Confidence is a see-saw

Confidence is not a social flair that some have and others lack. It is the threshold in everyone where you cross over from believing you can’t cope, to knowing you can. You can’t happily stand up and give a wedding speech to hundreds of guests if you are thinking of all the ways you could muff it. But when you can draw on a range of previous experience, when you have something you want to say, and when you are having fun with friends, you see the situation as an opportunity, not an ordeal.

Anxiety and confidence work like a see-saw: as one goes up, the other goes down. When you are confident, you can meet difficulties with resilience, even with gusto. But as soon as any threat seems greater than your ability to deal with it, your anxiety increases and your self-esteem plummets.

Whenever you find yourself feeling helpless to do anything about a bad situation – such as ill health, declining sight or hearing, not having enough money, interpersonal conflict or frustration at work – up goes your anxiety, down goes your confidence.

How can you tip the balance the other way? You can reduce the seeming enormity of the problem; and you can increase your conviction that you can handle it.

Here are three ways to begin scaling down a problem from overwhelming to manageable:

  • Think of a problem as only a situation: difficult, painful or exhausting, perhaps, but not as catastrophic, shameful or beyond redemption as you may feel it is. Stay with it, experience it a little.
  • Acknowledge and put a name to the emotions you are feeling – fear, regret, rage – and let them surge around and eventually away, as if you were watching an extreme weather event from somewhere safe inside.
  • Focus on the facts. Apart from what is not ok, what remains ok?

Here are three immediate ways to scale up your ability to cope:

  • Take five minutes to do the ‘Five Things’ exercise. What five things do you see? What five sounds can you hear? What five sensations do you notice in your body? Come to your senses! It is much easier to relax and see things in perspective when you first pay full attention to here and now.
  • Encourage yourself. Think: ‘I can handle this.’ At the very least: ‘I am willing to try.’
  • Do one thing right away that is better than nothing. Phone a friend, have a cup of tea, clear out a cupboard. Every small decision you make empowers you.

Your mind has an inexhaustible capacity to learn, change and see things differently. Focus on what you can rather than on what you think you can’t, and your brain will steer in that direction until ‘Yes, I can’ becomes a simple statement of fact.

Time to Get Off the Couch

I love this cartoon of a drowning man shouting to his dog on the bank, “Lassie, get help!” In the next picture we see the trusty dog lying on a psychiatrist’s couch.

We all encounter many and various frustrations that we can’t always deal with on our own. But the idea that to ‘get help’ involves a tortuous process of introspection and confession is way out of date. It was based on the medical model of a patient-doctor relationship, and on Dr Freud’s psychoanalytic style in particular. His patients lay on his elegant couch, several times a week for years, while he sat invisibly behind them, puffing on his cigar and telling them what was wrong with them.

This woeful misconception lingers on in the popular imagination. People who would not think twice before phoning a breakdown company when their car won’t start on a cold morning, or a decorator when their house is looking tired, are still reluctant to ‘get help’ for themselves when they are unhappy or overwhelmed.

There is a welcome change in the way we ask now for professional help. We are customers rather than patients. We can choose between a wide variety of services on offer. We expect to feel better, sooner. We want the process to be safe, effective and empowering. But the client-therapist relationship is far more than a consumer-supplier negotiation. The analogy is more like finding a personal trainer with the skills to help you feel fitter.

As a cognitive behavioural hypnotherapist, like a personal trainer, I do not need to know about your past or private life: only your present situation. At a difficult moment, it does not help to ask ”Why?” so much as “What to do about it?” Lassie saves the day every time, by being resourceful, practical and coming straight to the point.


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This article appeared in the Test Valley Forum magazine March 2018

When It’s All Very Trying…

When you so much want something to happen and it just doesn’t, or when you have ‘tried everything and nothing works,’ the first step towards relief may be to stop trying. So many frustrating situations and stress-related disorders arise from trying too hard for too long, or trying the wrong way, or both.

Sleep is one of those many essentials of the good life that can be invited, but absolutely can’t be pushed. In an experiment, one group of healthy students were asked to fall asleep “in record time.” Another group was told to go to sleep “whenever you like.” Not only did the first group take much longer to get to sleep, but for the rest of the night they kept waking and finding it difficult to sleep again. To want something really badly is a really bad way of going about it.

Insomnia – like infertility, like exam nerves, like writer’s block, like feeling inadequate, to name a few – often begins as a temporary symptom of anxiety that becomes more entrenched as you worry about it on its own account.

When something does not work out, it is only disheartening to be told – or to tell yourself – to try, try, try again. But nor is it helpful to be told “Try to relax.” Trying is the opposite of relaxing. A little tea and sympathy would be more practical. As soon as you begin to feel exasperated, it’s time to stop and do something different.

If we did not try, we would never learn anything new. If we want to acquire new skills and develop existing ones, we do need to apply effort, sustain attention, challenge ourselves, ask more searching questions, experiment with possibilities. But studies in how we learn have shown that this is only half of the story.

It is when we alternate concentrated trying with not trying at all that the brain gets really creative. Trying too hard for too long is like only breathing in, forgetting to breathe out. Relaxing, sleeping, playing is not time wasted or just time off. These are the times, while you are looking the other way, when your brain joins the dots, learns, consolidates its gains and discovers new understanding.

When you are trying to force or hasten an outcome, trying only means stressing. Trying becomes empowering when it means inviting, experimenting, discovering what works, and what works even better. Sleep comes naturally and inevitably when there are no tensions preventing it, and so do all our creative solutions.


Thank you for reading my blog.

I help people to learn, sleep and relieve problems creatively and effectively. If this would be of interest to you, too, please subscribe to my blog above, or visit



David Randall, Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep 2012

Coursera online course, Learning How to Learn

Images thanks to Mubariz Mehdizadeh on Unsplash , Rob Mulally on Unsplash

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