si dawson

experiments in self-improvement

Stopping The Downward Spiral

Learning to love ourselves is generally seen as an upward path. With practice, and over time, we gradually treat ourselves with more compassion, respect and care.

Life, however, is rarely so straight forward. The journey to this self-loving nirvana is fraught with dangers and challenges, peaks and valleys.

Until we do reach this magical destination we can gain a lot of forward traction by watching downwards instead of up.

Rather than looking only to treat ourselves better, how about treating ourselves less worse?

I’ll explain.

It’s pretty normal for things to upset us. That’s part of life, and of growing.

Of course, there are lots of ways to help reduce this (and in fact, remove these stressors permanently) but I’ve banged that drum enough in the past. Right now, I’d like to talk about what happens after we get upset.

Often? We start to spiral. Downwards. Fast.

We get grumpy so we make bad decisions, which makes our situation worse, which makes us grumpier, which…

You can see how it goes.

I can remember when I was much younger, if something seriously upset me it wouldn’t be too surprising for me to be angry and in a bad mood for weeks (unless I got drunk and forgot about it or had a good rage out). Not particularly healthy – or fun for anyone around me. Yikes!

Thankfully these days all that junk is well gone, however this basic pattern is part of human nature:

Something upsets us, and then we do things that make the situation worse for ourselves. After that, we spiral downwards into a gigantic cesspit of doom. Doom doom doomy doom.

The good news is, when we’re starting to get into this kind of space, we can make gigantic improvements with only a tiny modicum of self control. Not a huge amount of self-control, just enough to stop us seriously self-harming.

So, what are some of these crappy self-harming things we might do?

  • Eat a ton of sugar or junk food (eg, *cough* an entire packet of donuts)
  • Drink too much (*facepalm*)
  • Take it out on those around us (thus flaring up other issues, which never helps)
  • Stay up too late at night
  • Engage in risky or dangerous behaviour (casual sex, cliff diving, starting fights)
  • Worse

The trouble with all of these behaviours is that they have side-effects that last much longer than the period of time we might otherwise have been upset for.

Eg, if I eat a whole bunch of junk food, generally I’ll break out and otherwise feel crappy for the next few days. A serious bender can leave me feeling maudlin and low for as many as three days. Staying up too late is guaranteed to screw up my next day. And so on.

Of course, the real problem is this – it’s all very well pointing OUT these behaviours, but when we’re feeling crappy, we feel compelled to do them. Merely knowing they’re bad isn’t going to help us. We know they’re bad, but we don’t care. If we had the self control to not do them when we were upset, we wouldn’t be doing them. Hello? We’re upset!

So. How do we get around this?

First of all, acknowledge that it’s ok if we do these dumb things. Really. They’re just choices. Beating yourself up for making a bad choice is often as bad, if not worse than the actual behaviour itself. How long can guilt last for? Do you think our body is going to optimally process whatever poison we’ve put into it if we’re also pouring massive amounts of hate its way as well?

Another drum I’ve beaten to death in the past.

Here’s something new though.

If, even while we’re upset, we can acknowledge that we’re going to do something dumb, we can easily take tiny steps to minimise the damage.

Sure, go ahead and eat all those donuts, but follow them up with washing your face before you go to bed and drinking a bunch of water. Then tomorrow when you’re feeling a bit better, do some crunches and have a salad to “balance it out” (yes, those are air quotes).

If you wanna get hammered, go ahead and do it. But do it somewhere safe – eg, at home, not at a bar where it’s going to cost you way more and you might get in a fight (or worse). Drink something you know won’t give you a terrible hangover (for me, avoid white spirits and stick to Guinness or whisky). Before you start, line up pints of water and make sure you down ‘em so you’re WELL hydrated before you sleep.

If you know you’re going to take your bad mood out on those around you, get the hell away from them. Just say “Shitty mood. Need space. Not you. Will come back.” Whatever minimum communication you can grunt out to ensure that the other person doesn’t think it’s their fault, then go burn off that energy some other way – even if it’s screaming and swearing your whole way down the street – getting angry around people who don’t know you (and thus don’t care as much) is way less damaging than being around those who know and love you.

