Life is a work in progress

 Facilitating change, Setting and achieving goals  Comments Off on Life is a work in progress
Dec 242013

Well, here we are at Week 52. 2013 has come and practically gone. How has it been for you?

I had high hopes for this year and not all of them have been fulfilled, but I still feel far more stable and positive than I usually do in December. I think the big difference is I finally have the sense of having made genuine progress. For so long I’ve been stuck in a strange sort of sleep-walking cycle of making fantasy ‘plans’ that I know will come to nothing (because I’m going to sabotage them), living a few months pretending I believe in them, while making no concrete effort towards them, and sliding into frustration and depression at the end of the year because I’m no further on than I was twelve months ago.

For the first time since about 1994, this year I did things differently. I analysed my fantasies and separated the goals I really wanted from the ones that I’d set up only to sabotage and bring myself down. Then I made realistic action plans and worked towards them. All the while, I was also being very strict with myself in terms of not allowing negative thoughts to pass through my mind unchallenged. Gradually, I’ve changed my outlook and taken more and more control of my own destiny. It works! Turning around a life that had run aground as deeply as mine had is not something that can be achieved overnight but the secret is to cultivate patience and optimism, while making sure you are actually moving and not just sitting there waiting for someone else to rescue you.

Something I’ve found useful is to keep a diary. This helps me to focus my thoughts and feelings, and it also gives me a record of the journey I’m on. I’ve been writing at least a page at the end of every day since 1st January 2008 and, whenever I get disheartened about the slow pace of my recovery, I look back over my entries from a few years ago and I see that, in fact, I’ve come much further than I’d remembered.

Small changes can yield enormous results, given enough time. Recovery is a process, not an event. As we head into 2014, keep your eyes on your destination, the life you want for yourself. I hope you too feel you’ve moved some way towards it during 2013 but, satisfied or not with your progress this year, you can certainly make the next twelve months count. Discipline is crucial – keep up the good work and you’ll thank yourself later – and so is self-nurturing. This may sound contradictory but it isn’t at all. If your goals are good ones, truly your heart’s desire, then keeping yourself on track is obviously in your interest. Equally, loving, valuing and respecting yourself are fundamental both to identifying the right goals and to getting you there. Discipline and self-nurturing combine to form the carrot that I find so much more effective as a motivator than the stick.

So, there we are: the last post in this blog. Thanks for reading and I hope you’ve found something in it to help you. Best wishes for the Christmas season and may 2014 be even more successful and fulfilling for you than 2013 has been.

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Healthy body, healthy mind

 Facilitating change, Health  Comments Off on Healthy body, healthy mind
Dec 172013

Body and mind, mind and body… they’re linked in a myriad mysterious ways and we can’t hope to achieve health in one if we ignore the other. True health flows from the balance and harmony of body and mind.

A healthy mind understands the importance of a healthy body and enjoys nurturing the body’s health. When I was depressed, saw myself solely as a mind; my body was no more than the vehicle that carried my mind around and I neglected it. As a result, I put on five and a half stone, my skin became rough and I went down with a cold or virus every few weeks. Now that my mind is in much better shape, I’ve lost most of that weight, my skin has cleared up beautifully and I get ill only two or three times a year. And I feel much more integrated, whole and, well, normal.

Keeping your body fit and healthy is an act of love that you owe yourself. Your body is you and if you don’t value yourself it can be difficult to give your body the kind of attention it needs. In fact, the tug can be to punish ourselves by eating too much or too little, by exercising too hard or not at all, by overdosing on alcohol or taking drugs, by staying up late and sleeping in the daytime, by failing to wash or groom, even by cutting or otherwise self-harming.

Taking out your misery, frustration, fear and whatever else afflicts you on your body is the opposite of the solution. Even if we can fool ourselves these things make us feel slightly better at the time, over the long term they make everything so much worse. Yes, we have to stop hiding in self-abuse and face the underlying problem but, hand in hand with that, we also have to start treating our body with the respect it deserves. What’s so great about this is that as soon as you really get serious about looking after your body, your mind will begin to reap the rewards and you’ll be onto an upward spiral. Investing in your physical self will pay dividends to your mental self as well, dividends which can swiftly be reinvested in the body and more return generated. The positive result is guaranteed – provided you don’t sabotage the process. If your heart isn’t in it, if your mind is playing games and you’re going through the motions without really meaning it, without putting any love into it, it’s not going to work. In this case, all you’re doing is proving to yourself that the world stinks, just as you knew it did. If this is your secret purpose, don’t bother trying. You might as well stay on the sofa with your whisky, pizza and spliff – or whatever your poison is – because nothing is going to improve for you until you can find what it takes to give yourself a chance.

Once you genuinely start to nurture yourself, the process will gather momentum. Of course, you’ll have bad days and progress will zigzag but it will zigzag in an upwardly direction. Be patient, stick with it. Your new self may take a while to emerge from its chrysalis. But, in the meantime, the inherent advantages of eating well, being physically active, getting enough sleep and so on, should be a constant encouragement. The lift brought about by endorphins, the money you save on medicine and skin-care, the gradual realisation that you’ve got more energy and stamina and that, in fact, life isn’t such a struggle as it used to be, will all lead you inexorably to a permanently better state of mind.

