It’s OK to Laugh at Pain and Suffering

Some time ago, I had an interesting online encounter with a phobia coach. I shared an article about a supermarket customer who burst out in tears feeling intimidated by an ‘aggressive’ supermarket employee who was scanning items ‘too fast’. While my comment was mostly meant to highlight the absurdity of the situation (it is quite unusual for someone to feel intimidated by the speed of a supermarket cashier) it led to a conversation (and my reflection) about whether it is ok to make a humorous comment about such a situation.

The coach pointed out that she felt it was perfectly possible for someone to exhibit such behaviour, and in fact, as someone who used to suffer from supermarket induced panic attacks, she could completely understand how someone can be intimidated by such a social interaction.   

It is of course perfectly possible to imagine how people with phobias, or neurodivergent people, can struggle to adapt in novel situations, whether this is because they can’t read the ‘script’ of this circumstance, or because that situation poses challenges for which they found themselves unprepared. 

Most human behaviour is on a continuum between two extremes, and even at its most extreme, we can still identify with the varieties of human experience. For example, while the vast majority of the population will stray far away from psychotic delusions and hallucinations (at least without the aid of psychotropics), most of us can think of at least a few instances in our lives where we have questioned our sanity or believed in things which now feel absurd to us. 

For decades I had this vivid memory of visiting a cave with my mum as a child, when suddenly a sheep fell from the top in front of us (and the rest of the flabbergasted visitors to this guided tour in the cave). I was well into my thirties when I recounted the experience to my mum and she patiently explained to me that the sheep never fell from the top of the cave; in fact, it was the tour guide who explained to us that the cave was discovered when a shepherd lost one of his sheep, when it fell from a hole on the top of the cave. 

As the above illustrates, we all carry unusual experiences and memories with us, which help us identify with the absurd and the extreme in human behaviour. This doesn’t however take away from the fact these are rare and unusual behaviours. And anything rare and unusual, naturally raises our curiosity. 

There are various ways in which we can try to identify with the novel and the unusual. We can conduct research and study the subject matter, but this takes time until we find the authoritative sources we need. We might ask questions to those displaying such behaviours -or those around them- in order to find out more; but sometimes it’s hard to do this in a discrete way or -if the person in question is in great distress- it might be inappropriate to probe about the cause of their condition (we might be of more assistance when we concentrate on relieving their distress instead). 

The quickest and most effective way to familiarize ourselves with anything unusual -including bizarre and incomprehensive behaviour- is the use of humour. Aside from the physiological effects of laughter on our wellbeing, which have been highlighted in several studies (there is a whole area of study about the health benefits of laughter called gelotology), humour is effective in breaking taboos, broaching controversial topics, and making conversations possible about topics which would otherwise feel awkward, strained or simply too painful to discuss. 

Much of the work of therapists, healers, psychologists and coaches centres around relieving suffering and pain. Our unconscious defence mechanisms often make it difficult to tackle such topics head on. Many therapeutic techniques have been designed to work through such issues indirectly, whether by addressing the unconscious, the social context, or psychological mechanisms that are seen as the ‘root cause’ of the problem.

Humour operates in a more direct, and often perhaps in a more honest way. It doesn’t refuse to tackle the issue head on but makes it approachable by framing the situation in a different way. Focusing on the absurdity or the comical aspects of a situation, helps us disassociate ourselves from the painful and negative emotions that are accompanying it. This can finally be the start of the healing process we were looking for all along.

Are You a Ghost in the Machine?

In his classic book ‘The Concept of Mind’ philosopher Gilbert Ryle argues against the concept of the ‘Ghost in the Machine’: the idea that our mental and physical worlds are two distinct realities which we vainly try to reconcile in illogical ways.

Ryle argues that there is no such thing as a ‘ghost in the machine’, some invisible ‘homunculus’, or an ‘I’ behind our behaviours, thoughts and dreams. We are our behaviour and our thoughts, and these are expressed through our bodies and physical reality.

