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.


Thursday 10 September 2020

Selected Articles for World Suicide Prevention Day 2020

For #WorldSuicidePreventionDay 2020 we’ve compiled a selection of relevant articles we’ve shared over the past few years. Thanks to our friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson of I’m NOT Disordered for the inspiration for this post, and much more.

How to Take Care of Yourself When Your Friend is Suicidal

Being in a relationship with someone who talks about wanting to die can be stressful and draining, so remember to pay as close attention to your well-being as to your friend’s. [Read more]

17 Online Suicide Awareness Courses and Podcasts

This article presents a selection of online suicide awareness courses and podcasts for anyone who wants to learn about this challenging subject that is a lived reality for many. No course or podcast can make you an expert overnight. You will, however, be better equipped to help someone who may be considering suicide and be in need of support. Many of these resources also address wider issues including stigma and the importance of open communication. [Read more]

The Stranger on the Bridge and Other Stories of Friendship and Support

Hearing Jonny talk about what happened on the bridge was intensely moving for me, as I’m sure it was for everyone in the room. He spoke of Neil holding space, of his being engaged and “invested.” Above all it was Neil’s positivity and lack of judgement that made the difference, as well as him telling Jonny there was no need to be embarrassed. This stranger’s acceptance, compassion, and simple humanity saved Jonny’s life. [Read more]

Sometimes We Need to Ask the Questions

This post was inspired by an open letter to me by fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson in response to an article I wrote recently about imposter syndrome, self-doubt, and legitimacy. In her letter, Aimee described how important it is to have people she can turn to for support. [Read more]

A Heap of "S" Words and an Aitch: Stigma, Suicide, Self-Harm - and Hope

Having a study buddy is great because — as Fran and I have found many times — you have someone to share ideas and perspectives with, and to talk through any issues that come up. This is especially valuable with something as complex and important as suicidality. [Read more]

She Is So Not OK: Being There When Your Friend Is Suicidal

Suicidal thinking has been part of our friendship since we met. Indeed, it is how we met. One evening in May 2011, I found myself on the social media page of someone who was clearly going through a rough time. She didn’t seem to be online, but in the previous hour she had publically shared suicidal thoughts and feelings. [Read more]


Few people are helpful when you are sick and many push you closer to that edge, either from lack of understanding or by disappearing altogether. It is, after all, an illness, a dangerous one, as surely as any of the physical conditions that can take your life. It is hard to know, sometimes, where you end and where illness starts. Therein lies the conundrum. [Read more]

Be the Best Yourself You Can Be

I feel it is important to say that being there for someone who lives with suicidal thoughts and feelings isn’t all about talking them down from a bridge or asking how many pills they took, what they were and how long ago. [Read more]


If You Need Help

Our resources page includes links to suicide crisis lines / support organisations, training resources, and books. UK mental health charity Mind offers a range of help and information if you need support or are concerned for someone else.


Wednesday 9 September 2020

No Sorries

Fran and I have a “no sorries” rule, which means that we don’t apologise to each other for things we do or say. There are times when we need to talk about things we know will be difficult for the other to hear, and we trust each other to handle what comes up.

This might seem strange. We are brought up believing we should apologise when we’ve done something which – deliberately or not – has upset or harmed another person. An apology, “Sorry I hurt you”, is how people generally acknowledge the damage they’ve caused and seek to set things straight. Refusing to do so might appear counterintuitive and disrespectful, as though we are refusing to take responsibility. In fact, the opposite is true. It’s far too easy to say “sorry” and expect the other person to move on, or demand an apology as though that will wipe the slate clean.

Don’t get me wrong, “sorry” has been known to escape our lips, although the other person tends to respond with a “no sorries” reminder and a smile, recognising that something important is happening. Because, of course, I do feel bad if something I say or do results in Fran feeling hurt or distressed, and she feels the same way.

