Category Archives: Thinking about feeling

Poor Little Me

The Poor Little Me is a character from Hopeless Maine, inspired in part by Eliza Carthy’s song ‘Me and Poor Little Me.’ I started wondering what a Poor Little Me would be like, and thinking about possible examples. It’s a really unpleasant way of being, but in a rather passive-aggressive kind of way.

The PLM says ‘oh, poor you, that’s so bad, you must feel terrible. That must be awful, I bet its really getting to you, you must hate it, you must really be struggling there.’ At first it sounds like sympathy, and when we’re hurting, sympathy is welcome. After a while it sounds like pity – because they do it a lot, at very little provocation. Given long enough exposure, and it sucks out confidence and power, and you become this frail, useless thing and they become the big, powerful thing. Poor you.

Of course we can do it to ourselves as well – if we’ve internalised those voices, or we like to wallow too much. There are times when a good dose of ingratitude and self pity are necessary for getting life into perspective and taking action. The problem is taking up residence there. If you look at everything and see how it could have gone better and say ‘poor me’ for what you didn’t get, you’ll talk yourself into victimhood, despair and dysfunction.

In terms of dealing with the PLM as an inner voice, noticing it happening is key, and then challenging it. It’s important to deliberately look for the good in things as well as seeing what’s awry, this balance is essential to decent mental health. Often the destructive voices that live in our heads come from other places, so identifying whose voice it is can help with an eviction process.

In terms of having a PLM in your life, again noticing is key, because it will be offered in the guise of kindness and they will be ever so nice to you as they tell you how ghastly your life is. It’s very hard to protest or resist. The only method I’ve found is to step back. If rumbled, a PLM can become nasty – far more distressed that you could see them that way than they will ever be by the idea that they were making you uncomfortable.

How do we avoid becoming a PLM? Watch out for pity. Sympathy in a time of crisis can be supportive, but if it’s all we offer, it sounds like pity, and it also focuses the recipient on their woes. Make the effort to go further, offer something positive, encouraging or helpful alongside your sympathy. Act to empower the people you’re dealing with. Empty sympathy noises are easy – which is why we make them, so becoming damaging to someone else may be more about laziness than malice. Empathising and working out what could change things is a good deal more useful.

PLMing may happen to silence another person, perhaps with a feeling of justification because they keep going on about their woes. Yes, it’s terrible, poor you, you can shut up about it now. When it happens for those reasons, it doesn’t solve problems, or tackle a PLM living in someone else’s head, and it can isolate people who really are in trouble.

And if you’re curious about the PLM as a character, do click through to this blog post – https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2017/01/27/salamandra-and-the-plm/


The logic of emotion

We tend to think of emotion as inherently irrational, and thinking as holding the scope for logic and reason. However, emotion is basically body chemistry. It is a series of chemical events in response to whatever’s going on and if we knew all the details, we could no doubt express emotion as chemical equations.

Many things impact on our emotions – our blood sugar, circadian rhythms, exposure to sunlight, our physical health, events we experience etc and of course what we think about those experiences. There’s a straightforwardness to this. A person who has gone too long without food, a person who is too cold and wet, will feel lousy.

However, rather than taking our emotions at face value, and dealing with them, we tend to get our minds involved. Often, the impulse is to blame someone else and take out negative feelings on them. The low blood sugar becomes ‘you never listen to me’ or somesuch. Good experiences can leave us with all kinds of crazy stories about worth, meaning, and entitlement.

Unlike our emotions, our minds are capable of incredible, creative irrationality. We can imagine and wonder. We look for explanations, patterns, causes, and we can be persuaded that correlation is causality. We can be persuaded of all kinds of illogical, unreasonable, unsubstantiated things. By way of evidence for this, I offer you social media, fake news, and rather a large percentage of religious activity. We think our minds are rational, but we’re persuaded by emotive fact bending, by blame and shame, hate and anger, the desire to get one back against some imagined infringement. We don’t think logically.

