Challenging our beliefs – how we can learn from young people.


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Alan White

Alan White

“We see the world not as it is, but as we are” – Stephen Covey.

Young people often challenge parents and teachers. Sometimes it feels as though young people are purposely trying to drive us over the edge, constantly doing and saying things that go against our values. At times, this can be frustrating and stressful, but I have recently learned that it can also become a point of growth, for both the adult and the young person.

Young people are trying to find their way in a world that is becoming more and more pressurised for them and as a consequence, self-esteem can be quickly eroded if they don’t live up to social and educational expectations.

We, as parents and teachers, need to become aware of this and realise that when we encounter challenging behaviour from a young person, it is an opportunity to step back, look at things from their perspective and support and encourage them. A teenager that feels listened to and supported will develop a sense of self-esteem and wellbeing.

I was recently challenged in an unexpected way by a student I have known since he was in first year. Now in sixth year and facing into the leaving cert, this student came to me and told me he was leaving school. Shocked at this news, I asked why and his response was that, he didn’t see the point of the leaving cert and he had made up his mind to quit.

My initial reaction was instinctive as I immediately pointed out how important the Leaving cert is and that he is already half way through his final year. Having heard all this on many occasions before, my advice did not go down well and the conversation ended there. I was left feeling anxious about his decision and quickly realised that I might have missed an opportunity.

When I thought about this, I realised that I was only seeing this student and their wish to leave school through my perspective. Our perspectives or how we see the world, is made up of all the experiences and learning we have accumulated over our lives. Therefore, as a teacher who values education so highly, I began to understand why I may not have been able to meet this student on their terms or view through their perspective. I decided to try to suspend my own judgements and try to have another conversation with this student.

The next time we had the opportunity to talk rather than advise, I asked the student why they wanted to leave school. The student couldn’t give me a clear answer but I could clearly see that school wasn’t a place where this student experience much success. We chatted for some time and to be honest I didn’t know what to say that could help. After a while, I asked, “What do you see yourself doing next year?” The student answered that he didn’t have any idea and it suddenly began to make sense as to why he wanted to quit.

By simply acknowledging the difficulties they were having in school, the student felt heard. By suspending my own negative judgements on the issue, the student felt that they could explore why they were so frustrated. By not having any idea as to what he wanted to do next, the student couldn’t see the point in working towards the leaving cert. From their perspective the decision to leave actually made some sense.

What I learned from this experience is that, if we want to challenge someone else’s perspective to help them make a positive change in their life, we have to first examine our own.

The good news is that the student has decided to stay in school. I met his parents and we agreed not to put much pressure on but to just support and encourage the student. The change in attitude towards learning has been amazing. It may not be the most enjoyable few months coming up, but we have agreed to keep chatting about options for the future and while he is figuring out what’s next. All that is expected of him from his parents and teachers is that he does his best, whatever that might be.

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Taking back control – why young people need to fail


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Alan White

Alan White

This might sound like a strange title, but the more I work with young people the more I can see that many young people who fail to build the resilience required to become successful in their lives, are the ones who have not been allowed to experience failure for themselves, and been given the space to try again and succeed.

Very often, this happens when the young person is lucky enough to have a parent or other adult in their lives who care so much that they want to prevent any suffering. This is of course admirable but can actually have an adverse effect on wellbeing.

Feeling a sense of control in our lives is one of the most empowering things that we can achieve. Knowing that we have the capacity to bounce back from failure when it occurs, gives us a sense of inner strength and the knowledge that we can not only handle life’s inevitable setbacks, but also actually learn from each experience.

This is a difficult task for any parent, as our natural instincts are to protect our children at all costs. We tend to jump in and try to fix problems without allowing the time for young people to resolve it for themselves, leaving the adult permanently stressed through hyper-vigilance and the young person disempowered and unable to take any positive action in their lives.

Why would they? If they know that someone else will fix the problem for them if they just wait long enough. The role of the adult is still important at times of challenge. Taking a step back can be difficult but it’s also important to support, encourage and advise young people while allowing them space and time to resolve whatever issue they are dealing with.

The results I see of fixing things too early for young people are that many of them lack the capacity to come through difficult time as they feel they cannot take effective control over their lives. I regularly meet young people who are struggling with various difficulties and very often, the problem they are facing is magnified by the fact that they lack faith in their own ability to resolve it for themselves.

