Thoughts / hope street cards

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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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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Let's Play!

One of the best parts about having so many littler people in my life is that my opportunities for play dates have increased one billion fold. Suddenly there is time for trampoline and legos and bubbles and chalk on pavement and cubby house and imaginary picnics and hide and seek. And OMG it is fun.

Play – for all of us - is actually pretty serious business. This might sound paradoxical. Because it is. Play is something that comes so naturally to us large-brained mammals (and birds, according to some authorities) and is so much fun, but it is also so vital. Play is a banquet for the brain, a smorgasbord for the senses, providing nourishment for our body and our spirit. It’s a bit sad then that it took all of my friends to procreate before I realised that so much of it was missing from my life.

Some biologists and theorists define play as any activity that is neither ‘serious’ nor ‘work’. Active play, says Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist and founder of the National Institute for Play in California, is a timeless state of being essential to humans. It is also a state of mind, an attitude of curiosity and wonder. And neuroscience, Brown argues, is beginning to show how true that is. Play, he says, is what builds complex, skilled, responsive, socially adept and flexible brains, which in turn build complex, skilled, responsive, socially adept and flexible people and societies. Lizards, turtles, rats, birds, primates, most mammals, and even some fish play in their youth, but few animals continue to play into adulthood. As humans though, we can.

As children, play is how we begin to understand ourselves, and how the world works, without risk. From an evolutionary perspective, play primarily evolved to teach us skills as young people: to build cooperation and sharing, to assist us with survival.

In the 1960s, Brown identified play’s importance through the study of 26 young (male) murderers, beginning with Charles Whitman. In August 1966, Whitman, a 25-year-old architectural engineering student at the University of Texas at Austin, killed his wife and mother, then mounted the campus tower, shooting dead a total of 17 people and wounding more than 30 before being gunned down himself.

Brown and his colleagues expected to find a history of physical abuse in Whitman’s and the other murderers’ pasts, which they did: but they also discovered that “play deprivation and other major play abnormalities” were present in most cases. For example, Whitman’s playfulness was systematically beaten out of him (literally and figuratively) by his overbearing father. Neighbours testified that he was not allowed to play with other children. A Texas state committee, convened to investigate the university shootings, concluded that lack of play was a key factor in Whitman’s killing spree: if he had been allowed to play, it theorised, he would have been better able to cope with life’s vicissitudes without recourse to violence. (Others have hypothesised, however that Whitman’s glioblastoma, a type of brain tumour, helps to explain his actions.)

Brown went on to catalogue the detailed play histories of more than 6,000 people over the course of his career. He writes: “What all these studies repeatedly revealed…was that…normal play behaviour was virtually absent throughout the lives of highly violent, antisocial men, regardless of demography.” It seems that Jack Torrance’s threatening repetition of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” in The Shining has more than pop resonance.

Brown’s work reveals that severely play-deprived children manifest multiple psychopathologies: conversely, the histories of successful, creative people show social play’s vital part in healthy development. It seems that emotional control, social competency, personal resiliency and curiosity accrue through developmentally appropriate play experiences. Other studies, such as the work of Swiss researchers Marco Hüttenmoser and Dorothee Degen-Zimmermann, have also found that play-deprived children manifest responses on a scale ranging from unhappiness to aggression.

Why is play deprivation so damaging? John Byers, professor of zoology at the University of Idaho, says that among “mammals with well-developed play, the behaviour represents a substantial energy expenditure and may involve physical risk. These two facts indicate that play most likely is involved in post-natal brain development (in mammals, a larger adult brain size requires a longer period of development), and the benefit of play must be substantial (to outweigh the energy and risk costs).”

Byers’ research over the past 40 years has also shown that in a number of mammals, “the ages at which play reaches a peak rate coincide with the ages during which there is performance-based selective elimination of synapses in the cerebellum, the part of the brain that permits sophisticated movement.” A theory postulated as play as a form of brain “hygiene?”

That same brain hygiene exists for us as adults.

As adults, play creates rich, new neural connections that fire together in new ways. In animal studies, life without play is bleak. Scientists have found that, deprived of play, young rats’ brains develop abnormally, just like rats with a damaged prefrontal cortex. And that, when presented with a cat odour, only rats who’d played eventually came out of hiding and began poking around, testing the environment.

