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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Giving and receiving apologies

 Relationships  Comments Off on Giving and receiving apologies
Nov 192013

It would be impossible for the seven billion of us living on planet Earth not to tread on each other’s toes and rub each other up the wrong way from time to time. So, when it happens, how can we best deal with it in order to repair the situation?

When to apologise (and when not to)

For some, “sorry” is the hardest word to say, while for others, the word spills from their lips with such frequency it appears to be their default response to anything that happens.

If you’re in the latter category, I recommend you give some thought to why this is. What are you apologising for? Are you actually responsible for whatever has gone wrong? I’m thinking here of the times I’ve apologised for stuff that nobody could logically consider my fault, such as when my cousin came to visit me and it rained. Because as I was growing up I felt myself blamed for all sorts of things that were far outside my control, I continue to feel the impulse to seek forgiveness for practically any negative event that takes place around me.

It’s an impulse I need to resist, for several reasons.  An endless stream of apologies can be irritating, prompting the people on the receiving end to react in one of two ways: either they will feel obliged to keep reassuring the apologiser, when they might more usefully be concentrating on sorting out the problem, or they may buy into the grovelling and start berating the apologiser for whatever has transpired, whether or not it was her fault. Constant apologising can backfire and, in any case, the guilt and shame that accompany it are corrosive.

However, this is not to say you should never apologise unless you have personally and deliberately done someone down. Not taking responsibility when the buck stops with you is even worse than assuming responsibility for events outside your control. It is the antithesis of leadership, integrity and courage – and it rarely fools anybody anyway. If I go into a busy restaurant, for example, where I have booked a table and the waiter says he has no record of my booking and there is no table available, I will feel far more mollified if he apologises and offers to make amends, rather than blaming the mistake on junior staff and shrugging it off.

In some circumstances, it can take a lot of strength and confidence to apologise for an unintended consequence of something you’ve done, but in my experience it can be a healing and immensely helpful thing to do. What I have in mind here is the times my partner inadvertently upsets me. In some areas, I’m extremely sensitive and easily distressed and, when everything is fine, I accept I have to take responsibility for this and not force those around me to walk on eggshells. Once the wrong button has been pushed, though, I find it very hard not to react in childish ways, either crying and screaming in rage or withdrawing and hiding in fear. With most people, this behaviour tends simply to escalate the situation, as they feel threatened and defend themselves either by whinging (this is how it feels to me at the time) about how this isn’t their fault and I’m being unfair, or by attacking me back. I thank God that my man has the wisdom and strength to respond to me as the child I become in that state. He tells me calmly, gently and sincerely that he’s sorry for whatever it was he said or did that upset me. He puts his arms around me and we talk about it till it’s all over. He learns from each incident and never makes the same mistake twice, and gradually I’m learning too that I can trust him and need to deal with these things in a more grown-up way.

How to apologise

The thing to remember when you’re apologising is that it’s for the other person’s benefit, not yours. If the purpose of your saying sorry is purely to elicit absolution from the wronged party, spare a thought in advance for how you may feel if absolution is not forthcoming. If your transgression has been serious, you may need to give the other person some time and space to process what has happened before you can expect a move towards forgiveness – but just because you don’t receive it immediately it doesn’t mean you will never get it.

A meaningful apology, one that can repair the damage, obviously has to come from the heart. It also has to come with no strings attached and never be followed by the word ‘but’. And it goes without saying that your apology has got to be accompanied by a change in behaviour – or at least a clear and sustained attempt that moves steadily in the right direction. You don’t have to be perfect but you do have to be sincere.

How to receive an apology

If someone is constantly showering you with unwarranted apologies, it’s useful to point this out. In case the person hasn’t realised they have this tendency, making them aware of it can help them to change it. If it goes on and you have the sort of relationship that allows this kind of thing, I recommend you challenge the apologising and talk supportively about what’s behind it.

If the apology is both warranted and sincere, accept it and say thank you. If the transgression has been so serious that you need time to process it, by all means say so – and take that time – but, if the wrongdoer is genuinely sorry, rejecting the apology will just make it harder to heal the rift. The angrier and more upset you are, the more difficult it almost certainly is for the person who has caused it to apologise. This being the case, if he/she has summoned the courage and humility to say sorry, I feel it’s only fair to accept it graciously. Then you can both start work on putting things right.

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Managing conflict

 Relationships  Comments Off on Managing conflict
Nov 122013

As we pass another Remembrance Day, I’ve been reflecting on one of those memes that circle the internet:

10% of conflicts is due to difference in opinion and 90% is due to wrong tone of voice.

Following on from last week’s post, I would add ‘wrong choice of words’ to ‘wrong tone of voice’, but I believe there is a great deal of truth in the idea that how we treat each other matters much more than our differences of opinion.

I think I’ve mentioned before a blog I follow about public-speaking skills. In a recent post, the writer/coach talks about how best to approach speaking on a discussion panel and she highlights the problem that so many events billed as debates or discussions are, in reality, just about posturing, sneering and bullying. On the Public Speaking Skills Facebook page, a contributor quoted the philosopher Karl Popper as saying: “I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth.” This admirable attitude requires those on both sides of the argument to stay grounded and to respect the opponents – a big ask, but think about the rewards! Not only would we get nearer to the truth, which has got to be the only productive way forward, but we would vastly reduce the amount and intensity of conflict around the world.

Bullying may secure compliance but it’s never going to win hearts and minds. We see this on the global stage and within our own homes. Laughing at me, telling me I’m stupid or otherwise belittling me is not going to persuade me to your point of view. If I’m feeling strong, I’ll fight back more fiercely than before, no longer listening to your arguments but defending myself and attacking you as hard as I can. If I’m feeling weak, I may capitulate – but that is far from the same as agreeing with you and my resentment will simmer until I can get my revenge.

The best way to manage conflict is to be reasonable, to make concessions where the other person has a good case and to engage with the parts of the opposing case that seem to you wrong, calmly illuminating the flaws in it without asserting your superiority. It may be exciting when sparks fly, but a productive debate is one with more light than heat.

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