When parents attempt to intervene in problems that young people are having, very often the problem persists. When it is resolved through a parent or adult, I often find that a similar problem arises quite quickly again.

I have a lot of difficult conversations in my work. It’s difficult watching young people suffer and the hardest thing to do is to know when to take a step back and simply support a young person through a time of crisis. More often than not, that is the only effective strategy that we can use to help and empower a young person, but to do this we, as adults, need to fight our instincts to protect, which is a huge challenge.

We all want to experience success in our lives, but we quickly realise that success gained through others, where we feel we have not given of ourselves is a hollow success. Its gain without pain. The feeling that we have earned success through navigating challenges is both rewarding and vital to build self-esteem and allow people to gain independence.

Failure also allows us to gain a new perspective on things and allows us to learn valuable lessons that would otherwise be lost. So allow young people to try and fail. It’s amazing how they rebound and come back again, stronger and more capable.

Link to shop: Choices – Facilitators Manual Description

The age of anxiety


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Alan White

Alan White

“For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” – William Shakespeare (Hamlet)

More and more I seem to be meeting young people struggling with anxiety. I am encountering debilitating levels of stress and worry in many people. So much so that the suffering is having an effect on many people’s ability to function normally. So many young people today have low self-esteem, are anxious about the future and see themselves as being not good enough.

In my opinion, one of the biggest reasons that there is such a huge increase in anxiety today is that many of us, especially young people, are living our lives under the constant scrutiny of a large audience. Through social media and on-demand entertainment, our minds are constantly switched on. We are also constantly measuring our self-worth against what we perceive the lifestyles of others to be. Very few people post pictures or comments about the ordinary mundane parts of their lives. We only post things showing ourselves in the best possible light, dressed in our best clothes, out at parties or events and with other people.

For young people it can be difficult to live up to this perceived lifestyle that others portray, even though it’s not reality. Nonetheless, many people try to constantly live to an impossible standard, even if it’s not what they want to do. This can have a very negative effect and increases anxiety.

For example, I recently watched a clip of Kim Kardashian, giving a “masterclass” on how to take the perfect selfie. Afterwards I was left feeling extremely worried that this is what young people are trying to conform to, and that this is becoming the “new normal”. The advice given was to spend a few hours getting ready, at this point, I was already in shock. Then take the time to find the perfect pose, avoiding angles that highlight any physical “flaws”, at this point I could feel the anger rising.

The next step is to take 300 to 400 selfies ????? (I swear I actually heard this). The final step was to spend another few hours trying to select the right photo, apply the correct filter etc. before posting your picture. So many young people think that this is normal behaviour.

Anxiety and stress are closely linked and they are both interrelated. In fact, I have written in the past, about the importance of some stress in our lives to motivate us to do the things we need to do. Anxiety is also a normal feeling that can help us perform at our best and also act as a warning to us that something isn’t right and we need to be cautious.

However when anxiety is not managed it can quickly become overwhelming and debilitating for someone and they can no longer cope with the normal demands of life. When I speak to people overcome with anxiety, the common theme that I find, is they have no sense of control over their own lives. They do not feel empowered or capable of handling the inevitable challenges that life throws at us, and therefore spend a lot of time and energy ruminating and catastrophizing future events.

As the quote at the beginning suggests, it is a person’s perception and thoughts that have a bigger impact on their level of anxiety and ability to cope, than any other factor. Many people, especially young people get caught in a negative loop of thought, where they tell themselves repeatedly, every day, that they are not capable and that therefore, bad things are bound to happen.

To help someone who is anxious all the time, I believe that it is important to highlight the relationship between stress and thoughts. What can begin as a small or healthy stressor can quickly become overwhelming for someone if they begin to think they can’t cope with whatever the stress is – for example an upcoming interview, exam or social event. I have found that by helping someone become aware of their anxiety triggers, such as allowing ordinary stress become an all-consuming negative thought pattern, they can quickly learn when they need to take action to reduce their level of worry.

