Meet Mags Thomson, Your Emotional Baggage Handler
Our “FOFs - Friends of FloLab” series started as a collaborative project between us and photographer Tara Shupe showcasing some of the people that helped FloLab along the way before we opened our space, photographing them in their favourite work environments, such as their homes, cafes and the library. Four months after opening FloLab officially, we have decided to create a second part to this blog series, to continue highlighting the amazing people that contribute to our story - and this time, they are working right here at our location on Koediefstraat!
We are kicking things off with Mags Thomson, a mindset mentor and transformation cheerleader. Together with her dog Hebe (a service dog retired early due to anxiety!), Mags has become the perfect FloLab mascot, offering her advice and support on all topics, from business issues, to healing. We couldn’t imagine FloLab without her.
In this interview with Emma, Mags is candid about her own traumatic experiences with narcissistic abuse, as well as offering practical solutions for self-destructive thoughts applicable both in personal and professional settings.
Q. Hi Mags! Please tell me where you're from, and how you came to be in The Hague?
I am from the Amsterdam area of the Netherlands and first moved to The Hague for a job with a government agency. I really like The Hague, it's close to the beach and a lot quieter than Amsterdam. I find Amsterdam overwhelmingly big but love that here in The Hague there's quite a lot of space in the city, like not everything's so packed together. My gran, who lived to 91, was from Scheveningen and so we used to come and visit her quite a bit.
Q. How come you have a Scottish Accent?
Actually, I used to speak with a really posh and proper English accent that I coined from my English teacher from school. When I moved to Glasgow as a student, I had to adapt that pretty fast, haha! My husband, Stewart, is also from Glasgow though, which is probably why I've kept my Scottish accent. We always laugh when a Dutch person compliments me on how well I speak Dutch!
Q. What was it like for a Dutchie living in Glasgow?
I love Glasgow and I hate Glasgow in equal measures. I mean, I obviously loved it enough to want to stay there with Stewart for two years when I got a job with Shell. Glasgow is stunning, and I love that Glasgow has that no-nonsense attitude, but it's also such a heartbreaking place because there's so much poverty, in a way that I think in the Netherlands we are completely oblivious to. Like, I know there's poverty in the Netherlands and I'm not saying that there's not, but it's in such a different way.
I worked for a short while in Greenock, which meant that I had to travel along the Clyde and through Paisley and Port Glasgow. That whole area was decimated by the closing of the shipyards many years before and so many people are fourth-generation unemployed which has left that kind of hopeless energy. Like there's no way to get out of this. That energy gets into a place. So there are areas of Glasgow that are really fun and beautiful and creative and people are really going for it - then there are other areas where you can feel palpable hopelessness. I couldn't live there again, it's very intense.
Q. How is it different here in The Hague?
Well, the first time I lived in The Hague, we called the city center area we lived in the “Bermuda Triangle of homeless shelters” because there were three around us. So there were more homeless people in the street where we lived because they wouldn't make it to the shelters in time, or they didn't have the money to go in, or whatever.
I'll tell you a funny story; when we came back to The Hague after being away for like three years, (two years in Glasgow and a year in Rotterdam) one of the homeless guys that used to frequent our neighbourhood spotted us and said to us, "Hey you're back!" I mean it was super random and so funny thinking about it now. What it illustrated to me was that here there isn't that palpable hopelessness that comes from multi-generational unemployment. I mean that spoke more to his character than homeless people in The Hague in general, but there was a sense of humanity there that seems lost in Glasgow somehow. It was quite a contrast between the two places!
Q. Tell us about your work. What is your mission?
So, I say that I'm a mindset mentor and transformation cheerleader. Because that sounds fun. Actually, that's a fairly recent development because traditionally what I have been helping people with is not typically fun.
For the last five years, I've been the director of an online platform called SwanWaters, which is an online learning & development platform for people coming out of abuse situations. At the beginning of my own healing journey I was part of an online support platform for daughters with narcissistic mothers. Unfortunately, that forum shut down, so a bunch of us from that community connected and decided we were going to build our own online platform. There's only two of the original group left, but over the years we have found that everyone on the SwanWaters platform shares a common experience of emotional abuse, be it narcissistic or other types, but emotional abuse is really the focus.
None of us are therapists or lawyers or any of those official job titles that help people in these situations. Some of us are coaches and all of us are experienced experts who have been through that journey ourselves.
I’m a teacher by vocation but knew early on in my career that I didn’t want to be teaching in a High School. Now, in my role as a mindset mentor and transformation cheerleader, I teach people how to make decisions in life that aren't influenced by the traumatic experiences they have had.
I added the cheerleading part last year because, through my own healing journey, I realized how often we take healing way too seriously and actually bully ourselves into personal development and growth. The bullying part takes the fun and the play elements out of it, which are the very things which make healing from abuse a more enjoyable process. The more we can enjoy the process of growing ourselves, the more effective it's going to be.