Many years ago I reacted without thinking to Fran telling me she’d been drinking more heavily than usual. I leapt on her with the dangers of relying on alcohol to get her through difficult times, when what she needed was for me to listen. She wasn’t hiding her drinking from me, in fact she brought it to me precisely because she needed me to help her remain aware of what was happening. My instinctive response, however, was unhelpful and I realised so immediately.

Frannie, I know we don’t do “sorries”, but I am sorry for leaping at you like that!

It’s okay, Marty. No worries. No sorries.

I’m listening now. What were you trying to say?

The point isn’t whether or not we feel bad, it is how we deal with those feelings and what we take responsibility for. Fran and I take our personal responsibilities very seriously. If Fran says something which I find hard to accept or deal with, she will take responsibility for saying it, but I take ownership of my response.

Our triggered reactions are often only superficially related to what the other person said or did. It is my experience that there can be huge therapeutic value in triggered responses. More often than not I end up grateful to the other person for playing their part in the process.

“No sorries” does not mean that Fran and I get to blunder about with no awareness or regard for the other’s feelings or well-being. We do not deliberately trigger hurtful responses in each other for the fun of it or on the off chance that we benefit in some way as a result. But neither do we wrap each other in cotton wool, protecting them from experiencing things because we might judge it painful to them. That would be to rob both of us of the opportunity to learn something new about ourselves and each other.

In the first year of our friendship I wanted to buy Fran a gift for her birthday. She seemed to like the idea but as we discussed it one night she became increasingly distressed and anxious. I kept pressing her to talk about it. In the end Fran broke down in tears and ended the call. I felt awful and, as I recall, flooded her with apologetic messages and texts. I wanted to take it all back, to make everything right again, to erase whatever it was that had just happened. Later, Fran shared with me something of her life-long issues with gift giving and receiving. This helped me understand what had happened between us and offered me an insight into Fran’s past, her life and issues. I realised that hers were almost the inverse of my tendency to over-gift. If I’d been more cautious, if I’d spotted the early signs of her distress and backed down straight away we might never have reached that level of understanding.

More generally, “no sorries” gives us freedom to feel and express the little grievances, irritabilities and frustrations without feeling guilty for them, blaming the other person, or having to apologise afterwards. It doesn’t always work, of course, but it works more often than you might imagine.

So, the next time you find yourself about to apologise for something you’ve done or said, take a moment to consider what the “sorry” actually means to you. Find different words to express that meaning to the other person, and see what happens.


Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash


Saturday 5 September 2020

Let It Out! How to Vent Powerful Emotions Safely

Let it go, let it go.
Can't hold it back anymore.

(Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. “Let It Go.”)

In a previous article I discussed three kinds of conversation you might encounter in a mutually caring relationship. I call these “My Turn, Your Turn,” “It Will Be Your Turn in a Minute,” and “I Need to Talk Right Now.” Each has its place but the third is arguably the most critical — and perilous — because we’re at our most vulnerable when we allow ourselves to share powerful emotions.

There are times when we want and need to just let the words flow, to “dump” (although I hate that expression), to express whatever it is we are feeling or thinking without being interrupted, questioned, or judged.

In this article I want to explore how to let the words flow — to vent — as safely and productively as possible.

Who, How, When, and Where

It goes without saying that it’s best to vent to someone you trust; someone who can hold space without judging you or trying to stem the flow of what you need to get out. Fran and I write about this kind of trust in our book High Tide, Low Tide:

We believe it is healthier to be open about our thoughts and feelings than to dismiss, hide, 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.

It’s what Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has called deep listening:

Deep listening simply means listening with compassion. Even if the other person is full of wrong perceptions, discrimination, blaming, judging, and criticizing, you are still capable of sitting quietly and listening, without interrupting, without reacting. Because you know that if you can listen like that, the other person will feel enormous relief. You remember that you are listening with only one purpose in mind: to give the other person a chance to express themselves, because up until now no one has taken the time to listen.