Anyone can help someone who is feeling anxious. Knowing the pressure that young people are experiencing like in the “Kardashian example” it’s important to remind them of what is real, what is fake, and that it’s not healthy to obsess in this way. Try not to feed someone’s anxiety by joining in with the drama or narrative of their thought pattern. This will only confirm their perspective and increase their anxiety pattern.

Acknowledge what the person is feeling, but remain calm. This shows that you are accepting of them, but you are also modelling a behaviour that they are searching for. Above all else, listen to their concerns. Allowing people to say what they are thinking will, a lot of the time, give that someone the space to look at things differently and find new ways to manage their anxiety.

Managing anxiety is an important skill for everyone to develop. It’s getting more difficult in the anxious world we now live in, but the hope as always, is to remain connected to friends and family and by encouraging this, we care enough to talk!

Link to shop: Choices – Facilitators Manual Description

A secure base for well-being


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Alan White

Alan White

I recently began a new job in my school as Home School Community Liaison. This is a role that most schools don’t have and is one that I am finding challenging to get to grips with. What am I supposed to be doing, is a question I often ask myself? Having come from the assurance of the classroom, where I felt secure and in control of my environment and I always knew what I was supposed to do.

Starting anything new is challenging for all of us. When we first decide to make a change, be it big or small, feelings of anxiety and insecurity tend to come to the surface. People are generally creatures of habit and we all like our comfort zones on one level, but another part of us intuitively knows that in order to grow, we need to leave our comfort zone and take on new challenges.

What has helped me over the past few months cope with this new challenge is knowing that I have a secure base, both at home and in school. I have people who support me. People who can advise me when needed and sometimes just listen when I’m frustrated. This has given me the mental space and security to navigate this challenging time for myself.

A big part of my new job is working with parents of young people. Very often the young people in question are having difficulties in school, academic, behavioural or emotional. And I have quickly realised that to help the young person, its often also necessary to help their parent(s). Parenting is an extremely difficult task and is becoming increasingly so as society and how young people interact, becomes more complex.

Young people often pull away from their parents and begin to reject their influence. As a teenager struggles to gain more freedom and control in their lives, parents are often met with aggressive, withdrawn or secretive behaviours. This can be very stressful for a parent, who is left wondering what to do and how to reconnect with their child.

However if a young person is behaving like this, although it may be unpleasant to experience, it means that they have had a secure base at home when they were a child and are confident enough to explore new things and ways of doing things for themselves. What young people really want is to be able to be independent, but still have the security of knowing that their parents are still there for them, even when their behaviour would suggest otherwise.

It is not possible for a young person to have the complete freedom that they want, as they also need to adhere to the boundaries and responsibilities of home and school life. In fact parents need to remain firm and keep boundaries with them. It is possible to keep this positive discipline while remaining connected with young people.

Teenagers need and thrive with the right balance of support and boundaries. To remain connected, parents need to be there to support them through the ordinary suffering of life, such as worry, stress, loneliness and boredom, and help them navigate the difficulties they will encounter.

Remaining connected, even when it feels like you are growing apart, can be helped by being there for them. Make sure they feel listened to and supported and take an active interest in their lives. At this time in a young person’s development, it is important that their opinions are heard and not criticised unfairly. Anyone who has ever met a teenager will be aware of how important justice, fairness and their views can be to them. If they feel that their feelings on things are rejected by a significant adult in their lives then they will inevitable pull further away.

Parenting is not an easy task during the teenage years. However it can be made easier by managing the dual role of parenting, which is setting firm rules and boundaries, while also supporting them and remaining connected by actively taking an interest in their lives. One way to do this is to take an interest in their interests, which will help them to feel both connected and supported.

Link to shop: Choices – Facilitators Manual Description

Small Acts of persistence


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Alan White

Alan White

We are well into a new school year and normally for me this represents a time of new hope, fresh ideas and renewed energy and enthusiasm. It can also be a very difficult time however, for many students as well as teachers. For some students it can be a time when anxieties about school can begin to take hold again. Many teachers begin the school year wondering where they will get the energy needed to meet the many and varying demands that come with teaching.

Very often, these feelings are as a result of our own limiting beliefs. Our internal narrative or the story we tell ourselves, shapes not only our perceptions of the world around us, but also our perceptions of ourselves in the world. More often than not, it is our own limiting beliefs that become our biggest obstacles and prevent us from achieving what we want most.

