Wednesday 28 February 2024

Self-Injury Awareness Day

TW: Mention of self-harm and self-injury.

Observed annually on March 1, Self-Injury Awareness Day (SIAD) is an international day dedicated to raising awareness of self-harm and self-injury. Fran and I haven’t marked SIAD before, but we have shared articles relating to these topics. I thought it would be useful to draw these items together in one place and include a selection of helpful resources.

What Is Self-Injury? Is it the Same as Self-Harm?

These terms are often used interchangeably but there’s a difference, with self-harm being broader in scope. I find the LifeSIGNS definition of self-injury and its relationship to self-harm really helpful.

Self-harm includes many harmful behaviours such as self-injury, but includes such diverse matters as eating disorders, risk taking behaviour, drug and alcohol misuse.

Self-injury falls under the umbrella of self-harm, and is a direct behaviour that causes injury and damage to one’s body.

There’s a very helpful diagram on their website which makes this distinction clear and highlights how complex the interplay between these behaviours can be.

As useful as definitions are, it’s important not to get too hung up on the labels. What matters is that we respect the reality our friends and loved ones are dealing with. That includes respecting the words they use to describe what’s happening for them and why. As LifeSIGNS puts it, “It’s about coping. The harmful actions, the differences between self-injury and self-harm, are not as important as recognising that the person is in distress, and trying to cope.”

I know this from personal experience. On one occasion a few years ago, my insistence on using the label I felt was most appropriate got in the way of being there for a friend who saw things differently. We got past it, but it was a lesson that’s stuck with me.

Being There for Someone Affected by Self-Injury and Self-Harm

Fran and I have shared a number of blog posts dealing with self-harm and self-injury, most from the perspective of a caring friend.

We’ve also shared articles by guest contributors, including:

Fran and I are always happy to receive guest submissions. If you’d like to contribute, on this topic or any other, check out the guidelines on our contact page.

Further Reading and Resources

LifeSIGNS is a forward thinking, user-led voluntary organisation founded in 2002. LifeSIGNS provides a variety of helpful resources, support and training to anyone affected by self-injury; including people who self-injure, friends and family, and health care workers.

Self-injury Support offers support for women and girls with experience of self-harm.

Hub of Hope is a UK based mental health database to help you find serices and support groups local to you.

Find a Helpline helps you find free, confidential support from a helpline or hotline near you. Online chat, text or phone.

Our resources page includes a number of crisis and helpline links.

 

Illustration based on an image by Nuur Muhammad Husni Labib at Vecteezy.

 

Wednesday 21 February 2024

How Do I Feel Now? Living with Alexithymia

Last week in Exploring Alexithymia and Emotional Blindness I described how hard I find it to communicate my emotions, and that there’s a word for that — alexithymia. I’ve looked further into the topic since then and thought it would be useful to share what I’ve learned. If you struggle to express how you feel, this is for you.

What Is Alexithymia?

Also called emotional blindness, Alexithymia (literally “no words for emotions”) is a personality trait where you have difficulty experiencing, identifying, and expressing how you feel. It’s estimated that one person in ten has alexithymia. The proportion is higher in people with certain mental and neurodevelopmental conditions. Given that I only learned the word existed a few weeks ago, it may seem premature to claim it applies to me. That said, I recognise many of its traits and score highly on alexithymia self-assessments. More on those later. The following description by UK charity Autistica resonates strongly with me.

People who have alexithymia may have have trouble identifying, understanding and describing emotions. They may also struggle to show or feel emotions that are seen as socially appropriate, such as happiness on a joyous occasion.

The inability to “feel along” with the crowd is something I’ve been aware of all my life. Whether it’s societal grief at the death of a famous actor, artist, or musician, or the collective fervour that follows the performance of local or national sports teams, communal emotion leaves me cold. I’m unable to partake or even understand why I’d want to. I’m amused, rather than confused or upset, but the failure to engage in such shared experience is undeniably isolating. The death in 2023 of Sean MacGowan was a notable exception. The outpouring of grief at his death moved and intrigued me, leading me to explore his life and legacy in The Last of the Irish Rover.

