A Conversation with Fearne Cotton on Finding Meaning in a Messy World

A Conversation with Fearne Cotton on Finding Meaning in a Messy World

Fearne Cotton is one of the best known and most popular broadcasters in the UK and is most recently known as the Founder of the wellbeing brand, Happy Place (created from her Sunday Times & Nielsen Bestseller of the same name). Fearne’s podcast, Happy Place, has featured guests including Ellie Goulding, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Jada Pinkett Smith, Russell Brand, Gary Barlow, Alicia Keys and Elizabeth Gilbert and has over 53 million downloads, continuing to top the charts. Fearne’s Happy Place Festival is attended by tens of thousands, and has just announced new tickets go on sale.

Fearne has spent much of the last decade seeking the insight and advice of wise minds to explore what they can teach us about achieving happiness, connection, and hope. She talks about this journey in her book Bigger Than Us where she explores everything from intuition and energy to manifesting, ritual, prayer and signs. Fearne’s hope is that by following her journey of peeling back layers of her own anxiety and self-limiting beliefs, that we can all find contentment and deeper meaning.

In this interview, I speak to Fearne Cotton about why our world feels so messy, the power of love, compassion and acceptance, the importance of ritual, why we need to confront the darker aspects of ourselves and what it truly takes to be happy.

Q: Why is our world so messy?

[Fearne Cotton]: Is our world messier than before? Or are we just more aware of the mess. If we look back hundreds, or even thousands of years, there have always been problems- infrastructure, poverty, survival…. But our modern world is certainly more complex. There are 7.7billion of us walking around with lots of different ideas and thoughts, and our digital lives have given us a new parallel world that previous generations never had to deal with. The digital realm in particular impacts all elements of our life – socially, emotionally, physically… we’re only just beginning to understand it.

Life is overwhelming now; we’re bombarded with problems more than solutions. There are millions of people out there with ideas, solutions and hope but the media that projects to us identifies and lingers on the negative, on the extremes of emotion. This gives us a warped idea of how messy the world is and doesn’t celebrate the beauty and the good bits… the people making change… the people with brilliant solutions.

Q: Why do love and compassion matter, and why are we so resistant to them?

[Fearne Cotton]: The most important versions of love and compassion are the ones we show to ourselves. We have to start there. It’s not selfish or ignorant. If you don’t make space for yourself to feel loved by you, the rest is impossible… you’ll always end up burned-out or in a state of resentment. Nearly all of us are pretty bad at acknowledging that we need to feel more loved by ourselves – or even that we need to show ourselves more compassion. That’s why we’re often so hard on ourselves. We’re not tapping into that very internal, omnipresent love and compassion that we’re born with. You don’t see babies hating on themselves and giving up when things get tough – that’s learned.

Society has grown, matured, and got more ‘modern’ but we still have many hangovers from the past. Historically, religion provided a lot of the answers here – the notion of a heaven and hell (for example) provided an understanding that you had to live a good, virtuous, life to get somewhere worth going. That sense of what we ought to do to live a good life is still with us – but we are faced with an onslaught of messages, projected at us from every angle, saying ‘there’s something wrong with you!‘ – of course, the same messages are usually trying to sell you something to help… This kind of messaging is mirrored through every element of the media – whether it’s entertainment or the news. There’s almost always some kind of negative slant, guilt or shame. We’re so used to it, we don’t even see it anymore. We think the level of negativity around us is normal.

When we hear people tell us that we’re already beautiful, we’re already perfect, we’re already loving… we assume it can’t be right because most of the messages we hear tell us there’s something wrong with us. We assume we are the flawed ones (not the message). We assume that we are faulty (not the message). We assume that we need fixing (not the message). We keep getting told we need to be living our best life- but we forget we already are.

We have a weird epidemic of hating on ourselves, if we stopped doing that, life would get way easier.

Q: Fame often leads to experiences at the extreme ends of life. Do you think your experience(s) of fame have helped shape your understanding of life? 

[Fearne Cotton]: I don’t think I would have got to the understanding I have, or the depths that I fell, without the extremities that my job gave. This isn’t a sob story. I love my job, but it’s not normal to have the level of microscopic critique or commentary on your life that you get when living with a public profile. Unless you have a very thick skin, or are very skilled at battling commentary, it’s very challenging. To do my job, there’s an element of commentary that I need to put up with in order to… well… do my job! I’ve found it devastatingly difficult at times… it’s crippled my self-esteem and confidence, and I still deal with the after-effects of it today. That’s why I’ve changed my career so massively, so it feels safer… less exposing… some of this is human nature. It doesn’t matter how many people tell you that you’re amazing, or did something well, or that they really like you… you tend to focus on the ones who say you’re this or that… or who point out what they don’t like… or who point out the flaws you already know you about…. Along with the ones you didn’t!

Today; I’m able to step back a little from it all and feel like it’s a massive bonus if people are engaging with my work and the conversations I have – but that can’t support my confidence or act as a foundation for my self-esteem. On a good-day, I’m able to absolutely implement and realise that it’s all a bit of a silly game… that nobody can really be ‘cancelled,’… that we’re all sovereign beings walking around on a very special planet… on a bad day of course, it’s different. That’s when I start to pick holes in myself… that’s when I listen to what people have said…

Without the extreme magnifying glass that was on my life, I don’t know if I would have stumbled on any of the discoveries I’ve made.

Q: What has been the consequence of losing the relationship we have with rituals and practices in our lives?

