Embracing change (1)

 Self-defeating behaviour, Staying positive  Comments Off on Embracing change (1)
Sep 102013

I was struck by what AL Kennedy said in A Point of View on BBC Radio 4 last week about how “every analysis of what makes lucky and happy people lucky and happy demonstrates they adapt fast and well to new situations and people”. I share her reluctance to allow – let alone embrace – change and I too know this attitude actually makes life more difficult for me.

Resisting change is about trying to control our world. We feel safe with what’s familiar, however unsatisfactory it may be, because we know and understand it; when things change, we have to adjust and get used to something new. Plus there’s the whole issue around how change happens whether we want it to or not, which highlights how little control we really have over the world.

So strong is my aversion to change, I would prefer to carry on struggling with outmoded technology than get to grips with an unfamiliar system – a system far more efficient and effective than the old one. I know this is ridiculous and I’m blessed with friends who are enthusiastic early adapters themselves, always in the vanguard of the technological revolution and evangelistic about the advantages of the newfangled solutions. These friends bounce me along with them and every time I’m forced to take a step forward I realise within a few days how much better and easier the new way of doing things is.

Embracing positive change may be surprisingly difficult for sticks-in-the-mud like me but I imagine most of us can see the benefit of doing so. Attempting to “impose stillness on a universe which is in motion”, as AL Kennedy puts it, is a waste of energy we could be using to embrace the change and move ourselves forward in life. But what if the change we’re willing not to happen is a negative one? Well, in some ways it’s even more important we should force ourselves to confront it. If your marriage is on the rocks or you’re about to be made redundant, refusing to contemplate the situation can only make it worse. For a start, having a good hard look at a major negative change on the horizon gives us a chance to take action to prevent it.

Even if the change is inevitable, though, being prepared for it makes all the difference to how well we can cope when the time comes. I’ve always known this at some level but it was demonstrated clearly again by the death of our beloved grandmother. We had a few months’ notice of this sad event, as Grandma’s body grew frailer and frailer and her mind became more and more detached from reality, but my sister was unable to use this time to prepare herself: between a demanding job and young children, she never has an opportunity to stop and reflect. In a quite different position, I was able to devote a lot of time and thought to coming to terms with the prospect of Grandma leaving us. When the time came, I was so well prepared that the transition was nothing like the emotional taser it was for my poor dear sister.

Embracing change, then, doesn’t necessarily mean welcoming it. It means letting it into our consciousness and gradually into our heart, getting to know it so that we’re no longer afraid of it.

There’s a lovely hymn that sums up the attitude I’m working to develop. A couple of the verses go:

Not for ever in green pastures / Do we ask out way to be, / But the steep and rugged pathway / May we tread rejoicingly.

Not for ever by still waters / Would we idly rest and stay, / But would smite the living fountains / From the rocks along our way.

Burying one’s head in the sand is a natural instinct for many people as well as ostriches but it does nothing to help us deal with life’s challenges. The world we live in is in a constant state of flux and if we don’t learn to accept that, we’ll be condemned to spend our life fighting – and losing – futile battles, such as King Canute’s apocryphal attempt to hold back the tide of the English Channel.

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The destructive power of boredom

 Seeing the truth, Self-defeating behaviour  Comments Off on The destructive power of boredom
Jun 182013

I’ve noticed over the years that boredom is both a symptom and cause of malaise and, although it can do no end of damage, it tends not to be taken very seriously as a problem and little, if any, sympathy is offered to sufferers. The usual reaction to a complaint of boredom seems to be a dismissive comment about it being the person’s own fault and that if you’re bored you’re boring. Which is not very helpful.

What I’m talking about here is not the fleeting pangs we all experience from time to time of wishing something more interesting was going on and looking hopefully around for distraction. This is a normal part of life and nothing to worry about. We don’t need to be stimulated and entertained on a constant basis – in fact, creativity usually thrives best in empty hours when nothing much is happening.

When I say boredom is a symptom of malaise, I mean people who feel stuck in an unfulfilling long-term situation may experience their frustration and gloom as boredom. Their lives may be full of activities that would absorb and uplift someone different but, because something vital is missing or wrong, their senses are deadened and they feel bored. Certainly this was my experience. The years I spent suppressing my own needs and desires in order to do what I thought was expected of me were covered in a thick, grey, suffocating blanket of boredom.

When I say boredom is a cause of malaise, I mean it can lead us to behave in ways we know are destructive to ourselves and often to others – eating, drinking, taking drugs, picking fights, having affairs, committing crimes, just for something to do.

And the danger is that this can become a vicious circle. I’m unfulfilled, so I indulge in behaviour I hope will stimulate me. Instead, it makes me feel even more stuck and hopeless. I feel worse… even more bored… so I return to the behaviour I dislike but which gives me temporary relief from my boredom.

How can we best confront this? It’s a tricky one because we need to tread the fine line between keeping ourselves busy in a positive way and not keeping ourselves busy in a negative way. The negative way is to fill up our time and our mind with activities that keep us from ever having the opportunity to think deeply about what the real problem is and to find a solution to it. No amount of thrill-seeking is going to compensate for a failed career or a bad relationship; this is using sticking plasters when you need antibiotics.

The first and main priority, if you’re experiencing persistent boredom, is to allow yourself to examine your feelings and work out what’s really wrong, and then take radical action to solve the problem. I know this is easy to say but, as one who has done it, I can tell you the feeling of reengaging with life and being able to enjoy it and be at peace with it is worth every ounce of stress it takes to get there.

