

 

Oxytocin is sometimes called the love hormone, as it is secreted in our bodies at times of great connection like hugging, orgasm and childbirth. It is produced in your hypothalamus (an area deep within your brain) and is the hormone associated with empathy, trust, sexual activity, and relationship-building.

 

Oxytocin makes us feel those gorgeous feelings of love, connection, community. It’s the yummy feeling we get when we’re with someone we care about. When they body makes oxytocin, it sets off a chain in which serotonin is also created, which is a major antidepressant. 

 

From and evolutionary perspective, the secretion of these feel good chemicals make sense. When we are engaging in activities that ensure our survival (like reproduction and togetherness) our body lets us know by feeling good. 

 

Likewise, if we are isolated, disconnected or alone for too long, the body lets us know by feeling bad. 

 

Isolation, anxiety and depression

 

It is the absence of these chemicals that result in us feeling bad. If we feel bad for long enough, it will likely develop into anxiety and depression. Many recent studies have reported that social isolation is a leading cause of anxiety. This could be because oxytocin is extremely difficult to produce when you are on your own. 

 

As the incidence of anxiety disorders continue to rise dramatically, perhaps the right question to ask is, why are we feeling so alone? Even when we are physically in the presence of others, many of us still feel like we’re not connected. This could be because we fear rejection, so we don’t want to risk feeling vulnerable and exposed. 

 

Carl Jung said, “loneliness is not the absence of people, it isthe absence of connection with people”. What this means is that for the body to create healthy levels of oxytocin, we need to feel relaxed, connected and in sync with others, and being in a state of fear is counterproductive to this process. 

 

In addition, the body can become confused by social media. We have the sense that we are connected through our online communities, but we are not feeding the chemical and biological requirements of being physically in sync. Even though real relationships can be difficult and irritating, it is vital to our overall physical and mental well being to be together. 

 

With that in mind, the new question is, how can we create the oxytocin we need?

 

Creating oxytocin

 

Bessel Van Der Kolk (a leading psychiatrist and author of The Body Keeps the Score) says that one of the key ways to encourage oxytocin production is to get our body into sync with other bodies, literally. This can be an act as simple as everyone putting chairs out together for a dinner or gathering. 

 

This is important when considering the fight against depression and anxiety. If you are depressed or anxious, you may have arrived at this state due to social fears around rejection. If you are afraid to speak and connect then these group physical activities are the path to recovery. Joining an art or yoga class can be particularly helpful as there is almost no need for social talking. 

 

The point is, we don’t have to be in conversation to feel connected, we simply have to be together doing the same physical motions. This works better when we can be relaxed enough to be vulnerable, so if you’re feeling social anxious, start with the activities that feel safe to you. 

 

Oxytocin for trust 

 

The crazy thing is that once you start to  produce more oxytocin you will actually feel more trust, and you will be more likely to engage in activities that will then produce more oxytocin. In this way social isolation is a bit of a downward cycle, where the oxytocin production of social interaction is an upward cycle. 

 

I love this quote by Bessel Van Der Kolk, “If you feel safe and loved, your brain becomes specialised in exploration, play and cooperation: If you are frightened and unwanted, it specialises in managing feelings of fear and abandonment”. 

 

Generating oxytocin through social interaction is a sure way to move toward play, exploration and connection with all beings, and from there, into a happy life. 

 

If you’re feeling brave and want to try for yourself, here are a some of my favourite ideas for how we can increase the hormone oxytocin and combat feelings of anxiety and depression.

 

HUGS

What better way to get your body in sync with another than to go in for a big wide hug? The longer the better, but remember you have to feel safe. Even though we are scared of touch, it works wonders and deep down, everyone wants the connection. Try telling people that you hug rather than shake hands and see what happens.

 

GROUP MEALS

Share meals as often as you can. If you’re part of a family, resist the urge to eat alone, or with TV. Instead, sit together and share the food consciously: talking and looking at one another. If you’re single, try organising dinners or inviting people over. 

 

GIVE YOUR FULL ATTENTION

When you’re with someone really listen to them. Make eye contact. If you’re afraid of connecting, then listening deeply and asking questions is a great way to keep your fears at bay. 

 

GIVE A GIFT

Ever felt that warm glow in your chest when you give someone a birthday present or buy them dinner? Yep that’s your body telling you that gifts are a beautiful way to connect and create community. 

 

WATCH A GAME

Cheering for a sports team can make us feel like we’re back in a clan. If you can’t find one to physically attend, then watching your football team on TV can boost your oxytocin levels too. 

 

CUDDLE A PET

It doesn’t have to be a human body that you need to sync with, you can match up to an animal too. Walking, petting or playing with a pet is a great way to feel connected and loved. 

 

JOIN A GROUP

As mentioned earlier, you can join a formal group, like a sports team, yoga class, art class, or book club. This is an excellent way to be together without a lot of pressure. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Importance of Morning Ritual

Recently a client came to me complaining that she couldnt stay consistent with her morning ritual. I asked her to share with me what practices she was doing and she pulled out a long list of about eight things.

