Keeping Empathy In Check

Last month, I discovered that June 9th is Empathy Day and today it is trending on Twitter, because we should all harness this inner empathy that we have, right? We should all be more in-tune with each other’s feelings and emotions, especially at the moment, right?

I am also seeing posts on social media about empathic overload, parasympathetic stress, and general exhaustion… and I’m feeling that too.

Being empathic is a funny beast. I believe that we all inherently are, to some level, empathic. But for some of us, especially those of us that fall at the more sensitive end of the spectrum, our levels of empathy can sometimes be a little too much to manage and can sometimes even feel more like a curse than a blessing. Whilst I wholeheartedly agree with the notion that we need more kindness and understanding going forward, using the word ‘empathy’ as a way to propel us to this point seems a little too far, especially when those of us who are empathic can often feel overwhelmed or burnt out by it.

For a long time, a very long time, I kind of just took my own empathy as something that simply was. I am empathic, just as someone else might be classed as adventurous or studious. It was a personality trait that I had, I couldn’t exactly switch it off and so I just went about my business wearing my empathy on my sleeve. And so often I would feel so tired, I would feel heavy, I would feel sad with no apparent cause, or frustrated, or just very jumbled…

It has only been in the last couple of years that I have understood that I wasn’t only observing what other people around me were feeling and therefore sympathising with them, I was feeling it too, quite literally.

There was a moment when it clicked for me. I walked into a room where two people were having an argument without words. You know the type. There were no raised voices, there was no apparent anger at all, but you could hear it in the tone of voice, the words used… I entered that room and my mood changed, like flicking a switch, and I instantly felt my energy shift. I knew then that this sudden dip in my mood was not because of my own emotions. I had instantly, on walking into that room, absorbed some of the energy from either one or both of those people – and it was not comfortable. I couldn’t stay in there, this feeling did not belong in my body and I did not want it to be there.

After that moment, I began to notice more how my mood would shift around certain people and, perhaps even more importantly, I began to notice the energy of other people and how it impacted me. Most people have a pretty neutral energy I find, it’ll change depending on circumstance of course but on the whole, it makes things very straightforward. However, some people can have very powerful energy – and this isn’t always a good thing. It may all sound a little far fetched at this point, but I have met people before who have had very confusing and chaotic energy, these people are not bad to be around necessarily, but I find that I do become quite tired after spending time with them. I have also met a couple of people that have very dark energy, and these people I do find it hard to spend time around. Around people like this, I usually get a headache and a real heaviness in the back of my head. It will quite often feel like someone has pulled the rug from underneath me and I get the feeling that I would rather be anywhere else. It is not comfortable and it will usually leave me exhausted for days afterward.

I don’t know, at this point, whether this is an empath trait, a thing that most people feel, instinct, or just an off-shoot of being at the more sensitive end of the scale when it comes to my surroundings. But I do feel that how we pick up on and perceive other people’s energies does link into how just being close to or around someone can impact our mood, and to an extent, our own energy.

Is it any wonder then that, at the moment especially, there are people who feel completely exhausted and burnt-out, but with no apparent cause? In the first few weeks of this pandemic, I felt like I was just wiped out. I didn’t feel like I could settle to anything, my thoughts felt jumbled and I struggled to make decisions. I was suffering from empathic overload. The whole world was experiencing a form of collective trauma. Suddenly everything that everyone knew – our routines, how we shopped, what we did when we left our homes, our children’s schooling, our jobs – were all thrown up into the air. Overnight we had to adapt, we had to get our shit together so that we could, at the very crux of it, survive. Here in the UK, we saw how this virus was affecting Italy and Spain and we were told that we were a few weeks behind these horrifying death tolls, we knew that this unstoppable force was coming. We watched as people panic bought toilet rolls, as governments who should have been keeping us safe floundered amongst the panic. We worried about older relatives and friends and our jobs and what this all meant long term and we did it all whilst suddenly having to be alone with our thoughts, without the distraction of work and routine.

And then the shocking images of George Floyd being murdered, and the realisation that systematic racism exists even within our own homes. That no-one, even if you consider yourself to not be racist, is truly not racist. To witness and hear what generations of people have been through and to have to hold yourself and your own culture accountable for centuries of pain and hurt and torment and know that what you feel right now does not even compare in the slightest possible way to what millions of people feel every day, is really, really hard.

People are suffering everywhere right now. Watching the news is really hard, even scrolling through social media is hard because you want to be able to help in any small way you can but all you can feel is this pain, that doesn’t even fully belong to you. It is overwhelming, it has a physical effect on our bodies when our cortisol levels raise, and we can find ourselves trapped within the ‘fight or flight’ trauma response – and usually within one of the lesser-known variations of that; freeze.

That, to me, is my definition of empathy and recently I heard it summed up perfectly by Elizabeth Gilbert:

“Empathy is “You’re suffering, and now I’m suffering because you’re suffering.” So now we have two people suffering and nobody who can serve, and nobody who can be of help, and if you knew how your empathetic suffering actually makes you into another patient who needs assistance, you would be more willing to dip into compassion. And what underlies compassion is the virtual courage, the courage to be able to sit with and witness somebody else’s pain without inhabiting it yourself so much that you become another person who is suffering and now, there are no helpers.”