Personally, the thought of beginning to write these articles again and complete my next book was very challenging. I was beginning to feel that I had run out of ideas and that what I was doing was not having the positive impact that I had hoped it would at this point. This forced me to step back and reflect on what I was doing and what I was trying to achieve.

It took me quite some time to realise that although I may not have achieved all that I wanted to over the past few years, that I was still in a great position where I had the opportunity to be an agent of change in well-being education. Given this opportunity, it is up to me to determine the impact that I can have. When I look back over the past few years, I can become frustrated, but I can also see that I have achieved quite a lot also.

It is through small acts of persistence that we often reach our goals or create change where it is needed. If I look back on the attitudes to well-being that I encountered a short few years ago as opposed to now, I can clearly see that there has been a gradual reduction in the stigmatisation of this subject. It is nowhere near where we need it to be, but there has been a shift in attitudes.

This is a success, no matter how small and should be looked at by those fighting to change attitudes around mental well-being as a motivating factor to be persistent. Changing perceptions of anything can be difficult, especially a topic that has been extremely stigmatised for such a long time.

I regularly meet both parents and students frustrated with varying difficulties that they are facing, both academic and personal and very often by helping them examine their own self-limiting beliefs, they begin to see new ways to overcome their challenges. My advice to both parents and students, is to take things one step at a time and to take a step back and acknowledge not only what they need to do, but also what they have already accomplished. This often motivates people to persist and work through the issues they face.

We all encounter times of frustration and challenge in our lives and it can be an overwhelming feeling at times. However by being patient with ourselves, examining our limiting beliefs and small acts of persistence, we can realise the change we want to see in ourselves. After all, if we want to change the world in which we live, we first have to change ourselves.

Link to shop: Choices – Facilitators Manual Description

Our culture is damaging our well-being


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Alan White

Alan White

We are living in a time where we have a lot to be grateful for. Modern consumer culture has greatly improved our way of life. Many of us now have access to products and services that only a short few years ago would not have been possible. Over the last few decades the things that are available for us to consume have grown exponentially, to the point where I believe we are now saturated and defined by consuming, possessions and our purchasing power or status.

Have you ever waited and waited for something, only to finally get it and still not feel a sense of satisfaction? Instead your mind immediately moves on to the next thing that we want, not allowing us to take the time to appreciate what we have just gotten or achieved! Our minds are constantly looking for the next thing, the next hit of temporary satisfaction that keeps us distracted for moments until we decide we want more.

This culture that we are living in makes us feel like we never have enough, and when we constantly feel like we don’t have enough, even when in reality we probably have more than enough, our minds tell us that we are somehow inferior and we need to go out and buy more. This vicious circle of buying, consuming, discarding and buying again is to me simply distracting our psyche and preventing us from ever being satisfied with what we have. When we then cannot get all the things we want, our sense of self-worth is affected negatively as we have learned from our culture that to be whole, we need to have all the things that we believe we should have.

We have developed a disposable attitude to things. This I believe has also created a disposable attitude to many other areas of our lives. We are more likely to dispose of our relationships, friendships, beliefs and morals, all in an attempt to get the temporary adrenaline rush that is given to us by the new!

Sitting at home in the evenings I often hear my fiancée listening to fashion bloggers on snapchat. Every day they are talking about the next big thing that everyone must have. This constant bombardment of advertising is having a very destructive effect on our overall well-being. When we are young, most of us had to learn the value of turn taking, sharing and delayed gratification. When we wanted something, it didn’t come straight away. I personally never wanted for anything when I was young and for that I am thankful, but I did learn that things didn’t just come straight away. They had to be earned, saved for and I had to be patient.

These days when listening to young people talk about the things they have and the things they want, there is a sense of expectation and entitlement to the tone of the conversations. This can be difficult for many young people, who are watching celebrities and advertising, telling them that to be worth anything they need to have their product, and if they don’t, they are somehow less.

It’s not surprising that mental health difficulties are increasing in young people, who are trying to fit into an impossibly materialistic and perfectionist world. No human being could possibly live up to the expectations that today’s popular culture portrays. Young people need to be helped to see the value of sometimes not having certain things. The value of friendships, and relationships. That it’s ok to not have everything we think we should have and that our self-worth is not measured by the clothes hanging in our wardrobes or gadgets in our homes.