Playful adults have the ability to transform everyday situations, even stressful ones, into something entertaining. Studies have found that highly playful young adults — those who rated themselves high on personality characteristics such as being spontaneous or energetic, or open to ‘clowning around’ — reported less stress in their lives and possessed better coping skills. It’s possible that those of us that have these attributes because they are better able to keep stress in perspective.

There’s a reason that adult play exists in modern society. One theory is that we play because it’s therapeutic — and there’s research to back that up. At work, play has been found to speed up learning, enhance productivity and increase job satisfaction; and at home, playing together, like going to a movie or a concert, can enhance bonding and communication.

In today’s world, work seems to give us our sense of identity and purpose. Being busy has become a way of showing high status. Leisure time - what the ancient Greek philosophers held as the aim of ‘the good life’ -  is seen as silly, unproductive and useless, as are other unproductive states, like sleep.

But if the younger people in my world are teaching me anything, it’s that we need to be able to justify our play time again. Play is reminding me about my better self and just how happy I can be. When I get to play, there’s a wonderful lightness to my being. It’s blowing my mind.

Happy playing.


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Being risky

I’m not a big risk taker in general. I’m not a huge fan of thrill seeking. I don’t really like any type of activity where I have to take my glasses off for too long a period of time. Huge adventures are not really my forte either. I’m more into being fully prepared and organised before committing to anything. Overall, I like things to be safe, controlled and comfortable in the warm, little bubble I’ve created for myself.

But lately it feels like I’ve been taking a lot of risks. Like every day. Over and over. In all sorts of ways – creatively, professionally, emotionally, financially. And whilst I did manage to go on a motorbike ride, my glasses have remained firmly planted on my face. It all still feels a bit risky though.

Why? Because I’m putting myself out there.

Let’s think about emotional risks. Emotional risk taking is expressing our deepest needs, fears and desires and exposing our delicate, vulnerable self without knowing if the person we are opening up to will be able to meet and fulfil our needs. If we don't allow ourselves the opportunity to be open with others then we never have the chance of actually having our needs met. If others don't know what we need how can there be a strong possibility that our needs will be fulfilled? It is only by taking a risk to reveal our self and our needs when there are no guarantees and there is a chance of rejection or disappointment.

Taking a risk and revealing our authentic self can be overwhelming. Because being vulnerable raises our anxiety. This fear, which is in all of us, is deep and remote. It might be evoking our earliest experiences. The dread could be reminding us of our most harrowing questions from childhood: Will I be cared for? If I work and work and work at it, will I be embraced or rejected? If we put ourselves out there in some meaningful way, we are likely to experience some form of this anxiety. But it means we’re probably doing something right.

As I’ve banged on about time and time again, vulnerability is defined as the courage to show up and be seen and heard when we can’t control the outcome. It’s what happens when we put ourselves out there when there’s a chance it could all go to shit.

It’s an uncomfortable position. It’s filled with uncertainty and risk and emotional exposure. Because of this, we’re hard-wired to try and avoid the feelings of fear and anxiety that it produces.

But anything that requires a little bit of courage – going on a motorbike ride, saying ‘no’ to something at work when you normally always say ‘yes’, opening yourself up to someone, starting a new project, getting yourself a mortgage, accepting the generosity of others, asking for forgiveness, (I am really busy right now!) – involve copious amounts of vulnerability. 

And vulnerability presents a dilemma. We have a goal and we need to take a risk to reach for it.

But it might be worth remembering where the risk is. The real risk is not in exposure, but in withdrawal. By pulling away from the world either by refusing to put our work or our creativity or our voice or our emotions on the line again we guarantee failure. We deny our self the opportunity to forge the connections that make life worth living.  Exposing our self and showing up is the only way we can develop emotionally, professionally, creatively and personally. We can slice it and dice it a million different ways, but growth, real growth, lasting and meaningful growth, comes from one thing and one thing only: Risk. If we can keep at it, if we can push through the fear and self-doubt to let others see us as we are, our self and our message will be received.  It may not happen exactly as we envision, but it will happen.

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I feel ...

To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of dishing out ‘skills’ and ‘tips’ for relationships. I’m definitely not a relationship expert. And there are an infinite number of communication skills I could endeavour to develop. But mostly I reckon that we all have within us the ‘skills’ we need to communicate effectively; most of us do it fine in the majority of our relationships. But once our relationships become a bit more significant to us, or maybe somewhat more intimate, we seem to start getting it a bit wrong.