Emotions are like weather systems – not always good, or useful, but a physical reality caused by complex influences. There is a logic to them. We have the means to change our internal weather, and the choice of what meaning to apply to it. If we treat our emotions like weather, we can take them seriously (sun hat or wellies today?) while recognising that none of them are permanent. They are the truth of our body existing in the world, they are not inclined to lie to us, although we can develop weird feedback loops if the mind gets too involved.

Treat the mind as something with the potential for irrationality, and things change. The assumption that an apparent line of logic proves something, becomes a good deal less convincing. The interplay between mind and emotion becomes more visible. If we ignore what our emotions are trying to tell us and let our minds make up explanatory stories, we can end up in all kinds of muddles.

Sometimes, it’s just indigestion. Sometimes it’s just that there hasn’t been enough sun lately.


Seasonal Blues

It is a perfectly reasonable, human thing to struggle with the winter. The shorter days, often with far less sunlight mean those of us in the northern part of the earth are short of vitamin D. Some of us suffer seasonal affective disorder. For some, the cold, the treacherous footing, and the dark nights are a downer. This is the first year in ages where those dark nights haven’t been a real barrier to me having a social life, and that’s in no small part because I’ve now frequently got things to do of a Sunday afternoon.

For anyone whose finances are tight, winter adds extra pressure – for some it means a choice between heating and eating, for some even that choice isn’t available. This is an unkind season, an isolating season, a killing season. Many people roll out of the festive period into the harsh reality of increased debt at the start of the New Year.

I often find there’s a backlash after midwinter festivity – yes, in theory the light is returning, but it seems a long way off, it still gets dark early, it’s still cold, there are a good two months of this to come… but now there’s nothing much to look forward to. The feeling that it should be getting easier can contribute to actually feeling worse about it.

I’m luckier than many people because there are viable solutions for me. I can add colour, warmth and light as needed. I do now have the resources – financial and energetic – to connect with people at this time of year. I have places I can go and things I can do. But I’ve also been on the other side of this, cut off, cold, stuck, and without the resources to change any of it. That’s not a good place to be. If you know someone who could be isolated by this time of year, drop them a line, call them, if it makes sense to show up, show up. It can be a lifeline – in a practical sense and also emotionally.


In search of perfect indulgence

Perfect indulgence satisfies a craving without creating new problems of its own. It feels like a treat, it gives pleasure to body, mind and /or soul, but there’s no ghastly price tag. The problem often is that when seeking indulgence, what we get is excess and the unpleasant consequences of excess instead. Here in early January, watching people I know on social media talking about the need to detox, rest their livers and deal with the impact on their waistlines, it is clear that for many, winter festivities meant excess, not indulgence.

Taken at face value it seems like a no-brainer that we’d avoid indulging to the point where it instead becomes a source of misery. Speaking as someone who has been drunk enough to fall off their own shoes, I’m all too aware it doesn’t work like that. We think we’ll get away with it. We don’t recognise when we’ve reached the high point and tipped over into something else. We think there’s more fun to be had. No one goes out with the intention of drinking until they throw up.

There’s also, I think, an issue that the more insufficiency we feel, the more likely we are to go for excess rather than indulgence. As though the accumulated feeling of need can be answered in a single binge session. A better pattern of ongoing good stuff means less getting into the desire to surfeit. On the whole, lots of small bits of good are of more use than a lot of rather narrow living and a big splurge. Of course there can be financial patterns underpinning this, with the need to cut back after the splurge creating the desire for the next one.

Joy, jollity, fun – we may be inclined to think that these are things to do spontaneously, with a carefree spirit and no counting of the costs. However, like everything else in life, it works better with a bit of reflection and self knowledge. A bit of canny balancing can make your indulgences go a long way, and keep the costs minimal. A lie in until eight or nine at the weekend feels blissful to me, and leaves me most of the day to do other things. Get up at lunch time, groggy, and the day can be a write-off.