If you have the compulsion to go randomly fuck someone – make damn sure you (or they, or both) wear a condom. The last thing you want is to wake up post-anger with a kid or a disease. For bonus points, have casual sex with someone you already know and care about. It’ll be less harmful to you emotionally and energetically (but that’s a whole other blog post).

When we’re in a seriously shitty headspace, finding the discipline to not hurt ourselves is often outside our reach. This is totally normal and nothing to be ashamed about.

However, finding enough discipline to minimise the damage from this behaviour? That’s much easier. And you know what? It’s still loving ourselves.

Most importantly, it’ll shrink the post-blow-out damage. Instead of feeling crappy for days, we’ll cut it back to feeling crappy for hours instead. This is a huge win. It gets us back in a higher energetic space sooner. It stops our lives from spiralling uncontrollably downwards.

Sure, it’s not as perfect as immediately dropping whatever’s upset us (which is quite feasible, with practice) but it is a huge step in the right direction.

The sooner we’re back in a happy place, the sooner we can deal with whatever’s upset us. Minimising self harm and thus preventing a larger downward spiral is a great improvement. It’s a practical way to love ourselves that doesn’t require superhuman self-discipline.

It’s still loving ourselves, even in the midst of disaster. It’s still taking small but certain forward steps, and that’s what this journey is really all about.


    Look Where You Want To Go

    There’s a simple trick for creating the life of your dreams: Look where you want to go.

    The only catch here is: our brains are not our friends. They’re useful tools, but they’re not our friends.

    One of the key ways they’re not is by constantly focusing on what’s negative  (search for “cognitive biases” for others).

    There are sensible evolutionary reasons for this.

    In life-and-death terms, good things (eg delicious berries on a bush) are lower priority than, say, a tiger that’s about to eat our head (generally known as “a bad thing”).

    So, we’re tuned: Pay MUCH more attention to bad things. They’re more urgent, they’re more important.

    However, now we’re roaming the streets not the savannah, this evolutionary priority isn’t helping so much.

    These days, our actual life-and-death risks are much more probabilistic and long term – heart disease, cancer etc. They’re no longer things that jump out of a bush and try to eat us as we’re walking to work.

    In fact statistically, surprising events are generally pretty benign – spilling coffee on ourselves, bumping into someone on an escalator, a boss shouting at us at work. Not great, sure, but no longer life threatening.

    [obviously if you live in a war zone or an otherwise rough area, you're in the modern equivalent of tiger jumping territory, so things are a little different for you.]

    The real problem is, our brains still treat negative events as if they were ALL life and death.

    Which doesn’t help us at all.

    Of greater concern is the larger effect of our brains instinctively focusing on the negative.

    After all, what are our lives but the sum total of our experiences and memories?

    Our lives are simply the sum of everything we pay attention to.

    If we are focused on negative events – particularly fears and worries (which, almost by definition haven’t happened), then that is what will fill our existence.

    This is particularly obvious in relationships.

    We may have a perfectly fine relationship with someone, but if what we’re most focused on is some negative event that happened, or some fear that didn’t – how is that going to colour our feelings towards them?

    What’s actually an otherwise decent relationship will seem utterly awful.

    Now obviously, I’m not suggesting being myopic. Every relationship has issues and these should be dealt with.

    However, if you WANT the relationship to be good, focusing on the positive aspects will create that much more reliably than constantly looking for what’s wrong.

    If your partner does something a bit off, assume they mean well. They love you and want to be with you, right? So why hold the picture that they’ve intentionally tried to hurt you? It’s only destructive.

    If you get quiet and pay attention, you’ll be able to see this in action.

    When you look at someone, what’s the general feeling you’re filled with?

    THAT is the sum of all your most common thoughts about that person (whether conscious or subconscious)

    • If they’re mostly negative thoughts, you’re going to feel pretty crappy.
    • If they’re mostly positive thoughts, you’re going to feel pretty great when you think about them.

    (here are some techniques for dumping those non-loving feelings)

    Of course, this goes for everything in our lives.

    Think about your job. Your home. Your commute. Your family. Your wardrobe. Your bank balance.

    You can instantly feel what your predominant thoughts are.

    Is your brain focused on the good or bad aspects?

    Look where you want to go.

    If you want a boring life, focus your attention on the boring things around you.

    If you want a happy life, pay attention to what is already around you that brings you happiness and joy.

    If you want a peaceful life, pay attention to what’s peaceful and choose to let the rest of it go.

    Our eyes and ears face forward for a reason: Look where you want to go.


      The Detritus of Catholicism

      A couple of notes:

      • I previously wrote this over on Livejournal many moons ago, but I keep looking for it to refer to it – which I take to mean it should be over here too. I’ve tidied it up a bit.
      • This post is primarily aimed at Catholics & ex-Catholics, but if you’re not and you feel a resonance, hey, that’s cool too, just go with it, heal away. Catholics definitely don’t have a monopoly on this junk.
      • A side note on the word “God.” This word is incredibly loaded. It took me about 20 years after I left the church before I could use it without having a strong negative reaction. I’ve used it here for clarity and simplicity, but if it bothers you please mentally replace “God” with “Universe”, “higher self”, “flying spaghetti monster” or whatever synonym works best for you.

      Catholicism is an interesting religion. It is an immensely powerful organisation with a stunningly flat hierarchy (only 5 layers from the Pope to you). It’s run from the Vatican, one of very few city-states, which therefore has both diplomatic as well as religious protection. It’s also been listed as the 3rd biggest money laundering centre in the world (more here).

      It’s not a huge leap to suggest that perhaps this organisation doesn’t always have you, the (ex) parishioner’s best interests at heart. Perhaps not aggressively or directly maliciously, but certainly in terms of a very basic equation: more control over you = more money and power to them.

      Now, this isn’t a rant about Catholicism. If you’ve done any research or serious thinking in this area, you’ve possibly reached similar conclusions. Regardless, the Vatican and the Catholic hierarchy are very welcome to behave any way they feel is right (that’s their business, not mine). This isn’t about them. It’s about you, it’s about me. We want to clean up the mess left behind.

      There is an additional important distinction, between “the church”, and “God”. The church is made up of humans (regardless of whether they declare themselves infallible). The church is NOT God and God is NOT the church. The Catholic church does a really good job of blurring that line. What the church says is what humans are saying, not what God is saying. “Believe me because I say so” is not defensible logic.

      Let me be brutally clear. God is Good. Jesus (whether he existed or not) was a righteous dude. It’s the teaching of the Catholic church itself that results in problems.

      Oh, and if reading what I’ve written below results in you feeling strong negative emotions? That’s actually a good thing. It makes these issues much easier to heal. Use whatever tool works for you, but if that emotion is close to the surface, then you’ll be able to easily see as you’re making progress. Of course, if you’re not interested in healing in this area (which is perfectly ok too, most people aren’t), I do suggest stopping reading. My intention is REALLY not to upset you or appear to criticise your beliefs.

      Right, disclaimers and caveats aside, let’s get on with this!


      There are several key areas where Catholic indoctrination will have affected you that thus warrant attention and healing.

      This is the big one. I once had a competition with a Jewish friend at a party – whose family was better at making us feel guilty. He won, but it was a close battle (at least, until he started telling me about the stunning “skills” of his grandmother).

      1. Guilt only makes you feel bad.
      2. Feeling bad doesn’t achieve anything (other than, well, making you feel bad)
      3. On the other hand, actually doing something to correct your error does achieve something.
      4. On top of that, we often feel guilty when we haven’t actually even made an error – double plus ungood

      In short: Don’t waste time feeling guilty. If you’ve done something wrong (now, or in the past), DO SOMETHING TO FIX IT. Guilt about it will only damage you. How you feel about yourself, how you view yourself, how you treat yourself. Any guilt you feel? Heal it.

