Everyone likes the idea of bounding out of bed every morning and kissing the alarm clock for welcoming you to a new day, but for most, actually trying to achieve that state of bliss is far from appealing. It’s easier to trudge along in a fog of low self-esteem rather than risk embarrassing yourself on a self-help course. Yes, we all want to be more confident and assertive, but if it means acting like a loon in front of a group of strangers then, gulp, no thanks.
For years I felt that way too, but then something in me snapped. Why did I sniff contemptuously at confidence-building courses while there were days when I felt so wobbly that the only place to be was under the duvet? I decided to launch myself into a series of self-esteem workshops before self-doubt got the better of me.
WORKSHOP 1 - SELF-HYPNOSIS
Fighting back images of swinging pocket watches or humiliating cabaret shows where dazed dupes blithely munch raw onions, I enrolled on a weekend course. According to Mark Tyrrell, the organiser, "Self-hypnosis brings confidence and calm where normally you feel anxious." During a trance your subconscious mind is free from the critical voice we all have inside us, and more open to suggestion, making it an ideal state for tackling anxiety and phobias. It sounded promising, especially when he added: "You can’t get stuck in a hypnotic state and become a mindless automaton. Hypnosis is a natural phenomenon - we do it every day."
To prove it, the first exercise for our group was to think up times when we find ourselves day-dreaming, which is a trance-like state. Among the suggestions were ironing, commuting and bell-ringing. Alan, the brave soul who suggested the last activity, was immediately picked by Mark to become his first hypnosis candidate. As Alan tried to relax in a deckchair in front of the class, Mark’s demeanour changed dramatically. Where previously he had been reassuringly light-hearted, he suddenly became intensely focused.
"Your eyelids are heavy... You’re energised and calm…" Mark whispered. "The sounds around you allow you to relax deeper and deeper." Amazingly, Alan appeared to slip into a trance, and Mark invited Alan’s subconscious to raise his arm. It wasn’t a stunt, Mark insisted, just a demonstration of how amenable to suggestion the subconscious is.
After he brought Alan round, Mark’s colleague Jill Wootton put the whole group in a trance and I definitely felt myself becoming hypnotised. It felt like I was ambling around a dream. I was still aware of my surroundings, but everything was very distant. Afterwards, I was incredibly calm and uplifted, and anything seemed possible.
As the weekend progressed we were taught different self-hypnosis exercises to alter our mood, including combatting phobias and breaking out of destructive patterns.
Jill illustrated the last technique, known as scrambling, with a story about how she cured a client who chewed through 12 biros a day at work. I admitted that my own bugbear was procrastinating before making important phonecalls, and this time it was my turn to try out the deckchair. Being scrutinised by 25 beady classmates didn’t encourage me to drift off into a trance, and at the time I wasn’t sure how effective her session was. A month later, though, I realised my usual trick of finding a million reasons not to pick up the phone had gone. The workshop as a whole turned out to be similar to this - at the time you’re busy fretting over your stomach rumbling or looking at Mark’s curly hair, but all the time your subconscious is beavering away, examining new attitudes and jettisoning old habits.
The weekend left me a convert to self-hypnosis. Weeks later I only need to recall the phrase ‘clarity and lightness’ to be soothed. No more hiding under the duvet for me.
Uncommon Knowledge (01273 557799, www.uncommon-knowledge.co.uk)
WORKSHOP 2 - FIREWALKING
If self-hypnosis is the therapeutic equivalent of a comforting mug of warm milk, firewalking is a tequila slammer. The workshop promised to be a motivational tool to jump-start you on the road to success. "After you’ve walked across hot coals, you think ‘If I can do that, I can do anything’," explained Cliff Mann, the workshop leader.
Before the course started, I’d assumed navigating the glowing embers required that slippery concept "mind over matter" and chanting the phrase "cool wet moss" - both of which seemed a tall order when faced with a 10ft burning path. But Cliff dispelled the myths. I was a little disappointed to learn that it was physically impossible to get burnt, even if I thought "hot burny flames". The carbon-based embers don’t conduct heat well, so if you walk over them they don’t have time to frazzle your soles.
The real benefit of firewalking is conquering your fear. Even if you know rationally that you can’t get burnt, there’s still the jelly-kneed part of you tugging at your sleeve, begging to go home.
One of the most effective exercises involved the Peter Pan stance, where Cliff illustrated that just by standing legs akimbo, hands on hips and chest puffed out like a principal boy, you can feel able to tackle anything. If you really want to achieve things, you’ve got to act the part. And by getting us to shout: "I am strong, I am powerful, I am magnificent," he stirred up the room into a frenzy of excitement. When the time came, we were so psyched up that even seeing the hot coals being shovelled into a path didn’t dampen our spirits.
When it was my turn to cross the coals, Cliff shouted, "Are you ready to firewalk?" and I screamed, "YES!" I crunched over the embers as if they were sugar cubes and although I could feel the difference between them and the grass between them, it didn’t hurt a bit. After five seconds of glory everyone was hugging and comparing sooty feet. It gave me a huge rush of adrenalin and self-belief.
Blaze (0115 9608208, www.blazefirewalking.com)
WORKSHOP 3 - VOCAL TRAINING
Now armed with a calm central core and rock-solid self-belief, the final thing I needed was the ability to express all this positivity. Enter Philip Milburn, leader of The Voice Experience, a day-long vocal workshop. Ever since I mangled Little Donkey at the school concert, I’ve never been confident at singing, and even when talking I think anything above a whisper sounds strident, so I definitely needed a pep talk about expressing myself. Philip explained that this can be learned just by singing as part of a group. "Music can help you let go of inhibitions."
The first exercise facing our group of 14 was to shuffle about bleeping like aliens. Things weren’t looking good until Philip introduced us to different ways of singing, including Samoan canoeing chants and mesmerising Afro-American spirituals. By lunchtime I was bellowing "Oh lordy!" with gusto.
After lunch we tackled improvisation. Not being a fan of jazz I balked at the idea, but Philip had ways of making us scat. Just by asking us to describe what we had for lunch, then putting it to a beat and adding a melody, he managed to get us singing an amazing harmony of "baked potato and cheese" and "vegetable stew". Eventually we were all dancing round the room clapping - and I was leading the group. The man is a miracle-worker. Afterwards as I walked home humming, I realised that Little Donkey would no longer prove a problem.
The Voice Experience (020 7461 0432, www.freethespirit.co.uk) n
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