Thoughts / supporting someone with a mental illness
The other day I had the pleasure of spending time with one of my oldest and dearest friends. We’ve known each other for well over two thirds of our lives now. At the age of 11, pure circumstance brought us together when my family moved into the house next door to hers. And even though we didn’t go to the same school, we spent a bucket load of time together during our adolescence. Mostly we just sat in the gutter outside our homes, speaking into each other’s hearts. Nearly every day.
And I am eternally thankful that she was there, because adolescence was all just a bit hard.
Transitioning from a child to an adult – or being a teenager – are pretty vulnerable years for heaps of reasons. One being how we build social connections.
One of the main biological drivers of adolescence is the urge to belong – to our peers. The desire to create friendship circles outside of our family. This involves stepping back from our parents as we build autonomy and independence so that when our pre frontal cortex has finished developing and the executive functioning part of the brain that makes mature choices is complete, we can go out into the world as a fully functioning and sustainable adult (well, that’s the theory anyway).
I remember the majority of the social dynamics in my adolescent world as challenging and fraught. I was not sure whether I “fit” here or there and I remember certain ‘friends’ who caused some particularly brutal wounds (in a weirdly passive way). I remember an incredibly strong need to be liked by everyone and was eager to please anyone around me. Except my parents of course. They had the privilege of experiencing my surly and dark moods.
As teenagers, we learn a great deal through the friendships we make. We learn unspoken codes of conduct that they will take with them throughout life. Being sanctioned by our peers is one of the fastest ways to create the catalyst for an adolescent to change an unhelpful behaviour or uncaring communication. Friendships can make or break an adolescent in many ways.
Throughout my adolescence, I was no different. I learnt a lot through friendship. But I reckon I learnt the most from the one friendship where I spent the hours chatting in the gutter.
Research suggests that the turmoil of the teenage years cannot only be mediated by good social relationships, but there’s also research to suggest that bonds from adolescence might have an outsized role in a person's mental health for years.
In a study published last year, researchers followed 169 people for 10 years, starting when they were 15 years old. At age 15 and again at 16, the participants were asked to bring in their closest friends for one-on-one interviews with the researchers. They were asked who their closest friends were, and detailed questions about their friendships in general. The interviewers also asked them about anxiety, social acceptance, self-worth, and symptoms of depression. They were then asked these questions again at age 25.
They triangulated the teens’ responses, making sure best friends concurred on being best friends, and those who said they were popular had reports from others of actually being popular. “High-quality friendships” were defined as “close friendships with a degree of attachment and support, and those that allow for intimate exchanges.”
The study found that those who had strong relationships in adolescence – good communication, asking for advice and support, connecting with the other person – paid dividends in adulthood. the researchers evaluated the participants at the conclusion of the study, the ones who had close, emotional links showed improvement in their levels of anxiety, depression and self-worth. In other words, they reported less depression and anxiety and more self-worth at 25 than they had at 15 and 16.
Furthermore, those who had more stable relationships — who brought the same best friend to the study at 15 and again at 16 — seemed to do the best. The participants who didn't exhibit the same kind of closeness with their friends didn't show much change in symptoms of depression and anxiety or in their sense of self-worth over the study's 10 years.
The study also looked at how popular or well-liked the participants were at 15 or 16 to see whether those factors had more to do with the drop in depression and rise in self-worth than having close friends. But the researchers only saw a correlation with strong friendships.
The research mirrors other studies which show that there are two types of popularity: people who are likable—their peers trust them and want to be with them—and those who seek status, and often try to wield that popularity as power. Mitch Prinstein, a professor at the University of North Carolina has argued that people who seek to be likable tend to end up in healthier, in better relationships, with more fulfilling work, and even live longer. Status-seekers, on the other hand, often end up anxious, depressed, and with addiction problems.
It's tough to know exactly what is going on here, but we can probably made some educated guesses. One is that unwavering support acts as a kind of protective buffer against insults to your self-worth or feelings of depression. This can be especially beneficial during adolescence, a formative period when peer feedback has extra gravity.
These friendships could also help with our emotional development. Adolescent relationships might help us learn certain social and emotional skills that benefit us for life. It's the first opportunity for people to learn how to be trusting and vulnerable with another person, and using those skills to establish closer, more stable relationships throughout life may be beneficial as well.
Friendship means everything to a teen. It did to me. In order to be socially and personally acceptable we need to be seen to have friends. The biological urge to belong is so strong that adolescents can do all sorts of things to be part of a crowd. Nothing is as threatening in the social network of adolescents as being alone. Being a loner occasionally is not unusual, but it is developmentally unhealthy to be alone all the time and to avoid hanging out with a friend.
Luckily for me, even if my friendships became fraught or challenged at school or sport, I always had my place in the gutter beside a beautiful friend during my adolescence. I had someone who made sure I never felt alone, was right there beside me, someone to talk to and cry with. Someone to share the joy, laughter and achievements with.
I’ve learnt about the value of friendship many times over in my adventures through life and I also know that I would not be the same person without my lovely friend’s 20-plus year presence in my life. Our friendship has taken on all types of different meanings over the years, but when we were teenagers, and I felt unsure of myself, the people around me or the world, she was always there. Without judgment, just with love.
It might be unclear exactly why having a best friend matters in the teenage years, but maybe all we need to know is that simply the presence of a best friend matters. That makes sense to me.
