Our guest today is Gemma who runs a business called Awkward Conversations. She works with teenage girls who experience bullying, peer and friendship issues. She helps them by looking at their experience from different perspectives, releasing emotional charges, creating new and empowering beliefs, and helps them take action to live the life they want. She teaches girls to be their unique selves, creating confidence and self-worth.
Gemma is passionate about helping teenage girls due to events and experiences from her own past and childhood. It’s an impressionable time when you start to form and cement your belief systems about yourself and the world. She realized as she got older that she could change her negative beliefs about herself and wanted to help teach these lessons to young girls so they could work through them earlier in life.
Gemma was often compared with her pretty sister in her youth. At school the boys were particularly mean to her and called her ugly, or said that they couldn’t believe she had a sister that pretty. Many of these boys were even her ‘friends’. One time at a family party she overheard her uncle say that her sister was the ‘pretty one’ and she was the ‘ugly one’. This further cemented negative beliefs about her appearance and damaged her sense of self-worth. She felt “doomed” and that her fate was sealed based on how she looked. To her, the evidence was there – people at school said it, her friends said it and her family said it. She started to hate her own face, while at the same time getting jealous of others who were prettier.
What helped Gemma at that time was that she focused on her academics, and excelled at school and studying by working really hard. She also took up martial arts which helped her meet new people and learn something new.
Gemma’s sister had died suddenly when they were in their 20’s. Aside from the obvious trauma and grief that would be normal in this kind of situation, it also stirred up a lot of these deep seated beliefs from her childhood. She began to think that it should have been her that died and not her sister, and she thought that other people would also be thinking the same thing. Imagine just how damaging thoughts like those are on your psyche! Her negatively reinforced (and false) beliefs were essentially telling her that her life wasn’t worth much at all. This in turn caused her to feel she had to prove her worth and her existence in the world. When you’re focused on trying to prove to others or even to yourself that your existence is worthwhile, you certainly can’t be happy. Happiness comes from within after all.
Gemma says she would have reached out for help sooner if she didn’t have those self-limiting negative beliefs. She thinks that because of them, even processing the grief of her sister’s death took 7 or 8 years.
Gemma only realised all this when she started to learn about how thoughts and beliefs can shape your life and how you ‘show up in your life’. She did a lot of research, took courses, NLP programs, psych-k programs, had coaching. It was a lot of personal development – she took time and made effort to help herself. Her ultimate learning was that no matter what anyone else does to us, or what happens in life, we are still in control of what we think and how we feel, and what we believe in. Beliefs about ourselves can be changed.
She hopes that by working with teenage girls, she’ll be able to help prepare them for situations in their lives where they can meet and face their challenges head on and worth through them directly, instead of avoiding and suppressing them as they deal with their own existing past traumas and negative beliefs.
Gemma made some great comments about the idea of self-limiting beliefs. She said that instead of thinking of these beliefs as being there to stop us or sabotage us, they’re actually here to protect us from really negative feelings. It’s important to look at these thoughts and beliefs and identify why they exist, and what they’re trying to protect us from or stop us from feeling. It’s a natural avoidance system. However, we know that long term, even though the belief tried to protect us for a short time in the past, they are not serving us in any positive way anymore. These protective mechanisms aren’t meant to be carried around forever. Usually they arise in a specific situation, and might alert us to a danger or protect us from something when we’re young. They are no longer required or useful after that.
She says that they only way to really get rid of pain is to sit with it, or work through it by feeling it. Remember that these negative and self-limiting beliefs are trying to help us by avoiding pain, and to make sense of the world and our situations. Think about her uncle saying she’s the ugly one. She has two ways to look at it: 1. Her uncle is mean, insensitive and immature and doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and 2. She is ugly and it’s a bother to her family. As a young girl, her family was likely the biggest part of her entire world and support network. She trusted them as they were adults and she was a kid. If she lost respect for her family, she would be alone and have nobody to rely on. This was very frightening and perceived as a danger by her mind. So her mind created the lie that she was indeed the problem, so she could continue to have confidence in her family – and that they were always looking out for her best interest. As an adult she knows that adults and family aren’t always perfect. But as a kid, the idea your family isn’t perfect is very frightening because you rely on them completely.
A great line Gemma quoted was “I have feelings but I am not my feelings”. So you say “I felt sad” not “I am sad”. One is a temporary, transient state that is separate from who you are, and the other feels like a more permanent state tied directly to your identity.
She was once stuck, believing things would never change, and things were as they were. Then she realized that having a growth mindset means you are actually able to change your thoughts and feelings, and things don’t have to be the same way forever. It’s not about looking at what’s happening on the outside, but it’s about changing what’s going on inside of you that creates change.