While the intention behind our goals can be heartfelt, we need to be careful to set ourselves up for success, not failure. Lasting change happens with consistency over time, rather than in one huge swing of unsustainable effort.

In this article Im going to share with you the simple daily ritual I recommend, and hopefully demonstrate why picking one or two special rituals is more powerful than trying to do them all.

The importance of ritual

By ritual, I simply mean the intentional creation of an ongoing helpful habit. This could be waking up each morning a little earlier than the kids to sit quietly with a cup of tea and purposefully muse on the goodness of life. Or it could mean that you leave your phone off for the first fifteen minutes after you wake, to sit in meditation and gather a sense of calm and purpose before the day begins.

Whatever you choose, it should be intentional, consistent and nourishing.

As humans, we are creatures of habit. Our brains are so incredibly powerful and efficient that they work by wiring neurones together to make easy work of repeating the same tasks. This means that whatever you repeatedly do, you do easier. If your habit is to wake up, smoke a cigarette and scroll through facebook, then your brain will continue to take you to that habit automatically and repeatedly.

Ritual breaks those old habits and rewires the brain for new ones. At first, they require commitment, but once they become automatic, they are simply part of our day. In this way, ritual and habit are the building blocks for our life.

Recommended Ritual

My recommendation is to book-end your day with a morning and night ritual. The evening is a perfect time for reflective journalling or gratitude, as we can look back over and day and consider what went well, how we were generous or kind, and what we are thankful for.

The morning is a great time to set an intention, to clear the mind and to consider what we want for our day. This is achieved best through meditation: either formally by sitting and inclining the mind toward presence or through moving meditation like yoga or tai chi. It can also be less formal as in the cup of tea example I gave above.

Lets explore these in further detail:

Evening practice: reflective journalling

At the end of the day make an intentional commitment to remove distractions. This may mean shutting down computers, turning off the television, and switching phones to do not disturb or airplane mode. If you’re in a busy home where this isn’t possible, you can create a quiet place away from distractions and make sure everyone knows this is your special reflective time.

Sit quietly for a few moments with a journal and pen and take some conscious breaths. Nothing fancy, just to centre yourself and turn inward. I suggest having the following two questions ready to answer.

1) What were three nice things that happened today?

This could be simple things like a stranger smiling at you, a really well made coffee, or catching a nice sunset on your drive home from work.

It could also be things that you did well, like a task you finally completed. Or maybe you put yourself out there somehow or achieved a small goal.  Maybe you managed to smile at someone or opened a door for a stranger. Keep in mind, its totally irrelevant whether other people thought you did well: its only what you think.

2) What were you thankful for today?

At first, its okay if nothing springs to mind or if you feel theres nothing to be grateful for. If you’re not used to looking for ways to give thanks your mind might draw a blank, but if you commit to doing this every day then you will train your brain to notice the good.

If its a struggle, dig deep. Perhaps you can be grateful that we have hot water that comes directly out of the wall, or that you have clean food and water to ingest. That there is air to breath and that if you listen, you can hear sounds of birds and nature.

If you really cant find anything, then simply be grateful that you have a quiet place to sit and that you have a mind capable of looking for gratitude.

Its also important to look for new things, not just the same ones each time. Recent studies show that its the search itself for something to be grateful for that spikes dopamine (a feel good chemical and antidepressant) in the brain.

NOTE: If you experience depression, then both of these questions may be difficult to answer at first. Day one you might just sit there and write nothing, but dont assume that it is a waste of time. The brain is so adaptable that on day two, it will already be catching on: and maybe it will think of one thing to write, and on day three, a few more. Each day you will keep building value and the brain will set a new bar to reach. This is the nature of our human mind, so just keep going.

Morning Practice: meditation  

The most powerful way to start the morning is in quiet reflection. There are hundreds of ways to meditate, though I hope you wont get overwhelmed with all the possibilities. In its simplest form meditation simply means to sit and be present. You might do this by noticing your breathing, sound, or to repeat a mantra or phrase. You could also use a guided meditation.

There are other ways to reflect in the quiet of the morning. I have a client who wakes up, makes a cup of tea, sets her timer for thirty minutes and sits quietly back in her bed to drink it. She doesnt turn on her phone off of airplane mode until after this ritual. Its her favourite part of the day.

In the beginning less is more. Committing to five minutes a day is better than trying for thirty minutes and only fitting it in once a week. Developing a habit is about consistency and patience. After the meditation or ritual has become a habit, you can extend the time.

These practices are so simple, and can be done in less than ten minutes morning and night. I suggest making a commitment to doing this every day for a period of time and then really going for it. They say it takes 21 days to make a habit, so that would be a good place to start.

Trust from the inside

What does it mean to have trust in a relationship? 

 I am not specifically a relationship therapist, yet almost all clients will inevitably discuss their relationships with me. This is because relationships are the greatest challenge in our lives. 

 It is easy to be peaceful and at ease on our own, but together we are forced to work through our sticky parts. This makes relationships one of the best ways to grow and learn.But as we all know, this is often not how it works. Instead, many relationships grow apart. 

