That’s all, folks

This is a message of thanks to you, reader, for following my musings on self-help and mental health, while I have experimented with posting online. The time has come for me to let the website lapse. I will be writing as the Wellbeing Wordsmith on Medium, and continuing my account @wellbeingwordsmith on Instagram.

Take care, friends.


mental health Philosophy Psychology

On Becoming a Compassionate Mess

A recipe for self-compassion and why it works: the key takeaways.

Self-compassion is good for us.

Kristin Neff is a self-confessed self-compassion evangelist. Self-compassion is a central construct in Buddhist philosophy, defined as the desire to alleviate one’s own suffering – and Neff has spent the last two decades investigating this concept empirically. As one of the first academics to conduct studies into self-compassion, Neff created the Self-compassion Scales as instruments for researchers, leading to a large volume of empirical support within the field of self-compassion research.

These are my notes from the conversation with Kristin Neff on The Happiness Lab with Dr. Laurie Santos: Dump Your Inner Drill Sergeant.

Self-compassion makes it safe to fail.

“Why is self-compassion a more effective motivator that self-criticism? Because its driving force is love, not fear.”

Kristin Neff

Motivation of self-criticism is a motivation of fear. It might even work in the short-term, but it creates a number of unintended consequences – such as anxiety, fear of failure and the undermining of confidence. Failure is our best teacher, but how can we learn from failure if we’re afraid to fail?

A common behaviour associated with fear of failure is procrastination –one of our natural responses to threat. By practicing self-compassion you are shifting from your defense system to the care system. It means when you fail, you won’t desert yourself. It encourages us to pick ourselves up after failure, overcome procrastination and try harder to reach our goals.

Self-compassion beats self-confidence.

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself, then I can change.”

Carl R. Rogers – On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy

True self-compassion isn’t dependent on success or failure. The problem with self-esteem is that it is contingent upon success. We can fall into the trap of constant social comparison, which might lead to bullying ourselves and others. We all have strong intuitions about how to motivate ourselves to create better habits; and harsh self-judgement is a fairly universal one. But the research shows being hard on ourselves doesn’t deliver results.

Self-compassion gives us the emotional resources we need as an alternative to self-esteem. It is not selfish or self-focussed. It’s not telling yourself lies to make yourself feel better, or seeking solace in self-pity. It’s opening yourself up to the truth. A core component of self-compassion is self-acceptance, which Neff describes as “tender self-compassion”. When self-esteem asks, “how am I different than others?”, self-compassion asks, “how am I the same as others?” Taking steps to acknowledge this common struggle leads to connection instead of isolation. Some suffer more than others and this also needs to be acknowledged, but we do all suffer. Being imperfect is part of the shared human experience and self-compassion encourages us to accept ourselves and our flaws non-judgmentally.

It slays our inner critic.

“The more compassion can flow inward the more it can flow outward…it’s additive. The more we give ourselves compassion, the more resources we have to give to others.”

Kristin Neff, Dump Your Inner Drill Sergeant.

Try this thought experiment. Think about it your child (real or imaginary) came to you after making a mistake. Imagine the effect on that child if you shamed them instead of offering care, kindness and warmth. We have the ability as adults to be good parents to ourselves, even if our own parents didn’t happen to model that for us. When our inner critic is strong we are both the attacker and the attacked. Self-compassion helps us to feel safe. It looks for what is good for us, rather than telling us we aren’t good enough.

It gives us an ally.

What makes you weak versus what makes you strong when you go into battle? Combat veterans who were able to be compassionate to themselves about what happened when they were overseas were less likely to develop PTSD on returning home. These findings can be applied to all of us:

“For all of us, at some level, life’s a battle. What’s going to make you stronger when you go into battle? If the inner voice inside your head is an enemy, cutting you down, shaming you ‘I hate you’, ‘you aren’t good enough’ – is that going to make you stronger? Or is it going to be stronger if you’re an ally: ‘I’ve got your back’, ‘I’m here for you’, ‘you can do it’, ‘how can I help?’ Clearly, having an ally inside your head is going to make you stronger than having an enemy inside your head.”

Kristin Neff, Dump Your Inner Drill Sergeant.

Compassion has a fierce side too.

There will be times when we need to draw boundaries to protect ourselves and make the necessary changes to meet our needs. For example, in certain situations we need self-compassion to help us take action – to remove ourselves from the metaphorical firing line. We need it to support healthy habits and to find fulfillment in our lives and relationships. Whereas tender self-compassion encourages self-acceptance, “fierce self-compassion” cultivates courage. It helps us to move forward and put ourselves first.

“Imagine you have the ultimate compassionate coach, one who is very wise and knows what needs to change. The wise coach can help you decide what does need to change. The good coach is going to help you get there.”

Kristen Neff, Dump Your Inner Drill Sergeant.

The goal of practice is simply to become a compassionate mess.

Like most things worth striving for, it takes practice. The first step is to give yourself permission to be self-compassionate – and remember to do it.

I like this as a reminder (although it’s not especially snappy): ‘self-critical shaming mess’ leads to hopelessness and inertia; ‘compassionate mess’ leads to care and motivation. Simply become a compassionate mess!

Compassionate Mess

The Recipe

  • Common humanity (replaces isolation)
  • Mindfulness (replaces over-identification)
  • Self-kindness (replaces self-judgement)
  • Actively give yourself kindness by choosing the right words and using a nicer tone.
  • Do a short mindfulness exercise and practice naming or acknowledging (validating) any pain or discomfort as you notice it.
  • Practice soothing touch by placing a hand on your heart or giving yourself a hand massage.
  • Display a quote by someone who has overcome tough times to remind yourself you’re not alone.

Read Kristin Neff’s own tips for practice here.


The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert (2010)

Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Self-Compassion to Speak Up, Claim their Power and Thrive by Kristin Neff (2021)

Self Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind by Kristin Neff (2011)

IMAGE: One Green Planet
mental health Psychology

Understanding Opposite Action

Each emotion we experience comes with a specific action urge. If we are feeling sadness or shame, we might naturally want to avoid or isolate. If we are experiencing paranoia, we might react to others with suspicion and mistrust. If we are feeling anger, we might suppress the urge to break something, or hurt someone with our words. All emotions activate us to respond in some way. Just noticing the accompanying action urge and how it is felt in the body can give us clues as to what we are feeling.

Opposite Action is a DBT skill best used when the emotions don’t fit the facts. It can help to deal with distressing emotions by setting into motion an action that is helpful, not harmful. It allows us to intervene between an emotion and an action urge, so that our distress gradually decreases.

This skill requires practice, but it cultivates self-awareness. It relies on us identifying the emotion, then making an assessment of whether the accompanying action urge fits the situation. It is about attending to the space that exists between the emotion and the action urge. By engaging this thought process before acting upon an emotion, it is possible to choose an action that is opposite to what the ‘natural’ response would be. It involves channeling your inner rebel by defying what your urges expect of you.

Sometimes our practice of Opposite Action is not so obvious. When we wake up to an alarm in the morning and choose to rise, rather than hit ‘snooze’ – this is Opposite Action. So is choosing to go for a run even when we feel sluggish. Opposite Action can help us to face situations we might otherwise avoid. Feeling fear about an upcoming job interview is perfectly natural, but if this fear overwhelms us it can get in the way of what we want. Because the situation is not actually unsafe, it makes sense to pay less attention to that fear.

The kinds of situations in which it is appropriate to use this skill are ones in which the emotions might not be realistic to the situation. If you are in doubt, consider whether the emotions are ones you want to challenge or change. There are benefits to acting opposite to how we are feeling in the moment. We avoid the consequences of actions that would otherwise escalate the situation, and we begin to make changes to the way we feel.

There are times when this is not the best thing to do. Consider a time when you felt shame because you’d done something contrary to your values. In this case you would do your best to repair the situation and move on. The emotion fits the situation, so this is not a situation where you would want to practice Opposite Action.

