Department Store for the Mind with Ruth Williams
Ruth Williams, a business psychologist, talks about Department Store for the Mind, self-acceptance and self-compassion. She also shares her daily practices that keep her calm and grounded.
Today’s guest is Ruth Williams, a business psychologist and the Managing Director of Department Store for the Mind, a company that creates beautiful things and writes books that encourage a more mindful way of life. Everything Department Store for the Mind creates invites actions that increase self-acceptance and strengthens connectedness with others.
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Ruth, welcome to the show.
Hi, Clare. Thanks for having me along.
I’m really interested in how the place you grew up and the place you live in today, how those two locations influenced and continue to influence the work that you do in the world today.
I grew up in the city of Leicester, in the East Midlands. I lived there until I was in my early twenties. I went traveling for a while and then came back and lived in a few different places. I’ve now settled in Brighton on the south east coast. I’ve been here for ten years now. I think cities and places you grow up definitely shape what you think, how you believe, what the choices you make. Maybe I’m aware of some of it, not all of it, but I can pick on the places I’m more aware of. Leicester is a really diverse city. I grew up with friends whose parents and grandparents came from places in India, in Africa, in China. I grew up eating lots of different foods, learning and understanding about different cultures, and understanding things about what happens as well when people are removed from their home cultures and come to new places. Sometimes parents would struggle, sometimes they would integrate more easily. I always found it fascinating and really interesting to hear about those sorts of stories. In Leicester there’s a really big focus on diversity and inclusivity and being accepting of people who are different because there are so many people who are different being just white British in the majority of the population. It was what I always saw so I thought everywhere would be like that.
Of course, leaving Leicester, I found out that places are quite different and attitudes are quite different. I got interested in how that exposure that I had to different people shaped what I thought. I’m interested in that as well now living in Brighton. Brighton is quite famous for having really big lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender population and for being quite creative place, there’s lots of artists that live here. There are a lot of things that are about giving people license to be who they are. You see lots of eccentric characters, wonderful clothes, all kinds of things going on in Brighton. There’s a real sense of it’s okay to be who you are. This is a place you can come and be accepted for that. That links in to what I do now working at Department Store for the Mind, where the core of what we do is about creating, like you said, products, things that encourage habits, rituals, daily practices that increase self-acceptance. Even more than that really, encourage people to take quite confidently a dive into finding out whatever the idiosyncrasies are, what the little things are that make them truly who they are, and how they can bring them more to the fore in their lives.
I’d love for you to talk a little bit about the work that you do in organisations and how, what you’ve just said, informs that work.
Business psychology is just huge in terms of what it does. In reality, business psychologists tend to focus on different aspects of that. We do all sorts of things with strategy and change and recruitment. The bit I really love, really enjoy, and probably be having a focus on the most is looking at soft skills training. What that really means, soft skills gets us a bit above present sometimes. What it really means is looking at how we can, in a training or workshop space, help people go through a journey or a process that enables them to maybe address them if there were anxieties and connect more deeply and completely with other people. When it works at its best, we often see leaders, managers, directors, those sorts of people. When it works at its best, we end up with an organisation where the people within that organisation feel deeply hurt, like they’re real selves are hurt and they feel happier within the workplace. As a result of this, they can perform to the best that is possible for them.
Right at the core of all of that, just to make the connection about the location side of it, in the work that I did, we did lots of different things that encourage people to think about who they are, where their strengths are, where their fears and their anxieties and worries might lie. Then we look at all different tools and approaches after this light touch where it’s possible to make it easier to actually take them on that would help for them to address any of those fears and then be constructive in how they were addressing them and then connecting with the people they’re relating and managing also. It’s about self-acceptance too.
What does self-acceptance mean to you on a personal level?
For me, it’s never ending and that’s a good thing. There’s not an arrival point with this. As you get older, I’m in my early forties now and I’m a mum to two boys, then it changes. As you go through different stages in life, you learn more about what your potential is and also what your limitations are. For me, it’s being comfortable with both of those things and looking at how they grow.
I guess as a mum, my older little boy who’s six, he’s really active as a learner. Going into the classroom and needing to sit down and do that sort of thing for him has been a bit of a challenge. He’s getting there with it. I’ve had to, as a mum, recognise really that because I found school and that sitting down and doing things, writing neatly, quite easy. I wanted the same for him. I’ve really had to recognise in myself that I might project the expectation on to him and I need to rein that and really understand him for who he is and where his strengths are and not be going into, “Maybe we should be looking at it like this,” but say, “Why is it you’re looking at it like that? What’s going on for you?” Getting deep into that with him rather than trying to steer him towards my expectation. That’s a big thing for me at the moment around looking at me because we often get into these things in the relationships we have or in the isolation with my little boy.
