Feb 122013

Following on from my posts about perfectionism and magical thinking, let’s have a look at guilt and shame, two concepts that loom large in the lives of a lot of us who struggle with our mental health. They are also two concepts that are often confused and, while I actually don’t think it really matters for the purposes of developing a healthy relationship with them, for the sake of academic interest let’s distinguish them.

Guilt is generally acknowledged to be regretting and feeling bad about something one has done, with the focus on the action (or the lack of action, if one feels guilty about having failed to do something). Shame, on the other hand, is feeling that taking (or not taking) that action means one is a bad person, with the focus on hating oneself as opposed to one’s behaviour. Neither is inherently negative, as is pointed out in this article from the BBC. It discusses the findings of some recent American research into guilt and shame proneness and draws attention to several positive aspects of having that propensity. In many ways, this is nothing unexpected: people who know right from wrong, who hold themselves to high standards and are sensitive to the feelings of others, make good bosses, friends, lovers, citizens. Up to a point, guilt and shame serve a useful function in society; they just need to be kept in proportion.

The problem is that guilt – and especially shame – are so often greatly exaggerated by those who had turbulent childhoods, with too much expected of them at too young an age. If, like me, you find it useful to understand how these things happen, you may find this page from Anxiety Care UK sheds some light for you. For this post, though, I’m going to concentrate on how to prevent shame and guilt from ruining our lives.

For many years, my first thoughts as I woke up every morning were the harshest, most withering criticisms of practically everything I had said and done the previous day. This little ritual, conducted before I’d even registered what the time or the weather was, left me cowed and slightly afraid, ill prepared to meet the challenges of the new day. It has taken a great deal of effort to reprogramme myself and there is still the occasional blip, when my internal parent starts whacking me over the head before I even realise what’s happening, but on the whole these days I am free of that paralysing weight of shame. Here is what worked for me:

Don’t go there! It takes a lot of mental discipline and (for me) many months of practice but you can train yourself to put negative thoughts out of your mind. Worrying about something actually does nothing to affect it; the people concerned will have no idea whether you’re thinking about the incident or not – so spare yourself the stress! Let it go; move on.

All anyone can do is the best he/she knows how at the time. This is a concept I learnt in my therapy training and has helped me a lot. Beyond berating myself for everything I’d done the day before, I also used to have frequent mini panic attacks as memories floated back to me from years ago of episodes that induced overwhelming feelings of shame. I now understand that this stuff is just part of life. We all make mistakes and that’s OK. Armed with greater knowledge and experience, I would do things differently now, but at the time I did the best I knew how and nobody can do more.

Look at yourself from a different perspective. Take someone who loves and understands you (if there is no such person in your life right now, imagine someone) and look at yourself through their eyes. If you’re weighed down by guilt and shame, the chances are you’re actually a very decent, thoughtful person, who cares about other people and what they think and learns from mistakes you’ve made. This is great! This is enough. You don’t have to be perfect. Let yourself see what the person who loves you sees in you and cut yourself some slack.

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Feb 052013

Perfectionism (the subject of last week’s post) is one way in which people whose formative years were stormy and unpredictable attempt to control the world. In order to avoid the wrath of my parents, I was very careful not to make any mistakes. In order to avoid the wrath of my partner/boss/friends, I am very careful not to make any mistakes. It’s an exhausting and impossible quest.

Unaware that the parents are worried about money or any number of other things, as well as struggling to prevent their own relationship from falling apart, the child knows only that she has to tread carefully. Sometimes, everything is fine and we can have fun together. Then, suddenly, without warning, something is triggered in one of the parents and war breaks out. The child’s life becomes focused on finding ways to keep the peace and she grows up believing her own behaviour is the key to it – although the rules and boundaries are always rather fluid and she has to work hard to stay one step ahead.

As that child grows up, she retains the distorted sense of responsibility for the world around her. It’s a sad paradox that a person who is excessively controlled in childhood often develops an inflated idea of her own power, which undermines her from both directions.

On the negative side, she carries around a huge burden of guilt for events that either were not her fault or that really don’t matter. The tendency to exaggerate one’s own shortcomings and their consequences we’ll talk about next week but I encourage you to reflect this week on how many times you curse yourself for things that are, in reality, out of your control. For instance, I was giving a friend a lift to an appointment the other day and we got stuck in traffic – not foreseeable rush-hour traffic but a jam caused by an accident on the motorway. It was just bad luck and yet I felt completely responsible and kept apologising to my friend for the fact he was going to be late.

On what may sound like the positive side, she may set herself up for failure by letting her unrealistic view of her own capabilities, her magical thinking, lead her to throw herself into a situation unprepared. There’s a good example of this, along with a clear analysis of it, on this blog about public speaking.

How often do you say, “I can do that!”, without thinking it through to make sure you really can? When the task goes wrong, do you attack yourself fiercely? If this is a pattern for you, my guess is it’s for a reason similar to the one I’ve outlined. These things are turning out badly not because you’re not a strong, capable person but purely because you’re not giving yourself a fair chance. Next time you catch yourself about to embark on one of these doomed missions, stop and think about it, prepare thoroughly – and you’ll find you get a much better result.

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Jan 292013

Perfectionism may sound like a positive attribute but the truth is it stifles creativity, undermines relationships and is the cause of untold misery. Because its roots are buried deep in our childhood, it can be difficult even to realise we suffer from this affliction (as opposed to simply having high standards) and it can be even harder to eliminate its pervasive poison from our system – but that is exactly what we have to do if we’re going to be free to fulfil our potential and enjoy life.

If our early lessons in how to survive were taught by controlling, demanding parent-figures dispensing performance-related love, we emerge with the belief that our value (at least in the eyes of others) is dependent on our never doing anything wrong. Far from leading to success, perfectionism can paralyse those in its grip, preventing them from experimenting or pushing any boundaries. The problem is that the perfectionist is so afraid of making a mistake or failing in any way that he/she ends up unable to take a risk or even, in really serious cases, to make a decision at all. As pointed out in this article on the School of Life blog, mistakes are an integral part of the creative process, a necessary phase without which nothing worthwhile ever comes to fruition. Look at the big picture and embrace your mistakes; they are moving you towards your ultimate breakthrough.

As far as relationships are concerned, perfectionism really gets in the way. This excellent article from the University of Illinois, offering advice to perfectionist students, draws attention to two specific issues. The first is that the perfectionist may give the impression, at least, of asking a very great deal of others. The second is that, anticipating criticism and rejection, the perfectionist may often be defensive and hide his/her own perceived failings, keeping him/her at arm’s length from the world.

I have certainly noticed these phenomena in my own life. I’m getting a bit better now but I used to hold people to excessively exacting standards because I believed they were doing this to me. I felt highlighting their failures was somehow buying myself some latitude for next time I made a mistake. For the same reason, I appeared to be competitive and I suppose I was, but not through any desire to demonstrate I was superior. I only wanted to protect myself by not granting my detractors anything to criticise.

Even now, in my 40s, I feel a pull to get the tiniest decision ratified by someone else. A nagging doubt plagues me, suggesting there must be some factor I’ve missed, which will later, once the die is cast, reveal how foolish I am. Historically, I was criticised, ridiculed and punished for any behaviour or opinion that didn’t fit what my mother or father had in mind and this is what made it so tricky. It’s impossible to be perfect even when the yardsticks are clear but when they depend on the whim of a parent, life becomes a minefield.

To combat this, I have to have the courage of my convictions, to make my decision and trust that it’s right. I have to break the patterns of my childhood and establish new ways of thinking, train myself to see that if my mother disapproves of whatever it is I’ve chosen, the sky is not going to fall.