How Are You?

Fran hates to be asked how she is, but I don’t mind the question. In fact, I’m happy when someone close to me asks how I’m doing, not least because what’s going on in my life is usually far less problematic, stressful, or intense than what’s happening in theirs. That said, I’m more likely to respond with what’s happening to me rather than how I’m feeling. My situation, rather than my emotions. The latter might get a one word high-level label. Good. Chill. Tired. It’s no surprise that friends rarely enquire explicitly about my feelings. They understand I find it hard to answer with clarity or precision.

How Sad the Song?

Alexithymia isn’t a lack of emotions. It’s finding it difficult to put those emotions into words. I was eighteen when my father died. We’d been close, yet the best words I could find at the time were “How sad the song.” Did I feel sad? I felt something, but I’d struggle as much to name those feelings now as I did then. Relief was there, after his long illness. Uncertainty, too, at what his death meant for the family. But there were no tears. My mother died in 2018. The evening after her funeral, I found myself alone by the shore. It was many years since I’d written any poetry, but a handful of lines came to me and I jotted them down as I walked.

Wandering
Wondering

How do I feel
What do I feel

Release
Relief

Re birth

Stillness
Silence

Un known
Un homed

Un tethered

Still
Calm

Centred (thank you

— Liverpool, March 26, 2018

The lack of question marks in the lines “How do I feel | What do I feel” is noteworthy. Despite pondering my emotions, it’s as though I daren’t ask myself outright. What was I afraid of? (Was I afraid?) The answers? Or the shame of knowing there were none I could voice. The lines that follow these un-questions — release, relief, and so on — aren’t answers. Not really. They’re not what I was feeling. They’re more like signs along the path I was walking that evening. Each suggested something I might be feeling, but none was sufficiently accurate. Only at the end, as I headed back to the hotel, did I find something I could attach a label to. How did I feel? Still. Calm. Centred. The gratitude was real.

I’ve attempted to write about bereavement and loss before, only to run aground. The new perspective of alexithymia may allow me to pick up where I left off. Because while I didn’t experience strong emotions at the death of my parents, I have felt and do feel deeply at other times. The following is from my draft notes on the subject.

My parents’ deaths scarcely touched me, emotionally. My friend’s death [in 2005] did, but much less than I suspect I was supposed to feel. Yet a shift in one friendship maybe ten years ago brought me to my knees, and to floods of tears. Break-ups with friends, permanent or not, have devastated me for weeks, even months, yet death leaves me relatively unmoved. Why? What’s going on?

I identified two possible explanations.

The key for me is abandonment. I didn’t feel abandoned by either of my parents. My father’s was too early [I was eighteen years old] but not entirely unheralded. My mother’s was much later and long-anticipated.

And again:

The loss of a relationship, a friendship, can be harder because no matter how unlikely or unhealthy it might be, there is always the possibility of reconnection. Of recovery. Of a second (or third, or fourth) chance. Death is different.

That might seem the wrong way round. Surely, death should be more impactful, precisely because it’s final, with no opportunity to reconnect. I can only say that it doesn’t feel that way for me. It’s not only loss that I feel intensely. Jealous, angry, sad, empty, lost — I’ve known these and more. Joy too, delight, pride in myself and others, passion, love, exhilaration. But life can’t be lived in extremes all the time. What do I feel more generally? This is where I have the most trouble putting things into words. This is partly because my most commonly experienced mood is characterised by the absence of any identifiable emotion. I’ve explored this previously in Flatness and Disinclination, a post which began life as an audio recoding.

I wanted to see if I could capture a little of how I’ve been feeling since some time yesterday. It’s what I tend to call “flat.” That’s verbal shorthand for a sense of feeling fairly low. Not actively low or depressed; it’s more like the absence of any specific emotion than the presence of a negative one, if that makes sense.

It’s one of the few times I’ve spoken openly about my feelings.