This is a core concept often advocated in Eastern philosophies, but not very easy to grasp in our day to day lives, as it flies in the face of our common sense and perceived wisdom. Surely, there must be an unchangeable ‘I’ behind our ever shifting attitudes, values, motivation and behaviours?

However, if we are to be really honest to ourselves, would we be prepared to believe that there is a core self in us that never changes, an eternal pilot who skilfully and deliberately steers the whole machinery, but somehow acts in a completely detached way from it? And even if that elusive core was accessible to us, how does it help us to separate our daily thoughts and actions from some obscure entity which somehow moves the strings like a great puppet master?

I believe that this misguided obsession with finding our ‘true’ self behind our daily behaviours is a trap in which therapists often fall in their quest to help people remove the obstacles that are holding them back from realising their potential. Much time is wasted searching for the true cause of our current issues, instead of focusing on practical ways to resolve them.

There is something to be said that sometimes there is indeed a ‘root cause’ which once discovered, can help us understand and resolve our problems. But unless that cause is something tangible that can be identified, isolated and dealt with, returning to the great puppet master for the solution will not yield the desirable results.

The best solutions arise from the compound effect of us consistently focusing on the actions which align our behaviours to our values, attitudes and goals. Being able to describe our problem with clarity and honesty will do much more towards resolving it, rather than desperately searching for the wisdom of the ‘true self’ which mysteriously resides behind the phenomena.

Continue reading “Are You a Ghost in the Machine?”

Being Judgmental is Stressful

I recently spent a week on the Greek island Ikaria. The island is best known as one of the so-called Blue Zones: one of the five regions in the world with an unusually high number of people who live up to the age of hundred- and stay in good health.

A number of theories have been posited about the reasons why so many people in these regions are able to grow to an advanced age without succumbing to the usual ageing related problems we encounter across the world: dementia, cardiovascular diseases and the like. Factors that have been identified by research to contribute to the longevity and quality of life in Blue Zones, include:

  • a balanced diet based on local produce
  • a strong community
  • regular physical exercise
  • a sense of purpose in life

However, the most striking characteristic of the people I spoke to, was their peculiar concept of time and how they relate to others. Among the people I spoke to, there was a lack of judgement related to the passing of time, to themselves and to others.

Ikarians accept that old age and death are inevitable parts of life and instead of focusing their efforts on their fight to control time and illness, they concentrate on enjoying every moment of their existence. Their labour is directly related to their lives, as they grow their own food and wine, serve local communities, organize festivities for their own entertainment (the so-called panigyria) and produce tools and items they use in their day-to-day lives.

Additionally to this direct connection between work and personal life, I found a remarkable lack of self-judgement or of judging others. As stated above, Ikarians accept the flow of life and don’t try to control it. They are not hard on themselves and if plans don’t work out, you will often hear statements such as ‘tomorrow is another day’.

Furthermore, during my time on the island I didn’t hear any malicious gossip or covert critique of the lifestyle and behaviour of other people. Instead, there is a sense of strong community spirit and willingness to help others. When I arrived at a panigyri without cash to pay for food and drink (card payments are a no-no in such locally organized festivities), a local lady we had only met the previous day offered to lend me money and had to rely on my promise that I will repay her the next day.

This judging of ourselves and others is a great contributor to our ever accumulating stress and anxiety. It makes us unhappy and uncomfortable about the world we live in. Start today by identifying an area where you have been overly self-critical and making a promise to yourself to be less self-judgmental. You will notice that this will have a direct positive impact on how you feel by the end of the week.

By keeping our stress and anxiety levels below excessiveness, we can all improve our quality of life and be a little bit more like the Ikarians.

Don’t Fear Your Anger

At some point during our formative years, most of us are taught that expressing anger is a bad thing. The world, we are taught, is not always a just and fair place and therefore we have to accept that we can’t have it all. There is no point expressing out anger and frustration when things don’t go our way, we just have to learn to accept that life is unfair.

Learning that the world is not going to bend to out will is of course a valuable lesson. However, together with learning this lesson, something else happens which is often detrimental for our future health. We learn to fear and suppress the emotion of anger.