I do not want to be someone that freezes in the face of someone else’s pain, but there have been times throughout my life – including very recently – where that is what I have done. Many times over the past few weeks, I have thought back to this passage of text and this interview in general and tried to face things with compassion, rather than empathy. Because empathy can become so strong that it destabilises us and renders us useless in the face of someone else’s struggles. I do feel pain for others and I do feel very overwhelmed with everything that is going on in the world right now, but I do also have the power to step back from it. I have the power to limit my news intake and I have the power to choose what I read and when I read it.

We so often hear analogies along the lines of ‘you cannot save anyone else unless you put your own breathing apparatus on first’ and (whilst I disagree with the whole notion of ‘saving’ people) this is absolutely true. Because what good is all of this desire to help and be the light within someone else’s darkness, if you are suffering as much as they are to begin with?

It takes courage and it takes strength to hold your own behaviour up to the light and examine it. And I am not saying that empathy is ‘bad’ – I firmly believe that it is a good thing to be able to empathise with someone else and to be able to help them from a place of kinship and understanding. But there does become a point where it can become too much and we can become unstuck. Do it too often and too intensely and you end up exhausted, do it without even realising, repeatedly, and you end up with burnout. Do it with one person within a relationship and you end up on a codependency spiral where you reach the point of only being ok, if they are ok. Like anything – including the good in this life – it is good to keep in check and use in moderation.

And for everything else, there is compassion.

35 Things I Have Learnt at 35

35 Things I have leart at 35(1)

As we draw to the end of this decade, I have recently turned 35. I don’t know why 35 feels like such a huge leap from 34, but it wasn’t a milestone that I was thrilled to get to. Its the turning of time, another year gone – and it has been quite a year! I don’t feel particularly old, perhaps just a little like I have a lot left to do, more that I want to achieve. But, the start of a new decade and the passing of this birthday feels like a good time to sit back and take stock – and look at the things I have learnt up until this point. So, here goes…

1. Its ok to be quiet and introverted.

This has been quite the revelation over the past few years! I have always had it in the back of my mind that I was somehow ‘wrong’ for not being as loud or as gregarious as others. For not wanting to go out every weekend, for feeling tired and like I needed to have some alone time if I had been sociable. But recently, and really quite recently – only the last eighteen months or so, I have come to the conclusion that it is actually quite normal, and whilst I love the people in my life that are loud and outgoing, I also cherish the ones that are quiet and thoughtful, and I need to turn some of that same acceptance inwards.

2. Medication has its place.

All medication does, of course, but specifically medication for mental illness. I started taking medication in 2010 when my mental health first started to deteriorate and it did take a little while to find the correct medication and dose – but, once I had found it, I stabilised and I stayed on it until 2018 when I felt well enough to come off of it. For a few months, all was well but then external factors saw my mental health once again begin to slip and I decided to go back on to it. There is absolutely no shame in taking something that helps you and it doesn’t have to be forever, but sometimes we all need that helping hand – whether it is to ease anxiety, to sleep or simply to make things feel more manageable.

3. You don’t have to be thrilled with everything you create.

I love to write, and cook, and draw, and paint – but I tend not to do the latter two, why? Because I’m always worried that it won’t be ‘good enough’, or I’ll be disappointed in it. Part of me realises that art, in any form, is just an expression of emotion and it is all subjective. But the other part of me is somewhat of a perfectionist! I am still working on this one, but I hope that the realisation that what we create doesn’t have to be ‘perfect’ and that there is beauty in our flaws, helps me as I move into 2020 and I can once again get my canvases out.

4. It’s ok to say no.

FOMO is real! And so is the thought of ‘letting other people down’ – but occasionally we have to remind ourselves that actually, we come first. Opportunities will come again if they are meant to and if someone is truly a friend, they will understand that sometimes we don’t have the mental, physical or emotional capacity to say yes, and that is ok!

5. Social media is HARD.

The biggest struggle I have found whilst blogging is….. Twitter! And Instagram, and Facebook (the latter two I am terrible at keeping going). Before I launched my blog, I used social media like everyone else but I didn’t really give too much thought to it. Now, I use it less – because I am giving thought to it, usually ‘I need to do X,Y and Z’! Don’t get me wrong, there are huge benefits to social media, especially when it comes to getting your work out there, but I do find it incredibly tiring at times and overwhelming also, so I am trying to get into a healthy habit of having a set time to use it.

6. There is nothing wrong with liking what you like.

Whether it be a TV show, music, a certain author… I used to have playlists on Spotify that I would only listen to on ‘private mode’ for fear of being judged on my music choice if I suddenly wanted some Britney Spears or Aqua! But then I figured… you know what? I like prancing around my kitchen to cheesy 90’s pop sometimes, I find it relaxing to get in the bath and sing along to Mariah or Whitney and that’s not shameful, in fact, I figure most people do 🙂

7. Toxic people need to GO.

Sometimes it can be very hard to identify toxic people in your life, especially if you are a survivor of trauma or if you have a tendency to fall into unhealthy relationships. But my bullshit meter is getting stronger as I get older 😉 It’s not easy, sometimes you discover – with hindsight – how someone made you feel, and that it wasn’t healthy. But I am now trying to actively gauge how people make me feel, what my emotions are doing either before meeting them or after speaking to then and I am learning to trust my gut more.