Friendships are not always easy. When we have a friend who is experiencing a mental illness it can be tough going. In reality, it can be bloody hard work.
The reality is though that when we have a mental illness we can get by with a little help from our friends. I know this, because I’ve been really lucky. My friends have been exceptional during my episodes of mental illness. I also know that the research is in – positive social support and friendship has a positive effect on an individual’s recovery and prognosis following a mental illness episode.
If you’re lucky enough not to have experienced a mental illness of some form, then you probably don’t understand what all the fuss is about. “Why does everyone seem to have mental health problems all of a sudden? Depression? Anxiety? All the things?” You might wonder, as you go about your daily life, eating yoghurts and paying bills, generally living in ignorant bliss. And fair enough.
If you haven’t experienced a mental health condition, it can be difficult to comprehend and why would you want to? Take depression, for example. Depression is like an awful houseguest that you definitely didn’t invite to stay. But, here they are anyway, eating up your energy and making a huge mess. Depression doesn’t care that you have work to do. It doesn’t care that there are dishes in the sink and the bins need to go out. It devours your time and strength and will to continue.
Depression can leave you with crumbs. Crumbs are useless. You can’t do anything good with crumbs except make a delicious picnic for insects. Do ants even need picnics? Depression can feel like your head is full of cotton wool and static electricity. It’s not a good time. Well, it wasn’t fun for me. I guess that’s why it got called it depression and not Happy Party Fun Brain.
The point of this is: how can you help someone you love when they’re experiencing a mental health condition that you pretty much have no idea about?
LEARN ABOUT IT
In general, I find that the more I know about something, the easier it is to comprehend and the less difficult it becomes to deal with. (Unless the thing is climate change. The more I seem to find out about climate change, the more panicked I become.) If we’ve got a loved one with a mental health condition, we can value the friendship by learning more about the illness to understand how it might make them feel and maybe increasing our confidence in providing love and support to them.
PRACTICAL HELP GOES A LONG WAY
People experiencing an episode of mental illness need all the things other people need. Food, water, a billion dollars in unmarked bills – the usual. But it can often be a bit harder for us to gain access to those things at this time, on account of having our brain being hijacked by a piece of meatloaf. Yes, empathy and solidarity are wonderful things, as are flowers and little notes. Sometimes though, a little bit of help with the washing, or the cooking, or tidying away some of the clutter that builds up during a phase of mental illness would be the stuff of splendid dreams.
Unfortunately, it’s really, really, really difficult to predict how long it might take for a person’s mental health to show improvements. When I experienced depression and anxiety, not knowing how long it would take to get out of the slump, and perceiving exasperation (whether real or imagined) from my loved ones only heightened the anxiety and pressure. If you can, relax. Remember that no one invites their mental illness in, to fester in their brains, and you can’t send it scurrying back to wherever it usually lives. Please relax. Just being there is good enough. Your friend will no doubt be working harder than you can imagine to stay alive and get through each day, so don’t try and rush them, or question what's going on inside their head. Just look at the outside of their head (where their face might be) and say “You’re strong. I’m here with you through this. You are going to feel better.”
TRY NOT TO SAY DUMB SHIT
Dumb shit would include: “you should eat healthier and exercise more”, “my friend Penelope had depression once and she got better by going to a psychic”, “but you don’t have anything to be sad about” “[Invitation to do something self-destructive and dangerous]”. If your friend is acting in a way you really can't get your head around, the thing to remember is that they are still your friend. So being genuine and caring is your best option here.
Try not to nag your friend to describe what their mental illness is or convince you that it is a real and serious condition that has very little to do with being sad/nervous/weird. Your friend probably doesn’t have time for this as they are busy being unwell. Treating mental illness like it’s an indulgence or an embarrassment is validating the very real shame that we already feel. Trust me. The world asks us to be ashamed. It asks us to be quiet. What we need from our friends is for them to say “you don’t need to hide this. You don’t need to be ashamed. This is happening, it’s real, and it’s not your fault. Also you want a delicious biscuit that looks like a button? Here you go. Here is a button biscuit. It’s so small, right? And tasty. Wow. Amazing.”
LOOK AFTER YOURSELF
There is really no need to martyr yourself for our emotional health. That’s not how any of this works. Do what you can do. Don’t do more. Don’t make yourself weak to try and make someone else strong. Your wellbeing is important, and I promise you you’ll only exhaust yourself, and end up resenting us if you make it your job to nurse us through the whole ordeal. So don’t. When we have a mental illness we can really struggle to be good or engaged friends at times and you’re allowed to feel frustrated about that. Take time off from it all if and when you need to. You aren’t failing us by looking after yourself. We love you. We might just be a bit weighed down by the univited house guest to express our appreciation right now. Also, don’t take our shit. Unacceptable behaviours don’t get a pass just because I’m unwell. You don’t deserve cruelty or abuse so please tell us if we're out of order; if not immediately then when our episode has passed.
AND … KNOW YOUR OWN LIMITS
I’ve been on the other side of this friendship too and had friends who have been struggling with their mental health. Despite receiving treatment, their reliance on me has at times become emotionally draining and some days it has taken a toll on our friendship. While we may feel an obligation to care and ease the pain for those closest to us, at the end of the day we must understand our limits and look out for ourselves too.
