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I'm in Derby … pruning my overgrown mind

Updated: Jul 9, 2019

According to revered psychologist Professor Paul Gilbert – founder of compassion focused therapy – human minds need tending just like gardens.

But because we can’t see them the way we see our bodies, mind maintenance can get overlooked. And as time goes by, our minds continue to grow without any intervention … ending up unwieldy and maybe in need of some rejuvenation pruning.

So, here I am, on a three-day Compassionate Self Workshop, secateurs in hand, ready to let in some air and light to encourage new shoots.

I am in esteemed company too because my guides are all experts in the field of Compassion. None more so than “head gardener”– the acclaimed Professor Gilbert himself – and colleagues Dr Hannah Gilbert, and Dr Marcela Matos from the University of Coimbra in Portugal.

So what’s this C word all about?

Over the last 30 years, Professor Gilbert has been researching the science behind Compassion and leading the call for a more compassionate world. The last decade has seen his work gain momentum as the compassion concept has been adopted in different aspects of society. From overcoming mental health problems, from stress, depression and anxiety, to the severe end of personality disorder and psychosis such as stress and depression, to improving well-being in schools, compassion-based thinking is also bringing benefits to the environment and to business.

For the next three days, though, Professor Gilbert is helping our workshop focus on developing self-compassion and mindfulness. In simple terms, we’re training our minds to think kinder, positive thoughts in order to dial down the inner critic that tells us we’re stupid, or not good enough and causes us to stress over what’s happened or what could happen.

We have to learn to drive our brains in a new direction

As Professor Gilbert rightly pointed out, I never get requests from business clients asking for help to learn how to be more angry, fearful or anxious. Our primitive brains do all that for us and then it’s magnified by our innate human ability to forward think, ruminate, worry and imagine (usually the worst!). Then we get stuck in a self-critical loop.

The good news?

It’s not our fault we think this way. It’s an unintended consequence, or trade off, of a brain that has been shaped over millions of years of evolution. We can however, use what we know about how the brain works, to help it work in our favour and to cultivate our wise, compassionate mind. It starts with awareness. Noticing when our mind is getting pulled into unhelpful loops, and then working to get out of that cycle. There are many methods to break the loop, but the first step is to notice them! The thing is, our threat system, the emotions of anger, anxiety and disgust, will trump all others, and once activated, our instinctive responses to protect ourselves, the fight-flight-freeze (also submit-detach-attach), is triggered.

The threat system is not easily ignored, nor should it be if you think about it. But it is not wise, it is knee jerk and instinctive, and it is generally not who we want running the show. Our compassionate self is the one that will be helpful, courageous and guide us wisely through difficult times. This compassionate self is what we’re cultivating in our garden. With intention, deliberation, effort. It’s so worth it in the long run!

My enthusiasm and motivation for Professor Gilbert’s work and approach is all down to my awesome step daughter Dr Ashleigh McLellan . As a Consultant Clinical Psychologist specialising in compassion-focused therapy she introduced me to the concept. Then, after attending a Compassion in Leadership Conference last year, I was hooked and hungry to learn more.

Now, after lots of reading, thinking and continuing self-practice, I’m completely committed to putting ‘Compassion in Leadership’ at the core of our service offer at Indigo.

What really resonates is that we often see corporate clients spending money on psychometric testing that may create a level of understanding and personal development opportunity. [Emotional Intelligence, for example, is one psychometric that I’ve found particularly useful in exploring what gets in the way of us being our best self.]

However, while clients can often intellectually ‘get’ these reports and what they mean, they can feel it’s impossible to find a motivation and method to make the challenging step to change habits, mindsets and self-limiting beliefs.

With commitment and practice, we can help business leaders and their teams train their minds to be more effective and resilient. Above all, we can guide them to re-centre their purpose to being ‘helpful not harmful’ via a motivation of compassion.

Of course, as with all training, clients will need to take responsibility to commit, and be courageous, wise and kind to themselves in order to reap the rewards.

But let’s be bravehearts and push ourselves to embrace the three Cs of courage, commitment, compassion. Here’s to seeing ourselves at our best – more of the time!

Happy sprouting everyone.

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