8. The greatest thing you can do for other people is to hear them…

…and I mean, really hear them. You don’t have to fix them, you don’t even have to fully understand what they are going through – but if you can sit and be with them in their pain then that really does work wonders. All any of us want is to be heard and to not have our concerns brushed off as insignificant or silly. I feel that especially with anxiety, logic rarely comes into our fears and emotions and we can know that what we are experiencing doesn’t always make a whole lot of sense. Our minds are complex things and they will try and protect us in any way possible – but when we are in that space where we need protection, it is very often our child selves that are in control. All emotions are valid and all emotions have a root cause, sometimes it just takes sitting down with someone we know we can trust to talk it through in order to be able to unpick these things.

9. Nature is a wonderful healer.

We need medication at times, we need doctors, we need research and science and all of that – but nature also plays a huge, and wonderful, part in our wellbeing. From the plant-based food that we consume to the herbs and vitamins that support our health, to watching the cycle and the being of all things in nature as they die and are reborn, to just getting out and into it! I am a huge fan of walking to places and taking in the things I see along the way – even routes that you walk everyday change with the seasons and watching the seasons change is a magical experience in itself. It helps with mindfulness to be fully absorbed n your surroundings, even if it is in a town centre! But of course, the real magic for me is held within the woods, or on a windswept coastline. Sometimes I imagine the wind collecting up all my worries and carrying them out to sea, or the roots under my feet pulling me back down to earth and reminding me of my place in the great scheme of things which brings calm and stability. I could write about the wonders of nature all day, but I think this is already the longest paragraph so far 🙂

10. Trauma doesn’t just come from warzones.

For years, I dismissed the idea that I was a survivor of trauma. Years, decades even. What a preposterous idea that was – that a woman who was loved, who had a relatively comfortable life, who hadn’t been in a warzone or come from a broken home could be classed as having endured trauma. It was only last year, when I was seeing a wonderful therapist, that I realised that it wasn’t preposterous at all – and not only did he, in his medical opinion class what I went through as trauma, he classed it as complex trauma. A sustained and prolonged attack on my very being from a group of girls who would one day be my friends and the next be my attackers. How it shaped how I formed and maintained relationships as an adult. How I lived in a state of fear and anxiety for years whilst not wanting to be a burden. How my sense of self was still shaped by their words, how it had led to my ongoing feelings of being ‘too much’ and ‘too sensitive’, and I finally had answers as to why I second-guessed my own decisions constantly. C-PTSD: it is an acronym that still seems daunting, and one that means that in some ways I have a long way to go in recovery, but it is finally a name for something that has plagued me for so very long – and I no longer feel guilty for the pain that I feel.

11. Yoga is amazing.

There, that is the point… Yoga, is, amazing. Have a headache, a stiff neck, aching knees, period pain? Load up Youtube and type in Yoga for <insert ailment here> and there is a wholesome, calm, kind answer. Yes… ok, it’s not going to fix everything, we still need to have medications, therapy, self-awareness and all of that. But I can honestly say that yoga has helped my mental health and my fibromyalgia massively over the past year. I’m not flexible, I wobble in Warrior 1 at times! But having that half an hour to myself, where I know I am actively taking care of my body – even on the hardest of days – is a kindness and a safe space where I can let it all go.

12.‘You are not a bad person for the ways you tried to kill your sadness’.

Repeat this, as often as you need.

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13. Healthy food makes you feel good.

I know, its a fairly obvious one! But I am always amazed at how bad junk food can make me feel, almost instantaneously at times. It’s not always easy to notice if we are busy or unable to take care of ourselves as fully as we need to, and sometimes its really not all that achievable if money is tight and we are scrabbling together something from tins at the back of the cupboard and some wilting veg which lost its nutrient content long ago. Bulk cooking on good days and freezing it down for the harder ones is always a good shout, and sometimes I buy up the reduced veg in supermarkets and just make a load of soup!

14. People will always remember how you made them feel.

As humans, we tend to forget an awful lot – the little details of things, who said what, when exactly something happened and things like that, but when it comes to emotion, our connections are much stronger. It’s no surprise then that the impressions we make on other people, and those they make upon us, count.

15. Don’t put your tongue on the end of a battery.

No matter how much someone tells you is safe and won’t hurt. Even if that someone is your husband. Don’t do it.

16. People are infinitely interesting (and that includes you).

We all have stories, we all have experienced heartbreak, we all have dreams… I love talking to people and finding out what makes them tick. Years ago, I met a woman on the bus – she’s in her seventies, hair as white as snow and we got on so well that she came to my wedding! But the stories she tells me, of her parents, her grandparents and her great, great, greats have me itching for a pen and some paper. My Dad, a quiet and religious man has stories of road train driving in the outback of Australia, of being on the deck of a cruise ship in the eye of a hurricane and of being taught to drive race cars by Jack Brabham, if you know to ask. We all have so much tucked just below the surface! Ask the questions, ask about more than what someone watched on TV last night. We are all unique and interesting and yet we all think we’re so normal.

17. I am happiest when I’m wild.

When my hair isn’t done, when my clothes are comfortable, when I have no make-up on and I’m outdoors or with people that I can truly be myself around. Being corporate and perfectly manicured works for some people, but not for me. It doesn’t make me any better, or worse, than them. It just means I am not that type of person, and I’m finally learning that that’s ok.