HELP US STICK TO GOOD BEHAVIOURS / A HEALTHY ROUTINE
What were once ‘easy’ or ‘normal’ routines can become really difficult during mental illness. Breakfast needs to be eaten everyday. A walk in the afternoon is a good idea. Green tea can help. Everyone needs water. Taking medicine has to happen as prescribed. Whatever. These things seem simple but are often monumentally hard tasks when a particularly bad spell of depression comes around. When nothing matters, these things happen less.
Gentle reminders are good, or an all-caps text message that says “YO! DID YOU DRINK WATER TODAY? ALSO LOOK AT THIS PICTURE OF A FRENCH BULLDOG DANCING IN A SOMBERO. SO CUTE.” These sorts of gestures go a long way. Gently nudge us into behaving like humans. That way when the fog lifts and we can look around at our lives again, we won’t feel horrified at all the things we let slide. Maybe we'll give you a little kiss on the head, too – for being a pal. Thanks.
In the previous post, we looked at the joys and benefits of friendships. It can be one of the high points of our existence.
Yet, in reality it can sometimes be routinely disappointing. We might be at dinner at someone’s house. The host has evidently gone to a lot of trouble, with an impressive spread of food and drink. But the conversation might be meandering. Devoid of any real interest. Maybe the discussion flits from an over-long description of the failings of a local restaurant to a strangely heated discussion about crypto currency (again). We might go home, incredibly touched by the intentions and efforts of the host, but we may still wonder what the whole performance was about.
Let’s consider if we didn’t engage in such performances. What might happen if we avoided human contact?
Alone in an unchanging environment, the sensory information available to us, and the ways in which we process it, can change in unpredictable ways. For example, we normally spend most of our time attending to and processing external stimuli from the physical world around us. However, monotonous stimulation from our surroundings may cause us to turn our attention inward, which most of us have much less experience handling all that well.
No, or limited, human contact can lead to a profoundly altered state of consciousness. We may begin to question what’s going on in our surroundings: Is that creaking sound upstairs just your old house pushing back against the wind, or something more sinister? This ambivalence leaves us frozen in place and wallowing in unease—especially if we’re alone. When we’re uncertain, the first thing we usually do is to look to the reactions of others to figure out what is going on. Without others with whom to share information and reactions, ambiguity becomes very hard to resolve. When this happens, our mind can quickly race to the darkest possible conclusions.
Unpleasant things can also happen when small groups of people experience isolation together. Much of what we know about this phenomenon has been gathered from observing the experiences of volunteers at research stations in Antarctica, especially during the “wintering-over” period. Antarctica's extreme temperatures, long periods of darkness, alien landscapes, and severely reduced sensory input create a perfect natural laboratory for studying the effects of isolation and confinement. Volunteers in these studies experience changes in appetite and sleep patterns. Some stop being able to accurately track the passage of time and lose the ability to concentrate. The boredom that results from being around the same people, with limited sources of entertainment, causes a lot of stress—and everyone else’s mannerisms become a grating, annoying, and inescapable source of torment.
What does this say about the way we’re wired? It’s clear that meaningful connection to other people is as essential to our health as the air we breathe. Given that prolonged periods of social isolation can crack even the hardiest of individuals, it’s probably best we continue to engage in our performances with our friends.
It's been proposed that one of the issues with friendship is that these relationships lack a sense of purpose. Our attempts at friendship tend to go adrift, because we collectively resist the task of developing a clear picture of what friendship is really for. The problem is that we are unfairly uncomfortable with the idea of friendship having any declared purpose, because we associate purpose with the least attractive and most cynical motives. Yet purpose doesn’t have to ruin friendship and in fact, the more we define what a friendship might be for, the more we can focus in on what we should be doing with every person in our lives – or indeed the more we can helpfully conclude that we shouldn’t be with them at all.
It's been suggested that there are at least five things we might be trying to do with the people we meet:
- Networking. Before you sigh a collective sigh, consider this, we are all pretty small, fragile creatures in a vast world. Our individual capacities are entirely insufficient to realise the demands of our imaginations. So, of course, we need collaborators: accomplices who can align their abilities and energies with ours.
- Reassurance. The human condition can be full of terror. At times we can be on the verge of disgrace, danger and disappointment. And yet such are the rules of polite conduct that we are permanently in danger of imagining that we are the only ones to be as crazy as we know we are. We badly need friends because, with the people we know only superficially, there are few confessions of regret, rage and confusion. The reassuring friend gives us access to a very necessary and accurate sense of their own humiliations and follies; an insight with which we can begin to judge ourselves and our sad and compulsive sides more compassionately.
- Fun. Despite talk of hedonism and immediate gratification, life gives us constant lessons in the need to be serious. We have to guard our dignity, avoid looking like a fool and pass as a mature adult. The pressure becomes onerous, and in the end even dangerous. That is why we constantly need access to people we can trust enough to be silly with them. They might most of the time be training to be a neurosurgeon or advising middle sized companies about their tax liabilities but when we are together, we can be therapeutically daft. We can put on accents, dance our hearts out or share our weird fantasies. The fun friend solves the problem of shame around important but unprestigious sides of ourselves.
- Clarifying our Minds. To a surprising degree, it can be pretty hard to think on our own. The mind is a bit skittish and squeamish. As a result, many issues lie confused within us. We feel angry but are not sure why. Something is wrong with our job but we can’t pin it down. The thinking friend holds us to the task. They ask gentle but probing questions which act as a mirror that assists us with the task of knowing ourselves.