So that's why I went for cheerleader as well because it doesn't matter how substantial the emotional trauma is, I believe there has to be an element of play and laughter when addressing it. It's true that you have to bring light to get the darkness out of places. My role as a cheerleader drives me to encourage people to keep going and create a better relationship with themselves.
That process has been so important in my own journey, and that of people I have worked with. Bringing optimism and compassion to our inner voice has been the single most transformative process in my life. That’s why I’ve made it my mission to help women to do just that. I typically start that conversation with women entrepreneurs in the context of their business, but this is a process that will get into all areas of your life. It really is bringing the magic of self-leadership to life.
Q. Trauma seems to be a buzz word we hear more and more now in the media and on podcasts etc. Why do you think that is?
I think that pretty much everyone has some form of trauma that informs their life choices. If not from the relational sphere, then maybe within their schools or work environment. I mean everybody, like our whole society is one big “trauma bubble”.
It’s becoming more mainstream because people are not healing effectively or even at all. One of the reasons is because there is no room for healing in so many parts of our society. Like at work for example the ethos is “leave your personal shit at the door”. It’s all very well saying that, but where would you like me to put it during office hours? “Could you please point me in the direction of your ‘emotional baggage drop’?”. Wouldn't that be great if you had some kind of “trauma lockers”, where you could just leave it and perform in life and at work, unaffected by all that has happened to you in life? Haha.
But that’s not how we work; we are complex human beings. Organisations and business owners need to become more compassionate about the fact that we are operating every day informed and influenced by our trauma and if its unresolved it’s going to affect every area of your business and society as a whole.
Another reason is because of the way we speak to ourselves. Many of us are trying to become better versions of ourselves, while the voice in our head is absolutely ripping ourselves to shreds in the process. It’s savage and this approach simply does not work. That's why part of my mission is to put together ways in which we can bring compassion back into the workplace. Especially for small business owners who often work crazy hours because they have this idea that productivity is worth, productivity is value, because we've been taught that. Now my coaching is more and more about mindset, self-compassion and optimistic thinking.
Q. Would you be open to sharing a bit about how you started working through your own trauma?
It's always hard to explain to people that for the first 32 years of my life I didn't realize I grew up in an abusive family. That's because that's your only frame of reference. It's not until we start building relationships with other people, and if we're lucky enough with healthy people, that we see people don't always manipulate each other and put each other down and make belittling jokes and things like that. You start thinking, "Oh wait, so that's not normal? That's not the normal way for a family to function?"
It wasn't until I suddenly came across the term narcissism, that I really started to question the dynamic in my family of origin. My husband Stewart was watching the news and there was this story about a killer. I won't get into details with the gruesome things he did but he was described as a narcissist and there's a picture on the TV of this guy. Now anyone who has ever dealt with a narcissist knows the facial expression I'm about to describe because he had that smirk on his face. That's the facial expression that my mum had all the time. And so Stewart started researching narcissism while I was at work and when I came home, he was like, "You need to sit down. You need to read this because this explains everything.”
Not long after that I cut all contact with my parents. I eventually also lost the relationship with my sisters. It's very hard to hold onto that as there's too much stuff there. You're triggering for each other and there's a lack of trust because obviously they are still in touch with my parents. Anyway, big can of worms.
It's seven years since that happened and from time to time, not very often, but from time to time I still get what I always describe as the orphan feeling. Like, "Oh, I have no one in the world." And I know that's totally by choice and that's absolutely one of the best decisions I've made in my life but it is still hard at times.
It was in the middle of that turmoil that I met the community on the other forum that then closed down, which is how SwanWaters came to be. We specifically picked the story of The Ugly Duckling to inform what we were doing because it differs from most fairy tales in one crucial way. The hero of most fairy tales has to do something, change something about themselves, overcome ego for the most part. The Ugly Duckling doesn't have to do any of that. He just has to grow up into himself. Right? Always was, always has been a swan. Just other people made him feel that there was something wrong with him, which really described for us that feeling of "What's wrong with me that this person treats me that way?" Which really is how they want you to feel, by the way.
The whole process of creating SwanWaters and the Healing Academy played a beautiful role in my own journey and I love how my life and my business are transitioning into new places and opportunities now.
Q. What are your favourite healing modalities?
This has been absolutely crucial in my own personal healing journey because self-awareness informs everything. Triggering rarely goes from zero to a hundred in one moment. It's probably like a little seed of anxiety is planted and then we keep on going with things and we pile on top of that and then suddenly we can't manage it anymore. And so, what meditation and self-awareness taught me is to recognize the seed. Like, "Oh, hang on, I feel anxious. Let me just ground that energy. Let me just take a second to check in with myself. What caused that?" And what that also does is help you respond to people, rather than react to people.
It gives you what I call a spam filter for your mind, because it helps you to look at a thought before acting on it. This is useful because half the time when we feel offended by people, it's not the people who have offended us. It's whatever triggered from our past and the story we're telling ourselves about it. When we become mindful of ourselves, we notice what's going on in our body and how anxiety feels in our body. Like, where are we feeling it? How is that different from the last time you felt it? Is it in your tummy or your chest, and what's the difference between those two things? What does that tell you? That's been hugely important in my healing.