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It’s not my fault. I’ve got issues.

 Relationships, Sense of self  Comments Off on It’s not my fault. I’ve got issues.
Dec 102013

In this day and age, I find it amazing how totally unsympathetic some people are when it comes to mental health. It seems to me blindingly obvious that a traumatic past may have the effect of holding back a person’s development and cause them problems. The fact that parental divorce or bereavement, or whatever the trauma was, affects two people differently I put down to the difference in their individual experience, rather than one being stronger or better (though it may be that one has processed the trauma and worked on it more effectively than the other).

I also believe telling someone who feels a victim to stop being so feeble and self-indulgent is (usually) a crass and counter-productive way to handle the situation. Love, support and patience are the answer. Or they have been for me. We’re all different and I suppose in some cases some home truths and tough love may be a productive solution. Here, as in everything, really, it’s so important to understand how different characters respond to different approaches.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be too harsh on the people I consider shockingly lacking in empathy – the problem is, they have no idea what it’s all about. Although they may not have had X disease, they have certainly had some sort of physical affliction at some stage and, at some level, they can relate to a physical problem or illness. They believe in it because their experience has brought them into that realm. Someone who has never been struck down by depression, anxiety or other psychological condition, and never been intimately involved with anyone who has, has no point of reference or window on that world.

If I’m honest, I have been guilty of such lack of imagination and empathy myself. I used to get terribly impatient with my short-sighted friend. My own vision was 20/20 and I couldn’t get my mind round the idea that someone couldn’t see what was right there in front of him, clear as crystal (to me). Ten years on, my eyes have lost their youthful sharpness and I need glasses for reading, writing and close-up work. Now, of course, I have far more sympathy for my friend – but it shouldn’t have taken going through it myself for me to make that leap.

But the point I want to make today is that, despite being appalled and frustrated by their failure to acknowledge the power of the mind to ruin a life, I have to concede there is a grain of truth in the argument put forward by the just-get-on-with-it types. They are right that, however grotesque our history, we are all responsible for our own behaviour and attitudes. Having had an abusive childhood is no excuse for growing up to abuse others.

It’s no excuse but it is a reason, and this is where those on both sides have to be sensitive and those of us with the issues have to be honest with ourselves. Repeating the mistakes that have caused so much pain and misery to us, taking out our pain and misery on the people in our lives now, is bad. It’s bad for the people around us and it’s bad for us.

Depending how our issues have manifested and what sort of mental-health problems we’ve got, there may well be times when it’s beyond our control.

I feel very strongly that those close to someone who struggles with issues of mental health owe it to that person to be kind, patient and supportive and not just hide until the person has got over the crisis alone. The reason they do this is usually nothing more selfish than fear, but I still find it frightening that ill people should be left to suffer alone, just because the symptoms are beyond the understanding of the people around.

However, if we are going to expect this from those close to us, we have to meet them halfway. We owe it to them to work on ourselves, to work towards recovery so that life won’t always be like this. We also owe them huge apologies if we give them a hard time. When I’m under the influence of my demons, I can be vitriolic and over the years I’ve been truly nasty to two of the people I love most in the world. Up to a point, I feel I couldn’t help it but at the very least it’s essential that, as soon as my brain clears a bit, I say I’m sorry and explain it was the demons talking. I like to think I would never take it further and indulge in physical violence but I don’t believe I can take much credit for this; it’s just the way I’m built.

There is no doubt that the chemicals of the brain affect people strongly and I believe that, in the case of someone inexperienced in analysing their feelings and impulses, it probably is fair to say that if they lash out, they can’t help it. For me, the principle of responsibility is on the larger scale. Yes, I’m asking those around me – and society as a whole – to make allowances for my issues, early on. However, as soon as it becomes apparent that I’ve got a problem, it is my responsibility to get therapy, to read and research, to think and experiment and to work on myself until I get the problem under control. For those on the other side of the argument, please remember: the less you criticise and the more you support me, the sooner I’ll be able to sort myself out.

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Giving and receiving compliments

 Relationships, Sense of self  Comments Off on Giving and receiving compliments
Dec 032013

Good compliments are food for the soul. They satisfy our hunger for attention in a positive, healthy way and can be immensely sustaining. Mark Twain said, “I can live for two months on a good compliment” and I feel exactly the same.

Starved of compliments, we wilt and seek out anything we can find to keep us going, which is why some people end up so belligerent. Unable to elicit positive strokes (as compliments are known in Transactional Analysis), they decide any attention is better than no attention and do what they can to provoke negative strokes. A neglected child behaves badly in order to be noticed, and we adults are really no different.

The reason for the qualifier ‘good’ is that the compliment must be right for the recipient if it is to have a positive effect. In the same way as some food disagrees with us, we have adverse reactions to ‘bad’ compliments, whether intentionally backhanded or simply misjudged.

There are all sorts of reasons a compliment may go awry, but these are some of the common ones:

Weight of expectations. If you tell me I’m great at something, I may feel pressure to live up to your high opinion and be afraid you will think less of me if I fail.