18. Boundaries.

Boundaries are something I haven’t got a wonderful grasp on, yet. However, I am learning their importance – both to my emotional and my physical wellbeing. So many factors can lead to us saying ‘yes’ to things that a nanosecond later we wish we hadn’t agreed to, or getting ourselves into situations we long to escape from. Be it a fear of missing out, guilt, a sense of duty or that good old word: should. Also, I think when we have had a very low sense of our own self-worth, it does become something that we find we can bolster by being there for others or always being the one that people call on to help out. However, long term this is exhausting and basing our own self-worth on the needs of others leaves us in a very vulnerable place. I’m still working on it, but I am learning that sometimes it really is ok to say no or to take a little step back.

19. Pick your battles/stresses.

Is it going to matter tomorrow, or next week, or next month? As much as I feel that all emotions have their place, sometimes I catch myself getting upset over something that really does not matter in the scheme of things (i.e how my husband has loaded the dishwasher). Likewise, I know I have a tendency to fight for the underdog… but I’m beginning to learn that if it is going to cause me undue stress or something that is too high a price then it is time to take a step back and act at least a little with my head as well as my heart.

20. If you can change something that’s making you anxious, do it.

My therapist and I once spoke about the anxiety I felt over decision making – especially when it comes to food. I was telling him about a particular instance where we were going to get an Indian takeaway, but in the end, it became so stressful for me to choose between two dishes that we neglected the whole idea – and he looked at me and said ‘well, why not just get both?’ Now, obviously, this does not – and can not – apply to all things. But at that moment it felt like someone had flicked a switch, I could get both and the problem would be solved! Indian food freezes, after all, it’s just another meal. In fact, having both together made me realise how much I preferred one over the other. If the problem to an anxiety-inducing situation is easy – do it!

21. You can’t fix people, you can only love them.

Codependency… what a tricky little bugger that is! I learnt the hard way that you cannot fix people. Recovery and stability must be something that comes from within. I have written about it in more depth here and also here, but it is an ongoing process of realising that you can only do so much to help others.

21. You don’t have to have a reason for having something nice.

I am not financially well off, and I work very hard for the money I do earn. However sometimes it feels like that hard-earned cash then goes on the most mundane of things – food, vets bills, life insurance – blah blah blah. I think sometimes we forget that we are adults and if we want something nice, be it some tickets to a show, a bottle of nice wine, or a new top, we can actually treat ourselves and buy it. We are worthy of these things and it is ok to treat ourselves with the money that we have worked hard for.

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22. …but rewarding yourself is also important.

Sometimes you need something special though. It doesn’t have to be something bought, but we all do things in our day to day lives that are hard, anxiety-inducing, or that we agreed to three weeks ago and now our social engagement meter is in the red! Recognising achievements (even if they seem small or insignificant to others) is vital for our own self-worth and wellbeing. Be it a long soak in the bath, an hour extra in bed with a good book, a nice dinner or, really, whatever makes you feel good – we do need to reward ourselves for the things we do and the energy we put out into the world.

23. You cannot control the emotions of others.

Very much along the same vein as not being able to fix others, controlling the emotions of others is impossible. We are all complex little beings and what seems like a big deal to Person A may be completely insignificant to Person B. Our histories, our experiences, and even our genes play a huge part in our emotional reactions to things, and no-one can be expected to know the intricate details regarding the root cause of someone else’s response. To try and control how someone else feels would be like pouring water into a colander whilst expecting it to fill up and overflow. Control how you react to others, sure, but to expect someone to feel (or not feel) a certain way, because it is how you would react, is only going to cause frustration, from both parties.

24. It’s ok to be cross at those you love (still learning this one).

This is a tricky one for me. It’s based in guilt and also my fear of losing people and abandonment and it’s something that has been discussed a lot in my therapy sessions. But apparently, it’s ok to get angry and frustrated at those you love, it doesn’t mean that you don’t love them anymore

25. Positivity can be toxic.

I have written about this fairly recently. Positivity is wonderful, I think we can all appreciate that, but there does become a point where it stops being wonderful – and that point comes when it actively invalidates the very real emotions that someone is experiencing. We all get angry, upset, frustrated, lonely, jealous and have unkind thoughts about people at times – and you know what? That’s quite normal! We cannot be positive all the time, we need to address the difficult emotions and really feel them, not brush them under the carpet and ignore what they are trying to tell us or where they come from. This faux positivity can be hurtful and also quite dangerous and I am definitely not a fan of having it rammed down my throat by people who have never experienced the devastating lows of mental illness. Of course we would all love to be happy, shining beams of light 24/7, but in reality, that’s not possible and I feel that acknowledging that removes so much of the guilt of how ‘blessed’ and ‘grateful’ we all should be feeling. It’s ok to acknowledge that life can be a bit shit sometimes.

26. Online friendships can be as important and fulfilling as the friendships you have in ‘real’ life.

I have always – since the days of dial-up – talked to people online. As an introvert who can find face to face social situations exhausting at times, I have found that online friendships can be wonderful. When my mental illness was really at its worst, I struggled to leave my house, but the connections I had with friends online kept me going and even at times kept me safe. I still have some really good online friends – some I have gone on to meet in person, some I hope to one day and some I probably never will, but I still value them all as wonderful friends and I know that my life would be duller without them in it.

27. Rest days are essential…

…and they are a form of productivity in themselves. Allowing yourself some time to recharge and recuperate is not selfish. Sometimes we need that time today in order to be a better, more productive, less grouchy, more focused, less anxious person tomorrow.

28. The harder the therapy, the more effective it will be in the long run.

I have had various therapies over the years, including group therapy, CBT and CAT. But my most recent, the second round of 34 Cognitive Analytic Therapy sessions, was by far the hardest emotionally. We delved deep, deeper than I had gone before. We talked about the hard stuff, the stuff that was only now beginning to creep forward tentatively into the light of my consciousness. We talked about shameful coping mechanisms and the origins of my very worst fears. Some sessions we laughed like old friends and in others I sat and silently wept opposite him as he asked me ‘where I had gone’. However, within that room, I learnt so much about myself and so much about the reasons behind my behaviours. Throughout the course of 34 weeks I ended a codependent relationship, I started my blog, I endured a harrowing job and then found the confidence to leave. I dealt with my brother in laws cancer diagnosis and my fathers’ ill health. I discussed openly, for the first time, my dreams of being a mother and also the obstacles that stood in my way. I truly saw myself, for the first time – and as much as I would like to say it was an enlightening and revealing moment, it was also fucking terrifying. But, it helped me move forward. It helped me recognise my own strengths and it allowed me to deal and process and begin to leave things in the past. It gave me names for things that have plagued me for years and it gifted me with coping mechanisms, but most importantly it has allowed me to bloom, without fear, into the whole person I was so needlessly frightened of being.

29. Labels are effective and useful, but they don’t define you.

I used to be against labels, completely! How dare you define people with one word when we are all so magnificent in our individuality… yeah. I still believe it, to a point. But I now recognise that labels also have their uses. They help us to identify what is actually wrong with us and, especially with the case of mental illnesses, they help bring us comfort that its not ‘all in our heads’, that there is a medical and very valid reason for what we are going through. They also help when it comes to obtaining help and support and they help with opening up discussions about subjects that can be difficult to broach. I still don’t believe they are perfect, they can sometimes be so broad that they can prove ineffective in certain circumstances, and it can be very easy sometimes to define ourselves by the labels that are put upon us, when we are so much more than what they depict, but they do have their uses.

30. Inner child work is so important.

We all have one, that little being inside of us that holds onto our firmest beliefs about ourselves and the world around us – whether they be right or wrong. I ignored mine for a long time, and I am still guilty now of doing it at times. Meditation has helped me connect with her, but there have been times – especially during therapy – that she was so frightened and lost, that as an adult I didn’t know how to help her. I talk of ‘her’ like a separate entity, but of course she is not. She is at my core, she is the wise and quiet soul who drives my gut instinct, but also the flighty and nervous child self that makes me fear and lash out at times. Re-connecting is a tentative process, but in recognising where our fears and so many of our emotions come from I have realised how important it is to rebuild that bond and allow her voice to be heard.

31. I am stronger than I believe, and so are you.

To coin an overused phrase – we have survived all of our bad days up until now, and some of those have been days that we never thought we could get through. They may have exhausted us, they may have made us curl up into a ball and weep, they may have left us numb, angry, confused and heartbroken – but we survived them, and we are still here fighting.

32. It’s not a big deal to stop reading a book halfway through.

I’ve done it, I’ve plowed through unenjoyable pages because I have thought that its what I should do, especially with books that have received much critical acclaim. I have wondered why I haven’t ‘got’ it, I have come to the conclusion that in the next chapter it must all begin to make sense, but you know what? It never has. It doesn’t make you a bad person, an unintelligent person, or a weird* person to not get the ‘hype’. It doesn’t make you a terrible bookworm if you can’t finish a book. Life is too short – and there are so, so many amazing books out there, why waste time on one that isn’t fitting with you right now? You might come back to it in five years and love it, you might not, but reading is such a wonderful gift – spend it wisely, on books you adore.

33. * It’s ok to be weird.

Do whatever makes your little heart happy, seriously. A good friend once described me as ‘an eclectic mix of a Daphne du Maurier heroine, with a touch of Tank Girl and a healthy dose of Ray Mears thrown in for good measure’ – and if that isn’t a bizarre mix, then I don’t know what is. Your weirdness makes you interesting, it makes you unique and it will make you happier in the long run. Embrace it!

34. No-one is perfect.

No-one, not even if they appear to be. We all have our flaws, we all have our worries and our insecurities, we will all have upset someone at some point and made bad decisions. Everyone fucks up occasionally.

35. It gets better.

If it’s hard at the moment, if the tears won’t stop coming or the numbness is all-consuming. If you are stuck in a routine, or a job, or a relationship that is damaging your soul, then please take comfort in the fact that nothing lasts forever and even the darkest days come to an end. Sometimes we have to be so completely in darkness to see the tiniest glimmer of light – but with time, and patience, setbacks and sometimes a lot of hard work, I promise, it can get better x

Disclaimer: Whilst some of these points are points that I can now acknowledge and recognise, it doesn’t mean that they are always easy to put into practice. I’m working on many of them and trying to forgive myself when I don’t always succeed.

Thank you for reading.