Write stuff down. You can think about a lot of things but you will get into a weird kind of tailspin if you only ever keep that stuff in your head. And if you don't like writing, and I sometimes don't, then make an audio recording of yourself. When you're saying stuff out loud, suddenly it starts making sense in a different way than when you're just sitting there thinking about it. So yeah, you have to get stuff out of your system, and journaling is a great way to do that. Writing or drawing, whichever way you prefer, just get it out of your system.
3. Find a Supportive Community
Community is absolutely key. Especially when your self esteem is quite low and your shame is really high, which is really the same thing, you need understanding people. We can't rely on external validation in our lives, but sometimes we need it to help us get out of the dark spot. And so you need people who are willing to reach out and pull you out of that hole and then are willing to stay around and see if they need to catch you again. Don't go it alone. It's hard enough as it is. So find your people.
What's beautiful about the FloLab community you and Zhana have created is that in this community, people are able to see where they're at, and if they're having a bad day, then they can say they're having a bad day. And then say, “I need help to get out of this bad day.” Or they can say, "I need to sit in this badness for a little bit." And that's fine. There's no pretense in it. And that's something that you guys showed by example and that's the only way to do it. Vulnerability is the new black.
4. Have a “good” cry
There's a delicate balance between giving yourself time and space to process and heal, and slipping into a kind of self pitying. "Oh, I don't have to do anything because I feel bad. So I can just sit here and feel bad." You won’t make much progress that way.
Sometimes though what’s needed is to feel into your emotions and release that energy. I'm one of those people that sometimes just needs to have a good cry. One day I said to someone, "I need to cry and I can't cry and I don't know why. I'm just going to watch something to make me cry". The Boy in the Striped Pajamas was on TV that night. "I'll just watch that because I'll be sobbing." Right? One of the biggest tips that I ever got was “What if you don't watch that and instead watch something that will make you cry, but will make you cry for a positive reason?” It's the same way of releasing that energy but you can choose whether it serves you or depletes you. So find something that stirs and moves your emotions for a positive reason, whether it’s RuPaul’s Drag Race or Queer Eye doesnt matter, whatever makes you feel good and open up.
5. Get a Pet
Hebe, my ex-service dog, has been an amazing healing modality. But before Hebe, my cat Bella was. We got our cat because I was having a really rough time at home. That was just after we moved back here. I had this massive anxiety attack one day in Coffee Company, in tears, telling Stewart we should move away somewhere again. I was like, "We'll pack everything up and we'll move to ... ". Then Stewart said "Why don't we get a pet? Because you're in the house by yourself all day, and you get yourself stuck in this whirlpool of emotion." So we got our cat Bella. After being away from the country and not knowing anyone, especially nearby, I was feeling lonely. So having another heartbeat in the house, and someone who sees you and notices you and wants to interact with you is very good for your anxiety.
Then last year I decided I wanted to get more structure into my day, which, when working from home as a freelancer can be really hard. I think we have all found ourselves still in our pyjamas at 5pm faced with having to go to the shops, haha! That's why I wanted a dog, but Bella, our cat, is super anxious. So we were like, it needs to be a dog who is super chill.
We were really lucky getting Hebe through my Aunt Margaret. She's in a wheelchair and has a service dog called Hana, who is amazing. Hana’s sister, Hebe, was a service dog and the work was stressing her out. She was getting really anxious, so she was barking at everything and was really stressed . She kept trying to dig through the floor in the house as an escape attempt, which is very sad. They had to retire her early unfortunately, which was also super hard for the family who had her obviously. And so she'd been returned to her trainer who was also the trainer of my aunt's dog. And that's how we got Hebe. And now Hebe is the Burnout mascot at FloLab and gives really great hugs for the members who want one.
Q. Finally, what advice or insights would you give to someone who is reading this interview and resonating with what you are saying?
Bullying is a really poor strategy to motivate anyone, including yourself. Being kind to yourself isn't about pampering. Being kind to yourself can also be giving yourself tough love sometimes , but it has to come from a loving place and not from, "You're such a failure at everything." The conversation I had with myself a lot was; "You've not healed enough. You're not going fast enough. You're not doing enough." Bullying is not a good tool for motivation. That is the big message I want to give everyone.
Once we become more compassionate to ourselves we can teach our brains new forms of normal and we can make those positive, uplifting, passionate ways of looking at the world. So that's not about, "I have to ban every bad thought that I ever, ever have." Because that's just pushing shit down. That doesn't work. But you can look at your anger and you can look at your sadness and you can look even at your impatience, and your frustration, and you can do that with compassion and in a way that says, "Okay, let's look at this. Let's see what it's about and let's see if we can turn that around." Make it work for you instead of against you. Stop bullying yourself. I'm going to say that again.
Stop bullying yourself.
Mags will be hosting her training “Discover The Magic of Self-Compassion in Business” at FloLab on August 26th. Tickets available on her website www.magsthomson.com.