2 STAYING POSITIVE IN A F*CKED UP WORLD ASH NAYATE
Praise for Staying Positive in a F*cked Up World
“Dr Ash Nayate has provided us with a highly accessible means to understand the neuroscience of why activists and social change agents’ efforts are so often met with resistance. She then provides tools to help activists become more influential without burning themselves out when uncovering social injustices, so they can collaborate effectively to create a better world for animals, people, and the planet.” Clare Mann, Psychologist and Author of Vystopia:
The Anguish of Being Vegan in a Non-Vegan World. “In one word, this book is HELPFUL! It’s crucial for our movement that psychologists like Ash are giving us such important manuals to assist our life-saving and social justice work.” Patty Mark, Founder, Animal Liberation Victoria
“To those who care so much about animals, never underestimate the importance of self-care. This book shows you not only how, but why – a must read for every change agent!” Pam Ahern, Founder and Director, Edgar’s Mission
For the dreamers, the visionaries the creators the innovators the pioneers the disruptors, and the change agents. Without you, the world would stand still. Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. Margaret Mead.
Ten years ago I walked down Swanston Street in the heart of Melbourne’s CBD. A group of animal rights activists were standing outside a fast food restaurant handing out flyers about cruelty to chickens. I took a flyer and brought it home, thrusting in the face of a family member: “Look!” I said, “This is what happens to chickens. It’s fucked up. Why are you eating them?” I’m pretty sure there were more curse words, but you get the drift. I’d become vegan about two months prior, and this was the first time I’d confronted another person about their choices. My rantings were met with nonchalance. At work, I was met with the same indifference. “They’re just chickens”, my coworkers told me, “It’s not like they’re cats or something”. In my everyday life, it happened again and again. A yoga teacher said, “It’s an animal’s karma, and I bless them for giving their lives”. I felt angry. And sad. And helpless. What the hell was happening? Why weren’t people listening? I kept trying. Shame and blame didn’t go anywhere. Logic, facts, and data worked for some. Appealing to ethics and morality appealed to others. But it was an uphill battle the whole time. I felt bitter, cynical, and pessimistic about the world. I thought people were acting like assholes. I thought there was something wrong with me, and I felt like the crappiest change agent in the world. At the time, I didn’t recognise the mental barriers that were preventing me from sharing my message, and preventing others from receiving it. What I thought would be a simple exchange of information about an important topic, an easy walk from A to B, was actually like navigating an obstacle course at night, one filled with emotion, contradiction, and confusion. This book is for the social justice change agents, activists, and advocates – people who have an important message to share, for the greater good. Perhaps the message is racial equality, gender equality, animal liberation, environmental protection, sustainable living, LGBTIQA rights, or mental health. Social justice change agents are people who take some form of action to catalyse social change. This could be leading a team of individuals who are strategically working together towards a common objective (like Martin Luther King Jr.), or working directly with individuals, corporations, or governments to effect change. 11 When I think of change agents, I think of advocates who publicly support and/or act as representatives for an issue (e.g. the actor Michael J. Fox who advocates for greater government research funding and access to care for people living with Parkinson’s Disease), and activists who strive for political or social change through boycotts, strikes, sit-ins, public marches and demonstrations, or creating and distributing media online. In this book, I use the words “change agent”, “activist”, and “advocate” interchangeably. The issues that arise through change agency, activism, and advocacy tend to be similar, and the themes of this book are relevant to all three. Change agents are here to promote an issue passionately and voraciously. We want change, and we want it yesterday. We know that the very next person we meet could be the one who decides to open their eyes and their mind. So we persevere. But, our messages of social justice often get ignored, judged, ridiculed, shamed, or resisted, even though we believe our messages should stand on their own because they’re grounded in peace, equality, and respect. We feel baffled and hurt by the apathy, contempt, and close-mindedness of others. Sometimes, our own mind is the source of the struggle, as we grapple with feelings of isolation, hostility, and helplessness. Many of these struggles arise from an internal conflict, between our vision of a better world and our brain’s self-protection mechanisms. We carry with us the biological legacy of our pre-modern ancestors, with their brains so perfectly adapted to keep us safe and ensure our survival. When we understand our brain’s survival mechanisms, we become better at coping with our internal conflicts. This book delves into the inner workings of our mind, particularly those parts that lead us astray in our quest to deliver a message to the world. Our healthy, natural responses to social injustice gives rise to anger, guilt, stress, and sadness, which we may feel ill-equipped to handle. If you want to feel more positive, but you’re struggling in this fucked up world – this book is for you. 12 CHAPTER 1 HOW DO YOU SPOT AN ACTIVIST? DON’T WORRY, THEY’LL TELL YOU At the 2017 March to Close all Slaughterhouses a group of several hundred animal-rights activists protested in the heart of Melbourne. A young man stopped with a McBurger in hand and a satisfied smirk on his face. He attempted to take a selfie, biting into the animal flesh with us as his background. I was standing about a metre away. “I can take your photo for you” I said. He stared at me, his cheeks reddening. I continued, “You seem really proud of what you’re doing”. “My roommate’s vegan” he said. “So, you’re roommate’s vegan, but you’re not”. “No. But I respect her choice to be vegan. And you should all respect my choice to eat meat.” Dealing with people sucks. And unfortunately it’s a part of change agency. If widespread, systemic change is our goal, then the road to getting there is a psychological shitstorm. We end up interacting with people who don’t seem to care about the world, or who’ve given up, or who get angry at anyone who tries to do something positive. It’s not just when we’re attending rallies, doing outreach, speaking with politicians, or handing out leaflets, it’s also our daily lives – at work, at family gatherings, or even just idly walking our canine companions. Across activist and advocacy groups everywhere, one of the most common problems that comes up is coping with others. This includes those who don’t share our view, and even our fellow change agents. We all have a message or five. Maybe it’s zero waste, sustainable energy, animal rights, closing the gender gap, or marriage equality. We’re doing the noble thing, trying to make the world a better place. We share facts, data, and practical solutions to help people change their behaviour. We try to appeal to people’s humanity and sense of justice and fairness. Then why do so many people get so pissed off when we share our message? The answer is simple. It’s not us, and it’s not our message. It’s our brains. 13 The Survivor Our brains have been exquisitely refined over millennia for one reason – survival. Our brain is hell-bent on survival. Even a potential threat is enough to kick our brain into stress mode, and we don’t rest until we’ve restored our safety and security. Just as we have evolved physical characteristics to survive, like slowing our metabolic rate to conserve energy in times of famine, we also have psychological characteristics to enhance our survival, like the desire to bond with others and contribute to the group. Imagine life in pre-modern times, living on the savannah, at the mercy of the elements. Our best chance of survival was to live with other people, where we all acted as each other’s protection, and we shared the responsibilities of finding food, water, and shelter. There was safety in numbers. Our brains adapted accordingly. We developed an instinct to bond with others, starting right from birth, to ensure the nurturance and protection of our caregivers. We, and our caregivers, were rewarded with a big dose of oxytocin, the ‘love’ hormone, in response to healthy interactions, like cuddling, breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact. As we became older, we became more aware of our place in the community, and how we were perceived. We wanted to be “liked”, so that others would continue to accept us. We behaved in prosocial ways, so that we were seen as valued members of the community. Our “worth” in the group was valuable social currency that could mean the difference between life and death. Our brains adapted to reward positive group behaviours. We developed mirror neurons that allowed us to be more empathetic towards others, increasing our emotional intelligence to become even better contributors to our community. Our brains started releasing a flood of feel-good hormones, like dopamine, in response to pro-social acts. And, our neural circuitry evolved so that social rejection was experienced like physical pain, further promoting positive group behaviour as a way to avoid the pain of rejection. At the same time, we concealed any flaws or weaknesses that would make us less valuable. We were acutely aware that at any moment, injury or illness could befall us, reducing our value and rendering us a drain on precious resources like food and water. It was in our best interests to be helpful, to please others, and to contribute to the greater good of the group – even if it was inconvenient to us. We’re hard-wired to desire popularity, to worry about others’ opinions of us, to impress others with our skills and talents, and to hide our imperfections. Collectively, I refer to these hard-wired thought habits as “the Survivor” mind. The Survivor mind increased our chances of survival in an unpredictable and dangerous world. But today, the Survivor is getting in the way. 14 An old Nokia in a world of smartphones The Survivor is like the slowpoke driving in the fast lane on the freeway, holding up traffic and pissing everyone off in the process. Its sole focus is safety and protection, and it gets in the way of our inspiration for a better future. Our creative mind wants to dream, and our logical mind wants to find ways to make the dream come true. And our Survivor brain holds things up, driving 30 km/hour below the speed limit when everyone else wants to go faster. The Survivor hasn’t caught up with the modern era. It’s like an old Nokia in a world full of smart phones. It’s wired as though we’re still on the plains of Africa, avoiding sabre-toothed tigers and fending off other tribespeople trying to steal our shelter. Ideally, the Survivor should work in concert with the other parts of our brain – but sometimes, it just wants to take over everything we think, say, or do. The Survivor hates anything new. New things are unfamiliar, and unfamiliarity involves risk. When our Survivor mind is in charge, we generally don’t like engaging in anything risky (unless it’s a controlled risk, like a skydive, or there’s a worthwhile incentive such as money or fame). The Survivor likes the status quo. As long as we’re not about to be eaten by a bear or fall off a cliff, then the Survivor is generally ok with keeping things as they are. Sure, we might keep arguing with our family, and our job might be stressing us out, and our pants might be feeling too tight – but as long as the Survivor feels like it’s staying afloat, it’s not too keen on changing. Keeping things the same is easy, comfortable, and predictable. The Survivor knows our family will annoy us, our boss has a stick wedged up his bum, and chocolate will always be our delicious friend. The annoyances of life are, well, annoying – but at least there are no surprises. There’s no need to evaluate the decisions we make, because nothing changes. Our brain has a cushy ride on easy street, without having to squander that precious mental energy on analysing our decisions and actions. But then, the bubble bursts. And it’s often thanks to us – the change agents. We waltz in, with our rainbow shirts and mason jar smoothies. We bring new ideas that rattle the foundations on which people believe, think, and live. We want to change things. And the people around us – their Survivor brain screams “no!”. Their Survivor brain feels threatened. It feels like the rug is being pulled out from underneath. It responds by doing anything it can to stabilise itself, even if it means clutching at (reusable) straws. When peoples’ minds are in Survivor mode, it can be hard for them to hear our message. People may deny that we need to minimise plastic or change our purchasing habits. People may deny that a problem even exists, and reject our ideas completely. Or, people may resort to personal attacks like name-calling or criticising the messenger (appearance, character, and intelligence, for example). 15 In 2009 I invited a couple of “open-minded” friends to the World Vegan Day festival in Melbourne. After the event, one of them said “I thought veganism was healthy. I’ve never seen so many fat people in one place.” In 2014 Lauren Singer became famous for her zero-waste lifestyle, with news stories reporting about her two years’ worth of trash that could fit in a single mason jar. The Facebook commenters were quick to label her a “lying bitch” who must be “dirty as fuck”. Reactions to the 2016 film Minimalism: A documentary about the important things provide a further example of naysayers criticising the messenger rather than the message. While the film received much praise, there was also critique. But rather than commenting on the film’s content, many of the critics chose to focus on the film’s creators – particularly, their skin colour, financial status, and personal histories. 16 Stress: our great frenemy Stress and fear put our Survivor mind squarely in the driver’s seat of our brain. This can be a good thing, as we see when people do heroic acts like lifting a car off a child trapped underneath. On the flip side, the Survivor mind can make us withdraw from new ideas and opportunities, even those that are good for us. Despite being able to access an entire world of information, facts and logic have little impact when the Survivor is in charge. Stress and fear activate our “fight or flight’ response. Our bodies and minds scream into emergency mode, accelerating our heart rate, increasing our blood pressure, and liberating stored glucose into our bloodstream. Our Survivor mind kicks into high gear, switching off reason and logic, shuttling blood away from our prefrontal cortex and into parts of our limbic system (such as the amygdala, which plays an important role in our fear response). Under the influence of stress and fear, people make rash judgements, unfairly blame others, or become defensive or hostile in response to seemingly innocent actions. What’s more, stress and fear can drive people to do unethical, even unconscionable things. The fear of differences in race, religion, gender identity, or sexual orientation can lead to hate crimes. The fear of losing a relationship can cause us to become controlling. The fear of losing money, losing a job, or losing a promotion can cause us to backstab a colleague or friend. When the Survivor mind is in charge, we become reactionary and impulsive, and we don’t make good choices in the moment. And the icing on the (vegan) cake? We’re not even aware of our irrationality, because we become unable to logically evaluate our own thinking. When change agents roll in and sufficiently challenge the status quo, the Survivor often takes charge, and people’s minds start scrambling for protection. The Survivor is generally unable to admit its own fear and make itself vulnerable. It tries to shove the fear behind a mask of hostility, aggression, dismissal, mockery, judgement, defensiveness, emotional blackmail, sabotage, or even shaming. From the outside, it doesn’t look like fear. And that’s exactly the point. We’re not ourselves when we’re afraid. It sucks to be the person in Survivor mode, lashing out at the world. And it really sucks to be on the receiving end of it. 17 When the critics come crap, crap, crapping on your door I once attended an animal rights march where a young man happened to be passing, and began heckling some of the activists. “How many homeless people did you walk past?” he ranted. “You care about animals but you don’t care about people, you hypocrites”. Boy, was he angry. And his comments were a spotlight on his discomfort. His Survivor mind was in charge, and he was so unnerved that he felt compelled to insult us. Pretty bold move, actually, considering that he was surrounded by about 600 (albeit peaceful) protestors. He wasn’t really worried about the homeless. He didn’t even want to talk about a march for the homeless. He didn’t listen to our assurances that supporting animal rights didn’t take anything away from other worthy causes. He seemed far more interested in venting his emotions. Sound familiar? His behaviour is actually quite common. As change agents, we often receive criticism that has no useful purpose. This pointless criticism is given purely to condemn, to silence activists, and to maintain the status quo. Compare this with constructive feedback, which is useful because it helps us improve the clarity of our message. We can identify pointless criticism by its tactics, such as using illogical or irrelevant rebuttals to ideas, or resorting to personal attacks, defensiveness, hostility, or ridicule. For example, during the 2017 postal survey on changing Australian marriage laws to allow same-sex couples to marry, critics asked provocative questions such as: “If we legalise same-sex marriage, should we legalise child marriage, too?” It’s an illogical question that has no relevance. Some critics simply resorted to name-calling or outright aggression: “if you support this, you’re an idiot”. When change agents face pointless criticism, we’re seeing the Survivor brain in all its glory. 18 The angry critic It’s funny that change agents are stereotyped as being “angry”, when we’re often the ones on the receiving end of anger. I have yet to meet an activist who hasn’t faced some form of aggression from others at some point. Many people have learned to use aggression as a cover-up for fear. When their Survivor mind is in charge, aggression becomes a method of self-protection. It’s almost like their Survivor brain is saying “the best defence is a good offence”. That’s great for change agents to know, but tricky to remember – especially when we’re in the heat of the moment, and facing someone else’s aggressive behaviour. Aggression from others tends to activate our stress response. We go into fight-orflight gear, and our physiology and cognition shifts into Survivor mode. We easily forget all that stuff about fear masquerading as aggression and our instincts kick in. Our first impulse is to lash out with our own aggressive behaviour. And it’s so easy to justify because they started it! It’s a vicious cycle. When two aggressive people get into it, they each escalate the other. Emotions become more intense and harder to manage. Everyone gets angry, defensive, close-minded, and more entrenched in their ways. Sometimes, the focus shifts to the confrontation itself, more than the actual social issue. Some people even use aggression as a way to direct attention away from real issues. To avoid something, they just get into a huge argument where nothing can be properly discussed. They don’t intentionally set out to do this, it’s more of a habit that they’ve developed, and they often don’t even realise it. As tempting as it is for us to retaliate, our angry response just ends up giving them yet another opportunity to deflect from the real social issue. 19 An eye for an eye When our Survivor brain is in charge, we want to “fight back” when other people are becoming aggressive. We want to insult them, hurt them, or criticise them. Except… we’re change agents. There’s something more at stake. We want to open people’s minds to a bigger issue, and they want to maintain the status quo, whether it’s believing what they’ve always believed, doing what they’ve always done, or following what society has deemed “normal”. If we participate in the aggression, everyone witnessing it will likely also go into Survivor mode. Are we really having an argument with just one other person? What about the five people who observe it? What about the five thousand people who see it live-streamed on Facebook? Change agents have a bigger agenda than themselves. Other people do not. Our participation in angry exchanges can mean the difference between getting someone to seriously consider our ideas, or pushing them even further away. Being the bigger person means we resist the impulse to fight back. But how? Unfortunately, there’s no magic pill or gimmick. It’s the answer that no one wants to hear. Practice, and patience. When we can recognise our feelings before they escalate out of control, we can quickly intervene to break old habits. This is how we re-wire our mind, to stop our Survivor from continually taking over. We break the habits of our Survivor mind when we ask questions like: Are our feelings and behaviours compatible with effective activism? Are we frustrated, cynical, and disillusioned, or are we determined, calm, and courageous? Do we view others as evil minions of Satan, or people who are simply unaware and afraid? When the people we’re trying to reach are in Survivor mode, their emotions are calling the shots. No matter how logical our viewpoint seems, their Survivor mind may not fully appreciate it. The messenger becomes just as crucial to the interaction as the message itself. It’s not just what we say, it’s also how we say it. As change agents, it’s vital that we have the emotional intelligence to calm our own Survivor mind, so that we don’t fall into the trap of reactivity and impulsivity. There’s more on building our emotional intelligence muscles in Chapter 3. 20 Do I stay, or walk away? Let’s be clear about one thing – being the “bigger person” doesn’t mean that we become doormats. We should never allow people to just walk all over us and treat us any way they please. We can’t be passive if we’re going to be activists and change agents. It’s intentional action that matters. Not inaction, and definitely not impulsive reaction. I see intentional action as recognising people’s behaviour for what it is (including our own), and not allowing their emotions to influence us in ways that are detrimental to our message, purpose, goals, and values. Emotions are contagious. That’s why we can feel hopeful and uplifted about something, and then have a chat with a real grump and end up feeling grumpy too. Change agents are like vessels, carrying an important message for the world. We must be able to protect ourselves, emotionally, from others’ uncomfortable feelings. This means keeping some emotional distance so that we don’t get embroiled in other people’s feelings, but instead experience them just enough to see where they’re coming from. And then to deal with those feelings in a healthy way. In January 2018, several peaceful activists were positioned along a busy Melbourne road, holding up signs protesting animal cruelty. We received overwhelming support from passing motorists, who gave us waves, smiles, or thumbs up in agreement. We even had a lovely conversation with a couple and their adorable pup, while they were waiting at a red light. However, we also received plenty of interesting remarks from motorists who had just enough time to hurl their abusive comments before driving out of earshot. Being amongst fellow activists was cathartic and therapeutic. The group camaraderie created an environment for us to process our feelings and reframe our perspective of hostile comments. As a result, the hostility had less of an impact on us, and we were better able to appreciate and feel uplifted by the positive comments. Intentional action means knowing ourselves – our triggers, our vulnerabilities, and our strengths. There are some topics and behaviours that are off-limits for certain people. Maybe comments about appearance are off-limits. Or maybe comments about our partner, or friends and family. Maybe it’s name-calling, or threats, or personal attacks, which we find unacceptable. Remember my “open-minded” friends? The ones who came to World Vegan Day, and commented “I’ve never seen so many fat people”? 