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Mark Ashton: Can you be constructively selfish? It could save your life…

Updated: Dec 19, 2023

On 28th August 2021 my beloved sister Jo took her own life. She was a beautiful soul - kind, compassionate and wonderfully talented; admired and loved by dozens who knew her. She cared deeply for others and hated causing pain to anyone, especially her nearest and dearest.

My wife Lynn and I were on holiday in North-West Scotland when we got the dreadful news. The previous evening, I told Lynn it felt like it had been the happiest day of my life, and the best week of my life. What brutal irony!

My positive state of mental health at the time of Jo’s death, and since, is partly due to the self-coaching techniques described in this article. I’ve discovered that grief and joy can co-exist easily. Though part of my heart and soul has been ripped out forever, and at times I’m experiencing visceral pain from this loss, this terrible event has not upset my inner state of calm. It has stiffened my resolve to care for myself, to coach others, and to create a positive legacy, for Jo and for me.

What drives someone to take their own life?

Why on earth did she do it?

Though shockingly unanticipated, Jo’s suicide seems horribly obvious in retrospect. I would never have believed that someone so gentle could be capable of this ultimate, horrific act. However, there had been signs for months, which we failed to take seriously enough.

When I went into her house a week after she died, I found her will and a 26-page letter to my brother and me, WRITTEN 5 MONTHS EARLIER. Later I discovered that she had put small notes in every jewellery box explaining what each piece was and to whom it might be given. Her preparation for death had been shockingly precise.

Jo died because she became utterly convinced over a twelve-month period that she was dying of cancer. She was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer via a routine mammogram in July 2020. A very small tumour was removed and tested, and she was given five sessions of radiotherapy. The doctors told her they believed the cancer was unlikely to return. However, she disbelieved them.

In the space of two weeks, as well as the cancer diagnosis, she lost her job due to Covid after being furloughed (placed on paid leave) for several months, and her cat was run over and killed. She was already in poor mental health, having suffered burnout three years previously whilst Head of Marketing for the Education faculty of a university. She described the culture there as “poisonous” and told me about other staff and senior academics who had left because of it.

Our mother died twenty years ago after a five year “battle” with breast cancer. She refused medical treatment because for specific and understandable reasons she didn’t trust medical consultants. Jo couldn’t cope with the fear that she would meet the same fate. She suffered for nine months, took an overdose in May, was hospitalised, refused to accept that she did not have terminal cancer despite a negative scan, and was discharged back into “her own care” at home. Supervision from community mental health services did not materialise. It seems she may have avoided scheduled meetings with them, and they chose not to follow up, despite a trail of evidence suggesting that she was a risk to herself.

Catastrophes rarely occur for one reason. There are usually several causes which interact in unforeseen ways.

Jo endured childhood trauma due to our parents’ unhappy marriage and our mother’s resultant health problems. She was not nurtured in a stable, psychologically safe environment. She suffered badly from imposter syndrome – many people admired her, yet she lacked the confidence to attract and retain a suitable partner in her twenties and thirties, despite interest from suitable men. She never had children; she would have been an outstanding mother. At work, she never understood why people thought she was so capable and talented. She held influential positions in marketing and social media at the BBC and ITV in Manchester, but she lacked the nakedly ambitious edge and courage of her convictions to hold onto her job and force her way up the ladder. She was far too nice and lacked confidence in herself. Had she been coached and mentored I suspect it would have been a different story.

In Biblical language, you might say that Jo’s psyche was fertile ground to become possessed by demons. There was no Messiah available to cast them into a herd of pigs (Matthew 8:32). Instead, she ran over a metaphorical cliff - she self-destructed.

Neuroscientists and experimental psychologists would say that her “inner voice” ran amok. Without meaningful intervention it drove her to pay the ultimate price.

Why does this happen? Can we do anything to stop it? It turns out that we can.

The answer lies in learning to self-coach. In the last 9 months I’ve learned to do it myself - to cultivate self-care and self-compassion; to become what I call constructively selfish. It has transformed my life. For me this is the new frontier in psychology, and in coaching and mentoring other people. The ramifications are profoundly important.

What is our inner voice and why does it exist?

In his outstanding book “Chatter: Our Inner Voice, Why It Matters, And How To Harness It” (January 2021), Professor Ethan Kross, an experimental psychologist at the University of Michigan, reveals that our internal chatter – what we “say” to ourselves – can run at the rate of between 3,000 and 4,000 words per minute! Of course, it’s not possible to consciously absorb that level of information – it’s overwhelming! Most of it is running in the subconscious.

Our inner voice, along with our emotions, is a highly sophisticated mechanism which has developed over millions of years to keep us safe. Unfortunately, this mechanism hasn’t yet evolved to differentiate real threats from those we perceive, since it runs on autopilot. Therefore, we must learn how to apply our own cognitive reasoning and databanks of experience, and those of others we trust, to correctly process the signals our inner voice and emotions are sending us, and to react appropriately. It turns out that our chatter is both our worst enemy and our best friend.

