Thinking in colour

It has many names:

  • Black and white thinking
  • Absolutist thinking
  • Dichotomous thinking
  • All-or-nothing thinking
  • Splitting

Whichever one you choose, the tendency to see things as being all good or all bad, all right or all wrong, all this or all that, is a common type of cognitive distortion.

A cognitive distortion is ‘an exaggerated or irrational thought pattern involved in the onset and perpetuation of psychopathological states’. In other words, an unrealistic way of thinking that interferes with our happiness and psychological health. 

We routinely use thought patterns to conserve time and energy and help us to make sense of the world. We use them to help us predict what will happen, how people will behave, how we will feel – and they often serve us well. But when these patterns are over-simplified, or skewed towards a negative interpretation, we can start to have problems.

A 2018 study found that people who are experiencing anxiety, depression or suicidal thinking are significantly more likely to use ‘absolutist’ language than people who aren’t. Here’s a list of the kind of words the researchers were looking for:

Absolutely – All – Always – Complete – Completely – Constant – Constantly – Definitely – Entire – Ever – Every – Everyone – Everything – Full – Must – Never – Nothing – Totally – Whole

As someone who previously qualified for a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder and experienced decades of anxiety and depression (conditions which are strongly associated with this kind of language use), I can remember all too well what it felt like to think in these terms. Until a few years ago, if you had climbed inside my head and listened to the inner monologue there, you would have heard a lot of things like:

“It will always be like this.”

“You’ll never get better.”

“They all think so.”

Everything’s gone wrong.”

Nothing helps.”

In fact, at the point when I reached rock bottom, this was all there was to hear. I felt sure I knew how things were and how they always would be. It seems inconceivable now – but at that moment in time, and at many others like it, it felt completely and utterly believable.

So for me, the process of learning to be well has involved learning to think differently. I’ve come to understand that things are rarely as black and white as I used to imagine them to be. I’ve learned to see not just shades of grey, but a whole range of colours that simply weren’t visible before. I’ve found that it takes conscious effort and repeated reinforcement, but little by little, those old patterns of thinking can change.

Occasionally an old pattern will surface – most often when I’m tired or hungry or under a little more pressure than usual – but they rarely hang around for long. Because, as time goes by, I notice that life is infinitely more complex, more changeable, more subtle, more paradoxical, than seemed conceivable before – which makes concepts like ‘always’ and ‘never’ a bit harder to take seriously.

So if you sometimes find yourself imagining that everything is completely, absolutely, entirely and totally a certain way, if you fear that everyone, everywhere is doing something, or that you never, ever will – take a moment, if you can. A moment to stop and breathe and search for some colour in the situation. For some inbetweenness. For some not-quite-this and not-quite-that-ness.

Because somewhere, amidst the messiness and the blurred distinctions, there is relief, I think. The relief of discovering that things are often so much more than we allow them to be.

Pick and mix

Thanks so much to everyone who wrote and called in with “Things I wish I could tell my 18-year-old self” for  last week’s radio show

There were some gems. From the deeply pragmatic:

  • “Eat less sweet stuff”
  • “Get a haircut”
  • “Avoid credit cards”
  • “Take that trip to New Zealand”
  • “Learn to drive”
  • “Make sure you wear ear defenders”

to the reassuring:

  • “Forget trying to impress everybody else and just do what you want”
  • “Mistakes are fertile learning ground, so don’t be afraid to make them”
  • “Don’t worry – there’s no such thing as normal”
  • “Getting things wrong probably makes people like you more, not less”
  • “Don’t be afraid to ask for help along the way”
  • “You are, most definitely, enough”
  • “Don’t spend time worrying that you don’t know what you want to ‘be’ –  just make the most of any opportunities, explore them and accept each step as it comes”

and the inspiring:

  • “Every day give some attention to what gets your creative juices flowing”
  • “Dream bigger”
  • “Don’t look back at yesterday and say, I wish I’d done that. Look back at yesterday and say, well, I gave it a shot…”
  • “Anything is possible – say yes to every opportunity and make it happen rather than listening to the fear”

Finally, there was this, from Jane, who said:
“If I could go back to my 18 year old self I would play her Sunscreen by Baz Luhrmann. Job done.”

So for anyone, like me, who hadn’t come across this before, I’m sharing it here. Enjoy…

The show’s available online for a few weeks longer – if you’d like to listen, you can find it here.