21 That was my limit. They had gone too far. When other people overstep our boundaries, we have a few options: We can say nothing. We can call them out on their behaviour. We can allow our Survivor mind to take over, where we might become retaliatory, defensive, or hostile in an effort to defend and protect ourselves. We can request that they no longer overstep our boundaries. Or we can state that we’re leaving the conversation, and walk away. There’s no single perfect response because everything depends on how we’re feeling, how we’re coping, the relationship we have with the other person, and how they’re coming across. At a Cow Save rally in Melbourne, I approached a man to give him a flyer about cruelty-free alternatives to dairy products. He glared at me with gritted teeth and clenched fists, and hissed “I farm cattle, so don’t bother”. He was visibly angry. What to do in this situation? Walk away and focus my efforts on someone who’s more receptive? Or persevere and try to convince him to change his ways, because doing so would be a huge “win” for the movement? It comes down to boundaries. What are we willing to tolerate from others? Are we ok with aggressive behaviour, or the possibility of violence? Are we willing to engage with someone who is in Survivor mode, and is unlikely to be logical, openminded, or reasonable? When we know our limits ahead of time, we keep ourselves safe. I think of boundaries like the red and yellow flags on a beach. The flags let us know exactly where it’s safe to swim, and we can happily splash about without worrying about riptides. But, on an unmarked beach, we have to remain constantly vigilant. We don’t know where the safe zone is, and we can’t fully relax. Boundaries are a pretty big deal in the world of psychology, psychiatry, and personal development. It’s essential to have healthy boundaries to be able to have successful interactions with others. Unfortunately, most of us have never really learned how to have or set boundaries. 22 It’s not totally our fault. As kids, what we learned about boundaries was only as good as the people around us. If our parents, teachers, caregivers, siblings, and friends didn’t have healthy boundaries, then we probably didn’t learn to have them either. Boundaries are when we draw our line in the sand, and tell the world “this is ok, and this is not”. Knowing and communicating our boundaries lets others know how to treat us respectfully. Some examples of boundaries are: Saying “no” when the boss asks us to work on our only day off. Refusing to loan our friend any more money until she repays the last loan. Telling our boyfriend that we’re not cancelling plans for a night out just because he had a stressful day. Boundaries help us have healthy relationships with others. They also help us act with integrity so we can uphold the things we find important. When we don’t have healthy boundaries, here’s what can happen: We can feel unappreciated. We can feel like others take advantage of us. We can sacrifice ourselves to an extent that’s unhealthy or destructive, and be unwilling to ask for help. We can feel disrespected by others. We can feel guilty when we say “no”. We can feel coerced into doing things we don’t really want to do. We can neglect our own health and feel guilty if we do try to practice healthy habits. We can constantly prioritise someone else’s needs over our own. If you recognise yourself in any of these examples, the good news is that boundaries are a skill, and skills can be developed. The first time I heard about boundaries, it seemed like a huge pain in the ass. But I promise you – knowing our boundaries makes activism easier, our relationships stronger, and our self-awareness better. In these pages, I reference boundaries as they relate to change agents, and maintaining effective and sustainable activism. Developing boundaries involves: being able to cope with disapproval from others (Chapter 2), managing the internal discord that can be a sign of a boundary violation (Chapter 3), developing a personal philosophy for us to decide our boundaries (Chapter 5), and sustaining our mental 23 health (Chapters 7 & 8). There have been many books written about boundaries, which I suppose reflects just how important they are. If you want to learn more about boundaries in general, I highly recommend following the work of Brene Brown – especially her books Daring Greatly and Rising Strong . 24 CHAPTER 2 YOU ARE UNIQUE, JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE In the TV show Survivor , contestants live together in scarce conditions on a remote island. The key to “surviving” and not being voted off the island (and winning the million-dollar prize money) is successfully navigating the complex social environment of having a dozen or so strangers grouped together in challenging conditions. To build social currency and “survive”, contestants must become valuable members of the tribe – able to acquire food or build shelter, possessing physical skills and mental agility. At the same time, the strongest contestants are always at risk of elimination because their presence jeopardises everyone else’s chances of winning the ultimate prize. In many ways, Survivor parallels the evolutionary psychological adaptations of pre-modern humans. We are social beings, and we thrive when we’re part of a community. We feel connected when those around us are accepting, supportive, and appreciative. Isolation and loneliness feel painful, whether they come from a lack of physical proximity or from criticism and judgement from others, which can make us feel emotionally distant even if in company. However, we also evolved to be competitive in an environment of scarcity. In pre-modern times, we needed to show our value to the group and “prove” ourselves worthy of inclusion. If the group didn’t perceive us as valuable, then we might have been viewed as burdensome or expendable. Even today, living in relative safety and abundance, we still want to be liked and accepted, and we still want to feel important. To “fit in” and belong, we can seek out connections, for instance with family, friends, or activist communities where we’ll probably find like-minded people. Sharing our experiences with others, or working together to achieve something can be profound ways to bond. Sometimes, though, our need for belonging can screw us over. We can be so keen to “fit in” that we engage in unhealthy behaviours, like: Over-extending ourselves. Continuously sacrificing our own basic needs for others. Avoiding conflict. Tolerating offensive comments and jokes even though we’re uncomfortable. Steering clear of controversial opinions. Avoiding situations where we might look “bad” in the eyes of others. 25 Staying involved with groups even when it’s not in our best interests. Fitting in means that we experience acceptance and connection, but it can conceal the unique talents and skills that make us feel important. Our need to feel “like everyone else” needs to be counterbalanced with our need to feel “unique from everyone else”. We can feel important and valuable by pursuing goals, accomplishing something, helping others, or doing meaningful work. Sounds familiar, right? Many change agents do at least one of these things regularly, which is why activism is such a powerful way to feel good about ourselves. Sometimes, though, our need to feel important can lead us to display some pretty destructive behaviours, like: Bullying Name-calling Personal attacks Spreading rumours Dominating others Threats, intimidation, or violence Needing to “win” at all costs Belittling others or putting other people down Internet trolling (including many of the above, like personal attacks, cyberbullying, cyberstalking, abusive comments, and hate speech). These two psychological needs – acceptance and importance – must be fulfilled one way or another. If we aren’t proactive about meeting our needs in a healthy way, then our brain will find a way. It’s just like a physical need. For instance, if we don’t get enough sleep, our brain will make us doze off at random times, even if it’s in an uncomfortable chair during a meeting or on a noisy bus. It won’t be quality sleep, but desperate times call for desperate measures. We can’t outsmart our needs. If we don’t form healthy bonds with others or find meaningful ways to feel important, then our brains will seek anything out. 26 Working with your brain Just because our psychological needs are hardwired, it doesn’t mean that we’re powerless. There is still a lot we can do to work with rather than against our brains. Like with sleep – if we know we’ve accumulated some sleep debt, there are things we can do like taking a nap or having an early night. With our psychological needs, if we’re showing some of the unhealthy behaviours listed above, then it’s a warning sign that we may not be meeting our needs healthily, and we need to be proactive about having positive experiences that lead us to feel connected and important. Two things to note: First, don’t fall into the trap of comparing your methods for meeting your needs, with those of other people. There are individual differences in the precise ways we feel connected and important. Some people need frequent social contact, while others need just a little. Some people need face-to-face interactions, while others prefer online community. Some people feel important through academic, sporting, or artistic achievements. Some people feel important through humanitarian work. Comparing ourselves with others is pointless at best, and harmful at worst. Just because your BFF goes out five nights a week, it does not make that the standard of what’s “necessary” or even “healthy”. Second, our needs aren’t static. Just as we may require more sleep if we’ve been exercising a lot, our psychological needs might go up during times of stress or transition (e.g. finishing school, starting a new job, ending a relationship). Social interactions can be a form of comfort, which is why we might find ourselves gravitating towards our closest friends during stressful times and not wanting to interact much with anyone else. If we want to work with rather than against our brain, we need to have the selfawareness to recognise our individual preferences, and the insight to differentiate the healthy versus unhealthy ways of meeting our needs. We can start to do so by asking ourselves questions such as: Do we say “yes” to people as a way to feel liked and valued? Do we keep a frenzied schedule as a way of distracting ourselves from loneliness or feeling “unworthy”? Do we sacrifice our own needs to “win favour” with others? Of course, it’s great to do things for others (especially for those who cannot repay us) – but it’s harmful when we do it excessively, to our own detriment. Sometimes we even find ourselves sacrificing the things that are irreplaceable, like our health or life purpose. Sometimes, we choose an education, career, or partner not because we want them, but simply to please others. 27 Living under the influence When we’re in Survivor mode and our rational minds shut down, irrational styles of thinking start to kick in. And we layer the irrational thoughts on top of one another until we can’t deal with the real underlying issue because there’s so much other crap in the way. And the funny thing is, most of this irrational thinking happens on autopilot. It’s so habitual that we don’t even realise we’re doing it. It’s like a duck gliding across the water. She seems to be moving effortlessly, but under the surface her webbed feet are paddling furiously. That’s what happens with our irrational thinking. We might think we’re reading a book or watching a movie, but deep within our brain there are a million other things happening – most of them habits that we learned a long time ago. One type of irrational thinking is called “catastrophising”. It’s where our Survivor mind identifies the worst possible outcome of a decision or event and then completely exaggerates the likelihood of it ever happening. Under the influence of stress (say, when people are getting rattled at the new ideas brought forward by a change agent), thoughts can easily turn catastrophic. What will happen if they incorporate minimalism into their lives? They’ll have to sell all their possessions and live in a tree where they’ll get mauled by a panther. What will happen if they show more support for LGBTIQA rights? The human species will die out. What will happen if they adopt a plant-based diet? They’ll have to eat lettuce all day, every day. A funny thing happens when our Survivor brains fantasise about these impossible tales – it starts believing them! Under the influence of stress, we don’t recognise how irrational these thoughts are, and we buy into them. It’s no wonder that change can feel so difficult, especially when it feels like a leap into a scary unknown. Why the hell would anyone change, if it means getting eaten by a panther or combusting from lettuce fatigue? By comparison, the status quo doesn’t seem quite so bad. Misinformation, catastrophic thinking, plus a big dose of fear is the perfect recipe for staying the same. And our Survivor mind will cement our stasis, creating a new layer of thoughts to stop us from changing. If the quiet voice of reason from our logical mind should speak up with some rational argument, then the Survivor will deal with the cognitive dissonance by dredging up a new thought. For example: If our logical mind pipes up with “it’s better for the environment”, then the Survivor might say “the environment is getting destroyed anyway, one person won’t make a difference”. 28 If our logical mind says “it might improve my stress levels”, then the Survivor might say “I’ve tried stress management stuff before and it doesn’t work”. If our logical mind says “I might really help someone struggling”, then the Survivor might say “only hippies and weirdos do that sort of thing”. These thoughts become excuses to avoid change. And the most effective excuses are ones that keep the Survivor safe from physical harm, isolation and rejection, and being perceived as unworthy. In fact, look behind many common excuses for not changing, and quite often there is the Survivor mind scrambling for protection. When we hear people say: “It would be great to start cooking healthy meals, but I can’t because my partner doesn’t like vegetables”, the real concern is rejection. When we hear people say: “I would like to commute on my bike instead of the car, but my friends aren’t really into cycling and I don’t want them to feel left out”, the real concern is isolation. When we hear people say “I would love to start composting my food scraps, but I’m worried I won’t be able to keep it up”, the real concern is feeling unworthy. It’s all a trap. It’s the Survivor trying to stay safe, and avoid the scary unknown. And it works. We can talk ourselves into anything, and out of everything. Those excuses aren’t really the problem. When people keep participating in immoral or unethical behaviour and justify it with some half-baked reason – it’s actually the deep-seated fears of the Survivor that are running the show. Especially when the new ideas break apart something they’ve always believed, or directly impact on their livelihood (e.g. a politician who is unwilling to discuss solar energy because he is funded by petroleum companies). Addressing the surface excuses isn’t effective. If change agents really want to help people make a shift, we need to address the underlying fears that give rise to the excuses. By the way: usually this doesn’t mean directly pointing out those underlying fears. The Survivor doesn’t like admitting fear because that means admitting vulnerability. If we point the finger and say “you’re just afraid of rejection”, the other person will probably deny it or tell us to fuck off. It’s a safe assumption that most people we encounter are, deep down, worried about being isolated, being rejected, and being seen as unworthy. To counterbalance this, our activism can directly emphasise the community that’s created by being part of a movement, where everyone feels valuable because they’re contributing to the greater good. On an individual level, we can even highlight our personal connection with them. For example, as a mother, I find that I relate to other parents on the issues of environmental protection and sustainability, because we share concerns about our kids’ 29 future. For many parents, adopting eco-friendly practices becomes more realistic and attainable when they see other families doing so. In trying to share our message with others, breaking down barriers of “us” versus “them” creates connection and helps to silence the Survivor mind. 30 The power of our influence Did you know that our mere presence can inspire others, without us even saying a word? We can inspire others to speak up, to change their behaviour, or to become change agents themselves. If we have a friend who is a personal trainer and fitness enthusiast, then simply being around them might be a reminder to get back to the gym. If we have a friend who’s a passionate musician, their presence may motivate us to learn an instrument. If we have a friend who’s into healthy eating, by being around them we may feel inspired to improve our diet. Our influence can be for the better if it encourages people around us to improve their habits. But, our presence can also lead people to feel guilt about their actions – or inactions. Guilt, just like anger, can lead to defensiveness, suspicion, criticism, judgement, and hostility. 31 Guilt – the devil on your shoulder Guilt is a force to be reckoned with. It can lead to martyrhood, anger, stress, and a range of unhealthy coping mechanisms. Guilt can be a healthy emotion to have, even though it feels shit. When guilt eats away at our conscience, it’s because of something that we have or haven’t done. Like when we told our friends we were going to attend an event, and we didn’t show up, or when we made a hurtful comment towards someone. Humans developed the capacity to experience guilt in order to maintain our inclusion within a group. When we have wronged someone, guilt is what gets us making amends, and thus restoring our relationships with others. Otherwise, we’d risk exclusion or isolation from our community. I suppose guilt and fear can go hand-in-hand. Activists often witness guilt in others; for example, in someone struggling to make a change who doesn’t realise it’s the fear of change that’s holding them back. In these situations, guilt can be a sign of progress. If the mere mention of “environmentalism” or “veganism” is enough to trigger someone’s guilt, then they already know they need to change. All they need now is support, empathy, and compassion as they do so. Change agents also experience their own guilt – usually, because of our past actions or inactions. We may cringe at our old selves, when we didn’t consider the impact of our behaviour on others. Maybe a time when we wasted food without a second thought, or were so casual about our leaving appliances on even when we weren’t using them, or the sheer amount of money we squandered on things we thought we needed but didn’t really. We can’t undo the past, and guilt has a sneaky habit of surfacing at awkward moments. The healthy way to deal with guilt is to recognise it and channel it towards something productive – like advocating for a better future. Guilt can quickly turn toxic. We can find ourselves getting swept away by guilt, where it derails our activism or drives us towards self-flagellation (or martyrdom) as atonement for our past actions. Some people choose self-imposed suffering to escape feelings of guilt. The problem is, this form of toxic guilt arises from an experience in the past, and there is no amount of suffering and sacrifice that will erase it from our memory. If, each time the guilt surfaces, we take the opportunity to torture ourselves some more, we will remain stuck in the pattern of self-flagellation. Another form of toxic guilt is when we haven’t actually done anything wrong. Like when someone invites us somewhere and we decline. This sort of guilt stems from our compulsion to please others and accommodate to their needs and desires. If we do find the courage to decline, it’s generally more socially acceptable if it’s due to commitments involving others, like work or our sibling’s wedding, than if it’s because we’re feeling over-worked or over-stressed. Somehow, it can be perceived as “selfish” to prioritise our own needs and it can be a particular trigger for toxic guilt. In 32 fact, this guilt can be so uncomfortable that we would rather sacrifice ourselves than to ever say “no” and be perceived as selfish (or worse, to be perceived as a “fake” or “bad” change agent). 33 Dealing with guilt We may never be able to completely resolve the guilt we feel about events from the past. There may be random moments where the guilt will creep up on us, unexpectedly, even after a long time. Some of us are so unaccustomed to recognising guilt that all we feel is a vague sensation of discomfort – but we don’t know what it is or what to do about it. Some of us have well-worn guilt pathways in our brain, perhaps instilled at a young age. We could have many triggers for guilt, like certain events, people, or memories. Maybe seeing the signage of a certain fast-food chain reminds us of when we ate their food with abandon, not considering the impact of our actions on the workers, the animals, and the environment. The way to deal with guilt is to experience it, to recognise when it’s happening, and admit our feelings to ourselves. Awareness is what helps us recognise our triggers and reconcile exactly what’s leading to the guilt. Then we can regain perspective of the situation, allow the wave of guilt to well up and then eventually subside. A lot of guilt can be healed with self-forgiveness. It seems ludicrous, right? Because surely, if we forgave ourselves for our past transgressions, then wouldn’t we just keep doing them? Actually, self-forgiveness isn’t condoning our past actions. It’s recognising that our poor choices were the logical outcome of who we were at the time. Perhaps back then we were too ignorant, or too close-minded, or even too preoccupied with other things, and we wouldn’t have been able to choose any differently. At the time we were only doing what we thought was the appropriate thing to do. That is self-forgiveness. It’s not endorsing the behaviour or making excuses for ourselves – it’s simply acknowledging that if we knew then what we know now, we would have done things differently. We know that we will never make the same mistakes again because we’re older and wiser. When we feel guilt, we often over-think our past actions and ruminate on them. Self-forgiveness is a way to break out of that cycle, so that we can refocus forwards rather than continuously (and unproductively) looking backwards. If the guilt we feel is toxic, there’s one more step that we need to take to change things – we need to remind ourselves of the importance of boundaries. Most change agents are highly motivated and committed to their cause (we have to be to deal with all the crap that we do), and self-care and self-compassion sometimes get lost on our to-do list. If we continually sacrifice our wellbeing so that we don’t disappoint others, we’re also sacrificing the energy, clear-headedness, and positivity that we bring to our activism. That sacrifice isn’t always worth making. Clear boundaries about self-care help us keep perspective, and reduce toxic guilt in those moments when we need to say “no”. 34 Planting seeds Sometimes, we put tremendous pressure on ourselves to change the world, immediately. The stress can be good if it mobilises us into action. But it can also be harmful to our wellbeing and our interactions with others. Too much pressure (self-imposed or otherwise) can lead to our own feelings of toxic guilt, frustration, hopelessness, and helplessness – which can quickly become chronic and lead to anxiety and depression. I get that our messages are urgent. They need to be heeded now, by as many people as possible. And I think there’s a delicate balance between having our urgency (which motivates us) while also maintaining our mental wellbeing. The reality of change agency is that it takes time. Even if someone instantly becomes a zero-waste advocate after learning about environmental destruction, the mental shift only becomes apparent through their patterns of behaviour over time. And this is an uncommon example. It’s far more likely that people will reject or ignore a new idea at first. It’s only with repeated exposure that they begin to really internalise our message, ask questions, and have their concerns alleviated. It’s why change agents must keep sharing their message, because we know it probably won’t have an impact on everyone immediately. Each message plants a seed. Just like planting seeds, we need to plant more than we expect to yield. We know not all seeds will sprout, and we know that some of our messages will not be heard. Of those that are heard, we can pour our attention onto them, just like we pour water and nutrients onto the strongest seedlings. Someone might not care about minimalism’s mental health benefits – but maybe they’re intrigued by the financial benefits. The seeds to water are those that are most likely to bear fruit. 