Opposite Action is not about suppressing feelings. You are not denying your feelings, but you are giving yourself a chance to change how you feel for the better. Acting opposite creates an interruption that causes our feelings to change course. You are acting against the urge, not the feeling. The result will be a gradual change in our emotions. We decrease negative feelings by putting something positive in their place.

I have found that accepting the reality of my feelings as they are, without judgement or resistance, is the first step towards coping with strong emotions. All feelings are valid. But the knowledge that our feelings can and do change isn’t always apparent. It can be hard trusting this skill. We may need to look for support. Sometimes it is putting too much pressure on ourselves not to surrender to the situation or do whatever it is we need to do to cope. And there is no harm in that either. Discerning what action is needed (or not needed) in the moment is one way of building self-trust. But when we are ready, committing to Opposite Action can make all the difference.

Switching It Up

The following is taken from DBT Tools.

Anger: gets us ready to attack / it activates us to attack or defend.

Opposite: show kindness / concern or walk away.

Shame: gets us ready to hide. It activates us to isolate.

Opposite: raise your head up, make eye contact, shoulders back.

Fear: gets us ready to run or hide. It activates us to escape danger.

Opposite: go towards, stay involved in it, build courage.

Depression: gets us ready to be inactive. It activates us to avoid contact.

Opposite: get active.

Disgust: gets us ready to reject or distance ourselves. It activates us to avoid.

Opposite: push through and get through the situation.

Guilt: gets us ready to repair violations. It activates us to seek forgiveness.

Opposite: apologise and mean what we say.


  1. If we want an emotion to stick around or increase, continue to do the action as above.
  2. If we want an emotion to go away or become less comfortable, do the opposite action.
  3. If you want this skill to work, you must use opposite action all the way and believe that it will work.
Image: Overlapping Perspectives on Dora Maar, Institut Francais

On Time Anxiety

By Stephanie

Do you like to arrive early, or do you often end up being late?  Try asking a group of people and you will probably hear some strong views.  It’s an everyday issue everyone has an opinion on – and many people who pride themselves on their timekeeping hold a very dim view of those who do not. Early birds think latecomers are chaotic and disrespectful. Habitual latecomers think early arrivals are a bit uptight and probably quite dull. But what time you arrive may be based on all manner of anxieties – a fear of getting things wrong, a fear of others’ disapproval, a fear of drawing attention to yourself – and these same fears lead people to be late as well as making them early. You may feel  you can safely fade into the background if you arrive ten minutes before an event starts – but if you’re worried about making small talk with strangers, being a couple of minutes late may seem like the safest option.

My anxiety is about the fear of wasting time. I am always late, usually only by a few minutes, but it can be as many as thirteen – the outer limit of what’s just about acceptable to most people. I might blame traffic or some unexpected last minute demand from the children – but the truth is, I just didn’t leave until the last minute, because I could not bear to be early. To me, five minutes early would be five minutes I didn’t spend usefully. If I need to get somewhere at ten, I will calculate how long the journey will take – let’s say it’s half an hour – so to be perfectly on time I would need to leave home before nine thirty. At twenty-five past nine I will try to find a small task which might take me only five minutes. I do want to arrive on time – but only just on time. And I can always think of some little task to do – hanging out the washing, one more email, watering the plants. Inevitably any little task ends up taking an extra minute or two – so when I leave at just past nine thirty I’m running slightly late, which is a comfortable place for me to be – I will be only a few moments late, but I haven’t wasted any useful time.

Living the dream would be getting a seat on a train with two minutes to spare before departure. Three minutes to spare would mean you’d wasted a minute in unnecessary early arrival. But one minute to spare is not quite enough, as you can never be quite sure when the doors will lock. Two minutes early is hitting the bullseye.

I try to make the most of every minute – to a destructively obsessive extent. I’m well aware that trying to make the most of every minute makes you sour and ruin quite a lot of them. Like overcooking the jam, I overcook the minutes. On holiday I will often spend far too much time poring over maps and guidebooks, planning out exciting trips for any group I’m with, weighing up everyone’s individual needs and wants and trying my best to reach calculated compromises in my own head to produce the perfect plan, my best guess at producing the sweetest afternoon everyone will enjoy. Imagine my consternation when someone counters my perfect plan with a spontaneous idea. Or worse still, doesn’t want to do anything much – in my head, the ultimate sin.

Not doing much – how wrong is it? Well it’s OK if you re-name it. Watching a film with a glass of wine is OK if you call it bonding with the family. Relationships definitely always count as worth investing in, so almost any leisure activity could count as useful if you’re with someone else. And even watching a film alone with that glass of wine isn’t too bad if time has ticked past 9pm, so it’s the end of a long day before you prepare to start another.

What I’d like written on my gravestone is “She tried very hard”.  I don’t mind if people feel I got things wrong in my life – Oh boy, have I got so many things, so many big things, so very wrong! What matters to me is that I tried very hard to get things right. Every decision I’ve made has been weighed up obsessively, and all the pros and cons scanned carefully. Although it hasn’t really helped –  how many other people have started three degrees at different universities, all carefully chosen as useful and meaningful, and got to the end of only one, which has nothing at all to do with the job I do now? So I couldn’t claim trying very hard to do the best you can will always get results – in fact, like overcooking the jam, you can overcook decision making and miss the point where you need to just stop and let things settle.  I know the best things in my life have fallen into my lap like ripe apples fall from trees overhead – my five unplanned children, friends met by chance.

Research says that people who arrive late have often over estimated how much they can achieve in the time they have. And in my excessively careful life planning I think I see the same fault – an over estimation of how many obstacles I can overcome by sheer force of will. Perhaps time anxiety is too much trying to control the world and stamp meaning through it. It misses the point that there’s a lot you can’ t control. Much of life is messy and randomly arranged; it isn’t fair and many things don’t make much sense. I know I have to try harder to see things as they are, and find the good in what just is…here and now. I have to try less hard to control what might happen next, and I have to try to stand firm against that wicked temptation the mind can beckon you towards – the impossible task of reordering what once was and dwelling on what might have been.

If this is a rather convoluted apology for being a few minutes late sometimes, I hope it explains at least that if I’m late it isn’t down to carelessness. On the contrary it’s too much care. If I didn’t try so hard to be bang on time without wasting a minute, I’d have got there. And I’m sure it’s not just me over estimating how much control they can have over time – spare a thought for those of us who try so hard, we stop ourselves getting where we want to.

Image: Gilt-brass cased clock-watch with alarm, sundials and lunar volvelle in the form of a book, Ashmolean Museum (on display), Oxford.
Health and Fitness mental health Philosophy

In Praise of…Boxing

“Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself, do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.”

Bruce Lee

Three years ago my mental health took a huge hit. In an act of desperation I forced myself to join the local gym. I was told there was a kickboxing class starting that Friday evening and so I went along to the first session. I must have felt nervous, but not about the activity itself. Oddly, I felt fairly at home with martial arts. Had I watched too much Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a teenager? (No. There can never be too much Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) Chinese traditions were given a lot of respect in my household growing up. On some mornings, usually on the weekends, I would come downstairs to find my Dad in the garden practicing Tai Chi. He talked to me about Taoism and introduced me to Bruce Lee. Many of us carry bad memories of P.E. lessons into adulthood. I was usually on the outside looking in when it came to school sports. Perhaps I felt restricted because of my gender; although my apathy for team sports is a more likely reason. I left home for London and immediately signed up for women’s-only Muay Thai. I had joined with a friend, but during one session we were instructed to spar with other training partners and I was taken aback by my disinclination to get involved. I remember thinking it felt unfair to pit one woman against another, as if the separation instigated by our patriarchal society wasn’t enough. This is how I rationalised my reluctance. When those classes stopped I still wanted to train, so I found a boxing club in New Cross. The impulse was always there, humming away quietly in my subconscious, but I didn’t find a club where I felt completely comfortable.

When I started kickboxing training in Oxford my motivation for anything else was zero. I was existing with little purpose. I seemed to have only two settings: intense irritability or emotional numbness. One day would bleed into the next. Then Friday would come around again and I would drag myself back to the sports hall for another kickboxing session.