(With special thanks to Dave, Pavo, Mike, Tina, Simon, Brenda, Ceri, Liz, Mim, Amanda, Catriona, Grace, Maxine, Jim, Vicky and Jane for sharing these and to everyone whose messages I read out in the show.)

Time travelling (part 2)

I’m gathering some thoughts, a few at a time. Thoughts about some of the many things I wish I’d known when I was 18.

Last week I published the first few. Here are some more…


Out in my garden lives a robin. Every time I try to get close to him he flies away. When I give up and start digging, there he is beside me. 

Happiness isn’t something we can ‘have’. The more we try, the more it eludes us

In the words of Viktor Frankl, happiness is “the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself”. Like my robin friend, it shows up most often when we’re busy getting on with something else. 


We are shaped by the people we choose to spend time with. Their words and actions influence our behaviour, health and happiness.

It’s worth taking the time to find the people that make your heart sing, the people who remind you of what is possible, the people who love you for being you. They will help you to grow into the person you want to be. 


If we want to be kind to others, the most useful thing we can learn to do is to practise kindness towards ourselves. 

It can be tempting to imagine that we can bully ourselves and neglect our needs whilst showing compassion to those around us. For a short while we might just about get away with it – but as a long-term strategy it simply doesn’t work.

Sooner or later, unkindness on the inside starts showing up on the outside, whether in words or sighs or thinly-veiled resentments or flashes of anger.

By contrast, the greater our self-compassion, the more resilient, happy and resourceful we are likely to be. And in turn, the more we will have to give to others.

So be nice on the inside first. It’s the kindest thing to do for all concerned.


Feelings and thoughts change constantly. Our view of the world is sensitive to hunger, fatigue, time of day and countless other things besides.

It’s easy to forget this, particularly in the moments when it would be most helpful to remember. In the grip of uncomfortable emotions or persistent thoughts, we can be tempted to imagine that we will always feel as we do right now. We won’t. On the flip side – wonderful feelings won’t stick around either.

Learning to recognise thoughts and feelings for the flighty things they are and not get too attached to them (whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’) makes life easier. Worth practising.

More to follow. In the meantime, I’m curious…

What do you wish you’d known at 18?

Time travelling

In just a few days my eldest son will turn 18.

It’s got me wondering…

If I could go back in time and talk to my 18 year old self, what would I want to say?

I’m gathering some thoughts, a few at a time. Things I think I ‘know’. Things I wish I’d known.

Not so much for him, because I know that his experience will be different from mine. But for me – a little reminder of things that can help.

Here are the first few…


There is no rule that things ought to be a certain way. If you find yourself feeling cross or indignant, ask yourself what you think should be different. I’m willing to bet you’ll find a ‘should’ in there somewhere – a sense of entitlement to something, a sense that things should be other than they actually are. That ‘should’ is the source of the discomfort, not the situation itself. Life is messy and unpredictable. There are no ‘shoulds’.


Some things you can control, others you can’t. 

What you say, what you do, what you make things mean – you get to control those. Other people’s behaviour, the weather, sports results – those aren’t yours, sorry.

Learning to focus on the things you can control and let go of the ones you can’t saves a lot of time, energy and suffering. Sounds simple. Takes practice.


That normal life, normal appearance, normal experience you may be imagining – it doesn’t exist. Generally speaking, people are a bit odd. Most of us feel like outsiders sometimes. We can all imagine that everyone else knows what they’re doing. It’s all smoke and mirrors. Forget trying to be normal. Go do something fun instead.


Figuring out how to do new things is messy. You will end up feeling (and looking) silly sometimes. There will be a lot of mistakes. This is ok. That old saying about omelettes and eggs is true. Things will break from time to time. You will break from time to time. That’s just how it works. Keep going. On the other side of all the brokenness is something worth having. You may just not be able to see it quite yet. 


Human beings are natural storytellers. We tell stories in our minds all the time. Learning to recognise the difference between facts and stories is really helpful. When we get them confused we can cause ourselves and others a lot of heartache. Watch out for the word ‘because’. It’s often a helpful indicator that a story is about to begin.

More to follow. In the meantime, I’m curious…

What do you wish you’d known at 18?

Little Challenges 6 to 10

Following on from the first five Little Challenges shared by guests on the Adventures in Behaviour Change podcast which I featured here a couple of weeks ago, here are the next five…

Episode 6: Emma J Bell

Ask yourself, what single habit would I like to create in my daily routine? Now ask, why?

