How To Deal With Uncertainty, Part II

So, having welcomed all those feelings that my uncertain life was eliciting – the frustration, loneliness, sadness and more – I was in a slightly better position to experience my uncertainty. It didn’t make any of those feelings less pleasant but it did give me a chance to feel them as that is what feelings want – to be felt. Rather than try to deny or suppress them or coat them with endless stories about how much of a loser or failure I was, I just experienced them. In brief, I untethered, a little, my experience of my feelings from my explanation of my feelings (the two are very different). The former is a physical-psychological experience that (hopefully) passes with time as feelings come and go while the latter is an attempt to grab one of those feelings, pin it down and explain it. In welcoming all my feelings my mentor gave me permission to just be sad or lonely or unsure without all the extra baggage (no easy task but I’m glad I started it all those years ago).

Now, I am categorically not saying that we should all just feel like crap, deal with it and move on. There are times when we feel awful for very good reasons – perhaps someone close to us is treating us very badly or we are in a toxic situation at work – and the feelings are indicators that something needs to change. But there are other times when we feel bad in response to a perceived threat – i.e. uncertainty – that might not be as bad as we think. For me, I was feeling bad in response to the uncertainty in my life and was calling on all those other times I had felt bad and compiling them into some grand uber-narrative about how rubbish and awful I was. But in welcoming the feelings and just trying to feel them I managed to undermine the power of the uber-narrative. I genuinely think that while I still went on to feel bad I managed to avoid being pulled down into a prolonged period of depression like I had been before. One big difference was that I had stopped believing the stories I was telling myself. For example, feeling worthless didn’t actually equate to being worthless and I knew the feeling would pass, which made it easier to let go of the oft-repeated story of worthlessness.

In essence, I was trying to make my heart and head work more in harmony – the heart was doing the feeling, the really important stuff, while the brain was trying to make sense of these feelings, i.e. they’re just feelings, not facts (or stories). So I now had more room to observe and experience my uncertain situation rather than get engulfed and overwhelmed by it. This was a big step for me – mindfully and carefully I had approached uncertainty and, discovering it was not as fearful as I had thought, could venture out beyond the edge of my comfort zone. As a caveat, I didn’t just jump into uncertainty with reckless abandon – as I could have become very panicked or distressed – it was a much slower, gentler process than that and if ever I felt it was getting too much I could try and step back. More soon. Now here’s Lady Gaga singing about being on the Edge of Glory because, y’know, edge of comfort zone, edge of glory…perhaps. Anyways, she rocks.


How To Deal With Uncertainty, Part I

In the autumn of 2013 I finished my MSc in Environmental Policy without a clue what to do next. Despite the Masters, I knew I did not want to carry on working in the environmental sector and, despite having rediscovered a love of writing, I knew that writers do not make a lot of money. I went back to live with my parents and slowly waited for that impending sense of doom to catch up with me. Having lived a life of lectures, seminars and essay deadlines I felt myself unravelling with the lack of a rigid timetable. The future weeks and months of my diary stared blankly back at me and it seemed all the things I had achieved in my past didn’t count for much because, now, I wasn’t achieving much at all. As expected, the doom arrived, and it took the form of a big black hole of uncertainty. I fell straight in.

Uncertainty scares a lot of us. It cannot be known, it cannot be controlled and it doesn’t offer any answers as to what to do next. In brief, it freaks us the fuck out. And when we’re freaked out we put up defences – some of us throw ourselves into work or travel itineraries or chocolate or endless Netflix series, all with the aim of staving of that unpleasant feeling of fear as uncertainty approaches. Back in 2013 I didn’t have much work and I certainly didn’t have a Netflix account (was it even a thing then?) and what my uncertain future told me was that I was worthless. All those age-old insecurities of mine like not achieving enough, not having a coherent life plan and not having enough friends came back with vengeance. My defences were down and I wasn’t happy.

As you can imagine things weren’t great for a while but rather than dwell on that (which I’ve done elsewhere) what I want to focus on is how I began to change my relationship with uncertainty. After my Masters I signed up to a course called One Year In Transition, for people who want to do a little good with the work they do but also don’t have a clue where to start. There were six of us doing it and occasionally we’d meet up or Skype, to check in and see how we were coping. I wasn’t always coping very well. As part of the course I was assigned a personal mentor who I would chat with every few weeks and who would give me advice on life stuff. The group was fab and so was my mentor and I will never forget what she said when I started telling her about how awful everything was, about all the loneliness, anger, frustration, insecurity, lack of direction etc. She said one word: welcome. As simple as that, she welcomed all those feelings, and in doing so showed me how to begin to deal with uncertainty. More soon. Not 100% sure this song fits but, hey, some of us get humans as mentors and others get demi-gods.