Solution: I need to know your regard is unconditional. If I don’t seem pleased with your compliment about what I can do, try shifting your affirmation away from what I do to complimenting me on what/who I am.

I may not believe you. This may take one of two forms: 1) I may feel obliged to deflect or demur because my experience is that if I don’t the compliment will be retracted.

Solution: Gently challenge the deflection or demurral and encourage me to accept the compliment, assuring me you mean it and were not going to qualify or undermine it in any way.

2) My self-esteem may be so low that your compliment jars with my view of myself, making me feel insecure by shaking my outlook.

Solution: Patience! Keep on telling me what I need to hear and try not to mind my ungracious response. With enough time and support, I will come to hear you one day.

Your compliment may be misplaced. Being complimented on how sensible and reliable I am may not have the desired effect if what I long to be is fiery, adventurous, wild and unpredictable.

Solution: Think about what the recipient wants to hear, rather than what you would like to hear or what seems to you a trait that should be encouraged.

How to give a good compliment

The main ingredient in a good compliment is sincerity. An insincere compliment, whether over-protective or smarmy, will probably stick in the recipient’s throat. Telling me I’ve done well when any objective observer would acknowledge my performance was way under par will, at best, make me doubt your judgment in future. At worst, it’ll sound patronising – or even sarcastic – and compound my misery. Of course, don’t be brutal in your honesty but it’s possible (and much more effective) to be supportive without denying the manifest truth.

A good compliment is freely given, without strings attached. A compliment offered in order to get something back is a bad one, underhand and manipulative.

Although I think it can be nice to offer compliments to strangers if one feels moved to do so, the better you know the recipient the less risk there is of your getting it wrong.

If your well intentioned compliment is badly received, please remember it’s not a personal rebuff but a manifestation of the recipient’s issues and don’t be put off. Bearing in mind some of the stuff mentioned above, think about how you could approach it differently next time with this person and offer them a compliment they might more easily be able to accept and be pleased with. If the relationship allows, the best thing is probably to talk to the person about it and ask for guidance.

How to receive compliments

If someone’s line of complimenting is really not working for you, the most productive response is to find a tactful way of explaining how you feel, so they can get it right for you.

Even if it’s not exactly what you want to hear, if a compliment is sincere and kindly meant, I recommend you say thank you and accept it. Rejecting a compliment can be quite a slap in the face and it’s not fair to take your insecurities out on someone who is trying to help.

If you find yourself resisting compliments you’d like to accept, give some thought to why this is and find ways to handle it differently, to let the positive thoughts in and to allow the other person the satisfaction associated with giving something that’s gratefully received. If the people in your life are telling you you’re better than you think you are, it’s time to start listening to them.

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Other people are (just) people

 Keeping perspective, Relationships  Comments Off on Other people are (just) people
Nov 262013

As someone prone to self-consciousness and social anxiety, I find it useful to remind myself that the people out there, the people around me, are simply that: people. They are human beings with issues, worries, stress, fears and hopes – in essence, no different from me. This is not intended to be some sort of hippy point about the Brotherhood of Man (or whatever the non-gender-specific equivalent is) but a handy reality check for those times when interacting with people is causing problems, one way or another.

When I feel let down by someone, I always try to look at what’s happened from their perspective. This is not about being saintly (although there’s no harm in attempting saintliness!); I do it because I feel better if I can reduce the size of the insult I have instinctively felt – or even eradicate it – by rationalising the perceived slight.

We all have a tendency to slide back into our old patterns when the going gets tough. The more depressed and vulnerable I feel, the more demanding I become, as my perfectionism kicks in and the standards to which I hold myself and others get more and more stringent. In this state, I hide from the world and brood on how hard done-by I am, how nobody cares about me. Transgressions committed, particularly by my nearest and dearest, get blown up out of all proportion when viewed through the prism of my insecurities. In these cases, I find it both normalising and comforting to remind myself: I don’t have to be perfect and neither does anyone else. Look at the big picture: this person likes (or even loves) me and, OK, they have failed to answer my text/declined my invitation/forgotten my birthday, but they’re allowed to make a mistake without it compromising our relationship. If I did whatever it is to them, it wouldn’t mean I didn’t care, just that I was embroiled in something heavy, got distracted and made a mistake. Cut them some slack, let it go, it doesn’t matter.

Another context where I find it very helpful to remember I’m not the only one with stuff to contend with is when I’m out in the world and feeling tested. At an interview, for example, it’s ridiculously easy to assume the interviewer is the one in control, the one with all the power, but this is not true. A friend of mine was on the other side of the fence recently and told me she felt really flustered: she had never interviewed anyone before and didn’t completely know what she was doing. She made what she considered to be some glaring errors and blushed several times, assuming the interviewee took her to be an incompetent fool. What an interesting piece of role reversal – and yet there is every bit as much pressure on the interviewer to get it right as there is on the interviewee. This is another thing I find it normalising and comforting to remind myself: I may be feeling insecure but that doesn’t mean nobody else is. Once I start thinking about what their worries might be, I soon relax and remember that we’re all just people, doing the best we can in an imperfect world.

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