Of course, not everyone wants or needs to vent in person like this. I find it hard to share really strong emotions, even with Fran and other friends I trust and feel safe with. I’m more likely to process strong emotions by writing them out. I’ve kept a daily journal for the past forty-five years and if I don’t have it with me I take notes on my phone. Venting onto the page like this helps me let things out without necessarily bringing them to others who might be affected by what I’m going through. Journaling does carry the risk of disclosure, however, unless you can be certain your words — whether digital or written in a diary or notebook — are secure from being read by others.

When words elude me, walking helps. It’s particularly effective when I’m in a rage or overwhelmed by feelings of abandonment, worry, or anxiety. It doesn’t matter much where I’m walking; what matters is the physical exertion and movement.

When I’m happy, I walk. When I’m sad, or lonely or lost. When I’m hurting, or numb. When there’s too much to think about Or nothing on my mind. I walk.

Walking is so important to me that I included it in my Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP).

Be Clear About What’s Going On

If you’re opening up in person or someone is opening up to you, it’s important you both understand what’s going on. Clarity protects us from oversharing or overwhelm, or what BrenĂ© Brown calls floodlighting (not to be confused with gaslighting):

Oversharing? Not vulnerability; I call it floodlighting. ... A lot of times we share too much information as a way to protect us from vulnerability ...

Being clear about our needs gives the other person chance to make space and prepare themselves, or to say they’re unavailable if that’s the case. A close friend messaged me recently:

I could really do with a call. As soon as it is convenient for you if you don’t mind. I’m raging so will need to have the floor at first then it’s all yours!

I was grateful for the heads up. In those few words, my friend gave me the context and let me know how urgently my support was needed — as soon as possible but not necessarily immediately. I cleared space to take her call and was able to hold space from the start without engaging in small talk or asking unnecessary questions. On this occasion, I was aware of the back story but I try not to anticipate what — or why — someone needs to share with me. Fran rarely gives me a heads up but I’ve learned to let her lead when we start our calls in case there’s something she urgently needs to share.

As Long As It Takes

Anger is perhaps the emotion we most commonly need to vent, or that someone might need to vent to us, but it might be any strong emotion such as anxiety, frustration, resentment, despair, jealousy, or envy. Venting safely can form part of a protective strategy which allows us to acknowledge the emotion for what it is without acting in unhelpful or unhealthy ways.

Bipolar anger is a common experience for many who live with the disorder. One friend described it as “bipolar’s go-to emotion.” That might sound like abrogating responsibility, but I find the description helpful. It conveys how hard it can be to handle a triggered response and engage more “reasonably.” My friend takes herself out of the triggering situation if possible. Having someone to vent to — whether in person or on the phone — allows her to handle her anger safely until it has passed.

Holding space for someone in this way can take anything from a few minutes to an hour or so. While my friend is talking I try not to interrupt her, ask too many questions, or offer suggestions. After ten or twenty minutes the flush of anger has passed. She is calmer and can focus more clearly on what needs to happen next.

These days, it’s rare for Fran to vent anger in this way, although it’s happened in the past, particularly when she has been in mania. More usually, it’s frustration at her life situation or something that’s happened within her immediate circle of friends. Letting go might fill one or more of our twice-daily calls. Some deep-seated issues have seen me holding space for up to an hour or so every day for several weeks.

It’s similar when I’m venting to myself in my journal. I might “write it out” for half an hour or so at a time, then set it aside and return to it later if necessary. This might continue over a period of days or weeks if the situation keeps recurring.

Moving Forward

Venting can help us move safely through overwhelming emotion, but it is not a fix for whatever condition, situation, or trigger brought us to crisis in the first place. It might be a one-off, an occasional occurrence, or part of an ongoing pattern. If you’ve held space for someone, consider offering your support in the future. Knowing there’s someone who will listen no matter what you’re going through without judging you or insisting on “fixing things” can be extraordinarily reassuring.

Be the person who won’t turn away when your friend or loved one needs to vent. I’d go so far as to say it’s the single most powerful thing you can do to help someone deal with whatever they’re going through.


Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash