Today I want to focus around how we manage mental health and financial wellbeing during times of crisis. I’ve got a wonderful guest today, a gentleman called Nick Elston, who I was introduced to about 18 months ago. I went to Chris Budd’s financial wellbeing conference, which was really inspiring, and Nick Elston stood on the stage at this conference and shared his story, a really honest story of how he went from having OCD and GAD, which is Generalised Anxiety Disorder, to forming his own business, to help people have the confidence to share their own emotional stories and to stand up on stage and be a speaker. And I just love the raw honest approach that Nick takes.
Today we’re going to be talking about why we try and control things that are uncontrollable. How is it that we wear these masks and how we drop the masks sometimes in order to propel ourselves forward and to build more confidence in our own self worth, rather than listening to what everybody else is saying or feeling like we have to do what other people expect us to do. We talk through how actually right now is a really good example of how we can get into this fear mentality of making lots of assumptions; assumptions of what may be coming or may be happening. And what happens is we then get into this fight, flight or freeze response.
Just last week I was listening to a presentation on financial psychology, and it was all about financial trauma and post-traumatic growth. Trauma doesn’t have to be something massive. It can just be overwhelm, like the overwhelm we are all experiencing right now, which itself is trauma. What happens is the body goes into fight, flight or freeze. Freeze is when we hide away. We don’t do anything. And when people get stuck in in freeze, that can then lead to much more significant mental health issues such as PTSD which I’ve covered previously. When we’re in fight mode, we actually then are driven to take action. Taking action, although it seems a little bit counter intuitive, actually prevents us from freezing or going into post traumatic stress disorder. So if we stay in freeze and we hide away and don’t want to do anything, then actually that can cause us to have more significant mental health issues than if we go into fight or flight, where we actually start taking action.
We talk a little bit about Nick’s personal relationship with money growing up and how that potentially impacted on how he was then trying to charge in his business. How that was a bit of a struggle initially before he then realised that in order for him to have the life that he deserves, he needs to charge for his services, and how that played out for him.
Thank you for being here today. How are you?
My pleasure. I’m good. I’m really good actually. It’s really weird to say that, you kind of feel a little bit guilty. But I’m living in an old anxiety mechanism, that groundhog day mentality where actually anxiety to me was regret from the past or fear of the future, whereas actually today I can pretty much deal with anything that comes my way. And I think because that’s all we’ve got right now is today, because we don’t know what the future looks like, when it’s going to be, and that kind of stuff.
Well that’s amazing. I’ve read things about depression is about the past and anxiety is about the future. In your key speaker presentation, you talk about that word fear. You’re an inspirational speaker, and you also run speaker academies to help people to share their emotional story, but take us back to your own story, Nick.
How did you even begin to get into the speaker world of mental health?
It’s nuts isn’t it? Even just to say that’s a job, it’s really surreal, I kind of pinch myself a lot of the time. I’m just making this up as I go along. But it is my job and it has been my job since 2016 as a full time speaker. It’s just crazy that this came from the biggest challenges. Actually, without those, this wouldn’t have happened. But I’ll come on to that.
How it started for me was I had mental illness as a child; I had obsessive compulsive disorder, OCD. It kind of morphed into something called GAD in my teen and adult life which is Generalised Anxiety Disorder. That’s actually less commonly known but statistically more common, and some of the signs in an adult life it’s when you feel like you’re on a hamster wheel of anxiety and it just doesn’t stop. So if one thing stops, something else picks up immediately. You’re driven by nervous energy. It could be that you seek your accountability and worth and value in other people because our self esteem, self confidence, and self belief is so low. It could be that you constantly catastrophise all of your events and your pursuits, and you replay conversations in your head. You feel that, it’s so heavy and it is very tiring. But the one thing that they don’t tell you, is that nervous energy actually takes the same energy to destroy us as it does to act as a catalyst going forward.
