When feelings become tricky

 Feelings can be tricky things. They can change the outcome of the day. We can love them one minute and hate them the next. And we can be hard on our feelings. We can revel in them. Suppress them. Deny them. Disconnect from them.

At their best, feelings are information. They can provide us with signals of when things are going good and when things are going less good. Guilt tells us we’ve behaved in a manner against our moral judgments. Anger tells us someone or something has crossed a boundary. Suspense tells me that the script writers on Neighbours have finally thought of something interesting, that I didn’t predict first.

At their worst, emotions get hijacked by our beautiful, complex, tricky, brilliant and destructive minds. And then anything can happen.

Let us take fear for example.

The amygdala is one of two almond-shaped masses of nuclei located deep in the temporal lobe that among other functions, is involved in the fear circuit in our brain. This structure is responsible for the fight-or-flight-or-freeze response that helps us to respond to threats in order to keep us alive.  The amygdala is also responsible for deciding what memories are stored and where they are stored. The level of emotion that is attached to a memory determines where it is stored in the brain.

However this process gets mucked up all the time.

Imagine that at a formative moment, when we are profoundly unprepared and without the resources to cope, we have an encounter with a shark. The shark was beyond terrifying. It raged, it crushed its sharp teeth and its beady eyes stared at us and said “You’re a goner”. It threatened to destroy everything: it was incomprehensibly mind-defyingly awful. As a result, our inner alarm (or amygdala) became jammed into the on-position and has stayed stuck there ever since. There is no use others telling us that there aren’t any sharks around at the moment, or that most sharks don’t consume us alive: that’s easy for them to say, they haven’t been casually enjoying the sun and the water to find a white pointer staring at them whilst have nothing to protect them but a small and flimsy bikini. The result of this shark encounter is an unconscious commitment to a catastrophic generalisation; we begin to fear not all sharks but also all fish, reptiles and mermaids, and all beaches, and water and sunny days, and even associated things, like the taste of salt, or the feeling of the towel we wrapped our self in afterwards. We can no longer make logical distinctions. Everything – or nearly everything – becomes a threat.

While many of the threats are symbolic, evolutionarily, our brains have evolved to deal with physical threats to survival that we had to quickly respond to. However, our body still responds with biological changes that prepare us to fight, even though there is no actual physical threat with which we must contend.

Our mental equipment to distinguish between relative dangers has been destroyed. We have received such a big fright that everything has grown frightening.

Every slightly daunting challenge becomes a sign that life is all over. The party where we don’t know anyone, the meeting with the boss, the tricky conversation at work… these put the whole of existence into question. Pretty much every day is a crisis.

All because the brain got way too involved.

It doesn’t just happen with fear either. There’s a whole range of feelings that can get hijacked by the brain and exist in some sort of ‘unprocessed’ form within us. Someone may have abused our trust, made us doubt their kindness or violated our self-esteem. The hurt is somewhere inside, but on the surface we look to be in good, jolly spirits. We might numb ourselves chemically or adopt a careful specific tone of cynicism, which we think will mask the specific wound that has been inflicted on us.

To get ourselves out of this mess we need to be courageous. These feelings, that are meant to be terrific guides to life, have to be seen for what they also are: instruments that can be somewhat unreliable. We need to accept that there is a distinction between feelings and reality. When the mind gets involved, the feelings are no longer facts.

To process our emotions properly – or to stop dreading sharks everywhere – we need a lot of compassion for ourselves. We avoid processing this stuff because it can feel at odds with who we would like to be, or who we think we should be. But we’re all humans. If we can acknowledge the difficulties of being human with warmth and charity, we might actually be able to feel the thing that hurts – the specific shark we did once see – to stop it haunting our future.

Good friends, trustworthy therapists and a bit of self-awareness helps too.

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Stoicism for Today

A while back I had a client who could be genuinely defined as ‘stoic’. And I think it was his stoicism that assisted him whilst he was in our program, and his recovery.

‘Stoicism’ was a philosophy that flourished for around 400 years in Ancient Greece and Rome, gaining widespread support among all classes of society. Apparently it had one overwhelming and highly practical ambition: to teach people how to be calm and brave in the face of overwhelming anxiety and pain.

Many hundreds of philosophers practiced Stoicism but two figures stand out as our best guides to it: the Roman politician, writer and tutor to Nero, Seneca (AD 4-65); and the kind and magnanimous Roman Emperor (who philosophised in his spare time while fighting the Germanic hordes on the edges of the Empire), Marcus Aurelius (AD 121 to 180). Their works remain highly readable (not that I have read them) and deeply consoling – perhaps ideal for sleepless nights – when in those breeding grounds for runaway terrors and paranoia.

Life in the 21st century is, in some respects, little different from the lives these men lead in Ancient Rome. Our tablets might be a bit ‘smarter’ than the wax variety they wrote on. But human nature doesn’t appear to have changed greatly. We live in a society that – while in many respects is better than the Roman one – still has injustice, repression and exploitation. Our individual day-to-day lives incur irritations, disappointments, and having to deal with particular types of people who seem to have no clue or concerns about how they might affect others. We also continue to fall in and out of love, make or lose friends, and work with people who emotions may change at a moment’s notice, upsetting the always precarious balance of our lives.

