Muriel Cooper
Psychologist in Mornington

Happiness and success


Reaching happiness and success

Articles about achieving happiness, success and sustaining relationships.

Better mental habits through mindfulness

'Prevention is better than cure', so the old saying goes. People tend to be proactive when it comes to physical health. We make sure we eat properly and exercise regularly because we're taught to do so as children. Keeping ourselves mentally healthy doesn't come as easily. We're not taught how to think and often we don't learn to emotionally regulate either. Sometimes that's because it's culturally unacceptable to show our emotions (or we're taught that "boys don't cry"). Or we're taught that some feelings are bad and we shouldn't have them (anger for example), but we're not taught how to channel them properly.

Developing better mental and emotional habits when we're adults is much harder to do. If you're saying to yourself 'I don't have time for that' or 'how am I going to remember?' ask yourself how you learned your good physical hygiene habits. Your parents nagged you ('For goodness sake go and clean your teeth') and/or you learned it in school. As for not having time, it only takes a minute here and there. Practice ...

'A little and often'

As grown-ups, we need to make an extra effort because that effort is up to us. We need to be pro-active. Initially, being pro-active can be a little stressful. You're the one who has to do the nagging but do it gently and be persistent. Here are some things to do and ways to remember how to do it.

Drag racer spinning its wheels

My use of cars as a metaphor for our mental health began when some years ago a client had a series of dreams about a red car. In the first dream, her red car had broken down in the middle of nowhere and she couldn't get anyone to fix it. In the second dream, it was the same scenario but her battery had gone flat and again, she couldn't get anyone to fix it. We talked about these dreams and I made a few observations.

The car is often symbolic of us in dreams. Red is symbolic of the colour of blood and therefore of life. Her battery was flat. This indicated to me that her life was broken down and drained of energy. She was also very emotional and weepy, feeling overwhelmed and without direction. I made the point that her masculine side was absent and her feminine side was dominant and that perhaps she needed to plan to take some action in her life.

In the third dream, she was again driving the red car and it had once again broken down by the side of the road with a flat battery, but this time, her father arrived with a replacement battery, fixed the car and she was on her way.

This seemed to me a very elegant way for the unconscious to try to communicate to her that her masculine was back. She became more energetic and decisive, and took action to resolve her difficulties.

As time passed, I saw more and more similarities between us and the vehicles we drive. Here are some of them.

Whether we want to:

  • Get that project done
  • Do that homework
  • Change that behavior
  • Do our daily exercise/meditation/ daily mental health practice
  • Overcome that fear/anxiety
  • Get though a day of depression
  • Not smoke/emotionally eat/gamble for a day

It can be hard to:

  • Get started
  • Keep started and
  • Reach our goal

Rewards work very well for humans because we are goal and achievement oriented. Each time we reach a milestone, even a small one – we get a little burst of dopamine in our brain – the neurotransmitter that is involved in our reward and pleasure centres, but we do tend to put things off, so that burst can be a long time coming.

Clients often say to me 'I feel so good when I use the techniques you give me – I can't understand why I'm not doing them'. In other words – you're getting a dopamine burst so why isn't it enough to keep you on track?

ProcrastinationDealing with the bad feelings around procrastination

Procrastinating makes us feel awful so why do we do it? Because as bad as the feelings are when we've put something off, they're often not as bad as the feelings we have when we're trying to start something. 

If you learn how to deal with the bad feelings of starting a task, often you can overcome your propensity to put things off.

If you're a procrastinator, I don't have to tell you how annoying, frustrating and stressful it is. You may know that procrastination is caused by factors like fear of disappointment from oneself or others, in fact you can make the task so scary that your survival brain will make you avoid it because it senses that it is threatening.  Also the task could be stressful to do - hence avoidance of the stress of doing (and so you create the stress of not doing) - isn't it ironic? Then there's perfectionism ("I'll never get it just right"), lack of organisation and so on.

Many procrastinators justify their stalling tactics by convincing themselves that they "work better under pressure" (this may be true, but is it just that they always put themselves under pressure and so don't know any other way?). The result is almost always stressful.

Solutions offered often focus on your thoughts as a procrastinator and ask you to challenge distorted thinking – like: "I work best under pressure", "I can only do this if I get it perfect", "it's too late to try now" (no it isn't), or "I'm stupid to even bother trying".

Challenging these dysfunctional thoughts is always a good idea, but it doesn't address the emotional component of procrastination – the stress, anxiety and depression; feelings of worthlessness, fear – even boredom!