Probably because the stakes are a bit higher. We might start protecting ourselves a bit more. Or our partners. Or our children. And the messages we try and send get less clearer. More muddier.

Let’s pretend we’re meeting our sister for a dinner party. She’s late. Once again, she’s neglected to send us a text to keep us updated. When she finally manages to arrive, we end up erupting: “You’re always late. You never text me to let me know!” These could be pretty true statements. But there also could be better ways to get our frustration across.

In my work we like to use the “I feel” statements. And we use them a lot. We ask our clients to use them. As colleagues we use them with each other. And the other night I found myself banging on to a friend about how to use them as well. So much for not dishing out the skills.

At first when I encountered the plethora of “I Statements” coming from my smart, informed, and sensitive clients and colleagues, I was a bit perturbed. I began to argue against them. I’d whinge about the processing of our feelings and behaviours would get in the way of our actual work-related output. But once I got used to it, I started to learn so much more. About communicating. About relationships. But mostly about myself. There is a kernel of something true and important in the idea of an “I statement” that in my opinion, is worth taking a pause to consider what’s actually going on.

As a rough guide, expressing our feelings and needs through an “I statement” can work a bit like this:

  1. Making a non-evaluative observation.

For example., ‘When you don’t show up on time …’

  1. Identifying how you feel in response to the observation.

For example., ‘When you don’t show up on time, I felt hurt.’

  1. Linking your feelings to your thoughts or needs.

For example., 'When you don’t show up on time, I felt hurt, because it makes me feel as if you don’t care about our arrangements.'

  1. Making a request.

For example., ‘When you don’t show up on time, I felt hurt, because it makes me feel as if you don’t care about our arrangements. Would you be able to send a text next time if the arrangements need to change to let me know? What’s it like for you, hearing me say this?’

An “I” statement is helpful in a few different ways. For both the listener and the speaker. Using the “I” means that we take full responsibility for our thoughts, feelings and/or actions. Instead of blaming the other person, we can (hopefully) clearly emphasise our thoughts and feelings to the listener.

In general, people tend to be more receptive to hearing about how we feel, rather than taking on blame or criticism for something that they allegedly did – which is often how a “you” statement can come across. A “you” statement can trigger the fight or flight response in a person, whereas an “I” statement can keep the other person feeling safe. Our most productive conversations are going to happen when both people are calm and their thoughts are in their rational, pre-frontal cortex part of the brain. If we are able to actually listen, process and internalise feedback, rather than getting caught up and feeling defensive, that’s when the magic happens. The magic of intimate relationships.

What does all of this do? Yes, it does tend to reduce the sense of accusation, and therefore the possibility of a defensive response. But more importantly it forces us to really think about what it’s like for us. What is this moment of pain or distress that we are in and trying to communicate. And then it forces us to try and let our significant person into that space and what it’s like for us.

Isn’t this the very essence of empathy? The ability to put one’s self in the shoes of another, to place our self into the experience of someone else? When I think about what something is really like for ME, I can touch the depth of feeling at the heart of that experience. And when I share that with someone close to me, I engender a sense of empathy in him/her. And now we are connecting.

The “I statement” isn’t so much about the “I” and where it is, but more about sharing our experiences with those important to us. If we want to have close relationships with people around us, we can choose to speak in depth about your own perceptions, intentions, and feelings. We can define our relationships by speaking to what they are like for us.  

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Are male and female friendships really that different?

Remember that book "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus"? It felt like it was everywhere. And it kind of was.

The book was on The New York Times bestseller list for more than two years. And while it's viewed with a sceptical eye by many experts who say the book reinforces gender stereotypes, the whole idea that men and women are inherently can resonate with many of us.

All too often, we might magnify the importance of sex differences.  For example, research on men and women leaders reveal more similarities than differences.  The same thing goes for male and female friendships. We’re all humans and we all have a need for friendship.

Having said that though, there are some overall gender differences that seem to influence the way we form and sustain our friendships.

Firstly, male friendships are more “instrumental” and less “emotional.”  Men are less likely than women to share their emotions and feelings (no surprise, huh?).  But men’s friendships are more “transactional”—involving shared activities (e.g., golf or playing poker), or working together on projects.  One UK study found that working class men tend to focus on material goods and services (such as fixing each other’s cars, or exchanging tools), while upper and middle-class men tend to share leisure activities, such as attending sporting events, travel, or entertainment.