Children are quick to suppress the expression of anger, especially if this is discouraged by parents. Children seek connection and attachment with their parents, so any anger expressed against the wishes of their caregiver is experienced as a conflict which triggers anxiety.

However, the healthy expression of anger is an important survival mechanism which empowers and even relaxes your mind. The physiological expression of genuine anger leads to a surge of power, as well as to the disappearance of anxiety. Here we need to make the distinction between the healthy expression of anger and the expression of rage; rage is an expression of anxiety rather than anger and shows very different physiological signs.

In your life as a business owner or solopreneur, anger can have a healing and empowering effect. You may choose to either express it or not, but the crucial part for your success and mental health, is that you acknowledge these feelings, rather than ignoring them.

Anger may point to a real or perceived threat to a business relationship, or to a genuine or imagined violation of your boundaries. Either way, acknowledging it will help you step forward and say to yourself and others ‘I matter’.

Avoiding Pain Leads to Disease

In our 21st century western societies, we have been conditioned to ‘think positively at all times’. Tons of self-help books have been written about the magical powers of positive thinking, ‘mind-over-matter’ and the dangers of not getting what we want, because of our ‘negative’ thoughts or vibrations.

Our total devotion to positive thinking leads us to often forget about the conditions and limitations of the physical and biological reality in which we live in. When a problem occurs which needs our attention, it doesn’t help to wish it away with positive thinking. The problem will still be there, requiring positive action in order to address it.

Even worse: an obsession with avoiding pain and failure, is the actual cause of disease, and therefore even bigger pain. As the physician and therapist Gabor Maté states in his book When the Body Says No’: “the overwhelming need of the child to avoid pain and conflict is responsible for the personality trait or coping style that later predisposes the adult to disease”.

What do we need instead? Gabor Maté talks about counterbalancing this tendency to avoid pain with negative thinking. I prefer to talk about evidence-based thinking. Being fully aware of the internal and external factors that are holding you back from reaching your goals and achieving happiness in your life, is the most important step towards healing, towards being whole again.

To quote Maté once again: “We have seen in study after study that compulsive positive thinkers are more likely to develop disease and less likely to survive. Genuine positive thinking -or, more deeply, positive being- empowers us to know that we have nothing to fear from truth”.

And when we have nothing to fear from truth, we have nothing to fear from failure or pain, right?

Whom Do You Serve?

Almost invariably, when talking to beginning solopreneurs about their ideal client base, I will always hear something along the lines:

  • I can help anyone who needs a beauty treatment
  • Everyone needs therapy, so I shouldn’t limit myself to a particular group
  • I want to reach as many fans as possible, therefore I’m not limiting myself to a genre

This all sounds reasonable, right?

Wrong. When defining your niche and area of expertise, you are making a public statement. But when you say that you are able to reach/help/please everyone, you are making a non credible statement. Inevitably, your claims will be lost in a sea of similar voices claiming to do exactly the same. The more generic your claim, the more competition you will have. And in that instance, the battle will be won by those with the louder voice (read: biggest marketing budgets).

Some people seek products and services that are cheap. Others want them to be easily accessible, or to have an immediate impact. Some are more interested in long term impact. A small but ever present subgroup demands expensive products and services and will assume that everything that is cheaper or discounted, is automatically inferior.

All these people have different needs, and therefore they are seeking different solutions. Being very clear about the people you help, the impact you will make and the benefits they are going to experience from your skill or expertise, will attract the very people you want to serve.

Knowing what gives them pleasure or causes them pain, mastering the language they use to describe their challenges and being able to express with clarity the solution you can offer, will greatly magnify this attraction. And if it simultaneously repels those that are not aligned to your message, this is an added bonus.

After all you don’t want to waste your time selling products and services to those who don’t understand or need what you have on offer, right?

On the Importance of a Supportive Network

Last weekend I went to a gig in London where I met many of my old friends. In between the (admittedly loud) tones of the performing bands, we caught up with stories about the past, discussed the present and made plans for the future. Some of these discussions are likely to give birth to future musical projects and collaborations.

