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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The pros and cons of gossip

 Relationships, Sense of self  Comments Off on The pros and cons of gossip
Oct 222013

Human beings have been gossiping since they first learnt to communicate. It’s a basic social instinct and serves several useful functions, but it can be nasty and it can be dangerous and it needs to be approached with sense and discretion.

If we take the definition of gossip to be chit-chatting about trivial matters, it can be beneficial both as a way of disseminating information that is of help or interest to the hearer and as a means of two or more people bonding. It keeps us up to date with what’s going on, makes us feel part of the community and is an important social lubricant.

Even when the subject is more serious, gossiping about it can be useful. Other people’s opinions may shed light on the situation and articulating our own views can help us to evaluate them and keep them sharp. What distinguishes gossip from either smalltalk or discussion is the element of rumour and speculation it typically involves, but this is not inherently bad. Hypothetical conversations can give us an opportunity to consider our options and prepare ourselves for eventualities – for example, if word spreads in a company of coming redundancies or relocation. As long as it’s clear we’re talking about possibilities and hearsay rather than solid facts, there is nothing wrong with this sort of gossip.

The problem with gossip – and the reason it’s so often used as a pejorative term – is its tendency to slide into backbiting and bitchiness. Over the years I have become very wary of participating in gossip, particularly of a negative variety, when it pertains to individuals. Admittedly, it can be handy to be apprised of what the word on the street is in relation to someone you may be getting involved with, in a personal or business capacity, but you should never assume gossip is true without checking the evidence. So much is reported and distorted – or simply invented – out of spite, jealousy or other selfish and destructive motive that you have to employ your own judgement and decide for yourself whether the gossip is in any way fair. Don’t believe everything you hear!

The sad fact is, exchanging unpleasantries about someone who is not present satisfies a primal human need for belonging. United with the others against a common enemy, we feel superior and safe; we are accepted, a member of the hunting pack rather than the quarry. It can be horribly easy to be swept along on the tide of dislike, buoyed up by the feelings of superiority and safety, and the situation can quickly get out of control. This is the mentality of the lynch-mob and, when you stop to think about it, it’s frightening – and not only because tomorrow the hate may turn on you.

When you find yourself in the midst of gossip, stay grounded and maintain your integrity. Betraying a friend’s confidence, or agreeing that someone you like is unspeakable because of some alleged misdemeanor you find it hard to imagine they have really committed, may earn you some short-term popularity but in the long run you will lose by this behaviour. At the very least, you’ll have a guilty conscience. Swimming counter to a groundswell of negative opinion requires courage and strength and if you don’t feel equal to the task, find a way to extricate yourself from the conversation so that you don’t have to take part.

Whether you’re spreading it or merely listening to it, insidious gossip can poison friendships and partnerships as well as reputations, because it undermines trust. Trust is a fragile commodity. It exists as a kind of contract: you earn my trust and maintain it by remaining trustworthy; in return, I give you the benefit of any doubt and talk through with you any worries I have, rather than taking the word of a third party about you. When trust is nurtured from both sides like this, it forges a positive and happy relationship – and this is worth so much more than any fleeting thrill indulged in around the now-proverbial water-cooler.

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Urgent versus important

 Relationships, Sense of self  Comments Off on Urgent versus important
Oct 012013

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working exceptionally hard. I love my job and I like the feeling of being in control of my destiny (well, at least my diary) afforded by being self-employed. I am by no means complaining about being so busy but it has thrown up some issues for me, the main one being knowing when to stop. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the business case, as it were, for rest and recuperation (see All work and no play) and today I’d like to explore the personal side.

When it comes to the work/life balance, the problem is the tension between what’s really, fundamentally important and what’s urgent. I take my work seriously, put a lot into it and get a great deal out of it on many levels but, when it comes right down to it, my list of what’s really, fundamentally important consists of the people I love, followed by health and welfare and a few other abstract-but-vital concepts. In normal circumstances, I make a point of – and enjoy – nurturing what’s important to me: I make time to connect with my loved ones and I work at my relationships, I go to the gym, I cook and eat properly, I read, I go to the theatre. When I’m overloaded with work, that just takes over. It fills my mind, distracts me from conversations, disturbs my sleep, causes me to abandon the gym and all cultural activities and to live on instant or takeaway food. Work is urgent and urgent trumps important in the immediate-action stakes.

