On Saturday, in the first part of an exclusive extract from his new book Positivity: Confidence, Resilience Motivation, Paul McKenna showed you how to switch off stress and reboot your brain. Today he tells how to rebuild your self-esteem by regaining control over your thoughts and feelings.
There are only two ways to feel good or feel bad about anything. One is to remember something good or bad that has already happened. The other is to imagine something good or bad that could happen in the future.
Here’s the thing: your nervous system can’t tell the difference between what really happened and the imagined. It will produce the same reactive feelings either way.
That’s why you can get so worked up worrying about a bad thing that may or may not happen — whether or not it takes place doesn’t make much difference in the end. You’ve suffered either way.
As Mark Twain famously said: ‘I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life — some of which actually happened.’
The problem with stress goes beyond the fact that it produces feelings and thoughts that are horrible to live with.
When we are in a state of excessive stress, continually looking for threats and seeing danger at every turn, we don’t have enough bandwidth for other kinds of positive thoughts and feelings.
There are only two ways to feel good or feel bad about anything. One is to remember something good or bad that has already happened. The other is to imagine something good or bad that could happen in the future
Positivity gets pushed out because there simply isn’t any space for it. That’s why, today, we are going to get to work on reducing your stress levels.
By achieving that you will then be much more open to the idea that a new, more confident and resilient you is going to emerge in the days to come. First, let’s look at the way we can either create or reduce unnecessary stress in our lives through the pictures and the sounds we create in our imagination.
When we recall something or imagine something, we create movies in our mind — often with a soundtrack. It’s the internal pictures and sounds that create our feelings from moment to moment.
Say, for example, we are invited to a party and we instantly imagine standing alone in the kitchen not knowing anybody, we get an uncomfortable feeling and decide not to go.
However, if we make a movie of ourselves interacting with fun people, laughing and relaxed, we get a good feeling and that leads to a different decision. Every day, we navigate our way through life with the movies we make in our minds and the things that we say to ourselves.
Once we have more control over our thoughts and feelings, we have control over our choices and behaviours — and ultimately our lives. Obviously, we can’t have control over everything that happens to us in life. But we are able to decide how we think and feel in response to them.
Paul McKenna (pictured) offers advice to help you rebuild your self-esteem and confidence
I have noticed that far too many people spend too much of their lives running negative movies in their mind to motivate themselves. Constantly moving away from fear rather than towards happiness is not a very enjoyable way to live your life. It doesn’t have to be that way. With my help, you are going to train your brain to feel good more of the time and move towards what you really want.
The body’s stress response mechanism works like a car alarm. If a threat is detected or perceived, the internal alarm system lets us know something is wrong by creating a change in our body chemistry, producing adrenaline and cortisol.
We then feel alert and get a burst of fear or anger.
In an extreme situation, we experience the ‘fight-or-flight’ response which dates back to when we were living in caves and had to either fight a wild animal or run away.
However, the stress response is not just triggered when there is a physical threat, but also when we sense a threat to our ego.
If there is a chance of us looking bad in front of others then the stress response is triggered. These things may not seem like real ‘threats,’ but your nervous system can’t tell the difference between a physical threat to your ego and an imagined one.
In modern life, there are many minor stresses each day — a row, a traffic jam, running late, etc, and all these small threats add up to a stress overload.
How we interpret things makes all the difference, though. The father of stress research Dr Hans Selye famously said: ‘It’s not stress that kills us. It’s our reaction to it.’
I’m going to help you adjust your perception and interpretation of events that used to stress you. This plan is an exclusive extract from my new book Positivity: Confidence, Resilience, Motivation, which is published on January 6.
Following my steps will allow you to begin to respond differently, have more bandwidth in your thinking for resilience and creativity in solving problems which will ultimately lead to more positive results in life. The better you feel, the more you can see the world as it is, rather than how you fear it might be.
HAND ON HEART, THIS WILL RELAX AND RESTORE YOU
Let’s start with a powerful technique that will help you react more calmly when everyday events trigger a stress response.
Psychologists often describe the heart as the second brain. It contains neurons that communicate with the brain, influencing whether the stress response or natural relaxation will be triggered.
When you shift your attention from your head to your heart your body relaxes, your mind becomes clearer and your brain releases chemicals that bring about natural relaxation. Try this exercise when you feel stressed or your mind is racing:
- Put your hand on your heart and focus your energy on this area.
- Take at least three slow, gentle breaths, while focusing on the feeling of your hand in the centre of your chest.
- Now, recall a time when you felt really, really good — a time you experienced love, joy or real happiness!
- Return to that memory as if you are there right now. See what you saw, hear what you heard and feel how you felt.
- As you feel this good feeling in your body, imagine your heart could speak to you. Ask it how you could take better care of yourself in this moment and in this situation.
Listen to what your heart is saying and act on this as soon as you can.
You can use this exercise to stop yourself reacting automatically.
Don’t try to fight against your reaction, just pause for a moment and in that time the reaction itself will naturally evolve.
Your unconscious is no longer automatically defensive, so it relaxes and you are free to bring a more relaxed awareness to the situation.
CULTIVATING A SENSE OF PERSONAL PEACE
Before you try this technique, read through all the steps.
- Remember a time you felt calm, at peace and in control. Return to it, seeing what you saw, hearing what you heard and feeling how good you felt. If you can’t remember one, imagine how wonderful it would feel to be totally at peace — if you had all the ease, comfort and self-control you could ever need.
- As you run this experience through your mind, make the colours brighter, the sounds crisper and feelings stronger. When you are feeling these good feelings, squeeze the thumb and middle finger of your right hand together. You are associating the pressure with this emotion. Run through this memory until you feel peace and calm.
- Now go through this relaxing memory at least five more times while still squeezing your thumb and middle finger together to lock in the good feelings. You will know you have done it enough when all you need to do is squeeze your fingers together to feel calm and relaxed.
- Next, think of a past situation you found mildly stressful. Squeeze the same fingers together and feel that calm feeling and imagine taking it into that difficult situation. Imagine everything going the way you want. See what you’ll see, hear what you’ll hear and feel how good it feels to be calmer and in control.
- Still squeezing your thumb and finger together, remember that calm feeling of control and again think of being in that stressful situation. This time, imagine some challenges and notice yourself handling these well. See what you’ll see, hear what you’ll hear and feel how good it feels to be so much calmer and in control of this situation.
- Stop and think about that situation now. Notice the difference from a few minutes ago. Do you feel less stressed and more in control? If not, repeat. Each time you do this exercise it will become easier and easier.
Remember a time you felt calm, at peace and in control. Return to it, seeing what you saw, hearing what you heard and feeling how good you felt
LETTING GO OF YOUR NEGATIVE STORIES
I often tell clients that what they think of as their limitations are really just negative stories they tell themselves. We all have the power to change stories within ourselves.
I’m now going to show you how to let go, stage by stage, of any old stories you may be telling yourself, so that your natural emotional equilibrium can return to balance.
We are going to take the major unhappy memories out of your mind and put them on an imaginary wall of very small black and white pictures and just before they disappear, see them for what they are now — just thoughts.
- Think about a situation you have been stressing and/or worrying about.
- Now, begin to notice what you’ve been telling yourself about that situation.
‘There’s nothing I can do to change this.’
‘I was just born this way.’
‘I’ve been told by an “expert” that I can’t change.’
3. Now, really hear that inner voice and notice where it is coming from. Is it the front, side or back of your head?
4. Imagine floating those words out of your head and imagine hearing those words coming from somewhere about 12ft away from you. Hear it as if they are coming from over there now.
I often tell clients that what they think of as their limitations are really just negative stories they tell themselves. We all have the power to change stories within ourselves (stock image)
As you hear it telling you that old story from 12ft away, notice how different it feels to hear it like that.
This simple difference allows your mind to recalibrate and frees you from identifying with that story. Hearing that voice over there means that there is now room for a different story over here.
5. Now, as gradually as you like, turn down the volume of that story over there.
6. Notice that you are now free to tell yourself a new story — a story of possibility, hope, and power. You may want to write down your new story or even speak it out loud. The more you repeat your new story, the more real it will start to become for you.
By now you should be feeling significantly calmer with more emotional equilibrium.
So let’s move to the next step of my three-point plan to unearth the new, more positive you, with a masterclass in resilience and some more confidence-boosting exercises.
MASTERING A GOOD RESPONSE TO STRESS
With practice, you will get better at using the brain-training techniques I am sharing here. Soon, switching off stress and triggering a relaxation response will become your default mode. Remember, your nervous system cannot tell the difference between a real and imagined experience. So, each time you pictured a stressful situation, you felt that stress almost as if it were happening now.
By imagining those situations, but this time responding with calm, you reprogramme yourself to feel more able to handle them.
Before doing this technique, read through all that follows.
Write down the five most significant stresses in your life. Now, we are going to lower the stress level of each one.
Choose one of the five situations. Using the calm anchor you created in the exercise above, think about this normally stressful situation and squeeze the thumb and middle finger of your right hand together. Feel that calm feeling spreading through your body and imagine taking it into that stressful situation. Imagine everything going well. See what you’ll see, hear what you’ll hear and how good it feels.
Now, still squeezing your thumb and finger, again imagine being in that stressful situation. This time, imagine a few challenges and notice yourself handling them perfectly thanks to now feeling calm. See what you’ll see, hear what you’ll hear and feel how good it feels to be so much calmer and in control.
Stop and think about that situation now.
Do you feel less stressed? If not, repeat until you do. Follow this process with each of the five situations until you feel much more in control.
With practice, you will get better at using the brain-training techniques I am sharing here (stock image)
Now build your resilience and supercharge your self-confidence: Seven steps to a stronger, more positive you
Resilience has become a buzz-word — everyone seems to want it, without necessarily understanding what the word actually means.
People often think resilience means having an ability to bounce back from adversity. That a resilient person is someone who toughs it out, and is relentless when challenges arise or things go wrong.
That definition is correct. But resilience is also about adaptability, creativity and flexibility.
There’s a law in the science of cybernetics which shows that the element of a system with the most flexibility in its behaviour will take control over the whole set-up.
In human terms that could be in a corporation, a political party, or even a family.
The more flexible you are when facing a challenge, the more likely you will stay in control and get what you want. That’s because you create more choices for yourself.
Sticking doggedly to one approach stops you exploring different avenues, and closes your mind off to new routes to success.
The best way to have control over your destiny is to be more flexible than your environment.
The more flexible you are when facing a challenge, the more likely you will stay in control and get what you want. That’s because you create more choices for yourself (stock image)
A good way of visualising this is to picture a reed blowing in the wind. If it’s too stiff, it will snap, but if flexible, it survives by adapting to the environment.
One of the most important distinctions human beings have over animals is our imagination.
Look around you: most of what you see will have once been an idea in someone’s imagination.
All the creative geniuses in history used their imagination in ways others didn’t — then combined this with perseverance.
Inventor Thomas Edison made more than 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the lightbulb. When a reporter asked: ‘How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?’
Edison replied: ‘I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The lightbulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.’ That’s resilience.
Now I’m going to share some exercises that will help foster flexibility in your thinking so you become like that reed blowing in the wind when challenges strike.
We’re also going to work on boosting your confidence — a state of being that I define as feeling comfortable in your own skin.
A few years ago, I wrote a book about confidence and how to achieve it. And an old pal scoffed: ‘Oh great, a training manual for annoying people!’
But actually, those we tend to think of as confident — the loud, brash types who like to hear their own voices — are often far from it.
They’re just very good at appearing in control, which is what can make them so annoying.
Truly confident people are much more self-possessed. They have a quiet self-belief that makes them the opposite of the annoying type.
The golden rule when it comes to confidence is: ‘What you practice, you become.’ All you need are the techniques to help you discover your more confident self.
The Power of Posture
The three things that determine how we feel and act at any moment in life are the pictures and sounds in our minds plus our posture.
Nobody has ever marched into my office with their head held high and exclaimed: ‘I’m depressed!’
Those people are usually slouching and looking at the ground.
Movie star Sir Roger Moore once told me that when he first went to acting school, he had a teacher who asked: ‘How tall are you?’
‘6 ft 1 in,’ he replied.
‘So, why don’t you stand as though you are 6 ft 1 in?’ said the teacher. Roger straightened up and from that day onwards, he started getting more work.
Golden thread to walk tall
There is a simple exercise that creates this effect. I imagine there is a golden thread coming down from the sky, through the top of my head and into my core. I imagine this thread holding me up straight and taking my weight, so I am relaxed but stand erect with good posture.
It takes just a couple of seconds to remember it, to let your body respond and feel the benefits.
It is particularly useful if you are tired, stressed or have spent too long hunched over a computer. Use the technique often, and after a while your body will want to keep that relaxed, upright posture.
Strike a pose for extra Confidence
Posture can have an enormous influence on our state of mind and body. Which is why ‘power poses’ are so effective.
Even when we believe our negative thoughts are unstoppable, or our feelings are overwhelming, we can just move our limbs to boost our confidence.
Social psychologist Amy Cuddy of Harvard Business School has become famous for her experiments exploring the influence of posture on state of mind.
Her subjects were not given any guidance. They were simply asked to sit or stand in specific poses — some were power poses that exude confidence and others were not.
Then, they were put through a gruelling job interview. Their behaviour and performance were assessed by judges who had no information about what they had been asked to do.
Subjects who had been given the power poses significantly outperformed those who had been given low-status poses
Within two minutes of taking up one of the poses I’m sharing with you here, your physiology — and hence your whole mental state — will change.
If these postures feel silly, or unusual, or bad, or difficult for you, that means that for a large part of your life you have been training yourself to sit or stand in low-status poses.
You have been telling people you are an underdog. Indirectly and unintentionally, you have been inviting people to put themselves in positions of power over you.