There’s the opportunity that stoicism can help us with a number of particular everyday problems:

  1. At all times, so many terrible things might happen. The standard way for people to try and assist us when we’re wired in anxiety is to tell us that we will, after all, be OK: the embarrassing email might not be discovered, sales could yet take off, there might be no scandal… But the Stoics bitterly opposed such a strategy, because they believed that anxiety flourishes in the gap between what we fear might, and what we hope could, happen. The larger the gap, the greater will be the oscillations and disturbances of mood. To regain calm, what we can do is systematically and intelligently crush every last vestige of hope. Rather than appease ourselves with sunny tales, it is far better – the Stoics proposed – to courageously come to terms with the very worst possibilities – and then make ourselves entirely at home with them. When we look our fears in the face and imagine what life might be like if they came true, we stand to come to a crucial realisation: we will cope. We will cope even if we had to go to prison, even if we lost all our money, even if we were publicly shamed, even if our loved ones left us, and even if the growth turned out to be malignant. We generally don’t dare do more than glimpse the horrible eventualities through clenched eyelids, and therefore they maintain a constant sadistic grip on us. Instead, as Seneca put it: ‘To reduce your worry, you must assume that what you fear may happen is certainly going to happen.’ To a friend wracked with terror he might be sent to prison, Seneca replied bluntly: ‘Prison can always be endured by someone who has correctly understood existence.’ The Stoics even suggested we take time off to practice worst-case scenarios. We could, for example, mark out a week a year where we eat only stale bread and sleep on the kitchen floor with only one blanket, so we stop being so squeamish about being sacked or imprisoned. We will then realise, as Marcus Aurelius says, ‘that very little is needed to make a happy life.’
  2. Fury We get angry – commonly with our partners, our children, and politicians. We can smash things up and hurt others. The Stoics thought anger a dangerous indulgence, but most of all, a piece of stupidity, for in their analysis, angry outbursts are only ever caused by one thing: an incorrect picture of existence. Anger is, in the Stoic analysis, caused by the violent collision of hope and reality. We don’t shout every time something sad happens to us, only when it is sad and unexpected. To be calmer, we must, therefore, learn to expect far less from life. Of course our loved ones will disappoint us, naturally our colleagues will fail us, invariably our friends will lie to us… None of this should be a surprise. It may make us sad. The wise stoic aims to reach a state where simply nothing could suddenly disturb their peace of mind. Every tragedy should already be priced in. ‘What need is there to weep over parts of life?’ asked Seneca, ‘The whole of it calls for tears.’
  3. Us humans pretty naturally exaggerate our own importance. The incidents of our own lives loom very large in our view of the world. And so we get stressed and panicked, we curse and throw things across the room. To regain composure, we could regularly be reduced in our own eyes. We could give up on the very normal but very disturbing illusion that it really matters what we do and who we are. The Stoics were keen astronomers and recommended the contemplation of the heavens to all students of philosophy. On an evening walk we can look up and see the planets. Lots of them.It’s a hint of the unimaginable extensions of space across the solar system, the galaxy and the cosmos. The sight has a calming effect which the Stoics revered, for against such a backdrop, we realise that none of our troubles, disappointments or hopes have any relevance. Nothing that happens to us, or that we do, is – blessedly – of any consequence whatsoever from the cosmic perspective.
  4. To ease our general sense of panic, us humans love to predict and expect particular things are going to happen. For example, let’s say we’re in a long-term relationship, and we very much love our partner. We want, like most people, to be loved back and for the relationship to last forever and ever and ever. But these outcomes are not especially under our control because they depend on both external circumstances and the feelings of our partner. What is in our control, is to be a loving companion and work towards making the relationship the best we can. We may or may not fail, but success will at least be related to goals internal to us and entirely within our control. The philosopher (and former slave) Epictetus stated “Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and in a word, whatever is not our own doing”. It’s a similar sentiment to the modern Serenity Prayer commonly used in the 12-step fellowship for alcohol and other drug recovery.

Hopefully none of us will ever need to display the courage of sense of justice that characterised the lives of some of the Stoics in Ancient Rome, but maybe a little bit of stoicism would help make our own lives a bit easier. Maybe we would even have the opportunity to feel heroic and defiant in the face of life’s troubles.

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Problems with Happiness

I know I’m going to come over as the biggest party pooper, grouch or grinch in the history of the world here, but I’ve noticed that I’m really struggling with offering up a particular word to others. The word is happy.

I can never really sing “Happy Birthday” to anyone with any degree of conviction or enthusiasm (and it’s not entirely down to my self-consciousness of how tone deaf I am). When I send birthday cards these days, I’m struggling to write the words “happy birthday” in black and white. It seems too coercive to me. My attitude is OK, be happy if you like, but if you want to be unhappy that’s good too, you shouldn’t have to feel like you have to be happy. Surely like all our feelings, happiness ought to be voluntary and accidental and spontaneous and strictly optional?

I reckon the pursuit of happiness can get us into a bit of trouble.

Often when we try to articulate the purpose of our lives, it is to the word happiness we commonly have recourse. We tell ourselves and others that the ultimate rationale for our jobs, our relationships and the conduct of our day to day lives is the pursuit of happiness. What we wish for our loved ones, our children is “to be happy”. It sounds like an innocent enough idea, but excessive reliance on the term means that we are frequently unfairly tempted to exit or at least heavily question a great many testing but worthwhile situations.

The ’be happy’ approach that we have undertaken to life, is put forward as a choice we have, not a matter of luck or circumstance. Yet the word happiness, literally derives from the middle English word ‘hap’ meaning chance or good luck (thus ‘happenstance’ or ‘perhaps’). Some believe that it is generally impossible to experience happiness for more that fifteen minutes at a time. We’ve twisted the meaning in recent time such that it is now something we just need to work at. As though it is an endpoint that exists.

In the 1990s, a psychologist named Martin Seligman led the positive psychology movement, which placed the study of human happiness squarely at the centre of psychology research and theory. It continued a trend that began in the 1960s with humanistic and existential psychology, which emphasized the importance of reaching one’s innate potential and creating meaning in one’s life, respectively. Since then, thousands of studies and hundreds of books have been published with the goal of increasing well-being and helping people lead more satisfying lives.

It’s true that we now know a substantial amount about happiness, including who is happiest and where, social patterns in happiness according to your age and gender, and what drives individual and national levels of happiness, such as income, education, social relationships, good national governance, and health. Yet levels of global economic inequality and high rates of global depression and mental distress persist. In other words, while we know a lot more about happiness, happiness as a whole has not improved. Our self-reported measures of happiness have remained stagnant for over 40 years.

One reason may be – we still have the same brains. By way of illustration, consider the following examples.

We’ve all started a sentence with the phrase “Won’t it be great when…” (I go to uni, fall in love, have kids, etc.). Similarly, we often hear older people start sentences with this phrase “Wasn’t it great when…”

Think about how seldom you hear anyone say, “Isn’t this great, right now?”

Our past and future aren’t always better than the present. Yet we continue to think that this is the case. These are the bricks that wall off harsh reality from the part of our mind that thinks about past and future happiness.

There’s evidence for why our brains operate this way; most of us possess something called the optimistic bias, which is the tendency to think that our future will be better than our present. It helps to keep us alive!

Cognitive psychologists have also identified something called the Pollyanna Principle. It means that we process, rehearse and remember pleasant information from the past more than unpleasant information. (An exception to this occurs in individuals with depression who often fixate on past failures and disappointments.)

For most of us, however, the reason that the good old days seem so good is that we focus on the pleasant stuff and tend to forget the day-to-day unpleasantness.

These delusions about the past and the future could be an adaptive part of the human psyche, with innocent self-deceptions actually enabling us to keep striving. If our past is great and our future can be even better, then we can work our way out of the unpleasant – or at least, mundane – present.

All of this tells us something about the fleeting nature of happiness. Emotion researchers have long known about something called the hedonic treadmill. We work very hard to reach a goal, anticipating the happiness it will bring. Unfortunately, after a brief fix we quickly slide back to our baseline, ordinary way-of-being and start chasing the next thing we believe will almost certainly – and finally – make us happy.

Studies of lottery winners and other individuals at the top of their game – those who seem to have it all – regularly throw cold water on the dream that getting what we really want will change our lives and make us happier. These studies found that positive events like winning a million bucks and unfortunate events such as being paralyzed in an accident do not significantly affect an individual’s long-term level of happiness.

But this is how it should be, at least from an evolutionary perspective. Dissatisfaction with the present and dreams of the future are what keep us motivated, while warm fuzzy memories of the past reassure us that the feelings we seek can be had. In fact, perpetual bliss would completely undermine our will to accomplish anything at all; among our earliest ancestors, those who were perfectly content may have been left in the dust.

Vladimir: Say you are, even if it’s not true.
Estragon: What am I to say?
Vladimir: Say, I am happy.
Estragon: I am happy.Vladimir: So am I.
Estragon: So am I.
Vladimir: We are happy.
Estragon: We are happy. (Silence.) What do we do now, now that we are happy?
( Samueal Beckett 'Waiting for Godot')

The other problem with happiness is, it is an essentially selfish state of being. It’s all about feeling good within yourself. It’s an internal, physiological and emotional state. Which means, in effect, that it is devoid of any morality. Harvey Weinstein was just trying to be happy too. Pursuing his democratic rights.

Our pursuit of happiness is a very privileged pursuit. It is a philosophy likely to be more rewarding for those whose lives contain more privileged moments than grinding, humiliating or exhausting ones. And it makes our propensity for anxiety much worse. When the goal is to be happy the expectations are high, given the reality of what happiness is. We always feel like we are falling short. It’s true that the more relentlessly we value and pursue happiness, the more likely we are to feel depressed, anxious and lonely.

So, from now on I might refrain entirely from putting the ‘happy’ on the birthday cards because personally I’m a bit fed up with being ganged up upon, bullied, battered and bruised by the imperative of happiness. I’m going to acknowledge and appreciate the fifteen minutes when it arrives, but it is not going to be the ultimate goal.

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Getting comfortable with uncertainty

We have returned. Again. After an extended break.

I didn’t fall off the Internet. As it turns out I just had a pretty amazing year. 2018 ended up being one of the best yet, but making space for all the new things meant that we got a bit slack on the Hope Street Cards front. But we’re back.