Bullying is often associated with feelings of grief. For example, you may have a friend who bullies you, and by accepting that the person might not be your friend anymore, there’s a sense of loss there. All the good times, memories and emotions you experienced in the past seem to have been lost. But the greatest loss of all is the loss of a connection with yourself. If you lose touch with your identity, then it’ll be very hard to be truly happy and at peace. The good news is that this is always within reach – it’s always possible to regain that connection.
When people are unhappy, feeling disassociated with themselves, lost and in a dark place they often turn to avoidance behaviours in order to avoid facing the pain. Again, it’s important to note that facing the pain when it is first occurring, either on your own or with a therapist, is the way through. But people often feel alone and hide behind various behaviours. This could be drugs and alcohol, it could be some other obsessive behaviour like shopping, or eating, or even bullying others. In Gemma’s case, her avoidance behaviours actually seemed like positive things, so it made it even harder for people around her to know she was not doing particularly well. It delayed her getting help. Gemma was able to achieve and do things as she threw herself so completely into activities like work, learning and exercise. She was still hiding from how she was feeling, but nobody saw these things as bad. She went on like this for years, until hitting a breaking point where no matter how busy she was all the time, she still didn’t feel very good. Even seemingly positive activities can be used as a mechanism of avoidance, which is damaging in the long run. After confronting the trauma or pain, and working through it – you’ll find a lot more joy and peace in the activities you do.
Gemma threw herself into exercise, fitness and bodybuilding. In order to compete, you have to be super focused, so it was really a perfect distraction. She ‘lived’ from competition to competition, seeking out that rush and high that you feel when you compete, and succeed at something. But right afterwards, when you realize you’re still the same person you were before, in the same situation – depression and sadness can kick in again. There’s only so much time you can spend doing things like this before you can no longer do it. The longer you spend getting used to the ‘highs’ created by these sorts of competitions, the harder it will be to accept things when you finally need to give it up. You can spend years doing something you enjoy, with a backdrop of emotional pain, experiencing ups and downs, or you can address the pain first, and spend years truly enjoying what you do and being genuinely happy. Gemma spent five years doing this. She genuinely enjoyed herself, and it was a positive thing for her to do, but she does acknowledge that part of it was still used as a way to avoid how she was feeling. Interestingly, the most positive aspects about it were meeting new like-minded people, forming a support network, and learning about yourself. What she means by that is how hard are you willing to push yourself, seeing what you can achieve if you put your mind to it, how you feel during the process. Notice this is a very intrinsic or internal value – not an external one. She even went back to training after she stopped competing, just because she enjoyed it.
Another thing that competition does is it delays gratification and happiness and sets it into a particular moment in time (in the future). If we can learn to be happy and gratified during the entire process, in the present moment, then that’s a lot more time spent being happy. It’s really the difference between an entirely extrinsically-focused mindset and an entirely intrinsically-focused one. I think the best is to have a blend of the two. But to know that all you absolutely need to be happy is inside. The outside stuff is just icing on the cake.
Gemma also made a great point about how we define ourselves. It all comes back to external vs internal. When she started bodybuilding it was fairly uncommon and unique – she felt special. But as the years went by, it became more popular, and she felt less and less special. Then she was asking herself “ok, now what do I do to feel unique and special… who am I now and what defines me?”. Who you are is found inside yourself, and only you can define who you are by what you think, what you believe, and how you leverage that to manifest action in the world. It’s definitely a choice, and some might say they have a ‘calling’. But it’s inside you to discover and cultivate continuously through your life.
Gemma found that one of the most powerful things she learned was how to reframe experiences. Rather than thinking “why is this happening to me” she would look for things she could learn from the experience, what opportunities might have arisen. Then you start to find solutions, instead of dwelling on problems.
As mentioned before, she also found that changing our beliefs is the key to happiness and getting through something painful from our past or present. She stated that “you have to decide, do I want to be right, or do I want to be happy”. You can always find evidence in support of your beliefs, and if they are positive beliefs then that’s great. But if they aren’t, then it’s also worth looking at evidence that is not in support of them, and try and diminish their importance to you. Challenge these beliefs – are they true, are they serving me, and can I believe something different?
Gemma’s parting words were “you can always reach for a better thought or a better feeling. It does take some practice. Just keep questioning things. Stay open minded, stay curious. You will make your life a lot easier.”
For those who have experienced or are experiencing bullying, she says “just do anything to help yourself, even if you think it doesn’t work. Keep trying. Those who tried to help themselves have healed from bullying a lot faster than those who haven’t.”