The stereotype of men bonding by watching the State of Origin on the couch drinking a beer is rooted in some truth. When comparing friendship intimacy levels in men and women, a UCLA study found "men were more likely to prefer doing some activity with friends, were more likely to engage in activities with their best friend and were more likely to talk to their best friend about activities. Women's friendships appeared oriented toward personal sharing of information; men's friendships showed an emphasis on joint activities."

Female friendships, by contrast are more emotionally intimate, and bonding time is more face-to-face. In one study, researchers found that women prefer to foster friendships one-on-one through conversation, which creates a lot of opportunity to get close. All that talking about thoughts, feelings, and other mushy stuff really builds up intimacy.

Secondly, men don’t appear to do as much relationship ‘maintenance.’  While women tend to meet, call, or text their friends regularly, men don’t feel as much need to stay in touch with their male friends. I used to be somewhat gobsmacked when a male partner would hear from a ‘close’ friend only to find out that they had lost their job, split with their partner, had a child or some other major life event had happened to which my partner was oblivious too. But it wasn’t that he wasn’t a caring and committed friend, it was more the way these friendships worked.

Thirdly, male friendships tend to be less intimate and less supportive.  This is certainly no surprise.  Although men can have close friends, the level of social support among male friend besties is nowhere near the same level as among women.  There is some evidence, however, that women’s friendships can be more fragile than those of men. Whilst both men and women friendships can erupt into anger, with emotional outbursts, women can hold a grudge for some time, whereas men are more likely to get over strained friendships more quickly.

The similarities between male and female friendships far outweigh the differences listed here, and, of course there is huge individual variation, as always. But is there anything about these differences to be concerned with?

Perhaps that the kind of bonding and connection that happens while watching a flat screen doesn't establish the same kind of intimacy as a one-on-one gab session over a bottle of wine.

The result? Men tend to rely heavily on romantic relationships for that super-close feeling of connection.

There's nothing wrong with having expectations that your romantic partner would fulfil your real, human need for intimacy. The problem might occur if men receive the message from society that they can only have a close emotional relationship with their romantic partners. This could cause men to prioritise romance in a way that many don't. For example, one survey found that 79% of men would need "a strong, loving marriage" to feel they were "having it all" while 66% of women felt the same.

That ends up putting a whole lot of pressure on romantic relationships to fulfil their need for emotional intimacy. That means that when a breakup happens, men without these strong, intimate friendships tend to feel more alone and isolated.

Since the way women often form their platonic friendships places less pressure on getting their connection needs met from one romantic relationship, the feelings of isolation from a breakup are usually less extreme.

Maybe it's time we change how we view male friendships. That means no more "bromance" jokes.

I mean, when you think about it, it's a little weird that we have a different label for close male one-on-one friendships. And notice that the word choice likens their close bond to a romantic one. We don't have a comparable term for female friendships, so why should we for men?

Let's normalise close, one-on-one friendship for men and boys. Because it’s really just a need for friendship and connection. And we all have that need. Whoever we are.

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The hardest four-letter word

Surely the hardest four-letter word to utter to our friends has got to be – H E L P.

As a self-described overachieving recovering perfectionist, I’ve struggled to utter this word throughout my childhood, adolescence and some of my adulthood. What do you mean I can’t handle every single thing that comes my way? Not a chance!

But it’s much more than that. When we live in a society that prides itself on self-sufficiency, independence and achievement, the idea of asking others for help can be daunting. When we’re surrounded by messages based on helping our self – have you noticed the voluminous self-help sections at the bookstore? – the idea that we may need to learn better ways to ask for and receive assistance, may seem a little odd.

This topic of asking for help is one that isn't new to me. One string of situations centred on an episode I had of mental illness. I had admitted before that something wasn’t working, but often that was after my parents and sister prodded me. It wasn't until daily functioning became impossible and everything seemed to be completely unmanageable that I called home and said, "I need to get help. I can't do this anymore." Shortly thereafter, I entered hospital for the first time.

After that experience, it would seem like it'd be easier for me to ask for help, right? Sometimes, but not always.  