As with all beginnings, it can be natural for us to reflect on what has been and what will be. In reflecting on my 2018, I think one of the reasons I had such a stellar year was because somehow I became okay with uncertainty.

Rationally, we all know that life is mysterious. Unpredictable. Uncertain. We have very little idea what is going to happen or what surprise might be in store for us. Other than death – and maybe taxes – there’s very little else we know. But still, we run ourselves ragged trying to obtain some form of certainty about the future.

Well at least I did. And I still do sometimes. But it’s possible that by coming to accept another certainty in life – that there is no certainty – I lived much more fully in 2018.

As a rule us humans prefer certainty to uncertainty. Studies have shown that people would rather definitely get an electric shock now than maybe be shocked later. And we show greater nervous-system activation when waiting for an unpredictable shock (or other unpleasant stimulus) than an expected one. Where people differ is in the degree to which uncertainty bothers them.

For those of us who are prone to experiencing anxiety we will find it difficult to sit with uncertainty. When we struggle to sit with the uncertainty of what might happen in the future, we often are not present in the moment. Instead our minds will be in the past or the future. Worrying. Planning. Obsessing. Predicting. Controlling.

If we are not able to sit with the uncertainty of what will happen in the future it means that we are usually not present in the moment, not connected to that solid sense of inner being. Rather we are in the past or the future, worrying about a perceived emotional or physical threat to ourselves.

In order to feel more secure, we might try to control life as much as we can, trying to fit the future to our expectations.

We might – quite naturally – fall prey to powerful fantasies about what might bring us calm and certainty. When we go on holiday there will be peace. We just need to hold on for a little while longer. Or once we get our house as we’d like it: with everything in its place, no more clutter, new appliances and more storage. Then we’ll feel better. Or maybe it will come when we get a better job, work for a bigger organisation, get paid more. Or (and this one we might keep a little more to ourselves), there might be calm, certainty and wellbeing when we find just the right person to fit into our life. Someone who properly understands us; is kind playful and sympathetic; is thoughtful and compassionate; and whose eyes we could stare into for days. Maybe then.

Yet despite the promises of these fantasies, none of them work. Because even when we are on holiday, or enjoying our well-ordered house, working in the job of a lifetime and staring into a loved one’s eyes, there will still be uncertainty about what happens next. Because of how clever our minds are, we will always be able to imagine so much more than what we already have or something that might be so much worse than what we already have.

One of the downsides of the mostly awesome phenomenon of human consciousness is the ability to worry about the future. We know it exists, but we don’t know what will happen to it. Charles Darwin observed that due to their inability to conceptualise the future, animals just don’t get overwhelmed with anxiety life we do. Sure they experience the fight or flight response to enable their survival, but the trigger is plain and simple fear in that moment. The fear is largely proportionate to the tangible threat involved. Human anxiety, on the other hand, stems from an existential awareness of what the fear means – that the future is unknown. And no holiday, new house or job, or other person can take this away.

So, how did I come to terms with all this over the past year? I pursued a lot of things that I had fantasised about doing in the past, but I didn’t pursue them with the underlying goal of creating calm and certainty. Instead I submitted to straight-out surrender and acceptance. A surrender to the present moment as it is. And an acceptance that struggling to sit with uncertainty is a beautiful sign that I am alive and the future will come.

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Our misjudgments

Did you know that when we interact with a new person it takes just one-tenth of a second for us to judge them and make a first impression? That’s pretty bloody quick.

Our judgments of others are coloured by our own past experiences, projections and expectations. In essence, we impose the blueprints of our past relationship experiences on the new person. All in a nanosecond. Which doesn’t seem particularly fair. And potentially leads us in to a hole of misjudgements.

Luckily for us, if we increase our awareness around our judgments we can avoid the largest of these errors.

  1. The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
This idea refers to a false belief about a situation that evokes a particular behaviour that in turn makes the false belief become true.
Let’s say we have to give a presentation at work and we are pretty confident that the speech will go terribly. It then comes as no surprise when we stutter, mumble and frequently forget the next point when we’re speaking. Our learned self-doubt becomes self-fulfilling. That is, by expecting to fail, we make failure a certainty by not really trying.
We might ride this off as evidence of how well we know our self and our abilities (or lack thereof), the effect of our expectations has a big effect on our behaviour. When our beliefs and expectations influence our behaviour at the subconscious level, we are not quite profound psychics, just enacting the self-fulfilling prophecy.
  1. Transference
Is it that big a surprise that we find ourselves attracted to the same type of person. Not really when we consider the issue of transference.
The resemblance of new people to the significant others in our lives, colours our judgment significantly of the new person. Transference refers to the re-surfacing of past relationships with the new people we meet. The resemblance serves as a trigger for transference. Significant others can include a parent, a best friend, sibling or a romantic partner. Because of the significance of these relationships, these individuals deeply influence the way we interpret and emotionally respond in many, if not all, the new interpersonal interactions we have in daily life.
So when we go on a date with someone who might resemble parts of an ex-partner, the feelings and goals associated with the past relationships tend to be re-experienced. The interpersonal cues – maybe the way he or she listens, their gestures or their attitudes - remind us of the former romantic partner. And we then tend to evaluate the new person as if they are the ex. Obvs this can result in quite inappropriately, superimposing flawed responses learned in the previous relationship onto the new one.
  1. Expectations
We might turn down an idea that is presented to us by a University student, but then blindly follow the same advice of someone who is more highly regarded. I used to have a thing with men in suits. Until it was brought to my attention, I used to put blind faith into the words of men who wore suits.
Our expectations influence our views of subsequent events. Research shows us that if we tell people up front that they will find something appalling, it is highly likely that they will end up agreeing with us – not because their experience tells them this, but their expectations do.
Using brain scanners to monitor the minds of wine drinkers, researchers have found that people given two identical red wines got more pleasure from tasting the one they were told costs more. The brain relies on certain beliefs – such as the notion that expensive wines taste better – which quite literally flavours the experience.
When we look into those who experience drug and alcohol use disorders, expectations can play a large role. Individuals formulate beliefs about the emotional consequences of using a substance (e.g., feeling relaxed after drinking a beer). Those of us who expect alcohol to help relieve tensions are more likely to turn to alcohol when stressed. These expectancies can be acquired through social learning and media messages, but then are shaped by our repeated experiences of positive and negative reinforcement with a substance.
In short, what we expect to happen tends to strongly influence what actually happens. When we believe in advance that something will be good, therefore, it generally will be good, and vice versa. This is not to suggest that feeling (sensation) plays no role in experience. It is rather that feeling is always coloured by our beliefs.