If your acts of indulgence leave you feeling horrible afterwards, you’re doing it wrong. It’s taken me long enough to properly figure this out! Other options exist aside from binges, and those other, more measured approaches can deliver a lot more fun for your money, and don’t come back to bite you the next day. Binges don’t solve underlying needs, they don’t fill empty holes in the self, they don’t compensate us for lives that are otherwise drab and unsatisfying. A pattern of binge and starve, over-extend and recover, splurge and pay of the debt can lock us into cycles where we never get to feel like we’re ahead, never really get to feel good about things. The less good we feel, the more attractive the binge becomes. Break the cycle, and the scope for having a good time more of the time actually improves.


Lessons from 2016

I’m a big fan of pausing now and then to review my experiences so that I can see what there is to be learned. The end of a calendar year is a very obvious point at which to do this. Normally I review things on a day to day basis, but some patterns and lessons only really emerge when a bigger time frame is considered.

2016 delivered a run of intensive lessons about how I value myself, and how I act based on that value. For too long, I’ve been over-grateful for any kind of place to be involved, any sense of being wanted, or useful, or tolerated. In practice this has made me vulnerable to people who want to use me, and has put me in places that don’t give me what I need. At a less unpleasant level, it has also put me in places of half-heartedness and lack of commitment, and those don’t suit me either.

What I need, above and beyond all else in terms of work and community is the emphatic ‘Yes’. I need the people who are wholehearted about wanting me in the mix and who will accept my wholehearted and serious commitment. Situations that want me half-hearted, not too intense, and so on, crush me over time. I have realised that if I assume nothing better is available, then I won’t be looking for anything better. This year I started looking for the social spaces that give me an emphatic yes. I’d come to think of my marriage as a little bubble of difference, a unique space that I couldn’t hope to replicate in terms of the feeling of being valued, accepted and inspired. It’s not just us, I just needed to learn how to look, and to believe it was worth looking.

For a couple of years now, working at Moon Books part time has been an absolute joy, because that’s a space where my energy, ideas, innovation and efforts are valued and trusted. I love that work, and it has become the measure for other things I take on with other people (measuring everyone against Tom would seem unfair). If it’s not as good as Moon Books, if I’m not as excited about it, if I’m not working with people who are that fired up… why would I bother?

What I’ve found is that spaces, and people are becoming more available to me. I want to do the work that only I can do. I want to do work that is needed and valued. I want to spend my spare time with people who are delighted to do that, not with people who grudgingly accommodate and find me difficult. 2016 has taught me that I can have those things, and I don’t need to waste any more of my time on half-hearted nonsense.


In search of a lost, manic pixie

There’s a concept in a lot of shamanist traditions, of soul retrieval. The idea that bits of us get lost along the way – often in a context of trauma – and that we need help to bring those parts of soul back. I’m not a shaman. I’ve felt for a long time that I had indeed lost vast swathes of my identity. Go back six years or so and I had no idea who I was, what I felt, or thought, wanted or needed. I’ve spent years rebuilding, and looking for tools for rebuilding.

One of the things I’ve done is to look back at who I was at a time when I felt that I recognised myself, and made sense to myself. I can’t be who I was at any point previously, but it gives me some guidance for working out what I need to explore.

As a teenager, I danced. A Lot. I danced like a wild and demented pixie, with a shameless joy in my body, and the movement of my body that I also felt when swimming, and playing musical instruments, but not in much that involved other people. A lot of the time I felt really awkward in my body. That stayed with me, and the times of feeling good in my body reduced.

I started dancing again this summer. Awkward on my feet at first, not confident of my balance, and trying to work with a sore, stiff body that couldn’t dance like I used to, and needing to totally re-learn how to move. It was not easy re-starting – I felt very exposed and it also meant dealing with all the emotions tangled up in my messy relationship with my own form. My dancing was not what I wanted it to be, and I accepted it, and did what I could.

