Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Ever Wonder Why Our Blog Is Called Gum on My Shoe?

As our website and Facebook page declare, “Gum on My Shoe is a creative partnership between best friends Martin Baker and Fran Houston.” That’s clear enough — and true — but you might wonder why we chose such an unusual name and what it means. It dates back to a conversation Fran and I had not long after we met in 2011.

“You’re stuck with me now, Fran. I hope you realise that.”

“Like gum on my shoe...”

The phrase stuck (pun intended!) and when we began planning our book late in 2012 it was an obvious working title for the project, and for our new online platform. You can read the concept statement for our book here. We announced our Facebook page in April 2013. Our blog launched later that year.

Welcome to Gum On My Shoe! I have created this page as a sort of travel diary as I journey along the long and winding (and glorious) road towards publication of the book I am writing in collaboration with Fran Houston. The book’s working title is “Gum On My Shoe: My Bipolar Bestfriend and Me.”

The image shows one of a series of concept cover designs we developed in the early stages of our project.

As for what gum on my shoe actually means, I can do no better than to quote from this article:

We liked the title [“Gum on My Shoe”] because it captured several important aspects of our friendship. First, that Fran is “stuck with me.” I am not going anywhere. I am here for her no matter what; through good times (there are many) and not so good (there are many). I am the “gum on her shoe” that keeps her grounded, and helps hold her here in this life even—especially—when she wants to leave. It also turns on its head the notion that ill ones are a burden to those around them. I am not locked into a relationship of servitude: we are equals in a mutually supportive friendship.

It was well-received by many who knew us. One friend said, “I love the title. It makes me feel comforted. What a blessing to have someone that determined to stick with you!” Others were less convinced, and it became clear that our book deserved a new title more descriptive of its content, audience, and purpose.

As a title, “Gum on My Shoe” was understood and liked by many, but it confused others. More significantly, it was dismissed by people in the publishing world whose experience and judgement we respected. We resumed the search for a title early in 2015. By April, we had settled on “High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder.”

The new title fit perfectly:

The title of this book — High Tide, Low Tide — is an apt one. Fran lived on an island for many years, including the first eighteen months of our friendship. The stretch of water that separated her from the mainland, and the rhythm of the tides and ferry crossings, influenced almost every aspect of her life and our relationship. The title also suggests the Atlantic Ocean, which lies between us. Most significantly, it conveys the periodic nature of Fran’s illnesses.

Our original working title remained — and remains — important to us and the brand for our online presence. In the epilogue to “High Tide, Low Tide” Fran challenges our readers to step up and “be the gum on someone’s shoe.”

There are many like me who live in invisible institutions of stigma, shame, and silence, the walls built by others from without, or by ourselves from within. Dismantling these walls invites connection. Be the gum on someone’s shoe who has one foot inside and one foot outside. Stick around. It may not be easy but you can help someone make a life worth living. Maybe even save a life.

You’ve read what “gum on my shoe” means to us. What does it mean to you? We’d love to hear from you so please leave a comment or get in touch!


Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Faking Fine: Why We Fib about How We Are

Today we’re talking about “faking fine,” that thing we do when we pretend we’re doing better than we actually are. Why do we do this? Is it a good thing? What happened to being honest? Let’s start by looking at a few scenarios.

Fake It Till You Make It

This popular aphorism “suggests that by imitating confidence, competence, and an optimistic mindset, a person can realize those qualities in their real life.”

This is faking fine to ourselves, although its impact may be felt in our interactions with others. It’s an example of positive or affirmative thinking; of facing your fear and doing it anyway. If you are interested in learning more, I recommend Susan Jeffers’ book Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway.

Faking Fine as an Escape Hatch

Faking fine can be a way to escape awkward social situations or explaining yourself. Fran expressed this with characteristic aplomb in her essay “Lessons of the Night.”

“How are you?” Another hated and seemingly innocuous question. The simple answer is F–I–N–E. F**ked up, insecure, neurotic, emotional. Most friends really don’t want the long answer. This way I can simply smile and be honest gracefully.

Faking Fine as a Buffer

We don’t always have to share what’s going on for us. Sometimes we want to keep things to ourselves, either permanently or for a while. This allows us to process fleeting or temporary thoughts, feelings and situations without getting others involved until we are ready to.

Honesty and Vigilance

Let’s step back a little. Surely faking fine is kind of, well, fibbing? What happened to being honest with each other? What happened to trust? How does all this work out in practice?

Trust, honesty, and openness are vital to the friendship Fran and I share, as we describe in chapter 1, “The Caring Friendship: Key Skills and Attitudes,” of our book High Tide, Low Tide:

We believe it is healthier to be open about our thoughts and feelings than to hide, dismiss, or avoid them. We share what is happening with us, discuss things if we need to, and then move on. In doing so we hold a safe space where we can “let it all out.” We sometimes get upset or angry with each other, but we deal with discord promptly if it occurs, recognising there is no need to fear even powerful emotions when they can be explored safely.