I will try to describe the many ways my mind and body objected to this change in routine after being inactive for so long. In the beginning you feel sick and your limbs feel like lead. You worry whether you will get through the whole hour without crying, fainting, or starting an argument – or a combination of all three. Your head hurts and your eyesight blurs as you strain to concentrate. If you have experienced depression, or know someone who has, you will be familiar with the fatigue, flat affect, barrage of self-criticism and brain fog that goes with it. But you are so focussed on hitting the pads and getting the combinations right that the noise in your head quietens down. By the end of each session my brain fog had lifted.

In his book The Body Keeps the Score, Dr Bessel van der Kolk shows how traumatic stress manifests in the body long after the threat of harm has passed. Psychological trauma fragments the mind. Our bodies keep us trapped in the past with wordless emotions and feelings. This expression of trauma creates disconnections – within the mind, brain and body. Van der Kolk explains how trauma sufferers can heal by reconnecting their thoughts with their bodies, with one way being through physical yoga.

This mind-body connection is what sets martial arts techniques apart from other forms of exercise. Van der Kolk writes, “when our senses become muffled, we no longer feel fully alive.” Martial arts training reawakens the senses. A strong stance depends upon being grounded, both physically and mentally. It means paying attention to proper alignment and transfer of energy. It even gives physical expression to suppressed feelings. You learn to tolerate certain physical sensations, regulate the breath and work through strong emotions. Kickboxing exercised the traumatic stress I continued to hold in my body. I could harness the force of it and channel it into something productive and cathartic. It was possible to shift a lot of negative energy this way. As I grew in confidence I found my feet in other situations too. This discipline rewards you with courage and self-belief.

If you have spent your formative years or any significant time in the fight-or-flight response, then martial arts might come naturally to you. It suited me for this reason. It was a natural remedy for my hypervigilance. It sharpens ones focus and stops overthinking in its tracks. In the moment the only choices are to pay attention or be hit. I began to experiment with achieving a healthy level of alertness. Learning to relax my muscles minimised stress-induced tension, helped along by the pain-reducing release of endorphins. I worked through my frustrations during training, which had the added bonus of better sleep. Taking all your anger out on the pads leaves you with that walking on air feeling afterwards. Eventually it felt good to inhabit my body. It is also teaching you a new skill, and with continued effort and encouragement you start to see progress.

This became my one commitment. I never missed a training session. Back then I didn’t realise how restorative this discipline would be. All I knew was that it stopped my overthinking, but truthfully it made me feel alive.

This was my only reason for returning each week. The structure of a martial arts class is inherently social. Everyone was pleasant and respectful, but initially I was not in the right frame of mind for conversation. Having to talk to other people was an uncomfortable necessity. As my confidence grew this started to change. It turned out to be a training ground for interpersonal skills. Because pad work involves partnering up I began to open up to others, which reduced my self-consciousness. Each person had their own strengths and each personality revealed something about mine.

I missed my group exercise classes during lockdown. Since establishing my kickboxing routine, this was how I had maintained my wellbeing. With the gym closed I returned to trail running instead, adding the occasional burst of jump rope skipping. Meanwhile my gloves were hanging in the hallway gathering dust. In the spirit of acquiring new skills during lockdown, I coached the other members of my household in the four basic boxing punches (I was meant to receive piano lessons in return, but I never found the inclination). Watching them try it out for the first time gave me such vicarious enjoyment, my enthusiasm and energy soon returned. I am grateful for the opportunity to resume my own training recently. It has reminded me of why I gravitated towards martial arts in the first place.

What I’m about to say will almost certainly sound cliché, but with martial arts you reveal the inner demons you have left to fight. There is a reason why Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993) is my all time favourite sport biopic.* Martial arts training is a mind-body therapy. It promotes trust and increases self-awareness – offering us a unique opportunity to heal.

*Ali (2001) comes a close second.

“Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them – a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have the skill, and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.”

Muhammad Ali
mental health Psychology

Coping with Identity Issues

We can all change our behaviour to fit in with other people. This is how we as humans seek acceptance and make connections. But for those of us whose mental health affects our sense of self, this becomes more about a desire to fit in. It can be a real struggle to know who we are and because of this we struggle with knowing how to behave.

If you struggle with identity issues or an unstable self-image, you might behave in ways that don’t align with your values. It might look like you are constantly changing to fit the situation or the people you are with. This adds even more confusion to this sense of knowing who you are. Not knowing how to act around others can make even the most typical of interpersonal situations feel very anxiety provoking.

1. Define your values

Your values are the guiding principles to live your life by. Paying attention to your values will help you to figure out how to act and how to prioritise. When you have a clearer idea of your values it becomes easier to see when your behaviour crosses these standards, as this will often lead to feelings of guilt and shame. Defining your values can lead to more confidence about going with what feels right for you. Try to notice to what extent your behaviour lives up to your values.

2. Identify your goals

When you are not sure how to act, ask yourself “What is my goal?” Then consider how much your behaviour matches up with that goal. Think about your long and short-term goals for relationships as well as your life. Your goals are your action steps to ensure you live by your values. It can be really helpful, before you take on a new commitment, to examine whether you are doing this because it is the right action for you, based on your values, or whether you are doing this because you want approval from others. If you have doubts, revisit your values.

3. Let go of seeking approval from others

Pay attention to when you may be looking for approval from others. Then practice letting go of seeking reassurance. You need to approve your own behaviour. Notice when your behaviour comes mainly from wanting someone to say that you fit in or did the right thing. Before deciding what action to take in any given situation, check in with yourself to see if your choice is consistent with your values.

4. Ground yourself

When you are feeling anxious or swept up in social situations, the urge to take on other people’s behaviour can be very intense. This is why it is important to ground yourself so that you can connect with your own values and goals. Grounding techniques involve paying attention to the present moment and activate the senses. My suggestions include doing a three minute breathing space, chewing a piece of gum or eating something mindfully (like a mint or boiled sweet), applying a sweet smelling hand cream and trying to identify as many sounds as you can.

5. Plan ahead

This is known as the DBT skill ‘cope ahead’. When you notice anxiety about how to act, come up with a plan beforehand for how you’d like the interaction to go. Remind yourself of your goals and values and write down how you’d like to behave. Try to anticipate what behaviours you might engage in that cross your values and go against your goals. What barriers that might get in the way? Make a commitment to stick to this plan. If in the moment you don’t for whatever reason, forgive yourself and move on. Reflect on the situation with self-compassion.

6. Recognise your strengths

Being flexible in different environments and social situations is a great quality. But it requires balance and achieving balance means acquiring skills. This takes some practice. Try not to give yourself a hard time when you get it wrong. One way of building a more stable self-image is to reflect on your strengths. Ask people who know you to name three things you are good at (and believe what they tell you!). Or, if that’s too scary, pay attention to positive feedback when you receive it.


Coping with BPD: DBT and CBT skills to soothe the symptoms of borderline personality disorder by Blaise Aguirre and Gillian Galen (2015).

Image: Chameleon by Bryston Riches.

mental health Music Writing

In praise of…Kanye West

The College Dropout

I have loved Kanye since The College Dropout (2004). That summer I went camping with a friend and my only memory of the trip is that we listened to “Spaceship” on repeat. The familiar pitched up vocals on tracks like “We Can Make It Better” from the second album Late Registration (2005) evoke vivid memories of secondary school.  I can recall singing his lyrics to myself while walking the corridors between lessons. After purchasing Graduation (2007) on CD, I played it so much I would often wake with his lyrics in my head: “I had a dream I could buy my way to heaven / when I awoke I spent that on a necklace”. Some provoked strong emotions too. The sentiment in “Bittersweet Poetry”, which I would later revisit when considering my relationship with alcohol, was transposed onto my teenage co-dependencies. (He performed these lyrics in poem form at Def Poetry Jam in 2006, but more on that later.)