It seems to me a large part of the cure for the perfectionist condition lies in strengthening our sense of self. By this I primarily mean detaching what we are from what we do. Making a mistake does NOT imply we are a bad person. As I was saying last time in relation to procrastination, bullying ourselves and reinforcing the message that we’re a useless git if we don’t achieve our aims only makes things worse. As long as we go on conflating accomplishment and self-worth, we’ll never know peace.

Along with ceasing to judge ourselves (harshly) by our performance, we have to dislodge the tenacious belief that the world judges us (harshly) by our performance. Gradually, I am beginning to realise that I don’t have to do anything in order to have intrinsic value as a human being – and neither do you.

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Jan 222013

We’ve talked on a big scale about identifying where we want to be and how to get there. It’s important to have a grand vision and to have an inspiring destination to aim at, but of course we also have to consider how we cope with the day-to-day demands and mundanities of life. While on the big scale it’s all about our heart’s desire, we’ll never attain this if we don’t apply ourselves to ploughing through a pile of chores that have to be done, whether we like it or not.

How do we motivate ourselves to get the work done? Well, let’s start by looking at a method that is not only ineffectual but also destructive – and yet for so many of us it’s the default strategy. It’s what psychotherapists call intrapsychic struggle and it consists of an internal dialogue along the lines of the following:

– Get on and write this report/wash the car/do the ironing, you useless oaf.

– In a minute. I just want to check my email/look up the racing results/finish looking at this magazine.

– Do some work, you lazy git! What’s the matter with you?

– That’s not fair! I work very hard. I’m tired and I deserve some time off. If you ever let me have any fun, I might be more productive, but it’s always work, work, work.

– Well, if you ever did any work, you might be able to have some fun afterwards as a reward, but you never do. You just sit around making excuses.

And so on.

This type of exchange, between the Parent and the Child inside ourselves, is a terrible waste of time and energy. It does nothing but make us miserable. As a spur to action, it fails completely and it also does insidious, long-term damage by reinforcing the message that we are a useless, lazy git. The way we talk to ourselves is crucial to success and we’ll go into it in more detail another time, but for now we’re focusing specifically on overcoming procrastination.

Seeing the intrapsychic struggle for what it is is a huge step forward in itself; the next is to find effective strategies to replace it. Here are a few ideas that I find helpful.

The Child part of you that wants to have fun has got a point. It is absolutely essential to health and happiness to take regular time off for recreation. If you never allow yourself off the leash, your productivity will suffer.

Distinguish between what’s important and what’s urgent. If something is urgent, do it now. You know you’ve got to do it and putting it off for a few hours will only add to the burden. What works for me in these circumstances is to tune in carefully to how I’m feeling and to weigh the guilt of procrastination against the virtuous uplift of having achieved. Accomplishing this task is going to bring me a rush of wellbeing and, when I really think about that, it’s enough to get me moving.

Items on the list that are important but not urgent are the ones that tend to slide. This is the reason for attaching deadlines to your goals, so they don’t just drift indefinitely. If you’re having trouble taking your self-imposed deadlines seriously, you can ask someone else to hold you accountable – online, if it suits you. The website stickK, for example, undertakes to coerce you into achieving your goals by various means, including facilitating your donation to a charity you loathe, should you fail to do what you’ve committed to. As I’ve said before, I personally prefer the carrot to the stick, but if having sanctions threatened gives you the impetus you need, put them in place. Whatever it takes – although I encourage you to think of this as a positive mission, to achieve X, rather than a punitive exercise.

Something writers about procrastination often mention is that procrastinators talk about leaving things till they’re ‘in the mood’ to do them. Well, I don’t know about you but I do have phases when I’m inspired to invest a great deal of energy in one or other of my interests and activities. When I’m feeling strong and confident, I tend to be more creative; when I’m feeling a bit scared of the world and wanting to hide, the urge is to study and learn, to take in quietly rather than to give out more extrovertly. Accepting this has actually been quite a liberation to me: I go with my energy flow and achieve on the front that’s calling me at that particular moment.