That’s a really great example of catching it early enough on to recognise it and acknowledge things. I think it makes it easier to handle. The thing lessens in power as well. It has less power to be troublesome.
Nipping in the bud is a lovely way of thinking of it actually. I think the earlier you nip it in the bud, the less of an issue it becomes as well.
Ruth, I imagine that life with two young children while you’re also running a business and consulting can be fairly full. How do you manage to stay well and happy and connected to what’s important to you in the day-to-day? I’m sure some of that is around having and cultivating self-awareness so that you can be kinder to yourself. Talk about that a little bit.
I wouldn’t say that I’ve nailed it to begin with but I’m working towards it. My biggest challenge is that I get excited about things, “Let’s do everything.” I have to be really aware of that that I don’t overpromise to my clients and I don’t overpromise to my family as well about what I can do. Try to be realistic about it. Try as well to not feel that everything has to happen now. We talked about this a lot at Department Store of the Mind about living, mindfully about slowing down, about feeling okay to go a bit more slowly. Then we get into… predominantly online with our business. There at the computer and emails firing in and you’ve got all the social media going on and you think, “How do we find a way to slow down with this?” It’s trying to focus on one thing at a time. With email, it might be just reading one, dealing with it, seeing that through to completion, and just focusing on that, rather than half-doing that whilst thinking about the other five that I saw that were urgent in my inbox that I should be doing as well. By doing that, I can actually enjoy the one that I’m dealing with right now and do something of quality that I feel satisfied with and then move on. That may mean, of course, that I can’t do as much, and so there’re that prioritisation just looking at what I can do and feeling comfortable about saying no or later to other things.
With the family side of it, it’s very much about making sure when I have time, particularly if it’s with my younger boy, where it might just be me and him for the day. He’s just turned three. To make sure I put the phone away, I don’t check emails, I’ve switched the notifications off. That I think is protected time where it’s all about him. He’s going to be at school before too long. It will get there really quickly and I want to make the most of that time that’s really valuable to me. It’s protecting time for different things at separate times so that you get the connection and you get the joy out of it.
It sounds to me as well it’s about really being clear about what’s important to you and what matters in terms of how you want to spend your time, energy and attention.
That’s really, really true. It’s something that we used to train on in time management that you can look at two factors when you plan and manage your time. You can look at the time factor, which is often what we do end up doing. We do the things when the deadline’s tightest, chase, chase, chase after that. Or we can consider what’s important. There’s a quadrant model we used to use for this, but I still think it definitely has some value. When you’re in a good place with time management, you’re doing the important things rather than the urgent things. I guess that’s what you were talking about and what I was trying to talk about. Whenever we do the delivery of the training on this sort of thing, it would of course raise the question of how to decide what’s important. Because it could be what’s important in terms of if we look at work situation, what your employer tells you is important for the job. In reality, that’s not what people do. There’s a bit of a mix of what the job is and what they personally love doing and where the personal reward comes from as well. It works well when we’re really honest about it and see that important, how we understand important as something that is quite fluid. It’s ever-changing, so we need to reconsider it at different times and reinvestigate it. When you look at it from the strength-space approach, are you considering what’s important to you in terms of your understanding of yourself in relation to your strengths? That’s a lovely way in because afterwards all the positive psychology gives you a way to look at it that’s in terms of what you can do rather than the risks of what you can’t do.
That’s really valuable, a really instructive way to approach things. I would love to talk a little bit about self-compassion and compassion towards others. You talked earlier on about how your attitude and approach and perspective has been shaped by growing up and now living in areas that are really rich and diverse with people from all sorts of different backgrounds and living in different situations and having made different life choices. How can we cultivate compassion and empathy towards others in our community as well as being very aware of self-compassion?
The more we can work on not being judgmental, the closer we get to it. It’s easy for all of us because in some ways, it’s something we’re hardwired to do as humans to look at people and say, “Are they similar to us or are they different to us?” It basically takes us back to our caveman selves where things that were different would be dangerous and something to stir away from. In our civilised society to a strong extent, that’s no longer the case. The physical development of our brains, we’re pushing against that. We’re pushing against that fear of difference. The more we can work on that, become aware of that, then the stronger our self-compassion for others can become. I think that’s the key. In reality, we can’t completely rule out the prejudices we have and the filters through which we see the world. We can become consciously aware of when they kick in and say to our minds, “No, I’m not making the decision based on that. No, that’s not the way that I want to go. I am going to look at this person for who they are. I’m going to see the ways in which we are similar rather than focusing on the ways in which we are different.”
That is a really, really powerful suggestion. I’m very interested in how people living in cities can cultivate and support their community environment because many people I think are living in silos, many people only associate with other people who are like themselves. Sometimes the most challenging and confronting, but most rewarding experiences, are when we are in a situation where we have to listen to a different perspective and hear a different opinion. Potentially, that can help reshape what we think about something or how we feel about something, and how that can have a positive impact generally in the wider community.
It’s tricky in cities because I think particularly in really big busy cities, something actually happens in our brain system when we have lots and lots and lots of faces to deal with. Our brain only has sufficient capacity to deal with a certain amount of faces, and when it gets above that certain amount, that bit of our brain that processes faces and sees people more than just a blur, it switches off so we can cope. We’re battling against that sometimes when we’re in big, big cities. We need to really consciously find a way to make that connection and it’s going to be different for everybody. I’d say, the thing with setting the challenge for yourself, so speaking to somebody you might not usually speak to, like any new thing we aim to do, it’s great to set the challenge at a place that’s only just a step outside of your comfort zone to begin with. It’s more likely you’ll be able to do it. It’s more likely you’ll get a positive result because you did it, which means you’re more likely to go and do it again. I don’t think it’s necessary to immediately go to something radically different. Start off with something that feels that’s just a little bit uncomfortable. There are loads of things we can do. You can have a chat with somebody at the bus stop that you might not usually or if you’re going to buy a coffee when you’re in a queue, just take a moment to have a brief chat with somebody. The little zings of connection you get from that are amazing that it can just give you so much energy for the day.
Coming home is also really, really important for all people, but particularly when you are living in a really fast-paced urban environment. Our homes are our refuge or in fact, they should be. They’re not always the case if you’re living with anti-social flatmate so if you’re in an unhappy relationship or whatever problems you may be facing. I’d love for you to talk a little bit about the books that Department Store for the Mind are releasing. One of the books in particular is all about the domestic and just finding joy in a domestic setting.
That one is called Washing Up Is Good For You, and the tagline for it which I think explains it really well, is mindful living in the daily grind. It’s an illustrated book so there’s lots of lovely, quite comical illustrations in there that’s a pen and ink illustration Veronica Wood who we’ve worked with quite a bit she has done for us. The book is for anybody really. You don’t need to have read a big manual about mindfulness to get it. Each of the chapters is written by a different person who tells a personal story about mindful living in the daily grind. At the end of that chapter, you will find some ideas for how to create simple daily habits from the story. That there is an offering for people to take from the book what they will. Some of those habits and stories will really resonate with people, others might not as much. I’m really confident there will be something for everybody and there are things that you can easily put into action.
The contributors are people that we have collaborated with Department Store for the Mind, people that I have met throughout my life who have really inspired me as well. They’re speakers, writers, psychologists, artists, all sorts of people. There are all different things that we’ve explored, so we look at washing up obviously, being as the title is Washing Up Is Good For You; ways in which washing up already any daily chore that we do can be a source of calm. In essence, it’s about what I’ve been talking about before, which is about just doing that one thing more than trying to do several things simultaneously. While you’re doing it, immerse yourself into it, through all of your senses and see what happens. With washing up, it could be the feeling of the warm soapy water on your fingers. If it’s quiet, you can listen to the popping of the bubbles or maybe that satisfying scraping as you’re cleaning a pan. You can notice the scent and smell coming from the washing up liquid, notice how you’re feeling as you’re going through it, making it a full sensory experience. When we do that, then the other things that are in the background chatter can just drift away. It drifts away. You can turn the volume down on it because you become immersed in this one simple thing. If we do that for as little as three or four minutes, it’s amazing what it does biologically to us in terms of our stress. This is an invitation really to pick your own domestic activity and just immerse yourself in it and see what happens.
It’s a little bit like an active meditation. We look at washing up. We look at conversation as well. It’s so easy, particularly when you’ve been living with people for a long time. You get home, you get into a conversation. They start chatting to you about something, you think, “I know where this is going. I’ve heard it a million times before.” You start maybe looking at something on your phone or thinking about something else and half listening to them and it causes a little bit of friction. Maybe you missed some subtlety in the retelling of that story that was crucially important to the emotions of your partner or your friends, whoever it is you share the place with. There’s a whole chapter about really listening, how to really tune in and listen to one another even when you have that familiarity.
There’s one chapter about play as well. I love the chapter about play. My university friend who I’ve known now for over twenty years, Annabelle Read. She’s a drama therapist and she wrote a chapter all about play and play at home. She also explored play in relation to adults too. What happens when we become older, when play suddenly becomes something we’re not supposed to do or something that has these sexual connotations and we’re a bit afraid of? Then what does that do? It can make things quite dull, boring and create barriers. She explores how we can break down those barriers and re-introduce play into our daily interactions and how positive and connected that can be. She does look at it in relation to children as well.
I wrote the one about listening. I’ve drawn on a lot of the things that I used to use in my business psychology training and things I focused on. To be perfectly honest, we would do all these often different complex courses but in essence, it nearly always boils down to listening.
If people develop skills in non-judgmental listening, so listening and listening to the detail and listening with your eyes, really connecting to what the person is saying. I had a colleague that used to say if you speak immediately after the person you are talking to is finished, at some point you had stopped listening and started thinking about what you were going to say. She’d say for conversation is happening where people are really listening to each other, there will be a pause in between speaking. That was a great measure for what was going on.
I’m suddenly self-conscious as an interviewer. That’s fantastically interesting. That’s another good reason to try to have a different approach to our digital life. I think often we’re not fully engaged in conversations because we’re ruminating about the past, we worry about the future. Then in the present moment, we’re half-listening but we’re also faffing about with a smart phone potentially. That’s something that I explored in the chapter that I wrote for the book, which is just how to enjoy all of the benefits and the enhancements of the online world and these mobile devices that most of us live with, but that also to understand when to put them down and when to just be with the people that we love that come to visit us or live with us. That certainly is a problem in terms of listening and connecting well. We’re not here because our mind is elsewhere and our eyes arguably are gazing down a glowing screen.
A couple of things that I absolutely love that came out of your chapter that I’ve talked about many, many times and will continue to explore it as well, one of those was about taking control back. When the notifications are binging and buzzing and zinging away, the phone is taking control of what we’re doing and what we’re looking at. Switching notifications off, it’s so simple but it’s just so powerful as a technique to be calmer. I think that was great. You wrote as well about curating your own social media. I love that. I think that is just fabulous as an idea. A bit of what we’re saying about earlier about strengths, thinking about what’s important to you, what is your value set? If we were looking at it commercially, what is your brand? Who are you? What’s really, really that core of you and are you posting things that are true to that rather than just noise? I think that if everybody started doing that will completely change the shape of social media.
That’s something that I think is also interesting in terms of mindful living. Many people like to acquire and accumulate things and stuff in our homes. Minimalism and the Marie Kondo method has really exploded in the last couple of years. Lots of people are becoming more aware of streamlining their possessions both in their digital lives and in their homes and their workplaces. How is that represented in the book? Taking care of your things and really loving the items that you have, rather than just acquiring and accumulating stuff?
That’s the other chapter that I wrote about taking care of your stuff. I explore it in that chapter in lots of different ways, but in essence it’s about just having the things that you need rather than accumulating lots of things that you don’t need. Also, looking at how you treat those things as well. I tell a story of an ex-boyfriend who only had one large hold-all and that’s all his stuff. If he accumulated any more than he could fit in that hold-all, he would get rid of something but – it’s quite extreme to be honest – it meant he could move and go where he wanted and he never felt held back by that. He considered deeply the things that he had. The things that he kept always had a story, were often given to him by somebody. He loved cycling and road a fixed wheel bike and he would have tools that had been given to him by other cyclists and enthusiasts. There would be a story about that. They’d often worked on bikes together using those tools and somebody had shown him the best way to do it. With the things, there is a whole accumulation of wisdom that happened as well. I thought that’s a lovely way to think about the things we have. I’m quite passionate about it from the perspective of not being too materialistic. If we keep on craving more and more things and a fast growing economy is not logically sustainable. I know there are lots of texts and speakers out there talking about that at the moment, so it does link in to that, which does get a bit political but it doesn’t really get into that within the book. I think it’s interesting considering it from that perspective.
I’ve come across a lot of probably mums who’ve done a big cleanse of the house because they’ve thrown out the things that they don’t love, only keep the things they love and probably in the process thrown out lots of things that other people who they live with do love. It’s really easy to do. I’ve written a bit in there about how do we, as a family, choose what we love and if you’re leading this as the mother, which I think often does happen, how can you bring the family in and let go of the fact that there might be a picture or a painting or a pot or a tool that isn’t beautiful to you and does annoy you a little bit, but somebody else loves that and this is their home. How do we do it as a family, whatever that family might be, if you don’t live on your own?