Graduation concluded Kanye’s triad of college-themed full-length projects. It closes with “Champion”, an anthem for the next generation that also pays homage to his father for teaching him the value of entrepreneurship. The chorus, I have recently discovered, appropriates a Steely Dan sample (my Dad was a Steely Dan fan.) According to West, it was this determination to express his feelings to his father (“a champion in [his] eyes”) that got the sample cleared. When producing the album he was inspired by stadium tours, house music and indie rock. Not all fans appreciated these efforts to bring hip hop to the mainstream, but it paved the way for other artists who did not conform to the conventions of gangster rap to find commercial acceptance. Only “The Glory” retained the “chipmunk soul” production style he had become known for, but I enjoyed it. I can still recite most of the lyrics.

The Postgraduate

The release of 808s and Heartbreak (2008), West’s melancholic synthpop break-up album, coincided with my first relationship. I can remember nonchalantly scrolling through the tracks on an iPod classic in the passenger seat of his car. I projected my teenage insecurities on to songs like “Paranoid”.  “Welcome to Heartbreak” introduced me to the introspective musings of Kid Cudi. I discovered The Black Album (2003) by Kanye’s hip hop “Big Brother” Jay-Z. I became well acquainted with T-Pain (and Auto-Tune) with the release of “Good Life”. By the time I finished sixth form, “Stronger” (the one with the Daft Punk sample) was still the most-played track at parties, having replaced “Gold Digger” a few years earlier. I welcomed the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2009) after his self-imposed exile in Hawaii, which Pitchfork called “a culmination [of his first four albums] and an instant greatest hits, the ultimate realization of his strongest talents and divisive public persona.” Hearing the high-energy Daft-punk produced “Black Skinhead” from Yeezus (2013) still reminds me of when I attended the UK premiere of The Wolf of Wall Street (AKA Best Day Ever), because it was used in the trailer. It has graced most of my workout playlists ever since.

As the self-proclaimed “Louis Vuitton Don” shifted from Kanye to “Yeezy”, with an increasingly hyperbolic public persona to match, my hero worship did not waver. I loved him when, during the 2005 Hurricane Katrina telethon, he remarked on live television, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” – a moment Bush would later call the “all-time low” point of his presidency. I loved him when he crashed Beck’s Album of the Year speech at the 2015 Grammy Awards, which he played off as a joke – six years after interrupting Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the Video Music Awards for beating Beyoncé to best video. I loved him on the self-referential track “I Love Kanye” from The Life of Pablo (2016) for satirically mocking the critics and followers who disliked his post-808s electronic-inspired sound and emotional outbursts: “I miss the old Kanye / straight from the ‘Go Kanye / Chop up the soul Kanye / set on his goals Kanye”.  I even forgave him when he called it a gospel album, despite deranging it with misogynistic lyrics (he went on to release Jesus Is King in 2019, which actually is “an expression of the gospel”, as West intended).

With The College Dropout, Kanye claimed to be rebranding rap for the next generation, promoting creativity and collaboration in place of rivalry and violence. “I woke up early this morning with a new state of mind, a creative way to rhyme without using knives and guns”, he concludes in its closing track “Family Business” – but he overlooked female empowerment. In 808s and Heartbreak, “RoboCop” degrades a “spoiled little LA girl” who won’t let him forget about his womanising ways. In this especially hateful analogy he compares her to Kathy Bates’ antagonist in the film Misery (1990):

“Who knew she was a drama queen / That’d turn my life to Stephen King’s?…Just looking at your history / You’re like the girl from Misery / You said you ain’t take it to this degree / But let’s agree to disagree”.


West went on to reveal his own emotional immaturity by taking to Twitter to criticise ex-girlfriend Amber Rose, for which he has since made a public apology. The album inspired by their break-up was My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (with its redemptive yet defeatist second single “Runaway”), which he referred to as a “back-handed apology”.

Misogyny is something of a mainstay in mainstream hip hop music. Admittedly, I could be more educated about hypermasculinity in hip hop culture and how it relates to West’s own misogynistic content. Perhaps this is a subject for another time…or another writer – one not so biased in Ye’s favour. On The Life of Pablo Kanye collaborated with his Chicago-born successor Chance the Rapper, whose uplifting lyrics and gospel influences elevated the album with the song “Ultralight Beam” (Chance is also a feminist activist, social activist and Democratic Party supporter). Kanye had the chance to change the record with this album. Instead he chose to pass the baton on to Chance.

Lyrically, West’s eighth studio album ye (2018) represents a notable departure from the likes of “Robocop” and “Runaway”. In “Wouldn’t Leave” he laments over what he risked losing in his marriage due to past errors of judgement, while in “Violent Crimes” he reforms his perceptions of women now that he has become a father. Even so, he continues to consider women in Madonna-whore terms. West has constructed a complicated misogynistic narrative for himself over the years, which I have largely looked past due to my privilege as a university educated white woman (that, and the aforementioned hero worship).

Others have, understandably, been less forgiving. Channelling her frustration at being continually let down by his lyricism, poet Jessica Mans responded with a spoken word performance entitled “Footnotes for Kanye”, which went viral in 2015. In the poem she accuses him of acting out of alignment with the lyrical trajectory laid out by The College Dropout. She speaks his own words back to him to highlight his hypocrisy, in the same art form (ironically) that he adopted for his early Def Poetry Jam performance.

By this point fans and artists alike were becoming increasingly frustrated by what West was not saying – about women, race, black representation and white privilege. One major source of hypocrisy for Mans was when West received his honorary doctorate at the Art Institute of Chicago, failing to use this opportunity to support Black Lives Matter. Instead he used his platform to make public stunts, like jumping to Beyoncé’s defence at an award show. Kanye the “College Dropout” seemed to be staying in retirement. After releasing Yeesuz, which was in many ways an over-the-top manifestation of his God complex, Kanye married Kim Kardashian and in 2014 launched his first fashion collection – prior to which he had designed sneakers for Nike. Speaking in 2017, Mans cites the Yeezy label as promoting “white careless privilege” and criticises West’s “choice…not [to be] a cultural gatekeeper”, describing him as the embodiment of America’s goal “to make black men lose their way”.

The Campaigner

For the most part, rightly or wrongly, Kanye is known for creating public controversy first and music second. While I have overlooked his objectionable politics because of my subjective adoration, objectively I am deeply disappointed by the direction he has taken.  When he was photographed with Trump in 2016, shortly after he was hospitalised for the psychiatric emergency that led to his bipolar diagnosis, I found it sad and disturbing. If there can only be one image pinpointing the moment Kanye lost his way – the moment Trump seized the opportunity to exploit his illness for the praise of a popular Black celebrity – then this is it.

Writing for the Guardian in 2018, author and speaker Ijeoma Oluo points out that West is “selling out his own people” because it will pay off for him personally; but in doing so he is helping to enable real harm:

“West is betting on anti-blackness to gain him power and notoriety in non-black circles…He is already being rewarded for it with the praise of Trump…[A]nti-blackness will come for him in the end because white supremacy may use him but will never actually love him”.

Oluo cautions non-black people against using West’s words to inadvertently justify oppression and systemic racism, “[which] does not allow for black people to speak their truth without resistance, or to own the stories that they have written.” She reminds the non-black reader that when discussing his support of the Trump administration, “you are also discussing a black man as a non-black person, and the way you do so can contribute to anti-blackness in a way that you may not intend, but will still be very responsible for.”  In other words, such discussions have the potential to play into the hands of anti-black opportunism.

There is considerable evidence for the impact of racism on the emergence of mental illnesses and post-traumatic stress. Racism is one explanation for the ethnic inequalities in mental health care. Should we not be softening the hostility that surrounds him, given these contextual complexities? Sure, we can disagree with his politics, but can we not give him the grace his family asks for? There needs to be more compassion shown to people with experience of severe mental illness. I think we need to choose our words more carefully when we are discussing the mental health of people living in the public eye.