The Physicality of Emotions

Something I find hard to wrap my head around is how physically other people seem to experience their emotions. The following passage at The Village Counsellor expresses this perfectly.

Feelings are fundamentally physical experiences: things happening in our bodies, in response to things happening in our environment. That claim might come as a bit of a surprise to some people, as it once did to me, because the culture I grew up in (white working class Britain in the 70s) gave me to understand that feelings were a lot less concrete, more ambiguous, than that. I’d go so far as to say they were less real than that: they were an entirely subjective, interior experience, with no real-world, observable existence.

When I read those words for the first time, especially the first sentence, my instinctive reaction was “What?? Really?? No way! Emotions aren’t like that!” At least, with rare extreme exceptions, they aren’t like that for me. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why I find it hard to express my feelings in words. If they had more of a physical component, would they be easier to label, to describe to someone else? The cultural explanation makes sense, but maybe there’s something more fundamental going on here. Am I wired differently? Is that what this label of alexithymia represents?

Self-Assessment Questionnaires

In my previous blog post about alexithymia I mentioned scoring four and a bit out of six on one self-assessment questionnaire, and 129 out of 185 on the more detailed test at Alexithymia Online. Let’s look at the latter assessment in more detail, as well as a few others I’ve tried since.

Alexithymia Online Test

On this test, 0–94 indicates no alexithymia traits, 95–112 indicates possible alexithymia, and 113–185 indicates alexithymia. As well as an overall score, the test gives a breakdown in a number of areas.

  • Overall — high alexithymia traits
  • Difficulty identifying feelings — high alexithymia traits
  • Difficulty describing feelings — high alexithymia traits
  • Externally-oriented thinking — high alexithymia traits
  • Restricted emotional processes — high alexithymia traits
  • Sexual difficulties and disinterest — high alexithymia traits
  • Problematic interpersonal relationships — no alexithymia traits
  • Vicarious interpretation of feelings — no alexithymia traits

As you can see, I scored “high” on the test as a whole and in five of the seven sub-categories.

Toronto Alexithymia Scale (TAS-20)

The next test I tried is the Toronto Alexithymia Scale (TAS-20). I scored 70 out of a possible 100, where 0–51 indicates no alexithymia, 52–60 possible alexithymia, and 61–100 alexithymia present. The results invite you to focus on whichever sub-category you score most highly in, but I scored almost equally across the three. (Difficulty Describing Feelings: 23, Difficulty Identifying Feelings: 24, Externally-Oriented Thinking: 23.)

Perth Alexithymia Questionnaire (PEQ)

The third test I tried is offered as a feature of the excellent Animi app, which I’ll describe in more detail later. According to the app, the test is based on the Perth Alexithymia Questionnaire (PEQ). Overall, I scored 137 out of a maximum of 168, which equates to “very high alexithymia.” Subscores are given in five areas. Mine varied between 36/56 (Tendency to not focus attention on one’s own positive or negative emotions) and 25/28 (Difficulty describing and communicating one’s own positive feelings). All represented high to very high alexithymia.

Toronto Empathy Questionnaire (TEQ)

Some resources suggest a link between alexithymia and a lack of empathy or understanding. To explore this, I took the Toronto Empathy Questionnaire (TEQ). I scored 53 out of a maximum of 64. According to the test site, scores of 45 or higher indicate higher than normal empathy.

Animi

Animi is advertised as “the first app dedicated to improving alexithymia, emotional awareness and emotional intelligence.” It’s free to use and available for Android and iPhone. The core of the app is a searchable encyclopedia of emotional states. Each entry (such as afraid, bitter, content, gloomy, to pick a few at random) has a short definition, associated physical symptoms, example situations where it might manifest, the physiological function the emotion performs, and a host of related concepts including analogies, similar feelings, thoughts, expressions, and needs.

As well as searching the encyclopedia directly, the app offers two novel approaches to identifying what you might be feeling. Body Sensations presents you with a mannequin image. You select which part of your body is experiencing physical sensations, and then narrow down your choices. For example, if you select head, there is a slider to categorise the sensations in your head on a scale between detached and intense.