So, right through my school life – I was head prefect, top grades, in every clique, because actually by default we’re people pleasers as a safety mechanism. Taking that mentality into adult life an my corporate career, I was top salesperson, top account manager, and you’re just driven by nervous energy. You just don’t stop. I see it so clearly in other people in terms of audiences and clients and stuff. You see it so clearly when people are reaching that point of burnout, breakdown, or meltdown, whatever they want to call it (because there’s so many labels for the same thing). But for me, I didn’t see mine coming. I also see for other people, why it gets to that point that we mask how we feel, we try and be what other people want to see in us, and we try and be what situations demand of us, but we sure don’t damn show ourselves. Because when we show ourselves, our narrative tells us we’re going to get shot at. So that’s one element.
The second element is the fact that we do this thing where we don’t recover. We fill up our diaries with all of our work stuff, and fill up our diaries with our home stuff. And then where do you feature in your own life? You don’t. There’s no you in your day to actually recharge and recover and go again. You can only run for so long before you stop. And that’s why we get to that point. And that’s why I got to that point. I left a networking meeting – you go in and say,
“How are you?”
“I’m great, thanks. How are you?”
And I really wasn’t, you don’t say that. And actually if you’re not showing the world your true self then the world doesn’t know how to help you, and that’s exactly where I was. I left that meeting happy and strong and confident, and I sat in the car and I basically just shut down. For me, that moment wasn’t an angry thing. It was just I’d lost hope, or the hope of something better. It wasn’t my external situations. It’s the same external setup I have right now. The difference was that I wasn’t working within that and that’s the reason why I got to that point. And I see that a lot in people as quite a dangerous point to reach.
For Harry Potter fans, it’s kind of like the Boggart in the cupboard. The thing that I’d kept in for so long was going to consume me – that was an option – or I had to let it out. And I decided to let it out. Weirdly because I’d not done anything like that before, two weeks later I stood up at a networking meeting and I told them about what had happened. I told them about OCD – basically I brain dumped! It was cheap therapy, literally. But a hundred percent I thought that was going to be my death by police blaze of glory moment. I was going to do my bit, mic drop, and off I go. And it didn’t, everything changed on that day because a hundred percent went the other way. Everybody, kudos for all for their support, everybody queued up to give me a hug. I love hugs.
And the third thing, and the thing that changed my life forever, was it wasn’t about me anymore. And again, something they don’t say about mental health challenges is that it’s all consuming. It’s a very selfish pursuit. Not intentionally, but it is. And it’s only when you come out the other side, you see it for what it is. Suddenly it was about them. They could get something from me. People that I’d known for years, very close friends, started sharing grief, and PTSD, and abuse, and loss, and all the things that we all carry with us. Because what I found on that day was the truth is completely liberating. By giving me, they gave them, and I think there’s something in that method. The thing that we hide from the most is vulnerability. But if we practice vulnerability on a daily process, you become bulletproof because everything’s out there. There’s nothing to be found. There’s nothing to be aimed at you. And for me, that’s what changes everything, that one day. I started to share that story more and more, and here we are.
I just love that, that you’ve been to a networking meeting and everyone says, how are you? And it’s the typical response, isn’t it? I’m fine. Actually. I’m not fine. And that’s so true isn’t it? A bit like money, there’s still a stigma attached to mental health and it’s a bit of a taboo subject.
It is interesting. Harvard did a study which said that between 18 and 29 year olds the biggest fear was public speaking above death, which means that we fear ridicule more than dying. That’s the conditioning we’re fighting against – and it is all conditioning. A lot of this is conditioning, and especially in the UK. I speak all over the world and we have a real problem here (in the UK) that we think self care is selfish, so we put ourselves last all the time and then we wonder why we burnout, why we give ourselves away so much to appease other people, and lots of different things. I just find that fascinating.
I was on a podcast last week actually talking about leadership and they asked me what’s the one thing that you would suggest for someone to lead a team and I said, ‘Work on yourself, your self worth.’ Because you can’t lead a team, you can’t run your life, you can’t be a better Mum, or a better wife, or a better friend, if you don’t feel like you deserve that for yourself. And it’s so true, isn’t it? When do we actually put time in our diary for self care?