Ethan Kross and his research team have discovered that it is possible to silence, or at least to pacify, our inner critic, and to unleash our inner coach. They have uncovered simple mechanisms for doing it – here’s a quick summary of ten of them:

  • Talk to yourself positively and constructively in the third person; in other words, address yourself by your name: “Mark, here’s what you need to do to overcome this problem…”

  • Avoid becoming too narrowly focused on the issue(s) causing you distress. Zoom out to see the bigger picture. If a performance appraisal at work is good overall but there is a small amount of critical feedback, distance yourself from it so you can see it without continued painful analysis

  • Reframe the situation as a challenge rather than a problem or crisis – remind yourself of past situations where you were able to do this. The best way to do that is to think of them when there isn’t a psychological crisis and then “keep them in the store” ready for when one occurs

  • Write a journal about the situation you are experiencing. Go deep, and practice doing it in the third person (“Mark”) rather than first person (“I”)

  • Many successful sports people, public speakers etc. have rituals which they follow rigorously. It’s important to do this because it calms the mind and gives a sense of personal control – you cannot control the circumstances, but you can control your ritual, and this is reassuring. Professional tennis players, for example, often do the same things during a break between games, or between serves, which have no meaning but which give them a sense of control and calmness

  • Create your own “personal board of directors” – a group of loyal business friends who truly “have your back” and will help you to work through problems and challenges, including feeling able to open up in a psychologically safe space about how you are feeling

  • Use social media intelligently. Wasting time on social media and fooling oneself that everyone out there is doing better than you based on their posts is more likely to unleash your harsh inner critic. However, listening to inspiring podcasts or audiobooks, posting constructive ideas for others, and communicating with supportive people are all good ways of using social media, especially if you’re agitated and experiencing chatter

  • Create order in your environment. This is like a ritual. Tidying up either real or virtual spaces is calming and gives you a sense of control when things feel difficult and stressful. Tidy up the kitchen or do some gardening

  • Insist on having time out in nature – the great outdoors. Fresh air, exercise and beautiful surroundings are all essential to feeling good and maintaining or regaining a sense of perspective. Do it daily – it’s a great insurance policy

  • Witnessing things which make us feel small and in awe and wonder are extremely helpful for controlling the inner critic. Seek them out. Listen to inspiring music. Go walking in the forest or the mountains.

Imagine a mental shower dial controlling the temperature of our emotions. We can use it to regulate our brain biochemistry. We can “cool down” toxic emotions like fear, anxiety, guilt, imposter syndrome, shame, underconfidence and self-loathing. We can “heat up” positive emotions like confidence, enthusiasm, hope, joy, love and (healthy) pride.

In practising and perfecting these methods I’ve recognised the critical underlying principle. They can only become embedded and sustained if you accept the need to love yourself as much as you love the most important people in your life. This means treating yourself with the same care and respect as you treat others. I was musing today on the famous verse in Mark’s Gospel (12:31). I think it would be far more valuable if it were reversed: “Love yourself as your neighbour”. I’m certain Jesus would agree. Indeed, there’s a strong argument that this is the meaning of Mark 12:30: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” For those who are religious I would argue that you cannot love God if you do not love yourself.

I believe that a key factor driving imposter syndrome is the brainwashing we receive throughout childhood that we must not be self-centred. I accept that, but self-centredness is the opposite of self-compassion, self-coaching, and self-nurturing.

I am sure there will be those wishing to offer me their condolences. However, what would mean far more to me would be for you to look deep within yourself, confront your inner critic and tormentor, address it it calmly with logic and love, and vow that from now onwards you will develop the emotional muscles to stop beating yourself up and to become TRULY self-compassionate and constructively selfish. Then let me know how it changes your life for the better – I can tell you it’s a wonderful feeling. Let’s share the positive stories of how we’re defeating our inner critic and unleashing our inner coach.

Remember above all that unconditional love, in this case directed towards yourself, is caring and forgiving. It means accepting yourself as you are. It means accepting that your performance will not be consistent - there are too many factors involved. It means being kind to yourself, whatever has happened.

In addition to self-coaching it’s still important to have someone else coaching and mentoring you. I’d be delighted to talk about this via the Cocoon program – coaching and mentoring is my passion and my life’s work. It’s pure joy! 😊

In memory of Joanna Elizabeth Ashton (23rd March 1965 – 28th August 2021)


Mark Ashton ran a high-growth business in the USA for 5 years and has been a business consultant for almost 25 years. He works with entrepreneurs to develop themselves, to recruit and develop great people, to solve difficult challenges, and to build companies that thrive. He and his team are helping several Estonian companies to enter the UK, and they support UK/European and North American companies to succeed with transatlantic business.

Mark is one of the Cocoon Program mentors. Cocoon is a startup and scaleup founders personal and business growth program. Let's talk and see if we can support you to solve your biggest business challenge.




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