35 The “Activist of the Year” award I remember being asked: “How many people have you changed with your activism?” The question stumps me because I honestly don’t know. Can I really take credit for any person’s transformation? Sure, I can plant a seed, but the ground has to be fertile too. I can’t force anyone to change any more than I can force a seed to sprout. It’s like asking a body-builder: “So which workout gave you the big muscles?” It’s not just one workout, it was every one of them, done consistently, alongside other muscle-building habits like getting adequate sleep and nutrition. It seems ridiculous to try and pick out a single workout. Maybe each of us deserves the “Activist of the Year” award. Or maybe there’s no competition. We all plant seeds. Some activists definitely plant more than others – but it only takes one seed to create an entire forest. Activism is a team effort. It’s tempting to keep score of “who convinced the most people to change”. Supporting people to make a change is rarely done in a single instance although it can sure seem that way on the outside. It can take many ideas and experiences for someone to change their attitude and behaviour about something. People often ask me about my personal catalyst to change and my response is always the same. The documentary Earthlings opened my eyes to animal cruelty, and after that, to other social justice issues like sustainability and consumerism. But in reality, this response is only a part of the story, because we know that not everyone who watches Earthlings will immediately embrace a vegan lifestyle. In hindsight, the only way this documentary could have caused such a massive shift is because my mind was open to the message to begin with. So while it may seem like a single event or experience is the one that changed us, the reality is that there were dozens or even hundreds of experiences prior to that, tilling the soil and making it fertile for the right seeds to come along and take hold. Keeping an activist score card is misguided and pointless, egotistical, and even narcissistic – and detrimental to our movement itself. Every seed matters. They’re all important. And it’s crucial for change agents to remember this, especially in those moments when it seems like our activism is futile and reaching no one. We might be planting the very first seed, or we might be planting the 50th. We don’t know which one it will be, which makes it even more important that we persevere and work together. Because even if we’re not exactly someone’s cup of tea, one of our fellow change agents might be. 36 CHAPTER 3 KNOWLEDGE ISN’T POWER Knowledge is like firewood. It has the potential for power, but only if it’s ignited. If we really want to unleash the full power of our knowledge, we need a spark to set it alight. That spark is emotional intelligence, or EI. Maybe you’ve heard of EI. If you’re not really sure what it means, don’t worry. It’s hard to define, even for psychologists. To me, it’s the way to translate what’s in our heads to real world action. We all want to navigate social interactions successfully, to have meaningful relationships, and to achieve our version of happiness and fulfilment. EI is the bridge to getting us there. 37 What does emotional intelligence look like? It’s a bunch of things. These include: Having boundaries. Having awareness and insight into our feelings. Being aware of our Survivor mind so that it doesn’t take over at inappropriate moments. Being able to resist the impulse to lash out or drown our sorrows, for instance in a bucket of dairy-free ice cream. Having the self-compassion to forgive ourselves when we make a mistake. Having the perseverance to keep trying, even when it seems tough. Having the resilience to bounce back from difficulties. Emotional intelligence is a bit like muscular strength. It’s easy to lift a single potato, and we don’t think too much about it. But it’s the times when we need to lift a sack of potatoes that we’re glad we go to the gym and lift weights. It’s the same with emotional intelligence. It’s easy to be benevolent and manage stress when life is comfortable. It’s when we’re under the pump with too much to do and too little time (and too many people acting like assholes?) that we’re glad we have our emotional “muscles” . Stress: a frenemy no longer Change agents are often in stressful situations. We’re living in a society where our efforts are rarely appreciated or even recognised. We regularly experience discomfort like sadness, frustration, or worry. It’s EI that helps us deal with those feelings so we can still interact with the world positively. The good news is that EI can be strengthened, just like a muscle. It takes commitment, consistency, and courage – which isn’t always easy. It’s a big bold step into a scary unknown. But I’ll tell you what – if there’s anyone who can develop their emotional muscles, it’s change agents. After all, who’s more committed, courageous, and consistent than someone who’s willing to speak up for what they believe in? 38 Don’t ignore your warning lights Emotional intelligence doesn’t mean that we become robots without feelings. Nor does it mean that we become perpetually cheerful. EI means recognising and accepting our feelings, whatever they happen to be, and having insight into what they’re telling us. To deny or ignore our emotions is actually the opposite of EI. We developed emotions for a reason. Emotions exist for the same reason that physical pain exists. To signal something harmful or potentially harmful, that could threaten our survival. If we cut our hand on a rose thorn, it hurts like hell. We pull our hand away and curse, and change our approach. If we didn’t feel pain, we’d go all day doing things like rummaging around in rosebushes, slashing our hands to shreds. When we feel physical pain, we generally don’t demonise the pain or feel guilty about it. We just recognise that we need to be more careful around roses that have thorns. Lesson learned. And in the same, way, when we feel anger, or sadness, or guilt, or worry – it signals the risk of possible psychological harm, and it mobilises us to change our behaviour. 39 You have the right to remain angry Back in the 80s and 90s, the phrase “emotional intelligence” hit pop psychology in a big way. And when ideas like these enter the mainstream they easily get warped. EI is no exception. In our society, EI is seriously misunderstood. Some people believe that emotionally intelligent people don’t get angry, upset, frustrated, sad, or vengeful. That’s complete crap. To say that someone shouldn’t experience certain emotions is like saying that people shouldn’t fart. Well, guess what – farting is normal, and so are all the emotions. They’re just part of being human. In The Miracle of Mindfulness , the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh tells a story about his tour of the USA during the Vietnam War. He reports that his message of peace and compassion was scorned by an angry audience member. Thich Nhat Hanh became angry. His usual method of dealing with anger was to slow his breathing. On this occasion, his anger was so great, and he breathed so slowly and deeply, that he almost passed out. Even Buddhist monks get angry. Hey – maybe we can let ourselves off the hook a little bit. Anger is normal, and so is sadness, envy, stress, and all of the other uncomfortable feelings that we experience. It’s unfortunate that our society makes such a big deal about always “feeling good” because it implies that the uncomfortable emotions are somehow “bad” and should be avoided. Some “spiritual” people will say that it’s unhealthy to feel anger, sadness, and so on, and that we should rid ourselves of those feelings completely. I don’t buy it. By avoiding certain emotions, we deny our humanity. And how could that ever be spiritual? The same shield that protects us from uncomfortable feelings also dulls pleasant emotions, like inspiration and joy. A pendulum can’t swing in just one direction. If we want the full range of our potential and positivity, then we also need to experience discomfort and maybe even suffering. Positive psychology researchers often point out the irony that a meaningful and “happy” life only happens when we allow ourselves to experience struggle as well. 40 I’m angry and I know it Anger is a universal emotion, especially for change agents. It lets us know when someone has gone too far, crossed the line. Maybe when someone has broken our trust, violated a social contract, or acted in a way that’s contrary to our expectations. That’s why we get angry when a friend shares private information about us, or someone cuts in line ahead of us, or when we see people being cruel to others. Anger is a natural response to injustice or unfairness, and it galvanises us to do something to prevent the injustice from happening again. When we feel angry, our heart starts pounding, our breath quickens, and we feel adrenaline coursing through our veins. Anger activates our body’s fight-or-flight response, preparing us to attack and defend – or escape. Anger is a very individual and also very complex emotion, for four reasons. 1. We all have different ideas about what it means to “cross the line”. Some people might get upset at the person jumping the queue, or cutting us off in traffic. Others may not. Anger is very personal because we all have our own “lines in the sand”. 2. There’s a difference between healthy and unhealthy anger. If we see someone being bullied, anger is a very natural and healthy response to a genuine injustice. Our anger prompts us to do something – defend the person being bullied, or go get help. Sometimes, though, anger can be unhealthy. Especially if it’s a reaction to an unhealthy or inappropriate belief. If we believe that our opinion is always correct, no matter what – then we’ll get angry any time someone disagrees with us. We’re still responding in anger to someone “crossing the line”. Only, in this case, the “line” is rubbish. 3. Anger can be a mask for other emotions. Some people have the habit of lashing out at other people in response to sadness, stress, or guilt. Perhaps it’s a habit that developed out of necessity, to protect themselves, or perhaps it happened inadvertently because they never learned to cope with feelings in a healthy way. 4. Anger is cumulative. We all deal with the day to day stressors of life, the minor frustrations that on their own don’t trigger a major emotional reaction. I’m talking about the little annoyances, like when the barista is too busy chatting to his coworkers to make our coffee, or the bus is running late again, or we find ourselves in the middle of a thunderstorm when the forecast was for blue skies. The stressors of the day accumulate, and we slowly build up steam. Unless we have healthy ways of diffusing daily tension, it keeps building. And then we get home and find our housemate drank the last of our coconut milk yet again…and we snap. We blame our housemate’s insensitivity as the cause for our feelings, when really, it was just the final straw in a litany 41 of grievances. I’d guess that anger is a pretty common emotion amongst change agents. We’re angry at injustice, we’re angry at the people who turn a blind eye, we’re angry at those who support it – and perhaps we’re even angry at ourselves for not having opened our eyes sooner. We see a lot of unfairness and inequality. Some activists see anger as a bad thing, when in fact it’s a healthy, natural, and normal response to what they’re witnessing. Unfortunately, most of us weren’t taught how to deal with anger. As small kids (for whom life often seems completely unfair, to be honest), our expression of anger was stifled. Young kids generally don’t know how to manage anger, so they cry, yell, become physical, defiant, or back talk. Often they aren’t actually taught how to manage their feelings, and they are just punished for the way they react. As children many of us were told to “be quiet”, “suck it up”, or “get over it”. We were put in “timeout” or maybe even spanked. Our belongings were taken from us, and our privileges were revoked. We were barred from leaving the house, except to go to school. All of this surreptitiously taught us that anger is “bad”. So, we worked hard to ignore it, distract ourselves away from it, or suppress it. Maybe we stuffed our feelings inside, literally, with food. Perhaps we took out our anger on other people, like our classmates or siblings. Perhaps we turned our anger inward, towards ourselves. Or maybe we simply learned to block it all out, throwing ourselves into our books or sporting activities so that we could ignore our discomfort. And then we grew into adults who comfort-eat, drink to excess, or spend hours distracting ourselves so that we don’t have to deal with our feelings. Maybe this explains why so few of us have clear boundaries. Anger lets us know what our boundaries are – but if we suppress our anger, we don’t get learn which boundary is being violated. Ignoring anger is like ignoring the pain from an injury. There’s a very real chance that the pain will get worse because we aren’t addressing the situation that led to it. If we ignore the cause of our pain, we are likely to continue to get hurt. If we ignore our anger, others will likely continue to break our trust or expectations. Each time it happens, the anger is re-ignited. We become like a pressure cooker, with our emotions becoming more and more intense until even the tiniest event makes us explode. It’s why we snap at people for no real reason, or why there’s road rage (and shopping rage, and carpark rage). Dealing with our anger when it happens is like venting the pressure cooker before it explodes. 42 Dealing with anger Anger isn’t bad, and our goal shouldn’t be to eliminate it altogether. A better goal would be to develop the skills to deal with anger in a healthy and sustainable way. This involves three things. First, becoming aware when we’re angry. It sounds simple but it’s not always easy. We’re often not attuned to our emotional state, and so we really only become aware of anger when we’re seething with fury, or someone observes “gee you look angry”. Or maybe after the fact – when we’ve already lashed out at someone. Second, separating ourselves from the angry emotion we’re experiencing. This can be tough to do because when we’re intensely emotional we get completely wrapped up in that feeling. But emotions are transient. Like the ocean’s waves. If we’re the water, emotions are like the currents and tides. Emotions and waves are energy. As a wave passes, the water moves and ripples, but the water itself is not the wave. And once the wave has passed, the water is still there. In the moment of anger, though, it’s hard to separate ourselves from the way we’re feeling. Our persisting thoughts lead to our emotional states, and sometimes they get tangled together. Psychologists call this “fusion” because everything gets fused together – our emotional state, our physical state, and our cognitive state (thoughts). To relieve ourselves of this we need to “de-fuse” our thoughts, feelings, and sensations. One of the best ways to do this is to slow down our thought stream. Imagine our thoughts are like cars driving along a road. Most of the time it’s as though we’re on a busy freeway, with our thoughts rushing past so quickly that we’re barely aware of them. Importantly though, they’re still triggering emotions within us. So we might have our mind racing with thoughts like “she’s so insensitive, she doesn’t care, she isn’t listening to me” and each thought triggers more and more anger, almost by reflex. But, when our thoughts slow down we can focus on them a bit more and think critically about whether they are really true. Our housemate who keeps drinking our coconut milk – is she really insensitive and uncaring? Could there be an alternate explanation for her behaviour? Maybe she had intended to visit the grocery store and replenish our coconut milk right away. Are we forgetting her thoughtful actions, like when she made us dinner or consoled us with chocolate after our last breakup? When thoughts flash past us like speeding cars, we barely have time to register them before they’re gone. When they travel more slowly we have the time to really contemplate them. It’s through this contemplation that our initial knee-jerk anger becomes less intense and even subsides. Slowing our thoughts down is what helps us manage our emotions. The irony is that intense emotions often speed up our thoughts to a lightning-quick pace. Emotions 43 like anger, and worry, stress, and fear, all trigger the fight-or-flight response, and one of the consequences is that our thoughts quicken. It’s a survival mechanism because in such times we need to be quick-thinking to be able to process information and make decisions efficiently. It’s a vicious cycle. Thoughts lead to emotions, and emotions can speed up our thoughts. When our thoughts race, our emotions become even more intense. To break the cycle we can practice slowing our thoughts down. It takes practice because it doesn’t come naturally. By practicing slowing down our thoughts in general, we can more easily apply the skill in times of stress and anger, when we need it the most. There are different ways to do this, but they all really boil down to being more mindful. Mindfulness can be practiced in many ways – through repetitive activities, by focusing on a single task or even a single image, sound, or action (like a flickering candle or our own breathing), with yoga, or through meditation. The third part to dealing with anger is recognising the source. Is there a boundary that’s been overstepped? Or is there an accumulation of multiple inconveniences and annoyances that’s led us to boiling point? If a boundary has been crossed, we can work on strengthening it. Do we need to become clearer about what we really want, or do we need to become clearer in our communication? Do we have unrealistic expectations? Or, are there people around us who are simply not going to respect our boundaries, and we need to rethink the amount of time we spend with them? Is there something from our past that’s still upsetting us, which we need to resolve? If it’s the accumulation of multiple annoyances, then: Do we need to build better habits around expressing our feelings in a healthy way? Do we have physical outlets for tension, like going for a brisk walk or lifting some weights? Do we have creative outlets for our feelings, like writing down our thoughts, or expressing them through music and art? Do we have a network of like-minded people with whom we can vent our feelings and have someone listen to us without judgement? 44 Low emotional intelligence is everywhere Change agents are often attuned to low emotional intelligence. We see it when we mention social justice issues and people become angry or disengaged because they’re unable to cope with the concern, sadness, and unfairness of it all. For people who don’t know how to handle their feelings, becoming aware of social justice issues is overwhelming. They find it easier to ignore their feelings, which also means ignoring the injustice that gives rise to them. After all, if someone can ignore the anger that comes from seeing cruelty to others, they can also ignore the cruelty itself. Change agents are different to others because we pay attention to social justice issues. In fact, it’s our emotional intelligence that led us to activism and advocacy in the first place. Where we do struggle is witnessing the disengagement, apathy, and lack of empathy from others. Often when we mention an issue people bury their heads in the sand, ignore their feelings, and continue to condone or support the injustice. It’s no wonder we get angry. We appeal to people’s logic and humanity, and we expect them to change, just as we did. And when they don’t, we get disappointed in them. And angry – because their choices have negative consequences and can or do harm innocent victims. 45 Emotions are both a slow burn and a flash in the pan Emotions affect our bodies as well as our mind. We may feel emotions in our throat, chest, stomach, or limbs. Anger and stress are often felt as a flash of energy. Heart-pounding, rapid-breathing, adrenaline-pumping, energy. Our fight-or-flight response is a cascade of physical changes that slows digestion, fuels our muscles, increases our heart rate to boost nutrient delivery to our cells and releases endorphins to suppress pain. If you want to see the power of the stress response, get onto YouTube and look up the women’s gymnastics final at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. At the final exercise, the USA and Russian teams were neck and neck for the gold medal. The US gymnast, Kerri Strugg, was vaulting for first place. On Kerri’s first attempt she slipped on the landing and tore two ligaments in her ankle. The Americans were still in second place with Kerri’s second vault attempt remaining. It was up to her to take her team to glory. Under the influence of her “fight or flight” hormones Kerri vaulted again in spite of her painful injury. With seemingly impossible odds she stuck the landing, scoring a 9.712 to bring the USA team into first place and secure the goal medal. Our emotions are powerful and are designed to protect us. They send important messages, as long as we’re willing to hear them. When we ignore our stress responses, we send our bodies into turmoil. The “fight or flight” response prepares our bodies for action. Muscular contraction (movement) is the only efficient way to disperse stress hormones. That’s why stressed or angry people sometimes pace the room, fidget, throw things (not recommended), or feel the urge to clean. If we don’t “burn off” our stress hormones though movement, they remain abnormally elevated. If this happens often enough, we experience chronic stress, which is associated with physical ailments such as a shorter lifespan, cardiovascular disease, and lowered immunity. Short term stress has benefits when it’s managed properly. It’s the long term, unmanaged, accumulated stress that harms our health. 46 Stuck between a rock and a hard place Sometimes I speak with change agents who are struggling with sadness, anger, or stress. They tell me that they feel like “bad” activists, or that they’re letting their movement down because of their feelings. We are under so much pressure when it comes to emotions. On one hand, it’s our powerful feelings (and our awareness of them), which compel us to become change agents. On the other hand, many of us feel like inadvertent role models for our cause – and so we feel like we have to be perfectly peaceful and content, all the time. I remember in my early days of veganism I got a paper cut. I’d had many in my 27 or so years of eating meat. But suddenly, paper cuts were a big deal. They were a symptom of my “unhealthy and deficient” diet – well, according to the people around me. When we adopt a new lifestyle, or become an activist, suddenly we become poster children. And we have to be “perfect”. We’d better not get stressed, catch a cold, complain about something, or get a paper cut. The tiniest imperfection gets chalked up to our new lifestyle, and it becomes a convenient reason for people to ignore our message. Talk about pressure! We’re supposed to be “perfect”, while being highly aware of the suffering of others, the systemic rejection of our ideas, and the general apathy of society. Oh, and this is on top of the usual ups and downs of life, like dealing with relationship issues, financial stress, and the pressures of school or work. It’s not surprising that mental health symptoms can prevail amongst activists and change agents. Many of us are grappling with anxiety, trauma, and depression. Unfortunately, this isn’t always handled well by mental health professionals. Before I rant, one caveat. I don’t want to stereotype mental health professionals or portray them all in a negative light. Many of them do wonderful work, often in difficult circumstances and with few resources. I do have concerns around how change agents are treated by professionals. There are far too many stories from people who have reached out for support and received responses that are downright insensitive and unsympathetic. Sadly, activists struggling with mental health are often told “maybe you should stop”. It pains me to hear such advice being dispensed so cavalierly, especially when there is so much we can do to improve our psychological health, while also still being change agents. Is it even possible to just “stop”, anyway? Is it possible to just disconnect from a cause about which we feel so passionately? “Just stop” is terribly flawed advice that lacks emotional intelligence. To tell us to “stop” is akin to avoidance. To stop, we would have to distance ourselves from the very emotions that compel us to be activists in the first place. It might add a layer of guilt onto our already existing discomfort. Guilt has a synergistic effect on emotions, making them much more intense. Telling an activist to “just stop” is tantamount to saying to a stressed co-worker “maybe you should just quit”. 