I always thought I was the only one who started to hyperventilate and sweat profusely at the thoughts of talking confidently about my work to others. But following yet another embarrassing meltdown, a friend recommended I read Ruby Wax’s book, Sane New World: Taming the Mind. And I promise you this book changed my life like no other.
Ruby’s experience echoed my own, for many years her mind reacted to stressful situations with negative thoughts. Voices in her head said, ‘you can’t do this. You are not capable enough – savvy enough, you just don’t have the smarts.’ I too would listen to those voices in my head, and sometimes I would be strong and say, ‘you are wrong I can do this, I can be that person.’ But most times, I would believe them, and walk away defeated.
Ruby claims you can change your life by changing how you think. She has suffered from chronic depression, constant anxiety, and a neurotic personality since she was a child. To understand how the mind works and to overcome her fears, she applied to Cambridge University in England to undertake a master’s degree in MBCT – Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy. This form of therapy combines two of the most popular methods used by psychotherapists to treat disruptive cognitive behaviour, Mindfulness Techniques and Cognitive Behavioural Techniques.
She learned that all of us hear these negative voices in our heads; it is part of the human condition, a genetically programmed mechanism that steers us away from danger. Useful in prehistoric times, roaming the savannah in search of Bison for the evening dinner. But in modern times they can be distracting, in some cases debilitating, preventing us from reaching our true potential. They can cause us to imagine slights, damage relationships and to be isolated, depressed, and unhappy. But just because you have these voices in your head that does not mean that these voices are all knowing, are wise or are even right. It is important to know that they are just questioning voices.
Using common cognitive behavioural techniques, Wax advises that you question these voices. You do this as if you were another person, independent of the situation, to see if what the voices are saying is reasonable. If it is not, and usually they are not reasonable you can decide to change your way of thinking accordingly. She gave the example of seeing a friend across the street that unexpectedly blanks you. Instead of immediately thinking, ‘Fiona hates my guts she thinks I am a moron, which I am’. She challenges those negative, and unlikely facts and thinks ‘Oh too bad, Fiona must be preoccupied, and she looks so lovely, I will call her later’, Ruby was hamming-up both responses. But you get the idea.
Ruby explained there is also another way that you can change the way you think. This is to do with the fact that the brain is wired to remember how you react to certain situations. But you can change those memories, and by repeatedly reacting positively, you can alter these patterns. For example, a certain influential person makes you nervous every time you meet them. You sit down and the mind says, ‘nervous situation here, I don’t like this’. The brain triggers a physical reaction, you revert to a fight or flight situation. The blood that should supply the brain rushes to the legs and arms so that you are ready to flee from that pre-historic bison – in this instance the scary person. But the parts of your brain to do with language and reasoning, is now undersupplied with the blood that it needs to function. As a result, it doesn’t work that well, so that when you speak you appear muddled. The person feels sorry for you – or thinks you are an idiot – the impression you make is disastrous. This is where mindfulness techniques come in.
The next time, before you meet this person, or face this situation, Ruby recommended using a mindfulness technique that involves concentrating on how the body is experiencing these physical reactions to your anxiety. You might notice butterflies in your stomach, or if the fear is more serious, a deep empty pain in your stomach. Try focusing on the sensations you are feeling, what kind of pain is it, where is it, where are its edges. By doing this, research has proved that you can reduce these reactions, and by mentally managing your physical response your mind is clearer and less distracted, and more able to focus on this potentially difficult situation.
I used these two techniques at a presentation that I had been dreading, particularly since I had experienced a panic attack previously. I kept calm, I told myself I could do this, that I was never more prepared. I spent the morning in a state of mindfulness, relaxing, being aware of, and experiencing, my physical responses. Feeling the butterflies and diffusing them by breathing deeply, thinking positive thoughts until I was perfectly calm. I know that I gave the best possible performance that I could give on that day and I did it by controlling my physical responses to anxiety and rationalising the voices in my mind.
Ruby Wax quoted an American Indian elder who told his son about the battle that goes on inside people, explaining that it is the battle between two wolves. One wolf represents anger, arrogance, envy, false-pride, greed, guilt, inferiority, jealousy, lies regret, resentment, self-pity, sorrow, and superiority. The other represents benevolence, compassion, empathy, generosity, hope, humility joy, kindness love peace, serenity, and truth. The grandson thought for a minute about what he had said then and asked his grandfather. ‘Which wolf wins?’ The elder simply replied, ‘the one you feed of course’.
So, by feeding positive thoughts, and starving negative ones, and by controlling unhelpful physical reactions you can change aspects of your behaviour that are holding you back. By using Cognitive Behavioural techniques, you too will be able to present yourself to people and talk about your work with confidence. Read the book: Sane New World: Taming the Mind.
(c) Derville Murphy
About The Art Collector’s Daughter:
Love, art, and obsession, set between Nazi occupied Paris and rural Ireland.
As the Germans advance on Paris in 1940, a young Jewish girl, Sylvie Vasseur, is sent by her father to rural Ireland to live with the Courtney family. He also sends his valuable art collection – including a portrait of Sylvie by the renowned Mateus, Girl on a Swing.
Sylvia is seduced by the narcissistic elder son Nicholas Courtney when she is eighteen, but he abandons her when he discovers she is pregnant. To avoid the inevitable social stigma, Sylvie marries his brother Peter.
In Dublin, she becomes involved in the art scene, achieving critical acclaim as a painter. But, trapped in a loveless marriage, she continues to be obsessed with Nicholas. Until, unexpectedly, secrets from her father’s past emerge, leading her to question everything she once believed. Shortly after, she is found drowned on a Wexford beach.
Seventeen years later, Claire Howard, struggling art historian, is hired by the Courtney family to record Sylvie’s lifeworks. Fascinated by the artist and working with Sylvie’s son Sam, Claire travels between Dublin and Paris, eventually unravelling a labyrinth of deceit and lies that threaten to endanger her life.
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