You’re then presented with an Emotional Compass screen where you can clarify things further. This is done by dragging a marker across a square grid. The horizontal axis runs between unpleasant on the left and pleasant on the right. The vertical axis runs between low energy and high energy. Based on where you drag the marker, the app suggests four likely feelings from the encyclopedia, which you can further refine. At any time you can go into the encyclopedia to explore the suggested emotions. When you finally select the emotion that best represents your situation, you are invited to write a few words about what may have led to you feeling this way. These entries build into a personal log.

The second approach bypasses the bodily sensations part and takes you straight to the Emotional Compass screen. As I mentioned earlier, the app also invites you to take an alexithymia test, the results of which are stored in the app and can be reviewed at any time. There’s a link to a Discord forum (Animi app – alexithymia community) which at the time of writing has 218 members. I am not on Discord and haven’t tried the forum, so can’t comment on it’s relevance or value.

There’s a great YouTube video by the app’s developer which I do recommend. There are a lot of very positive comments from people who’ve found the app helpful. I’m not sure how much I’ll use it myself but it does provide a very interesting and accessible route to exploring my emotions and how they manifest for me.

How Does it Feel to Have Alexithymia?

There’s an obvious irony in attempting to describe how I feel about discovering I’ve a personality trait that makes it difficult to express my feelings. In my previous post on alixithymia I mentioned the NVC Feelings Inventory, which is intended to help identify and articulate what we’re feeling in the moment. I’ve always had difficulty with this, but turning to it now, I’d select the following.

Feelings when needs are being met
Empowered
Curious
Interested

Feelings when needs are not being met
Self-conscious
Vulnerable

It certainly feels as though something important is happening as I explore what alexithymia may mean for me. I know I’m not alone in this. Several people I’ve spoken to about alexithymia have said it resonates strongly for them, and I’ve already had some very meaningful conversations with colleagues and friends. I’ll close with something that made me smile the other day. Fran described a conversation she’d had with a mutual friend of ours who she thought would find it relevant.

Did you know, there’s a word for you and Marty. It begins with “A”.

Is it “asshole”?

I checked and “like an asshole” isn’t in the NVC Feelings Inventory. I’ll keep it in mind, however. I’m sure I’ll find a use for it one day!

Over to You

In this post I’ve explored alexithymia in some depth, with links to online self-assessment tests and a helpful app. Does any of this resonate for you? Do you struggle to identify what you’re feeling and communite your emotions to others? If so, I’d love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.

 

Photo by Markus Winkler at Unsplash.

 

Wednesday 14 February 2024

How Do I Feel? Exploring Alexithymia and Emotional Blindness

And sometimes I have kept my feelings to myself, because I could find no language to describe them in.

— Jane Austen

This post was inspired by a conversation with Fran. She’d shared a piece of writing with me and asked how I felt reading it. Not what I thought about it or whether it could be improved, but how it made me feel. As simple as it sounds, her question brought me up sharp. I didn’t know how to answer. It wasn’t that I hadn’t felt anything. I just had no idea how to convey my feelings to her. I didn’t know where to start. In that moment I realised this is a big deal. Because it wasn’t just my feelings about this one passage of Fran’s that eluded me. I’ve been a writer most of my life, but I’ve always found it hard to communicate my emotions in words.

I remembered my discomfiture years ago when Fran and I began studying Non-Violent Communication (NVC). This technique focuses on identifying feelings and needs as a means to understanding what’s going on in our lives. To aid the process, there are two lists, a Needs Inventory and a Feelings Inventory. The latter contains well over two hundred feelings categorised into feelings when our needs are satisfied (86) and feelings when our needs are not satisfied (147). The idea is to use the list to identify our feelings in the moment, but I was overwhelmed at the number of options. Surely there weren’t that many feelings? (Incidentally, overwhelmed is in the needs not being met list, in the “tense” category alongside anxious, crank, distressed, and more.) I understood the purpose of the inventory was to help me clarify what was going on for me emotionally, but I found it incredibly hard to label how I was feeling at any particular time. Was I tired, for example, or was I exhausted, weary, worn out, or lethargic? Calm, or comfortable, mellow, quiet, or relaxed, all of which are in the peaceful category of feelings when our needs are being met.