We know each other so well it’s difficult to hide things from one another even if we want to. It’s not just a case of trusting each other. There are specific benefits to this kind of honesty.

I’ve written elsewhere about bipolar red flag behaviours. Fran’s physical appearance, her tone of voice, what she wants to talk about, and how engaged she is in the conversation all give me a handle on her mood. Secondary clues include what she’s been doing since we last talked, whether she’s been socialising or has plans to, who she’s been in touch with, and how physically active she’s been.

Fran’s equally well-versed in my moods, and often picks up on what I’m thinking or feeling, sometimes before I’m aware of them myself. The same is true with other close friends who know me well. All that said, we recognise that we are responsible for what, when, and how much we share. And as we've seen already, there can be very valid reasons for not disclosing exactly what's going on.

Fran sometimes pretends she’s less depressed than she is because she doesn’t want to deal with the anticipated response, or fears not being heard if she’s completely honest. It’s not easy for me to accept, but sometimes she needs to do this with me too.

Like you said the other day, Fran, you often do your best to “fake it” when you are with people so they don’t get too worried, or so you can give yourself a break from it all. And yes you do that with me too sometimes, and that’s okay. I think generally you’re more honest with me [than others] because you don’t feel you need to pretend as much. That means we are more real with each other than with pretty much anyone else in our lives. And mostly that feels good and sometimes it feels shitty. But it’s why we are here. It’s what we do.

I believe it’s important to acknowledge that faking fine happens, rather than becoming defensive or accusatory. I’d go so far as to say respecting each other’s need for boundaries — including faking fine when necessary — is the sign of a healthy relationship.

We All Do It

I have my own reasons for faking fine, although Fran found this hard to believe when I pointed it out to her. She assumed I rarely needed to, or would have anything I needed to fake. I understand why she might think this. I don’t live with illness the way Fran and many of my friends do. There are no serious traumas or crises in my past or present. Fran knows me so well that she can often tell if there’s something up with me, whether I mention it or not. But not always.

Mostly, I want to share things with Fran, to vent and get it out into the open. She’s my best friend. I value her perspective and honesty. Sometimes, though, I need to work things through on my own, or let go of them without engaging too deeply, like the hot coals technique Fran taught me long ago. I might be working with things Fran has little knowledge of, that she might find triggering or that could impact our friendship itself. I may need to process them myself, or with other friends, before I’m ready to bring them to Fran.

At other times what Fran is going through (good or bad) leaves little opportunity for me to share my situation. It’s not that her needs are more important than mine, but I’m mostly content that they take precedence when we are together. Sometimes I simply choose not to bring my troubles into her day. I kept the fact I was feeling low to myself a few weeks ago because it was Fran’s birthday and I didn’t want to spoil her special day.

It’s not solely a question of opportunity. Fran sometimes needs me to take responsibility for handling my issues because she needs every portion of her time, energy, and focus to manage what she’s going through. We discuss an example of this in our book:

About this time, Fran began talking about managing more on her own. (“I need to learn how to be myself and stay healthy, without you.”) Although hard for me to hear, this was a healthy and necessary impulse. Writing my diary one evening, I recalled a favourite saying of ours: “Give people what they need, not what you need to give them.”

Fran has so much going on right now. I need to be here for her, but not push too hard or lay my own stuff on her too heavily. Now really isn’t the time, with only chat and intermittent phone calls. I want to be the friend Fran needs me to be.

I had my own share of concerns, including work, family, and other friends who were struggling in various ways. If I was not to burden Fran with my problems, I needed to take responsibility for my self-care, and involve my wider support team if need be.

That excerpt highlights how valuable it is to have more than one person you can share with. Different people can help in different ways. Depending on what’s going on for me I might choose to share it with someone other than Fran, at least initially. The same goes for Fran and other friends, of course. I know I am a trusted and valued friend but I will not always be the first person they turn to or need.

The Downside

There are downsides to faking fine, of course. The most serious for me and Fran is that it’s harder for me to help her stay well if she’s less than honest about how she’s doing. This came up for us last year. Fran had been depressed for several months. We’d been talking less on our daily calls than usual, and less deeply, but I believed I understood what was going on. I was wrong.

Fran snapped at me a couple of times for not paying attention to what she was saying, or responding the wrong way. I was confused because her frustration and anger seemed out of step with how I thought she was feeling. It took a heated exchange where Fran was blisteringly honest with me for the penny to drop. I messaged her afterwards:

Maybe you could be more explicit about what you mean when you are sharing things with me and want me to understand things in a particular way. [...] Because as much as I love you, I am not psychic and I will hear what you tell me in ways that make sense to me at the time.

Other downsides include the possibility of upsetting or alienating friends and loved ones who expect unwavering honesty at all times. Hiding too much makes it hard for others to understand how things are for us, and can lead to mistaken assumptions and unrealistic expectations.

Let’s Be Honest About It

Faking fine (or not) is a balance of honesty, respect, and responsibility. Being honest about our need to fake fine sometimes is the antidote to misunderstanding and the most straightforward answer to the charge of fibbing, lying, or mistrust.

