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Do I come on too strong? How to moderate your personality

Whether we have a 'big' personality (extrovert) or a quiet personality (introvert), there might be times when we would like to stand out more, or blend in more, depending on the situation and the company we're in.

It might also depend on how much we’ve had to drink. Alcohol can make us say or do things we regret later, or help us avoid social anxiety by ‘numbing’ us to the point where we end up doing embarrassing things anyway. It might be a challenge to adapt to people or circumstances but people do it all the time, and so can you. It takes skill and tact, so here are a few ways you can work on moderating your personality – without alcohol.

How to take and moderate your emotional temperature

Your Goldilocks zone

Emotions are one of the most challenging things about being human. Other animals don't think about it – they just react. However, humans have evolved to have morals, a conscience and a code of conduct called 'manners'.

Being able to control our emotions is very important to us. It help us to have healthy relationships – it helps us to belong (extremely important to us), and it helps us to feel good.

Every emotion is functional – to a point. For example guilt is functional – it stops us from breaking the law and makes us apologise when we've done wrong. But when guilt gets out of control (e.g. ruminating and beating ourselves up for things in the past we can't change) – then that is far from functional. It just doesn't work for us at all.

An easy way to remember whether an emotion is helpful, or unhelpful – is to think of it like a thermometer.

If the emotion is in the red – it's too hot, or intense.

If the emotion is in the blue – it's too cold, or soft.

Think of purple as 'just right'.

The awesome power of a fake smile

The famous 'smiley face' icon 😀 is famous for a reason. It makes us want to smile back. Why?

In our brain we have mirror neurons and these mirror neurons are our key to decoding the emotions and actions of others. As Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the University of California at Los Angeles says of mirror neurons, they "are the only brain cells we know of that seem specialized to code the actions of other people and also our own actions. When I see you smiling, my mirror neurons for smiling fire up, too, initiating a cascade of neural activity that evokes the feeling we typically associate with a smile."

But, Is the ball really smiling? After all – it's only a ball.

Well, as good as.

According to Dr Owen Churches, from the school of psychology at Flinders University, Adelaide, emoticons (including the smiley face), is a new form of language that we're adapting to have and when we see a smiley face icon, the area of our brain that recognises real faces, lights up.

So far so good; when we see a fake smile (or a real one on an actual person), it makes us feel better.

How do I know when I'm OK?

20 ways to check if you're OK

  1. You feel reasonably contented most of the time with occasional spikes of happiness (and maybe the odd 'downer')
  2. You don't have 300 unopened emails in your inbox
  3. You strive – but don't expect to be perfect
  4. You don't take things too personally and if it seems that way you can tell yourself "It's not my problem if they think that way anyway"
  5. You have a healthy sense of control – you are not overwhelmed and things aren't getting away from you (have a plan – remember the brain loves a plan)
  6. Even if things are going badly for you, you have a healthy sense of perspective ("Even if the worst case scenario happens – it won't be the end of the world")

Can you trust your 'gut feelings'?

Making decisions – should I trust my 'gut feelings'?

I'll declare my bias up front and say (on a personal note) that I am a firm believer in intuition or 'gut feelings'). I rarely hear from people that it has not worked for them and that is also my own experience.

Scientifically though, intuition hasn't had a good run in the past. One report says "Intuitive processes and outcomes have been considered as inefficient mental short-cuts."

In more recent years though, science has been having a good look at intuition and its role in decision-making as well as in our mental processes in general, and to quote another report, "Intuition is now a legitimate subject of scientific inquiry". So far so good, science says it's OK.

What is intuition?

Jung defined intuition as "perception via the unconscious", seeming to indicate that intuition is not a conscious, thinking process. It could also come from just underneath the surface – what Freud called the 'Subconscious' (as opposed to the deeper levels of the unconscious).

In psychology it's commonly thought that intuition is 'condensed reasoning' or 'swift cognition' – that is the thought is so fast we don't even notice we're having it and so it seems to come out of nowhere.

Gerd Gigerenzer, author of 'Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious' argues compellingly that "what we feel in our gut is informed by our brain".

Many researchers have found that the gut has its own nervous system called the 'enteric' nervous system and it is not a big stretch to move towards the 'gut' and the 'central, or brain nervous systems being connected.

All this is very interesting, but ...

Will I or won't I? How to make big decisions

Making a snap decision is often easy. The ball is coming at us – we decide in a split second whether to catch it and how. We hardly even have to think about it; it's a reflex action. Sometimes we might drop the ball or fail to catch it but the decision to try is made without us having to even think about it.

A little stress (or emotion in general) can help us to take the leap of decision making – in fact you literally can't make a decision without the limbic system (or the emotional brain) being involved. People who've had this connection severed find that they can't make a decision about anything, including what to have for breakfast.

However too much stress can flood the brain with stress chemicals and make trying to decide (or think straight at all) a fuzzy experience. If you're overly stressed delay making that life-changing decision until you are in a better space, otherwise you might get pressured (by yourself or others) into making a decision you'll later regret.

Another problem is that we have so many choices in our decision making today and so many options. A couple of hundred years ago the ordinary citizen only had a choice of about two sets of clothes – one for every day and one for Sundays. Now you can stand in front of the wardrobe for ages without being able to decide what to wear (and that goes for men too). Even in big decision making, we often have too many choices now.

But what about those big, hard-to-make decisions, the kind we agonize over, procrastinate over and dither about? That's much harder. Will we buy or move house? Will we change jobs? Will we ask that man or woman to marry us? - Decisions, decisions.

How to stop your wheels spinning – why life is like a car

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.

Breathing towards a calmer you

Most of us breathe automatically. That is, we leave it to our body and we don't even think about it. This is unfortunate because we could be doing it so much better and feeling better for it.

The automatic breaths we take are just enough to exist – the recommended daily intake of you like. But it's the therapeutic dose, the amount or frequency, that makes a real difference to our health and well-being.

For a start, the automatic breath is usually fairly shallow and up in the chest. It's also a 'panting' breath where the input and the output are basically the same.

Let me introduce you to - ta dah - the Vagal breath! It's a conscious breath - you decide to breathe this way. This results in a generally calmer you, and a better ability to deal with acute stressors. Recent studies confirm this.

Daily mental hygiene – what to do and how to do it more often

One of the hardest things for me as a psychologist is not giving people strategies and coping mechanisms to deal with SAD (Stress Anxiety Depression), that's relatively easy. The problem is how to get people to do it on a regular basis. As I often say – you don't wait until get holes in your teeth and then brush them (although it's never too late).

But remember the old saying – prevention is better than cure and daily practice can do wonders.

Daily Mental Hygiene not only helps us be happier and make us more resilient against SAD but it helps our overall health as well, reducing our blood pressure and heart rate and helps us sleep better.

So why don't we do it?

We get into the habit of brushing our teeth because mum or dad nagged us every day as kids to do it. It's deeply ingrained now. Also the dentist bill for a filling is enough to make anyone want to brush their teeth.

Also we do it in the morning when we have a shower or groom ourselves in the bathroom, so we learn to associate brushing our teeth with another habit or thing - that becomes what I call a reinforcement reminder.

Also we don't want to make it too onerous or we'll be put off doing it.