Starting right now, you absolutely must do these power poses until they feel completely natural and comfortable.
Embrace your inner wonder woman . . .
POSE 1: Wonder woman — Place your hands on hips, stand tall with your legs apart and embrace the feeling of your inner confidence.
POSE 2: Winner — Stand tall, with your arms up high like a star, your fingers pointing skywards.
POSE 3: Boss — place your hands behind the back of your head, elbows wide, in a relaxed, confident way.
For each of these poses, do the following:
- Hold the pose.
- Continue to hold for two minutes. Observe and embrace the feeling.
- Relax and carry on, with your life energised and empowered.
Answers to your problems
Over the years, I’ve learnt that a good question is worth its weight in gold — not only for the answers it brings but also for the positive frame of mind it brings.
I have found that one of the best techniques for helping to solve problems is a set of six questions that come from the field of decision theory.
But before we get started I want to ask you a really important question: What are your three biggest problems?
Consider what they are before beginning. Don’t try to solve them yet.
Now ask yourself, ‘What would it feel like if you knew how to solve them?’ Then, ask, ‘What would it feel like if you knew you were going to solve them?’
You’re now primed to open your mind and come up with creative problem-solving solutions.
Questions that give insight
In order to get these questions to work for you, choose a problem or worry and answer each question as honestly as you can.
If your problem is, ‘I can’t lose weight,’ asking yourself what’s positive about the problem, often brings up nothing at all, at first.
However, when you think around the problem, a potential answer could be that you are not undernourished.
I once did this with someone who was unwell and who thought there was no positive about their illness. After a number of attempts, he said, ‘Well, at least I know what’s wrong with me and I am getting treatment.’
Remember, the idea is not necessarily to solve the problem immediately, but to get yourself thinking about it differently.
So, think about one of your problems and then ask these questions…
What are three positive things about this problem?
What’s not how you want it?
What are you willing to do to get the result you want?
What are you willing to stop doing to get the result that you want?
How can you motivate yourself and even take pleasure in doing what needs to be done to get the result you want?
What’s something you can do today to get things moving in the right direction?
Each time you ask and answer these six questions, you will gain new insights into how to better handle the situation that you are exploring.
I have been recording a podcast called Positivity over the past couple of years where I do a psychological rather than journalistic interview with a well-known person.
One question I ask each of my guests is how they manage to overcome adversity.
The actress, model and singer Priyanka Chopra Jonas is a very inspiring lady who, when experiencing any sort of setback, motivates herself by thinking of her past successes, large or small. It makes her feel more empowered to deal with whatever challenge she is facing.
The following technique will help you to do just that. You can use it whenever you need to overcome feelings of distress and desperation.
- Think about something you feel needy or desperate about. It could be money, a house sale, a job, or even a relationship that you would like to have.
- Notice the pictures, sounds and self-talk that you have associated with this particular situation.
- Now, take charge of your internal world. Take any negative pictures, push them off into the distance in your mind’s eye and fade them out. Turn down the volume on the negative sounds and self-talk until you are feeling relatively calm about whatever it is you were feeling desperate about.
- Next, make a nine-square grid and create a ‘success collage’ of some of the good things you have in your life or of happy memories — putting eight of them in the boxes, but keep the bottom middle box free for the time being. Imagine pictures of the people that you like and who like you, times where you have been successful in the past, and anything else you are grateful for having in your life.
- Finally, in the bottom middle box, fill the space with a very tiny, black and white representation of whatever it is that you used to feel needy or desperate about.
ABC OF PRIORITISING
One of the hardest words we ever say is ‘no’. Unless you streamline your priorities you will have to do this frequently and feel overwhelmed.
Over the years I’ve found creating an A, B and C list helps me immensely.
A-list items are things that must be done urgently or there will be trouble.
B-list items are important, but can wait.
Everything else goes on the C-list.
Try it. It should help to reduce your stress levels if you are feeling overwhelmed, and will boost your productivity, too.
Over the years I’ve found creating an A, B and C list helps me immensely
- Write a to-do list of everything that needs to be done.
- Assign an A to those things that are urgent and have serious consequences if they are not done.
- Give a B to those things that are important but can wait.
- Give a C to everything else.
- Every morning, assess and adjust your list and concentrate on getting the A-list done as soon as you can. If you have time left, go on to the Bs, and then the Cs, in that strict order.
- For the next 21 days, stick religiously to the list and notice how much more productive you are and how much calmer you are feeling about tackling your tasks.
Adapted from Positivity: Confidence, Resilience, Motivation by Paul McKenna, to be published by Welbeck on January 6 at £14.99. © Paul McKenna 2022. To order a copy for £11.69 go to www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £20. Promotional price valid until 15/01/2022.