I’m still today reticent about asking for help. I struggle with it at work sometimes. There are moments I could ask more of my friends. And I see others around me sharing the same reticence.  As with so many things that would serve us (and others), our fear is what gets in the way. Fear of over-stepping a friendship. Fear of appearing too needy. Fear of imposing.  Fear of rejection. Fear of appearing weak. Fear of revealing our struggle and having people realize we don’t have it all together after all.

The danger, however, is that stalling – due to unfalsified anxiety - can let the situation grow from a problem into a crisis. Whenever we seek assistance earlier, the less help we will need and the more effectively it can be handled. It’s basic preventative science. If that’s a thing.

And here’s another thing, most of us humans are extremely keen to help when we notice a need. But we have a bit of trouble identifying that need because mostly we are continuously distracted, taken up with our lives and unlikely to spot that there is anything at all the matter with people around us unless the problem is spelt out in the clearest, most unambiguous terms. But say they are spelt out, we generally will swing into action and bring the whole of our intelligence and will to bear on another’s pains. In other words, we respond well to screams, but terribly to hints.

We see this all the time when a natural disaster hits. People come from everywhere to help. Readily. Hungrily. They are just there. At the ready. We also see this issue come to the fore in tragic circumstances where someone we know takes their own life. We are certain that we would, if we had known how desperate they felt, have done pretty much anything to help. At the same time, we also know that we didn’t enquire very much, didn’t look too closely for hints and must surely have given off an impression of constant busy-ness. We feel, understandably, entirely wretched and callous.

We need to learn to scream for help. We need to change the story that being in need is a weakness. But that asking for help takes courage and is a strength. We need to remember that whatever the appearance of distraction of others, we are surrounded by people who, when faced with an emergency, will come with a broom to our flood-infested home to help clean up.

When we don’t ask for help when we need it, we assume a burden that might easily (and gladly) be shared. But don’t forget, we’re no good at reading minds. The next time we are in trouble, we must remember not to beat ourselves up for not being self-sufficient, independent perfectionists but compassionately remind ourselves that we are social creatures who work best en masse. And let’s be hopeful in the knowledge that those around us will respond when it reaches their ears.

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Send a Friend-alentine!

Happy Valentine’s Day to you all!

The 14th February. That weird day made by society for couples, but where couples face weird pressure for no apparent reason. A day where people are obliged to express their undying love for each other, when they could just express their undying love for each other on any other day. Where according to the retail giants, we’re going to waste our money on silly things like over-priced chocolates or stuffed animals. A day that generally helps promote good old-fashioned gender stereotypes. The day where the strong single person might just need to be a little stronger. The day your Mum probably wishes you were married already.

And the history of Valentine’s Day is all a little bit on the dark side. During the Roman Empire, people celebrated the feast of Lupercalia where men sacrificed a goat or a dog and whipped women with animal hides. An act that was believed to increase a woman’s fertility!

There are different legends about who St. Valentine was. One tells the story of a Christian priest who was imprisoned and fell in love with his jailer’s daughter. Before his death, he signed a love letter to her with the words “from your Valentine.”

Another legend tells about a priest who ignored Emperor Claudius II's ban on marriage for young men in his army. The priest continued to marry couples who were in love for which he was eventually executed.

What helped St. Valentine’s Day take root across the ocean in the United States was the nation's emerging consumer and popular culture, boosted by the influence of advertising and the following developments in printing and mass production.

In the 1840s, an American newspaper called The Public Ledger endorsed the holiday saying that people needed “more soul-play and less head-work” and more opportunities that allowed for an “abandon of feeling.” The meaning of “valentine” transformed from signifying a person to referring to an object of exchange.

In the following decades, the marketing machines of many companies turned their wheels to lure more and more customers into celebrating the holiday, and convince them to purchase valentines—in the forms of cards, chocolates, flowers, and jewellery—for their loved ones.

It’s all a bit of a dark comedy really!

To be honest, I’m all for the declaration of love and Valentine’s Day has certainly contributed to the way in which western culture celebrates and expresses love. I just don’t think it needs conditions – one person, romantic in nature, and on a specific day.

That’s why our Love Cards this year are declarations of love for anyone near and dear to you. Let’s call them Friend-alentines! And given we’ve only got around to releasing them today, on the 14th February, you can send them to whoever you want – whenever you want!

They’re all available here.

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