The Mental Health Advocate

Individuals reserve the right to conceptualise their own mental health condition in terms that make sense to them. Kanye reinforced this message when he released ye, appropriating for the album cover the well-known phrase “I love being bipolar its [sic] awesome”. It deals with themes of addiction, family conflict and mental illness. Dark, honest and sobering, ye is more contemplative and introspective than its ego-driven predecessors.  And, as he exclaims in “Yikes”, his bipolar “ain’t no disability, it’s [his] superpower!”

Kanye has always liked comparisons. In an early interview he talks about being able to “see” sound, describing (I decided to look this up) a form of synaesthesia called chromesthesia: “It’s hard to explain…I see colours…it’s almost like a portrait. Like an oil painting in my ear.” In a 2013 interview he draws creative parallels between hip hop producers and fashion designers (he is the “Marc Jacobs of hip hop”, apparently). Kanye has famously likened himself to creative geniuses such as Pablo Picasso and Renaissance polymaths Leonardo Da Vinci and Michaelangelo. Clearly synaesthesia is not enough to substantiate these claims, but it’s not such a great stretch to imagine either.

Kanye’s outspoken opinions over the years have complicated the mental health “conversation”. Individuals living with mental health diagnoses like personality disorders risk being stigmatised when bad politics is pathologised, as we have seen with the discourse that surrounds Trump. It could be very damaging to consider some of West’s more controversial acts within the context of a mental health crisis. Kim has defended Kanye on this in the past, responding to speculation about his illness in relation to some seemingly erratic Tweets in 2018: “mental health is no joke and the media needs to stop spitting that out so casually.”

Uneducated guesses about West’s mental health also have the potential to detract from the real harm his words cause. It is possible to have a mental health condition and still say hurtful things. But problems can occur when the two are conflated. Too often West’s mental health is used by the media to invalidate his beliefs, hopes and ideas. In these instances severe mental illness almost sounds like an accusation, rather than being given the compassionate understanding it deserves.

For freelance writer Nylah Burton, who has bipolar herself, much of the rhetoric surrounding West’s health is ableist:

 “When I see the world relentlessly make ableist statements about West, I am reminded once more how it is both confused and often disgusted by people with severe mental illness like bipolar disorder”.

Whether we call them rants or “visionary streams of consciousness” (as Kanye referred to them in his radio interview on The Breakfast Club in 2013), I have been saddened by what I’ve watched online. I won’t be the only one to have followed the trajectory of his bipolar diagnosis this closely. People look to the media for messages about how mental illness is regarded by society. So when celebrities like Kanye become the subject of numerous negative news stories (and he is often at the centre of a media circus), a huge community of people affected by mental illness will be watching.

The Family Man

At the time of writing, the topic of West’s mental state has dominated yet more headlines. In July this year his wife Kim felt compelled to comment, “because of the stigma and misconceptions about mental health.” In a statement to the press she wrote:

“Anyone who has [bipolar] or has a loved one in their life who does, knows how incredibly complicated and painful it is to understand. I’ve never spoken publicly about how this has affected us at home because I am very protective of our children and of Kanye’s right to privacy when it comes to his health… I understand Kanye is subject to criticism because he is a public figure and his actions at times can cause strong opinions and emotions. He is a brilliant but complicated person, who on top of the pressures of being an artist and a black man, who experienced the painful loss of his mother, has to deal with the pressure and isolation that is heightened by his bi-polar [sic] disorder. Those who are close with Kanye know his heart and understand his words sometimes do not align with his intentions.” 

Kim Kardashian West

I am glad Kim spoke out about this. I, along with my two younger siblings, grew up with the confusion and helplessness of witnessing my Dad’s manic and major depressive episodes. There is not enough understanding about the distress caused by mental illness within families.

Journalist Kate Leaver agrees. She has written an admirable piece for Vogue about how Kanye’s unravelling shows our unwillingness as a society to confront the messier symptoms of mental illness. She articulates how it is harder for our collective compassion to extend to mistakes made whilst under the influence of a mental health condition, or experiences like losing touch with reality (psychosis). If an invisible line exists between bipolar and the person, it is important to respect where that line is drawn. Although it is hard not to jump in and rescue, it is generally up to the individual to find that line themselves – with the appropriate professional support and the help of friends and family members, if it is welcomed.

As Leaver points out, “with someone like Kanye, [it’s difficult] to know where his ego ends and his mania begins”. Kim touched upon this in her statement:

“Living with bi-polar [sic] disorder does not diminish or invalidate his dreams and his creative ideas, no matter how big or unobtainable they may feel to some. That is part of his genius and as we have all witnessed, many of his big dreams have come true.”

Inflated egos are prominent in general hip hop discourse, though I think it’s fair to say that West has explored his own ego more so than most hip hop artists. His arrogance is almost trademarked.  I often questioned whether this was related to bipolar, as I did with my own Dad, but the answer was always complicated. Regardless of whether we have mental illness or not, we all have an ego. Let me illustrate this by taking a trait like narcissism, which sits on a spectrum of personality traits – coexisting with arrogance, overconfidence and self-absorption. Sometimes narcissism serves an important purpose for us. (It has benefited Kanye’s success a tremendous amount.) It can also mask deep-seated insecurities and emotional vulnerabilities, such as self-consciousness and shame.

Speaking to the BBC in October 2019, West called himself “unquestionably, undoubtedly, the greatest human artist of all time” – adding, “God is using me to show off.” Taken to this extreme, it is easy to forget that he has spent close to two decades creating some of the most brilliantly original music of any genre. OK, so he may not be a God, but he is still one of the most commercially successful hip hop artists of all time. And as a human being he is flawed like the rest of us.

The “Self Conscious” Poet

On The College Dropout, the track that most hooked me in was “All Falls Down” – Kanye’s moralistic tale about a woman who is gripped by the “peer pressure” of a capitalist culture, full of “the things we buy to cover up what’s inside”. He first performed these lyrics as the spoken word poem “Self Conscious” – an impassioned critique of his own materialism.

My parents were not university educated, but we lived in a fairly affluent area of Oxford among academics, students and University alumni. In retrospect I realise I was incredibly lucky, but this not fitting in felt uncomfortable at the time. I was also the only one of my friends to really love hip hop. Here were these Motown-inspired melodies mixed with conscious rap sensibilities, full of self-examination and lyrics that talked about family, higher education, individualism, materialism, racism, religion and self-identity. I was enamoured with Kanye from the get-go. For someone who confessed to being self-conscious, he was also curiously self-assured. He had self-awareness as well as self-confidence.  For “Through the Wire”, he chose to record his vocals with his jaw wired shut after being in a near-fatal car accident. In “All Falls Down” he included the line, “we’re all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it”.

When it came to light that Kanye had been diagnosed with bipolar, my Dad had been living with the condition for a decade or more.  I struggled to articulate my experience of living alongside this illness. It didn’t help that there were very few examples of lived experience to draw from at the time. Stephen Fry was probably my go-to spokesperson. I found a sort of unofficial one in Spike Milligan too. The confusing and sometimes frightening aspects of mental illness are all too often hidden from public view. If there had been as many media representations of bipolar as there are now, I think I would have coped very differently. Thankfully he is doing really well now, but I wonder whether my Dad would have found it far less isolating too.

Luckily there were many people around me who I did talk to – friends and family members who asked questions and listened as I attempted to answer them. But I met no one with experience of parental mental illness. Even if I had known someone, I doubt we would have talked about it. With hindsight I realise that my inarticulateness about this illness was the consequence of stigma colliding with shame. Why do we suffer in silence, instead of risk sharing what’s on our minds?  I have since seized the occasional opportunity to talk about it and discovered my listener has gone through a similar thing.

Eventually Kanye became my point of reference. My intuition recognised certain subtle expressions of bipolar beneath the bravado of his public persona. I marvelled at the self-awareness and lucidity he expressed in his music. I sympathised deeply whenever he lost his way. I essentially projected onto him my innate protectiveness towards anyone with this illness. The commonalities of my Dad’s manic highs and all-consuming lows were mapped onto Kanye’s character. As he went through his ups and downs over the years, I wouldn’t hear a bad word said about him.