Do you ever take fine, or hide how you’re really feeling from others? How do you feel about that? How do you feel about loved ones faking fine with you? We’d love to hear from you.


I began writing this article over a year ago. In June 2019 I met up for a day out in Morpeth with my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson. As we walked through the park, I shared my idea for a blog post about how people sometimes fake how they’re feeling. I asked Aimee if she ever faked being better than she actually was. She said not really, because when she’s happy she’s so genuinely happy she can’t imagine ever being able to fake it. She went on to talk about when she’s feeling low or poorly, but after a minute or two, I realised I wasn’t following what she was saying. I don’t think she was either, because she suddenly stopped walking and looked at me.

“Do you know what I mean?”

I hesitated.

“I thought I did...”

Perhaps you needed to be there but that cracked us up and it’s become a treasured memory we recall from time to time. So much so that when I told Aimee I was (finally) picking up the threads of the article I’d started so long ago she wanted to be sure I included our conversation in the park. I’m happy to do so.

It’s a nice way to end, and the perfect example of a totally unfaked fine.


Photo by Shaurya Sagar on Unsplash.


Wednesday, 7 October 2020

Mental Health for All in an Uncertain World

Organised by the World Foundation for Mental Health (WFMH) and observed each year on October 10, World Mental Health Day (WMHD) is an opportunity to raise awareness of mental health issues and to mobilize efforts in support of mental health. This year’s theme is “Mental Health for All: Greater Investment — Greater Access.” In the words of WFMH president Dr Ingrid Daniels:

Mental health is a human right — it’s time that mental health is available for all. Quality, accessible primary health care is the foundation for universal health coverage and is urgently required as the world grapples with the current health emergency. We, therefore, need to make mental health a reality for all — for everyone, everywhere.

You can read Dr Daniels’ full statement and find further resources including a downloadable information pack on the WFMH website. A joint release on WMHD 2020 by the World Health Organization, United for Global Mental Health and the WFMH is here.

Individuals and organisations will mark WMHD in their own way. Here in the UK, mental health charity Mind’s Do one thing campaign invites us to take one small step towards fostering a more inclusive and open attitude to mental health:

Making positive change can seem so hard, especially during uncertain times. And sometimes, it can be hard to know where to start. Whether you want to take the first steps towards getting some help or learn more about helping those around you. [...] Whether it’s going for a walk, learning a new skill or doing something creative, taking the first steps to[wards] getting support for yourself, or reaching out to someone else; take the opportunity to do one thing this World Mental Health Day.

This blog post is my “one thing.” As I write I’m thinking about what mental health means to me, my role in the workplace and beyond it, the impact coronavirus has had on me and those I care about, and what the future might hold for us all. Two words characterise it all for me: uncertainty and change.

Whatever our individual situations it’s fair to say very few of us were prepared for the impact of coronavirus. Our lives have, quite simply, been turned inside out, and there is little certainty about what lies ahead. I’m fortunate that my job in the IT sector has not been at risk and I’ve been able to work from home. It’s not been easy but compared to the many whose lives have been severely impacted — including some of my closest friends — I have been lucky. No, that is incorrect. I have been and remain privileged, to enjoy a degree of relative security.

Nevertheless, lockdown and the ongoing restrictions have affected me more deeply than I imagined they would. I’ve had far more voice and video calls than before lockdown but I sorely miss meeting friends in person. I’ve only managed to meet one of my local friends, once, since the start of lockdown in March. I missed my local coffee shop desperately when it closed for lockdown. That might seem ridiculous but it was very much part of the fabric of my life. I used to visit seven days a week and count several of the staff as friends. I’ve spent two lockdown vacations at home instead of going away, and am about to begin a third.

More fundamentally, I’ve struggled with working from home, especially when it became clear things are unlikely to return to how they were before the pandemic. I became more stressed and anxious than I remember being in many years. As restrictions eased, I’ve returned to the office three days a week. This has helped my mental health enormously but there’s no guarantee I can continue doing so indefinitely. Like everything else, it is contingent on events beyond my control — beyond any semblance of control at all.

An unforeseen change was announced at work last week. It has nothing to do with the pandemic but it will affect everyone in the company. I found it interesting how colleagues responded to the news. Some, myself included, approached it as something which may bring positive change and opportunity. Others reacted with dismay, as though the future holds nothing but distress, disruption, and harm. It’s not that one response is right and the other wrong. For each of us, reality will probably lie somewhere between those two extremes. It was nevertheless a lesson in how our response to unforeseen events can affect how we — and those around us — feel and behave.

I’m writing this at a table in the coffee shop I mentioned earlier. I’ve just been chatting with my friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson of I’m NOT Disordered.

Hi Marty. What are you up to?

Hello! I’m working on a blog post for WMHD.

I am too.

I’d be very surprised if you weren’t!

Lol good point!

I’m going to mention last year’s WMHD event in Cullercoats that I went to with you. Who could have imagined so much would change in a year?

I know. It’s a little bit scary

It is, yes.