This is a big one for me because I’m really guilty of that. It is about looking after yourself but it feels selfish. We’ve talked about Financial PTSD quite recently, because actually trauma is a big contributor towards our mental health, whether it’s previous trauma or current trauma. And right now you can argue that we’re all going through trauma because trauma doesn’t necessarily have to be significant does it Nick? It can just be something small. Like having to homeschool your children right now, for example, that’s a trauma because you’re not used to having to manage that within your time. So overwhelm in itself is trauma.
It is. My business is called Forging People, now that came from a line from my original talk that we either let our adversities and our challenges define us negatively for the rest of our days, or we choose to allow them to forge something beautiful, something powerful that never existed. Now, for me, that kind of all makes sense. So actually if I look back now, the best things that have happened to me have happened because of the challenge. Something that I thought was insurmountable. If I look back, the best things that have happened to me now were not planned. Not at all. The most exciting things have not been planned. They just kind of happened by accident, and I like that.
But I think that we can apply that to right now, a lot of people right now are living with an underlying fear or dread or anxiety to some degree. So people are making bad decisions from a position of fear right now. I think we need to understand that not only in ourselves but in other people too. But also understanding that the challenges we’re going through right now, if we apply the right kind of tools and the right attention to the right focus, these are the exactly the situations where we come through smarter, stronger and happier or not.
And I think that the choice element comes in. So people give away their choice, they give away happiness, put their happiness in the hands of other people and then complain when they don’t feel better. The second thing is that they give away choice. The only thing we have true choice over is how we proactively go forward every day. And that’s exactly what we have right now. We still have that choice. And I think that the problems come from when we give that away, when we go reactively into every day. So a lot of anxiety is created about trying to control the uncontrollable. So if we let go of the uncontrollable, what we’ve got left is the stuff that we can work with, the stuff that we can influence. And I think for me that’s the main focus of what I try and do, not only for myself but with my clients as well.
And how would somebody let go of the uncontrollable?
I think there is a process to follow. The first is to acknowledge. I think people are really afraid of acknowledging the brutal truth. This is same with this pandemic going on. The first thing is we need to acknowledge this is brutal. There’s no two ways around it, in every sense this is brutal, and actually once we acknowledge that and only once we acknowledge it, we go into survival mode. A lot of people I speak to right now are caught somewhere between acknowledge and survival. But by acknowledging that, you know what you’re facing and you know that’s the uncontrollable bit. So what we can control and how we go forward.
So survival, for me, was once I acknowledged, and from a business point of view overnight all of my stuff was in person. I had no online stuff at the time. So once I got into survival mode it was right, okay, how long can I hold my grain for? We have what we hold, how long can I do that? So I mapped out what would that look like? I worked out the mortgage breaks and I worked out the loan breaks and everything else that we’ve all got going on. The money and mental health was such a huge thing. Once I established survival, actually that’s the point where I went into a kind of evolution mode and that’s the exciting part. What can I do to pivot? What can I do to do all these things to create a new reality?
I’ll guarantee you one thing; the world will never be the same again. Genuinely the world will never be the same again, and not just in a negative way, but also in a positive way that we’ve underestimated the value of our relationships and friendships and freedoms and everything else. So we have a choice, but the only choice we’ve got right now is how do we proactively go forward into everyday and how we create our new reality. Because if we don’t, by default, we’ll start to live a life on somebody else’s terms.
And before we go onto the next step, I see a link between what you’ve described and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which is about your basic needs. What are your basic needs for you to operate and feel safe and secure? From a psychological perspective, but also emotionally, psychologically, physically, financially. What are those basic foundations that you need to have in place?
Often what’s interesting for me is that sometimes we’re so driven by being judged by others, or looking at what everybody else is doing that we try and move from stability, or instability, to way further up in terms of self-actualization. Because everybody else is doing this. All these people are launching million pound programs, for example, or earning this amount of money. Then the fear and judgement comes in and we forget where we’re at, what’s important to us right now.