 What decides if we grow together or not? To me, it’s trust. But what does trust really mean? 

Trust is the assumption that the other has positive intent 

Whether you are together or apart, trust is the assumption that your partner is always acting with positive intent (in other words, even when something they do hurts or triggers you, you trust they weren’t intending to). Sounds easy right? It’s not. It takes an incredible amount of courage to continue to make this assumption that you partner always means well.  

 If you find it impossible to assume positive intent from your ‘other’, it’s likely that there is one thing holding you back: you probably believe, deep down, that your partner will hurt you. Because of this belief you unconsciously try to protect yourself.

I’m going to share with you my personal trust story as an example of what I mean. First, let’s look at how unconscious belief’s run our lives, as it is integral to the story.  

Step One: Uncovering your unconscious beliefs 

Many years back, when I first stated my personal development journey, I realised that there was a nasty voice inside my head that was constantly berating me. It said so many terrible things that I was surprised that I had never noticed it before.  

Most of what I heard was tape loops of the same few things: I am annoying, I am too much. I began to study this voice: at first it sounded like my own, then later I could recognise the voices of others. 

 Eventually, while I was training to be a psychotherapist I found a new layer and it wasn’t a voice at all. It was like a feeling, or a sense of something: like music without the words. I realised that the reason it didn’t have words was because it was a belief I had formed before I even knew how to speak. It was like a soundtrack that had been playing from the time I was a baby, and it was “I am really annoying”.

 Current studies suggest that we even begin to form our perception of the world in utero, through the chemicals of the blood we share with our mother. We are picking up on the environment around us from the very beginning and forming beliefs about ourselves and the world. 

 Noticing the voice in your head, or the feeling that you carry, is the very first step to making conscious change in your life. If your unconscious beliefs remain unconscious they will continue to run in the background, ruling your life and making all your decisions for you. 

(A while ago, we posted an article called The Three Questions that you can read if you want to understand more about this.)  

Step 2: What are you protecting yourself from?

Around the time I discovered this deep belief, “I am annoying” I was working closely with my colleagues in my psychotherapy training. It was a safe space to explore, so I got up the courage to ask them if they thought I was annoying. They were somewhat shocked that I held this belief, as to them it wasn’t even a little bit true. 

There was real power in seeing this long-held belief for what it was. Once we can see clearly, we gain an insight into what we are protecting ourselves from. I realised that I had been going into all of my relationships, romantic or not, with this unconscious belief that I was annoying. This meant that I believed eventually, the other would come to this conclusion too. I had to protect myself from the inevitable outcome of getting hurt. 

This causes non-trust, beacsue the unconscious question you ask is, “How is this person going to hurt me?” This is very different to, “are they going to?”, which could be a valid question. There is an assumption that there will definitely be hurt, the only variant is the quality of the pain.

 I’d gone into every relationship carefully so that I wouldn’t be abrasive or annoying. This meant there was always a bit of me holding back, because I had to protect my shameful secret. If you have trouble with trust, you probably do you do this too. 

 The question is, what are you protecting yourself from?

 Step 3: Realise that trust is a habit

 Like love or gratitude we mostly think of trust as something that is simply there, as if it should just come to us when we need it. But trust (like love) is a verb: a doing word. We have to cultivate and practice it. 

 Over the years our inability to trust may have become a strong habit. Though we may believe our behaviours are permanent or unchangeable, this is simply not true. The way we think and act can be rearranged with repetition of something different. 

 We must realise that we are behaving in a habit and find a new way. 

 Step 4: Try a new way 

 Once I had identified that my habit was of protecting, of not-trusting, and of assuming negative intent, I knew it had to change. I made a decision to not accept anything that’s not trust. 

 I went through a process of catch, repeat, repeat. I would realise I was not-trusting and I would ask: how can I do this another way? It was hard, but I kept telling myself that this was about my beliefs, and not about my partner’s actions. 

 During this process, it is important to communicate with your partner. As I did, you can say something like “I realise I have trust issues. I am going to work on this. Could you please be patient? This is something I’m working on: it’s not about you”. 

 My partner was very receptive as he had been feeling like he had to constantly demonstrate himself to me. As I took responsibility for my feelings he no longer had to prove that he was honourable and our relationship was able to shift to a place of deeper comfort. 

 Get the facts 

 It’s important to remember that we don’t need to assume that all people are acting with positive intent. Of course there are plenty of nasty and dishonest people in the world that will genuinely cause harm to us, sometimes intentionally. This method is to be used within the relationships you have and value: with people that you have assessed as worthy. 

 At the beginning of each relationship it is important to gather the facts. Is your partner kind, honest and virtuous? Is he/she a cheating dirtbag? Gather the information you need to decide, and then move into trust. 

 This amazing journey of self discovery taught me something beautiful. That whether or not we learn to trust in our family of origin: trust can be a decision that we make. We can learn to not accept anything that’s not trust, and we can learn to assume that just like we are, everyone is doing the very best they can. This is positive intent.