47 Skills for healthy activism I believe that many change agents already have higher emotional intelligence than most. It takes emotional intelligence to be in touch with our feelings, and act on our empathy towards others, to advocate for a cause that’s for the greater good. Activists already know how to trade short-term pleasure for long-term fulfilment, and to stand by personal values rather than yielding to the opinions of others. Skills that are essential to emotionally healthy activism are: Being aware of our internal environment, such as thoughts and feelings (self awareness). Being able to deal with those thoughts and feelings in a positive way (self acceptance). Being committed to strengthening our ability to deal with challenges (self reliance). Being confident in our ability to handle future challenges (self confidence). These skills allow us to cope with the challenges of activism, like managing our feelings and relating to others who think differently to us. Activism can be fraught with contradictions. For example: We may strive to help others even when they are the very people who ignore our message or throw roadblocks in our way. We strive to make the world a better place, even though each day we might find ourselves growing increasingly cynical about the apathy and disinterest in the world. We strive to create communities where like-minded empathetic individuals can join us, only to find ourselves getting embroiled with in-fighting within the very same communities. We strive to live a fulfilled and purposeful life, only to find ourselves battling internal struggles like psychological distress, pent-up anger and frustration, or ill health. Being a change agent requires more than just empathy. It requires resilience, faith, confidence, and the self-awareness to deal with our internal struggles before they compromise our activism. It requires good communication skills, educating others and capturing their empathy about our cause – whether it’s animal cruelty, racism, gender inequality, domestic violence, homophobia, or transphobia. If you want to learn more about effective communication for activists, I suggest looking into Nonviolent Communication. There are plenty of resources online 48 (articles, videos, and blogs) relating to the principles of nonviolent communication described in Marshall Rosenberg’s book . If you are an animal rights activist, I highly recommend the Vegan Voices app ( http://vegan-voices.com ) from vegan psychologist Clare Mann. She also has a free video course on her website ( http://veganpsychologist.com ) called “Essential Skills for Vegan Advocacy”. 49 Empathy versus apathy Our activism can be uncomfortable to the people we’re trying to reach. After all, we’re shining a spotlight on an uncomfortable issue. Many people don’t want to know, but we’re asking them to look, or to allow themselves to be awaked and transformed. This was exactly my experience, although I didn’t realise it at the time. It was in 2008, when I saw Earthlings – which opened my eyes and mind to the reality of animal cruelty in our lives. Prior to this I had a vague awareness that animals were used to produce food, fashion, and cosmetics – but I never allowed myself to think too deeply about it. My awareness was superficial at best. It was Earthlings that allowed me to experience empathy for the animals who were suffering. I felt it at a visceral level – revulsion, heartbreak, and sorrow that transcended the superficial awareness I’d once had. All my life I’d claimed to love animals, and I found myself unable to continue participating in animal exploitation. Yes, the prospect of change was scary, but it was nothing compared with the pain of contributing to injustice and lying to myself about it. This is exactly how change happens. We decide to take on the temporary pain of changing our habits, because it’s overshadowed by the lasting pain of allowing injustice to occur. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” and “to ignore evil is to become accomplice to it”. Emotionally intelligent people are in touch with their pain, and they allow it to transform into determination and passion, rather than cynicism and hatred. It’s the determined and passionate amongst us who continue to pursue activism, despite the criticism, judgement, mockery, and ridicule from others. I believe that each of us is capable of this. Our activism can actually be a highly adaptive way to boost our psychological wellbeing if we allow it. 50 How do we know if we’re emotionally intelligent? Emotional intelligence isn’t just about knowing the skills, it’s also about putting them into practice, in daily life, whatever our environment. Perhaps the most meaningful measure of emotional intelligence is our results – for ourselves, our message, and our communities. Perhaps it’s asking ourselves questions like: How are we experiencing life? How are we influencing those around us? How are we relating to people? How are those people we influence making progress? What sort of role model are we for our cause? 51 Self-directed anger There’s a tremendous amount of anger amongst change agents. I say this because I see it in myself, which allows me to recognise it in others. Here’s something that we rarely hear – we are completely justified in our anger. We have every right to feel anger towards any person who supports any form of cruelty, injustice, inequality, intolerance, or prejudice. But, there’s another source of anger – one that’s more insidious. It’s the anger that we have towards ourselves. For most of us, we were not born into activism. Most of us had an epiphany, or a moment of awakening where our perspective changed. And, many of us can remember that time “before”, when we had our head in the sand, and when we ignored or perhaps even mocked the very issue we now support. I know that when I look back on some of my past behaviour, I cringe at my own ignorance and apathy. We feel angry at our belief system, upbringing, education system, and family traditions. What’s more, we feel angry at ourselves, for our own unquestioning acquiescence to what we were told was “right” and our own lack of critical thinking. It’s hard to recognise self-directed anger, and even harder to deal with it. It’s much easier to focus our anger towards others, especially those who are “against us”. We do get glimpses of our self-directed anger, though. Like, when we’re confronted with others who remind us of our former selves, perhaps showing the same ignorance, apathy, or close-mindedness that we once did. 52 CHAPTER 4 A GROUP OF THOUGHTUL, COMMITTED CITIZENS Several years ago I attended one of my first protest rallies. It was the “Say Nup to the Cup” event, where a large group of activists were protesting the cruel “sport” of horse racing. I still remember the comments made by several passers-by: “Don’t you have more important things to do?” “Shouldn’t you be at work?” “Get a life” 53 The unique mind of a change agent I’m always inspired by the devotion of change agents. They are so dedicated to raising awareness, and creating positive change that they give up their energy, time, resources, and money. They are so passionate that they’ll forgo leisure time, convenience, and mindless habit. Change agents pursue what’s important to them, despite the sometimes harsh judgements of society. They continue even though their actions receive little glory, fame, or money. Whether we devote all waking hours to our activism, or carve out whatever spare time we can, activism is more than just a hobby. It’s almost a part of our identity. To us, there’s nothing more noble than striving for peace, kindness, and justice. We continue, even though it can be stressful and traumatic. Even though we’re under-appreciated. Even though mass media tells us to avoid “toxic” people, and yet we bravely step into the world knowing that we will face criticism. We persevere in this bizarre environment where people would rather we sit down and stay quiet than speak up for the greater good. Critics often like to tell us that that we’re wasting our time, and that we should “get a life”. For many change agents, activism can be a way of fulfilling our life’s purpose. The mind of an activist is different, indeed. 54 Criticism, call-outs, and chastising It’s hard dealing with people who aren’t change agents. It’s just as difficult dealing with the in-fighting within our movement. We live in a culture of criticism. It’s easier than ever to find fault in the actions of others, even if they’re on “the same side” as we are. We’ve always had opinions, and we’ve always had criticisms – but now, we can voice them from the comfort of our own home, to a global audience. The Survivor brain likes to criticise. Actually, what it does best is focus on differences. 99% of our ideas might be the same as someone else’s, but we’ll spend a disproportionate amount of time focusing on the 1% of difference. Once upon a time, this was a valuable survival mechanism because that 1% could determine our inclusion or rejection from a group. Today, it’s often the source of conflict (for example, when the 1% happens to be gender, skin colour, sexuality, religion, or political view). Our brain is designed to categorise people and ideas, to streamline our thinking. When our Survivor is in charge, we focus on our points of difference which creates an artificial divide of “us” versus “them”. We tend to favour those in “our” group, and we respond more negatively to “others”. Emotional intelligence allows us to put our differences into perspective, and to blur the lines between “us” and “them”. Our differences no longer become the defining factor of whether a person is “with us” or “against us”. In activist groups, especially those of us in the extreme minority, emotional intelligence helps us create a feeling of camaraderie in order to be even more powerful and create greater change. As the saying goes “united we stand, divided we fall”. Of course, belonging to a community does not imply that we should blindly agree with every person or decision. Dissent and disagreement are healthy, and they facilitate growth. It’s disrespectful disagreement that’s unhealthy. Disrespect fuels anger, which leads to hostility. It’s impossible to grow when we’re busy defending ourselves from the (perceived) attacks of others. Respectful disagreement is when we focus on the message, rather than the messenger. Disrespectful disagreement is also known as trolling and bullying. It’s when we resort to name-calling, shaming (implying that the person, not the message, is disagreeable), spreading rumours, sharing private information, or using someone’s past or character weaknesses as attacks. 55 Stress vs over-stress Stress has a bad reputation. Some people think that stress is bad, and that being “stress-free” is very important. So, they remove themselves from anything remotely stressful or uncomfortable. For an activist, this could mean: Avoiding face-to-face interactions. Not connecting with other activists, to learn, debrief, or collaborate. Not sharing opinions. Setting aside our ethics and values to please others. Not dealing with personal doubts, worries, and insecurities that affect our wellbeing. This whole “stress free living” is a load of crap. Stress makes us grow, so why would we want to remove ourselves from it completely? The problem isn’t stress. It’s over-stress. Think about your muscles. If you want stronger ones, you need to stress them by lifting weights. Then, during rest, they rebuild and become stronger than before. If we stop lifting weights, our muscles lose their strength. And, if we try to eliminate stress by avoiding anything stressful, we experience a sort of emotional atrophy. On the flip side, this doesn’t mean we should throw ourselves into overwhelmingly stressful situations, unprepared. We need to build our emotional muscles gradually, otherwise we risk shock or trauma. It would be ridiculous for a new weight lifter to bench press 100 kilograms on their very first day. If we go too hard, too fast, an injury is almost guaranteed. There’s a fine line between feeling enough discomfort to grow, but not so much that we burn out. Ideally, we reach a balance where we push ourselves a little more each time, just the right amount so that we’re gradually strengthening our emotional muscles. Then the next time we face a challenge, we’re better at handling it and bouncing back from it. When I was in high school, I played badminton. “Bad” being the operative syllable, because I was a mediocre player at best. There are some talented athletes in our family, and I am not one of them. I was part of a badminton club, where we were all placed in different divisions based on our skill. In my first season I was placed in one of the middle divisions, where I lost more games than I won. The following season I was “demoted” to a lower division, much to my shame. But, suddenly, in that lower division I was winning almost every game. My pride certainly enjoyed those wins, although they seemed rather hollow. I was facing “easier” challenges, but only cruising along with the skills I already had. There was no growth and not even any real victory. 56 When we always stay in our comfort zone, we can eventually start to feel hollow. We can live our lives doing all the same things, with all the same people, at the same time of day, and in the same way. And we stay the same, year after year after year. Even after we become change agents and overcome the newness of it all, we need to keep growing. Otherwise we miss the opportunity to develop new skills, new ways of communicating, new ways to understand people, and new perspectives. Real growth takes place only when we do new and challenging things. It’s important for ourselves, as individuals, and for our movement. We each have an internal barometer for stressful situations. Some forms of activism come more easily than others. The easy ones are a great way to build confidence, especially if we’re new to the activist community. The challenging forms of activism help us develop new skills, and become more resilient to difficult experiences. A new change agent who struggles to speak with people face-to-face, but does well in front of the camera, might be better off starting their activism journey by creating videos or live-streaming their message. As confidence builds and knowledge increases, they can take the next step, such as attending events or doing face-to-face outreach. Some of us really like “jumping into the deep end” with activism, and doing difficult things as quickly as possible. I suppose it’s like ripping off a bandage – getting the painful part out of the way quickly. And for some of us, this approach can spell disaster. Too much stress quickly turns into too much distress, which can put us off activism altogether. As time goes on, we become less and less inclined to speak up about our message, even in situations where we would have otherwise easily done so. 57 Choosing to be stressed (but not over-stressed) We live in a hedonistic world that abhors discomfort of all kinds. For many, the slightest emotional pain causes us to turn to food, alcohol, drugs, and medication to numb ourselves. In doing so, we lose sight of the real benefit of discomfort – which is to become psychologically stronger. Of course, we are wired to avoid pain and seek pleasure, like all animals. Activities like eating food or having sex are pleasurable because they activate the “reward” centres of our brain. And, they just happen to be the activities that are necessary for our survival. At least, they were in pre-modern times. Today, we can activate our reward centres with drugs, gambling, and even getting “likes” and “retweets” online. At the same time, we can avoid the pain of uncomfortable feelings by numbing ourselves with alcohol or distracting ourselves with gaming. This “avoid pain seek pleasure” wiring was necessary in pre-modern times when our focus had to be survival. We didn’t have ready access to fresh water, emergency medicine, or food. Today, our mind, free of many of the pre-modern concerns around survival and safety, is able to think more broadly about life satisfaction and fulfilment. And this is our new survival, because we know that pleasure-seeking and/or painavoidance has the potential to create problems like obesity, substance abuse, or addiction. In order to thrive in today’s world, we have to move beyond immediate gratification, and look toward long term fulfilment. Thriving, not just surviving. So while it’s tempting to comfort-eat chocolate cake or drown our sorrows with a bottle of wine, they’re not a long term solution. The road to happiness and fulfilment isn’t pleasure seeking, it’s striving towards goals despite the obstacles. Like the change agent who perseveres with their message of peace, despite the criticism, ridicule, and indifference. Taking on new challenges, especially for a bigger goal, helps us learn new skills. For change agents, this could be photography, filming, event planning, writing, or interpersonal and communication skills. The real bonus, though, is exercising our emotional muscles. Gradually taking on new challenges, and working through them, is what makes us stronger and more resilient to all forms of stress. In 2013 an Australian couple embarked on a marathon goal – literally. Janette Murray-Wakelin and Alan Murray set out to run around Australia, completing 44.2 kilometres per day, every day for a year. If that wasn’t impressive enough, they did it while eating a raw vegan diet – no animal products, and no cooked food. Oh, and they were in their 60s. Janette and Alan challenged multiple stereotypes about what it means to be at retirement age, to be vegan, and an athlete. While many people of their generation lament their age and perhaps even consider that there isn’t much left to accomplish in life, this couple were undertaking a record-breaking challenge. What compelled this couple to do something so unprecedented? As quoted from 58 their website ( http://rawveganpath.com/about-us/ ), it was “to inspire and motivate conscious lifestyle choices, to promote kindness and compassion for all living beings and to raise environmental awareness for a sustainable future”. Jim Rohn said “we can live with the pain of discipline, or the pain of regret”. To Janette and Alan, they wanted to do something monumental to share their important message with the world. Running 366 consecutive marathons seems like torture to many, but for them, it was a necessary challenge. Perhaps, to them, not embarking on this challenge would have been the real torment. Activists face this dilemma too, although perhaps not quite as extremely. We could have the stress of meeting new people and being in unfamiliar situations – or the anguish of staying in our comfort zone, without fully exploring our capabilities in a movement that’s so important to us. The moment we avoid the stress of new challenges is the moment that we stop demanding anything from ourselves. Our emotional muscles atrophy. We lose confidence in our ability to grow, and even in our ability to handle day-to-day activities. We lose faith in ourselves, and we start believing falsehoods – that we’re too old, too uneducated, or too unpopular to ever make a difference, or that our friends, career, finances, family, or schedules are holding us back. In a world that keeps growing, the person who avoids stress will end up shrinking in comparison to others. 59 Relax about stress Activism involves stress. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be activism, right? I say this in the spirit of empowerment, because it can feel demoralising and even shameful to admit that we’re stressed or struggling. Sometimes we can be our own worst critics. In times of struggle, we can be ruthless to ourselves. We say things to ourselves that we’d never say to anyone else. We expect perfection or even superhuman qualities from ourselves, when we wouldn’t hold the same expectations of others. This doesn’t mean that we should resign ourselves to accepting any and all stress, or that we should intentionally pursue the most traumatic, stressful situations because it’s “inevitable”. Just because we’re carrying a few burdens doesn’t mean that we should accept the entire weight of the world as well. Maybe what’s needed is a bit of self-compassion, particularly when we’re stressed or struggling. Instead of seeing our normal human emotions as a personal shortcoming, perhaps we could view them as a side effect of activism. 60 Don’t follow the leader Activism isn’t just about what we say, but how we say it. Our style and approach matters just as much as the information we wish to impart. The most effective and sustainable activism is when our style is consistent with what we value. If I had to come up with a definition for effective activism, it would be: communicating a message about which we feel passionately in a way that’s meaningful and authentic to us. This means making a deliberate decision about the style of activism we want to undertake. Let’s assume here that all activism is based on respect (which should be a given, but unfortunately isn’t always). Is one style of activism necessarily “better” than another? Is there a “bad” way to approach peaceful and respectful activism? Is leafleting “better” than a street demonstration? Maybe instead of “good or bad” activism, there are just different styles that are best suited to different environments and purposes. Authentic advocacy is important. In the absence of a clear personal style or personal philosophy, we tend to go along with group culture. Other people have an influence on our behaviour, and sometimes this can lead us astray. In the early 1950s a psychologist named Solomon Asch undertook a series of experiments on social influence and the way people can affect each other’s personal opinions. In his experiments, a group of young men completed some simple perceptual tasks. They were shown a card with a line on it, and then shown another card with three lines on it. On the second card, one line was the same length as the line on the first card, while the other two lines clearly weren’t. Participants were asked to state aloud which line on the second card was the same as that on the first card. For some questions, all but one of the group members were confederates (‘planted’ by Asch) and asked to deliberately give the wrong answer. The reason? To see if the real test subject would conform to the majority. The results showed that most of the test subjects did conform to the rest of the group, even though they often doubted the accuracy of the group response. These findings have been replicated in a variety of situations. Group dynamics can easily trump individual opinions, beliefs, and even perceptions. When we’re part of a group, we’re prone to taking on whatever opinions happen to be most popular at the time, regardless of how accurate they are, or how congruently they fit with our personal values. Social influence can work both for us and against us. If we’re amongst a group who values integrity, generosity, kindness, optimism, hopefulness, respect, and openmindedness – then we’re more likely to behave in ways that reflect these virtues. Or, if we’re in a group that values pride, ego, selfishness, dishonesty, distrust, and hostility – then we’re more likely to take on behaviours that reflect these qualities. We often take on the attitudes of others without even realising it, and this can 61 affect our thinking and actions. So, what can we do? We have two options: First, choose our friends wisely. We become like the people with whom we spend most of our time, so it is important to be around people who embody what we value, or what we aspire towards. Thanks to the internet, we don’t have to physically track them down and force them to be our friend. We can connect with them across social networks, follow their lives, read their blogs, watch their videos, and listen to their podcasts. Second, find our unique style of activism – and commit to it. This way we don’t get swept away in the undercurrent of group dynamics if they’re heading in a direction we don’t want to go. We each have a personal philosophy about what we value, how we think, how we see the world, and how we want to influence it. It’s way too easy to lose sight of our personal philosophy, especially around others. Rediscovering and reconnecting with it becomes vital for practicing effective, sustainable activism and staying positive while we do so. 62 The martyr For activists and change agents, our suffering can come from witnessing others’ suffering, or from facing harsh opposition from critics. Some of us take pride in our own suffering, especially when it leads to personal growth. There are many stories of people who have experienced extreme hardship, and who have worked through it and come out the other side feeling stronger and more empowered than before. It’s a phenomenon known as post-traumatic growth. There’s another form of suffering, too. It’s self-imposed suffering. It’s when we repeatedly sacrifice our own physical and psychological health for others. In a way, it resembles martyrhood – people who sacrifice their own needs, and even their own lives, for what they believe in. To be fair though, not all self-sacrifice is martyrhood, for two reasons. First, it’s hard to determine martyrhood from the outside. What seems like sacrifice to us, might not be to the one who is doing the sacrificing. To the animal rights activist, it is not a sacrifice to spend a public holiday protesting a horse racing event. To a minimalist, it isn’t a sacrifice to forgo new designer shoes or latest smartphone upgrade. To an environmentalist, it isn’t a sacrifice to take short showers and avoid single-use plastic. Often, what seems like a monumental sacrifice to others is either not a sacrifice to us, or it’s one that is gladly paid. Second, genuine sacrifices aren’t necessarily martyrhood, like a few nights’ of disrupted sleep before a big event, or a few too many take-away meals to get us through a busy time, or willingly hearing traumatic stories as we counsel assault survivors. We often make short term sacrifices for a larger purpose, knowing that we will make up for them later with rest, healthy food, or an arsenal of healthy coping strategies to help us heal. The martyr, however, rarely makes time for pause, recovery, or rest. The sacrifice is viewed as a “badge of honour”, even if it leads to personal destruction. This behaviour is known as the martyr complex, and it occurs when we consistently deny ourselves rest, reprieve, or recovery. We see the martyr complex in many sections of the community – mothers, for example, who sacrifice everything for their families, or employees who sacrifice everything for the CEO. And of course, it can happen to change agents too. Martyrdom is often applauded as being noble, unselfish, or as an incredible demonstration of love and sacrifice. For change agents, our sacrifice can seem even more virtuous, because it’s not just for another person but for an entire movement. It’s easy for us to justify our own suffering when there are so many others who are also suffering and who need our help. 63 The lure of the martyr complex is that our self-imposed suffering becomes a way for us to feel good about ourselves. We feel a sense of self-righteous pleasure every time we suffer. We feel valuable to our cause, and connected to our fellow change agents. And as time goes on, we become habituated to that feeling of pleasure, and we find ourselves needing to sacrifice more and more in order to experience it. And ironically, in doing so, we often inadvertently harm our cause. This happens in three ways. 1. When we consistently sacrifice our physical or psychological health, we activate our body’s stress response, which affects our logical thinking as well as our mood. When this happens, we may feel compelled to sacrifice even more to feel better. It’s a vicious cycle from which the only ways out are illness, burnout, or worse. 