Young people will not learn this if we simply tell them; we need to model this to the young people in our lives. We need to show them, not tell them, that shared experiences with the people closest to us are more important than new things. That sharing is more important than having everything for yourself and that working to get something is more satisfying than simply having something handed to you ever will be.

On that note I need a break. For all of us it’s good sometimes to stop for a while and recharge the batteries. It’s been a very busy time for me over the past year and writing these articles has been very enjoyable and a great way to share my thoughts on how we can improve the well-being of our children. It’s great to see that education is becoming more open to the idea of teaching well-being in schools. As always though it’s important that this topic is approached in the right way. I am looking forward to beginning again refreshed next September and to help keep the importance of well-being in our schools on the agenda.

Link to shop: Choices – Facilitators Manual Description

The Conflict Within


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Alan White

Alan White

We all know what it’s like to experience conflict in our lives. Whether it’s with the important people in our lives or within, unfortunately conflict is an inevitable part of life. However it’s how we handle conflict that can determine the effect that it can have on our well-being. If we don’t learn from a young age, how to deal with conflict in a healthy way. We risk spending our lives living out a personal drama.

Many of us, I believe are addicted to drama and conflict. Whenever I meet a student who is struggling with their well-being there is more often than not, a narrative of conflict running through their personal story. If we live in an environment where conflict is the norm, it becomes normalised for us, and we inevitably become caught in an internal and external loop of arguing and battling with others and ourselves.

I find that if someone is constantly in conflict with those around them, that they are probably also experiencing a lot of internal conflict. Conflict can be defined as ‘a feeling of being nervous or unhappy because you want two different things at the same time’. For many of us we often want a lot more than two things at the same time. This internal struggle can cause a lot of trauma within and adversely affect our most important relationship, our relationship with ourselves.

When conflicted, we are in a state of fear – fear leads to anxiety and anxiety leads to our stress response being activated. If this is how our internal narrative is playing out, all day every day. Then it’s not difficult to see the damaging effects that this can have on our wellbeing.

Over time we tend to accept this struggle within as being the norm, or just the way life is! However when experiencing internal conflict it is possible to resolve it through the process of honest reflection. Looking within is not always an easy process. But we must challenge our long held beliefs and be willing to make changes.

I recently experienced this myself. I have changed jobs within the school I am working in. An opportunity came up to become the Home School Community Liaison. This role means that I will be working with young people and their families when they are having difficulties or need extra support. However it also means leaving the classroom as well as my role as Transition year co-ordinator. Two roles that I have gotten huge satisfaction from over the years.

It took me a few weeks to make up my mind. As you can imagine I was quite conflicted as I wanted somehow to be able to do both jobs at the same time! When I reflected on this decision I was able to see how this new opportunity was not only an opportunity to help people, but also an opportunity for personal growth. I believe that sometimes we have to invite new challenges into our lives in order to remain focused on our goals, and one of my key goals is to promote well-being in education.

In the process of resolving this conflict, there were sleepless nights, periods of anxiety and stress and difficult questions to reflect on. To resolve this I not only reflected but spoke to people I trust for guidance. Eventually through thinking about the situation logically and listening to my feelings on it, I was able to make a more confident decision, and once I did the conflict eased almost immediately.

One of the key questions I asked myself, and one we all must ask at times when we are conflicted is, what do I really want? If you can honestly answer this question then you will be better able to manage your internal struggles.

The problem of course is, that a lot of the time we don’t know what we really want. This is especially true for young people, who are often struggling with their sense of identity and belonging. That is why I believe that encouraging reflection from a young age is vital when developing well-being in young people. Honest reflection takes courage, but can change both how we see ourselves and how we maintain positive relationships with others.

Link to shop: Choices – Facilitators Manual Description

The language of Well-Being


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Alan White

Alan White

I have always been fascinated by language. It’s a very powerful thing. Depending on how we choose to use language, it can insult, hurt, criticise, and devastate someone. Or if used in a compassionate way, it can create meaningful relationships, positive interaction and even change someone’s life. Most of the time we never give language much thought. We take it for granted and use it to express ourselves, interact with people as well as many other uses.