When I first read Kim’s statement my heart filled with compassion. It was this part that really got me:

 “People who are unaware or far removed from this experience can be judgmental and not understand that the individuals themselves have to engage in the process of getting help no matter how hard family and friends try…We as a society talk about giving grace to the issue of mental health as a whole, however we should also give it to the individuals who are living with it in times when they need it the most.”

I recognised my own situation in these words. Whenever this happens – each time a person speaks honestly and openly about the impact of this illness – something inside me shifts and I feel less alone in my experience. As I process it cognitively, there is a felt sensation in the body too. It is a physical unburdening as much as it is an emotional one. Seeking this feeling of recognition is one of my motivations for writing (and the hope that my reader might experience this too is one of the rewards).

The Storyteller

We seek out stories because they help us to create our own. This is why certain psychotherapies are delivered in groups. It is why why peer support often happens in groups too. It is also why I read books, watch films and listen to podcasts. Groups create opportunities for people to tell their stories and have those stories reflected back to them. A similar process happens with writing. In writing our story we attempt to express, as I am now, what we find challenging to articulate out loud. Narrative art forms uniquely and unequivocally support the development of self-identity.

Music is one such art form where stories are found. It is a natural facilitator for connection, to the self and to the outside world. Lyrics tell us stories; but we construct our own narratives around these lyrics too. We often listen together as part of a group; we play music at parties, we go to the cinema, and we hear it live at concerts and gigs. Music can give life more meaning. It is part of our collective experience.

It is no secret that The College Dropout means so much to me because I first heard it when I was a teenager. It was an important time for establishing my own narrative. As teenagers we are becoming independent and experiencing many things for the first time. This is what makes our teenage years so meaningful.  When our memories are stimulated by music, we are not just able to recite the lyrics – we feel strong emotions too.

Robert Snyder at the Art Institute of Chicago says this is because these aspects of so-called “implicit” memory are remembered by the unconscious. This is a more reactive, unintentional form of memory, and “things that can affect us from outside of consciousness are often regarded as powerful”, both in terms of their emotional quality and durability. This explains our tendency to be moved so emotionally by songs from the past.

According to a recent study published in Nature Neuroscience, some memories that are encoded during stress “are so overwhelming and traumatic that [they] hide like a shadow in the brain.” Hidden memories protect the individual from the emotional pain of recalling the event, but they eventually cause debilitating psychological problems. Suppression of the past often leads to anxiety, depression and disassociation in the present. Hearing music can help us to remember complex experiences that the conscious mind cannot recall.

My own memories are fragmented. Some I just cannot access; but I am still left with the feelings. My emotional sensitivity to music can feel joyous, as well as cathartic. I use music to initiate exercise and enhance the endorphin rush. It rewards me with good memories too. In the frustrating landscape of my childhood memories, revisiting Kanye’s music brings some of the blurred experiences into focus. Rappers are storytellers, after all – and Kanye’s story is woven within the fabric of my own.

I have loved Kanye since The College Dropout – and I still do.

mental health Nature Psychology

Seeds of Hope

By Carmen Sheridan

I, like many others, began planting seeds at the start of lockdown. Very fortunately, just a week before, I had been given a small bed on the community allotment I attend. I began by sowing beetroot seeds straight into the bed. Following the rules on the packet scrupulously, the inner narrative was strong and incessant: “you’re doing it wrong”; “they’ll never grow”; “the spacing isn’t right”. I was careful with my seeds, a pack of one hundred; I only sowed about 15. My mind so convinced they would go wrong, I didn’t want to waste them.

I knew that gardening was supposed to be a calming and grounding activity, but here on the allotment my worries and insecurities were transposed onto the plot, taking root and hold. They felt so loud. I was worried about getting it exactly right. All the many things that could go wrong I ran through as though they had already happened: the soil is too dry, too wet, the birds will eat them – that’s if the mice don’t get to them first, etc. I built an elaborate cage to keep out these unwanted guests. 

And still, I left the allotment that day not with a sense of satisfaction, but with a heavy sense of dread. Planting seeds is an act of hope, many gardeners say, but I felt none of that. Any seeds planted at my hands would surely die, I strongly believed. I returned to the allotment every couple of days to water the seeds. On one of these days I was so surprised to see the early signs of seed leaves. So tiny, but I felt a glimmer of this elusive hope. Soon, these were larger and leafier, the vibrant pink stems hinting at the promise of beetroot beneath.

I reflected on this, the belief that felt so real and true, that these seeds would not grow for me. If I dug down (wahey… gardening pun! Let’s see how many I can slip in) I got to the root of this. It was the core belief that I wasn’t “good enough” – good enough for these seeds, for the allotment, for gardening. Much like the pervasive bind-weed that we have at the allotment, this is a thought that crops up through much of my life. It shows up in relationships, at work, when I’m starting new things and, perhaps most painfully, when I’m doing things I love. It’s been with me for as long as I can remember – a thought with roots so deep and far-reaching, with vines that strangle the delicate flowers of hope – holding me back, feeling inescapable.

Here at the allotment, there was space to hear these thoughts. Away from the noise, chatter and distractions of modern life, they were loud and hard to ignore. As the beetroot leaves grew, the strength of the “not good enough gardener” belief diminished. I planted more seeds, lovingly tending to each of them. I repeated the mantra about seeds and hope in my mind. As I looked after and nurtured them, I reminded myself to share a bit of this kindness with myself. The critical, self-sabotaging thoughts still come back, the choking anxiety that I’m doing it wrong or will fuck it up in some way; but now, mostly, I’m able to see them for what they are – just thoughts.

A few weeks ago I pulled up the beetroot, rubbing off the dirt to reveal the deep purple globes. My heart filled with gratitude, for the earth, for the seeds, for the soil – and for the learning gardening can offer us. 

At the allotment, I can learn that making mistakes isn’t the end of the world, that it’s all part of the process of growing. Gardening can be a safe space for listening to these critical thoughts and core beliefs, and digging through them slowly – and with kindness.

Carmen on her allotment.

Carmen captures beautiful photographs @_carmengardens, where she shares her horticultural insights and reflections on nature/wellbeing.

She is currently studying for her RHS Level 2 and lives in Brighton.

Creativity mental health Psychology Writing

Bullet Journaling for Wellbeing

A Guide to Getting Started

What you will need:
  1. A notebook with dot grid pages. Some notebooks come with an index and page numbers, but one without is absolutely fine.
  2. A favourite pen. Possibly a ruler. A pencil is handy too. Coloured pens are optional, as are highlighters, stickers, stencils or washi tape.
What you won’t need:

How to Bullet Plan: a Practical Guide, Everything You Need to Know About Journaling with Bullet Points by Rachel Wilkerson Miller. I’ve read it so you don’t have to! (But if you would like a guide, this one comes strongly recommended.)

Dot grid My Notebook journal by Legami Milano (shown below).
Why Bullet Journal?
  • It helps you to organise your life and keep track of important things.
  • It builds executive functioning skills, like memory and planning.
  • It can be useful when trying to challenge negative thinking biases.
  • It creates focus, supports goal setting and increases goal attainment.
  • It is a place to celebrate your achievements, increase motivation and positive emotion, connect with your values and practice self-care.
  • With careful planning it can take just 10-15 minutes a day to fill in.
The Bullet Journal Method is an analogue system designed to track the past, organise the present and plan for the future.

It was originally conceived for organisation. To give an overview of how it works – and because good organisation is conducive to positive wellbeing – we will spend a bit of time in this area before delving into the wellbeing tips. It should be said that countless interpretations have evolved from this basic method. There is no ‘wrong’ way to bullet journal. The only prerequisite, for it to work long-term, is that it makes you more productive and/or brings you joy. If you are focusing on bullet journaling for wellbeing then you may prefer to skip over this section.