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The Curse of Positivity

I should probably make one thing clear before I get into this post, I am not against positivity – not in the slightest. I believe that positivity is wonderful and can aid recovery, can undoubtedly make life more pleasurable and of course can make us more enjoyable people to be around. Despite the depression, I even think of myself as a generally positive person – my thoughts in this post aren’t about positivity per se, they are more about how positivity can sometimes feel forced, and pushed upon us…

Because I think we have all reached that point at times where positivity is really, really hard to muster. A bad day, week, month, year…  an amalgamation of events, a mental or physical illness, instances of inequality or discrimination. But still, we have this message pushed upon us by social media especially that we should be positive – because its ‘healthy’.

But… what if its not always the healthy option? What if our constant drive to put this positive front out to the rest of the world is actually damaging our wellness and our growth? We’ve all scrolled through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter looking at everyone else’s highlight reel, we’ve all come away feeling that little bit sadder, that little bit less accomplished.  

I came across a post during my scrolling on Facebook this morning which was a quote taken from Rachel Hollis’s bestselling book ‘Girl, Wash Your Face’

Now… my problem isn’t with Rachel Hollis, or her book. I haven’t read it so it would be unfair of me to pass any form of judgement on it. My problem is with the quote – a quote, which apparently comes near the end of the book and is taken (perhaps) out of context.

If you are reading this quote in the book, then you are someone who has chosen to read what Rachel has to say. You have been given time to grasp the approach of the book, you are perhaps already a fan of Rachel Hollis – maybe from this book itself, or perhaps you heard of her through her event planning company, lifestyle website, or the media company she runs with her husband. Maybe you’ve read one of her novels, own either of her cookbooks, been to one of her conferences or even attended one of her ‘getaway weekends’. The Rachel Hollis brand is huge and she evidently has a massive following of people that know who she is, what she stands for and also her approach to ‘wellness’.

However, if like me, you had to Google her…. then the quote is out of context. What this quote says, to someone unfamiliar with her tough love approach, is pull yourself together girl, stop dwelling on the past. Be positive, love yourself…

And this is something that I cannot get on board with.

Sure, that message is positive; it screams positivity and motivation. But what it doesn’t address is why these ‘positive’ things are not happening in the first place.

Lets break it down a little and see why reading a quote like this out of context can be so problematic…

‘Girl…’ – I get the impression that her target audience is middle class women, usually mothers. But can we take a moment to recognise that men also suffer with the issues that she is trying to address?

 ‘Get ahold of your life’ – how? Is it easy? It that something that people who don’t have a job because of a mental health condition can do? Is that something that someone who is being discriminated against because of their sexuality, race or gender can do? Is it something that a single working mum (or dad) can do when every penny goes on shelter and putting food in their childrens mouths? Is it something an addict can do? Or someone with a physical health condition? Or someone who is grieving? How about uh…. Someone who is processing trauma? Someone who has major anxiety and cannot go outside? Get ahold of your life – five words that are very easy to type, but that have different meanings, difficulties, connotations and shame attached to them, for so many people.

‘Stop medicating’ – I am giving her the benefit of the doubt here, I’m presuming she means ‘self-medicating’ rather than actual medication. But still, coming from a woman who wrote in her bestselling book that she would use vodka and Xanax to deal with stress when she was going through the fostering process, you’d think she’d perhaps have a little more compassion for people that do resort to coping mechanisms to get through. Two words, but they don’t delve into the complexities of addiction, they don’t offer any forgiveness for how we try and cope with our pain. They don’t encapsulate how hard it is to stop behaviours that have helped us in the past and that can be very easy to fall back to, even when we are ‘recovered’.

‘Stop hiding out, stop being afraid, stop giving away pieces of yourself’ – these are good snippets of advice, but they are delivered in such a simplistic way that they lose all meaning. Its safe to hide, especially if you have experienced trauma or discrimination – hiding becomes a learned and subconscious behaviour to some – including myself. And how could you contemplate just telling someone to ‘stop being afraid’? Fears and phobias are bad enough but if we are talking about being afraid of putting ourselves out there, of being seen, or taking huge steps forward and managing our own recovery – then that becomes something else entirely. As for giving away pieces of ourselves – sometimes that comes down to self-worth, to co-dependency, to being abused and to having to, because that’s how we have learnt to survive.

‘Stop saying you can’t do it. Stop the negative self-talk’ – So this part, is perhaps the only part that I do agree with. We are all so hard on ourselves and we do need to learn to talk to ourselves more gently, to be more forgiving to ourselves and to acknowledge that we aren’t perfect, and – in fact – no-one is. Unfortunately, the compassion that we need to offer onto ourselves in order to begin to do this, is not really offered within this context.

‘Stop abusing your body’ – So, this is a very interesting one. I haven’t read Rachels book, but in preparation for this post I have read about Rachel and I have read snippets in order to gleam some sort of idea about the message she is trying to promote. This is a quote from her book:

“Humans were not made to be out of shape and severely overweight. You can choose to continue to abuse your body because it’s all you know […] but please stop making excuses for the why’s”

Rachel Hollis

It is also worth noting at this point, that Rachel Hollis does have posts on her Instagram about loving your body and your worth isn’t dependant on your appearance – which is wonderful and is a very important message. But unfortunately, she seems to be completely disregarding the fact that millions of people suffer with mental health issues which are directly linked to food. Some people undereat, some people overeat and some people do both – and these are all valid reasons for emotional distress. Anorexia is an abuse upon our bodies yes, but it is not a choice, it is not an excuse, it is a deep rooted and traumatising illness – and the same applies to binge eating and bulimia. Also, if we take it away from food for a moment and move onto exercise then can we at least recognise that the ability, time and often money to do so is a privilege not afforded to all.