I’ve put in a lot of time – primarily working on my balance, so that I can be easier on my feet. Working with each part of the body in turn to find out what can move, and how to move. Working out how far I can push in terms of energy use, how not to jar myself, how to work slowly when the music is fast. I re-learned that one of the things dancing does for me is to give me a space to express and process the kind of complex emotions that cannot be dealt with just by thinking about them.

Dancing in spaces with other people, my confidence improved. I started feeling safer, and acceptable. Part of the block to going back to dance had been a sense that my body would not be acceptable to other people – too fat, too awkward, too ugly, too ungainly… I have a lot of body-image issues and tend to project them, imagining everyone else is going to see me as I do, and as a few people in my life have been very explicit about seeing me. But, I can go to a space where people dance and not face shaming, humiliation or anything like that. I’ve found accepting, nurturing space. I’m learning how to feel acceptable.

As a consequence of this, I’ve got easier in my own body, more willing to experiment and push my own boundaries with how I move, and it has done me considerable good.

Then, at the last session, a magic thing happened. I pushed just a little bit harder, and found that in small bursts, I could dance like some sort of demented pixie. It doesn’t matter that I can’t now do that into the wee small hours, it doesn’t matter that I have to do little flurries and take breaks – because for minutes at a time, I can still dance with my manic pixie self, and feel something like what I felt as a much younger human.

I can’t change my history. I am only going to get older and weirder with this cranky body of mine. But I can still dance.


Working with triggers

*this is about triggers, no triggering content*

A person who is triggered, experiences a devastating physical reaction to a situation. This does not mean feeling sad, or scared or a bit hurt, in the way people who like to downplay it will suggest. It’s about finding yourself reliving what happened to traumatise you, or re-feeling it in your body, or feeling the kinds of all consuming terror that go with your body thinking you are about to be back in that situation.

It’s not a thinking process, and as a consequence, it’s very hard to get in control of it, or slow it down, or pull yourself out of it.

I’ve discovered very recently that if I can recognise my response as triggering, I have just a tiny crack into which I can insert some leverage. Rather than getting caught up in the body response, and the horror of the body response, if I can notice the process, I can challenge it. The only way I’ve found to do this is to consciously and deliberately risk-assess the situation I am in, to see how real the threat is that I’m actually going into an awful and dangerous situation. There are patterns of behaviour that trigger me because in another context they would have been danger signs. However, in my current context, maybe those things aren’t as threatening as they seem.

It gives me room to bring conscious thought into play, and that puts me back in control.

One of the things underlying my panic, is the fear that the cause of historical mistreatment was me – that I acted in ways that encouraged, enabled, maybe even caused what happened. For a long time I believed it was what anyone would do, faced with someone like me. To break out of that, I’ve needed years in the company of people who do not see any aspect of who I am as a justification for mistreatment of any sort. I’ve started to trust that.

Which leads me to a very important point: I’ve got to the point of being able to unpick some of my triggers a bit, and I could not have done this alone. What it has taken to get me to this point is the love, kindness, patience, support, affection, generosity and welcoming good natures of a whole of lot of people.

I have said it before and I will say it again – individual mental health is not an individual issue, we do so much better when we take care of each other. Healing wounds to head and heart requires safe spaces and support, there’s just no other way. What’s going on here is a broken sense of trust, a broken relationship with other humans, caused by trauma. To heal, is to feel safe in the company of other humans, and to do that you need other humans who will help you feel safe. Profound thanks from me to everyone (and there are a lot of you) who have played a part in this journey. Some of you have walked through fire with me to get me to this point. I could not have done it without you.


Is it bullying?

Person A says that person B is bullying them. Person B denies it. Who do you believe? If you ignore it, you could well be enabling bullying and leaving a victim open to further abuse. One of the biggest problems in this scenario is that bullies are often very quick to claim victim status. Take as an example the man in the habit of screaming ‘you’re abusing me’ at the woman whose bones he broke (true story).