The Unhappy Tomato

She was just your average tomato: red, rosy and often in good cheer. She loved living in the vegetable aisle. She had lots of friends – the carrots, who liked having a laugh; the outspoken aubergines, who always stood up for each other; the kind courgettes and even the cabbages. She didn’t get on well with the leeks, who were often the bullies of the aisle, but other than that she felt at home. It was a great supermarket as well because vegetables were the top priority and there weren’t that many fruits at all because the store manager didn’t like them. But that didn’t bother tomato and she was happy as she was, until the day she discovered something very important – that she was different – she wasn’t a vegetable after all, she was actually a fruit.

All along she’d been in the wrong aisle and now she was worried about telling her friends. Fruits were always the butt of the vegetables’ jokes and many veggies actively hated fruits, sometimes the potatoes would go round the fruit aisle and beat up a bunch of grapes. She told some of her closest friends and whilst one got all upset the others were supportive of her. But that still wasn’t enough so, one night, she snuck away and went to find the fruits. She didn’t regret it – she met strawberries, bananas, oranges and grapes, and had an absolutely great time as well as making a bunch of new friends. However, as time went by she realised that not all was well in the fruit aisle. Underneath the smiles and the peels she discovered that many of the fruits were damaged and bruised, it turned out being a fruit in a vegetable’s supermarket wasn’t so great after all. She even discovered that many fruits had given themselves up to become juice because they couldn’t take it any more. And so the happy tomato became decidedly unhappy.

Then a new store manager arrived who hated fruits even more than the last and it got quite dangerous for the tomato and her new friends. Nevertheless, they bandied together and prepared themselves for tough times ahead. But the thing that really broke the tomato’s heart was that when she went to visit the vegetable aisle, to see her old friends, they just weren’t that interested. They were so caught up living their veggie lives that they’d never really stopped to consider what it must be like to be a fruit. She tried hanging out with them but the carrots kept cracking jokes about bananas and the auberinges kept going on about how much they hated grapefruits. The friendly parsnip didn’t mind but didn’t really get it either, he even called her his BFF – Best-Fruit-Friend, which pissed her off no end.  And so it dawned on her that whilst she’d been on a long journey from the vegetable to the fruit aisle and made so many new friends, learnt so many new things and had a whole punnet of ace experiences, there were many that hadn’t been on the journey. Something had changed for the tomato and whilst she still had time for her veggie friends she no longer felt quite at home in a vegetable’s world.




That Night I Met Loneliness

I’ve known loneliness for years now but there is one night in particular back in the summer of 2014 that sticks in my memory. My life seemed a bit discombobulated at the time – I wasn’t getting a lot of work, I’d recently moved and things weren’t really slotting into place. And it was one of those evenings – I was out at dinner but wasn’t really connecting with the people around me and didn’t feel very listened to. I said goodbye and cycled over to see some newish friends in a pub but it was too late, I was slipping away and those stories were coming home to roost. The stories of how I had no friends, that I was pointless and worthless, that what I was doing wasn’t really contributing to anything and that I wasn’t living the glamorous 20s lifestyle I was supposed to be. The stories were coming and the cracks were opening. So I left the pub, got on my bike and cycled away.

But for the first time in a long time I did something different. I sang. I just started singing nonsense rhymes as I cycled, not because I’m much of a singer but because I wanted to block out the stories. I wanted to stop them creeping in and making themselves at home. So many times before those stories had destabilised me and often tipped me into periods of depression. I sang to stop myself from thinking. I got back to the random little house I was lodging in and got ready for bed. And there, in the bathroom, I felt something well up inside of me. It wasn’t a story because it wasn’t coming from my head instead it was a feeling in my chest. It felt like an emptiness, it was bleak and desolate, growing between the cracks, and slowly it pushed its way up from my heart and that’s when I started to cry. I cried a lot and hugged myself too as I washed my tears down the sink with toothpaste and Listerine. The feeling bloomed and I knew what it was – loneliness.