2. We end up contributing to a culture of never-ending self-sacrifice. Other change agents see us sacrificing and they feel compelled to do so as well. This can quickly spiral into a game of one-upmanship (up-person-ship?) where the only person who really gets applauded is the one who’s sacrificed the most. 3. We set up unrealistic standards for non-activists, for those who are influenced and inspired by our activism and are looking in from the outside. Having a strong culture of sacrifice can lead others to believe that it is an inherent part of activism. For these potential change agents, the seemingly endless sacrifice seems too unattainable for them. This may turn them away from activism, perhaps for good. And every movement needs more activists. If there’s one thing we can’t afford, it’s turning away people who already appreciate our message and are contemplating becoming more vocal about it. The martyr complex can also become a way of manipulating people, especially our fellow change agents. Martyrhood can be used to coerce people into doing what we want them to do, or to minimise the experiences of others, or to emphasise our own superiority. Here are some examples: “I can’t believe you’re disagreeing with me after all I’ve done for our cause. ” “I don’t know why you’re struggling so much, I’ve devoted more hours to activism than you. Maybe you should complain less and work more. ” “Why should anyone listen to you? I’ve converted way more people than you. ” While it might seem tempting to manipulate people, unfortunately it tends to backfire in the end. People eventually realise that they’ve been coerced and they don’t like it – and it can cause them to turn on us. People who feel coerced (or bullied) into acting a certain way will often do a complete 180 and then they become our vocal opponents. And an ex-advocate can be very harmful to a cause. 64 What’s behind the martyr? If you recognise yourself in any of this, please don’t fret. It is easy to get entangled in martyrhood, especially in today’s world. I think martyrhood can ensnare any of us, especially when we’re enveloped in that culture. A culture of martyrdom can easily be created and the people who find themselves in that culture can easily take on those behaviours. But where does it come from? How does martyrhood begin in the first place? When we peel back the behaviour and self-righteousness, we tend to find low self-esteem. Self-sacrifice makes us “morally superior”, and it’s just one more way for us to feel accepted and valued by others. If we believe that our personal value as an individual is derived from self-sacrifice, then the only way we can keep feeling valuable is by continuing to self-sacrifice. The martyr complex is simply a way of achieving the connection and importance that we’re all wired to seek. If you’re noticing patterns of martyrhood in yourself, it doesn’t make you bad or shameful. It just makes you human. We all want to feel valued, and we all want to belong. How we achieve this is up to us. The goal isn’t to change our psychological makeup, but simply to recognise those moments when our methods of meeting our needs aren’t helpful. Imagine you’re at a party, and you spot a cute person across the room. You approach them with your suave face on to strike up a conversation. But then you realise that it’s warm, and you’re perspiring. You want to make a good first impression, and nervous and sweaty just isn’t it. The solution isn’t to rid yourself of this essential biological function. You do need sweat glands. Instead, you recognise that you’re perspiring, and you attempt to cool yourself down before approaching. You have a cold drink, remove a layer or two, wipe off your palms, and go for it. When we notice ourselves seeking value and connection, we can curse our brain’s wiring or try to ignore it – or we can try to fulfil those needs in better, healthier ways. 65 The power of expectation If you believe it, you will see it. This isn’t just some fluffy personal development mantra. Psychological studies have shown that our expectations influence our outcomes. In a 2007 study on mindset and physical health, Alia Crum and Ellen Langer found that hotel workers who were told they exercise “more than average” actually lost more weight than the workers who were told they exercise the “standard” amount. In Dr Crum’s subsequent study on mindset and stress response, people who focused on the beneficial effects of stress were found to have better health outcomes than those who focused on stress’s harmful effects. So, what impact do our expectations have on our activism and advocacy? What kind of expectations might we have? Do we, for example: Expect activism to be a “battle”, or an opportunity to educate and support others? Expect our actions to make a difference, or do we doubt that anything will change? Expect that people will change their ways with information and encouragement, or do we believe that they’re selfish assholes who don’t give a shit? Our expectations matter. Not just to ourselves, but to the people we’re trying to reach. Our thoughts and feelings are conveyed to others through our facial expressions, our tone of voice, the way we hold ourselves, and, of course, our words. When we communicate with others, we tend to focus on our words, but our bodies speak volumes. We can control our words relatively easily in comparison to our body language. And, any time they are contradictory, our words lose impact. If you discover that your great-aunt is coming to stay with you for a few days, an eye-roll and deflated-sounding “oh great” is going to convey disappointment rather than enthusiasm. The sheer power of one person’s expectations on another person’s behaviour was brilliantly demonstrated in a study from 1965 by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, where a group of primary school students undertook an “intelligence test” that would predict those who were on the verge of a major leap in their intellectual development (In reality, the test was a basic ability test that had no predictive power). A small group of students in each class were chosen at random and their teachers were informed that these students were on the verge of an exceptional increase in their intelligence. What transpired was remarkable. Even though these students were no different from the rest of their class, by the end of the school year there was an actual increase in their IQ – much greater than expected. This phenomenon is known as the “Pygmalion effect”, or “Rosenthal effect”. The teacher’s expectation of intelligence most likely led to subtle differences in the way they perceived and interacted with their 66 “intelligent” students, thus contributing to their increased IQ. Our expectations influence others because our body language conveys our attitude and mindset. We respond differently to someone who we expect to be horrible and selfish than to someone we expect to be kind and nurturing. This in turn affects the way they respond to us, and ultimately their receptivity to our message. I do believe that self-reflection is an important part of advocacy and activism. Self-reflection helps break those habits we develop with our thinking, and of which we might not even be aware. It’s easy to fall into the habit of viewing ourselves as “battling” with others, or viewing anyone who doesn’t agree with our message as “stupid and selfish”. Our brains tend to hold onto habits, even if they’re outdated or unhelpful. Self-reflection gives us an opportunity to recognise these habits, and rewire them into something more helpful. 67 CHAPTER 5 A PERSONAL PHILOSOPHY You are unique. It’s a total cliché (sorry) and bloody obvious. Yet, these words are too easily forgotten. Our minds are all a bit different. No one’s brain is exactly like yours. No one believes exactly what you believe, or holds precisely the same opinion as you do. Every thought we have is unique, shaped by (or biased by) our experiences, education, upbringing, and community. We are individuals, by nature. But, it’s hard to be an individual in a world where conformity and uniformity are heavily encouraged, especially from a young age (in many schools, for example). Conformity equals predictability, which brings stability, comfort, and safety. We like rules, and formulae. We like to categorise people and ideas into neat little boxes for our own comfort – but also to circumvent deep, analytical thinking. Our brain likes to conserve energy, so if we can create a shortcut then we will. Instead of making decisions about people based on their individual qualities, it’s easier to stereotype them, like assuming that all activists are unemployed hippies with too much time on their hands. Our rules about the world allow us to quickly process incoming information. If we meet people who describe themselves as a feminist, or a minimalist, we are likely to quickly make assumptions about who they are. And if someone comes along who doesn’t fit our rules, we experience cognitive dissonance – and our mind searches for explanations to reconcile the difference. Several years ago I started a new job and my veganism eventually emerged. A co-worker seemed surprised. He said “but you look so healthy”. Did he assume that all vegans were malnourished and emaciated? He asked me how long I’d been vegan for (it had been about 5 years) and he replied “oh, that’s why”. Perhaps he thought that five years wasn’t long enough to become malnourished and emaciated, or that only vegans-since-birth were unhealthy. When new information doesn’t fit in with our “rules”, we don’t really know what to do with it. We find reasons why this information should be excluded, so we can maintain our rules. Perhaps we emphasise certain traits or downplay others (e.g. five years isn’t long enough to develop nutrient deficiencies as a vegan , by creating a new set of rules (e.g. only the vegans-since-birth are unhealthy ), or simply deleting the experience from our mind altogether. We love rules because they help us categorise information and make quick decisions. Rules help us decide what’s safe or unsafe, “with” or “against” us, edible or poisonous, good or bad. I suppose it’s why so many of us are devotees of the scientific method, which removes biases and creates rules about our world in an objective, measurable way. Science allows us to test hypotheses and measure outcomes while 68 removing much of the pesky biases of human evaluation. Unfortunately, the scientific method doesn’t completely lend itself to “rules”, because, statistically speaking, almost any theory can be “proven”. There could be a hundred studies on tobacco smoking and lung disease, and the odds are that at least one of them will show no association. Whether our views are based on the scientific method, or our own experience, almost every issue has a counter argument. It could be pesticides and environmental pollutants, or the economy and government policy, or eating and exercise habits. As humans, we tend to find the evidence that supports our viewpoint – whether it’s one study or a thousand studies, or whether it’s a blog post or an encyclopaedia. 69 Re-programming our brain When we’ve made up our mind about something, we find it hard to look at alternative viewpoints. It’s a feature of our psyche known as confirmation bias. We tend to seek out and accept the evidence that supports our viewpoint and reject the evidence that does not. It’s why we might believe the one single scientific study that supports our view, despite the hundreds of anecdotal stories suggesting otherwise. Or vice versa – we believe the one anecdotal story despite the many scientific studies suggesting otherwise. Consider the research linking processed meat to cancer. Despite the mounting evidence confirming this finding, including the World Health Organisation listing processed meat as a Type 1 carcinogen (right next to tobacco smoking and asbestos) – many people use the arguments “but I eat processed meat every day and I’m fine” or “my neighbour was vegetarian and she still got cancer”. We want to believe what we believe. Some evolutionary psychologists say that we developed this characteristic to strengthen our own arguments so that we could convince other people of our viewpoint, which strengthened social bonds and enhanced our value to the community. In the age of the internet and social networking, we are exposed to more ideas than ever before – and every single one is subject to confirmation bias. The disadvantage of confirmation bias is more than just intellectual. It affects our mental health as well. Our repeated ideas often become our beliefs. When we repeatedly have a thought like “people don’t care about the environment”, we start seeking out evidence to support that notion – reinforcing the thought, and cementing it as a belief. If we look around, we’ll surely find many examples of people not caring for the environment. No doubt we could also find examples of people caring for the environment, but these tend to bypass our awareness unless we’re deliberately attuned to them. Think of each thought like a worn down pathway in a forest. The more we think it, the more that path gets entrenched. Eventually, it gets used so frequently that it becomes a road, then a highway, and then a freeway. The more we think it, the easier it becomes, until that thought “people don’t care about the environment” is a habitual one. Some thoughts that we have are so habitual that we don’t even realise we’re thinking them. Each time we do, we accumulate more supporting evidence, which reinforces them even more. The thought becomes ingrained and automatic, and we rarely question it again. This is pretty inconsequential if the thoughts are benign, like “the sun rises every morning” or “The Phantom Menace was an abomination”. No big deal. But what if our repeated thoughts are “I can’t be an activist, people will laugh at me” or “I’m too stupid/fat/poor/ugly/shy to make a difference”. Each time these thoughts race through our minds, we find more reasons to believe them, and they get 70 ingrained just that little bit more. These repeated thoughts don’t travel alone, though. They like to pair up with an emotional response, like sadness and anger, or excitement and hopefulness. The more we have these thoughts, the more we experience the emotional reaction we have come to associate with them. And our confirmation bias keeps the whole thing puttering along. Confirmation bias can turn passing thoughts into beliefs, sad thoughts into depression, and worried thoughts into full blown anxiety. Consider the title of this book, for example. How do you feel about the world? Is it fucked up? Is it getting worse, or better? Your answer could leave you feeling hopeless and defeated, or determined to be a more impassioned activist, or apathetic and indifferent, or inspired to join the clusters of people who are striving to improve it. Whatever we think, we can easily find reasons to keep believing it. This is why our beliefs can persist throughout our lives, even those we held at a young age. Many of our most deep-seated beliefs were impressed upon us in childhood, developed through experience. Our young minds often didn’t know quite how to interpret the world, so we relied upon others to help us make sense of things. If we saw a kid at school getting picked on for being too skinny, then we could have started believing any number of things, including: skinny kids are weak; skinny kids are easy targets; or it’s wrong to pick on people for their appearance. It’s often our young minds that create many of our longest-held beliefs. Young minds, which haven’t fully developed the skills of reason and logic. It’s why kids sometimes come up with quite bizarre explanations for the world around them. Just imagine going through life, believing some of the unusual things that young kids believe. Yet, so many of our beliefs are established before our logical thinking skills have developed – so it’s like our six-year-old self is dictating what we think, say, and do. Would you let a six year old make decisions about your life? It might be fun for a while, but I’m pretty sure our bank account and waistline would suffer in the long run. Our beliefs can be simplistic, and even sometimes nonsensical to our adult mind. And yet, they lurk in the background, influencing every facet of our lives. It’s the Pygmalion effect. Whatever we believe, leads to an expectation, which affects our experience of the world. 71 The unexamined life is not worth living – Socrates Of course, our beliefs aren’t etched in stone, and they do change. The fact that we change at all is testament to that. At an individual level, our beliefs may change when we have enough experience or evidence to the contrary. For example, we may believe that our workplace is a supportive environment. But, this belief may change after seeing dedicated coworkers get laid off, corporate decisions being made in the interests of profit rather than people, and a gradual increase in employee competition rather than collaboration. We also see cultural beliefs shifting as a result of political change, technological advancement, medical discovery, or, perhaps most relevant to this book, grassroots movements. After all, not too long ago it was believed that infants could not feel pain, that women lacked the ability to make political decisions, and that tobacco smoking was healthy. Here’s the problem: We’re not deliberate about which beliefs need to change. We allow them to change only after we’ve had enough experience to the contrary. We rarely consider the long term impact of our beliefs, and as a result, we aren’t proactive about changing the ones that are unhelpful. Changing our beliefs sounds scary and difficult. And sometimes it might be – in which case we might choose to seek one-on-one support from a psychologist, counsellor, coach, or personal development expert. However, self-empowerment is important, and knowing the steps to change is something that will help us throughout our lives, even if we sometimes need support along the way. As adults, I think it’s responsible for us to sift through our beliefs, keeping the helpful ones and discarding the rest. What we repeatedly think about ourselves, others, and the world will surreptitiously affect our communication, our activism, and ultimately the people we’re trying to reach with our message. It can actually be dangerous to not question our beliefs because it can mean we end up blindly heading down the path on which they take us. It’s like hurtling down a giant slide without knowing what’s at the bottom. So, what are our beliefs? If they’re ingrained patterns of thought that happen automatically, without our awareness – then how the hell are we supposed to figure them out? We might already have insight into some of our beliefs. Maybe we know that the reason we don’t join activist groups is because we’re worried we’ll look foolish. Or maybe we don’t organise events because we think we’re not capable. Or maybe we don’t improve our emotional intelligence skills because we don’t think they’re important. 