A vital factor in all of this is to be brutally honest with ourselves. We are the ones who decide how to spend our time and we need to be aware of what we’re choosing to do, minute by minute, hour by hour. In an article called Oops, Where Did the Day Go? in Psychology Today, Timothy Pychyl says “Self-deception is the handmaiden of procrastination”. Especially with all the technology we have today, it’s easier than ever to allow ourselves to be distracted, to pretend we’re doing something that has to be done, when actually we’re just frittering our lives away.

Procrastination is notorious as a stealer of dreams. Don’t let it steal yours.

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Making the most of now

 Seeing the truth  Comments Off on Making the most of now
Jan 152013

How do you feel about the present? Is it to be enjoyed and never mind what happens next? Or is it to be endured until something better turns up? Over the years, I have found myself veering between these two points of view and struggling to work out how to make the most of now.

On the one hand, what is life if not a series of present moments? If we never allow ourselves to enjoy them, always looking to the future and hoping things will improve, life will pass us by. I was saying last week how important it is to keep our eyes on our chosen destination – and it is – but of course we want to enjoy the journey as well.

On the other hand, if we live only in and for the present, the risk is that we’ll never get any further, never fulfil our potential or build the life we want.

There’s a tension here that can be tricky to resolve but I think the answer can be found through some honest soul-searching.

First of all, let us count our blessings. In Western culture, the pervasive pressure to earn more, consume more, have more can sometimes cause us to feel we ought to be dissatisfied with our lot, when in fact we have more than enough for our own needs. And, anyway, it’s always useful to remember to appreciate what we’ve already got and not always focus on what’s missing – apart from anything else, this helps us to maintain a positive attitude.

If you’re one who tends to dwell in the future, I encourage you to have a good, hard look at what is really going on. Is the place that occupies your mind actually the future or is it a daydream? If you’re enduring the present in the hope of a better future, when and how is that future going to come about? If your response to these questions is less than concrete, I’m afraid you may be just daydreaming of a better life, a life that will not be yours until you can force yourself to confront the truth of your present situation, make some realistic plans and take action to create the future you want. Whether you find it frightening or whether you find it liberating, the fact is you are the only one who can do this. Stop waiting for life to happen to you; go out and make it happen!

If you’re one who tends to live for the moment, I’m guessing it’s not working for you or you probably wouldn’t be reading this blog. My suggestion is that you stand back a bit and survey the big picture. Think of ‘now’ in a larger sense than literally this minute; think of it more as this phase. Then think of this phase in the context of the rest of your life. Yes, it’s important to enjoy – or at least get something positive out of – each phase, but it’s equally important to balance this with making progress. Otherwise, what you may tell yourself is enjoyment actually rings hollow.

Thinking in terms of a journey (which, as you will have noticed, is my favourite metaphor for all this), just because we’re travelling towards our desired destination it doesn’t mean we can’t get huge pleasure out of all sorts of things along the way or even on detours – but the fact that we’re broadly moving in that direction is part of the joy.

What I mean in practice is this. If you take ‘now’ too literally, you may consider you’re nurturing yourself by lying on the sofa eating chocolate and watching junk on telly for hours. Look at the bigger picture and what do you see? Probably not a fulfilling life spent in productive ways, with the odd day off on the sofa (there’s nothing wrong with sofa, chocolate and undemanding telly per se – it’s what they represent). I suspect what you may see is a lot of time spent trying to escape from reality, a reality that is never going to change while you continue to lounge around avoiding it.

And so we see that living in the future and living for the moment can be two sides of the same coin. A happy life is one in which we’re moving purposefully forward, relishing the challenge of obstacles to be overcome, enjoying the view as we go and the rest stops along the road. For me, this is the way to find the right balance between valuing what I’ve already got and not settling for a life less than the one I dream of; for me, this is the way to make the most of now.

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