- Holding on to the past. A number of friends have little to do with who we are now, but we keep seeing them. Perhaps we knew them from school or university, or we once spent a very significant holiday with them twenty years ago or we became friendly when our children were at kindergarten together. They embody a past version of ourselves from which we’re now distant and yet remain loyal. They help us to understand where we have come from and what once mattered. They may not be totally relevant to whom we are today, but not all of our identity is ever contemporary, as our continued commitment to them attests.
Even Aristotle attempted to figure out the purpose of these social relationships we keep. He postulated that there were three types of friendship:
If we’re a bit more precise about what we’re trying to do with our social lives, we can bring a greater awareness and understanding to the process of friendship. Bringing more meaning and celebration to the experiences that both enrich our lives and keep us emotionally healthy.
It’s February! That month where greeting card companies sell you love.
We're no different here at Hope Street Cards. We’re going to be selling, spreading and sharing the love this month. One of the most glorious forms of love – friendship.
How good are friends?
“In poverty and other misfortunes of life, true friends are a sure refuge. They keep the young out of mischief; they comfort and aid the old in their weakness, and they incite those in the prime of life to noble deeds.”
When I was younger I came across the saying - “your friends are a reflection of you”. I didn’t quite get this for a while. Mostly because my friends have always seemed to be consistently and significantly attractive. The reflection did not seem all that obvious, But as I’ve gone on and seen how other people make friends, and how truly honoured I am to have my friends it starts to make a bit more sense. I’m not so worried about the superficial attributes such as looks, money, success or status but rather I fall in love with those who bring laughter, joy, honesty and who can be there for me and also give me a firm kick in the butt when I need it. I always find it intriguing to meet friends of people I know because I can really get a sense of that person by the company they choose to keep in their life.
As human beings, we become so busy with our jobs and career, family, household chores, daily activities that we often neglect one of the most important aspects of life; friendships, the relationships that develop over time that hold a very special place in our heart. Friends are family members that we choose to allow and keep in our lives. From our first childhood friend to those lifelong friends we have known for decades; friends are treasures that can bring so much positivity into our lives. Yet we often become too busy and can neglect to reflect on the wonder of these important people.
Here's some of the reasons why we think friends are great (and why we’ll be spending all of February banging on about friendship)
- Friends are there to lift you up in joy and comfort you in sorrow
- Friends help you develop social skills
I am a bit of an introvert. I love people, but usually in small considered doses. When someone invites me to a party or to a wedding, I cringe on the inside because I know I will have to be around a lot of people that I don’t really, which gives me anxiety. However, if I know my friends will be there, I know it will be okay. They can help push me out of my comfort zone and always get me into social gatherings. From childhood, friends are there to invite us to birthday parties, have play dates and as we get older we dinner with our cherished friends to catch up on the week or the past month. These events make life so much more special.
- Good friends will give us a reality check
- Friendships at a young age can help you develop healthy romantic relationships
- The Happiest People are the Most Social
- Happiness Is Contagious
- Friends Cut the Small Talk—and That Makes Us Happy
- Our Friends Help Us Feel Optimistic
- Friendships Improve Our Health
- Our Friends Help Us Live Longer
A Swedish study found that when men do get enough social support during stressful times, they tend to live longer than those who didn’t have someone to lean on. There’s ample evidence that friendships don’t just make our lives better, they make them longer. Women who have at least one confidant survive longer after surgery for breast cancer, for example. And a review of 148 studies found that people with stronger social relationships have a 50 percent lower risk of mortality. In addition, older people without close friends are more likely to develop chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and depression than their counterparts.
Obviously it’s not all roses though. Sometimes we bicker with our friends, feel envious of them, or even gossip about them. But they’re worth the bother. Our friendships enrich our lives in profoundly meaningful ways. And throughout February we’re going to find out exactly how …. Stay tuned.
On our recent family holiday away, I was somewhat concerned we might run out of things to talk about with each other. I’m not sure where this worry came from. We haven’t had too much difficulty over the past 35 years. Anyway, along our travels I found us a set of personality assessments, to help fill in the quiet times. And really help us to get to know each other.
Trudy relished in adopting the role - undertaking an incredibly empathic and curious psychologist persona - and the test she randomly selected for me was ‘How optimistic are you?’ This also excited her. I remember her saying something along the lines of “Yes! Here we will find out that Sam is actually not the happy, love and rainbows type person after all. And instead just a cold-hearted cynic.” Well, that’s what I heard anyway.
‘Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement…no pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit’. Helen Keller (1880 – 1968)
Helen Keller’s words reflect the popular upbeat concept of the word which has been gaining ground since the 1960s as an increasing body of research has demonstrated a consistent tendency of healthy successful people to think in generally positive ways.
When I was younger I was definitely a glass half full kind of girl. I nearly embodied all the different types of optimism around today. I genuinely expected that more good things than bad things would happen in the future (dispositional optimism). I was likely to attribute good events with permanence (likely to recur), pervasiveness (the ‘goodness’ will extend to other future events. Whereas bad events were impermanent and non-pervasive (attributional optimism). And a lot of my optimism was incongruent. It didn’t make sense that I presumed good things would happen over adversity, despite the probability of how life experiences happen (unrealistic optimism).