It reminded me of working with colours in web and graphic design. It depends a bit on how we define things but around ten million colours can be seen with the naked eye. (1,000 levels of light-dark times 100 levels of red-green times 100 levels of yellow-blue.) Most phone cameras capture 8-bit colour, which means they can distinguish almost seventeen million colour values. Recent models can operate at 10-bit which equates to one billion colour values — way more than we can distinguish visually. Not all of these have distinguishing names, of course. It varies depending on specification but the HTML4 colour palette lists 140 names in total, including sixteen basic colours (aqua, black, blue, fuchsia, gray, green, lime, maroon, navy, olive, purple, red, silver, teal, white, and yellow). I get it, but ask me what colour the sky is, or the coffee in my cup, or the ink in my fountain pen, and I’ll struggle to reply in anything but the most basic terms. The sky is grey with flashes of blue. My coffee is dark brown. The inks in the pens I’m using are black, blue, and brown.

Back in the days when I counted myself a poet (blame Ezra Pound’s “And Thus In Nineveh” for such pretentions) I was acutely aware of how hard it was to label my feelings. No single word could accomplish the task. It was only in the mesh of words, creatively and poetically woven together, that I could capture anything of the shape and nature of my emotions. Imagine an opaque sheet draped over objects on a table. We don’t know their precise nature but we can sense their shape and texture, and their relation to one another. A further example of how hard I find it to express my feelings in writing is my use of “dot words.” This started years ago but I still do it in my journal and other personal writing. I place a dot (period) at the start of a word to indicate I’m using it in a deliberately non-precise way. It’s not so much an approximation, more a place-holder for something I can’t adequately describe or convey. I might write “I’m feeling .low today” as shorthand for “I’m feeling something I can’t really express that’s not exactly low or depressed or flat but something like that.” It saves a lot of time. I’d no idea there was a word for this difficulty in expressing my emotions but there is.

Alexithymia, also called emotional blindness, is a neuropsychological phenomenon characterized by significant challenges in recognizing, expressing, and describing one’s own emotions.

There’s an excellent overview on its presentation and overlap with other conditions including depression, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and trauma in Alexithymia: When You Have No Words To Describe How You’re Feeling. The article includes a downloadable guide to describing your emotions (similar to the NVC Feelings Inventory) and the following self-assessment checklist.

True/False Self-Assessment

Ask yourself if any of the statements are true to you.

1. I generally don’t know how I feel.

2. I typically don’t have words to describe what I’m feeling, and resort to simply saying statements such as “I’m fine,” or “I don’t know.”

3. I usually have difficulty expressing how I feel about other people.

4. When relating to others, it’s hard for me to imagine how they could be feeling.

5. It’s easier for me to talk about situations/events rather than feelings.

6. I get confused or have a hard time understanding the physical manifestations of my emotions.

I’d answer true to four of those six statements (1, 2, 3, and 5). I don’t find it hard to imagine how someone is feeling, although I’d struggle to express it to them or someone else. Regarding statement 6, I have occasionally been surprised at my emotional response to situations and events. I never cried through most of my adult life. Then one day the dam broke and I ugly cried for two hours over something that, objectively, warranted no such response. More generally, though, I’m not confused by my emotions or how they manifest. I feel a wide range of emotions. I just find it really hard to label or communicate them.

I used the word label there deliberately. To me, words are labels we attach to things. Communication requires that we attach the same labels to the same things. This is straightforward enough with physical objects. I’m happy to accept that you and I label the same things with the word tree, for example. When it comes to emotional states, though, I struggle to find the right label because I don’t know what you use it for. If I tell you I’m distressed or delighted, how do you know what I’m labeling with those words? I tend to stick to generic labels like good, sad, tired, or okay. In doing so I sacrifice fine discrimination between emotions for an improved chance you’ll get the gist.