Amazingly though, we do not think in words, we think in pictures. Language is a tool that we have developed over centuries to communicate these pictures with the outside world. For me, it was only when I learned a second language (French), that I really began to appreciate the power of language. How we communicate with each other is a key component in our overall well-being.

It’s very interesting to see how different languages express sentiment in different ways. The little idiosyncrasies between how different cultures can give an amazing insight into how people see the world and see themselves in it. If we look at how we communicate with others, this reflects how we feel about ourselves.

A simple example of the difference in language is how you say your age. In French you say “J’ai 30 ans” for example, which means, “I am 30”, but literally means I have 30 years. For me there is a powerful difference between the phrasing here. We say we are whatever our age is. This tends to define us by our age. Saying I am in this context means that this is part of who you are. However saying you have your age, evokes a sense that this number does not define.

This example might seem trivial, but we tend to use I am in many other ways that I believe is damaging to our well-being. For example we tend to say things like I am always doing the wrong thing, or I am unhappy, If not to others we might say it to ourselves. This is what I call defining language, and can affect how we see ourselves. By changing our language slightly to saying I have made mistakes, or I feel unhappy, we are shifting away from seeing these elements of ourselves as our whole selves and beginning to see them as only a part of us and something that can be changed.

When we talk to young people we often tend to define them though our words and the tones we use. Last week I spoke about criticism, and very often we use a critical tome in an attempt to alter the behaviour of young people. If we use phrases like, you are always making things difficult. You are not working hard enough in school. You are not doing your best etc. we are using defining language that young people will take in and accept as being who they are.

We need again to shift how we use language with young people. Instead of using critical defining language we can use phrases that are more empowering to change. For example instead of saying you are not working hard enough we could make a small change to our tone and language and say something like. “I know you are very capable and I want to see you do your best. Maybe you could do a little more work”. By making this small change we are getting the same message across that we wanted but doing so in a non-critical, non-judgemental and encouraging way.

Language is an extremely powerful thing. By choosing to use it in a positive way we can begin to instil a sense of wellbeing in all of us and especially young people who look to the adults in their lives for guidance and encouragement. This is an important responsibility and we must take it seriously and choose both our words and how we say them carefully.

Link to shop: Choices – Facilitators Manual Description

A Criticism of Criticism


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Alan White

Alan White

Life gives us many reasons to be critical. We regularly criticise others quite easily if we perceive that they are not conforming to our expectations. We seem to be always ready to criticise. There is a good reason why criticism come so naturally to us. When we criticise someone or something outside of ourselves, we experience a temporary relief and a sense of satisfaction.

We are essentially projecting things we are not happy about with ourselves onto someone or something else. We all know someone who’s every conversation topic includes a plentiful supply of criticism. Personally I find these types of conversations draining and hard work and I do my utmost to avoid people like this.

Internally we are also adept at criticising ourselves. We often tell others through conversations the things we criticise ourselves about. However more often than not we criticise ourselves through our own thoughts. Many of us live our lives through a cycle of negative self-criticism, running in a continuous loop through our minds. Imagine how damaging to our mental well-being, listening to ourselves constantly criticising our decisions, actions, thoughts and every other aspect of ourselves.

This type of thinking I believe is in part caused by a feeling of never being good enough. We see others who seem to have everything. We look at false images of our friends and celebrities that reflect only life’s perfect moments and not reality. We then compare this to our own lives and we inevitably feel that we are coming up short.

We need to stop! We need to take a step back from the critical narrative we tell ourselves in our minds and begin to treat ourselves with more compassion. Sometimes we will get things right, sometimes we won’t. Sometimes we will experience perfect moments, sometimes we will experience difficult times. But most of the time we will live in the in between bit of life, the comfortable part, the bit where we are content, working towards our goals and looking forward to the plans we have made. This is normal, this is what will help us to cultivate positive well-being.

It’s important to treat ourselves with compassion in the knowledge that we are doing our best. Sometimes our best will not be good enough, both for ourselves and in the eyes of others. That’s ok! We learn and we move on. Sometimes however, our best will exceed our expectations and we will amaze ourselves. When this happens we frustratingly search and find the little flaws, even when we experience success. We must cultivate a sense of compassion for ourselves to allow us to fully experience the joys of life. If we don’t, there will always be that little voice inside our minds that will undermine even our most joyous experiences.