“If you want to be calmer, if you want to be able to respond rather than react, meditation’s a great habit. If you want to get fitter, then your habit might be to walk for half an hour three or four times a week, the same time of day on designated days during the week. Or it could be reading poetry or it could be having a phone call with someone who makes you feel good regularly; reaching out in some way. Whatever the habit is, start today, but be clear on your why. What’s it going to give you? How will it improve your life? How will it create better, deeper connections? Because it’s the why that is instrumental in motivating us towards the behaviour we want to create every day… So many people want to change half a dozen things, which is overwhelming so they don’t start. Don’t worry, just choose one. That’s it.”

Episode 7: Hilary Gallo

Look at people you pass in the street and silently wish them well.

“I look people in the face and wish them well for their day. Just in my own mind and my own thoughts, I wish them well – I don’t voice it. Wishing good on other people, particularly people who look troubled, I find incredibly powerful and energising. It helps me. I mean I kind of believe that we’re more connected than we believe we are, that we’re not all just these separate individuals. And if you think of it like that, if we’re connected, it’s kind of wishing well upon the system of which we are a part. And ultimately by doing good to others, you’re doing good for yourself. So I just have this practice that I find really helpful of ‘wishing well’. In a kind, gentle way, just doing that to 5 or 10 people as you walk along the street, I find really powerful.”

Episode 8: Aline Holzwarth

Take a few moments during your lunch break to practise yoga.

Lunch yoga is the Little Challenge that I’d like to offer you. Not eating lunch while doing yoga (although maybe I shouldn’t knock it until I’ve tried it). Lunch yoga is simply doing yoga during your lunch break. There are a million videos on YouTube iff you want to just follow along with someone, One thing that I’ve done, not that I’m brand loyal or anything, but I’ve used the Nike Training Club App. They have a lot of exercises. You can just filter by yoga, pick one that fits the amount of time that you have and you’re good to go.”

Episode 9: Andy Smallman

Choose a small object that has meaning for you that you haven’t thought about for a while. Put it somewhere obvious. Each time you notice it, pause and notice the thoughts that come up.

‘Three Simple Steps To Find Meaning From A Personal Object’.

“Here’s what you do. Find something wherever you live that’s kind of small, something you’ve had it in some place for so long that you’ve really stopped noticing it, but it’s important to you. It might be something you picked up on a vacation or a gift that you were given at some point, but you put it initially in a spot and it had meaning for you, but now it’s been there so long that you’ve kind of lost track of that meaning. Take it and put it somewhere else. A conspicuous spot where you’re going to see it and then, each day, when you come across it, just pause for a split second and see what comes up in your mind. Pay attention to what happens and just take note of that. It could be, now you’re thinking of this person who gave this to you. Or you’re thinking of the vacation that you got it or whatever the case may be. That could be enough right there, but if you really want to extend it, take a minute to jot that down. Write down what feelings, emotions, people that this is evoking and then act on one thing if you want to go a little bit further. You could jot someone a little note and say, “Hey, I’ve been thinking about you”. If it’s a memory that that triggers, maybe you’ve got a photo or two that you want to share or maybe you were on that trip with somebody and you want to talk to them about it.”

Episode 10: Silja Litvin

When you’re in a stressful situation, pause for a moment and think of three things you’re grateful for.

“When you get really anxious or mad or unhappy with something – let’s say you’re in traffic jam and you’re getting really riled up and you can feel your heart beating and your temperature rising – you’re locked in an emotion, a stress reaction that is really hard to get out of. And that’s kind of like the lizard brain has taken over, and that can be quite harmful because you’re producing a lot of stress hormones. When you’re in a situation like that, find three things you’re grateful for. Because two things are happening. First of all, you are forcing your brain to use a different part of the brain. So it’s interrupting the stress response because you’re having to think for things that you’re grateful for. And the second thing is that you’re rewiring your brain to become more sensitive to positive things. And it can be something really silly like, “The sun’s shining”, “The car smells good”, or, “I like the way my hair looks today”! Whatever it is, every time you feel yourself getting into that spot of darkness, just come up with three things you’re grateful for and you will see yourself immediately calm down. Over a period of time, within two weeks, you can actually find yourself being a happier person.”

Find out more about the line-up of guests for Series 2 of Adventures in Behaviour Change HERE.

The pleasant list

Image © Cardigan&Mac

In our recent interview, behavioural scientist Aline Holzwarth introduced me to the concept of the ‘Pleasant Events Schedule’ – a list of simple, widely-enjoyed activities – used in clinical psychology. 

I was curious to find out more, so this week I’ve been doing some reading… 

The idea is simple: that doing things we enjoy (however small or apparently insignificant), can improve our mood and our perceived quality of life. In the early 1970s, researchers compiled a list of hundreds of pleasurable activities (as suggested by a diverse range of people) – which you can find towards the end of this document.

With an eclectic mix of entries ranging from ‘breathing clean air’, ‘caring for houseplants’ and ‘doing artwork’ to ‘being stubborn’, ‘scratching myself’ and ‘shoplifting’, it’s an entertaining read if you have a few moments to spare.

It seems that we tend to feel happier when we regularly include our favourite ‘Pleasant Events’ in our daily lives, however we often neglect to do this when life gets tough. For this reason, the ‘Pleasant Events Schedule’ is often recommended as a tool for easing symptoms of depression and improving quality of life amongst carers and people living with chronic illnesses.

Inspired by all I’ve read, I’ve started making a list of my own. It includes many items taken from the original document, including:

  • taking a nap
  • playing basketball
  • smiling at people
  • learning to do something new

However I’ve thought up several new ones I want to include too:

  • talking to guinea pigs
  • looking at colourful things
  • making up nonsense songs with my teenage son
  • going for walks in the pouring rain, just for the joy of getting warm and dry again afterwards

I haven’t started using it yet, but simply compiling the list seems to be a cheering activity in its own right. I can recommend it.

So if you were to create a list, what would you include?

A whole six months!

The Ideas Community Wednesday email is six months old today and I’m celebrating! Thank you for being there, for reading and, in many cases, replying. It’s always a joy to hear from you and I am so very grateful for the ideas, experiences and encouragement you share.

Over the last few days I’ve been doing an unusual amount of listening. The new Adventures in Behaviour Change podcast is preparing to launch, which means there’s been a lot of interviewing, transcribing and editing to do – all listening-orientated activities.

Although I’ve done a certain amount of audio editing in my former life as a musician, I’ve never spent quite so much time simply listening to voices. And in the process I’ve noticed something interesting, closely related to what I wrote about last week in The smiling tree. It’s this…

When I listen to the conversations, I can hear smiles.

And when I hear smiles, I can’t help but smile back.

I wasn’t sure if this involuntary smile response was an individual peculiarity or not. “Perhaps it’s just me?”, I thought, so I looked it up.

It’s not just me.

It turns out that there are at least 50 different types of smile and we can recognise many of them by sound alone (read more here). Not only that, but when we hear someone smiling, even if we don’t consciously realise that they are, our facial muscles prepare themselves to smile back (more here).

So it’s not really surprising that I’ve been sitting here at my mixing software grinning to myself. After all, I’ve been editing things like this short video trailer for episode 1 of the podcast, in which I chat with Sharon Danzger, founder of Control Chaos and author of Super-Productive: 120 Strategies to Do More and Stress Less.

Wishing you a happy, celebratory* week ahead.

*Can’t think of anything to celebrate? This website is always a good source of ideas – you can even create your own!

The smiling tree

Out walking in the woods the other day, I was greeted by an unexpected smile.

I couldn’t help but smile back. In fact, after continuing along the path for a little while, I stopped and retraced my steps so that I could take a photograph of it. I thought I might like to smile at it again later. Here it is:


I don’t know who drew the smile but I wish I could thank them. You see, before I found it I was immersed in an episode of Unnecessary Seriousness in which all sorts of not-important things had suddenly become very important. (I don’t know if you are susceptible to Unnecessary Seriousness too, but if you are, you’ll know that it isn’t a lot of fun.)

The smiling tree interrupted all that and left me with a much better sense of perspective again. 

This experience got me thinking about the benefits of smiling, so when I arrived home, I decided to do some reading on the subject.

It turns out that there have been all sorts of experiments to find out if our expression affects our emotional state – a concept known as the Facial Feedback Hypothesis. For example:

  • this one, in which participants were instructed to hold a pencil in their mouths in specific ways to elicit a range of expressions, and then monitored whilst being shown a selection of video clips designed to provoke a positive or negative response.
  • this one, in which participants were told to do something similar using a chopstick, whilst engaging in physically or mentally stressful activities.
  • or this one, in which participants were asked to mimic a range of positive and negative facial expressions they were shown, either with or without being able to see themselves a mirror.

Overall, it would appear that smiling (even if we’re not feeling very smily at the time) can help us to feel happier, make funny things seem funnier and even support our cardiovascular system in recovering from stressful experiences. If we see ourselves smiling, the effects can be even more pronounced. 

Of course, if we do something that makes someone else smile, we can experience a whole range of extra social benefits as a result. In fact, there’s a suggestion that people whose names include sounds which use the same facial muscles as a smile (‘eeee’, for example) may find that others are more likely to help them than those whose names don’t. 

So, in those stressful, not-much-fun moments that crop up from time to time, it might be worth experimenting. A quick smile at yourself in the mirror when you pass by might make the rest of the day feel just a little bit easier. 

“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” 

Thich Nhat Hanh

It’s been one of those weeks…

In a week when my boiler stopped working and my car failed its MOT, I’ve been thinking about the idea of entitlement. Specifically, the idea that things should be one way rather than another.

At various points this week you might (if you were in the vicinity) have heard me thinking aloud that there should be hot water and central heating in my flat. Or that I shouldn’t have to wait for a bus – particularly a late bus – in the rain.

But of course there aren’t actually any shoulds at all.

When I act as if there are, I can feel quite out of sorts and grumpy. I can do self pity and victim-ing and all manner of pointless things, none of which makes me feel any better, gets my boiler working or helps my car pass its MOT.

Whereas when I remember that there’s absolutely no reason to expect things to be other than they are, it’s a lot easier to feel ok and get on with dealing with the issues at hand.

A step further would be to consciously practise what Friedrich Nietzsche describes as ‘amor fati’ or ‘a love of fate’. In Ecce Homo he writes:

“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati:​ that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it… but love it.”

Which is an echo of what Stoic philosopher, Epictetus (who knew more than most about dealing with adversity) said around 1800 years earlier:

“Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens happen the way it happens: then you will be happy.”

Embracing – rather than fighting – the reality of things as they are doesn’t mean doing nothing. (Believe me, I’m still getting the boiler and the car fixed.) It’s simply a way of creating more gentleness in the moment. And from that place of gentleness, it is often easier to find good solutions.

So that’s what I’ve been trying to do. And now, thanks to two new O-rings and a helpful local garage, things are looking up.

So I’m curious…anyone else had one of ‘those’ weeks too?

If so, what’s helping you to get through yours?

*I’m sure I read somewhere that cold showers are supposed to be good for you…

A kitten bouquet?

Nearing the end of November, I’m guessing that I’m probably not the only one with an inbox full of Black Friday offers. You too?

I don’t watch television, so I’m probably escaping the full extent of it. But as it is, I’ve stumbled across a very reasonably priced ‘plush kitten bouquet’, a set of ballpoint pens in the shape of golf clubs and a robot vacuum cleaner all in just five minutes online*. Oh the things I had no idea I needed.

With all this encouragement to invest in new things, I’ve been reading about the relationship between buying stuff and feeling good. Here’s what I’ve found:

Buying experiences can result in greater happiness than buying things

  • because we enjoy anticipating and remembering experiences (whereas we adapt to and forget about new material possessions quickly)
  • because we’re more likely to share experiences with others (and social connection tends to make us happier)
  • because we are more likely to compare possessions than experiences (and this comparison can make us miserable)

HOWEVER, this is only true if you’re in a financially comfortable situation and have leisure hours to fill.

If money’s tight, you’re likely to feel happier about buying things

  • that save you time
  • that protect you from discomfort
  • that help you avoid doing things you don’t like doing

Interestingly, irrespective of financial status, one of the most effective ways of converting money into happiness seems to involve buying time. Another involves buying something for someone else.

Anyway, after all that thinking, I’ve come to a decision….

It’s way too complicated to figure out what to buy. I’m going to focus on giving things away instead.

So I’m curious…what have been your happiest purchases and why?

*I’m not going to link to them here because I’m willing to bet you’ve already got plenty of clickbait in your inbox. However if you need a special deal on toy kittens, novelty pens or a robot vacuum cleaner, feel free to contact me at and I’ll send you links. Or there’s always Google…