The same applies to my use (some might say over-use) of emojis when I’m chatting online with friends. My phone keyboard supports some ninety emotion (face) emojis. I use eight with any frequency: thinking face, wink, kiss, laughing with tears, crying face, smiling face, sad face, and red heart. Limiting myself in this way, I can be reasonably sure the other person will understand what I mean. I use the smiley face and heart most of all. They convey genuine but non-specific humour, love, affection, and care. At least, I hope they do.

I mentioned my former self-identification as a poet. Published in 2008, Collected Poems: 1977–1984 is an anthology of my poetry between the ages of sixteen and twenty-three. Four decades later, they evoke the feelings and emotions of those distant times, sometimes down to the day, even the moment of the day. What do they convey to others, though? I shared them with people I was close to at the time. I published a book of them. I’ve read several of them at open mic events. They’ve moved some to tears. At least one to kisses. I shared a link to my poetry book recently on social media. Someone very dear to me from those days, who knew me as well as anyone had at that point in my life, who knew all my poems and had inspired the best of them, responded with “They were rather good.” I’m glad others are not as stricken with alexithymia as I am. Those four words conveyed as much feeling as all the poetry in my book combined. (Thank you.) When I mentioned to a different friend that I’d been reading some of my old poetry and she asked how it felt to do so, all I could say was “It feels good.” Was that it? Is that really the best I could do?

I’m reminded me of the song How Do I Feel by English singer-songwriter Judie Tzuke.

How do I feel when you’re gone?
The days and nights go on and on.
How do I feel when you’re here?
The days and nights just disappear.

The song evokes personal and very specific memories of one night in the 80s at a Judie Tzuke concert. I’d seen her perform live before, but hearing — and feeling — this song for the first time with someone I cared for yet never knew how to talk or relate to, was an experience that has never left me. Our difficulties weren’t solely due to my inability to express my feelings, but it didn’t help.

How do I feel? What do you want?

Forty years on, the same questions haunt me and I’m no closer to putting the answers into words. Maybe that’s okay, though. There are other ways of expressing emotions. I couldn’t describe to Fran how I felt reading her words, but she reassured me. “Your heart leaks over everything you do.”

It’s reassuring to know I’m not alone in this, as the quotation I opened with attests. If Jane Austen struggled at times to describe her feelings, I can be at ease with my own difficulties. This poem of mine was written four decades ago, but still has something to say.

Once
I should have thought it IMPOSSIBLE
(before I realised the meaninglessness
of the word) to find myself
in the midst of
yOUR dream:

perhaps
it is only in sharing something
this BEAUTIFUL that
we can realise the
MEANINGLESSNESS
of the words.

I may struggle to express how I’m feeling, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel. Perhaps I experience my emotions all the more intensely because I understand there’s no way to put them into words. I’m going to close with a line from the 2022 movie Tár starring Cate Blanchett which captures the essence of alexithymia perfectly.

We can’t always name the things we feel. We have feelings that are so deep and so special that we have no words for them.

 

Further Reading

If you’re interested in learning more, the free online questionnaire at Alexithymia Online is a good place to start. I scored 129 out of 185, where 0–94 indicates no alexithymia traits, 95–112 indicates possible alexithymia, and 113–185 indicates alexithymia.

Alexithymia Online recommend Animi, “the first app dedicated to improving alexithymia, emotional awareness and emotional intelligence” but I’ve not had chance to try it myself.

 

Photo by Denis Cherkashin at Unsplash.

 

Wednesday 7 February 2024

Top Ten Misconceptions about Bloggers and Blogging

Wife to husband on his return from the office: “What do you mean, ‘How was my day?’ Didn’t you read my blog?”

Cartoon by Denise Dorrance

Fran and I began our blog Gum on My Shoe in August 2013. In ten and a half years we’ve published 650 posts covering a wide range of topics, primarily focusing on mental health and supportive friendships. I thought it would be interesting to draw on our experience and address some common misconceptions about blogging and bloggers.