If we cultivate compassion for ourselves, we will then naturally be more open to being compassionate to others. When we can do this we will bring a sense of harmony to all of our important relationships. As I have mentioned before here, “Good relationships are the core of mental health and happiness” – William Glasser.

As you can imagine it’s not easy to break the habit of a lifetime. It takes time and patience. When attempting any shift in thought processes we have to first examine our core beliefs. As I discussed in my last blog. When our core beliefs are challenged, even by ourselves we tend to naturally and immediately reject new information. So it will take a lot of time and effort, but it’s something that’s very worthwhile. I can often be critical of others and even more critical of myself, but I have noticed that when I choose to see the good in others and am compassionate with myself. I not only feel better but I am also better able to handle the challenges of life.

Young people are at a very sensitive stage of development and any criticism can be very damaging to their sense of self. I believe that parents and anyone working with young people have a responsibility to model self-empathy and encourage young people not to criticise each other or themselves so easily. Adults have a responsibility to instil a sense of compassion in young people and the best way to do this is by helping them to see the benefits of not living in an overtly critical world.

The big question is, how do we avoid criticising while instructing young people to allow them to develop? We can replace criticism with feedback, by focusing on what’s good and challenging what could be better. If we change the language we use when working with young people we can help them to cultivate empathy and encourage them to always do their best, knowing they are safe to make mistakes. Next time I will discuss the language of well-being and the importance of tone.

Link to shop: Choices – Facilitators Manual Description

The Backfire effect


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Alan White

Alan White

I recently learned about an interesting psychological phenomena known as the backfire effect. What happens is, that when people are presented with clear evidence on something, such as the importance of talking about mental well-being and well-being education, if it contradicts their long held core beliefs, the truth or evidence will be immediately rejected.

In fact this reaction is so strong, that when our core beliefs are challenged it triggers the same emotional response that a physical threat to us creates. We are all familiar with what is called the fight or flight response when we feel physically threatened. We are also familiar with the stress that can remain with us afterwards. The exact same response is triggered when we experience the backfire effect.

We can see this effect in many ways. And I’m sure we have all experienced it for ourselves. When someone challenges our belief, we immediately respond defensively, without any thought. This is why many of us fear change for example. The backfire effect can cause a response in us that is similar to our reaction to a physical threat. This is why new ideas that contradict our old comforting beliefs are often initially rejected.

So how does this fit into well-being education. As anyone who reads my articles on a regular basis will know, I am passionate about introducing a space within education to allow students to learn skills to take control of and take care of their well-being. Thankfully the conversation around mental health is beginning to normalise in this country thanks to the tireless work and campaigning by the many wonderful organisations working in mental health.

However we are still a long way from where we need to be. There is still a large scale rejection when the topic is brought up. Time and time again I am contacted by teachers who are interested in introducing well-being into their school. There is a clear willingness in education to engage in this important area. So how do we continue to make progress?

When an idea is rejected it is almost always rejected out of fear or lack of understanding. I believe that fear must be met with compassion rather than anger and frustration. Yes, Well-being needs to be urgently taught at all levels of education, but the resistance to this need is inevitable given the historical stigmatisation of the topic. When we meet this fear based rejection, we are not meeting a bad person or someone who is not willing to help. I believe that a long held belief is being challenged and this is triggering the backfire effect.

As Socrates said, “I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think”. So when we encounter such a situation, it is only natural to become frustrated and through frustration inevitably comes anger. However rather than allowing anger to take over which will ultimately not work anyway, I believe that by using compassion, firstly with ourselves, and then with those whose attitudes we are trying to change, will achieve much better results.

It’s normal to become frustrated at times when working towards something, no matter what it is. I have often become frustrated myself over the years. If I’m being honest I have struggled to keep the fire burning recently despite making incremental progress during this time. But as I have mentioned in previous blogs, it’s sometimes necessary to stop, reflect, refocus and begin again.

Remember that change is happening right now, progress is being made, however slow. Yes it needs to happen faster but meeting fear with frustration will never work. Let’s keep the conversation going and remember to use compassion whenever we meet resistance.

Link to shop: Choices – Facilitators Manual Description