In the end, it’s human nature. We make people what we want them to be or to live up to based on our own experiences. And sometimes we might be wrong. But we can take all new meetings as new learning experiences. Who knows what we might find out?

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The 'here and now'

A lot of us can experience a pretty particular problem: the inability to actually inhabit the stretch of time we call ‘the present’. Life unfolds in the present, yet often this is not where we are.

Perhaps we are at the beach on a lovely sunny day. The birds are singing. The sand is warm. The water is piercingly blue. But most of our being isn’t actually here at all. We might be at work or having an imaginary discussion with a rival or plotting a new enterprise.

Or maybe we’re at the birthday of a young child. It’s significant for her and we love her dearly. Our body is present and looks to be rooted in the now, but our mind is skipping to points in both the future and the past. What is it about the present moment – the only moment we ever have – that it makes it so difficult to experience properly?

When we are born, we are only connected to the present moment. Fully and wholly connected. At our young ages, we know who we are and where we are and we respond to what is happening in the present moment. As babies we are either spontaneously joyful or surprisingly upset, dependent entirely upon what is happening right now.

But then we grow up. And our minds become more cavernous and chaotic places. Our minds begin to let the present slip away, allowing time to rush past unobserved and unseized, and squandering the precious seconds of our lives as we worry about the future and ruminate about what’s past. When we’re at work, we fantasize about being on holiday; on holiday, we worry about the work that’s piling up on our desks. We dwell on intrusive memories of the past or fret about what may or may not happen in the future. We struggle to appreciate the living present because our complex minds, vault from thought to thought like monkeys swinging from tree to tree.

One of the benefits of the past is that it is a dramatically foreshortened and edited version of the present. Even our really good days will contain a range of dull and uncomfortable moments. But in our memory, like skilled editors, we focus in on the most consequential moments, constructing sequences that feel more meaningful and interesting.

We all experience pain in our lives. It might be the friendship with someone we still long for, the annoying jackhammer snarling across the street, or the sudden anxiety and panic when we have to get up and give a speech. The mind’s natural tendency when faced with pain is to attempt to avoid it – by trying to resist unpleasant thoughts, feelings and sensations. When we lose someone, we fight our feelings of grief and heartache. As we age, we work feverishly to recapture our youth. When we’re in the dentist’s chair, we wish to be anywhere but there. But in most of these cases, unpleasant feelings and situations can’t be avoided forever, and resisting them only magnifies the pain.

For a lot of us the biggest ruiner of the present is sheer anxiety. The present can always contain an enormous number of possibilities, but our mind can make them particularly catastrophic and our mind can keep us aware of these in the background. Anything could theoretically happen – an earthquake, a brain aneurysm, a rejection from a lover – which can give rise to the non-specific anxiety that follows us around in all our present moments; the simple dread at the unknownness of what is to come.

Most of us don’t undertake these complex thoughts in our awareness. Rather we can let our thoughts control us. And these thoughts aren’t engaged in the present moment. Yet still we respond to them regardless. In essence, we act on thoughts that aren’t even related to what might be going on around us.

For so many of us the stuff that courses through our mind has very little to do with what’s going on right in front of our eyes. Luckily though it doesn’t take much to bring us back to what’s actually happening in our immediate experience. We can do it right now – what is happening in this instant? Think of yourself as an eternal witness and just observe. What do you hear, see, smell? It doesn’t matter how it feels – pleasant or unpleasant, good or bad – we can just roll with what is present. Because really it’s all we have.

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When should we talk?

Over the past couple of months it feels as if I’ve been doing a lot of self-disclosure. That is, I’ve been sharing more and more of my mental health history secrets with those around me. And it’s a bit scary.

But it’s made me ponder - when is the right time to share your mental health history with a new partner, a workplace, and new friends?

Self-disclosure is a process of communication by which one person reveals information about himself or herself to another. The information can be descriptive or evaluative, and can include thoughts, feelings, aspirations, goals, failures, successes, fears, and dreams, as well as one's likes, dislikes, and favourites.

