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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Do we make our own luck?

 Letting go of the past, Staying positive  Comments Off on Do we make our own luck?
Apr 162013

Is it true that we make our own luck? Up to a point, I think it is – and it’s a skill well worth cultivating. Obviously, factors like being born in a safe area of an affluent country are purely a matter of chance; some people encounter less adversity on their journeys through life than others do – but that’s not what we’re talking about here. Neither is this about blame. Bad things happen to people who don’t deserve it and who have done everything that could be expected to invite good fortune, and this post is absolutely not about suggesting they must have done something wrong and brought it on themselves.

As outlined in this useful article about bad luck, a crucial element is whether we have an external or internal locus of control – in other words, whether we take a fatalist view of life or assume responsibility for shaping our own destiny. When I read this, I realised that bringing my locus of control inside myself has played a major part in my recovery from depression. Of course, I am not responsible for everything that happens to me – random stuff befalls all of us all the time – but I am responsible for how I respond to and deal with it. This is not responsibility in the sense of its being my fault; it’s responsibility in the sense that, contrary to what I believed until recently, I actually have control over my own life.

When my locus of control was external, I used to have all sorts of strange explanations for how and why things panned out as they did. I thought people were purposely doing me down and the world was against me. I came to think I must be cursed and every time I lost, broke, spilt or spoilt something, I imagined the Devil laughing.

Overlying this was the conflicting phenomenon of my magical thinking, through which I believed (and occasionally still do) everything that went wrong was somehow my fault. I’m sure this is the result of my mother having an external locus of control and me being the handiest person to blame.

As soon as it dawned on me that I could take control and steer my life in a different direction, I began to feel happier. For me, and I guess for a lot of people, depression was largely based on lack of control. It was a state of feeling stuck and passive, a deep dark pit in which I was abandoned and unable to climb out. I believed I couldn’t climb out, so I couldn’t. The realisation that I could, in fact, do it by myself was basically all it took for me to do it.

All this goes some way to explaining how we can make our own luck. If we allocate out control for everything that happens by blaming other people, the government, the Devil, we come to see ourselves as victims and consider ourselves unlucky. On the other hand, if we take life’s blows on the chin and remember that all experience is useful, we can learn and grow and start to take advantage of – and appreciate – the good things that come our way. This is how we become ‘lucky’.

Professor Richard Wiseman has written a book about what constitutes luck and concludes that it’s all about attitude. (You can read more here.) While it all sounds slightly simplistic, it also makes intuitive sense that people who are more confident and relaxed have better luck than those who are tense and anxious. In a way, this is all very encouraging: we can all be lucky, if we just loosen up and seize the day. The problem is, if we’re feeling anxious it can be extremely difficult to behave in the laid-back, open way Prof Wiseman prescribes.

Entrenched patterns of thought and behaviour are not going to be changed overnight. It’s taken me several years of hard work to lift myself out of depression and prepare the ground for metamorphosis into someone lucky. I’m making progress in the area of taking opportunities but I’m not pushing myself too hard. For me, there’s a fine line between not allowing myself to hide too long in my comfort zone and spurring myself on to the verge of collapse. While I’m still finding it an effort to interact with the world, I’m not going to be able to rise to every occasion and never miss an opportunity, and I’m convinced it’s better to accept this and build up slowly, rather than trying to run before I can walk. But I’m getting there and I’m enjoying the process.

To sum up, if you feel you’re blighted by misfortune, I encourage you to have a good hard look at what’s behind this and think about how you can take more control and shift your perspective. Change how you handle things and observe how your luck changes in response.

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Negativity breeds negativity

 Staying positive  Comments Off on Negativity breeds negativity
Apr 092013

I was saying at the end of my last post how useful it is to take time out on a regular basis to count one’s blessings, that being positive brings its own benefits, and this week I’d like to expand on that theme. Positive, hopeful, constructive thoughts move us forward, whereas negativity keeps us prisoner, stifles growth and poisons relationships.

Relentless negativity is wearing and destructive. In its presence, I tend to feel either a deadening sense of inertia and enervation or an urge to run away and escape the negative force: people who endlessly complain are hard to be around. As I’ve mentioned before, during my depression I lost a few friends. At the time, I was full of resentment but now I understand it wasn’t so much that they didn’t think I was worth the effort but that the weight of my negativity was just too much for them to bear.

Negativity breeds negativity; there is no doubt about that. However, it’s an annoying fact that positivity does not always breed positivity – or at least not as directly. What I’m trying to say is that bad things will always happen, whether we’re negative or not. I’ve lost friends during periods of my life when I was blooming as well as when I was depressed. When I’ve been applying for jobs over the decades, if I went into the interview feeling negative, convinced in advance that I was going to be rejected, guess what?  They didn’t want me. But the times I’ve known I was perfect for the position and I’d love working there, I was turned away too. A negative attitude will practically always yield negative results, while a positive attitude will only sometimes yield positive results. It’s easier to destroy something than it is to build it.

This doesn’t mean it’s fruitless to be positive – far from it – but it does mean we need to take a broader view when it comes to looking at the outcome. If we don’t get what we want, it may be that we need to put a bit more effort into striving for it. It’s a cliché to talk about success being sweeter after a hard slog, but clichés don’t get to be clichés without having some truth and wisdom to them. Alternatively, it may be that what we think we want is actually not in our best interest. This is definitely the case for me with those jobs; I am so much happier being self-employed!

Between “Try harder/Don’t give up” and “It wasn’t meant to be/Things work out for the best” is another fruit of a positive attitude, which is learning from failure and strokes of bad luck and turning them to our advantage. As I’ve already said, bad things will always happen and no amount of positive thinking is going to change that. But we can change how we react, how we cope, what we choose to take from it.

One way to stay positive is to remember that, to a great extent, people see what they’re expecting to see. If you’re viewing life through a dark, gloomy veil, what you perceive will most likely be negative. On the other hand, once you tear down that veil and let in the light and warmth of the sun, suddenly the world looks more cheerful. I know this sounds trite but it’s based in scientifically proven fact and borne out by my experience. I’m sure you’re familiar with the phenomenon whereby, for example, if somebody close to you is expecting a baby, suddenly every third woman seems to be pregnant. Obviously, the birth rate isn’t shooting up; it’s just that your eyes have been opened to pregnancy, where before you didn’t notice. If you’re looking out for negativity, your senses will always be overloaded with it. Conversely, if you tune into positivity, you’ll experience much more of it than you did before.

Focusing on the positive makes life appear better. Since reality is so subjective, if we feel life is good because we’re looking at in a positive way, surely that means life is good? Certainly this has been my experience. On paper, my life is the same as it was five years ago, yet it feels completely different. Then I was struggling, miserable, stuck. Now I’m thriving, happy, purposeful. Nothing has changed except my perspective but, my goodness, my life is transformed.

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