Yeah, absolutely. I agree with that whole heartedly I think safety is the foundation of everything. I mean even without this going on, it’s the same thing. We need to feel safe. So I think that’s one of the most powerful things that we can tell ourselves. We are safe. But then working out, actually, what that looks like. I think a lot of people, and I kind of get the intention, but a lot of people said ‘We’re all in this together’. We kind of are. But also we’re kind of not. And I think actually that could be quite a daunting thing that we’re all in this together because there’s no Superman, there’s no World’s Greatest Minds that know what’s going on. So actually who are we to take a stab at it?
For me, I think that we all have to recognise we have unique challenges, unique struggles and unique perspectives. So actually, for example, one of my challenges could be a solution that somebody else has and vice versa. But the automatic mode at the minute is either to shut down or to throw it all away.
And tying that in with the financial side of things and business, I see a lot of people at the minute giving everything away for free, which as fantastic an intention as that is, what do you expect your clients to buy once we come out of this? What I’m trying to do is to build something which will be compatible with the in-person stuff afterwards, not to replace the in person stuff afterwards. So actually trying to create a reality when everything is possible again.
And what would be the next step?
I think following that acknowledgement into survival then evolution mode is a really good process. But once you’ve established the safety element, actually this is a really good time to reflect on things when it’s a different pace of life. Even though I’m still working every day, I’m still busy, it’s different. It’s a different kind of busy now because actually it’s bigger picture busy. So I think that we need some review. I think right now we need to review even the people around us, are they good for us? The things that we do, do we really need to do those in person? The amount of air miles I’ve chopped to achieve exactly the same thing is crazy. So I think this is a really good chance to take stock of everything and realise what’s important to us if we are going to create a new reality. As I said, it’s good to do it on those terms rather than automatically run on our conditioning and try and build something exactly the same.
Once you stood up in front of that networking group and said, actually I’m not okay, and this is why, what happened for you after that and what did that teach you about your own mental health?
For me, as I said, it wasn’t about me anymore and I realise every time I spoke it reached people differently, but it reached people on a level which is very human. As I said I was brutally honest, so it reached people without the filter that people expect to see. I mean even right down to the way I dress. There’s two reasons why I dress like this. The first reason is I thought if I’m going to be self employed for the first time ever, I’m going to wear what the hell I want, and the second is I cannot deliver authenticity if I’m not going to be me. I’ve spoken at the world’s leading law firms suited and booted, and I’d just walk in like this and that’s never lost me a gig once. But my conditioning tells me that it would. And I find this interesting, it started to build a picture for me. My speaking journey started to build a picture for me of another way forward and a way forward I never would have imagined, because we do get stuck in that rut.
I was in sales, so every time I looked for a new job, it was in sales. My blinkers were on and this just threw open everything, on every level. It made me more open minded and made me consider a lot more as well. And especially when it got to a stage where I started to get paid to speak. There’s two angles to that. Again, that changed it because I was doing this to help other people, but the mortgage doesn’t get paid on dreams, so that’s why the business was a bit, if I’m honest, built by accident because actually I was struggling with the balance of why I started doing this and the money coming in.
The relationship between myself and money is really interesting. Right from the start I established that there was a real strong link there for me. I’d never looked at that before. So when I was at my worst, I would make really, really bad financial decisions and actually seek my my value in pursuit of material products that I never had the money for. Then that will then compound the mental health challenges. So it’s a really vicious circle. And interestingly as financial things have got better that’s also eased my mental health challenges too.
When I first went into business, my terms were payment upfront for whatever clients do with me, not because of anything else other than it’s an anxiety mechanism. Because once that’s out of the way we don’t have to discuss money anymore. It’s interesting our relationship with money comes from our conditioning depending on our background or where we come from. So when first when somebody first said to me, “well, how much do you charge for a gig?” I phoned my mentor and I said, what do I charge? He said, well what would you be happy with? I said £200, so he said, okay, well tell them it’s £500 and you’ll do it for £400. It was basic sales 101 and I’ve been in sales all my life but I lost all my relationship because it was me and my emotional stuff. That relationship with money was really there for me to see then. I saw that. And interestingly, the more my confidence and self belief grew, the better relationship I’ve had with money. Not just because I’ve got some, but in terms of the belief in myself. Actually I’m worth that because that’s what’s happening.
