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Active Choices: The key to taking care of yourself

One of the strange things about the human mind is how it can see the same experience in many different ways. Sleeping in for example can be seen as a sign of laziness, an act of self care or a symptom of illness. Ordering a take away can be seen as a nice treat, or your only option because you’re too tired to cook. And this same principal applies to pretty much everything we do – nothing is as clear cut as it seems.

The good news is that you can use this brain quirk to make yourself feel better and more productive without changing anything you do. All you have to do is frame your actions differently, and your whole life can feel instantly refreshed.

It’s easy to allow one negative thought to lead to more. In fact the more negative things we think about, the more negative things we’re likely to spot in the world around us – this is due to confirmation bias (which leads us to see what we expect to see and disregard anything that goes against our expectations). It therefore stands to reason that the opposite is true – if you take notice of a few good things happening around you, then you’re more likely to see more and more positive things which confirm to you that today is in fact a good day.

Changing the focus

If you find yourself feeling down, you can use this trick to help pick up your mood. For example if you love dogs you might count how many dogs you spot on your walk to work, or if you enjoy being outside then you could choose to notice how nice the temperature is, how good the flowers that you pass smell, or how the breeze is helping to wake you up. These things would always be happening, but by choosing to notice them you are re-tuning your brain towards the ‘positive’. Doing this won’t deny the horrible breakup you’ve just been though or the awful story you’ve just seen on the news, but it will help you to see balance: Our world is neither all good nor all bad, and allowing yourself to see both means you are in a neutral headspace to tackle anything your day throws at you.

We can often get caught up in the need to do. I must do x,y,z / I must do more / I must do the right thing etc. But all of those demands that you place on yourself add stress to an already potentially stressful life. What would life we like if you could be kind to yourself? Think back to the week just gone, is there something you’re beating yourself up for? Is there another way to think about it that is kinder to yourself instead?

Active Decisions

Maybe there was a day this week that you didn’t feel up to doing much so you delayed the start of your day with an episode on Netflix, then when that was finished you played another, telling yourself that you would get round to that to do list in a minute, but before you know it the whole day has passed and you’ve watched the entire series! That might lead you to thinking that you wasted the day, that you failed at what you set out to do, that you messed up. But what if you changed the narrative? If you woke up that morning feeling tired, stressed, or anything else that meant you needed a break, then how different would that day have felt if you’d been kind to those feelings? If you’d said to yourself ‘I don’t feel great today so I’m going to have a day off, watch that series I’ve been saving, and help myself feel refreshed so I can get back to it tomorrow’? Your actions would have been exactly the same, but your feelings would have been very different – in the first scenario where you put off and put off what you thought you should have been doing you would have neither enjoyed the day (too busy feeling guilty about what you should be doing instead), nor felt refreshed at the end of it (stress and worry take up a lot of energy). But if you’d listened to your feelings and actively decided to give yourself a day off, things would have felt very different – no guilt, plenty of rest, and no additional negative self talk mean that that day could have felt like a good one!

These are active decisions. If you actively decide to take a day off / treat yourself to a take away / cancel plans that feel stressful then you are valuing yourself. You are listening to your emotions and what they’re telling you you need, and you are prioritising yourself over the demands of others. Without an active decision you will be pulled further into a negative spiral. One where you’re feeling pushed and pulled by what others are telling you to do, seeing only the bad because you haven’t made time for the good, and feeling more and more overwhelmed as time goes on.

You can make active decision about anything – If you’re not sure how to do something at work you can decide to ask for help rather than struggle in silence hoping someone will notice (but also hoping they won’t because you don’t want to be found out). If you need time alone you can plan something by yourself rather than wishing your flatmates would just leave you alone, or if you want more company then you can go and see someone or make plans rather than waiting for them to call you. If you hate cooking you can order a take away and feel ok about it because you have decided that’s what you want rather than feeling like you have no other choice.

Listening to yourself and your feelings gives you the power to meet you own needs. Nobody else is inside your head and so nobody else will know what you need in order to be able to offer it to you out of the blue. Changing your focus with active choices is a way for you to look after yourself, and to enjoy your life without really making any changes to it.

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