Our perspective on things influences pretty much happens. What happens to us in life is only part of the story; perspective accounts for what we see and the meaning we make of it.
And the more of life and the psychological atmosphere of our culture that I soak up, through news, journalism, social media and conversations with colleagues, clients, friends and family, the more my perception changes. It’s very difficult not to notice the images and stories of violence, abuse, dishonesty, manipulation and greed. Along the way, we are taught to protect ourselves we need to be on the lookout for what is wrong and to prepare ourselves for the worst.
We are taught to keep our doors, as well as our hearts and minds, closed up and locked tight.
It’s not all that surprising that my glass has appeared a little emptier over time. When the world feels under threat, we feel nervous. In general, we can remain optimistic when we feel like we can exert some influence on a situation, but it’s hard for me to feel that way all the time. It can sometimes feel easier to perceive that I have no influence at all on ‘the world’, leading to a feeling of powerlessness.
One of the key ideas though, is that the world is a fair and just place. Is it? When we look at the natural world, there’s not a lot of fairness there. Usually the biggest or the strongest wins, and fights are often to the death. Such crucial realism, doesn’t have to mean that we should give up all hopes for an optimistic outlook though. Because optimism has some real benefits.
Martin Seligman (psychologist of the positive psychology movement) investigated attributional style optimism and success in sales insurance. He identified the top quartile of attributional style optimists amongst applicants for jobs as life insurance salesmen (extreme optimists) and found those selected on this basis performed much better and stayed in the job for longer than salesmen selected using standard industry tests.
The same mechanism has been found to drive athletic performance both in individuals and team sports. Team performance can be predicted based on assessment of the attributional style optimism of team members and coaches. The key to performance was perseverance in the face of failure, a product of attributing bad events to one-off, non-pervasive external causes as optimists do.
Research has also shown that optimism is correlated with many positive life outcomes including increased life expectancy, general health, better mental health, increased success in work, greater recovery rates from heart operations and better coping strategies when faced with adversity.
But there’s a downside to optimism too. Too much of this perspective can cause inattention to detail, failure to seek new information and selective inattention to unpromising data can lead us to poorly informed decisions. Apparently extreme optimists have much shorter term financial horizons, save less, work shorter hours, exhibit less financial self control and are less likely to pay off credit card balances than moderate optimists or pessimists.
Harmful risk taking has long been assumed to be a danger of optimism and there is some evidence to support this. Optimism is associated with rationalising beliefs, like for example that lung cancer risk is mainly genetic, most cases of it are generally cured and smoking for a long time without disease developing means they are less likely to be affected. The high general optimism of children, especially boys, seems to be a contributory factor to accidental injury which is the leading cause of death in childhood.
How do we manage all of this? How can we not fall into the hole of become crucial realists/cynical robots, whilst still accepting that not everything in the universe is rainbows and lollipops?
It might just come back to our perspective and our choices. We have the power to accept the things that we can’t change, find the things that we can, and pay attention to the positive or the negative things in life. And some of that is about choosing hope. Bring our awareness to the positive in difficult times is one of the definitions of hope. And according to Emily Dickinson, hope can inspire the good to reveal itself. We won’t find any of the good if we don’t go looking for it.
So, how did I go on the personality test? Pretty much in the middle. Let’s say it was almost half full.
At the start of a new year, I often struggle not to fall into asking myself the success-based questions. How am I doing? Am I having a successful life so far or have I had more failure than success? How do I measure my personal success and failure? What is success for me? Was my success really successful or was it considered successful because other people said it was? Did I really fail or was I just looking at myself behind another set of bars created by other people?
Similarly, when I discover someone that I admire – be it for the research they might have just published, or the idea they came up with, or their project they have completed – I can become a bit obsessed with finding out more about the person’s entire career. What did they do before? Where did they train? Who have they been working with? How old were they when they obtained each of these career or life achievements? And it comes down to - is my level of success comparable to theirs?
And particularly at the beginning of the year, it can be easy to fall into the trap of feeling a bit behind in life. It might be the excessively happy and glowy insta pictures of excessively happy and glowy families starkly reminding us that we’re single and alone and living with our parents (albeit contentedly). It might be putting on the bikini and remembering that – again – we didn’t become that thinner, fitter version of our self in 2017 (despite not really intending to). Or maybe we’ve returned to work and two days in it feels more like 52 days in.
Sometimes it might not be other people’s accomplishments that spur on the feeling that we are lacking in some way, but our own expectations. Have I made the right decision about work? Should I still be plodding away with a side business? Maybe things will be just a bit better once I have achieved x, y and z?
When we keep moving our own goalposts, we keep changing our definition of success, to the point of it becoming meaningless. If our expectations, wishes and dreams keep changing we will forever feel like we’re falling short. Wherever these expectations are coming from.
I’m not suggesting that we should abandon all of our goals entirely. We know that goals are incredibly useful for our motivation, for purpose, for creating order in our lives. But when these goals are continually linked to our unlived experiences or potential, or we have borrowed them from our friends or internalised expectations from what society thinks we should be doing, we’re not aiming for success of our making.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (a psychologist hero of mine, whose last name I cannot pronounce) suggests that there’s no inherent problem with our desire to pursue goals, as long as we enjoy the struggle along the way. If we become so fixated on finding a partner or buying a house or getting a 6-figure salary, we’re going to struggle to derive any pleasure from the present. And we say goodbye to contentment. And wellbeing.