72 Some beliefs can be a bit tricker to identify than others, and require a bit of digging around through our mental chatter. Our beliefs tend to repeat themselves in our mind, so by stepping back and examining our inner monologue we can look for patterns and identify our beliefs. We can observe our inner chatter through meditation, which is a skill that allows us to observe our thoughts as they occur. It’s a form of metacognition, or “thinking about our thinking”. Another method for identifying our more hidden beliefs is to write down our internal monologue through a process called “stream of consciousness” writing. This involves writing down our thoughts as they occur. It can be focused on one topic, or encompass any and all subjects. Focusing on a single theme can be useful if we know that we have unhelpful beliefs in that area, like activism or self-care. For example, if we know we have trouble practicing self-care, we can explore hidden beliefs on that subject (e.g. by finishing the sentence “people who practice self-care are…” or “people who don’t practice self-care are…”). Sometimes just identifying beliefs is enough. The mere act of putting words to a belief can be enough to shake us out of it. I remember before I became a change agent, I used to think “people like me don’t do activism”. As soon as I heard myself say it, I realised how ridiculous it sounded. People like me? What did that mean? The funny thing is, we have beliefs like this lurking under the surface, influencing our decisions and sabotaging our good intentions. Yet, we’re often unaware of them until we put words to them. Then we can view them through an objective lens and ask ourselves if they’re really true and ultimately start to break them apart. And then, when they run through our minds again, we’re more likely to notice them, and question them. I think all our beliefs should be open to evaluation, to assess whether or not they’re working for us. The mere act of questioning beliefs allows us to remain flexible in our thinking. Some beliefs hold more weight than others. Perhaps the reason we believe we’re “not smart enough to be an activist” is because we’ve seen so many activists get belittled for inaccuracies or misinterpretations of data. There might be a lot of convincing evidence to support that belief. But is it completely true? Are there effective activists who reach many people, and yet don’t seem “smart” (at least by our standards)? Is it true that all effective activists are “smart”? Because if we can find one example to the contrary, then maybe the belief isn’t as solid as we thought. And when we start looking for exceptions to our beliefs, confirmation bias will point us towards more. And we can start to dismantle our beliefs and loosen the hold they have on us. Questioning our beliefs is what keeps us open to possibility. Whether we change them or not depends on whether a better alternative comes along, and whether we actually want to change them. Trying to fight a belief that we’re desperately trying to cling onto is like trying to snowboard up a hill. It’s time consuming and tiring. Before we embark on the process of changing beliefs, we need to be certain that we actually want to change them. Quite often, we can experience unexpected benefits (also called secondary gains) by holding onto unhelpful beliefs. For example, the belief “I’m not 73 smart enough to be an activist” can be a way for us to shy away from activism, stay in our comfort zone, or avoid criticism. If we’re truly ready to change what we believe, then we need to choose something that will move us in the right direction. Theoretically, we could adopt any belief we wanted – even the seemingly impossible. There’s a story that’s often told in personal development circles about Roger Bannister, the first person to run a mile in under 4 minutes. It was thought to be humanly impossible. That is, until 1954, when he ran a mile in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds. Within a year, around 20 others also managed the impossible. Now, decades later, even high school athletes are breaking the 4 minute mile. How did this happen? After Roger Bannister, others started to believe that a 4 minute mile was possible. As more people achieved it, more people believed it could be done. And for Roger Bannister himself? He had no evidence that a 4 minute mile was possible. He relied on faith and self confidence. As his mile times dropped, faith gradually turned into belief. What’s our 4 minute mile? What’s the goal we currently aspire towards? And, what evidence is around us to cement our self-belief into our psyche? When we apply confirmation bias to our positive beliefs, a virtuous cycle emerges. So if we can believe anything, what should we believe? We could believe what we’ve always believed. We could believe the things that others (e.g. our parents) tell us to believe. We could adopt the beliefs of our community (e.g. our religious group may have certain beliefs about women, people of colour, homosexuality, etc). Or we could believe whatever will steer us towards our ultimate goal. Do we want to create a better world? If so, what is the best way to view activism? As a battle, or an art? What is the best way to view humanity – as being doomed, or capable of saving itself? What is the best way to view people – as inherently kind, or evil? The beliefs we choose will either move us closer towards effective activism, or slide us further away from it. 74 The “choose your thoughts” philosophy Once we’ve established a new set of beliefs and identified those that we don’t want to keep – what next? It seems like it’s a matter of choice. And certainly, the cliché from the personal development crowd is to “choose your thoughts”. Just consider some of these quotes: “Our life is what our thoughts make it ” – Marcus Aurelius. “You need to learn how to select your thoughts just the same way you select your clothes every day ” – Elizabeth Gilbert. “Except our own thoughts, there is nothing absolutely in our power ” – Descartes. Is it really so easy? Deciding on a new, better thought might seem simple, but it requires insight and practice. When we recognise an old unhelpful thought, we can’t just replace it with a brand new thought that has no power behind it. That’s exactly what went wrong with the affirmation crowd – people started repeating affirmations without any conviction that they were true. If you’re miserable because you’ve just been fired from your job, then simply repeating “I am happy. I am happy” over and over again isn’t going to cut it. On their own, affirmations aren’t enough. We need to find reasons why they’re true, and keep focusing on them long enough until the confirmation bias takes over and we naturally start looking for reasons to believe them. Here’s an example. Let’s say that we’ve become accustomed to believing that our words and actions don’t have an impact, and we’re feeling dejected and on the verge of giving up. We decide to change things. We look to the people who are achieving what we want to achieve (or getting closer than we are), and we ask ourselves: What is their style of thinking? What do they think and believe that’s working for them? What do we need to think and believe to move us in the right direction? Let’s say that one of our personal heroes has a view of the world that we would like to embrace. Perhaps she believes that we are all influenced by one another and that actions have ripple effects. We think it’s genius, and we decide we want to adopt this attitude. We decide on the statement “all actions have the power to change the world” as a 75 new belief, because it sits well with us, even if we don’t completely believe it yet. We set out to actively look for reasons why this statement is true . We read about moments in history that changed the world, like the day in 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus. We look at our fellow change agents and the moment when they made a shift. We recall moments from our own lives that didn’t seem significant at the time, but in hindsight had a monumental impact. The more evidence we find for our new thought, the faster it becomes entrenched in our mind as a belief. Our thoughts from the old, unhelpful belief start to lose power under our scrutiny, and the new thoughts that arise from our new belief start to gain strength. There may be moments of confusion, when old thoughts and new thoughts battle one another for superiority. Yet we can press on, remaining mindful of what’s happening inside our head, and knowing that with time, patience, and persistence, our thoughts will be guided in the direction we want them to go. 76 CHAPTER 6 CREATING A COHESIVE MOVEMENT My family and I were walking along the Yarra River one day and we saw a rowing team out practicing on the water. They were moving quickly, as they worked together to reach their goal. I started reminiscing about the last time I was in a rowboat. It wasn’t quite as impressive, but it was still memorable. I was on a lake, in a rowboat with a couple of kids, aged seven and nine. The kids wanted to row to the opposite shore, which was about 200 metres away. We set out, and the younger child quickly changed her mind. She wanted to return to the pier, but the older kid was having none of it. The two of them started paddling furiously, but in different directions – so we ended up going around in circles. A cohesive movement is one where everyone works together towards a common goal and they don’t allow themselves to become derailed by conflict. Of course, disagreement will happen, but a cohesive group will work through it together so they can move past it and get back to the real issues. Cohesion might be just as important as our actual message. Without it, movements become divided – like paddling chaotically and getting nowhere fast. Why do movements break down? It could be anything. Maybe we clash about the precise focus of our message, or our method of activism, or the style in which we do it. Of course, debate is inevitable in any group because we can never be 100% in agreement with everyone else. And our Survivor mind likes to focus on differences, because in social groups, it’s the differences that can trigger rejection from others. In social groups, our brain is wired to: People-please, Care what others think of us, Want to be part of a group, and Want to be “liked” (or “retweeted”). It’s funny how, in today’s world, these qualities are viewed as “flaws”. But they’re really just our brain’s hardwiring, still operating in a world where they’re no longer as relevant as they once were. In the modern world, we face very different challenges. For most of us in the developed world, our immediate survival isn’t constantly under threat. We live in 77 relative safety and abundance, with access to clean water, food, medicine, and protection from wild animals. In fact, we now live in an age of consumerism, where we have access to more technology, services, and physical goods than ever before. What’s more – our world is changing rapidly, faster than our brains can adapt . Surviving or thriving? Freed from the hardships and stressors of our ancestors, we have the opportunity to think more broadly about our lives. The problem is, we spend so much time being ruled by our Survivor mind, which just isn’t well equipped for this broader sort of thinking. We still do things to be “liked”, inconveniencing ourselves and even sacrificing our basic needs. We still want to be part of a group, so we attach ourselves to others, even relationships that are doing more harm than good. We still care what others think of us, so we hide our flaws – even if it means wearing a mask. We still compare ourselves to others and try to “keep up with the Joneses” to maintain our social status. Our Survivor brain is operating as though we’re still on the savannah, ten thousand years ago. Except, we’re on Instagram in the 21 st century. Our online behaviour reflects our desire to be liked, to be part of a group, and to feel valued. We put our best foot forward (or our best selfie forward) with the photos that are most flattering, the videos that are most entertaining, and the aspects of our lives that are the most interesting. The internet, and particularly social networking sites, can lead to unique behaviours that may not be typically seen in standard face-to-face interactions. On one hand, the anonymity of the internet can provide a safe space to communicate openly and honestly, particularly with strangers where there are few repercussions from disclosing our innermost thoughts, feelings, and experiences. The parts of our character that we tend to keep to ourselves in face-to-face interactions, can be more safely expressed in our online community, where we may feel accepted, validated, and supported. Of course, there is a dark side to the online world. Anonymity and disinhibition can contribute to harmful behaviours such as trolling and cyber-bullying. In our quest to put our best foot forward, the lines between “truth” and “fiction” can become blurred, leading to deceitful internet behaviour such as fraud and catfishing (where an individual uses a fictional identity to lure someone into a relationship, often for malicious reasons). Sometimes, there are tragic consequences, such as the case of 13- 78 year-old Megan Meier, who took her own life after being cyberbullied by her neighbours (who were masquerading as a 16-year-old boy named “Josh”). Social media has been speculated to negatively influence mental health and wellbeing, in general. We see people sharing the primped, filtered, and photoshopped versions of themselves online, and it seems like they have their lives in perfect order. In comparison, we feel like we’re barely keeping our shit together. Excessive social media activity can lead us to repeatedly compare ourselves to others, diminishing our self-esteem and self-worth, while also ironically taking time away from the meaningful activities, interests, and face-to-face relationships that bolster our selfesteem. In a longitudinal study by Holly Shakya and Nicholas Christakis, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with self-reported mental health, life satisfaction, and physical health. The association remained even after accounting for initial levels of wellbeing. It was speculated that the people drawn to excessive Facebook use may have been attempting to alleviate loneliness or seek solace. 79 Faux-thenticity According to a Muse online article titled “The importance of being authentic on social media”, our culture is trending towards online transparency and authenticity, rather than perfection. On face value, this seems like a solution to the self-esteem problems that arise from constantly comparing our “real” selves with the “highlight reel” of others. However, this may not be the case. For some, authenticity might simply be another means of avoiding our imperfections, by sifting through our weaknesses and only posting those “flaws” that our community deems acceptable. It’s a bit like a job interview, where the interviewer asks “so what’s your greatest weakness”, and the classic response is “I’m too hard-working” or “I care too much” or “I’m sometimes a perfectionist”. They’re carefully crafted “weaknesses” that are actually meant to come across as strengths. Sometimes, the “authenticity” we see online is anything but. The carefully crafted moments of “imperfection” can sometimes be the new way of gaining acceptance from others. In a world where our attention is the ultimate prize, perhaps this is the real-life equivalent of the TV show Survivor . We want to be seen as important and valuable, but not so perfect that we come across as “fake” or “fauxthentic”. The funny thing about the faux-thentic mask is that the longer we wear it, the harder it is to tell where our online persona ends and we begin. The more we hide our “real” selves from others, the more we think there’s something to hide. We start believing that we’re fundamentally flawed, inadequate, or unworthy. We become fearful of someone “discovering” our real selves. So, we keep wearing the mask. Eventually we wear it for so long that we forget what it’s like to live without it. We become so used to pleasing others, making sure others are happy, making sure that we are “liked”, ensuring that our actions are acceptable to our group, and living life according to others’ expectations. If we do happen to feel the niggling pain of discontent, there are plenty of ways to drown it out – through, for instance, food, alcohol, shopping (accumulating possessions) or over-working (accumulating grades, wealth, status, or power). But the effect doesn’t last forever. Eventually, the feeling of discontent resurfaces. So we drown it out again, and then again, and the vicious cycle of addiction begins. The desire for acceptance runs deep. As kids, we want to be accepted by our parents and families. As teenagers and adults, by our friends, peers, colleagues, employers, role models and even our own children. Seeking acceptance can have a strong influence on our lives, and it can even control us completely – without us even realising it. 80 In-fighting Within the wider community, change agents and activists are proudly unique. We uphold our cause, bravely and boldly, even if it means being vulnerable to critics, incurring irritation by not acquiescing to others’ demands, or refusing to “fit in” with social norms. But it takes a toll. It’s hard being different. It’s mentally, emotionally, and spiritually draining – because we still want to be accepted and feel valuable. We don’t receive these things from society, so we need to seek them elsewhere. Often, it’s within activist groups. The problem is, the very same dynamics that exist in the wider community, also exist within smaller groups. It doesn’t matter whether our group consists of ten people or ten thousand people. Group dynamics will always exist. On the surface, it seems like being part of an activist group would be a positive place to be. And, it can be. In a community, we learn what’s possible. We feel connected to others through a common bond, we experience new ideas, and we get inspired. Our dreams get bigger, and at the same time, seem more achievable because we can harness the power of the group’s combined resources. But, there is a down side. There is still the potential to fall into the same traps that plague the rest of humanity. We can get caught in groupthink and unhealthy group dynamics, or we might engage in behaviours that run contrary to our values, but which everyone else seems to be doing. Sometimes, a group has a charismatic yet manipulative leader and we find ourselves seeking acceptance from that leader by engaging in behaviours that we otherwise deem abhorrent. Like cyber-bullying, where a leader criticises a particular ideology or individual, and the rest of the group members join forces to chastise, ridicule, and shame. It can happen excessively, and without considering the consequences. 81 The façade of perfection Hiding our flaws worked well for us in pre-modern times when survival was precarious. Indeed, even in today’s world, in extreme situations, our mind focuses almost exclusively on survival. The notion of living a purposeful, meaningful life takes a backseat if we’re facing potential harm, illness, famine, or death in our daily lives. When freed from the acute stressors of pre-modern dangers, we have the opportunity to contemplate the meaning of life, the purpose of existence, and the nature of self. But, we are nevertheless still bound by the artificial limits that our mind sets for us. If we see flaws as vulnerability, and vulnerability as a risk to personal safety – then, what persona will we put forward to the world? It’s why so many of us seek “perfection”, or at least the facade of perfection. It might be our physical attributes, our personality traits, our personal history, or even our likes and dislikes. We often feel a great sense of shame for certain qualities that we have, which reinforces the idea that we’re unworthy or “not good enough”. We may even come to view ourselves as “defective” and in need of “fixing”. It’s a shit feeling, because what we really want is to feel valued and worthy. And so we become increasingly dissatisfied with who we are, and we work damn hard to conceal our “flaws” from others. And why wouldn’t we in a world where everybody is scrutinised and imperfection criticised? When we hide out of shame, we don’t fully appreciate ourselves. And, we deny ourselves the opportunity to grow. Facing our “flaws” means facing our fears, giving us the chance to develop courage, resilience, and self-compassion. We learn to appreciate what we have, rather than lament about what we don’t. We become better attuned to what we stand for, and stronger in the face of criticism. We get to communicate with others more openly and honestly, but without allowing the demands of others to overshadow our thinking Our heart may want us to open up, be vulnerable, and connect with others – and our mind might tell us to do the opposite. The internal discord feels unsettling, and true happiness is not possible unless we reconcile it. Whether we realise it or not, every day we experience internal conflict. We are walking contradictions and a cluster of different emotions, thoughts, and decisions that are often seemingly incompatible. We can be torn between the desire to: spend more time with our partner or take up the extra project at work that will advance our career. workout or go to the pub with our friends. be an effective change agent, or stay in bed watching Netflix and eating pretzels. 82 Our minds are chaotic, and our psychology is imperfect. We might think there’s something wrong with this, and we mentally beat ourselves up. But, being human implies messiness, imperfection, and contradiction. And by letting go of the shame of “imperfection”, we actually get to feel happier. “Perfection” is a common trap for change agents. We want to do everything – organise events, create videos, hand out leaflets, attend rallies, get others to sign petitions, educate anyone who’ll listen, and bear witness to the indescribable suffering of others. We can feel driven to do it all. It’s noble, and admirable. And it can lead us horribly astray. “Doing more” has a limit. Not just time and physical effort, but also mental energy. When we attempt too much, we can become so overwhelmed that we become paralysed by indecision and never actually do anything. Or, we do something, but constantly fret that it’s “not enough”. Or, we plunge headlong into our activism, doing everything, neglecting sleep, healthy eating, physical activity, stress management, or relationships. It’s a quick trip to chronic stress and burnout. Sometimes, “doing more” can be a way to avoid the guilt, despair, and other uncomfortable emotions that accompany activism. Do you have the niggling feeling of sadness creeping into your mind? Guess what – just keep yourself unimaginably busy, and you won’t even have time to feel sad. On the surface, it seems brave and noble, the sign of a true warrior, and that can become addictive. But deep inside, there could be a deeply wounded heart that’s running away from hurt, not realising that the hurt has already happened and now needs to heal. Maybe it’s time to end the internal conflict. Maybe it’s time to forgive ourselves for our imperfection and contradiction, and to experience the emotions that we’ve been evading for so long. Maybe it’s time to live in tune with what really matters to us. To me, that’s true authenticity – when our actions match our values, like: living peacefully, standing up for others, building strong relationships, or acting wisely and thoughtfully. Living authentically is when we live according to what we genuinely want for ourselves, not what someone else (or even our Survivor mind) has decided we should have. 83 Live authentically – it’s good for the brain. There’s a scene in the movie X men: First Class , where the shape-shifting mutant Mystique is weight training. She appears in her “socially acceptable” blondhaired form, rather than as her true blue-skinned self. Another mutant, Magneto, enters the room and comments “If you’re using half your concentration to look normal, then you’re only half paying attention to whatever else you’re doing. Just pointing out something that could save your life”. It takes a great deal of mental energy to maintain anything other than our true selves. It’s why we feel depleted when we have to be “on” in the real world; for example, on a first date or in a meeting with the boss. Our mental energy is like a battery that gets drained each day, and must be recharged, through rest, sleep, physical pursuits, and creative outlets. The longer we hold up the faux-thentic mask, the faster our batteries are drained. To live authentically, is to ease our mental workload. When we don’t live authentically, we end up moving through life, chameleonlike, adopting different behaviours depending on what those around us deem valuable. We waste mental energy worrying about how others perceive us, and we constantly look for clues about how to shift our persona to be more socially acceptable. We second-guess ourselves and overthink our choices, mentally speeding through every possibility, like turbo-reading every outcome in a “choose your own adventure” book. It becomes hard to make decisions because we don’t even know what’s truly important to us. We seek short term pleasure rather than long term happiness, and wonder why our lives lack meaning and direction. If we want to be truly authentic, we need honesty and introspection. How do we want to live our lives? How do we wish to be remembered, and what legacy do we want to leave? The answers provide important clues about what’s really meaningful to us. 84 Value and Character There are two types of values – the emotional experiences we want to have, and the things that will get us there. If connection is what we want to experience, then our family or friends can get us there. If we want to feel important, then helping others or achieving a goal can get us there. Like beliefs, our values are learned from a young age. Sometimes, we adopt the values from the adults around us or from the wider community (values like: beauty, popularity, or independence). Our behaviour often leaves clues about what we value. Wherever we spend the most time, energy, attention, and resources (including money) is a pretty good indication of what we value. People who value health will devote time, energy, or resources to keeping healthy. People who value safety will devote time, energy, and resources to keeping safe. The question is: are our values of our choosing? If we construct our life according to other people’s values, we cannot live authentically. If we want to be truly authentic, we need honesty and introspection. How do we want to live our lives? How do we wish to be remembered, and what legacy do we want to leave? The answers provide important clues about what’s really meaningful to us. Change agents already have an idea of what’s meaningful. Maybe it’s to make a difference by advocating for a cause that’s bigger than ourselves. Maybe it’s to leave the world in a better state than when we entered it. So, to that end, how can we ensure that our behaviour is authentic, meaningful, and in accordance with our values? The first types of values – the emotional experiences we desire – give us guidance on the character traits that we need to embody, to impact the world in an authentic way. Perhaps we would like to experience more courage, wisdom, determination, or fortitude. Perhaps we want to be friendlier, kinder, and more empathetic. Perhaps we want to advocate with more energy, vitality, or perseverance. The emotional states we value become the character traits that we need to bring to our actions. Our values become like a compass that guides our journey. Even if we haven’t had a lot of practice in being courageous or perseverant, we can certainly develop those skills, like muscles. What sort of an activist do we want to be? A useful way of thinking about this is to look at our personal heroes. What is it about them that we admire? Is it their strength of conviction? Is it their compassion in the face of adversity? Is it their clever and witty comebacks? Whatever we admire about others, might just be what we want for ourselves too. And on the flip side, we can also look at the people we admire the least. What is it about them that we find so objectionable? Are they egotistical? Narrow-minded? 