So again, it’s far more than money and mental health, it’s self worth, it’s self belief, it’s confidence, it’s everything all rolled into one. And actually the quickest route to fear is around the financial stuff, as we’re experiencing right now. A lot of people that are not in a situation where they can complete the survival mode part, making decisions from position of fear because of money.
And what was your relationship with money growing up, Nick? What did you hear or what were you taught about money from people that influenced you?
Sure. I had a really, really comfortable upbringing. Not rich, not poor, just comfortable. I never wanted for anything, I guess I never understood the true value of money. And so I started to work, I worked for the family business and I worked hard for the family business because actually as the son of the owner, I was basically the brunt of everybody making sure that I was earning my money and not just on a free wave. I think that as that went on, I really appreciated the value of money. I didn’t before, if I’m honest, I grew up not appreciating the value of money because I had a kind family, a giving family, anything they had they would give, which is an amazing thing. But I didn’t appreciate the value of money until I never had any.
And your parents, were they quite free in how they gave money?
So my parents run their own successful business. Therefore we had the trappings of that as well; a really nice house, two cars, and everything else that came with that kind of stuff. For me, this is interesting – I thought that was what I was inheriting. So I didn’t even think about the money element until the business wasn’t around anymore. So because the business ceased trading, actually then was the point I think I upped my ante in terms of appreciating money, because actually I had to own it for myself now, as in properly on my own feet for myself.
So when that happened then, when the business wasn’t there, how did that feel for you in that moment?
It kind of surrounded a lot stuff that was going on around that time, but for me I think when I based all of my decisions on that being there, I think it makes you feel quite lost I guess. The reason I left school at 16 was to join the family business, which I did. For me there was just no other question. I had a clear route map – I was gonna leave at 16, work in the business, run the business, retire, and that’s it. And because that wasn’t there anymore, it just seemed quite daunting. I’d skipped the education part because I left school at 16, but then I had to start to find my own way. Coming from that really loving, comfortable in every sense, family I didn’t really appreciate the value of money until I had to stand on my feet and make decisions.
It is interesting, isn’t it? Because actually the relationship that you formed with money would have been formed way back when you were at the age of seven or eight, our relationship with money is already formed then. So for you at that time, that relationship with money was actually about being secure financially and not even really having to think about it.
Everything you hear about age is just facts. Because we don’t have the cognitive capacity to even question anything that we experienced before the age of seven or eight. At that age, all of the messages that you heard or felt or saw or experienced around you, not just from parents but from other sources, will actually have an impact on how you feel about money.
But it goes way past that – your parents’ relationship with money will also have an impact on you because any family trauma will pass through the generations.
So thinking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in terms of security and safety, that was taken away because your business was not there, then that would have had an impact on your ability to question what does this even mean? And how do you create that safety and security when something you’ve perhaps relied on in your mind is no longer there.
But also if your parents had a giving relationship with money, that’s often going to be transferred to you. So therefore, when you have to stand up or have a conversation about how much you’re charging for your speaker fees, it’s going to feel uncomfortable because you’ll think, Oh, but I want to give it to you for free.
It’s really interesting because actually a lot of the time just questioning whether the beliefs that we hold about ourselves are even true. Questioning the labels that we give ourselves is a massive one, isn’t it?
This is really fascinating because I’m kind of seeing our worlds combine over this. I talk a lot about that from a mental health point of view that all of our beliefs should be open to questioning. So rather than take them as a pure belief actually, they’re values that can be pulled apart, questioned, poked and prodded, and actually should be. To know that firstly it’s us and not running on our conditioning, so it’s fascinating that we come from the same angle. I love that.
Well, I think that if we label ourselves as an anxious person or depressed person, our brain is just going to look for more evidence to support that. And I know that there are psychological reasons and physical reasons why people have depression and anxiety.
But from your experience, Nick, do you think that that is a challenge for mental health? Should we be labeling people with mental health tags?