In any new relationship – romantic, collegial, friendship - figuring out the right amount to self-disclose can feel like walking near a dangerous precipice: Show our feelings too soon, and we run the risk of seeming inappropriate. Wait too long, though, and we could be perceived as distant, remote, and standoffish.

When it comes to self-disclosure, the Goldilocks principle seems to apply—but it’s hard to know what the “just right” amount might be. We need to figure out how to strike that perfect balance between sharing too much and too little, according to the stage of a relationship. Complicating matters, if we’re typically an over-sharer, we tend to show our true feelings well before we know how the other person feels. On the other hand, like me, if we tend to run toward the introverted side, we might never feel like it’s the right time to let your guard down.

The study of self-disclosure has a long history in psychology. Carl Rogers, founder of client-centred therapy (and Sam’s psychological hero) believed that the majority of people with psychological difficulties were afraid to let their feelings show. According to Rogers, we feel anxious because, growing up, parents, teachers, or other adults made us feel not okay in some way—and that anxiety has translated into an unwillingness to let others know our true self. To counteract these tendencies, Rogers encouraged therapists to use a heavy dose of self-disclosure. The self-disclosing therapist would reveal the kinds of anxieties and insecurities about which clients themselves felt ashamed, and clients would feel that it was okay to show their own feelings.

Self-disclosure is also integral to the study of intimacy. In a truly intimate relationship, partners feel that they can reveal everything because they believe they can trust each other with their innermost secrets. However, reaching that point doesn’t happen suddenly. As a couple’s bonds deepen, they are continually testing how much, and in what areas, they can self-disclose. It’s okay to tell even an acquaintance that you really dislike kale, no matter how hard you try to make it into ‘chips’ amd incorporate it into our diet. It’d be less likely to tell someone we barely know that when we suffer from episodes of depression, we can binge watch episodes of 90210 for weeks on end.

In a 2013 study, Susan Sprecher of Illinois State University and colleagues examined self-disclosure reciprocity among strangers to see how the mutual sharing of personal information influenced the degree to which they liked each other. The scenario was similar to the real-world situation of meeting someone for the first time and hoping to make a positive impression. In other words, the type of self-disclosure that influences your success on a first date or job interview.

Once a conversation gets going, people tend to reciprocate the extent to which they self-disclose. When someone shares personal information with us, it’s likely that we’ll respond in kind with a similar degree of candour. Sprecher and her team wondered if people like each other better or not after engaging in reciprocal self-disclosure. After all, we might find ourself sharing some very personal details with a seatmate on a train ride who is similarly self-disclosing. However, do we end up actually liking that person better than we would if you simply exchanged pleasantries (or complaints) about the commute?

One theory of self-disclosure proposes that you tend to reciprocate because you assume that someone who discloses to you likes and trusts you. The more you self-disclose in turn, the more the partner likes and trusts you, and then self-discloses even more. This is the social attraction-trust hypothesis of self-disclosure reciprocity. The second hypothesis is based on social exchange theory, and proposes that we reciprocate self-disclosure in order to keep a balance in the relationship: You disclose, therefore I disclose.

When we decide to tell someone about a mental illness we have the opportunity to self-disclose on our own terms and in a calm, collected frame of mind. Self-disclosure of this type is vulnerability. And being vulnerable can be scary. But when we take that leap of faith, it gives the other person license to do the same. As expected, I’ve found that vulnerability becomes a strength when it comes to relationship building. We get to acknowledge that we’re all human. Perfectly flawed in some way.

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Be gone 'Commitment-Phobe'

I have been making – what feels like – an onslaught of decisions lately which have really questioned a held assumption about myself. That I am a ‘commitment-phobe’.

I’m not talking about commitment to a career or a relationships or which NRL team to support. My phobia of commitment is around decisions. I am scared of making the wrong decision, and I’m particularly terrified if that decision is one I’m going to have to live with for a while.

Commitment – to a job, a relationship or a decision – is a scary term for many of us. And it’s pretty easy to understand why. When we look around our fear of commitment is repeatedly reinforced by our surroundings. Tinder and the Bachie call the century-old practice of courtship taboo, and instead we’re encouraged to engage in one-night stands and the pursuit of a ‘no strings attached’ relationship. We’re informed that we’re of the age where we experience multiple career changes over our lifetime, so there’s no need to be too precious about the career we’re in now.

The problem with all of this though, is that when it comes time to make a long-term decision – which happens – how do we follow through?

My reduced capacity to make long-term decisions comes from a few places.

I am – we all are - a creature of habit, and in today’s world we can crave what we can’t have or we can create a checklist inspired by a combination of the media and the general public depicting what is “perfect” or “better” then. How often do we see people seeking out a relationship with the “perfect” person? We can easily forget that Love Actually was only a movie.

But it’s not just about having unrealistic expectations. Like many others, I fear the vulnerability of getting it wrong.  

As humans we are a proud species, and we continuously strive for meaning and purpose for our own lives in a big way. We as human beings can have a tendency to be selfish, entitled, and fall into pride — which isn’t always bad, but too much of it, will leave us falling back into the life we might be trying to get away from.