A brief overview of the bullet journal method by its creator Ryder Carroll.
Here are the core tools:
  • Index points to where information on different topics is located.
  • Rapid logging. Events/tasks/notes/lists are logged using a system of symbols to simplify, abbreviate, categorise and organise information.
  • Logs. These are for your events and tasks (known as “spreads”).
  • Collections. These organise related types of information by category.
  • Migration. This is the practice of periodically updating lists to new lists, such as carrying over one month’s unfinished tasks to the next.
Future log:

This log helps you to forward plan and keep track of key events/tasks, such as birthdays/holidays. It is the spread that goes first, either as a list or calendar (or both), and it can be 3-monthly, 6-monthly or 12-monthly. Spread the log/calendar across as many pages as you think you’ll need.

Monthly log:
  • One-page or two-page spread (or more for 6 or 12-month spread).
  • Layout can be a list (dates/tasks/events), or a calendar plus a list.
  • Copy the relevant dates, tasks and events from your future log.
  • Write your monthly tasks list – essentially you are using this space to note down everything that you need or want to get done that month.
  • Add-ons: important events/don’t forget, mood tracker, monthly goals.
Weekly log:
  • One-page or two-page spread.
  • Schedule all upcoming activities by referring to your monthly log.
  • Make space to keep a to do list and (optional) notes section.
  • Add-ons: habit trackers, main focus, meal planner, quotes, reflections, sleep tracker, weekly goals and review, and so on.
Daily log:
  • Log entries using short, bulleted sentences and organise by category (task/event/note) using symbols. Mark priority entries with a star.
  • Migrate any outstanding or incomplete tasks over to the next day.
Your bullet journal is a to-do list and planner and diary in one.

It makes capturing and organising information really fast and it helps you to focus on the things that are worth your time. Stress can impact on productivity and poor organisation can increase stress, so it’s win-win.

The productivity part kicks in when you take the time to evaluate your logs. At the start of each new month, look back over your weekly/daily logs to assess your tasks and timescales. Scan for open tasks and ask yourself, “which are worth my time?” Only these tasks get migrated. This process weeds out distractions, allowing you to focus only on what you consider valuable. It can be a helpful goal setting activity too.


At this point you might decide to log related tasks in a collection. For example, if you are working on a specific project, you would copy all related tasks on to one page (remembering to record the page number in your index). You can refer to your collections when planning your month or week. They can include reminders, like things you are waiting on, shopping/wish lists, or low-priority tasks you want to keep track of. Collections help you to organise your thoughts and plan your time.

Reflection and “Intentional Living”

It is possible to bullet journal without a daily log. In fact, you probably won’t need to use both. If you have a particularly busy day ahead then you could use a daily log; otherwise you can rely on the weekly spread.

It is helpful for this reason to leave enough space for a task list in your weekly spread. Once the week is up you then create a new weekly spread, where you migrate any relevant events and outstanding tasks.

In my case, I do a mini-review of my week every Sunday to establish which tasks are important. Only these are migrated over to the next week. Low priority tasks get migrated to another month or collection.

Carroll calls this process Reflection. If reflecting weekly feels too burdensome or time-consuming, try reflecting monthly instead. Use it as an opportunity to refocus your attention on what matters to you. This is known in the Bullet Journal Method as The Mental Inventory. It forms the basis for goal setting, weekly planning and “intentional living”.

If intentionality means acting according to your beliefs, then the opposite would be operating on autopilot. In other words, do you know why you’re doing what you’re doing?

Ryder Carroll, The Bullet Journal Method (4th edition), page 29.

Making to do lists addresses the overwhelm of decision fatigue too, with the benefit of having the lists all in one place so you can organise them.

The Bullet Journal Promise: “accomplish more by working on less”, page 16.
The Test: for each item on your Mental Inventory list ask yourself “is it vital?”, page 41.
Bullet Journaling for Wellbeing

“The power of the Bullet Journal is that it becomes whatever you need it to be, no matter what season of life you’re in.”

Carroll, page 44.

The bullet journal method is designed with flexibility of both form and function in mind, insofar as you set up the pages as you go along. The effectiveness of your bullet journal will depend on the simplicity of your method. This is especially true of your weekly spread, which you will use every day. These are my suggestions for making a bullet journal work for wellbeing, based on my experience of setting up my own.

The Weekly Spread
  • Weekly calendar spread: create this over two pages and schedule your daily activities a timeline order (symbols are optional). Reflect at the end of each day by adding anything else for an accurate record.
  • Choose a Main Focus. This is something you would like to keep in mind or work on throughout the week. It could be wellbeing related, like “aim to get more early nights”, or “catch myself catastophising.”
  • Goals. These can be more specific and measurable than your focus and could support monthly goals e.g. go for a run 3 times this week.
  • If you are using Custom Bullets and Signifiers (a key with symbols to denote different tasks/categories) keep them as simple as possible.
Daily Reflection: Improve Productivity and Boost Your Mood

I can only improve my time management if I know how I have spent my time. So, at the end of each day, I add in retrospectively any tasks I have completed but not logged. This gives me an accurate record of my day.

Having an accurate record challenges my negative self-perceptions. For example, I sometimes get a gut feeling I have not achieved enough with my time. It is difficult to buy into this negative thinking when I have evidence to the contrary! If I don’t have the time or energy for weekly reflection, seeing my achievements accrue day-by-day is motivation enough. And if I have genuinely achieved very little, then I still benefit from the bullet journal ideas for positive wellbeing (discussed below).

Journaling vs Bullet Journaling

There are several ways you can incorporate the qualities of a traditional diary or long-hand journal in your bullet journal.

  1. Write your diary entries in between weekly logs or after daily logs.
  2. Dedicate a page or two to record reflections, thoughts and feelings.

Alternatively you might decide to keep a separate reflective journal and keep your bullet journal for planning, positivity and progress.

One key benefit of the bullet journal is that it brings everything together in one single place, but it can still suit the multiple-notebook person who wishes to use a separate bullet journal for health/home/study/work.

In this video Carroll explains the differences between journaling and bullet journaling and shows how to combine the two.

Journaling vs Bullet Journaling by Ryder Carroll
Habit Trackers
  • These are great for motivation and reinforcing behaviours. You could consider including one with your weekly spread, starting with just three habits. Mark the relevant box for every day you do them.
  • You can change the habits from week-to-week or month-to-month.
  • Specific health and wellbeing trackers could include meal planners or sleep/water trackers. You might choose to include these if/when you have a particular health goal (mine is often “no caffeine!”).
  • You can track TV/smart phone usage, step count, days you cooked from scratch / packed a lunch / met your savings target – anything!
Bullet Journal Habit Tracker by Lynne G. Caine.
Mood Tracker

Mine takes up one landscape page for each month and looks like this:

 Tues 1st Weds 2ndThurs 3rd
6+ Fruit & Veg    
8+ GlassesxWater   
Fatigue / Lethargy   
Poor sleep   
Flat / Numb   
My Monthly “Mind & Body” Mood Tracker
  • You could use ticks, crosses, coloured boxes – any method you like. I separate habits from physical symptoms by using different colours and I colour-code each mood type too (positive/negative/neutral).
  • It is possible to record morning and afternoon separately by using two different colours and splitting each box in half diagonally.
  • Another idea, if you want to capture the emotional intensity, is to use block colour for strong emotions and shading/dots for not so strong.
  • Keep it simple, though. If it’s not working for you, the next time you set up your monthly tracker try simplifying it and see if that helps.
Three More Monthly Trackers
  • Housework – list all the different chores and dot when you’ve done them. This might not be that fun, but it does remind me to clean!
  • When Did I Last? – e.g. car MOT, dentist, eye test, oil bicycle chain.
  • Workouts – each time you exercise record it in your bullet journal. Even if it’s a short walk, that still counts. I use mine as motivation.
Habit tracker by Martha @marthasjournal.
Bullet Journaling for Wellbeing: Collections

“Creating Custom Collections is a creative, enjoyable, and rewarding aspect of Bullet Journaling because you’re empowering yourself to solve your own challenges!”

Carroll, page 237.
Action Plan

Create an action plan for a particular goal or project using these steps:

  1. Define the goal/objectives
  2. Set a realistic schedule within reasonable time frame.
  3. What are the barriers/obstacles I might encounter?
  4. What strengths/resources do I have already to help overcome these?
  5. What will be my first step/s? Make this manageable!

