Lifting ourselves out of the drain

Lifting ourselves out of the drain…How to recapture our mojo and hold onto motivations as the season darkens before us…

What an extraordinary weekend last week was. A stark reminder that COVID and COVID mentality is still at large. The fact is we have not had sufficient recovery, rest, experience of safety, predictability, let alone abundance to NOT panic buy.

The headlines, images, and experiences of petrol pumps being empty, queues to fill up being lengthy, and restrictions on quantities available to purchase have had a sure and contagious impact.

For me, this coincided with a long-awaited weekend treat. On my own, on a re-union with former colleagues from my teaching career. The promise of a convivial last gasp of summer on the Isle of Wight beckoned. And there were about 20 of us. Many of whom are inspirational figures and friends from my earlier days of teaching…going way back.

There was much to catch up on. Invigorating cliff top coastal walks to be had, carefully planned meals to share, drinks to savour. And don’t get me wrong. It was a lovely, lovely experience.

However, it was interesting to note the steady seep of uncertainty creeping into the jokes about the tankers waiting in the Solent being full of undelivered petrol…to listen to the stories of spouses queuing for hours after raking the streets for a petrol station worthy of the name…The notifications of newsfeeds punctuating the flow of conversation. The speculation about whether the ferries would be disrupted.

One could also detect in the stories of the term so far, the sense of added complexity and disruption due to COVID affecting the day to day lives of teachers – the ways that departments and sub-groups in the common room were bunkered – less aware of new people, the replacement of face-to-face briefings with online ones meaning it is harder to be uplifted by the sense of the larger whole.

I am someone who talks a lot about practical ways of managing the mind, noticing, and intervening to try to slow down the racing worried mind, and release anxiety…and at various times, checking in with myself, I noticed a subtle but insidious rising preoccupation, and even a sense of fear about the journey home. Shallower breath, butterflies…
I normally relish driving long journeys on my own, immersing myself in Radio 4, clearing my mind to focus on the important task of maintaining safety as a driver. So I allowed myself a greater abundance of time to reach the ferry, simplifying my plans and having a clearer, earlier loving leave-taking of my friends.

At the ferry terminal, whilst waiting, I did a series of breathing exercises to centre myself and bring my heart rate down – mindfully and actively slowing to access calm. I listened to my body and ensured I had as tasty and comforting a lunch on board as was possible. I studied the map and planned my route ahead.

Back on dry land, my plans for calm and focus rapidly unravelled at the unexplained and inadequately signed closure of the M27. Lost on the roads and satellite districts between the urban and coastal sprawl of Portsmouth and Southampton, I fought my SatNav which kept insisting on doubling me back to the closed motorway. My racing mind missed the yellow diversion signs and my focus was scattered around not knowing where on earth I was and wanting to steer clear of the static traffic overspilling from the motorway. 170 miles to go, and ‘only’ two thirds of a tank…

Observing all this has made me think that it is very clear that our tanks – and how we feel about our reservoirs of calm, steadiness and capacities for optimism – are still really close to the warning line. It doesn’t take much…
A summary – red-flag symptoms – drain circling:

  1. Ruminative (circular, repeated) worry / narratives (whether internal or external)
  2. Scrolling newsfeeds
  3. Hairline trigger on notifications
  4. Physiological signs – heart rate increase, rapid breaths, unsettled gut
  5. More apt to take conversational opportunities down negative routes…confirmation bias (the world’s gone mad / to the dogs) …negativity bias… (anticipating worse)
  6. No soft landings for adversity. Discombobulation is close at hand…
  7. Persecutory narratives…

This sort of cascade of thinking is not unusual. It doesn’t take too much to set it off. We can easily create these sorts of narratives of deficit around colleagues (eg slackers, coasters, not pulling their weight, taking advantage, dodgy, not worth asking) or line managers (scary, inspectorial, relentless, overbearing, threatening)…pupils (disengaged, disconnected, not bothered, arrogant, a bad influence, disruptive…keeping my eye on them)…groups (a ‘bad’ class, quiet class, passive, lazy, naughty, need clamping down on, give them an inch and they’ll take a mile)…parents (challenging, demanding, unrealistic, confrontational, unreasonable, unfair, undermining, bullying)…

And here’s the thing…research and experience has shown time and again, that the quickest and surest way to damage your relationship with someone is to believe they don’t like you. Deficit thinking in the teaching profession has the capacity to be truly toxic to our relationships.