Organised by Launchpad North Tyneside, the Cullercoats event was “planned and developed by a dedicated group of volunteers made up of service users, survivors, carers, workers and people with a general interest in mental health.” I attended with Aimee and members of LEAPS (Listening Ear & Positive Support) which she chairs. There was a full programme but the highlight of the day was Aimee’s talk. As I wrote in my blog of the event:

Almost the entire room was quiet and focused as she shared her lived experience, the success of her blog I’m NOT Disordered, the benefits and pitfalls of social media, and how all of us can play a role in supporting those we care about.

That day meant a lot to me. For months I’d faced doubt and uncertainty about my role at work and beyond. I found it hard to remain positive, as friends who helped me through those times can attest. The event, and Aimee’s talk in particular, renewed my focus. For the first time in a long time, I felt I had a place and a voice amongst people working for change in the mental health arena.

I’m fortunate to work for a company that is committed to building a compassionate, diverse, and inclusive culture. I co-lead the mental health and wellbeing working group and contribute to the company’s broader diversity, inclusion, and wellbeing initiatives. As I wrote in February for Time to Talk Day, “my involvement in the mental health and wellbeing working group has become the single most rewarding aspect of my job, eclipsing the technical role in personal significance.” With support and engagement from the very top of our organisation, we responded creatively and passionately to the challenges lockdown brought to our company and colleagues. I’m proud to have played a part.

This might all seem a long way from WMHD’s aim of “[making] mental health a reality for all — for everyone, everywhere.” It’s true that workplace initiatives of the kind we’ve championed are no substitute for professional mental health and support services. That said, I believe that encouraging a more open, inclusive, and caring culture takes us in the right direction. This is more important than ever with so many of us working from home, connected by phone and video calls but lacking the social dimension we’re used to in the workplace.

It is not only in the workplace, of course, that the impact of coronavirus is felt. Individually and as societies and nations, we are only beginning to grasp the long-term consequences for our mental health and wellbeing. We all have a role to play in mitigating the dangers, in supporting each other, in caring for each other. The challenges can seem overwhelming but we each bring our lived experience, talents, and gifts, to the game.

My nine-year transatlantic friendship with Fran has taught me a great deal about relationships that never or rarely include meeting face-to-face. I believe this has stood me in good stead handling lockdown and the ongoing restrictions that prevent me from meeting my local friends, family, and colleagues in person. I miss face-to-face contact but I know that connection and caring are not measured by how many times we get together in person.

I’ll close with Fran’s message of challenge and hope from the epilogue to our book:

It may not be easy but you can help someone make a life worth living. Maybe even save a life. One little bit by one little bit. A smile, a wink, a hello, a listening ear, a helping hand, a friendship all work together to interrupt the grasp of illness. Be open and honest, with your friend and others you meet. Judge not, for misunderstandings abound. Acceptance, understanding, and kindness can pave another way. Let’s.

Caring is one thing we can all do. You. Me. Everyone. And not just once a year on World Mental Health Day, but every day.


Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash


Wednesday, 30 September 2020

The Hidden Cost of Unreliability

Call me irresponsible
Call me unreliable
Throw in undependable too

(James Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn. “Call Me Irresponsible.”)

At some point, we’ve all had issues with unreliability. The friend who always turns up late. Workmen or deliveries that fail to show when they’re supposed to. Appointments cancelled at the last minute. Friends who expect us to be there for them but rarely return the favour.

These are annoying but we understand life gets in the way sometimes, and we acknowledge we’re not always as reliable as we’d care to admit. Dealing with repeated or chronic unreliability is a different matter. If unresolved it can lead to anger, stress, anxiety, and other health issues. So let’s take a closer look at the hidden cost of unreliability, including the impact our own unreliability can have on others.

What Is Unreliability? defines reliability as things “that may be relied on or trusted; dependable in achievement, accuracy, honesty, etc.” Unreliability, then, is something or someone that cannot be trusted or depended on.

I gave a few personal examples earlier. Others include organisations and professionals that fail to follow through on promised action, or pass queries and complaints from one person or department to another. Unreliability in public services such as benefits, health, or public transport affects us all.

Coronavirus has brought uncertainty and unreliability on an unprecedented scale to many areas of our lives. National, regional, and local restrictions are changing all the time, making it difficult and stressful to plan anything more than a few weeks ahead. Nothing seems as safe, reliable, or dependable as it did before.

How Does It Feel?

Unreliability at an organisational level undermines trust and leads to delays and uncertainties that seem unreasonable because they are rarely explained to us. We may feel belittled or disrespected, as though we don’t matter enough for others to consider our situation or feelings. A friend explained that people don’t realise how much it takes it out of someone living with mental illness when people behave unreasonably towards you or mess you around. Another friend expressed it this way:

Unreliability is hurtful. Letting others down is kind of like betrayal. When you’re counting on someone [and they let you down] it hurts because you feel like you don’t matter.