I thought I’d share this experience because I think that was the first time I ever psychologically and physically held myself through loneliness. Rather than just let it overwhelm me and flood me with its stories I acknowledged the feeling underneath. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling, not at all, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone but it was a feeling rather than a fact. And to let myself feel it, rather than push it away or succumb to its stories, felt like an achievement of sorts, as lonely as it was. This was by no means the end of the story, things didn’t magically get better and I didn’t suddenly feel fine. I’d need much support from my friends and family (and for once I had the guts to ask for it) and I would need to start slowly, slowly changing the things in my life that were bringing me down. I started with those oft-repeated stories, the ones that thrive off the potent and powerful emptiness of the feeling of loneliness. I had to keep reminding myself that they weren’t true and that I wasn’t worthless. But I guess the real reason I’m sharing this experience is that I’ve heard many people tell me that they fear loneliness. And, yes, it is not something nice and for many it is devastating and can’t just be witnessed and ameliorated. However, for others including myself, it is a feeling and it does pass. And it’s also perfectly normal, a part of all of our lives, and that’s why I was very proud of myself that night I met my loneliness. And now for a suitably melancholic song from Regina Spektor’s new album (yup, I’m just trying to get her to retweet me, one day).

Bleeding Hearts With Regina Spektor

There’s a new Regina Spektor album on the way and I am excited about that. Her latest song Bleeding Heart has a curious melancholy to it. If you listen to each verse it tells the story of someone who, for so long, has been lonely and angry. They’ve been stuck at the back of the class, ignored at the dance, wishing for connection with others but getting rejection instead. So they get bitter, start drinking and wall themselves up in their “prison-like home”, brooding on their memories and hating on the world of judgemental, unfriendly people. “It’s you versus everyone else.” Regina sings on that someday they’ll grow up, forget the pain and move on. That is until they see “a sad pair of eyes…and up will come back all the hurt.” All they’ve repressed and suppressed will come flooding back and even though they want to help they’ll move on because their life has been tough enough, “cause you won the war so it’s not your turn but everything inside still burns.” And they douse that fire with more drink, thinking on the refrain: “never never mind bleeding heart, bleeding heart, never mind your bleeding heart.” But everything changes in the final verse.

How long must I wait till you learn that it’s not too late,
How long must I cry till you know that you really tried,
How long must I try till you learn that dreaming’s hard,
How long must I dream till you heal your bleeding heart,
Never mind your bleeding heart.
And that’s just it, we should always mind our bleeding hearts. Because they’re right there, in our chests, all the time. To not get to know our hearts is like having a smart phone without any apps or only playing Goldeneye on the N64 (as good as that game is) – we’re severely underusing this fantastic piece of technology.  Just like a smart phone, the heart is fragile, prone to breaking and bleeding, and it can be very tough to experience this. What we tend to do though is try and ignore the times when we are hurt and upset. Much simpler to brush these issues aside, pretend we’re ‘fine’ and move on. It’s all that keeping calm and carrying on rubbish, the stiff upper lip bullshit and all the other ways we try to condition and cajole ourselves out of having feelings as we pretend that not being invited to the party didn’t upset us or all those other times we’ve been forgotten and ignored haven’t hurt us. But those things do hurt and their effects do add up and we can’t hide behind seeming indifference and bitterness for too long.
Fortunately, as Spektor in her endless wisdom, already knows, it’s not too late to recognise we are human: fallible, fragile and oh so incomplete. It’s never too late to have another go at being human, to try getting in touch with our emotions and recognising our feelings. We can also acknowledge that we have really tried even if we don’t think we have. We can be kinder to our past selves because they were the ones that got us here and without them we wouldn’t be where we are today. Sure, we might not have always used the best tools or made the best decisions but we did try and that’s something we can keep on doing and maybe now we can do it with better tools and not make the same mistakes. And dreaming is hard, it’s dangerous to want things you might not get and to hope for the best in such seemingly hopeless times. Far easier to wall ourselves up in cynicism and prison-like homes. But isn’t that life of passivity, denial and fear much worse than one of wanting, striving and dreaming? And in amongst the making up for lost time, the trying and the dreaming well maybe, just maybe, our precious bleeding hearts will heal. So, yes, always mind your bleeding heart.

Oprah Winfrey And Brené Brown Are Not Cool

And the funny thing is, they are totally fine with it. So, we all know Oprah – famous, American talk show host, but we might not be as clued up on who Brené Brown is. Well, she’s got a doctorate in social science and a few years ago blasted the world with a great TED talk on vulnerability and has an ace RSA short on empathy – how the ability to feel with people is hugely empowering for both the person in need of support and the one providing it. And now she’s telling us not to be cool. Why?