Alongside this, there are ways we can deflect ourselves from sliding into behaviours we wish we wouldn’t keep doing. Often, I find, a shake-up of routine is enough to stop me eating too much junk or drinking too much alcohol – when I’m stimulated in other ways I simply forget to yearn for pizza and a glass of wine. This is not a long-term solution but it helps me to remember that I don’t actually need these things, I just want them, and how strong an influence habit is.

Destructive behaviour is an attempt to meet a need, so the most effective way of changing it is to identify the need it’s meeting in you and then find healthy alternatives that will do the same job.

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Judicious use of self-disclosure

 Facilitating change, Self-defeating behaviour  Comments Off on Judicious use of self-disclosure
Jun 112013

Finding the right level of self-disclosure can be like walking a tightrope. Too much and we make ourselves vulnerable, too little and we never get close to a person: it’s a tricky balance.

They say true friends are those who know us intimately and love us anyway, and that seems to me an excellent definition of a healthy and sustaining relationship with anyone, friend or relation. The question is, how do we get to that point with someone, of knowing each other intimately and feeling unconditional love and regard for each other? It’s a process that usually takes years and generally works best without the pressure of undue scrutiny but I think it’s worth being aware of the dangers of over- or under-doing self-disclosure in the early stages of getting to know people.

After decades of parading my innermost secrets, flaws and hang-ups in front of all sorts of unsuitable audiences, I finally realised this was self-defeating behaviour. Longing for affirmation, I splurged my insecurities to anyone who would listen, overwhelming them with my neediness and causing me to wake up the next morning paralysed with shame at having over-exposed myself so badly. Some people were kind but I never got what I thought I wanted from these exchanges – mainly, I see now, because I wasn’t really asking for help so much as throwing such a heavy net of negativity over someone I hardly knew that it would force them to back away, thus reinforcing my belief that I was unlovable.

Once I realised what was happening, I went almost to the other extreme and became very cagey about my personal life. This has kept me safer but it has also prevented some of my acquaintances becoming friends, since my reticence to share is keeping them at arms’ length. For the moment, I prefer it like this but I also know that Canadian psychologist Sidney Jourard hit the nail on the head when he said, “Perhaps the most important reason for self-disclosure is that without it we cannot truly love”. Intimate relationships are built on mutual trust and mutual vulnerability.

Self-disclosure leads to intimacy but it must be done gradually and in step with a similar level of revelation from the other person. Before you spill any private beans, take a few seconds (or more) to consider whether this is really a good idea, whether it will benefit the relationship at the stage it’s at now. You can always share your secret at a later date but you can’t take it back once it’s said.

Sidney Jourard’s point is valid and important but it’s also useful to bear in mind this advice from an anonymous source: “Be careful who you open up to. Only a few people actually care, the rest just want to have something to gossip about”.

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Apr 302013

How are you getting on with the goals you set yourself at the beginning of the year? Are you moving steadily towards them or are you still fighting to take the first step? If you’re making progress, well done you! Keep up the good work and enjoy the process. If you’re struggling, it’s possible you’re not giving yourself a fair chance. This issue has been on my mind recently and today I thought it would be useful to have a look at self-defeating behaviour, how we can identify it and how we can transform it.

It’s a strange phenomenon that psychological mechanisms that are designed to protect us can sometimes do us far more harm than good. I’ve got a friend who hates making presentations but nevertheless is required by her boss to make them fairly regularly. The prospect of it scares her and she turns away and hides her eyes. She knows that if she prepared well in advance it would all be much less stressful but she can never make herself do that and every time it’s a last-minute panic and very little sleep the night before – which, of course, makes it hard for her to give her best performance. She feels she’s let herself down, she hates the whole thing… and so the cycle goes on. The function of fear is to keep us safe: we know the fire is hot and can burn us, the idea of putting our hands in it frightens us, so we don’t do it. Fear of fire protects us from its danger. Why is it that the only two responses we seem to have at our disposal, when the chips are down, are fight or flight? Where is the instinct to negotiate or to think things through? In the modern world, where the dangers are so much more sophisticated than they were in cave times, how come we haven’t evolved more nuanced reactions?

I have another friend who longs to find a partner and settle down but every time a man gets close to her and it looks as if things might work out, it scares her and she pushes him away. And another who hates the shape of her body and seeks solace in food. There are so many ways we can sabotage our own happiness and wellbeing.

What is the impulse to behave in a manner that brings about exactly the result we most desire to avoid? More importantly, how can we override it?

I guess it boils down to the fact that there’s something we fear even more than the situation we’re perpetuating. By asking a series of What if? questions, we can strip away the layers and get to the root of what it’s all about. It’ll take some thought, some soul-searching and some brutal honesty but it’ll be pivotal in helping you change your self-defeating habits. Once you can identify what it is you’re really afraid of, the deeper fear that’s causing you to make your own life so difficult, you can start working on overcoming it.

For example:

Q: What if you started preparing your presentation a week before it’s due?
A: I’d have no excuse if it wasn’t very good. At least by preparing in a rush I can say I didn’t have time to do my best.

Q: What if you allowed a man to get close to you?
A: He’d see the real me, he wouldn’t like the real me… he’d leave me.

Q: What if you ate healthily, looked after yourself and became the shape you want to be?
A: I’d feel sexy and I don’t know what I’d do with that.

Until you confront the primary-level fears, there’s no point in trying to change the surface behaviour. Find out what the real issue is; then you can start looking for ways of dealing with it, of allaying your base fears. Once you can slay those demons, the habits you developed to protect yourself will melt away.

A positive spin on all this would be that our self-defeating behaviour is actually a signpost, leading us to discover the fear that’s sponsoring it. Pay attention to the habits you don’t like, that sabotage you, and tune into what they’re covering up. Once you’ve named the fear at the bottom of it all, that’s already half the battle won.

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