Fran recognises that people have their own lives to live and may not always be available when she needs them. That said, she expects people to deliver on their promises. As recounted in our book High Tide, Low Tide:

Fran [...] asks only that people respect her enough not to promise what they have no intention of delivering. (“Yes is OK. No is OK. Not right now is OK.”)

In many ways, spontaneity is the socially acceptable face of unreliability. Fran builds space into her schedule for spontaneous invitations and trips, but she can be overwhelmed if too much happens in short order. It costs her energy to hold space for meetings and events, and to recuperate afterwards.

I’m better at dealing with spontaneous opportunities than I used to be, but I still prefer to know what’s coming up. At some level, I fear the spontaneous because it short circuits my cautious, rational side. On the other hand, too much structure can be stifling and restrictive. A modicum of randomness can open the door to things we’d never consciously plan into our lives. As a friend said to me recently, “Sometimes when we let go, we can have a new experience.”

Why Are People Unreliable?

Working patterns, family commitments, and other priorities can make it hard to plan ahead with any degree of certainty. On top of that, emergencies and crises can arise for any of us, meaning we need to change or cancel our plans. I was once cross at Fran for missing our scheduled video call only to learn later that she’d been supporting a friend. I’ve cancelled on Fran for similar reasons and she is always more gracious and understanding than I was on that occasion.

Some people seem incapable of arriving on time no matter how many reminders they’re given or how much they are prevailed upon. It’s part of who they are. I’m reminded of friends from years ago. To be fair to them, they rarely turned up late but the way they got ready was — from my point of view — fraught with delay, hesitation, distractions, and fuss. Being around them if we were going out left me stressed and anxious.

Mental illness can challenge our ability to behave reliably. Writing from the perspective of someone living with bipolar disorder, anxiety, and chronic migraines, this author describes how her conditions make her, in her words, an unreliable person.

I’m not the most reliable person right now. My disorder is preventing me from being so. I would like to be more reliable, a better friend, a better wife, a better mom, a better employee. I just can’t, not right now.

In an open letter to a friend, bipolar expert Julie A. Fast explains “why I can’t always do fun things with you.”

It’s the bipolar. I don’t ever use bipolar as an excuse for bad behavior. That is why we are such good friends. You trust me and I trust you. But I know that my inability to be as social as you might like can cause us some problems.

On its own or in combination with other conditions, anxiety can contribute to what other people perceive as unreliable behaviour. This is explained well in this post by Katie Andrews Potter, and in my article for bpHope on bipolar disorder and anxiety. As this article on the impact of addiction makes clear, “the inconsistency, unreliability, and lying involved with addiction” can be profoundly destabilising for everyone involved in the person’s life.

Physical health issues including chronic pain, fatigue, exhaustion, and insomnia can all affect our ability to function as reliably as we’d wish. The fear of failure, of disappointing others, or of not following through on our promises can also cause us to pull out of arrangements and commitments.

What Does Unreliability Cost Us?

Other people’s unreliability can lead to us feeling frustrated, anxious, stressed, and hurt. Processing these responses — and rescheduling cancelled appointments, meetings, and events — takes time and energy we may need in other aspects of our lives. Over time, it can lead to any of the physical, mental, and behavioural symptoms of stress.

If we are — or are perceived as being — unreliable it can lead to difficulties in our relationships, lost friends, lost jobs, and lost opportunities. It can also lead us to lose faith in ourselves; arguably the greatest loss of all.

How to Handle Unreliability in Ourselves and Others

We can begin by learning to handle our emotional responses safely, for example by sharing with those we trust. We might also consider if we’re responding in unhealthy ways or to an unhealthy extent.

Generally speaking, the problem isn’t that people change their mind or fail to fulfil their commitments it’s that they don’t let us know what’s happening. Keeping the channels open is the healthiest approach. A few years ago I arranged to meet a friend for coffee. I was there early as usual. The time we’d agreed came and went and I started wondering if she’d forgotten our meeting. Soon after she messaged to say a friend was in crisis and needed her support. She asked if I wanted to postpone but I was happy to wait for her. She was an hour late in the end but it wasn’t an issue because she’d kept me informed.

Not everyone does that. The New York Center for Nonviolent Communication (NYCNVC) runs an online course in compassionate communication. One lesson features a story similar to my cafe experience, except that the friend is habitually late.

This became a huge source of pain for me. I brought this to his attention on more than one occasion, hoping he would see my pain and start showing up on time. The more he showed up late, the more angry and disconnected I became.

The narrator realised he wasn’t angry at his friend’s lateness, he was angry because his needs were not being met while waiting for him to turn up. Rather than cancel further meetings as he’d been considering, he took the initiative. On future occasions, he brought a book or work to do while he waited for his friend to arrive.

It’s a great example of taking responsibility even when it’s the other person who is being unreliable. We do this by recognising that we rarely know what’s going on for other people and what they’re dealing with, by taking responsibility for ourselves, and communicating what we expect from others. Ultimately it’s down to us whether to accept our friends, colleagues, or family members for who they are.