A lot of our daily activities and goals are ‘exotelic’, meaning we reap the benefits sometime in the future, rather than enjoying them for their own sake in the present. But according to Csikszenbdjbgfdjksbgjdsk (surely that’s about right) if we learn to find meaning and enjoyment in the process or experience of living itself, the burden of internal and external expectations can fall from one’s shoulders.
If we were to look at it from a Positive Psychology perspective (the branch of psychology focusing on human strengths and well-being), we wouldn’t be looking at success in terms of goal achievements and avoiding failures. Success would be all about our sense of well-being. That’s a different kind of success really. Success with a capital “S”.
One of the key takeaways from Positive Psychology is that relationships with other people matter most. In fact, a Harvard study that followed 268 sophomores from the late 1930s and early 1940s over the course of their adult lives showed that the single most important predictor of successful aging, defined by physical and mental health and satisfaction with life at age 75, wasn’t cholesterol level, salary, treadmill endurance or intelligence. It was having close relationships. Based on the extensive data collected over seven decades, the author concluded: “The only things that matter in life are your relations to other people.”
However, contrary to what many believe, this doesn’t mean sacrificing our own well-being. In fact, personal well-being is essential to cultivating quality relationships with others. In the same way that we tend to over-emphasize the importance of power and money when thinking about success, we also over-inflate the value of self-sacrifice. It’s so tempting to buy into the myth that there is something noble about putting our own needs last, and women are especially vulnerable to this.
According to Nobel Prize-winning scientist Daniel Kahneman, we experience approximately 20,000 moments each day. But actually taking our focus away from our goals, ensuring our attention is not caught up in our yet unlived experiences is tough. Making the most of each of these moments is a choice.
Let’s remind ourselves of this choice. It’s not easy, this constant wrestle between our lived and unlived lives; our expectations and reality; our future goals and current experiences. But it is entirely possible that by choosing to prioritise moments and experiences that enhance the now and our well-being, we may already be leading Successful lives with a capital “S.”
Happy New Year Hope Street friends. We hope that the holiday season was kind and peaceful to you all.
Firstly, a curious approach possibly helped with what could have been an unsettling year. In 2017 I changed workplaces and jobs twice, I went from project-based work back to intensive clinical practice and I haven’t had a permanent work desk in over 6 months. In the past, these sorts of conditions could have sent my anxiety spiralling. But instead I went all wonder inquisitive-like. Less “how will I possibly cope?” and more “I wonder where I will get to sit today and if I will have a computer?”. It was sort of like making each day at work a football game and not knowing whether your team is going to win or not. The tension was good tension – uncertain, interesting and even a bit fun.
Secondly, I found out heaps of really wonderful things about all these wonderful people. Curiosity helped me make new friends. Hallelujah! And it helped me to discover new things about old friends.
I’ve never really had a problem finding people interesting, but being more curious helped relationships grow and blossom. It is far easier to form and maintain satisfying, significant relationships when we demonstrate an attitude of openness, curiosity and genuine interest. I really stopped worrying about what questions I asked people, if I was interested, I just asked. I gave up the notion of the ‘silly’ question. I tried not to care if my questions seemed obvious. I learnt so much from the people around me and maybe, just maybe, our relationships improved as a result.
I think I became more focused. This is a bit difficult to really say for certain, but after a year of curious living I feel that I’m more committed to what I choose to devote my attention to. Earlier in the piece, I was a complacent information receiver. I’d stick to the shallow end and learn new things superficially. Like skim reading the career highlights of Izzy from Neighbours off Wikipedia and then promptly forgetting. Whereas now, if I am interested in something I’ll invest my energy in reading a long article, watching a documentary and deepening my understanding of the taxidermy practices of the early 20th century (fascinating).
I read a bucketload of books. 55 in total. I kept a tally, because I was curious as to how many books (fiction and non-fiction) I could read in a year.
As a result of the content and consumption of books I read, I realised that despite believing I was a feminist, I was actually probably not a proper feminist. I have since started becoming a proper feminist.
I did things I probably wouldn’t have done before. But more importantly, things that I did regularly didn’t feel so dull. I am a big believer in a solid routine, like really solid. But yes, it can get dull. Over time and with practice, curiosity managed to transform some (definitely not the majority) into interesting and enjoyable experiences.
But most importantly, curiosity helped me to find out more about myself. And it wasn’t that bad. In fact, it helped me be kinder to myself.
When we think about curiosity we might think about it as being anything but kind. We might imagine it to be intrusive or mean-spirited, as a demand to know. We might think of curiosity as seeking information with which we can judge – a means to measure ourselves. Maybe we imagine we will use what we discover as a means to feel superior or celebrate someone else’s misfortune. But I found it all to be quite the opposite.
We are born with this open-hearted curiosity. When a baby explores her life, the first thing she does is explore herself. What are these things attached to my hand? What is this shape that I will later call a finger? Can I put it my mouth? Can I waive it around?
A baby explores with open delight, with softness, with gentleness towards herself, with kindness. She does not push away what she discovers. She receives it - all of it, the comfortable and the painful, the joyful and the distressing. She explores and she discovers worlds within worlds. Nothing in her discoveries will be shut out. Nothing she does as she explores herself will be unkind.