In our western individualist society, we tend to underestimate the importance of friendships and support networks. The myth of the ‘self-made entrepreneur’ dictates that the successful business owner reaches her goals purely by her own efforts, intelligence and hard hustle. A network of colleagues and friends which will help you get where you need to be, is only mentioned with reluctance. After all, doesn’t a reliance on external factors betray an inability to succeed by your own efforts, and therefore some kind of failure?

Even more toxic is the idea that in order to get where you want to be, you need to ‘fake it until you make it’. I have been visiting business networking events for years, and not a single time have I heard someone saying something along the lines of ‘business is not going well’ or ‘I am struggling at the moment’. The cult of the successful entrepreneur wants you to exude an aura of self-confidence at all times, and as a consequence you can’t be possibly caught off guard in a moment of weakness and vulnerability , as that would erode the façade of success.

However, throughout the centuries, no one has ever reached the summit of success without a supportive network of friends, colleagues and benefactors around them. Composers like J.S. Bach and Ludwig Van Beethoven thrived thanks to the commissions of wealthy nobility and royalty. More recently, Jeff Bezos started Amazon with a seed capital of $250000 by his parents, followed by many years of financial investment by stakeholders when the company was still making a loss.

Of equal importance to a supportive business network, is the role of friendships in your life. A 2021 study by Lu, Oh, Leahy and Chopik concluded that valuing friendships is generally associated with better health, well-being, and happiness. In many cases, placing a high value on friendship was particularly important for health and well-being in countries high in income inequality and individualism, which includes our British and North American societies.

Having a supportive network of friends and colleagues is not optional. It’s a must for both your professional success and your mental wellbeing. Take some time this week to re-connect with 2-3 friends of professionals you haven’t spoken to in a while. Even if you don’t immediately find yourself planning together exciting things for the future (which is certainly a possibility) at the very least you will take an action which increases your happiness and wellbeing.

How I Turned Disaster Into a Win

Last Saturday I performed a solo gig at a local annual festival. That festival is a quite big affair in my town, with a number of performances of various artists spread over several venues. The events celebrated the versatility and talent of local artists who have made of this town a cultural powerhouse over the decades.

I turned up early at the event and prepared myself mentally as I usually do. There was no clear schedule and time was passing while I watched musicians, poets, authors and storytellers come on stage and do their thing. My tiredness was growing, yet I felt calm inside.

Due to some last minute changes, my performance ended being the last one of the day. Most previous performers and their entourage had already left by the time I came on stage. The venue was half empty and the organizers had started to get nervous as the event had overrun its scheduled time.

After a brief line check I introduced the story behind the first track and started to play the piano. Then, something disastrous happened. As soon as I started playing, I felt a tremor taking over my hands. After one minute or so, the light tremor at the start had turned into a veritable seismic shift. Then, finally just past that minute mark, my playing grinded to a halt.

I apologized to the perplexed audience and started again. However it was impossible to resume the first track as tremors overcame my hands as soon as I started playing. I stopped and apologized again, and said that I was too stressed to play this track, and therefore would try another one.

The second track was performed impeccably. I ended the set with a new track which I had never performed before. It was an experimental and noisy piece which wasn’t really fitting in the vibe of the evening, where performances were all-in-all quite middle of the road. I did however stick to my guns and ended my set with this piece.

As I got off the stage, a sense of shame and fear of impending ridicule overcame me. I expected the audience to turn their backs at me, afraid of meeting the eyes of the performer who had fallen from grace in front of them. Instead, the first comment I heard was “I loved your second and especially the last track, so powerful!” This was followed by more positive praise about my compositions.

My wife had made videos of all the tracks I performed. Watching them with a clear head the next day, they looked and sounded great (with the obvious exception of the part where I aborted the performance). However, the introduction I gave to that track was lovely and the story behind it compelling.

Yesterday I spent a part of the day sharing the live videos as well as my introductory story on social media. The response has been excellent, and it has given me the opportunity to promote my new track as well as remind my audience of the old ones. It’s pretty safe to say that what could have turned into a total disaster, ended up being a personal win.

