Love to free yourself from guilt, clutter, stress, and body hang-ups? Anna Moore discovers some simple strategies to reshape your outlook… and let it go.
- Dr Susan Biali is a medical doctor, life coach, and bestselling author of Live a Life You Love: 7 Steps to a Healthier, Happier, More Passionate You (Beaufort Books).
- Natalie Thomas is a psychologist and award-winning life coach.
Reduce your stress
There’s no escaping stress. Whether you’re up against a deadline, a mile-long traffic jam, or a hormonal, exam-crazed teenage daughter – modern life tests us on a daily basis. In most cases, it’s not the situations that cause harm – it’s our stress reactions. We feel emotional, do and say things we regret, while at the same time, our hearts are racing, blood pressure is rising, and health is suffering. We can’t control what life throws at us. But the good news is, we can alter our stress levels simply by choosing to think differently.
Behind most stress reactions lies a “catastrophic fantasy” where we exaggerate the probability of complete disaster.
You’re stuck in traffic, late for your daughter’s musical performance. Stress builds as you surrender to that runaway chain of thought. “She will be watching for me from the stage…” – picture a distraught girl peeking through the curtains. “The other parents will all be there” – picture them filling the venue, waving at their kids as they take their seats. “She’ll remember this the rest of her life…” Next time this happens, notice it, stop – then purposely replay the situation to downplay its importance. “She’ll be so busy and caught up with her friends, she won’t notice whether I’m there or not” – imagine her backstage with friends, taking selfies. “Lots of other parents will be stuck in this traffic, too” – see them sitting in cars all around you. “It’ll probably clear just in time and, even if I do get there a little late, she’ll be so distracted she’ll forget in no time. I’ll take her out for pizza afterwards so she can tell me all about it – and next time, I’ll make sure that I leave 30 minutes earlier.”
Reduce, reduce, reduce the situation, and always reframe with a positive spin. It’s tricky at first, but with conscious perseverance you can make it a healthy habit, which frees you from the negative stress reaction.
Beat body hang-ups (really!)
We’re biologically programmed to want to look good – it goes back to survival of the fittest and mate selection. But taking care to look the best you can is one thing – feeling constantly unhappy with what you’ve got is quite another. If you’re at war with your face/thighs/fine hair, then no amount of dieting, exercise, procedures, or products will make you happy for long. Only changing your outlook will help.
If you allow yourself to focus on the features you dislike, or if you compare yourself (unfavourably) to others, then that toxic neural pathway will strengthen until those thoughts become habitual.
Imagine a stranger commenting on your stretch marks… you’d be outraged. Yet, somehow, we feel it’s okay to batter ourselves with these negative thoughts and, worse still, broadcast them to friends and family. Competitive body-bashing is a way women bond: “My thighs are so fat!” “Mine are worse!” The good news is that it is possible to turn this around to positive thoughts.
Start by writing down things you appreciate about your body – that means its purpose, rather than how it looks. Think legs for running, arms for hugging, the belly that stretched to carry your children. When you look in the mirror, don’t allow yourself to seek out the faults and zero in on your insecurities. Imagine your best friend or partner were there – what would they see? Likewise, when someone gives you a compliment, don’t brush it away. Thank the person, and focus on the compliment.
See yourself through loving eyes. Commit to treating yourself as you’d treat others. It will take time, but self-acceptance is the reward.
Deal with clutter
Anxiety lies at the bottom of many mountains of clutter. It’s the reason we hold on to things far longer than we want to. If you attach meaning, value and fantasy futures to everything, the “what ifs?” are crippling.
So that dress looked amazing on you seven summers ago – now it’s too tight, too “young”, and should go to a charity shop. But what if you drop a dress size, tone your arms, and want the dress back?
Another common fear is confronting the scale of wasted purchases – the unworn shoes, the piles of cosmetics, the bread-maker that seemed such a good idea at the time. Throwing the lot out is admitting the money was wasted – and that’s scary!
Offload your fears to someone you trust. Choose a no-nonsense friend or family member, and go through your clutter together. Explain your anxieties about discarding each item – let the person helping you decide if they stand up to scrutiny. Agree to this practical rule of thumb for clothes and bric-a-brac: ask yourself, “If I saw this in a shop today, would I buy it?” If not, get rid of it.
Feel the fear… and do it! Recognise that storing up years of impulse buys and unwanted gifts won’t ever make them worth it. In fact, they add to your guilt as festering reminders of regrets and mistakes. Finding better homes will ease that mental burden – books for a local school or hospital, clothes to a homeless shelter, that bread-maker to a delighted student via freecycle.org . Once you start, you’ll be amazed by how the feel-good factor lightens your outlook and wipes away the fear.
Get over guilt
It could be a huge mistake, a haunting regret from long ago – you deceived a friend, or failed someone in their hour of need. Or perhaps it’s a constant feeling that you’re falling short, neglecting your marriage, your elderly mother, or your teenage children… or you didn’t go to the gym or vacuum the house. If you’re a wife, a mom, a daughter, a colleague, or a boss, you may find yourself being in a continual state of apology. It’s draining, it slows you down, and lowers your mood, which gives you something else to feel guilty about!
It’s crucial to recognise the difference between healthy guilt and unhealthy guilt. The first is your friend – your moral compass telling you when you’ve caused harm. It gives you the chance to make amends and learn from mistakes. You snapped at your son, when really the problem was something at work. You felt bad, apologised, and took care not to do it again.
Unhealthy guilt is altogether different – your relentless inner critic, the voice telling you you’re not measuring up. It strikes in situations that you didn’t cause or can’t control, yet still you feel responsible. It’s nagging, exaggerated, irrational and highly toxic, because there’s no possibility of resolve.
When you next feel guilt, immediately identify which kind it is. If it’s healthy – with justified cause and possible resolution – use the opportunity to put things right, and make it a positive catalyst for change. If it’s the unhealthy kind, recognise that and allow yourself to disregard it.
Silence your inner critic with the mantra: “I’m doing it the best way that I know.”
Separate healthy guilt from harmful guilt.
When it comes to unhealthy guilt, try sitting down with a cup of tea and a journal, and writing down the most frequent “guilty” thoughts you have about yourself. Next, write down what the positive truth is about yourself for each of those thoughts. For example, if you feel you’re not doing enough, write down all the things you DO do, and let the truth of that wash over you.
It’s important to actually see, on paper, all your efforts and good intentions and feel nice about it, instead of focusing on what’s missing.
By Anna Moore