This is ideal for turning a Mental Inventory into more actionable steps.

Brain Dump

Take up 1-2 pages and get all your thoughts out of your brain and on to the page. You turn all your worries, ideas and dreams in to a list or a mind-map, which you can then turn into actions (if you choose to).

Celebrating Small Wins
  • On one page list the dates of the month down the left-hand side and beside each date, on each day, write down something you achieved.
  • If this seems challenging at first then start by doing it once a week. It’s about congratulating yourself on the small wins and celebrating your accomplishments, no matter how insignificant they may seem.
  • Remember that once complete your tasks turn into accomplishments! An achievements page gives you a dedicated place to celebrate these.

Use one page of your bullet journal to do a mental health check-in. Divide the page into four sections and assign a category to each quarter e.g. physical/mental/emotional/spiritual). Do this as often as you’d like.

“Every day, once a day, give yourself the present of savouring the good in your life.”

Carroll, page 187.
Gratitude Practice
  • List the dates of the month and on each line write down something you are grateful for. Or fill an entire page by writing a list in one go.
  • Gratitude lists work best if what you record is specific and genuine. So if you can, noting it down as soon as you think of it can help.
  • Try the Three Good Things exercise. Write down three good things that happened that day. Next to each positive event, answer one of the following questions: “why did this good thing happen?”, “what does this mean to you?” or “how can you have more of this good thing in the future?” Do it every day or three days times a week.
Random Acts of Kindness

Make a list of ideas for random acts of kindness, marking them off each time you do them. Or simply notice when you perform a random act of kindness and note that down during your daily or weekly reflection.

Carroll, “Less, but better”, page 236.
More ideas for your bullet journal toolkit

The possibilities are endless, but here are some of the ones I like:

  • Books – list the titles you’re reading and tick them off when you’re finished, or break it into smaller chunks by tracking chapter progress.
  • Films / TV shows – use this collection to list all the things you plan to, or want to, watch. Again, tick them off once you’ve seen them.
  • Turn this into a goal by choosing one thing to read/watch each week.
  • Mental health toolkit – list some coping techniques that help most.
  • Self-care – list all the things that do/don’t increase your wellbeing.
Some final words on persevering with your bullet journaling

This wasn’t straightforward for me at first. Sifting through all the available information and making a start was slightly overwhelming (and, I’ll admit, on some days it still is). It took some perseverance and I had to keep tweaking things until I found a set up I was happy with. It was worth it, though. (If you’re interested, I’ve written an essay on how I got started.) I still search Youtube and Instagram for inspiration (without overburdening myself) and I don’t keep any tried ideas that don’t bring me satisfaction or joy. Above all I keep it simple. Happy journaling!

Image: Can Bullet Journaling Save You? The New Yorker (September 2019)
mental health Psychology Writing

Coping with Self-loathing

Negative thoughts of self-loathing can be unrelenting. Feelings of shame, guilt and self-directed anger are destructive for self-esteem and can keep us stuck in certain patterns of behaviour. If it goes unchecked, feelings of shame and self-loathing can perpetuate a vicious cycle of self-criticism as our low mood spirals down further – even turning into self-neglect or self-harm. At better times it can manifest in not being happy with who we are.

It is especially important to focus on acts of kindness towards oneself during these times. Because as hard as it may be, facing the pain that self-loathing brings is the key to resolving it. Learning to feel and process our emotions is a way of developing emotional resilience, but it takes practice. Start by trying out these skills drawn from CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), DBT (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy) and mindfulness.*

“It’s not all bad. Heightened self-consciousness, apartness, an inability to join in, physical shame and self-loathing—they are not all bad. Those devils have been my angels. Without them I would never have disappeared into language, literature, the mind, laughter and all the mad intensities that made and unmade me.”

Stephen Fry, Moab Is My Washpot

1. Have patience

Creating new brain pathways and new ways of thinking takes time. Being patient with yourself as you practice is the first act of loving yourself.

2. Ask for help

This can be from friends, family, teachers, therapists, co-workers or self-help groups. Focusing on getting help for yourself is an act of kindness.

3. Don’t avoid the self-loathing

You cannot address your emotional pain without feeling it first. Facing the reality of your self-loathing is painful, but it is the only way to get out of it. Do this by acknowledging that the pain is there – don’t dwell on it or ruminate. This is the DBT distress tolerance skill known as Radical Acceptance. When you can face the pain, instead of fighting it or dwelling on it, you are mastering it – and healing from self-hatred.

4. Do things you enjoy

If you are in the depths of self-loathing it is likely that you’ll be having a lot of negative experiences, but it is possible to build positive experiences. This is known in DBT as Opposite Action. When done mindfully, it can reduce emotional vulnerability and create balance in our lives. It works like this: if we feel shame and notice the need to isolate, instead we speak up; or, if we feel disgust and want to distance ourselves through avoidance, we push through it and get through the situation. By doing the opposite action the emotion goes away or becomes less uncomfortable. Self-loathing punishes you by depriving you of the things you love, so do the opposite. The more you practice doing things you love, the more you will love.

5. Try a Zen practice

Think about someone you respect who you consider to be a wise, compassionate person. Now imagine that person is living with you in your mind and body during moments of self-loathing and see how they might handle your self-hatred. You could even repeat a compassionate phrase or mantra in your mind – something like “you are enough”, “you are doing your best”, or “this too shall pass”. This is a difficult task, but with practice you will find greater self-compassion.

6. Forgive

Forgive yourself for all your perceived faults and failings. If you have crossed your values and hurt someone, ask them for forgiveness too. Keep in mind that at any point in time you are doing the best you can do. Releasing yourself from anger or resentment is an act of self-compassion.

A note on Opposite Action

This is one of my favourite skills to practice and share with others. I have found it to be effective in so many different situations. These additional practices have helped me with my mental health and might help you too if you are feeling self-loathing – or any other strong emotion for that matter.

It is possible to use opposite action by using your body differently. Take some deep breaths if you are feeling anxious or panicky, or place your hand on your heart when you notice judgement or blame. Challenging the physical signs of shame and submission, for example by lengthening your spine and grounding through your feet, can help to combat self-loathing.

Morning Pages

Taken from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, this is her “bedrock tool” for creative recovery. She likens it to “a form of meditation for hyperactive Westerners”, as the pages clear her head and prioritise her day. Morning Pages requires you write three pages, by hand, first thing in the morning, about whatever comes to mind and which you show to no one. There is no wrong way to do it; you simply keep your hand moving across the page, with no breaks or pause for thought. This practice dislodges the dust from every corner of our life, eventually moving us towards constructive action.

It is helpful for people who have difficulty expressing painful or strong emotions (so all of us, then!). For example, I have found it to be a particularly powerful tool for working through anger and frustration.

List 25 things you love

This is another one of Julia Cameron’s creative recovery tools. If you’re anything like me you can become entrapped by your list-making, so don’t over-think this – just get some things down on paper, which could be a page in a bullet journal (if this is something you like to do). Cameron also talks about scheduling an “artist’s date” – a once-weekly, solo expedition to explore something that interests you. You could do your own version by scheduling a “self-care date”, creating for yourself just one hour a week –or more – to do something you enjoy. You could refer back to your list of loves for ideas, or throw it away as soon as you’ve finished – it is up to you.


Coping with BPD: DBT and CBT skills to soothe the symptoms of borderline personality disorder by Blaise Aguirre and Gillian Galen (2015).

Julia Cameron Wants You to Do Your Morning Pages, The New York Times online (February 2, 2019).

Read Julia’s Blog online / her books The Artist’s Way and The Right to Write.

*These skills are best practiced when you feel safe and well enough. If you are experiencing a mental health crisis or medical emergency click here for information from Mind, the mental health charity, about how to get help.

Photograph (my own): Self-compassionate Graffiti, Princes Place Public Toilets (Royal Pavilion Gardens, Brighton).