‘Stop putting if off for tomorrow or Monday or next year’ – if you are tired, if you are unwell, if you are recovering then sometimes you need to put things off. Sure, don’t put them off forever, don’t put them off to the point of never doing them  – but again, it comes down to kindness. It comes down to recognising that something might just be a bit too much of a hurdle today, but tomorrow it might be easier. It is a difficult one, because sometimes we do need to do that hard stuff in order to move forward – but do it with kindness, do it whilst recognising your own limits and whilst also rewarding yourself for how far you’ve come! And that distance will be different for everyone – on some days getting out of bed and showered may seem like a hundred-mile trek, but recognise the power it took to do it, and forgive yourself if today you just can’t.

‘Stop crying about what happened…’ – No, don’t stop crying about what happened. This is perhaps the worst command in this entire list. Its ok to cry about what happened, its healthy to cry about what happened. Tears are healthy, addressing past issues and traumas and learning how to deal with them so that we can move on, is healthy. Never feel ashamed for crying, never feel ashamed for what happened to you and never feel ashamed for talking about it. We need to open up these places of safety, we need to get better at discovering why we sometimes do the things we do and why we react the way that we do to certain things. Brushing things under the carpet, painting on a mask of wellness and positivity and moving forwards is not going to help us find the root causes and is not going to help us address the issues that we need to move on from. Confide in friends you feel safe with, go to the therapy if you are able, take the medication if it helps makes things more bearable and cry when you need to cry – but please don’t ever feel ashamed or embarrassed to do so because you cannot skip these parts, you cannot ignore the past.

…and take control of what happens next’ The same rhetoric as ‘get ahold of your life’. We do have to take responsibility for ourselves at times, but it is important to recognise that these decisions can come much easier for some than for others. If you are being discriminated against, if you are poor, if you live in a rural community and don’t have good transport links, if you are in an abusive relationship, if you don’t have adequate healthcare or are on a long and never ending waiting list for help – then you can recognise that need to take responsibility as much as you want, but you cannot control what happens next.

The ‘tough love’ approach may work for some. It certainly work’s for Rachel’s devoted audience – but it doesn’t work for all. For some, it will feel judgemental, it will feel unkind and it will reinforce the belief that they have in themselves that they are not trying hard enough and that they are to blame – when so often, this isn’t the case.

Rachel Hollis has very successfully built a brand – and the brand is her. But to my knowledge, she doesn’t hold a medical degree, she does not have a background in mental health and before she founded Chic Events with her husband, her working life was spent at Miramax Studios. Rachel doesn’t know, or understand your individual pain, or your trauma. Her message is that of positivity and motivation and that is wonderful – unfortunately her message becomes skewed when her words are taken out of context and are read by people who haven’t bought into the lifestyle brand that she has created. If you cannot do the things you see in a quote all about positivity, that doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t mean you have failed, and it doesn’t mean that your inability to do so is your fault.

It is ok to not be positive, it is ok to be sad or angry, or to feel pain, or to still be in the process of recovery. You do not need to brush yourself off and get on with it just because it’s the done thing, you are allowed to feel your feelings and to talk and cry and revisit the past in order to find ways of making your future bright. We do not all need to be shining beacons of positivity all the time – and we do not need to know where we are going or how we are going to get there.

Sometimes, all we need to do, is be kind.

And not only to others.



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The Problem With Looking for a Saviour

So, today’s post is a little different…

This is the first writing of mine that I have shared on Elephant Journal 🐘 But it is something that I have wanted to do for years! I’d really appreciate it if you could click through and have a read, I’d really love this one to do well 🧡

https://www.elephantjournal.com/2019/05/the-problem-with-looking-for-a-saviour/

Thank you for reading 🙂 If you have enjoyed this writing, please feel free to come and join me on my following social network pages to see my new posts and daily musings:

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Codependent

Image credit: Dominik Vanyi @ Unsplash

Codependency was a word that I never fully grasped; it was something I never fully understood and something that – even now – I struggle to spell!

And yet, I was it, I was it to the letter. If anyone wanted an example of what a co-dependant person looked like, they could just bring me forward, with my phone firmly planted within my hand and my attention off elsewhere, and show me off as a good and fine specimen of someone who has fallen into that trap…

I hadn’t become this way intentionally of course, I hadn’t even become this way consciously, but I had become it all the same. It had happened over years, namely with one person, but there are little glimpses and tell-tale signs with others too. However, with this one person it was powerful, it was overwhelming and it was becoming very, very damaging.

This was a person who I had never met and who I had no real intention of meeting. He was a man who I had met online years ago, our conversations had started out regarding a shared interest in mental health and we had formed a friendship of sorts. Sometimes it is easier to talk about the hard stuff with someone if you don’t have to look them in the eye… and so, we gradually opened up to each other. He told me things that he had (allegedly) not told anyone else and I listened and advised the best that I could. When I suffered dips in my mental health, I turned not only to my husband and closest friends, but also to him. He always replied, always acknowledged my feelings… and then always reciprocated with his own.  

This isn’t a writing about how a friendship turned sour though, far from it. We don’t talk now, after a very difficult conversation we decided to have some time apart and whilst I admire him in many ways and still sometimes feel like I have lost a huge pillar of strength within my life, I also know that he has to address his own problems before we could ever hope to build a healthy relationship.