And the quality of our relationships is what can help us move into safety, receptivity – the ‘green’ pathway of our nervous system (ventral vagal- calm, alert, open, safe, playful, loving, appreciative, connected)…as opposed to our red pathway (fight, flight, defended, defensive, combative, adversarial) or blue pathway (dorsal vagal pathway – freeze – withdraw, avoid, shut down, shut off, disengaged)…

In short, we need to top up our own tank if we are going to fill up the cups of others. And that’s what is required of us the whole time by our pupils – some of whom are still trying to navigate their way through elongated periods of chronic stress where their parents may have been close at hand, but not available…

How to emerge from the drain! In the moment…

  1. Acknowledge and accept feelings! Label your feelings. Name them, own them. What are they, what are the values behind that emotional response? Notice how your body is keeping the score…Don’t fight that – what is your body telling you about your state of being and your needs? When we are under threat, according to Prof Stephen Porges, the originator of POLYVAGAL theory, our nervous system disrupts our ability to connect with each other. We become defensive and self oriented…(Anyone for extra pasta, toilet roll, petrol?). Our physiology alters the body no longer feels safe and when the body is in threat. Our system is over-revved – still tuned in to change, threat, deficit and we need to retune it to bring us back to a grounded presence more capable of connecting (with priorities, perspective, bigger picture or others) … and connecting is our evolutionary way of mitigating threats.                                                     
  2. Engage self-compassion and self-care– get in tune with your body and healthy ways to express and allow the feelings to pass through you. This is about connecting with yourself, non-judgmentally. Recognise the overload on your nervous system and make whatever suitable adjustments will help restore you to ‘rest and digest’ functioning. Research by Kristen Neff and Chris Germer shows that 68% of us are more compassionate to others than to ourselves…We need to include ourselves – actively and intentionally in our circle of love and nurture. Teachers especially with their vocation and care are prone to prioritise others. It is the ability to increase the soft landings of life’s adversities that allow us to get up again.                                                                                                                            
  3. Watch for the voice of the inner critic, or your fear talking… Allow yourself permission to experience overwhelm… We think we are more in control than we often are – or that we ought to be in control… ‘Unshould’ yourself from that. This is the second dart of pain. The first is the suffering of overwhelm itself, the second is the shame, guilt, or self-criticism that we layer on top – worrying about worrying, fearful that ‘we can’t make a habit of this’…That is FEAR talking. Life has points of overwhelm. How we deal with it will either help or hinder the power or frequency of its return. The 3500 studies into self compassion are unequivocal…Self compassion reduces depression, stress, perfectionism, shame, anxiety, disordered eating and suicidal ideation. It increases resilience, satisfaction, happiness, optimism, connection and appreciation of the body, hope, and gratitude. So when we catch ourselves with harsh self-talk…we should call it out… ‘Fear talk’, ‘Threat talk’ ‘Harsh’, name it and step into treating ourself with the same kindness we’d treat a dear friend.

Grow a little bit of joy in your garden! 

Moving out of drag into uplift…Proactive, strategic, lifestyle interventions
Control what you can control:

  1. Do an uplift audit… Walk yourself through your daily routine and identify ways of dialling up the experience of things that uplift you (maybe things that you’ve been skipping in the service of the ‘more is more’ approach to workload.
  2. Do a ‘Drag’ audit…Identify the ‘Drags’ in your daily / weekly routine. Which are non-negotiables, which can you dial down? Who or what types of conversations do you need to distance yourself from? Maybe you have a close friend who is in a bit of an ‘Eeyore’ frame of mind – have strategies to support him / her in a more time and impact boundaried way…eg meet for a coffee prior to another engagement with a hard stop instead of undefined pints in the pub. In your corner of the office, is there a tendency for a lot of negative talk? Can you distance yourself by moving to work elsewhere, wear earphones…? In the words of pioneering female rap artist, MC Lyte… “We have a duty to omit what does not uplift”…We might not be able to omit EVERYTHING that gets us down – but if we are able to do something to reduce the impacts of the elements we can control, and minimize the impact of tasks that we cannot avoid, then we can help raise the bar of our resting mood…
  3. Take action…analysis of a problem or a sticking point is all well and good… the vital questions that follow and lift us out of rumination are these: ‘How does this serve me?’ ‘So what?’ ‘Now what?’
  4. Call Malala! Pick out a role model who has inspired and uplifted you, remind yourself of why this is so…watch a documentary, film, hear a song, read a story about them…Reconnect yourself with that energy…Because what inspires you about them tells you something about what you wish to be at your best.
  5. Create a realistic visualisation of what you want and when. Be a realist about the ‘when’ – don’t get too attached to that because that’s far from predictable…But know what you want – identify what the best outcomes could be if you were to feel better…Is there a metaphor, image or symbol that can act as a hyperlink to that future goal – to help you reconnect with the energy that it represents?
  6. Re-orient your social media use. Watch out for passive scrolling through news feeds. Especially in leisure time when you’re also doing something else. Try focusing on just one thing instead. If you’re watching telly in the evening – just watch it. When you are engaging with social media, research shows it can be beneficial to wellbeing if you are using it to create and share content – and using it as a springboard to make direct appreciative contact with others. Communication for the masses = junk-food connection. Communication that is authentic, 1:1 is quality online connection…moving to private messaging, email, phone or face to face. Again it’s also about quality rather than quantity. Consider whether what you are posting is designed to uplift…what is the impact you are seeking to create. Avoid contributing to the negatives of social comparison or doom-scrolling.
  7. Revisit your sense of purpose as a teacher. What is it that you stand for? What is the impact you want to have on the children / teens / next generation? How do you want to show up for them? What’s important to you about that – the values that lie beneath that sense of mission and purpose? Again, is there a way of crystalizing those ideas about your purpose into a mantra, a phrase you can revisit in brief mental interludes…is there a visual – a picture on your phone – a talisman you can hold – that can bring you back to that sense of purpose?
  8. Embrace authenticity and honesty in your conversations with colleagues. Seek out conversations that are going to address what is working and what isn’t and speak clearly to the impact. Look for choices and remember that in the midst of identifying challenges, shortfalls, disruptions, we always have a choice. Our choice is whether to use that point of acknowledgment as a chance to raise or lower our consciousness. Lowering our consciousness is venting and complaining in a ruminative way. Elevating our consciousness is moving from analysis to action – avoiding automatic negative thoughts and steering an uplift – no matter how small.

Some years ago now, a colleague led a trip to Ghana and she brought me back a brightly coloured bracelet made from recycled glass.

The beads are strong and tough, despite being made of glass. They were made by disabled girls who were given shelter, work and community by a charity and the profits from the necklaces and bracelets gave them a secure living.

These beads resonate with me strongly and remind me of some work I did at the time, coaching and supporting one of the girls who went on the trip. It is a reminder that out of darkness, difficulty, vulnerability, strength and beauty is possible.

It uplifted me enormously that she had thought of me and brought me this gift whilst giving her own time to the school on the trip. I cherish them.  And at the start of term, when I did an online INSET for her school on how to down-regulate from anxious states – practical calming strategies, I wore the beads. And the cycle of uplift between us continued in exchanging lovely messages after the event.

I wear these beads often as a deliberate reminder of the power and purpose of my calling. What do you have in your possession that can act as a similar talisman, and bring you back to purpose?

The nights are getting darker. We are heading into the long winter. Correspondingly the news is spiralling into darkness. Fuel prices rising, petrol shortages, shortages of butchers, disruptions to the food supply chain…Similarly uncertainties still hang over schools. Readers who follow this newsletter from the Independent sector are experiencing radical changes to their terms and conditions as many schools are forced to leave the Teachers Pensions Scheme. And that is a blow to morale after the sacrifices made during the pandemic. We need an uplift – but it’s not coming to us on a plate.“We have a duty to omit what does not uplift.”Seek inspiration in the everyday. See what you can do to take back some control against the tsunami of shortage mentality that surrounds us. It doesn’t take huge things like holidays or treat purchases to make a difference. Small tweaks of mindset and habit can have a cumulative impact on our states of mind, and with mindful, repeated practice can help shift from states of wellbeing (isolated moments of uplift) to wellbeing traits (raising the floor on our ongoing levels of happiness and fulfilment).Hope this helps.With love and gratitude, now, as always…Emma.Contact me if:
• You’re interested in a one-off coaching session.
• You’d like to investigate a sequence of coaching for professional development for yourself or others in your school.
• You’d like a workshop for teachers looking at applying the practical science of wellbeing.
• I am working 100% online right now – so can fit in shorter or longer sessions in a much more agile way.

More to explore