      This is a close cousin. This is you guilt-tripping yourself or beating yourself up.

      1. Regret is in the past
      2. You can’t change the past, only the present (and thus future)

      If you regret something, either DO SOMETHING, or let it go. Continuing to beat yourself up about it is only killing yourself (slowly).

      Heard the saying, “Love the sinner, hate the sin?” Ever stop to wonder why that is only ever applied to how we treat other people?

      1. Yes, you have made mistakes in your life. That IS OK (natural even, it’s a great way to learn).
      2. That doesn’t make you a bad person (“a sinner” is the catch all phrase)
      3. Viewing yourself in a negative light adds nothing positive or useful to the world

      Imagine you’re a parent and your child is learning to ride a bike. She’s not very good yet and occasionally hits a tree, or falls off. Would you be angry at her? Tell her she’s a sinner (or evil, or equivalent) that she will never be “forgiven” unless she leads a life of self induced misery and servitude? No, of course not. You’d be what? Loving. Understanding. Patient. Caring. Your heart would break every time she made a mistake. You’d be there, gently helping her back on, encouraging her every pedal of the way.

      So why do we get the idea that God (our Father) doesn’t view us, treat us, love us exactly the same way?

      Go easy on yourself. God Loves you; you should too.

      We’re taught that we have to deserve things. We’re allowed into heaven only IF we act a certain way. We don’t deserve forgiveness (or God’s love) unless we repent, and so on.

      Jesus never taught that. He taught “God loves you”, end of story. No ifs, no buts, no conditions. God IS unconditional Love. It’s (unfortunately) the church that puts all those conditions in there, not Him.

      If you feel like you don’t deserve something, anything? That’s conditioned behaviour. You’ve been taught that. 

      Do you honestly think that God, a being of pure Love, actually wants you to suffer? To be in pain? Would you want someone you loved more than life itself to suffer? For ANY reason? Of course not. All those excuses clamouring in your head as you read this? That’s just rationalisation, your brain talking. That’s not Love. Not big-L, unconditional God Love. 

      No excuses, no exceptions, no conditions. God Loves you, end of story.

      It’s pretty easy to forget this.

      We’re taught to “forgive others” – yet, did you ever stop to ask what that means, in raw, practical terms? Surely, harbouring no negative emotions towards them for that incident, right?

      Oh, so here’s a minor point – why do we so easily forget to forgive ourselves?

      “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive others” – so, if God has forgiven us, why the hell don’t we let go of it too? Do we honestly think we know more about this than He does?

      New vs Old Testament
      When Jesus arrived, he came with a simple message. When he was asked, “Which is the most important commandment?” he said (paraphrased) “First, love God. Second love each other.” [Mark 12:28-31] That’s not so complicated, is it?

      And because philosophy, morals and ethics are such slippery things (what is “good”, what is “bad”, etc), if you want to keep it simple? “Don’t be an asshole”. 

      Jesus also said to pretty much ignore the old testament (the God of hellfire and vengeance) that God was actually loving. Like a (good, rather than angry) father.

      He came with clarification and simplification: God is Love. Only love. Not love-and-anger. Not love-and-violent retribution. Just Love.

      If this is the case, then why is so much of the teaching of the church (hell, it’s not even in the Creed!) attached to the old, superseded, vengeance-and-fear model of God? Why the guilt, the fear, the shame, the recrimination? An obvious answer is that frightened, miserable people are more easy to control. Either way, Jesus didn’t come down and say “do this, this and this or God will hate you, punish you and make you suffer”. God just doesn’t work like that. Not the New Testament God.

      Don’t listen to me about this, listen to what Jesus said. God is Love, he loves you, love each other, ignore everything else. Simple.