But of course if this is allowed to go on for any length of time, the important things begin to unravel. I don’t need to go into this; you know what I’m talking about. So how do we decide where to draw the line? In my case, I’m prepared to let work take over my whole life for a maximum of a week. If there’s loads on, the rest of world can manage without me for a week, my body can put up with junk food and no exercise for a week, if I hardly sleep for a week I can just about make it. Beyond that, though, adjustments have to be made, clients inconvenienced, emails answered more slowly. I ringfence time for friends and family and for the gym and I have a cut-off point in the evening, after which I shut down the computer and give my full attention to my partner and whatever we’re doing together.

I realise I’m lucky to be in a position where I can make this happen relatively easily but, whatever your situation, it’s salutary to take stock every so often and make sure you’re giving enough priority to the things that matter most to you. If you let the urgent run roughshod over the important for too long, you’ll wake up one morning to find that’s all you have left.

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Self-esteem and materialism

 Sense of self  Comments Off on Self-esteem and materialism
Sep 242013

Until I read a book called :59 Seconds by Professor Richard Wiseman, I had never thought about a relationship between self-esteem and materialism. As soon as the professor pointed it out, though, I could instantly see the link and how they rise and fall in inverse proportion to each other. When I thought about it some more, I saw how they can also rise and fall in direct, not inverse, proportion.

There are two aspects to materialism, external and internal. The external aspect is about the image we want to project, how we want the world to perceive us. Some people flaunt their wealth in an attempt to demonstrate to those around them (although principally to themselves) that they are successful. Their materialism is based on wanting to impress their friends by always having the latest, the biggest, the most expensive whatever it is, struggling to bolster their self-esteem by polishing the façade.

On the other side of the same coin is the person who chooses to strike an anti-materialist pose. As an angry victim, I spent many years ostentatiously having the oldest, cheapest, most decrepit whatever it was. My self-esteem was low and I thought flaunting my poverty was a good way to demonstrate my failure and draw attention to my suffering.

The first approach is probably more fun than the grinding austerity I insisted on wearing as some sort of badge of honour, but neither is really effective in boosting self-esteem. The image is not the person; even if we manage to fool all the people all the time, we’ll never truly convince ourselves with our own propaganda. Fulfilment lies not in eliciting the admiration of others but in loving and respecting ourselves. All we’re doing by setting huge store by our abundance or scarcity of material resources is shifting responsibility for our own welfare to other people. We’re relying on other people’s reactions to build our self-esteem. This is never going to work: self-esteem has to come from the inside.

The internal aspect is about the material things themselves and how we feel about them. It’s a well known fact that money can’t buy happiness but it’s equally true that money can make life much easier and material wellbeing can promote happiness. This is another coin with two faces – on the one side, we’ve got the person who buys endless stuff, almost like an addiction, desperately seeking fulfilment through retail therapy. On the other, we have the person who feels he/she doesn’t deserve nice stuff and that spending money on him/herself is an unacceptable indulgence.

Again, neither attitude fosters self-esteem. Buying things because we like them is better than buying them to impress other people, but the responsibility for our welfare is still outside ourselves as we pin our hopes on the next purchase to lift our spirits. Material stuff is never going to fill the void. The sooner we realise that and start working on what really matters, the sooner we’ll reach a stable, happy equilibrium.

To those who feel uncomfortable spending their own money on themselves, I say this: life is for living and I urge you to examine your reluctance to buy the things you want. Of course, there may be good reasons for your stance if finances are tight and you’re responsible for people who can’t provide for themselves, but it’s worth reassessing your feelings every now and then, in case it turns out they’re not actually your feelings but ones your parent-figures instilled in you at an early age.

Self-esteem is not acquired by amassing wealth or refusing to, nor by spending it or refusing to. It cannot grow in the shadow of Mammon but thrives if nurtured independently of material concerns.

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