What did I learn from this experience, and what can you learn from it too for your business? I think there are a number of lessons to heed here:

  • When you are reaching a dead end in your business, stop and start again. There is no point continuing on something that feels wrong from the start, especially when you are in the process of messing up
  • However aborting an unsuccessful project is not the same as giving up. Choose another project which has more chance of succeeding and continue. The second track I played is one of my most recognizable tunes and I have performed it so many times that I assumed that it could hardly go wrong. And I was right.
  • Where possible, document your performance. You can learn a lot from reading your reflective notes of a counselling session, watching a video of your beauty treatment, or listening to an audio recording of a sales transaction. Most importantly, recognize that there will be parts in your performance, no matter how disastrous you deem it is, which are good or at the very least useful, and can be repurposed on your social media for future learning or promotion
  • Learn from what went wrong, and use previous experience to connect the dots. I only had once a similar experience in the past, when I had uncontrollable tremors during a public piano exam in front of a jury (I still managed to successfully complete my performance despite these circumstances). Before my second public exam, I went to my GP who prescribed some benzodiazepines. The medication helped me to perform without any external signs of stress at the exam. I would rather avoid the use of heavy medication nowadays, but I know that CBD oil has a similarly relaxing effect on me and I am planning to use this to my benefit before any future public solo performances
  • Which external factors can you control? Find out what you can control and change it to your benefit. In my case, the long waiting until my performance clearly didn’t help with my stress. I discussed this with the event organizer and we agreed that I will get an earlier slot at future events.
  • Don’t be afraid of being bold and different. My last track, which I deemed too experimental and different to the vibe of the evening, saved the day as it was the track that got me the most kudos! Performing it also gave me a great opportunity to start promoting the track before my new album is even announced, let alone released.

Some people say that ‘failure is not an option’. I do not subscribe to this point of view. I believe that what they really mean, is ‘giving up what you love doing is not an option’. Failure is not only an option, it is desirable. It is a great learning opportunity and it forces us to confront and push our comfort zones. Accept and adjust what went wrong, decide on your learnings and feedback and continue doing what gives you freedom and joy in your life and helps you grow on a personal and professional level.

Stick to the Plan

I have to confess that I am a bit of a football fan (soccer for my American readers). I find the complexity of a fast-paced game where 11 players compete against another 11, following well-defined, but often ‘loosely’ interpreted rules, an interesting miniature experiment of life itself.

What casual observers who are not remotely interested in the finer detail of the game often miss, are the complex interactions of the forces that shape a 90 minute event where 22 individuals kick a ball around and try to put it into the back of the net of the opponent. You’ve got the tactics and strategy of the coaches and their teams; the latest innovations in health care and technology to take care of the needs of the football stars; a catering team that ensures the players are fed an optimum nutrition for maximum performance.

You have the interactions between players with big egos, who are being paid millions to perform, but are expected to work together for the greater good; you have plenty of mind games, pressure from millions of supporters worldwide and loyalties being questioned when managers get involved trying to get their clients the best possible deal for a transfer or a new contract.

As you can imagine from all of the above, a mindset of resilience and unphased focus is absolutely key to success in football. The margins between that success and failure are very small at the highest level, when the best compete against the best. And this was proven once again yesterday in the Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid.

Liverpool were the favourites for the final. They had almost completed an impressive season where they played critically acclaimed football, scoring a record number of goals in the process. Winning the final, would have made this year a highlight in the highly decorated history of the club. Furthermore, they were out for revenge after losing the Champions League final against the same Real Madrid some years ago.

Real Madrid on the other hand, were going through a transitional period. The team didn’t have the superstars of the past and the players were a mixture of experienced but aging footballers over the peak of their careers and young, upcoming talent. They reached the final playing unorthodox, some would say unattractive football, often devoid of footballing logic.

But Real Madrid won the game. They won in exactly the same way they reached the final: with the same defensive, unattractive football and quick counter attacks against faster playing and more ‘attractive’ teams. They took advantage of one of the few opportunities they created to score and win the game.

