Wednesday 18 September 2019

Ten Things I Learned about Myself Last Week

It’s been quite a week, one way or another. At times I’ve been as low and despairing as I have in months; at others I’ve felt grounded and whole.

Here are ten things I’ve learned about myself in the process. Maybe some of them will resonate with you too.

1. Things Are Shitty Sometimes

It’s rare for me to feel so low, stressed, or overwhelmed that it interferes with my day-to-day life. Mostly I move through upsets and difficulties fairly smoothly. But sometimes even my tried and tested strategies for making it through bad days fail me.

The best thing I can do then is accept I’m struggling. That’s not easy, because my life is generally stable and secure. I have a home, a family, a job, financial security, amazing friends, and decent health. What is there for me to feel overwhelmed by, anxious or low about? I’m aware of the danger such thinking presents, however. “I’ve no right to be struggling” stops people seeking the help they might need. So yes, my life gets shitty too sometimes.

2. Things Will Shift If You Allow Them To

When you’re in the middle of a bad situation it can seem like you’re stuck there permanently. The lost friendship or relationship is gone for good. The period of difficulty or illness or whatever it might be is never going to end or improve. There”s no hope. What’s the point of even trying to move forward?

When I get to feeling that way it helps to recall times in the past when I felt similarly stuck and remind myself that no situation, good or bad, is permanent. Do whatever you need to hang in there. Change will come all the easier if you’re not holding too tightly to the present situation. As American big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton puts it: “If you just get out of your own way... It is amazing what will come to you.”

3. Sometimes I Need to Put Me First

Friends sometimes ask me if they’re ever a burden. With complete honesty I can say that is NEVER the case. However, there are times when I get triggered or overwhelmed by whatever is going on my life. It’s vital I recognise when that is happening, pay attention to my boundaries, and take whatever steps are necessary to bring myself back to a more secure and stable place. The Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) workshop I took last year helped me understand this and I turn to my own plan when I start to struggle. I have done in recent months and did so again last week.

4. It’s OK to Ask for Help

Reaching out for help is a crucial step on the road back to stability. What that looks like will depend on your needs and the support network you have in place. I’m blessed in having friends I can be honest and open with, but even so it’s hard for me to “fess up” and ask for help. It gets easier with practice though, which is why that first step — which can feel like a huge leap of faith — is so important. I’m proud that I asked for the support I needed, and grateful to those who were there for me.

5. I Can’t Help Everyone All the Time

Sometimes I have to accept that I’m not the right person to help someone I care about, no matter how much I want to. It doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me or our relationship, it’s just that I can’t offer what they most need. It’s harder when it’s someone I’ve helped in the past, but needs change and on a different occasion they might need support I’m unable to provide.

Maybe I don’t have the relevant skills, knowledge, or experience. Or maybe I’m unavailable or struggling myself so that I need to put all my energy and focus into self-care for a while. And of course this applies to others too. Their ability to help me depends on my needs at that moment and their personal situation.

All this might seem a sad state of affairs, as though we can’t rely on anyone to be there for us all the time, or rely on ourselves to be there for others. This is true (to pretend otherwise is unrealistic and unhealthy) but if we can face it with compassion the realisation can be deeply empowering. That’s why it’s important to have more than one person in your support network. There are four or five people I trust to be there for me. At any given time some may be unavailable or unable to offer the support I need, but I trust them to tell me if that’s the case.

6. Paying Attention Pays Dividends

There is a line in our book High Tide, Low Tide:

Give people what they need. Not what you need to give them.

This hit home hard recently when I failed to pay attention to what one of my friends needed. Instead of listening to what she asked me to do I took it upon myself to decide what was best. At another time it might have been no more than a minor annoyance to my friend. On this occasion, however, it was deeply unhelpful and hurtful.

And that’s the point. We can’t know when paying attention really matters, so make it your default approach. My friend and I have repaired the damage. We’ve talked it over and are closer for the experience. I’ve already used what I learned to help someone else who was struggling with a similar situation. I’m sad, though, that my friend had to pay the price of my learning something I ought to have known already.

7. Trust Is the Antidote to Fear

Some people wear worry as a badge of honour or as a sign of their commitment — “I’ve been so worried about you!” — but I know how toxic it can be. I learned this with Fran years ago. Don’t worry about me, care about me is the central message of our book High Tide, Low Tide and the foundation of our relationship. The key distinction is that worry is based on fear whereas caring is based on trust. I sometimes lose sight of this, however, as I wrote to a friend recently:

You’ve been so poorly lately and had so much going on for you that at times I have slipped into worry. The stressy, unhealthy worry energy that’s hard to avoid even though I know it doesn’t help anyone. Not you. Not me.

The antidote to fear is trust, and I’ve relearned that this week. I acknowledged what had happened and let go of my need to control things I had no business imagining I could control. I trusted that my friend is doing everything she can to be as well and safe as possible, and that the rest of her support team are there for her. And I renewed my trust in myself, to be the friend she needs me to be. No less, no more.

8. My Mood Is Dependent on My Relationships

A friend recently sent me an article by Angela Theresa titled Six Things Your Borderline Friend Wants You to Know. I was surprised how much of the piece rang true for me; especially the fear of abandonment, the need for validation, and the emotional intensity:

If you are my friend, I am loyal to you. You are beautiful to me. Your accomplishments are poetry. I think you’re fucking amazing. And you’re one of the best friends I’ve ever had.

My intensity has caused me issues in the past. I’m usually too much for people (or not enough, if I have been overcompensating for my tendency to excess). The downside is that I hurt deeply too, but I’m working with that. I still get it wrong more often than I like to admit but I have a small group of close friends with whom I feel safe and able to be myself. I am more grateful to — and for — them than I can ever say.

9. I’m (Still) Not Perfect

At work and outside it, I strive to improve myself. I read. I take courses and attend workshops. I talk with people. I listen. I’ve certainly learned a lot in the past week or so. And yet, I am still not perfect. (Sorry to disillusion you, Fran!) I make mistakes. Only last night a friend pointed out that I wasn’t paying attention to what she was saying. Rather than listening I was leaping in with suggestions and potential “fixes.” She was right to call me out on it and I am grateful to her for doing so.

10. Honesty Can Be Breathtakingly Beautiful

I write a lot about “honesty and openness.” To me these are essential components of any friendship or relationship. I’m not 100% full-on, in-your-face, open with everyone all the time, of course. That would be overwhelming and is what BrenĂ© Brown calls floodlighting.

I do, however, aim to be honest with everyone. As I wrote on social media precisely one year ago, “If you can be honest about what you need, that’s a real relationship right there.”

The past week has been characterised by honesty. I was honest with myself and others about the fact I was struggling and needed support. Friends were honest about how they were feeling, including letting me know when I’d contributed to their distress. (Thank you — how else am I to learn?) I was able to hear what was being said and take responsibility for my mistakes and my share of any misunderstandings and miscommunication.

Best of all, I’ve been honest with friends about how important they are to me, and heard how important I am to them. It’s not a sign of insecurity to value such moments. They can be breathtakingly beautiful. As I told one friend the other day, “I’m glad we can be honest with each other like this. It doesn’t happen with everyone and it’s lovely.”


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