Are there times when you are unreliable with others? Are you someone who always arrives early for meetings and hates being late? Do you struggle with other people’s unreliability? Have you found ways of navigating how you feel when other people, or life itself, let’s you down? We’d love to hear from you.


Photo by freestocks on Unsplash


Wednesday, 23 September 2020

I'm on My Way: Thoughts Inspired by Ed Sheeran's "Castle on the Hill"

Framlingham Castle Sunset

I’m on my way
Driving at 90 down those country lanes.
Singing to “Tiny Dancer”
And I miss the way you make me feel, and it’s real
We watched the sunset over the castle on the hill

(Benjamin Levin and Ed Sheeran. “Castle on the Hill.”)

I’m no music aficionado but if I really like a song I’ll play it over and over, to the point where I have the lyrics committed to memory. If I ever find myself at a karaoke with a few pints inside me and a friend at my side there are a few numbers I’d have a go at. “Let it Go” (from Frozen), “Take Me Home” (Jess Glynne), “Fairytale of New York” (The Pogues), “Stay Stay Stay” (Taylor Swift) — and Ed Sheeran’s “Castle on the Hill.”

I found Sheeran via a video of Canadian singer-songwriter Shawn Mendes performing “Treat You Better” at Capital FM’s Summertime Ball. The song meant a lot to me but in this recording Mendes opened with lines I didn’t recognise. A quick search revealed they were from “Castle on the Hill” by Ed Sheeran. I found the official video and was soon hooked. It evoked memories and feelings that were not always comfortable: a good indicator something is worth paying attention to. The song describes Sheeran’s childhood and teenage years in Suffolk, England. The castle of the title is Framlingham Castle.

[I’m unable to post the full lyrics for copyright reasons but you can find them here.]

The song opens with Sheeran recalling breaking his leg at age six. The incident is presented as a badge of honour. I have no equivalent badges, never having broken my leg or anything else for that matter. My earliest childhood memory is visiting my father’s office on one of his rare Saturdays at work. I was maybe ten years old. The memory plays like a short clip from a black and white movie in which I’m sitting on a tall stool in front of an enormous typewriter while my father busies himself in his smaller office next door. There’s no sweet perfume like the mountain grass Sheeran recalls; perhaps there is a musty aroma of printers’ ink.

Sheeran recalls finding his heart and breaking it. I recall a crush on my classmate Lynette, another girl whose name escapes me, and Anne and Glenda who were rumoured to sell kisses if you were in the right place at the right time. I had good friendships through childhood and my teens but none survived my leaving home for university. I occasionally think of searching for them on social media but in truth I have little interest in picking up old threads.

The chorus, which I quoted at the start of this post, evokes memories of driving at speed with the radio on full blast, but I’ve only once driven at anything like ninety miles per hour. On that occasion, I briefly touched 100 in my mother’s Ford Fiesta to collect a friend who’d broken down late at night. There was no music on that occasion, but when I had my own car my driving playlist included “Echo Beach” by Martha and the Muffins, and Sniff ‘n’ the Tears’ “Driver’s Seat.” The latter is the archetypal driving track. (I agree with the person on YouTube who commented “Should be built into every new car. There should actually be a button for it on the steering wheel.”) Listening to it now I’m transported thirty or more years into the past, driving around London or to and from Bradford to visit friends.

I’ve never been a big fan of Elton John and didn’t recognise the “Tiny Dancer” reference until I looked it up. I’m glad I did, because certain of Bernie Taupin’s lines resonate strongly for me. “Blue-jean baby” recalls my first year at university, my first real love, and these lines from my poem “Passionale.”

After so long in blue-jeans
I still need a girl with a feminine flair
who can put on a dress that is not
an invitation

Other resonances are more recent but no less potent. I love how Taupin’s line “But oh, how it feels so real” is echoed in Sheeran’s “And I miss the way you make me feel, and it’s real.” I sing along tunelessly, but with great feeling. I’ve never watched the sun setting over a castle on a hill but I’ve sat with friends at Alderley Edge as night fell across the Cheshire Plain.

Beneath the trees
Beneath the stars
Cautiously we found each other
And a place for silence.

In the second verse Sheeran describes smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and getting drunk with his friends on cheap booze. I was a late starter in these rites of passage too. I’ve never smoked tobacco (or anything else). I’ve never run from the police and had scarcely touched alcohol before I left home at eighteen. I’ve had my share of drunkenness since then but only once threw up afterwards, and that was due as much to food poisoning as the amount of alcohol I’d consumed.

I don’t recall what day of the week I had my first real kiss but I do remember who I kissed. Did I do it right? Probably not — who does, the first time? — but there were many more after that so perhaps I didn’t do too badly.

For me the most poignant part of the song is the bridge section, which describes what happened to the singer’s closest friends since they were in their teens. I have little idea how my friends’ lives unfolded. Aside from my immediate family only one person I’m close to now has been in my life more than ten years; most only two or three. I’m not sad about that. Many people seem able to reconnect with people after months or even years as though nothing has changed but I’ve never been that way. For me, meaningful connection implies continuity and a certain frequency of contact. We don’t have to check in every day but if it’s less than once a month the friendship is unlikely to last long in any meaningful sense.