But here’s the thing about being afraid to be wrong — how else will we ever be right? Scientists are wrong hundreds of times before they get something right, so why can’t we be? We’ll never stop learning, thus we can only grow by letting ourselves be vulnerable from time to time and picking our battles. Of course we should be careful, but we should still take risks and allow ourselves to be vulnerable.

Because we actually choose the lives we lead and we choose what happens to us. We have this incredible power to choose in our life, and where I am today is the result of all the many decisions I made long ago.

We have the power to choose the lives we lead and what happens to us. We choose:

  • Our jobs
  • Our mates
  • Where we live
  • Our friends
  • What we do with our free time
  • The number of children we have
  • How hard we work
  • How healthy we are
  • How we dress
  • What we eat

The number of things that in my daily life I choose is actually quite phenomenal (particularly if you knew how big my wardrobe is). We choose our lives and what happens to us and shape our own destinies. Some of us might be more interested in blaming outside events and circumstances for what happens to us in our lives. The truth is that often what happens to us is almost completely the result of all the decisions we make. We are in charge of our own lives and our decisions shape our entire existence.

Many of us can be tormented by their inability to make a decision and commit. Neighbours is a very good example of this. Lives are wrecked over and over again by the inability to commit. No one ever knows who they want to be with in Neighbours, and relationships are very rarely characterized by commitment. Everyone is always crying, and entire stories are pretty tragic and insane. One of the reasons these stories are so good to watch is because the characters in them simply can never commit. They make decisions but struggle with the commitment.

If we’re going to be feel any source of contentment, I reckon we need to be a bit committed to our decisions. We could spend eternity going back and forth in:

  • Our choice of a mate
  • Our choice of a job
  • Our choice of a profession
  • Our commitment to your job
  • Our commitment to your mate
  • Our commitment to an education
  • Our commitment to being better at what you do

But when we don’t commit to a decision about what we want to do, we’ll find ourselves in a state of perpetual confusing – trust me, I lived here for ages. But if we commit to all the decisions we make however, we will never have clarity. This is how most people live their lives. Making a decision and committing to it gives you clarity. And clarity can give us power.

So on analysis, I’m giving up my identity as a ‘commitment-phobe’. And I think it’s going to be okay.

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Living Unbalanced

We are back!

You may or may not have noticed that there has been some radio silence from our end. Apologies, if you did. It was by no means intentional. It just sort of happened. And then kept happening.

And because I’m a person who reflects, I’m going to try and reflect on what happened.

In a nutshell, things got out of whack.

When it comes to life, I enjoy things being ordered. And routine. And compartmentalised into boxes. I wash my sheets on Saturday. Weekends are for friends. Weekdays are for family. And work happens in between. I’m not alone  in this enjoyment. Many of us create order and routine because it creates safety. We often think it will help us to create certainty in an uncertain world.

I also liked sticking to a routine, because I thought it might provide me with balance.

Balance. I think this is a bit of a dirty word. We can be driven by our desire to attain it. We might believe that when our time is divided equally between ‘work’ and ‘life’, balance will magically occur. And then when this expectation isn’t met with joy and happiness and success, we’re bound to be disappointed.

And conversely we add additional pressures to ourselves. When we all strive for balance, we’re continually judging our progress on this. If it doesn’t feel good then I must be getting it wrong. And if I’m doing something wrong, I’m not alright.

And it’s not a correct algorithm to have work-life balance. The two things aren’t comparable. Yes, working full-time takes up a lot of hours in my week, but that life thing is maybe even huger. Because ‘life’ has all these different categories: family, partner, friends, friends’ children, community, exercise, nutrition, cross-stitch, side-project small-business, personal development, travel, binge watch high school dramas on Netflix etc. Even if work and life were balanced, would it be fair? Not when we consider all the important things that make up ‘life’.

The myth of having balance in life also makes everything seem it is of importance.This is another lie. Everything is not important. In fact, most of the time, we spend the majority of our time focusing on one thing. Everything else gets less attention. As a general principle: no entity can be optimally efficient at more than one thing. A robot that has to both climb stairs and make pancakes will be far less efficient than two distinct machines each of which can focus exclusively on one task. The more limited the goals, the higher one’s chance of efficiency. A multipurpose machine – human or corporate – is always going to be less efficient than one which is dedicated to a single purpose.

And our priorities and purposes are continually changing. My priorities – because of the very uncertainty of life – changed big time over the past few months. And as a result my routine and my strive for the idealised ‘balanced’ life came to a halt. But in reality, most of our lives are usually ‘unbalanced’ in some way. We will continually feel that we ‘should’ spend more time on family/friends/cross-stitch.

And I’m okay now with living an ‘unbalanced’ life. Because I reckon some of the best and worst and most important parts of my life are going to be when I feel like I’m out of balance. Think about it – could we really move homes or take on a challenging new role at work or develop a new relationship or address a mental health issue or have children - living a ‘balanced’ life? It actually wouldn’t be worthwhile or efficient or much fun at all.

I’m starting to come to terms with the idea that ‘balance’ is a myth. I don’t have to feel compelled to do everything. And I don’t have to feel guilty about all the things I’m not doing. I can give up on the ideal of balance, because it’s impossible to achieve and sustain.

Instead, I can commit to what I’m doing at the time. I can commit to life, in all its unbalanced glory.