Would anyone have advised coach Ancelotti to play like that at the start of the season? Highly unlikely. While the fans were happy about their team winning, Real Madrid got criticized for their playing style which, according to experts, is not ‘befitting of a great team’. And yet, here they are celebrating the biggest trophy in international club football.

The coach and his team drew a plan at the start of the season and stuck to it, regardless of the criticism of pundits and other coaches. The plan was based on the team’s ability and talent, rather than the style people thought a ‘top team’ should adopt. It was designed for maximum performance efficiency, rather than for pleasing the eyes of the pundits and fans.

“What is the link of all of this football stuff with me, a humble solopreneur, and my business”? You may ask. Well, I would argue that sticking to the plan is crucial when you launch a new programme, a new product or define your niche. All of the above is (or should be) the result of research, training and building of your skills over a long period of time. There is a good reason why your coaching or therapy programme, new album, skincare product or niche are what they currently are. Because you built them consciously and deliberately to be that way, right?

Yet what I see over and over again, is people changing and sometimes binning all this hard work at the first setback, unsuccessful launch or external criticism. It is remarkable how easily people who have worked for years to create a training programme, a piece of art or a luxury product are willing to give up all that effort when things don’t go as they had imagined.

But there is a reason why you have been planning things that way, and it is likely that you have a written record of that reason, whether recently or a long time ago. Go and find now your business plan, your mission statement, your ikigai. Brush off the dust and remind yourself of the reasons why you are doing the things you do. Only make the smallest necessary adjustments based on the feedback you decide to act on.

Sticking to your plan is much more likely to get you the results you want, rather than changing tactics at the whims of the public or fortune. No one has invested more in your success than you have, and no one knows better what you need to do it in order to achieve it.

There Is No ‘Real’ You

In the good old pre-modern times, our ideas about human behaviour were quite straightforward. It was believed that what you can observe of one’s behaviour, is the ‘real’ you. If someone behaved in a pro-social, good natured or altruistic way, they were considered a good person. If someone was egotistical, greedy and inconsiderate, this was seen as evidence of their innately corrupt nature.

Our perception of human nature has changed in modern times (and rightfully so). It is now recognized that human behaviour can be complex and unpredictable, and observing a few samples of it, doesn’t necessary reveal the whole of someone’s nature.

Thinkers like Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and Michel Foucault have deconstructed human nature, pointing out to biological, social and unconscious forces that, while generally beyond our conscious awareness, shape our behaviour. According to them, the ‘real’ you is hidden behind the evolution, our subconscious desires, the class struggle and the power of social institutions respectively.

While their sharp minds have dramatically improved our insights about human nature, there is still a quiet assumption in our interpretation of their theories, that there is a ‘true’ you hidden behind the complex systems that shape our behaviour. That, perhaps, when you are alone with your thoughts at night under your bed covers; when you wait in your car in front of a red light and there are no traffic cameras or other vehicles around; or when you are letting slip your opinion about someone not present in the room, that you are revealing your true nature.

This assumption stems from the idea that our real identity is revealed when no one is around and that interactions with others somehow make us hide and distort this identity. Hence, we can never be ourselves around others.

However, in truth, our social identity is part of our overall identity. Human beings are social creatures and if anything, our behaviour around others is a good indication of who we are as a person.

Questions about whether we are inherently ‘selfish’ or ‘selfless’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, savvy or naïve etc are philosophical abstractions. At the end of the day, the only judge about who we really are, is the work we leave behind, our legacy and our reputation. And all of the above, are largely determined by habits we adopt, actions we implement and decisions we make on a daily basis.

It is much more helpful to accept your identity as a continuous and flexible construct. You are adjusting your behaviour, habits and actions depending on the context in your life as a business owner, a wife, a friend, a parent or an artist. Despite the variety of behaviours in your arsenal, you are holding the various pieces together through your values, your vision and your attitude.

When these values and attitudes are aligned to your daily actions, then you will feel in the presence of what people sometimes describe as their authentic self. You are not the fragmented pieces of a mosaic of scattered identities; neither are you hiding your ‘true’ self behind the various masks your wear. You are the whole mosaic, all of these masks, and more.