85 Callous? By recognising the qualities we dislike, we can easily identify the qualities that we do like – humility, open-mindedness, and compassion. In this book, of course, the focus is change agency. But this principle can be used for any aspect of our lives. If we’re business owners, we might want to embody consistency, bravery, and optimism. As parents, it might be peacefulness and openmindedness. As fitness enthusiasts, perhaps it’s dedication and patience. If there’s just one thing you take away from this book, I hope it’s realising the importance of authenticity. When we know the sort of life we want to experience, it makes decisions so much easier. 86 With great responsibility comes great power I remember browsing a heated discussion on Facebook, where two people were arguing about the merits of one plant-based diet against a slightly different plant-based diet. One person came across as reasonable, respectful, and calm, while the other person came across as hostile, engaging in personal attacks and rumour-mongering. As this was a public post, many people came to voice their opinion. Several commented to the hostile responder “if your diet makes you this angry, then I don’t want to do it!”. Interesting. Of course, this was an ad-hominem comment because one’s emotions or personality aren’t necessarily caused by their diet or lifestyle. If someone acts like a jerk, then changing their diet or spending habits might not do a damn thing. Yet, whether we like it or not, when we’re in the minority, our actions speak not just for ourselves, but potentially for our entire cause. As change agents, our behaviour is constantly scrutinised and judged harshly. If we buy a drink and it happens to come with a disposable straw, then we’re the worst zero-waste advocates ever. If we buy something at a chain store, then we must be corporate shills who are trying to drive local businesses into the ground. Being in a minority means that we suddenly become the representative of all things relating to our movement. If we’re anti-fur, then surely we must be unfashionable paint throwing hippies who only wear organic hemp clothing. Our mere presence makes us an example, especially if we’re the only change agent in our family or friendship group. It sucks to be stereotyped, and yet this is exactly how the people around us deal with our activism, by trying to categorise it according to existing knowledge. If someone has only ever met judgemental, holierthan-thou feminists – then in their mind, you are one too. Let that sink in for a moment. It’s bloody unfair. And we have every right to rage against this type of distorted thinking. Once we’ve got that rage out of our system, what can we do about it? Unfortunately, we can’t really change other people’s brains. We can encourage others to recognise when they’re unfairly stereotyping us. But, there’s not much else we can do to change others – if they’re set on stereotyping us, then they probably will no matter what we say. All we can do is reflect on our own behaviour and make sure we’re not inadvertently playing to their stereotypes. Some activists even strive to contradict the stereotypes, which makes total sense when it feels authentic for them to do so. It’s actually incredibly empowering to choose our behaviour based on where we truly find meaning and value. We become more at peace with our decisions, with less guilt, worry, and shame. We’re better able to speak up for ourselves when people want to stereotype us, or mock or criticise us. We also become better at withstanding peer 87 pressure, because our choices are aligned with what we really want in life. And best of all, we show others that it’s ok for them to do the same. 88 CHAPTER 7 TIPS FOR STAYING POSITIVE Staying positive is a habit. We brush our teeth daily to keep them clean, and we practice positive habits to keep our minds clear, focused, and optimistic. Our Survivor mind isn’t used to this. It’s used to being primed for possible threats. Left to its own devices, our Survivor mind will perceive any ambiguous event as a threat. Although our brain is wired for the negative, we can rewire our thinking habits to make positive thoughts more automatic. Like any new undertaking, this requires intent and practice. Even just a few minutes each day can improve our wellbeing. There is information everywhere about positive mental health habits, including gratitude, mindfulness, exercise, yoga, cultivating relationships, spending time in nature, and having creative outlets. Most of us probably know what to do. The problem is that we don’t always do these things consistently enough to form an automatic habit. New behaviours seem like a pain in the ass because they don’t come naturally, and they require effort. Our Survivor mind doesn’t really like effort because it requires a lot of mental energy (our brain is responsible for about 25% of our daily energy expenditure). In an attempt to conserve energy, our brains prefer to rely on habit. The best way to stay positive is to turn “positive” behaviours into habit, and to make “negative” behaviours more difficult to do automatically. The good news is that our brains are adaptable, and habits become easier the more we do them. Just like pushing a broken-down car, the hardest part is to get it moving. Once it’s in motion, inertia takes over and things roll forward from their own momentum. New habits become more entrenched in our mind every time we do them. All goals seem lofty when we view them from the starting line, and that includes goals to develop new habits. There are two things to keep in mind: 1. The hardest part of any habit is just as we’re getting started. We feel like we’re exerting effort, and the payoff might not seem all that fabulous, at least at first. Our Survivor mind may tell us to give up the new habit and embrace the status quo, where it’s safe and familiar. But, we know differently. We need to stick with the new behaviour through that initial discomfort. 2. When we embark on a lifestyle change, we sometimes feel like we’re starting from scratch. And that can be demoralising. If we believe that we’ve made zero progress, especially in the early days, we are likely to feel defeated before we’ve even really begun. A different perspective is to focus on the progress we’ve already made, and to consider how we can improve even more. What are the positive habits that we already have in place? Maybe we already engage in some form of exercise or physical activity, or we already make time for our loved ones (including our furry and feathered 89 companions). Maybe we watch funny skits on YouTube when we’re feeling blue, or we take a tea break every afternoon. When we focus on the habit changes we’ve already made, we feel like we’ve already made some headway towards our goal. This phenomenon is called the endowed progress effect; we’re far more likely to pursue a goal if we’ve already made some progress toward it. In a 2006 experiment by Joseph Nunes and Xavier Dréze, patrons at a car wash were given loyalty cards to encourage return visits. Two types of loyalty cards were given. One group received a card that required eight stamps in order to receive a free car wash. The other group received a different card that required ten stamps to receive a free wash; but with the first two stamps already given as a bonus so that only a further eight stamps was needed for the freebie. The results showed that the patrons with ten-stamp card (with two bonus stamps) returned more frequently to achieve their free wash, compared to the eight-stamp card group. The perceived “head start” had an effect on their buying behaviour. A similar finding emerged with coffee shop loyalty cards. In a 2006 study by Ran Kivetz and colleagues, customers received a loyalty card requiring ten coffee purchases before receiving a freebie. Half of the customers received a ten-visit card, and the other half received a twelve-visit card that had two bonus stamps. Even though both groups needed to purchase ten coffees to get their free one, those who’d received the twelve-visit card with two bonus stamps pushed through to their free coffee more quickly than those with the ten-visit card. If we want to accomplish a goal (say, creating a habit around positive mental health), then we can take advantage of the endowed progress effect to boost our chances of success. By changing our perspective of the process of goal attainment to focus on the progress we’ve already made, we become more likely to achieve it. 90 One size doesn’t fit all Lots of people talk about “self-care” (myself included) and these days we can find long lists of tips and strategies for improving our mental health. It can be overwhelming and sometimes seemingly contradictory. We’re all busy and overscheduled, and yet we’re supposed to make time for self-care, too? If we truly followed the advice of every blog article or Facebook post, our entire day would be consumed with self-care. Which self-care activities are we supposed to do, and why? I’m not a big believer of a one-size-fits-all approach to wellbeing. I know it’s tempting to follow someone else’s action plan, especially if that person seems to have the perfect life with all their shit together. Remember from Chapter 2 that there are individual differences in the way we meet our universal psychological needs – and this includes self-care. Our Survivor mind, which likes absolutes, latches on to the easy route of following someone else’s plan, which seems safe because we believe it’s worked for them. The problem with someone else’s recipe is that it wasn’t designed with us in mind. If it works, we’re lucky. Too often, though, it’s impractical or unsustainable, and we find ourselves drifting right back to where we started. We might see our personal hero doing an hour of meditation each morning, a spin class each night, and getting weekly massages and pedicures. For some, this might be realistic. For many, it’s probably not. Finding the perfect recipe for self-care is like finding a perfectly-fitting dress or suit. We’ll never know how well they’ll fit until we try them on, and it could take a bit of trial and error. We must consider our physical state, finances, family life, work situation, interests and hobbies, strengths and talents, and aspirations. Self-care isn’t a “to-do” list that we tick off at the end of every week. It’s something we craft around ourselves, ensuring that our intrinsic needs are being fulfilled in ways that are healthy and sustainable. We’re far better off committing to one or two really effective habits, rather than rolling the dice with half a dozen and hoping that something works for us. In thinking about self care, there are two things to consider. The action itself, and the need that it fulfils. Too often, we focus on the self-care actions that we feel we must do, without considering whether that action is really the most effective and sustainable way of meeting our needs. In crafting your own strategy for self-care, there are a few considerations to keep in mind: Flexibility Strength actually comes from flexibility. Inflexible things might seem tough, but they’re also brittle. One chip can cause total destruction. So, when it comes to habit change (and even our activism), it’s important to maintain flexibility, and allow adaptation depending on our circumstances. Do you know those strict diets that prescribe only a certain number of calories 91 per day? Aside from the obvious flaw that there’s rarely enough sustenance there for a grown adult, another reason that strict calorie adherence can fail is because it doesn’t allow for flexibility. Our energy needs vary from one day to another, depending on our activities, level of stress, general health, and physical exertion. To suggest that we need precisely the same number of calories every single day seems absurd. The human body is in flux, and we need to be flexible if we’re going to function optimally. Our activities also occur in cycles. There are times of great activity, and times of great rest – even in a 24 hour period. During times of stress (whether it’s activist events, or from other areas like relationships or finances), we may need to slow down the other sources of stress in our lives while also maintaining our usual methods of stress relief. Before a big event, perhaps we ease up on taking on extra shifts at work but maintain our exercise routine to blow off steam. In today’s over-scheduled, hectic world, we can feel pressured to be under the pump – all day and every day. There is societal pressure to remain busy at all times, because “busy-ness” is seen as “productivity”. Unfortunately, when we’re overscheduled, we rarely make time for rest – and so our bodies and minds are forced to inflict it on us, with illness or burnout. Streamline Our days are often filled with an array of tasks, some of which are important, and some that aren’t. It’s easy for important new habits to get lost amidst the chaos of our to-do lists. Streamlining our lives means that we only do those things that are necessary for our health, wellbeing, and safety (earning a living, caring for children or ageing parents, doing volunteer work, etc), and keep the unnecessary activities to a minimum. Are there things we can eliminate from our schedules completely, or get assistance with from someone else? Clearing away the unnecessary frees up time and mental energy for more positive habits. According to unsubstantiated internet claims, we make over 35,000 decisions each day. While this number seems excessive, it might be accurate. After all, Brian Wansink and Jeffrey Sobal found that we make over 200 food-related decisions each day. The number probably climbs into the thousands when we factor in all our other life decisions, like what shoes to wear today, which TV show we should see tonight, whether there’s enough time to make dinner before the kids’ soccer match this evening, whether we should read that Facebook post or scroll past it, and what time we should set our alarm for the following morning. Every decision we make uses up some of our mental batteries. The more decisions, the more mentally fatigued we become, and the less mental resources we have available for analytical thinking. When we’re mentally drained, we might not have the ability to make logical or rational choices, and we’re far more likely to act on impulse (giving in to short term gratification rather than long term fulfilment) or autopilot (falling back on old habits rather than sticking with the new ones we’re trying to cultivate). 92 There’s even a term for this – decision fatigue. It’s why we might start out the day with the best intentions to attend an activist event that evening, being all charming and helpful – but by the time the event rolls around, we’re feeling lazy or grouchy and don’t want to talk to anyone. Dealing with others can be mentally draining, especially for people who are prone to introversion or anxiety, and we must be sure to save our mental energy for when we need it the most. Think about mental energy like the battery on your phone. If you know you’re going to be out most of the day, with no chance to recharge your phone, you’ll likely use it mindfully, making sure you don’t squander your precious battery life on Angry Birds. If you know that you’ll need your mental energy in the evening (when you know you’ll need to be “on”), then make fewer decisions throughout the day and save your mental batteries for the things that are most important to you in the long term. Connection We don’t cope well with feeling isolated because it goes against one of our most primal psychological needs. Our brains reward us with a big hit of dopamine when we connect with others. That is, when we have repeated, reciprocal, and cooperative interactions that allow us to build trust and develop lasting social bonds. Connection is a protective factor for not only our mental health, but also our physical health. Social support makes us happy, alleviates emotional and physical pain, and enhances personal growth as we tend to adopt the behaviours and attitudes of others. Our habits, opinions, and even our body weight are influenced by the people around us. It’s worth being picky about the people with whom we spend our time! These days, social support can extend to all corners of the globe. Physical presence (in-person interactions) is still the fastest way to develop deep connections, but we should not underestimate our online connections. Especially for those of us in minority groups who may find it hard to connect with like-minded folks in the outside world. In spite of the many negative things said about the internet and social networking sites, they do provide instant access to more people – and a more diverse range of people – than we could ever meet face-to-face. Mindfulness As mentioned in Chapter 3, mindfulness and meditation can help train our brain into slowing down our thoughts so that we can decouple from them and view them more objectively. This often doesn’t come easily, so we need to practice. Most of us are used to thoughts zipping along at a million miles an hour, especially when we become emotional or in “fight-or-flight” mode. Meditation conjures up images of monks sitting on cushions in the forest (do they have cushions in forests, though?) and maybe that’s just not your scene. I get it, 93 it’s not for me either. The good news is that mindfulness can be done in a variety of ways, such as repetitive movement (like swimming in a lap pool), immersion in a single task (like patting the dog or washing dishes), or even simply remaining alert and attentive while listening to our partner speak. Whichever way we choose to experience mindfulness, it’s called a “practice” for a reason – to practice skills at a neutral time, so that we can apply them when necessary. One of the greatest benefits to a mindfulness practice is how it affects our emotional regulation. Slowing down our inner chatter means that we’re better able to recognise thoughts and feelings before they overwhelm us, and we’re likely to be in a better frame of mind to explore them and do something positive. Gratitude Perhaps one of the quickest, easiest, and most well researched ways to change our thoughts and feelings is with gratitude. Gratitude is central in many religious and philosophical teachings, and has been extensively studied by positive psychologists. Humans are innately wired to seek out grievances, rather than gratitude. After all, in pre-modern times when we were foraging on the savannah, we were better off looking for potential threats and predators than focusing on the beauty of the midday sky. Focusing on the negatives is something we do well, and automatically. But we can override that habit by deliberately focusing on the positives. Even if it’s for only a few minutes each day. Gratitude comes in many forms. It could be thinking about: what we have, rather than on what we lack. how far we’ve come, rather than on how far we have yet to go. how we’re improving ourselves, rather than on how we’re “flawed”. Sometimes it’s tempting to look back at our former selves and ruminate on all the mistakes that we’ve made. In these moments, we can practice gratitude to shift our perspective, recognise how much more aware we are now, and how we’re influencing others for the better. There are many practical ways to practice gratitude. Three methods that have been shown to have benefits are: Spending a few minutes each day writing about things for which we’re grateful. Writing letters of thanks to people for whom we’re grateful. Making a list of things that went well during the day. 94 Small versus big changes Can small habits really make a difference? If you’re sceptical, I don’t blame you. To be honest, I was too. How could a few minutes of something as ordinary as gratitude, or mindfulness, possibly affect what happens in the hundreds of minutes before and after? The answer is that it doesn’t – not at first, anyway. Like physical exercise, the effects of gratitude are cumulative. A single workout, or even a week of workouts, probably won’t affect our fitness too much. It’s the consistent effort that we put in, which adds up to big results. Permanent change is much more likely with repetition and practice than from a one-time action. If we practice an hour of meditation each day, and then give up after a week – our brain really hasn’t changed (except maybe we start hating meditation). Whereas if we commit to five minutes of mindful activity each day, we’re more likely to sustain this in the long term. As the skill becomes more practiced and a habit forms, the goalposts shift, and we become able to sustain the practice for longer. 95 The keynote change We might like to think that we can just change “one” thing, but no change happens in isolation. Our minds work in synchrony, which means that everything has a ripple effect. When we make one change, everything changes. Yesterday, when I was online, I saw the “Facebook memory” at the top of my feed. I enjoy Facebook memories because they can be a pleasant reminder of how far we’ve come. I started reminiscing about the changes in the last ten years – becoming a vegan activist, author and speaker, adopting a bunny, starting a business, and becoming a mum. If you’d told me this ten years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it. The person I am now would be unrecognisable to my former self. And it all started from one thing – deciding to try a vegan diet for 30 days. Radical lifestyle changes often seem impossible at first, because we’re viewing the entire journey at once. We’re at the starting blocks, looking at every obstacle between ourselves and the finish line. Making one change makes all the other changes seem more attainable. Following through on a goal gives us the confidence to try other things, and the resilience to persist even when it seems a bit tricky. Mindful activity for five minutes turns into 10, and then 20 minutes. We untie ourselves from our uncomfortable thoughts, and we feel calmer, and gratitude becomes easier to attain. We’re better able to ignore the little voices that tell us to skip our workouts and to eat junk food all day, and our physical health improves. We sleep more soundly, and we’re less reliant on coffee and sugar to get us going in the morning. We have more energy to do activities that matter to us, rather than the “time wasting” activities, and we feel better about ourselves for contributing to others and the greater good. We enter into a virtuous cycle where one positive change leads to another. If you’re someone who gets overwhelmed by the prospect of too many changes – try just focusing on the next single step. And then allow yourself to be open to other positive changes that happen as a result. 