So I guess from the lived experience perspective, for me labels help me purely because I know what I’m dealing with and I can face it, but not everyone has that mentality. So actually sometimes it could be worse for some people. So I absolutely get that. But for me it helped me. But I know for a lot of people it can hinder them.
And I think you’re quite right. It’s the same with, when I first started speaking about this stuff, because I was doing nothing else, I was just speaking every day at different places, I was living in my story. So actually my story owned me as opposed to me owning my story. So it was no surprise actually within a few months of doing that actually I came really close to that burnout feeling again because I wasn’t leaving that space. And it was only after I decided to take a month off in the first year of me doing this full time and come back, I then owned my story and I rolled it out to people, and then I built the business, which gave me something else.
I mean if you check my early stuff, I was calling myself The Anxiety Guy. So again, that wasn’t a label I attributed to myself per se, but it started to own me as opposed to me owning it. I like to know what I’m dealing with, then I can deal with that. But that’s me. And I know not everyone’s like that. So I can only speak from my experience. But for me it’s, it’s a healthy thing. I guess it depends if there’s any inspiration or solution attached to that. I have a real love hate relationship with the mental health community on Twitter, for example. People are either posting for despair or for inspiration, and I think the problem is there’s not enough solution and inspiration available, so people are getting ready to open up to Twitter and then maybe not getting any interaction back.
There needs to be a catchall and that’s just not there in place. It’s great to open up and to share, but if there’s something to catch people the other side. And that’s the gap that lived experience from an inspirational perspective can feel between the problem and the solution. So I kind of see myself as the vehicle to increase engagement in the solutions, not the solution. I’m not the solution myself.
Yeah. I love that. Nick, is there anything finally that you’d like to share with anybody who may be feeling anxious right now or full of fear or uncertain as to what’s going to happen in the future, what would be your one most important tip that you would share?
So for me, I think right now the most important tip is to never assume an outcome. Not assume what it’s going to look like, not assume what the day is going to throw at you. Not assume. Because a lot of us at the a minute are highly and hypersensitive, so we’re treating everything as a personal attack. We’re all very defensive. So don’t assume the outcome. Mark Twain said some of the worst things in my life never happened. We can fall into a trap. The problem is when we create anxiety in the form of a presumed outcome we’ll damage ourselves straight away without that even happening.
So to never assume, and also at the moment I think it’s just to know that this will pass. Every storm runs out of rain. It’s in the middle of the storm that people lose hope or the hope of something better. And I think that’s really the dangerous spot people can reach right now. But if there’s somebody else coming to you, know that they’re not coming to you to be fixed unless you’re a medical professional, so your responsibility is not to fix people. I think a lot of people will take the burden of that. Our responsibility is just to actively listen essentially in life. People just want to be heard. They want to be understood, then they’ll find their own way forward.
But if you do want to go the extra mile, get very good at active sign posting, which is exactly what I do. Get good at knowing that if somebody comes to you about a challenge, I know exactly where to send them for some help, but without taking that burden on myself. It would be very easy to do that right now. It’s a very overwhelming time to be in right now. But every storm will run out of rain.
And where would you signpost people to Nick?
I’m a mental health champion for Time to Change, but also work with different industry organisations. I work with The Money Charity, and I do lots of different things for Mental Health UK, Mind, all the kind of big organisations. I think the most important place to sign post people to is the one that takes you to the most immediate help. I think it’s Mind that have a urgent help button actually on their website. So it’s very important to bookmark that button in case somebody does come to you for help.
Great. It is important that if you are feeling that you need some help to know where to get that help.
Your business that you’ve spoken about is about helping people to find their voice and to share their emotional story. If anybody is really wanting to to do that, how can they reach out to you?
The business is Forging People. I run emotionally led storytelling speaking academies. So helping people to tell their story like I’ve done, even just as a therapeutic process, not just as a speaker. I run those and also run other events around go pro as a speaker. A lot of people are amazing speakers, have a strong message, but have no idea of how to commercialise that and turn it into a business. So I actually work as a mentor in that space too. All of that can be found at NickElston.com
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