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Crossing our own lines

It seems like I’ve been watching a lot of television of late where the centre of the drama revolves around some poor boundaries. To the point, that my TV-viewing mates and I have taken out screaming ‘Boundaries!’ at the box, whenever an unhealthy line has been crossed.

In general, poor boundaries can make for excellent television drama. However off the television, poor boundaries usually makes for an unhappy human. I’m speaking from experience.

The Oxford dictionary defines a boundary as “a line that marks a limit.” Countries, states and cities all have boundaries. We can think about them as a property line. When we see a ‘No Trespassing’ sign on a property, it’s a pretty strong message that if that boundary is violated, there will be some form of consequence.

As people we need boundaries too. Boundaries help to define who we are. They separate out what we think and feel from the thoughts and feelings of others. They are the limits that we create to identify reasonable, safe and acceptable ways for others to behave towards us. They define where we end and where others begin and are determined by the amount of physical and emotional space we allow between our self and others. Setting boundaries is essential if we want to be both physically and emotionally healthy.

Personal boundaries might be a bit harder to define than a property line. There’s no sign or distinguishable border. The lines are more invisible. They can change. And they are unique to each of us.

Boundaries are first developed in childhood and we develop healthy boundaries by being taught that all people have equal rights and can expect their relationships to be respectful and reciprocal, with a healthy level of give and take. When we have healthy boundaries, we are confident expressing our emotions and needs and are not threatened by other people expressing theirs.

When we fail to set boundaries, and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. – Brene Brown

There are different types of personal boundaries, but the psychological ones are what we use most in relationships. They generally come in three types: rigid, porous, or healthy. The appropriateness of our boundaries depends heavily on the setting. What is appropriate when we are out with friends may not be appropriate when we’re at work. Cultures also have different expectations of boundaries. For example, some cultures do not express emotions publicly while others cultures do.

Rigid Boundaries:  When we have rigid boundaries we run the risk of experiencing emotional distance in relationships. Often in response to childhood abuse, loss or neglect, people with rigid boundaries build emotional brick walls which block close connection with others. If this is us, we might find it easier to isolate our self than to form intimate and trusting relationships with others, in which each person shares their vulnerabilities. We may be fiercely independent in our relationships, preferring to control situations and keep people at arm’s length. We may avoid ever depending on others and even a friendly, kind gesture may be interpreted as intrusive. Rigid boundaries may be associated with the following tendencies:

  • Isolating our self
  • Limiting social interaction
  • Avoiding emotional intimacy
  • Stonewalling others with silence
  • Dismissing other people’s feelings
  • Pushing people away with criticism
  • Seeing other people as emotionally needy
  • Putting other people off with walls of anger
  • Focusing on work, hobbies, interests etc. to the point of excluding connection with others

Porous Boundaries: On the opposite end of the spectrum to rigid boundaries, non-existent types are equally as harmful to us. There is no filter of what comes in and what goes out. Therefore, the imaginary line is completely absent. Without a filter, we might offer too much personal information about our self; which can lead to others taking advantage of us.

Growing up, we may have received messages that it was selfish to express your emotions or rude to say no, which may have resulted in us having difficulty communicating your needs and setting clear boundaries with others later in life.  We may have developed habits of being extremely accommodating of other people’s emotional needs, at the expense of our own and we may now experience some of the following tendencies:

  • Bottling up our emotions
  • Absorbing other people’s pain
  • Needing to be liked all the time
  • Often feeling used and taken advantage of
  • Feeling as though you are always in the wrong
  • Giving in and agreeing whether you want to or not
  • Taking on responsibility for other people’s problems
  • Believing that it is rude or selfish to say what you want
  • Feeling as though you are never good enough as you are

Healthy Boundaries: Building healthy boundaries is tough stuff. Trust me on this. It requires a commitment to building greater self-awareness, as we need to be able to connect with how we are feeling in order to recognise when interactions are blurring or crossing our boundaries. Knowing what we can tolerate and acknowledging what makes us feel stressed and pressured can help us get to know our limits. Healthy boundaries give us the freedom to define who you are, be clear about your limits and ultimately develop positive and fulfilling relationships with others.

Boundaries mark the most beautiful places, between the ocean and the shore, between the mountains and the plains, where the canyon meets the river. -  W. Paul Young

Healthy boundaries honour our right:

  • To be our self
  • To ask for help
  • To have privacy
  • To not be abused
  • To make mistakes
  • To change our mind
  • To trust our instincts
  • To take care of our self
  • To express our opinions
  • To be treated with respect
  • To have power over our life
  • To comfortably say “yes” and “no”

The healthiest kinds of relationships are those in which people recognise their differences and respect each other’s limits. If two people have worked hard on their individual development and boundaries before forming a relationship, they are streets ahead of those who expect to “never have a cross word.” True intimacy takes lots of time, arguments, communication, mistakes, acceptance, forgiveness and support.

Unfortunately, we aren’t born with instruction manuals or have a go to book we can open, when we hit technical difficulties. For many of us, our personal boundaries are continually learned and developed as we discover that we really need them. Healthy ones can be pretty tricky to master, especially if you’ve never been taught.

But once we develop healthy boundaries, life (and television) can become a lot less dramatic a place.

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