Switching up a little bit, I am interested to know what are the daily practices that you return to or the daily habits that keep you calm and grounded? Also, what are the things that you do and don’t do on those days or in those weeks that things are a bit overwhelming despite your best efforts to keep everything under control?
I have to try to be succinct with this, so I’m probably cold for a while but let’s see. I try to always sleep and eat. Food is really important to me. I’ve got quite high metabolism, so if I don’t eat and eat good food, fresh fruit and vegetables regularly, then my energy drops. I always try to make sure I always eat and eat regularly and have healthy snacks to hand, so fruits and nuts and seeds and things like that. To always get sleep as well, I think that’s really important. I have a big rule on even if I’ve got more to do than I can fit into the day, I will not stay up late into the night to do it. I just won’t. It will go. I’ve got to cancel it, that goes. That’s key.
In terms of practices, I’ve practiced yoga from when I was about twelve. I had back problems when I was about twelve. I had a curvature of the spine and was told to lie still and take painkillers by the doctors, and it just got worse and it was terrible. Then the secondary school that I was at, some wonderful woman came along and started teaching yoga at lunch-time. After, it must have been a year of seeing doctors and having X-rays, they were talking about putting a brace, like a big box on my back which would have been horrendous, I started doing yoga. Within two weeks, the pain went. It was amazing. I got into regular practice and the back straightened over a period of time and I didn’t have to have any of that. I had to be careful because I had a weakness in my lower back, but with doing yoga, as long as I do yoga regularly, then that pain doesn’t come back. I try to do even if it’s just 15 minutes a salute to the sun, some stretching and salute to the sun in the morning, I find that really helps and do some breathing that’s about grounding myself. If I’m getting stressed about things, I just try to take a couple of minutes and breathe and think about a good standing posture and then breathing through. That really helps.
I love 7/11 breathing, it’s so simple. I do that myself at any time of stress. I find that it’s so powerful. It’s as simple as the fact that if we breathe out more than we breathe in, then our bodies are releasing the hormones that encourage us to relax. When we breathe out, physically what happens to us is the hormones release that help us relax. When we breathe in, we stimulate it. If you think about those two things in balance, if you breathe out more than you breathe in, you’re tipping the scales towards relaxing. 7/11 breathing is counting while you breathe so you’re breathing in for seven and then breathing out for eleven. By doing that, your body will start to physically relax. It only takes a few breaths for you to start feeling those sensations. You will also find that counting in your head or you can count out loud in a place where you can do that, is a distraction as well for whatever might be making you feel stressed. The actual act of counting can help to reduce that too so I do that.
Ruth, I would love to know what you’re curious about right now.
I’m curious about a lot of things at the moment. I’ve been reading about something called Vision Therapy recently. With my older boy, the six-year-old who’d been struggling at school, we found that he’s got a problem with his eyes but not 20/20 vision. His vision is okay. It’s how his eyes work together and how they focus. It means that for kids that experience this, it means that when they try to focus on something it moves, it can look like they’re seeing double. It is often not picked up because the children don’t think this is unusual. They think that’s just what happens. It’s misdiagnosed as ADHD all the time because then kids try to avoid doing those things because it causes their eyes to feel strain and they get headaches and anxiety and all sorts of things.
There’s a guy who’d written a book all about what you can do to work with children who are experiencing those problems and he’s amazing. He tells amazing case studies about this. At the heart of what he writes about is the idea that the way the eyes work is deeply related to the way the brain works. He talked about how as the people he’s working with become aware of the problems that they have with how their eyes work , they can consciously start to correct them and feel they’re back in control. He talked about one woman who has an eye that turns in and as she becomes more aware of this, she can actually consciously learn to tell her eye to straighten back up again.
There’s that relationship between what the eyes are doing and what’s happening in the brain. It links into quite a few of the things that we write about in the book, which is why I’ve linked into it so strongly at the moment. That relationship between what happens in the body and what happens in the mind. What’s wonderful is that we can do really, really simple things with our body that don’t require hours of psychotherapy that can correct and help to support the functioning of our mind. It’s a really simple way that I think everybody can pick up and get involved with. That’s what I’m really interested in, learning more about vision therapy. The wider thing is thinking about how physical practices can help the mind.
Ruth, where can people find out more about Department Store for the Mind?
You can find all sorts about us on our website which is DeptStoreForTheMind.com or just put Department Store for the Mind into your favourite search engine and we will pop straight up. You can find us on all the different social media channels @storeforthemind.
Ruth Williams, thank you so much for being a guest on the Urban Curiosity podcast today.
Thank you, Clare, for having me along. It’s been lovely to talk to you.