Despite his friends’ various life challenges, Sheeran declares that “these people raised me and I can’t wait to go home.” Apart from my parents I was never emotionally close to my family — my sister, aunts, uncles, and cousins. The one exception was my Auntie Beb who took me hiking in my teens. I was raised, like Sheeran, by my friends — in my case those I met at university. I thought of them as family at the time and for years after, although I never felt a full member of the tribe despite strong ties of love and commitment. Over the years the ties that bound us thinned and faded. Some were severed, others I relinquished when they no longer served me. I have no yearning to “go back home” the way Sheeran does. Indeed, there is no one or nothing to go back to. It no longer exists.

Maybe like Ed Sheeran I’m on my way — but toward what future or destination am I travelling? I’ve wrestled with this for months now, mostly concerning my career but other areas of my life too. I think that’s why “Castle on the Hill” evokes so much for me. It challenges me to look inside myself and see myself for who I really am.


This blog post has stirred a lot of memories and emotions. This is a deep dive, not just into my past but into the person I am now. It reminds me of what one of my friends told me the other day about therapy. How it’s not about fixing you, it’s about making connections between the gaps inside you. (That is a weak echo of how she expressed it.) She spoke with passion and clarity about how gut-wrenchingly hard the work of therapy is. How if you’re not prepared to do the work you’re unlikely to benefit.

What I‘m doing here doesn’t come close to that intensity or depth, but I sense there is more beneath the surface. An image arises in my mind of the Tolkien’s Dwarves who dug too deeply and awakened the Balrog. We each have our monsters, our creatures lurking in the dark, our hidden memories and secrets. My friends. Me. Ed Sheeran. All of us.


Photo by Happy Bean Photography / CC BY-SA


Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Is Being "Too Sensitive" a Bad Thing?

No place for beginners or sensitive hearts
When sentiment is left to chance.

(Sade Adu and Raymond St. John. “Smooth Operator.”)

Have you ever wondered if you’re too sensitive or need to be more thick-skinned? Have others said it to you? The question came up recently in three separate conversations with friends and I’d like to explore it in some detail because it feels important.

I’m wary of labels like “too sensitive” or “too thin-skinned” because they imply there’s some universal scale of sensitivity and you’re outside the acceptable range. There may be some truth in that but careless use of such labels fosters stigma, including self-stigma when we use them about ourselves.

That said, my friends used words like these to describe what they’re going through. Setting my reservations aside, what did they mean?

What Does “Too Sensitive” Look and Feel like?

In their different ways my friends were expressing the belief that they respond to things in unhealthy ways, or to an unhealthy extent. This might manifest in many different ways.

  • Responding with frustration or anger if it seems people don’t understand what we mean or how things are for us.
  • Becoming anxious about what someone might do or say next time we see them.
  • Becoming irritated when friends don’t check in with us as much as we’d like them to, or when they want to connect with us all the time.
  • Feeling people are being judgmental or vindictive towards us.
  • Feeling hurt or distressed at things that don’t seem to upset other people as much as they do us.
  • Reacting in ways others find inappropriate or that seem disproportionate to what actually happened.
  • Feeling abandoned or pushed away when people ask for space or want to pay healthy attention to their boundaries.

In conversation it might sound like:

“My neighbour has his music really loud. It’s very distracting. I wish I weren’t so sensitive.”

“I need to be more thick-skinned then it wouldn’t hurt so much.”

“I worry too much and get offended easily. I take things too personally, like when my friend said what she said. I got mad rather than just acknowledging that I don’t agree.

Isn’t That Just Part of Everyday Life?

Up to a point, yes. Whatever our history or situation, we’ve all developed ways to deal with what life throws at us. Mostly we do a pretty good job of it. But sometimes our strategies don’t work as well as they usually do and we’re hit by something — or a series of somethings — that overwhelms our capacity to deal with it.

Maybe we’re overstressed or fatigued. Maybe we’ve not slept well for weeks or are dealing with chronic pain or a physical health condition. Maybe we live with a disability or a mental or behavioural health condition. Relationship problems or worries about friends and relatives, money, employment, housing... any of these can affect our ability to handle the twists and turns of everyday life. It’s worth remembering that what is “everyday” to one person might be difficult, traumatic, or triggering to someone else.

Whatever the circumstances, sometimes we find ourselves reacting in ways we normally wouldn’t, or shutting down because we can’t deal with everything all at once. That’s when we may need to look at how we’re doing and consider new strategies.

Is It Them or Me?

Given that we’re mostly talking about issues with other people, it’s valid to ask if the problem lies with their behaviour or our reactions to it. It can be hard to distinguish between banter, a difference of opinion, personality clash, bullying, harassment, and abuse — especially if our perception of what’s happening differs from the other person’s or from the opinion of other people involved. It’s important to trust our instincts, but that’s not always easy if we’ve come to doubt our ability to accurately gauge what’s going on — or if there’s someone telling us we’ve misread the situation or are overreacting.

