Strange wisdom

Photo by KT on Unsplash

Lately I’ve been noticing lots of things that seem to be true – and at the same time, completely counterintuitive.

Here are some examples:

  • Being kind to yourself sometimes involves doing things you don’t want to do.
  • When changing your behaviour, it helps to start by accepting yourself exactly as you are right now.
  • In order to have a productive day, there are times when the best thing you can do in the moment is – absolutely nothing.
  • If you want someone to listen to you, the most powerful thing you can do is listen to them.
  • When you’re struggling to solve a problem, the solution often appears when you give up and pay attention to something else instead.
  • Sometimes the best way to help another person is to stop trying to help them.

Having previously had a very rigid way of making sense of the world, I’ve found that the more my psychological health improves, the more I am able to tolerate paradoxes, both-this-and-that-ness, not-knowing.

Perhaps my new-found willingness to be in the presence of confusing and apparently contradictory ideas without demanding that one is right and the other wrong has come from learning about Dialectical Behavioural Therapy. DBT is an approach which can be helpful for people who find it difficult to regulate their emotions, thinking and behaviour (particularly those diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, eating disorders or addictions, or at risk of suicide or self-harm).

The dialectic at the heart of DBT is this: we can accept ourselves exactly as we are right now, whilst also committing to doing things differently from this point onwards. It invites us to be gentle with ourselves for the things we are not able to control (for example, what happened to us when we were younger, how we behaved in the past when we didn’t know better) and to step up and take responsibility for improving things in the future (by learning to do things in new and healthier ways).

In life (as in DBT) it seems there is a constant balancing to be done, a strangeness to be embraced, a middle path to be found which is neither-this-nor-that.

Increasingly, what I find to be wise and true cannot be expressed directly in language. It shows up in the spaces between words – an oddly beautiful, indescribable thing.

Confidence tricks

Why is it that some of our attempts at behaviour change stick, whilst others fall by the wayside?

What is it that motivates us to push through the discomfort of doing things differently, even when it’s tempting to give up?

I’ve been thinking a lot about questions like these, inspired by this week’s podcast interview with Erica Mohr. In our conversation, Erica introduces me to the concept of self-efficacy and the role it plays in learning to do new things.

Self-efficacy is a term that was coined by psychologist Albert Bandura back in 1977. It refers to an individual’s belief in their ability to achieve their goals.

A person’s sense of self-efficacy can vary according to context. In Erica’s words: “I might have high self-efficacy for presenting a prepared keynote speech, but low self-efficacy for responding to audience questions at the end, for example.”

What we believe we are capable of has been shown to have a significant impact on not only our personal and professional accomplishments but also our physical and psychological health . When we have high self-efficacy we tend to try harder and persist in the face of obstacles, increasing our chances of success. When we have low self-efficacy we are more likely to give up and fail to accomplish the task at hand.

“People’s beliefs about their abilities have a profound effect on those abilities. Ability is not a fixed property; there is huge variability in how you perform.”

Albert Bandura

So how can we increase our sense of self-efficacy?

According to Bandura, there are four main sources of self-efficacy. Here’s how Erica describes them:

  1. Performance accomplishments. “As you practise something more, as you improve in that skill, as you have more experience doing it, you feel more confident in your abilities.”
  2. Vicarious experiences. “Watching someone else succeed who you identify with. For example, thinking, If she can do it, I can do it!
  3. Social persuasion. “When a key figure in our life, a mentor, a colleague, perhaps even a parent or a friend gives us encouragement and says, I know you’ve got this – you can do this.”
  4. Physiological and Emotional States. “How we interpret what’s happening in our body and connect that with our capabilities. So if I’m going into a keynote and I feel nervous, do I interpret those nerves as me not being capable or do I normalise them? Of course, everybody’s nervous when they go into a keynote! That’s totally understandable. So how we interpret that psychological state is key.”