There are no foolproof ways of resolving this kind of situation, but here are some things to bear in mind.

People who can get out of bullying situations early on, do. However, where there’s a power imbalance – as there can be with workplace bullying, the victim may not be able to leave. Domestic abuse can include hidden power imbalances. Money, work, age, physical condition, size, and the invisible power of emotional blackmail can all be factors here. That a person has not managed to leave is not proof that they aren’t a victim.

People trapped in bullying situations become demoralised and less able to protect themselves. They may internalise blame and shame and feel it really is their fault. The person who admits they’re a horrible, worthless person may not actually be the bully. Demoralised people stay because they don’t believe anything better could happen anywhere else – this is what they deserve, it’s their fault and they may feel obliged to stay and try to put things right.

It is not bullying to express pain, difficulty, distress, or unhappiness. It is not bullying to disagree with someone or say no to them. People who bully seem to feel they have to be right, superior, more important and more powerful. This means they often can’t hear genuine negative feedback. They may try to call out as a bully anyone who doesn’t actively support their fragile egos. People in this situation are actually in trouble and potentially headed for more trouble – tortuous double thinking and mental health problems arise for people who can’t admit they make mistakes, and can’t hear negative feedback. Most of us are not equipped to deal with their problems, and misplaced support can increase the cognitive dissonance for someone unable to face their own shortcomings.

However, when all you do is feed back in a negative way, while insisting on staying in a situation, all you do is grind the other person down. What should happen if one person is doing a dreadful job but can’t be told and can’t be removed, and reacts to truth as though they are being victimised? And how do you tell this from a person who is actually being victimised?

A genuine victim will very likely be glad of any help and support, even if they feel they are to blame. They are likely to want to co-operate, and will be looking for ways to deflate the situation, make sense of it, reduce the drama, improve their own safety and get things on a more comfortable footing. They may be confused about what’s going on, distressed, or they may be angry if they understand what’s happening.

A bully pretending to be a victim wants attention and drama above all else. They don’t want the situation to resolve – and if it does they will rapidly create a new one to replace it. They will likely make demands about outcomes, they will be more likely to want the kind of justice that harms their ‘aggressor’ and their actions are more likely to move things towards isolating, excluding or otherwise harming the person who is actually their victim. They won’t hear criticism and they won’t accept mediation that requires them to take any responsibility at all for their own role in things. They may present as wounded and distressed or as angry alongside this.

It isn’t an easy way to go, but often the best way to find out who is actually a victim, and who is playing the victim in order to bully someone, is to get in there and offer help and mediation. Go in as a neutral party with a view to resolving things, and you’ll see the inside of the situation more clearly, and the responses of those you are trying to help. That gives you a basis in personal experience from which to decide how then to proceed. If it’s genuinely a personality clash, you can help resolve it, and if there’s really a victim and an aggressor, you’ll be better placed to see who is taking which roles. In situations of domestic abuse, the victim is in most danger of being killed or injured at the point when they try to leave. I strongly advise seeking help from the police. If you can’t take the mediator’s role, actively support a path towards mediation.

People die as a consequence of bullying – from aggression that goes too far, deliberate violence that murders, and as suicides. It’s important to take these situations seriously, because often it takes input from someone else to solve this and keep people safe. I suggest that if anyone claims to be being bullied, they should be heard with compassion and respect, as a first move. A person who comes forward as a victim is always in trouble, it just may not be the kind of trouble they’re claiming it to be.


How’s the Water?

There’s a lovely cartoon out there of two young fish swimming past an old fish, and the old fish asks ‘how’s the water?’ and the younger fish are confused. That which seems normal is bloody difficult to spot.

There are a great many problems that are difficult to tackle if you haven’t figured out what the water is. The beliefs and assumptions we carry. Our sense of what is acceptable, the things we’ve had to become used to. If being in pain is the water, then noticing it in a way that makes it possible to do differently is essential to change things. The same is true for anxiety. If you’ve settled into a place where fear is normal, noticing how fear acts on you and what might alleviate it, is surprisingly difficult.