Maybe we are — or maybe we are being subjected to gaslighting, which is a form of psychological abuse in which the victim is manipulated into doubting their sanity. The term comes from the 1944 film “Gaslight” in which Ingrid Bergman’s character Paula is almost convinced by her husband that she’s imagining things, when in fact he is scheming against her. Gaslighting can occur in any relationship, especially ones with an unequal power dynamic, including the workplace. It’s a strategy often adopted by narcissists to control and abuse their targets.

All that said, it’s important not to automatically blame the other person or assume they are trying to manipulate us. Most people aren’t out to trap, bully, or denigrate those around them. Most people are doing the best they can, often under circumstances we know little or nothing about. Fran has a phrase she likes to use: “Everyone gets to be who they are. Even the assholes.” It reminds me that we’re not responsible for (or able to change) other people, even those we find difficult or have issues with. On the other hand, we don’t have to excuse or condone behaviour that hurts us.

What Can I Do about It?

Our options depend on what’s happening.

Gaslighting or abuse

If you’re being subjected to gaslighting, intimidation, or any form of psychological, physical, or sexual abuse, consider seeking help. The NHS provides information and support links for the UK. Wikipedia has an equivalent listing of global resources. If it is happening in your workplace, there should be a reporting process for bullying or harrassment.

Physical and mental health

Being highly sensitive is not a diagnosis in itself but there are clinical conditions which encompass forms of emotional oversensitivity. These include borderline personality disorder, ADHD, bipolar disorder, major depression, and social anxiety. Physical health conditions including chronic pain, fatigue, and insomnia can also affect how we react. If you feel your issues might be health-related discuss your concerns with your doctor.

A friend of mine anticipated some difficult times ahead which might be hard for her to manage. Based on past experience she consulted her clinician to see if a change of medication might be appropriate. Fran and I keep an eye on how she responds to people and events because over sensitivity can be a red flag for mania or bipolar anger.

Give yourself space

If the problem is circumstantial and temporary you may find yourself less overwhelmed once the situation calms down. In the meantime, or if things keep triggering you, take yourself out of the situation if possible. A friend of mine does this if she finds herself overwhelmed or triggered. It can help to have someone you can safely let it out (or “vent”) to.


Fran and I find meditation helps us respond more calmly and proportionately to whatever’s happening in our lives. Other friends of ours also find it useful. I recommend the loving-kindness meditation because it focuses on our attitude to other people. There are a number of versions, my favourite is this one by UNH Health and Wellness.

Resilience training, NVC, and the Four Agreements

You might benefit from learning some more healthy approaches to handling stress and situations that trigger you. If so, you’ll find a range of information and training available online for resilience training (for example here, here and here) and nonviolent communication (NVC). Also called compassionate communication, NVC is based on the idea that we all have the capacity for compassion and only resort to violent or harmful behaviour when we are unable to find more effective strategies to meet our needs.

With Nonviolent Communication (NVC) we learn to hear our own deeper needs and those of others. Through its emphasis on deep listening — to ourselves as well as others — NVC helps us discover the depth of our own compassion. This language reveals the awareness that all human beings are only trying to honor universal values and needs, every minute, every day.

Fran and I have found NVC helpful in exploring our responses to difficult situations with each other and with other people.

A friend recently mentioned something I’d heard of but knew very little about.

Have you seen The Four Agreements, Marty? One is: Don’t take anything personally. When other people say shit to me like that it’s a reflection of their ignorance and narrow mindedness. It really has nothing to do with me.

She was talking about a body of work inspired by The Four Agreements: Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, by Don Miguel Ruiz. The agreements are:

Be impeccable with your word.
Don’t take anything personally.
Don’t make assumptions.
Always do your best.

Of these, the second and third have the most to say about being (or feeling we are) too sensitive.

Don’t take anything personally. “Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.”

Don’t make assumptions. “Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.”

Taken together with NVC, these principles remind us that other people have their issues, hangups, perspectives, and needs too. We don’t have to like how they behave towards us or others but we have options. Not leaping to conclusions, and not assuming we are at fault, can take us a long way towards responding in ways we feel comfortable about.

I’ll close with a quotation from a blog post I came across whilst researching this article:

If considering yourself as a ‘highly sensitive person’ (HSP) helps you understand yourself, and works to make your life easier and more fulfilled, wonderful. And if it means you focus your sensitivity in useful ways like being creative and empathetic, even better.

But if you find you are using being oversensitive as an excuse, then not so great. If you are opting out of relationships, for example, or not going after the career you want, because you are ‘too sensitive’, then that is not helpful.

And if you suspect you had childhood trauma or did not receive the love and care you needed when young, then it’s a very wise idea to reach out for support.

Do you consider yourself to be “too sensitive”? Do you consider it a blessing or a curse? Have you ever thought life might be easier if you were more thick-skinned? Do other people’s words and actions affect you more than is healthy for you? If so, what changes or strategies have you found helpful? We’d love to hear from you.


Photo by Nicole Baster on Unslpash.