1. We Enjoy Writing

It might seem obvious that bloggers enjoy writing. Why else would we do it? In my case, it’s not that I especially enjoy writing. It’s more that I feel moved, even compelled, to write. It’s always been an important part of who I am and how I process and share my experiences. I’ve kept a personal journal for almost half a century. I’ve written poetry, short stories, articles and essays in the fantasy genre, and books. These days writing and publishing a new blog post each week is my primary focus. The schedule gives structure to my week and the motivation to keep exploring and sharing. But that doesnt mean I necessarily enjoy the process. As I’ve said previously, I write mostly because I’m scared to stop.

2. We Live Exotic Fun Lives

I’m sure it’s true of some bloggers, but the idea that I live a fun and exotic lifestyle is highly amusing to me! Like other social media platforms, blogging allows us to express ourselves in any way we choose. There are travel bloggers, fashion bloggers, and lifestyle bloggers. There are bloggers sharing content relating to the creative arts; writers in all genres, artists, musicians, dancers and more. Others, like me and Fran, blog in the health and mental health arenas.

Whatever the subjects we choose to write about, the best bloggers are those who write with honesty about their lives, experiences, and values. If we write from the heart, telling our stories openly and honestly, then our content can be a positive influence in the world, whether our readers consider our lives fun and exotic compared to their own, or not. Personally, I love living vicariously through the content my friends and others share online. It brings me closer to them, and allows me to experience things I never would otherwise.

3. We Live off Freebies

I wish! I know bloggers who do occasionally receive discounts, freebies, or samples of products and services as part, but in my experience this is much less common than people assume. I’ve received free copies of books in return for a review, but that’s about it. I’m sure I could find more opportunities for free or discounted items, but these are rarely completely free and it takes me a lot of time and energy to review books or other content and I only do so if I’m committed to the topic or creator involved.

4. We Spend all Our Time in Coffee Shops

Okay, this one is true, for me at least! I chose the photo for this article deliberately, because it reflects the fact that most of my blogging is done sitting at my favourite table in my favourite coffee shop near where I live. This has been a feature of my writing over the years. You can read about my top ten writing venues, all of them cafés and coffee shops. I’m grateful that Costa allow me to sit here for hours at a time, with my traveling set-up of phone, tablet, and Bluetooth keyboard. You can read more about my EDC (every day carry) here. Not all bloggers write in coffee shops, of course, but each of us will have our preferred time and place for writing, and for all the other activities that go towards publishing a blog post. I’ve shared my blogging workflow previously.

5. We Make Loads of Money

It’s clear that some bloggers and social media creators are very successful at monetising their content. In researching this post I came across a list of the Top 22 Successful Blogs and Hightest Paid Bloggers in 2024. I’ve no way of independently verifying the numbers but the bloggers in that article reportedly make between $40k and $1M per month. It’s fair to say that Fran and I don’t make anything like that from Gum on My Shoe! In fact, we make nothing at all, beyond royalties from sales of our books.

I’m not averse to making money as such and support anyone who manages to get a financial return on their investment in time, energy, knowledge, and creativity. Creating quality content isn’t easy and deserves to be rewarded financially as well as in other ways. Thus far, though, Fran and I haven’t explored any of the main ways of monetising our blog, such as affiliate marketing, advertising, sponsored posts, or selling content such as courses or other programs. Maybe one day.

6. We Never Run Out of Ideas

Not all bloggers post every week as we do, or to a specific schedule at all. In the early days of Gum on My Shoe, Fran and I posted as and when we had something worth sharing. At some point, I found that having a weekly schedule helped me organise my time and effort, and I’ve continued with that ever since. But whatever the frequency and regularity, by definition bloggers must have ideas to write about.