      How to unravel it all
      If you’re feeling negative emotions inside you? That’s not Love. If you feel negative emotions towards others? That’s not Love. But most importantly, if you’re feeling negative emotions towards yourself, that’s not Love either.

      Why is how you treat yourself the most important bit? Because whatever you aim inwards is reflected outwards. If you feel like shit, that’s going to seep out into the world, one way or another.

      Unfortunately, Catholicism teaches us to increase, not decrease, these inwardly aimed negative emotions. All perfectly rationally, all perfectly reasonably, all explained away, of course. None of it helping you, none of it actually Love, or helping you live a better life.

      Here are some examples. If any of these resonate with you, they’re beliefs that are contrary to Love. Beliefs that if you want to move closer to God, to Love (or alternatively, just get that ex-Catholic crap out of your life), you should heal.

      • “How can I possibly forgive that person? What they did was SO bad”
      • “I’m a sinner”
      • “I must suffer for my sins”
      • “Sure, I’ve forgiven them, but I’m still X them” (where X=negative emotion=’angry at’, ‘hate’, ‘can’t stand’, etc)
      • “I don’t deserve [anything]“
      • “I regret [anything]“
      • “Only God can forgive me”
      • “I deserve to suffer”
      • “I’m a bad person”
      • “Unless I’m good, I won’t go to heaven”

      I’m sure there are many more. The point is very simple: God (the universe, whatever) Loves you. You should too.


        A Simple Meditation

        I’d been feeling pretty crappy for a couple of days.

        None of my tools really seemed to be doing it for me, and all in all I’d been feeling quite lost.

        Here’s what I started doing to fix it.

        Saying “yes”.

        And then saying “yes” some more.

        And some more. (and some more)

        Here’s the thing. By a huge margin, “yes” is the most positive thing we can say. Kinda obvious I know.

        Interestingly, it also has a disproportionate effect on our brains when we say it.

        Don’t believe me though. Try it yourself.

        1. Say “No” repeatedly and emphatically for ten seconds or so. Now see how you feel.
        2. Say “Yes” repeatedly and emphatically for ten seconds or so. Now see how you feel.

        It’s not an accident there are so many books (yep, that’s over 500,000) pushing people towards “yes”.

        In any kind of sales or negotiation (which if you stop and think about it is most of life), if you can get the person saying yes ABOUT ANYTHING, they’ll be significantly more likely to say yes to the specific thing you want them to (eg “buy this car” or “make me a sandwich”).

        Saying yes changes our brains.

        Now of course, even though saying yes by itself might be helpful, there are some simple ways we can really step this up a notch.

        First is tweaking our posture. Improve our posture and we’ll immediately improve our state of well being.

        So, I did that. I sat up straight. Ok, so I jammed myself against a wall, since I didn’t really feel like sitting up straight. But it still helped.

        Second thing is to let go of any angry or opposing thoughts, or any physical tension that arises while we’re saying yes.

        Yep, release the mental and physical noise.

        Why does this occur?

        Well, let’s take it in steps.

        Why are we feeling crappy? Well, there’s going to be something upsetting us, right?

        So, instinctively, we’ll be resisting this (because it’s upsetting). Ie, saying “no” to this whatever-it-is.

        Now, when we consciously choose to say yes, what are we doing? We’re loving whatever-this-awful-thing-is.

        We’re choosing to be loving about it. Which is always helpful.

        However, any resistance is going to come racing to the top – ie, anything in us that is the opposite of loving.

        Usually it’s pretty obvious. We’ll feel clutching or a physical tension in our stomach or chest. Our brain will be screaming “What the hell? No WAY am I saying YES. That guy’s an asshole” (etc *yawn* etc)

        Well, that’s all very nice, but really, that resistance IS the reason we’re feeling crappy (not whatever the resistance is actually about).

        It’s not the event that affects us, only our reactions to it.

        It’s nothing to do with what’s outside us. It’s actually (as always) what’s INSIDE that matters.

        Events don’t bother us. Our reactions TO those events bother us.