If our water is the belief that we are utterly good people, we may not be able to recognise when our behaviour is hurting someone else.

So, how do you figure out what you’re swimming in? You have to be prepared to discover something you might not like, and face up to it. You have to be willing to change. If you go into this looking for affirmation that you don’t need to make any changes, you can’t do this kind of work.

Clues to the nature of your water will come from the differences you have with others. Things you say that other people seem to struggle with. Things you do that don’t get the results you expect. Bits of your life that plain aren’t working. Anything that inexplicably hurts, frustrates, annoys you or makes you anxious is worth a look. If you know why you feel as you do, leave that area of your life out of it, as likely it can’t tell you much. Who winds you up for no obvious reason? Who makes you feel insecure? Who are you itching to take down? Who are you afraid of, or jealous of?

When things aren’t working for us, it is often because we have stories, no longer relevant coping mechanisms, or other wonky or outdated thought patterns that are stopping us from thinking clearly or acting in relation to what’s actually going on right now.

What’s in our water can make us complicit in situations that don’t help us at all. My own deep sense of worthlessness and my feeling that I don’t deserve to be well treated have been part of my water for so long that I’d not noticed them impacting on my actions and relationships. Ironically, it took someone pushing beyond what I consider acceptable behaviour to make me look properly at my sense of self worth, and rethink my attitude. I’ve a way to go yet, but the water is a good deal less murky for me than it used to be.

On some levels, I self sabotage. Treating myself as worthless, I’ve not been careful of resources, of physical or emotional wellbeing. I’ve allowed other people to wear me out. I’ve not held boundaries or stepped away when I needed to. I could flip this over into beating myself up and telling myself that all my problems are of my own making, but that actually keeps me in the same murky water I was in before. To change the water I swim in, I have to be genuinely willing to think about myself in different ways. I have to be willing to negotiate differently with other people, and to rethink my relationships with everything and everyone I encounter. It’s not easy. Recognising complicity does not mean making myself responsible for how others have treated me.

How’s the water? Confusing. But I do at least know that it’s there, and this is progress.


The Energy of Anger

Anger gets things done. It gives us the drive to rise up, making noise and change. If someone can tap into our anger, we can be persuaded to act in all kinds of unsavoury ways, feeling justified by the force of our emotions. As we live in a culture where anger itself is seen as a reason for violence, if we get angry, any physical or psychological violence we undertake as a consequence can seem justified. We may even be proud of it, our anger having told us that we have the moral high ground, and that the ends justify the means.

I think it’s always worth being wary about what we can be manipulated into doing. So much of what is nasty in politics right now comes from feeding the anger of people who feel squeezed and then telling them who to blame. And so the anger that should more rightly have been directed towards power and money is instead used to hate the poor, refugees and other powerless, vulnerable people who make easy targets.

The energy of anger feels powerful, but the trouble is that on its own, all we can use it for is to knock down. Sometimes a bit of knocking down is necessary, but it’s never a whole solution. If all we have to work with was anger then we are not prepared for dealing with the aftermath – again modern politics is littered with unfortunate examples. We go to war, we have no idea how to build peace.

In the short term, the rush of anger energy may seem productive, but it tends to emotionally exhaust people. It won’t feed or inspire you, and to stay angry you have to deliberately keep stoking the fires of hate, and this seldom does anyone much good. Groups whose unity depends on anger have to keep finding new things to hate in order to keep moving. When anger is your energy there has to be a bad guy, an enemy, and something to fight against. You can’t make anything better when your whole way of being relies on having someone to fight. You can’t smash patriarchy, you have to build an alternative.

It’s really important not to get caught up in anger, but instead to keep an eye on what we are fighting for. What’s the real goal? What are we building? How are we going to make things better? Anger used alongside this, for short term necessary bursts of action, can serve a cause well. Anger on its own can only lock us into more fighting and destruction.