As we grow to be adults we begin to curtail our curiosity of our self. We learn to stop looking, or look only on a very selective basis. We learn to judge. To compete and to be in a hurry. We jump ahead in our minds to later, to tomorrow, to next week, to next year. We don’t remember how to be open to what we can discover beyond the surface. We begin to use self-talk like should and have to and can’t. We learn to push ourselves away. We learn to be unkind.
So this year, when I would automatically ignore myself or began to judge my words or actions or imagine catastrophic events in the future, I’d instead try to practice curiosity. ‘I wonder why I said that to David in accounts? What a funny thing to say? It must have come from that interaction I had had with Jenny in HR the day before. Interesting. Perhaps I’m not such an idiot.’ With time it comes more naturally. I find out interesting things about how I work. And I begin to be less automatically harsh on myself.
Happy 2018 my friends. May you begin the year with some curiosity and discover some gifts in your own life today and always.
I am really passionate about giving people gifts. I’m not ashamed to admit that it is one of my most loved things about this time of year. Along with the reruns of Love Actually. And the fairy lights. And the prawns. And the pavlova. And ham. Okay, there’s a few other things.
There’s been some restrictions invoked around this gift giving this year. But it hasn’t really stopped me. I’ve just gone overboard in other areas. More presents for other people. I’ve been baking gifts. And sewing gifts. It’s all happening.
I get that there’s things about Christmas gift-giving that annoy people. There’s the crowds at the shopping centres. The horrendous traffic and car parking rage nightmares. I can see how holiday commercialism is really ruining Santa’s image. And then there’s the irresponsible consumption of plastic toys that may only be used once and then lost under the bed for all eternity.
Whilst some components of gift giving may be the materialistic product of commercialism and a capitalist society. It is way more fascinating than that. Gift giving is a surprisingly complex and important part of human interaction. It helps us to define relationships and strengthen bonds with our friends and family.
And that’s what I love about the gift giving. It’s like doing a service to a relationship. If you were to say to me that I wasn’t able to give you a gift because you’re going minimalist this month, or your children won’t remember Christmas at this age, then I don’t get to experience the process and connection to you that gift giving provided. I’m not encouraged to think about you and think about things you like and enjoy. You prevent me from experiencing the joy of engaging in these activities. Activities that help me to reflect on you and on our relationship with gratitude and appreciation.
The social value of giving has been recognised throughout human history. For thousands of years, some indigenous cultures have engaged in the ‘potlatch’, a complex ceremony that celebrates extreme giving. Although cultural interpretations vary, often the status of a given family in a clan or village was dictated not by who had the most possessions, but instead by who gave away the most. The more lavish and bankrupting the potlatch, the more prestige gained by the host family.
Some researchers believe evolutionary forces may have even favoured gift giving. Men who were the most generous may have had the most reproductive success with women. (Notably, the use of food in exchange for sexual access and grooming has been documented in our closest ape relative, the chimpanzee.) Women who were skilled at giving — be it extra food or a well-fitted pelt — helped sustain the family provider as well as her children.
People who stop giving gifts lose out on important social cues, researchers say. The people who are on our gift list tell is who the important people are in our life. It gives us an opportunity to take stock and evaluate just where our social relationships are at. But the biggest effect of gift giving may be on ourselves. Being able to give to others has been shown to reinforce our feelings for them and makes us feel effective and caring.
Gift giving is a practical exercise, but also a psychological one. A 2006 study by neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health found that the giver experiences both an increase in their dopamine levels and an activation of parts of the brain that are attuned to the joys of social interaction. It really does make us happy.
Better to give than to receive, gift-giving is also an act of altruism — unselfish concern for the well-being of others. When we give without expecting anything in return, we are improving our psychological health.
And there is an enormous sense of satisfaction when we see a positive expression on the face of a loved one we’ve just given a gift to. A way to express feelings, giving reinforces appreciation and acknowledgement of each other. The feelings expressed mainly depend on the relationship between giver and recipient.
So, I probably went a bit overboard on the presents again this year. But I’m not concerned about it and I hope no one else is. The gift thinking, gift shopping and gift creating process has only reinforced for me is the amount and quality of important relationships in my life. And as a result I feel very connected to these special relationships and people.
That is the best gift.
Generally, the world appears to enjoy nice people. We seem to like niceness very much and depend on it even more. Why then, do so many say “Oh, you’re just too nice.” Like it’s a very negative thing.
I’ve heard this a bit. And I’ve said it a lot. What exactly though is the assumption behind the negativity here?
Is it because we assume that by being nice a person isn’t committed to success? And obviously this is so incredibly important in our capitalist society. However much we are committed to success, for long periods of our lives we are intensely vulnerable creatures wholly at the mercy of the gentleness of others. We are only ever able to be successful because other people – usually our mothers – have given up a good share of their lives to being nice to us.
Is it because we assume that by being nice, a person isn’t going to be living an exciting life? This could be true. But all feelings – like excitement – are just phases. Things that fleet and pass. Personally, I wouldn’t find anything more sterile and dull than a demand that life be constantly exciting. I’m more inclined to mix it up with some napping.
Or is it just because a person who is being nice is a ‘pushover’? The assumption that a person unable to assert their power is a nice person?
Or maybe the person who is nice just doesn’t have any opinions at all? Maybe they just go with the flow all the time.
Here’s another possible idea. Perhaps the person who is being nice, has gone through particular experiences that has led them to the point where they believe that behaving in a nice manner is the best thing they can do for themselves, for others and for their community?