        So anyway. Saying yes brings all this junk to the surface.

        And then we can let it go.

        Mantras are all very well and good. It’s definitely smart to focus on what you want. Eg, feeling more positive.

        However, unless you actually work on the energy surrounding it, you’re not going to get very far. In other words, clear your FEELINGS about whatever it is that’s bothering you.

        Saying “yes” externally while internally you’re screaming “no” is just gonna leave you spinning in an unhappy circle.

        Hence, posture. Hence, releasing.

        Oh, and water. Water is always recommended.

        (I also find physically tapping anywhere I feel tension helps to unblock the energy and let it out too).

        So anyway. This is what I did. I sat up straight. I drank some water. I said “yes”, over and over to myself. I let go of any noise (physical, mental, emotional) that floated up.

        And you know what? I did start to feel better. Not the fastest I ever have – but when you’re super low, you’re really too low to do very much. It all helps.

        The key thing is, it lifted me up enough, just enough that I could start using more powerful tools.

        It got me back on track.

        And really, isn’t that just what’s needed, at least every now and then?


          I’ll Be Happy When

          As humans, we have a strong tendency to put off our happiness.

          We think we’ll be happy…

          • when we achieve some goal (new car, new job, “success”)
          • when we’re loved
          • when we feel safe
          • when we have $X
          • when “something” changes for us

          … and of course, the advertising industry plays right into this. They love this tendency – it makes it a doddle to sell us all manner of crap. All they have to (implicitly) promise is that when we buy their whatever, it’ll make us happy.

          There’s a key problem though. Humans adjust. Quickly. Our “I’ll be happy when” list will definitely change over time (do you still want a GI Joe action figure for Christmas?), but it never empties.

          When we get the new job, then we want to have saved more money. When we’ve saved more money, we want a partner. When we have a partner, we want them to be nicer…

          At the core of this whole mess is a very simple truth:

          We’re not allowing ourselves to be happy.

          We’re putting up all these rules, these conditions – much like we do with love, or judgement

          Sure, a new car may be nice, but do we really want the car or do we want the feeling (happiness) that we think the car will bring us?

          Obviously there are practicalities with having a new car (it won’t break down as much, we need it to carry groceries, etc), but at its core, so much of what we want is because we think it’ll make us happy (feeling loved, feeling safe…).

          When we get that thing, we then push the goalposts farther away, thereby ensuring we’re never actually happy.

          We have the whole thing backwards.

          The secret here isn’t to get the stuff (although that’s fun too), it’s to decide to be happy before you get the stuff. At the very least, even if you don’t get the “whatever” you’ll still be happy. More useful is that it’s always easier to achieve a goal if you’re already happy.

          Now, the practical bit – how the hell do you do that?

          Well, the first thing to realise is that all these conditions are just pictures in our heads. We can let them go. Remember, you’re the boss. Of all of it. Every single silly picture in your head, you can let go of and replace with better ones. And really, why think about something if it’s just making us miserable?

          So, how do we find those pictures? How do we call them to the surface so we can let go of them?

          What I’ve found works well is just to ask myself

          “I’ll be happy when…”

          and let my mind fill in the gap. Nature abhors a vacuum, so our minds will automatically fill in the end of the sentence with… something!

          Once we have that picture – the whatever-it-is that will finally enable us to be happy, simply let it go.

          You can always ask yourself “Can I let this go?” but really, unless you’re answering yes, you’re lying to yourself – or deliberately harming yourself (this can happen too). The bottom line is, you can always let it go. You’re the boss of your mind.

          You’ll be amazed at the giant list of nonsense that will sprout up once you start asking yourself this. It’s ok. Just let each thing go, and you’ll feel yourself getting lighter and, yes, happier. By letting go of each thing, we’re gradually giving ourselves permission to be happy. We’re removing all those artificial conditions we’ve placed in our way.



            Notice: Undefined property: stdClass::$post_status in /srv/ on line 152