I also know that I need to address mine.

Because co-dependency doesn’t just spring up from nowhere. I became co-dependent because I had a need for something, something that was lacking and something that even now I struggle to identify. My over whelming desire within this friendship, was to fix; I wanted to make everything better, I could see the damage that was being done by my friends behaviours, but I could also see the things that would help him and I could see such potential – if only he would listen!

But he was listening, wasn’t he? We would have these long conversations; we would talk our way round the same situations day, after day, after day. He would ask me ‘What do I do?’ and I would reply with logic and compassion. I harnessed everything that I had learnt in therapy, everything that I had read about mental health and addiction. I would read articles online to try and improve my knowledge of the specific things he was struggling with. I would talk to my best friend – a qualified mental health nurse – and relay information, I would find song lyrics that resonated with his struggles and send him the music so he didn’t feel so alone. I would speak to him first thing in the morning and last thing at night, I would engage in behaviour that was damaging to my own mental health, in order to prevent him from either a) getting what he needed in that moment from someone who was potentially dangerous for his mental health or b) hurting someone else. But this was friendship, right? This was helping him, surely?

No, and no.

I remember very clearly the moment that it all clicked. It was on a day off, so I had been at home by myself all day and, yes, talking to him via text for a good part of it. I was feeling pretty tired – this was at the end of last year, so very much still combating my own medication withdrawal and Fibromyalgia symptoms. I ran a bath, loaded up Insight Timer and I saw a talk on the homepage by Michelle Chalfant about codependency…

I led in the bath and listened to her describe the behaviour I had been exhibiting, for years. Not just ‘oh, that kind of applies’ but every, single, item on that list I could identify and relate back to something I had done. I realised that I was not ok, if he was not ok – and he, was never ok.

It was like my empathy with this man had gone into overdrive, I wanted so desperately to make everything better for him that I had completely neglected myself in the process. He hadn’t specifically asked me to, he hadn’t directly put this stipulation on our friendship that I must behave in this way or he would leave – but I kind of felt that way all the same. I am learning the reasons now why I did that, I am working through my own feelings and my own motives for that behaviour – but it’s not easy.

We carried on talking for a while after that, but something had shifted. Truthfully, I was scared, I was scared to let him go because if I didn’t have him to ‘help’, then what would my purpose be? I was also very scared that actually, he wouldn’t care. That he would just say ‘ok then’ and go and I would end up with the weight of rejection upon my shoulders. I was also scared that all of this, all of these conversations, all of this kindness, this empathy, this care that I had willingly and freely given over months and years would be for nothing.

I was scared that it made me selfish.

Co-dependency is complex. My motives for my behaviour came from a number of different places – from the need to be heard, to my need for validation and also my natural desire to help and to empathise. The times that he would say ‘yes, this makes sense’ were the glimmers of light and the behaviour he continued to exhibit that went against that very same piece of advice, extinguished those sparks. But he would learn from that for next time, right? So I kept on, persevered and tried to be a good friend. In the end it just exacerbated those ingrained feelings and beliefs of being unheard, but to me, that was familiar and so it was ‘safe’. It was known behaviour so it was comforting even though it stung like ripping off a sticking plaster each and every time. I found that I couldn’t trust him, and yet I confided in him still. I found that I got angry with him, but it felt more like being angry at a child. I found that I was sinking into his problems whilst my own screamed at me from the surface…

Letting him go would also mean I didn’t have a distraction from my own problems anymore.

Eventually, it was my decision to end contact with him. It wasn’t pre-meditated, it wasn’t a thought out ‘I am going to have this conversation and it will be resolved by X, Y and Z’. It was a row – it was an insensitive comment made by him about my husband on a day when I was feeling depressed and in pain and having to brave it out at work. It was the argument that ensued and this voice that bubbled up inside me and screamed ‘this is not ok!’.  I had been ignoring this voice, my own voice that said repeatedly, for months, ‘I am done…’ but I should have listened to her; my inner child may be small and gentle but I was doing her no favours by not hearing her – eventually she screamed, a scream of pain, a scream of frustration and a scream so powerful that my decision was made in that instant. I was done.

Afterwards, it felt worse than any romantic break up that I had ever endured. I spoke to friends about it; I spoke to my husband and my therapist about it. I meditated on it, I questioned what I had done, and I checked his social media profiles to see if he was ok… but I didn’t go back.

One thing I noticed in those first couple of weeks was how much time I had! I wasn’t tied to my phone anymore. I also noticed that my confidence improved – I wasn’t hiding behind someone else’s problems. Yeah, sure, this meant all of my problems came to the surface but I could own them now. I tried to turn some of that care and affection back onto myself – and some days I manage it, some days I don’t, but at least I am trying. It’s something that will take months, if not years because it isn’t straightforward and this type of behaviour has roots that are buried deep.

I still miss him. I still wonder how he is, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. I am learning the importance of boundaries and the importance of true friendship. I am learning to listen to the voice of my inner child because she knew what was up before I had even registered it. I am learning to forgive – both him and myself and I am learning that we cannot, ever fix someone else.

We can love them, we can support them, we can validate their feelings and we can send them all the articles and song lyrics in the world.

But we cannot fix them, for that is a path they must walk alone.