96 CHAPTER 8 MENTAL HEALTH Are change agents more prone to mental health challenges, like depression and anxiety, than non-change agents? Does activism negatively affect our mental health? Do the people who are drawn to activism have some underlying character trait that increases their risk of psychological symptoms? When change agents experience mental health challenges, some people assume that activism is the problem. I think this is specious thinking because there are multiple reasons why change agents might have mental health symptoms. Being a change agent can be isolating, and can leave us prone to social rejection – both of which can negatively affect our mental health. Being a change agent often leaves us acutely aware of those who don’t share our concerns, which can leave us feeling hopeless. Change agents tend to be highly empathetic, which makes us more prone to mental health symptoms (particularly anxiety). While empathy is a key part of emotional intelligence on it’s own, it isn’t enough. We also need to develop skills (like compassion) to manage the intense feelings that come from high levels of empathy. Being a change agent can make us a target for bullying, which increases our risk of mental health symptoms. Certain types of activism can be traumatic, which increases our risk of mental health symptoms (like post-traumatic stress disorder). Mental health symptoms occur on a continuum, although diagnostically it might not be viewed that way. Even if someone just falls outside the threshold for clinical depression, that person is still experiencing distress and will benefit from support. The positive mental health practices mentioned here, such as mindfulness and gratitude, are helpful for people whether or not they have a “diagnosis”. Of course, good mental health isn’t necessarily the absence of mental illness. To thrive, we must also develop character traits, habits, and skills that promote a fulfilling and meaningful life. And while it sometimes sucks to be a change agent in a world that doesn’t care, the process of doing something for the greater good can actually bring a range of benefits to our self-esteem and emotional intelligence, if we allow it. We sometimes forget the inherent reward of doing something different, like engaging with new activities or new people or attending new events. We sometimes forget that in the process of becoming a change agent, we interact with more likeminded people. Perhaps we forget that activism brings a sense of fulfilment, confidence, empowerment, and joy because we get to speak with others and educate 97 them about something that really matters to us. Friedrich Nietzsche stated “he who has a why to live can bear almost any how”. The most successful change agents, the ones who persist again and again, are those who see the necessity in their activism. They cannot help but advocate for their cause. For the effective change agents, their compulsion isn’t simply a flash in the pan. It’s a slow steady burn, a fire that has been ignited and does not get easily extinguished. And thank goodness for that, because there are plenty of naysayers and critics who carry fire extinguishers, ready to stifle the spark of inspiration within us. With activism comes negativity and criticism. It comes from all types of people, from all directions, and for a variety of reasons. It often boils down to the critic’s inner discord, which causes such discomfort that they deem it necessary to lash out. We activists cannot stop the critics from having a go at us – but we can make the sting of their criticism less painful. Admittedly, dealing with the critics is challenging. The critics and naysayers remind us that change takes time – as bitter a pill as that is to swallow, especially because we want the revolution to happen now. We secretly want to shake every one of them by the shoulders and say “wake up!” (and maybe a few other words, too). We know that change is possible, because we’ve made those very changes that we ask of others. When we’ve already made the change, it seems easy. And it can be very hard to stand by and watch others have so little faith in themselves. These are the moments when our emotional intelligence (or lack thereof) can make all the difference. It can influence our ability to: empathise with the fear of change. recognise when people are hearing a confronting message, and to be there for them as they’re feeling scared, lost, confused, or overwhelmed. remember how difficult it felt to make changes. see our own anger. recognise denial or aggression as fear. accept that we’re unintentional role models for our cause, even though we never asked to be. Developing emotional intelligence means we can showcase our compassion and empathy even in difficult moments, and to show others that it is possible to be an activist and support a cause without submitting to a lifetime of sadness or rage. 98 The happy activist Change agents often find themselves on an emotional pendulum. We go from pride and fulfilment in advocating for our cause, to despair, anger, and sorrow at the state of the world and the apathy of others. To be a change agent means to know suffering. Even if we, ourselves, are not the direct victims of violence or discrimination – we suffer in the awareness of others’ suffering and in bearing witness to it. Too few of us really know how to cope with our own suffering, for the same reasons that many of us don’t know how to cope with our own stress and anger – we were never taught. We are at risk of succumbing to pacifiers as a way of coping with our feelings, which can quickly spiral into addictions. We can become addicted to substances, behaviours, or even distraction. These days, distraction is perhaps one of the most common and sociallysanctioned forms of addiction – occurring in all age groups, including those who are too young to drink and gamble. There are countless ways we can distract ourselves, and a never-ending influx of information to consume. We can easily find ourselves caught in what Ryan Nicodemus of The Minimalists describes as “that social media Bermuda Triangle, going from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram”. The problem with this behaviour is that it interferes with our ability to manage our feelings and to do something proactive with them. It becomes all too easy to turn to our addictions when we feel even the slightest discomfort, like indecision or selfdoubt, which leads us into a cycle of procrastination (and ineffective activism). Becoming more emotionally intelligent requires us to recognise our emotions for what they are – signals about our experience – without attaching shame or guilt to them. As uncomfortable as it is to experience certain emotions (say, despair), adding guilt or shame on top of them makes the discomfort worse. Emotional intelligence might mean unravelling what we have learned about emotions from our childhood, and accepting that the full spectrum of feelings are part of the human experience. Being angry, despondent, or vengeful are normal responses to certain experiences, and certainly aren’t a reflection of our character. When we’re mired in shame and guilt, we risk losing sight of what we value and aspire towards. And, we miss the opportunity to learn from the situation that elicited the emotion in the first place. Here’s an example. Activists sometimes find themselves on the receiving end of offensive statements or jokes from family and friends. We may feel as though others don’t take us seriously, or don’t care how we feel. It’s tempting to ignore the feelings of hurt and betrayal that can arise from such experiences. It’s even more tempting to justify the comments because the instigator is “actually a really nice person”. It often seems easier to say nothing than to raise the issue. Meanwhile, the jokes and comments continue, and we feel increasingly uncomfortable – even to the point of anger or fury. We might lash out uncharacteristically, causing others to feel hurt and betrayed as well. 99 We ignore our emotions to our detriment. Feeling hurt, angry, or betrayed are clear signals that we need to openly communicate about our boundaries. The feelings are there to move us into action, perhaps to tell others that we find their comments offensive and inconsiderate. And while that conversation may not resolve things – because we can’t make our family and friends change their ways – at least we know we communicated openly, honestly, and respectfully. And if those around us are unwilling to heed our request, then our disappointment and irritation will compel us to make a decision about whether we keep trying, or whether we distance ourselves and spend more time with those who are willing to respect our wishes. No discussion around mental health is complete without a mention of the lifestyle habits that contribute to brain health. Especially diet, exercise, and sleep. Exercise There is now a plethora of research showing the effectiveness of exercise in alleviating mental health symptoms, even in people with clinical depression. At the very least, movement provides an outlet for muscular tension and stress hormones. Exercise also triggers the release of opioid-like neurotransmitters in our brain, called endorphins, which lead to a feeling of euphoria. Like all other habits discussed here, sustainability is important. There’s no point lacing up our jogging shoes for the first time in three years and going for a 10 kilometre run every day. We’ll get injured or burn ourselves out, and we’ll be even less likely to exercise once we’ve recovered. The best type of exercise is something that we enjoy, that we’re able to do in the long term, and which is safe for us to do. Dance classes, hiking, swimming, or even brisk walking can all be beneficial. Just check with your doctor first. Sleep Sleep isn’t just for the weak. It’s essential for mental and physical strength. Sleep is restorative for the body and brain. It’s during sleep that our body performs essential repairs, and our brain gives itself a thorough clean (consolidating memories and discarding unused neural pathways). Unfortunately, it’s become culturally acceptable to short-change ourselves of sleep, and many of us carry around sleep debt as a badge of honour. Our most restorative sleep happens in the few hours right before waking – and we miss out on some of it if we consistently short-change ourselves of an hour or two of sleep. The quality of our sleep matters too. We might be slumbering for eight hours, but if our sleep is disrupted and restless, we’re not going to be refreshed in the morning. Some things that can disrupt sleep are caffeine, sugar, racing thoughts, too much ambient light or background noise, and screen time in the evenings. Alcohol and some medications can cause sleepiness, but often disrupt the natural sleep cycles so that the quality of sleep is poor. 100 To improve sleep, first consider the evening and night-time activities that are leading to sleeplessness. It may be necessary to avoid screens after sunset, as the blue light of an LED screen can interfere with melatonin production (and therefore delay sleep onset). Caffeine, sugar, and alcohol may need to be kept to a minimum in the afternoons and evenings. Blackout blinds, eye masks, and ear plugs can help block sound and light to make for a more peaceful night of sleep. Racing thoughts can be slowed down by meditation, or by writing them down to take them out of our mind and onto paper. A bedtime routine helps our brain unwind before we even get into bed. Relaxing activities are reading a book (an actual book, not an ebook), having a cup of non-caffeinated tea, or taking a shower or bath. Diet As we speak, there is more and more research emerging about the link between diet, mental health, and our microbiome – the network of micro-organisms that inhabit our bodies. Our intestinal microbiome is heavily influenced by diet, which can lead to patterns of “good” or “bad” bacteria that synthesise nutrients (e.g. vitamin B12) and metabolise undigested food matter (the products of which may be beneficial or harmful to health). Our microbiome communicates with our immune and hormonal systems, including those that regulate the fight or flight response. When our microbiome is populated with “bad” bacteria, we experience systemic inflammation, which leads to chronic activation of our body’s stress response. The research on microbiota and mental health has exploded over the last few years, with studies linking our microbiome to depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, autism, and ADHD. While the precise dietary pattern that leads to optimal mental health hasn’t been officially established, research findings suggest high fibre, whole food diets as best promoting beneficial gut bacteria. In a 2017 literature review, Rasnik Singh and colleagues found that high intakes of saturated fat or animal protein had detrimental effects on gut microbiome. Diets that promoted healthy microbiota were high in fibre and resistant starch (e.g. from grains and beans), high in pre- and pro-biotics, and high in polyphenols (e.g. found in fruits, seeds, vegetables, tea, and even cocoa products and wine). Diet is particularly important for people who have been exposed to environmental pollutants and certain medications (like antibiotics), which can disrupt our microbiome. 101 CHAPTER 9 JUST THINK POSITIVE AND OTHER CRAPPY ADVICE The field of positive psychology has contributed much to our understanding of what it means to live a happy life. It’s far more than the “just think positive” mantra, which often actually does more harm than good. The mantra “just think positive” seems to encourage people to only focus on the optimal outcomes or on pleasurable emotions and ignore everything else. A happy life does not imply living in a constant state of happiness. Ancient philosophers, religious leaders, and positive psychologists alike recognise that a happy life isn’t synonymous with feeling happy all the time. A happy life isn’t one where we live hedonistically, with a focus on immediate pleasure and little to no thought about long term gratification. The irony of happiness seems to be that a happy life actually means feeling uncomfortable a lot of the time. And by “uncomfortable” I am referring to any number of the following emotions: nervousness, concern, apprehension, ambivalence, hesitance, doubt, frustration, annoyance, anger, sadness, despair, or vengeance. The emotional feeling of happiness or joyfulness seems distant from any of these uncomfortable feelings, and yet, the full spectrum of emotions is necessary to live a full, rich life. A life devoid of uncomfortable feelings is an incomplete life. Philosophers and psychologists view emotions as part of our navigation system along our journey of life, rather than the ultimate purpose of living. Just as we have warning lights on our fuel tank to let us know when we’re low, we have emotional responses to let us know when something is not right about our internal or external environment. Unfortunately, when it comes to social justice issues, the response of many people is to turn away because they’re too uncomfortable. 102 When “just think positive” is code for denial Some people view positive thinking very literally. They focus on only the positive, pleasant aspects of an experience, and ignore anything they perceive as uncomfortable or unpleasant. This can be a real issue for change agents because activism often involves uncomfortable topics. Denial isn’t the same as positive thinking. Denialism actually stifles problem solving, and limits our decision making. It creates blind spots, where a simple challenge turns into a major setback down the track. It’s like a loose thread on a jumper. Ignore it for long enough and pretty soon the whole garment unravels. Denialism can be why people refuse to buy insurance, or don’t create a will. Denial is the complete opposite of emotional intelligence. Living in denial means that we don’t fully perceive situations and we miss opportunities to plan ahead and be prepared. Denial means that if we encounter problems, we’re faced with the additional stress of scrambling to figure out a contingency plan. Unfortunately for us, some people use “positive thinking” as a way of avoiding social justice issues. We mention domestic violence, or human trafficking, or animal cruelty – issues that are disturbing and unpleasant to hear about – and we’re told that we’re “too negative”. Denialists claim that we’re turning problems into a bigger deal than they need to be, and that we need to focus on something more positive. Ironically, true positive thinking is sometimes anything but pleasant. Positive thinking doesn’t mean thinking positive all the time. It’s easy to think positively when things are going “well”. Like our other emotional intelligence muscles, positive thinking is about remaining objective-focused even in the face of adversity. Positive thinking isn’t about avoiding hardships. It’s facing the hardships, getting through them, and becoming emotionally stronger in the process. For activists, denialism is dangerous territory. When people put their heads in the sand and pretend that problems don’t exist, they end up perpetuating injustices. 103 Gratitude and First world problems Like everything in life, the idea of “gratitude” can be warped into something that’s unhealthy. Some people think of gratitude as something that we should do, rather than as something we can choose to feel. I don’t like “shoulds” in general because they feel like an imposed requirement. When we hear “you should be grateful”, we might feel like entitled little shits, which can trigger anger or guilt. We feel worse than we did before – completely defeating the purpose of gratitude. I also loathe the phrase “first world problems” for this reason. “First world problems” is a classic get-out-of-jail free card. It’s like a license to say “your problems don’t matter because look at all the other things happening in the world”. It’s a sign of low empathy, it’s manipulative, and it’s disrespectful. It minimises our experiences and it’s a way of shaming or guilt-tripping us about our feelings. Here’s some of the crap that I’ve heard: Oh, you’re stressed about exams? First world problems. Some people don’t even get an education. Oh, you have morning sickness? First world problems. Some women can’t conceive. Oh, your companion animal is unwell? First world problems. Some people can’t even afford medication for themselves. Gratitude only works when we decide to feel it. What doesn’t work is being guilted or shamed into it, or having people “should” all over us. 104 EPILOGUE Remember that movie Sliding Doors ? There’s a scene where the lead character Helen (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) rushes to catch a train. At that moment, the movie splits into two storylines. In one reality, Helen catches the train and arrives home early to learn of her partner’s infidelity. In the other reality, she misses the train, and remains oblivious. The two storylines lead Helen down very different paths. One action, one decision, one shift, and one instant can literally transform our lives. It could be the smallest event. A random conversation on a bus or waiting in line at a cafe, or a video that catches our eye as we’re scrolling through our social feed. These things could seem ordinary at the time, but actually become the spark that ignites transformation in our own lives. The power of activism is that we can help change people’s lives in an instant. Sometimes it only takes one shift in perspective to start a chain of events that ends up revolutionising our lives. At first, the change is only visible on the inside. Gradually, it reveals itself on the outside, in our words, actions, and habits. It’s because of change agents that these shifts happen at all. Because of someone who put together a documentary, wrote a blog post, live-streamed their experience at a protest. Each one of these actions has the potential to create a shift in someone. It might not be a 180 degree turnaround, perhaps a one degree shift that seems insignificant at the time, but in hindsight ends up becoming the moment that changes everything else. This is the transformative power of activism. The reason that any of us are change agents is because of activists – who create and share information, and who do it simply because they want a better world. Activism can be a powerful way to connect with others, to find life’s meaning and purpose, and to feel important and valuable. It improves our self-confidence and resilience in the face of adversity. Activism ticks many of the boxes for our psychological health. The irony is that a lot of the time we’ll feel shit. It’s the criticism, trolling, closemindedness, and apathy from others – not to mention the voice of our Survivor mind, which just wants us to stay in the shadows and not cause any trouble. Too many of us agonise over our discomfort, asking “what’s wrong with me?” and judging ourselves as “bad” for having our feelings. Rather than fighting the discomfort of activism, maybe it’s time we surrender to it. Every day brings new opportunities as well as new struggles. Shitty moments will happen, so let’s develop a toolkit of positive habits for when those moments arise. People will treat us poorly and act like assholes. And we’ll probably act like assholes too, sometimes. That’s when we take a deep breath, apologise, notice where we went astray, and strive to do better next time. Fulfilment and growth come with activism precisely because it is so challenging at times. 105 Our story, our experiences, and even our vulnerabilities become a way for people to connect with us, and be more receptive to our message. Armed with the emotional intelligence to recognise the Survivor brain (in ourselves and others), our unique message becomes a beacon of hope to others, so that they may take brave steps forward despite their own imperfection and vulnerability. If there’s one thing that social justice movements need, it’s diversity, individuality, authenticity, and cohesion. We step into the arena of change agency, bravely and passionately, with the full spectrum of our individual characteristics. We can be passionate about our cause, yet highly attuned to others. Outspoken, yet kind. Opinionated, yet compassionate. Dedicated to our cause, while also being dedicated to self-care and self-improvement, so that we can better vessels for delivering our message. 106 ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS Like any great project, this book was created on the shoulders of giants. To my mentor and friend, Kathy Divine – thank you for your leadership, kindness, humour, and the faith you have shown in me, and this book. You have brought life into what would otherwise be a swirling fog of detached ideas. To Pam Ahern, Patty Mark, and Clare Mann – thank you for your support throughout this project, and for your unwavering dedication and inspiration to the activist community. Our world is infinitely brighter because of you. To Rosa, Bree, and Les – thank you for your creative brilliance in bringing this book together. To the change agents, activists, and advocates in Melbourne, across Australia, and worldwide – thank you for your bravery, perseverance, and generosity. You truly bring hope to this fucked up world. To my son – thank you for inspiring me to become a stronger activist and human being, and to leave this world in better shape for you and your generation. To my husband and best friend – without you, this book would never have seen the light of day. Thank you for being my anchor when I was drifting, my confidant when I was grappling with ideas, and my champion in times of self-doubt. 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DON’T WORRY, THEY’LL TELL YOU 13 The Survivor 14 An old Nokia in a world of smartphones 15 Stress: our great frenemy 17 When the critics come crap, crap, crapping on your door 18 The angry critic 19 An eye for an eye 20 Do I stay, or walk away? 21 YOU ARE UNIQUE, JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE 25 Working with your brain 27 Living under the influence 28 The power of our influence 31 Guilt – the devil on your shoulder 32 Dealing with guilt 34 Planting seeds 35 The “Activist of the Year” award 36 KNOWLEDGE ISN’T POWER 37 What does emotional intelligence look like? 38 Stress: a frenemy no longer 38 Don’t ignore your warning lights 39 You have the right to remain angry 40 I’m angry and I know it 41 Dealing with anger 43 Low emotional intelligence is everywhere 45 Emotions are both a slow burn and a flash in the pan 46 Stuck between a rock and a hard place 47 Skills for healthy activism 48 Empathy versus apathy 50 How do we know if we’re emotionally intelligent? 51 Self-directed anger 52 A GROUP OF THOUGHTUL, COMMITTED CITIZENS 53 The unique mind of a change agent 54 Criticism, call-outs, and chastising 55 110 Stress vs over-stress 56 Choosing to be stressed (but not over-stressed) 58 Relax about stress 60 Don’t follow the leader 61 The martyr 63 What’s behind the martyr? 65 The power of expectation 66 A PERSONAL PHILOSOPHY 68 Re-programming our brain 70 The unexamined life is not worth living – Socrates 72 The “choose your thoughts” philosophy 75 CREATING A COHESIVE MOVEMENT 77 Surviving or thriving? 78 Faux-thenticity 80 In-fighting 81 The façade of perfection 82 Live authentically – it’s good for the brain. 84 Value and Character 85 With great responsibility comes great power 87 TIPS FOR STAYING POSITIVE 89 One size doesn’t fit all 91 Flexibility 91 Streamline 92 Connection 93 Mindfulness 93 Gratitude 94 Small versus big changes 95 The keynote change 96 MENTAL HEALTH 97 The happy activist 99 Exercise 100 Sleep 100 Diet 101 JUST THINK POSITIVE AND OTHER CRAPPY ADVICE 102 When “just think positive” is code for denial 103 Gratitude and First world problems 104 EPILOGUE 105 111 Acknowledgements 107 REFERENCES, RESOURCES, & BIBLIOGRAPHY 108 112