[Fearne Cotton]: We’ve lost our relationship with ourselves; and that is all-encompassing because without a relationship with ourselves, we can’t then have a relationship with nature, with each other and the planet. It’s all the same… we’re all part of the same thing… we’ve just made these weird distinctions of animals, plants and nature. We’ve created this messed-up hierarchy of power. Our rituals and practices often bring us home – they bring us back to what we knew as babies but couldn’t clearly articulate. We all know – almost intuitively – that we’re part of something that requires awe and wonder. It’s so amazing we’re here, it’s bonkers! There is so much inspiration around us – it’s awe inspiring.

The practices we’ve lost as a society are often conflated with the self-help stuff we see around us… like those people who say if you meditate every-day, you will be ‘fixed,’ or if you do X every-day, you will be a better version of yourself. I don’t align with that – they’re all practices and beautiful things to learn about… and by looking within, you can go back to seeing what you already were… that isn’t selfish or ignorant, its expansive. There’s no difference to within, and whatever you believe is going on ‘out there,’ it’s all the same. I don’t’ want to sound too mystical or too ‘woo-woo’ about this – but we do need to tune-in to that knowing that we all have. The farther away we get from that knowledge, the more destruction we cause in ourselves, on others, and on the planet.

We live in a weird world where everything is so projected, seen and viewed. We mistake visuals for being everything when often the things that matter are about feelings… senses… intuitive understanding… and we need to reclaim some of our rituals and practices to get us there.

Q: Why is it important to confront the dark aspects of our self?

[Fearne Cotton]: We have to honour all parts of ourselves; and the wellness, social-media, and culture of the modern world has encouraged us to be this faux-perfect… a virtuous, pure version of ourselves. They make us feel like someone could slap us around the face and we wouldn’t say anything because we’re so peaceful. Come on! That’s not realistic!

Everyone has dark thoughts and demons… we can’t suppress that and ignore it. If we do, we’ll never heal.

A huge part of the lsat 10 years for me has been confronting the darker parts of my self head on. It’s been painful, undesirable and gruesome but has been an important part of attempting acceptance. Perhaps the harshest confrontation has been EMDR therapy where you are literally speaking aloud the most unimaginably awful things that you would never say aloud- you’re hearing yourself say them and working through them- feeling a sense of safety because you’ve now said those things out loud and guess what… once you’ve voiced your demands, the world still carries on… you’re still alive… you’re still here… your texts are still pinging… people still like you.

Compassionately confronting and acknowledging your darker aspects is really important for you to see the parts of yourselves that otherwise you suppress.

Q: How have you managed to reconnect with the world?

[Fearne Cotton]: We have to acknowledge that we all have wobbles. The other day, I was filming with Ellie Goulding. She was performing, I was interviewing her, there was a big film crew there. With all that going on, it’s easy to have a wobble and worry about what everyone else thinks, and whether you’re going to do a good job… but you know what, everyone in that room is feeling the same – nobody walked-in and thought, I am here! I’ve arrived! I’m going to be brilliant! Nobody operates like that. Recognising the familiarity of that experience, and similar it’s between all of us really helps to ground-us. We’re all feeling a bit lost and grappling with trying to work out who the hell we are and what our values are.

If I start to think about what I ought to be doing, who I really am, and what I like… guess what… it doesn’t matter, it will change tomorrow. It’s not fixed. It’s transient, sometimes spontaneous! I think back to a podcast I did with an amazing forest monk who sadly died recently. His name is Bjorn Natthiko Lindeblad. The mantra he learned from one of his teachers was, ‘I may be wrong… I may be wrong…’ and it’s difficult to come back to that, but it’s humbling, and important for us to consider. It sparks curiosity.

In our modern world, everyone has an opinion about everything; and it’s powerful to step back and go, ‘you know what… I genuinely don’t have an opinion about that…’ – taking that position is seen as most terrible in today’s day and age, but if you really work to dismantle all the things you think you are, you’ll probably find you don’t have an opinion about so many things.

Q: Have you come any closer to understand what happiness means?

[Fearne Cotton]: I’ve thought about happiness so much over the last 10 years, and I need to be willing to step back and say… you know what… I don’t know. What I think happiness is today may not be right tomorrow nor next week. I may change… I may want something different… a new challenge… what brings me happiness tomorrow may be different to what makes me happy today.

I used to chase happiness. I wanted to be on this huge roller-coaster. I knew that often the big highs I was chasing would lead to big lows, but I was cool with it… I wanted to be on that rollercoaster. It led to lots of excitement and mad situations but I don’t crave that anymore. I try and strip things back now to cultivate acceptance and more of a sense of mental peace that makes the voice quieter in my head. I like that I can sleep at night without some voice yabbering about something silly that I really don’t need to worry about. I like the fact that I’m nicer to myself.

Self compassion is the missing puzzle piece to most people’s happiness. If we can really like ourselves, everything else unfolds naturally. It doesn’t mean your dream life will unfold… but it means everything feels OK and you spend less energy trying to manipulate the external all the time. When we feel uncomfortable; it’s not always about a person or a situation… it may be old-stuff within us that we need to sift through and work on. I’m not about quick fixes… the commitment I’ve made is that the work I’m doing on me will be every single day until I die… it’s never-ending because we’re always changing.

Life can be exhausting – but we can either choose to be exhausted and find a bit more peace… or be exhausted and wound-up. I know which I’d rather be.


Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.

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