Despite how it might seem, this isn’t something that comes naturally to me. There are still times times I struggle to find a suitable topic for my next blog post. That said, I’ve come to trust the process and keep myself open to ideas and suggestions, no matter where they might present themselves. With this in mind, I’ve posted a collection of our articles on blogging, including two specifically related to blog topics and prompts. One is a list of 40 mental health blog topics from the caring friend’s perspective. The other is a collection of 21 image prompts for the mental health blogger.

7. Blogging Is Easy

There’s a misconception that blogging is “just writing,” but there’s much more to it than that. In addition to writing, blogging involves a range of skills and activities. Depending on topic and blogging style these may include idea generation, research, collaboration, editing, proofreading, image selection, layout and formatting, scheduling, keywords, search engine optimization (SEO), technical aspects of your chosen blogging platform (Blogger, WordPress etc), marketing and promotion, and responding to reader comments and engagement. I’ve described my blogging workflow previously, as well as how to choose the perfect image to accompany your blog post without breaching copyright or licencing laws.

8. Success Happens Overnight

Success means different things to different people, and that’s as true of bloggers as anyone else. For some, it might mean meeting targets such as the number of followers, readers, or page views. Others might be more focused on advertising revenue, sales, or other income from their blog. For some, it might be the number or prestige of collaborations, blog awards and recognition, or engagement with readers. Whatever success means to you, it’s important to celebrate your wins, no matter how big or small they might seem to others.

With all that said, the idea that blogging success happens easily or overnight overlooks both the very significant work involved in growing an online platform, and the gradual growth most bloggers experience. Blogging isn’t an activity for the impatient! No matter your aims, it requires a long-term commitment and a lot of effort. In my experience, most bloggers are highly dedicated to what they do, and approach their blogs seriously and professionally.

9. All We Care About Are the Numbers

Numbers are undoubtedly important, whether it’s the number of followers, sessions, readers/users, pageviews, or comments. (For the difference between sessions, users, and pageviews check out this article.) Statistics such as these can help you chart how your blog grows over time, which types of post or themes are most popular with your readers, and which promotional avenues are most effective. If you monetise your blog, it’s useful to know which strategies are working best for you, whether it’s advertising, affiliate marketing, sponsorships, or product sales.

I’m happy when the stats suggest our writing is reaching a wider audience. I’m also fascinated to see which older posts appearance in our monthly most viewed rankings. That said, numbers can only take you so far. Neither Fran or I, nor any of the bloggers we know treat stats as more important than they are, or mistake them for what really matters, which is engaging meaningfully with our readers.

10. We Never Talk About Anything Else

Okay, let’s be honest, there’s definitely an element of truth in this one! With a weekly publishing schedule, my current blog topic is never far from my mind, and I’m always on the lookout for new ideas. I’m often inspired by conversations with friends and colleagues, as well as things I see online. This article is a great example. It was inspired by a semi-humorous meme that listed ten misconceptions about musicians.

As well as Fran, I’m grateful to friends who are interested in my writing and happy to explore ideas with me. A special shout out to Jen and Aimee. It’s perhaps no coincidence that they are each creatives in their own right. Jen is a mental health public speaker who’s guested with us at Gum on My Shoe several times. Aimee has a highly successful mental health blog called I’m NOT Disordered.

The importance of blogging in my life is expressed perfectly by two of my favourite personal items. Last year, I treated myself to a t-shirt boldly emblazoned with the legend LIFE IS SHORT. BLOG MORE. The second item is a coffee mug Aimee gifted me last Christmas. It reads:

I MIGHT LOOK LIKE
I’M LISTENING TO YOU
but in my head
I’M THINKING ABOUT
BLOGGING

If all this seems a little self-important, it’s worth remembering that blogging and social media can make a real difference to people’s lives. In the words of English media personality, entrepreneur, and author Zoë Sugg, also known by her online name Zoella, “Every time you post something online, you have a choice. You can either make it something that adds to the happiness levels in the world — or you can make it something that takes away.”

Or, paraphrasing words often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, “Blog the change you wish to see in the world.”

 

Photo by Bonnie Kittle at Unsplash.