Reflecting on our conversation, I realised that all four of these methods were crucial in my personal experience of overcoming long-term psychological distress:

  • A pivotal moment in my recovery was when I saw a new psychiatrist who said: “I’ve seen people like you get better”. (Source 3)
  • Once I had a sense that recovery was actually possible, I actively sought out role models, reading everything I could find that had been written by people who had overcome the same kinds of challenges I was facing. (Source 2)
  • Having found information about the kinds of skills I needed to learn, I started practising them actively. It took a while, but little by little, my confidence grew. (Source 1)
  • And on the days when I felt disheartened, when old symptoms returned and I felt as though I was going nowhere, I learned to normalise my feelings rather than catastrophising. I came to understand that learning is often a two-steps-forward-one-step-back kind of an experience and that wobbly days are simply part of the package. Developing a simple mindfulness practice helped me to cope with uncomfortable feelings, rather than trying to suppress or run away from them. (Source 4)

What we think is possible, what we believe we are allowed to experience – these things matter. 

By seeking out role models, surrounding ourselves with supportive people, actively practising new behaviours and learning to normalise and cope with fears and discomfort as they arise, we can create the possibility of lasting, positive change in our behaviour. And with each tiny accomplishment, we can help ourselves recognise that we are capable of more.

Little steps, repeated over time.

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.

On reinventing the wheel

Having spent the last few weeks reflecting on some of the useful things I’ve learned since turning 18 – and inviting others to write in with their learnings too – I’ve found myself smiling wryly as I realise how many times people tried to share their wisdom with me over the years, and how many times I was completely incapable of understanding what they were trying to say.

In a recent conversation with behavioural scientist, Jason Hreha, I mention one such example. As a child, my dad would often tell me to “take deep breaths” – and I would often think how silly he was to imagine that something as inconsequential as taking deep breaths could be of any use whatsoever in the particular crisis I was facing. Fast forward three decades or so – and it turns out he was right. Deep breathing is good for all sorts of things.


Then there were the many times he reminded me that “charity begins at home”. Back then I thought he was using this as an excuse to be ungenerous to others. Now I realise that he was probably trying to share more or less the same insight I shared in a post just the other week. (see ‘Kindness’)

Hmph again.

And there was the time he paraphrased Shakespeare’s: “To thine own self be true.” I’m not sure what I thought he meant at the time, but I remember not being terribly impressed. I had little interest in being true to myself at that point, busy as I was, gazing at others who seemed so much more deserving of my loyalty.

Ironic, really, that I find myself doing the work I do now – so much of which emphasises the importance of self-awareness and internal validation in building resilience and psychological wellbeing.

It’s tempting to imagine that we can save ourselves and those we love a lot of time and heartache by sharing wisdom down the generations, but the reality seems to be that we only take on board new ways of seeing things when we are ready to do so.

However, new research suggests that to focus on this is to miss an important point.

According to a recent study by Robin M. Kowalski and Annie McCord of Clemson University published in the Journal of Social Psychology, we “… should consult ourselves for advice we would offer to our younger selves… The data indicate that there is much to be learned that can facilitate wellbeing and bring us more in line with the person that we would like to be should we follow that advice.” (Read more here.)

In essence, by thinking of what we wish our younger self had known and then acting on it here and now, we can help our current self become the person we wish to be in the future. A useful exercise in its own right, one could argue.

Sadly, my dad isn’t around to share a wry smile at all the wheel-reinvention I’ve been doing. Nevertheless, I like to imagine that, even though I wasn’t able to comprehend the insights he was trying so hard to share with me all those years ago, there might have been some value for him in the act of sharing. It would be nice to think so.

(Thanks, Dad.)

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

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?

Jólabókaflóð , anyone?

I love the idea of Jólabókaflóð. It’s an Icelandic tradition (roughly translated as ‘Yule book flood’), in which people give one another books on 24th December and then curl up in cosy places to read them whilst drinking hot chocolate or jólabland. The practice began during World War II; paper was one of the few commodities that wasn’t rationed, which meant that books became a popular gift choice.

I’d like to do a bit of Jólabókaflóðið-ing myself this year, so I’ve been thinking about the books I’d like to give (and, if lucky, receive).

As a big fan of physical books, I can’t help but notice that there are only so many one can physically accommodate and/or afford to buy. (Big sigh……..) As a result, I’ve been looking for ways to sift through the extraordinary number of books out there to decide which ones to choose. 

Here are a few of the resources I’m finding helpful:


Blinkist is an app and a website where you can get “key ideas from bestselling nonfiction distilled by experts into bitesize text and audio”. I use it to help me understand what a given book is about and whether or not it’s of interest. Sometimes just reading the ‘blinks’ is enough information. Often it inspires me to get the book itself and read it thoroughly. A useful selection tool. There’s a 7-day free trial available via the website if you’d like to try it out.


Scribd is a library of audiobooks, ebooks, magazines and documents. In return for a monthly subscription (similar to the cost of buying one new paperback a month) you can access unlimited books and articles. Great if you like to read widely and dip into lots of sources without having to buy them all. There’s a 30-day free trial available here if you’d like to find out more.

Ryan Holiday Reading List

I love this list. Each month, Ryan shares information about the best fiction and non-fiction books he’s read over the last few weeks. He covers a huge range of subjects and has switched me on to all sorts of gems over the last year or two. Free to subscribe – just follow this link.

Do Lectures: 100 Must-Read Books of 2018

Each year in Iceland, newly published books are listed in a catalogue that is sent to every household in the country in mid-November during the Reykjavik Book Fair. People use the catalogue to order books to give friends and family for Christmas. Not living in Iceland myself, I was grateful to come across this list from the lovely people at the Do Lectures. Would recommend a look.

Metaphor hunting

Whilst reading this week, I’ve noticed a trend emerging amongst authors whose work I admire. Being in the process of writing a book myself, I’m thinking it might be good to follow their example. Nothing like a good bandwagon to jump on, after all.

I noticed the trend first in Atomic Habits: An easy and proven way to build good habits and break bad ones by James Clear. (It’s a great book on the subject of all things habit-related, by the way. Would recommend if you like that kind of thing.)

Early in the book, Clear talks about about the process of learning new behaviours – specifically the tendency for our progress not to follow a clear, predictable trajectory. He describes it as being like compound interest, in that the outcomes appear small at first but grow more dramatically the longer we continue. As a result of this slow start, there’s a bit near the beginning of the process where we may feel disheartened because the amount of effort we’re putting in doesn’t appear to be paying off. He describes this phase as the ‘Valley of Disappointment’.

“…habits often appear to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold and unlock a new level of performance. In the early and middle stages of any quest, there is often a Valley of Disappointment. You expect to make progress in a linear fashion and it’s frustrating how ineffective changes can seem during the first days, weeks, and even months. It doesn’t feel like you are going anywhere. It’s a hallmark of any compounding process: the most powerful outcomes are delayed.”

Then, whilst reading Moonwalking with Einstein: The art and science of remembering everything by Joshua Foer, I noticed another example.

Foer introduces the concept of the ‘OK plateau’:

“…the point we reach when we decide we’re good enough at a task, turn on autopilot, and stop improving.”

So I’m thinking – in order to be a proper non-fiction author, I should probably come up with a geographically-themed metaphor of my own. However, apart from a few bits about glaciation, I don’t remember a great deal from school. (Which is concerning on all sorts of levels, but that’s another discussion.)

Anyway, it’s ok. I’ve discovered the Wikipedia Glossary of geography terms page. It lists so many things I’ve never even heard of – cryoturbation, inselbergs and monadnocks, the pole of inaccessibility – it’s been a wonderful rabbit hole to explore. (Rabbit hole isn’t in the glossary, just in case you were wondering.)

So if in a week or two I mention that recording interviews for the new Adventures in Behaviour Change podcast has led me to a ‘hillock of delight’, please just bear with me. It might take a little while to get the hang of learning this stuff. Progress isn’t linear, after all.