Perhaps that experience might be some form of tremendous upheaval? They have experience in how to offer genuine words of encouragement and kindness because they have had to become their own biggest cheerleaders. They are the ones who have had to talk themselves out of bed in the morning and off the floor at night. They are the ones who have fiercely fought their own demons. They are the ones who are brave and introspective. Who have successfully and excitedly made things change. The opposite of dull, boring and complacent. They want to do better and be better. They want things to change.
There could be all sorts of things hiding behind being nice.
It is entirely possible though, that too much of a good thing might not work. Like most good things. If we get caught up in too much niceness it could backfire.
If we compulsively say “yes” to everyone else’s wants and needs we’re going to experience greater levels of stress and emotional burnout. We’ll spend all our energy trying to make others happy and we’ll forget to take care of our own wants and needs.
With niceness, it’s about knowing why we’re behaving in this way. Do we behave in this way because we genuinely want to? Or is it because we are expected to or because we are desperate for positive attention? If it’s the latter, we’re going to run into problems with anger and resentment.
But I’m a bit advocate for niceness. If we know the motive for it and it is coming from a place of strength, balance and understanding, there’s no such thing as being too nice.
We’re here again.
The Christmas social events are booked in. Pretty sparkling lights are being switched on. The shops are filled with gifts and are pulling at our purse strings. Mariah Carey is crooning in the malls and ‘Love Actually’ is on the tele. There’s magic in the air.
There’s also work deadlines to meet before the holiday can begin. Attempts to fulfil unaccomplished goals before the end of the year. And if 2017, hasn’t been a particularly easy or content year for us or a loved one, the approaching holiday may not in fact be the ‘most wonderful time of the year’.
The countdown to the holidays can be stressful for anyone. But for any of our friends who might be dealing with challenges like grief, divorce, or physical or psychological illness, that stress can feel even more intense. It’s possible they might be concerned that they’ll ruin the holiday for others by failing to muster enough holiday cheer. They may feel pressure to take on obligations that they’re not quite up for.
But as always, there are ways that we can help.
1. Acknowledge that this holiday may be hard
If life has changed for a loved one this year, it makes sense that the holidays will probably change as well. It can help to acknowledge that out loud. Using words. Encourage your friend to let go of the pressure to live up to past holidays.
2. Let them decide who they want to be with...
Our friend might feel pressure to spend time with certain people during the holidays, even though they don’t feel up to it. We can encourage them to see only who they want to see. Just asking them who they want to spend the holidays with can be empowering, because it gives them permission to make the best choice for themselves.
If our loved one is is separated from their support network because of distance or other factors, talk with them about strategies for staying connected. This could include scheduling calls or video chats, writing letters, or making special gifts to give in person in the future.
3. And give them space if they need it
People deal with difficult situations in different ways. Some of us need our friends and family close by, while others need some space. Trust that that our loved one knows what they need better than anyone else. Because they probably do. That said, there are ways we can remind them they aren’t truly alone while still respecting their boundaries. Let them know that we’ll be checking in with them. We can text, email, call, quietly leave cookies at their door, or stop by for a brief visit. We could even ask which option they prefer beforehand.
4. Take some holiday planning off their plate
Let’s face it, the planning part of holidays sucks. If our loved one is indeed up for some company, we could take some pressure off by gathering the right people and start hashing out the details. The goal is to help our loved one enjoy the day by taking some of the work off their plate. Make a holiday plan together. If there’s a holiday dinner, prepare a menu, make a shopping list, and figure out who’s in charge of what.
5. Talk about traditions
For people who have experienced a big change, traditions can be a source of comfort—or a painful reminder of what has been lost. Talk to your friend about what feels right. Are there traditions they want to keep? Do they want to start something new? If they’ve lost or are separated from someone they love, we might suggest honoring that person in some way—say, by lighting a candle or making a donation in their memory. If that’s too painful, skip it. This is all about what feels right.
6. Tell them it’s okay to take a break
A favorite song, the smell of a layered salad, a special ornament—they can all bring back memories of happier holidays. It’s okay to cry, take breaks, or change plans. Think about how to quietly help our loved one take a moment alone if they need it, especially if we’re spending time in a group.
7. Encourage self-compassion
Remind our loved one that there's no need to feel guilty for any perceived missteps they might make—and if they can, to forgive others for the same. Everyone screws up from time to time. We all say or do hurtful or thoughtless things without meaning to. This is hard, and we’re not perfect. But every interaction gives us a chance to try again.
8. Commit to being there beyond the holidays
The holidays can be especially tough, but there's going to be other hard times —like birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and weddings. As others get back to their post-holiday routines, those who are struggling may feel support dwindle. We can do simple things to ensure we're there for the long haul. Set a reminder to send a text message regularly to let your friend or loved one know you’re thinking about them. Mark key dates in our calendars and commit to calling when they come around.
9. Send them a 'real' card.
I’ve just remembered why I was meant to write this blog. To let you know that we've got authentic and genuine Christmas and New Year cards available.
As always, our aim was to put some humanness into these cards. To acknowledge that things are not always wonderful and shiny and peaceful and joyful for everyone during the festive period. But if we continue to show kindness and respect and compassion for each other when things might be really shit, then there still might be a little bit of hope.
The cards can be found here.