Because cool “is the biggest armo[u]r ever. It’s almost like disengagement is cool now. You’re not supposed to care.” And she’s right. Cynicism is pretty fashionable nowadays whilst actually trying to care about something is decidedly uncool. But the sad thing is that being cynical about the world and expecting the worst of people doesn’t actually make us right. Cynicism is a defense mechanism not an opinion. It stops us having to engage with the really terrible stuff that is happening in the world because that can be overwhelming and devastating. So we build walls around ourselves to stop the world getting in. But a further irony is that this cynicism distances us from others by making it harder to connect. We become more isolated and in turn get lonelier and sadder. And to protect ourselves further we get more cynical and we fortify those walls.

However, the tougher thing, as Brown would say, is daring to be vulnerable. Admitting that something makes us sad or that a certain state of affairs isn’t okay even if there’s not a huge amount we can do about it. So a crack appears in our armour and through that the world might get in. Unfortunately, it will hurt because there’s a lot of pain out there, as well as in ourselves, but we will also have access to other more positive feelings like joy and happiness. And now I realise I’m sounding like a self-help guru and you’ve probably clicked onto a different blog. But I’ll end with this. Being cynical and being cool do not equate to being strong. We can be vulnerable to our pain and the pain of others and still be strong because that strength will come from resilience (rather than sceptical resistance) which is an organic and human form of armour not an artifice of indifference. Of course it’s not easy and, if you’re cynically inclined, you’ll probably retch at the video below but surely what we need now are people who are uncool enough to care. Equally, we can just redefine cool to include being vulnerable because, hey, I have no intention of joining Brown and Winfrey on the uncool sofa.

Jess Glynne Has Low Standards

News just in, Jess Glynne has low standards, very low standards, and it’s what’s keeping her happy.

There’s a lot of pressure on people to be happy these days: we’ve got to be seen to be busy doing fun things, always smiling, always making the most of life, always on top form, always posting exciting new pics on social media. But often the mask doesn’t fit the reality. “I came here with a broken heart that no one else could see, I drew a smile on my face to paper over me,” sings Glynne in her latest song, and haven’t we all done this before – hidden how we truly feel because we want to fit in. We’re ashamed of not being happy, of being sad, lonely, or bored. “I feel like I’ve been missing me, Was not who I’m supposed to be, I felt this darkness over me, We all get there eventually, I never knew where I belonged.” And Glynne’s right, all this effort we put into constructing an artificially happy self can detract from the often painful but very important task of getting to know ourselves.

But there’s hope and Glynne knows it. “I learned to wave goodbye, How not to see my life, Through someone else’s eyes, It’s not an easy road, But no I’m not alone.” Constantly comparing ourselves to others can be very stressful. When we compare it’s often with other people’s external lives – the stuff they post on social media and the things they feel comfortable talking about surrounded by others. And it’s easy to think that our life is failing because we don’t seem as happy. But other people are people too, they’ll also feel down in the dumps, have bad days and weeks. So it doesn’t make sense to compare our inner lives with others’ outer lives. Of course, comparing less isn’t easy, as Glynne points out, but it’s a good place to start.

“Learn to forgive, learn to let go, Everyone trips, everyone falls.” Yet more sage advice – we do make mistakes all the time and the trick isn’t to beat ourselves up when we fall, it’s to get back up again and learn from our mistakes, even if we make them again. It’s not easy but in time it can work, “But wounds heal and tears dry and cracks they don’t show.” Or maybe the cracks do show, as scars, the scars of living life (wrinkles in our skin if you like) but surely they’re just testimony to being human and trying to live the human condition. “I’m just tired of marching on my own, Kind of frail, I feel it in my bones, Won’t let my heart, my heart turn into stone.” And life can get tiring especially if you do feel alone and isolated, caught in the stigma that being unhappy, sad and facing difficulty is somehow wrong and a sign of failure. I certainly remember a vivid period of depression in my early 20s. I feared telling other people about it because I felt ashamed and confused. But then I made a new friend who was also suffering from depression and we spoke to each other about it, without judgement just with support, and it made all the difference. So the hope is that we won’t always have to march alone but can reach out to others for support.

“I’m standin’ on top of the world, right where I wanna be, So how can this dark cloud be raining over me.” Yup, even when we feel we should be happy because everything’s going well doesn’t mean we actually feel happy. But Glynne’s got a remedy: “But hearts break and hells a place that everyone knows, So don’t be so hard on yourself.” And that’s just it, we are often so hard on ourselves, we often beat ourselves up for not meeting certain standards of success, perfection, constant happiness, etc. Instead, maybe we could lower these standards and just let ourselves be fallible, fragile humans with hearts that our vulnerable and eminently breakable. We don’t have to be happy all the time and we don’t have to be mean to ourselves when we’re unhappy. So yeah, I’m with Glynne on this one, those standards – drop ’em.