Tag Archives: social

Being crap together

Being professional means putting a brave face on it, feigning competence when you feel you have none. Smiling at people because it’s your job to smile at people and not because anything inside you feels like smiling. It’s not necessarily just a work issue. Maybe in your family you are the one who is always calm, clever, able to figure stuff out. Maybe in your friend circle you’re the joker, the one who cheers everyone else up.

When you’re depressed, the roles that you usually play can feel like awkward masks. Taking the mask off and showing what’s really going on may be unthinkable. Playing the roles you’ve got when you don’t feel equal to any of them takes a toll, and that emotional cost can push you further into the dark places. Depression can tell you that no one would accept you if you took the mask off and showed them what was really going on.

What happens if we are crap together? What happens if you spend some time with other people and no one has to be clever, or shiny or on top of things? If it’s ok to be tired and have poor concentration, and the conversation lurches awkwardly and is slow and full of gaps… but those gaps aren’t awkward and no one is jumping into the spaces to make anyone else feel small or useless.

Imagine a social space where showing up as you are is totally fine. Where you sit at the table all evening and barely manage a word, but that’s ok, and no one judges you for it or makes anything of it. Imagine not having to pretend to be upbeat for the sake of those around you.

Feeling safe, feeling honest and able to be as you are is a huge gift. It is worth taking a look at the expectations we pile onto ourselves and asking if that’s really how it is. Sometimes it is worth taking the risk of showing up feeling crap and with nothing much to offer. It is always worth embracing other people’s crapness and just having space for them even when they aren’t up to much. It is a huge gift to give. Low expectations can be generous blessings in other people’s lives.

When we move away from ideas of who we are supposed to be in our social lives and make space for where we are, connections with people become deeper and more authentic. If you’ve bought into ideas about presenting as clever, successful, socially potent and all the rest of it, this is a hard crossing to make. On the other side there is more peace, ease, relief and far less stress. When we can be real with each other, when we can be crap together, the world is a far kinder place.

Depressed people are often encouraged to get over it, make an effort, give more in social situations and are often pushed (including by CBT therapy) to try and act ‘normal’. What I’ve found in practice is that if the people around you have room for you to be as you are, however gloomy that is, things get easier. Permission to be your real, hurting self and feeling seen and accepted in that state changes so much. A fake it until you make it approach does not, in my experience, fix depression. It may hide it, but it is only adding to the emotional burden. The person who can be real may find a firmer footing from which they can get back on top of their life and feel better about things.

 


How we connect

Once upon a time, there was a much bigger divide between ‘ordinary’ people and ‘famous’ people. The internet has largely ended that because many of us get opportunities to enter into conversations with people who are more famous than us. Sometimes this is wonderful, and sometimes it brings out the worst people are capable of. People online are, basically, people, with all the diversity that implies.

My background includes a lot of folk music, and in folk there has never been that hard line between performer and audience. You can go to a session or a singaround and be sat next to someone whose name is on the posters. I think it’s a lot healthier for all involved when we treat each other as people and approach each other in a more equitable way.

One of the things I find really entertaining is the people who aren’t famous, who attempt to use social media as though they were. They just come in and talk about their writing, and their book. It does seem to be novels more than any other thing. Although a surprising number of people calling themselves social media experts seem to do it as well! Why anyone thinks that endlessly shouting about their own work will engage people and sell books, remains a mystery to me.

I’ve nothing against people trying to sell their own work – it is a challenge. We accept adverts from big companies with little question, where lone creators trying to promote their stuff can be given a hard time for it. If your job doesn’t have a marketing department or a sales team, you have no choice but to promote what you do in order to make a living. But there are questions about how to do this well.

Being social is not an optional extra. If you are a human trying to deal with other humans, being social is key. It’s how we get things done. To be social, you have to engage with other people. You have to be both interested and interesting. Have you ever bought a book because you accepted a friends request from a stranger and they sent you a direct message about their book straight away? Anyone?

We don’t think about things enough, often. We don’t think enough about other people’s motivations and inclinations. We don’t think about how to connect with each other – not if we’re bombarding each other with sales material. As someone who does a lot of promoting and marketing in the day job, I can say that this is a thing. If you think about what people might want from you, it’s a lot easier to sell stuff. If you don’t assume that of course they’ll all want your thing, it is easier to sell stuff. If you treat everyone like they are at least potentially valuable and interesting, you are on a better footing.


Pondering Friendship

I remember going to playgroup as a three year old and having no real idea what to make of other children or how to connect with them. There seemed to be rules, codes, secret understandings that I knew nothing about. That feeling lingered all through primary school where I made few friends. At secondary school I managed to find my way into a couple of social groups, but it was still a bit of a mystery. At college I found myself feeling exactly the way I had as a three year old at playgroup as the people around me rapidly befriended each other.

I’m terrible at making friends with people. However it’s not simply that I’m an introvert. I like people. I’m just not very good at being around people.

During my twenties, I discovered social spaces where the rules are explicit. Folk clubs, jamming sessions, rituals, meditation sessions. Give me a structure I could easily see, tell me who I’m supposed to be, or a job around which the social contact revolves, and I do ok.  I feel more secure when I know who I am supposed to be and what I am supposed to be doing. I also feel more able to cope in social situations if I have a large piece of wood (aka a bouzouki) between me and everyone else.

When I landed in Stroud some years ago, there wasn’t a folk club I could get to and I didn’t really know anyone, and I had to build a social life from scratch. It was very slow, and I found it really hard. How do you ask people to make room for you? How do you tell where you fit? In the end, it wasn’t me, but Tom who made most of the key moves that got us into some kind of social relationship with others. That and a few people who made moves towards us.

I like people, and I like being in social spaces, but I find being sociable very hard work. Part of it is that I often don’t have much energy to start with. Part of it is because I dread being asked how I am – most days I’m not ok, I’m usually in pain and/or dealing with depression and anxiety. I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to lie about it. I also hate being asked how the work is going – there’s one exception, one friend who I don’t mind asking, for all kinds of reasons, but generally it’s something I don’t want to talk about. Mostly I go out to get away from the work. Mostly my writing is slower and more sporadic than I want it to be.

I also dread being drawn into any kind of debate, or intellectual knock about. I’m often tired by the time I go out, and not at my sharpest, and deep discussion can be beyond me. I hate point scoring and one upmanship and people playing devil’s advocate. I don’t have the spoons for it.

I’m very lucky at the moment in that I have some people to spend time with who never ask me to be bright or clever, are never combative and don’t even seem to mind the fact that I’m not always very communicative. It is like being Eeyore in the hundred acre wood. No one seems to expect me to be anything other than Eeyore, but they still invite me to parties.


Am I splaining?

We all do it, and often for perfectly innocent reasons. We tell people stuff they already know in a way they could find patronising and offensive. The most common innocent reason is just having learned something and being really excited about it. Given half a chance, kids and teens splain at adults. It’s good to affirm them by hearing them out and then gently letting them know that you knew. One day, they will tell you something you didn’t know and that will be exciting all round.

Sometimes we splain because we’re trying to do empathy or express that we know what it’s like, and we pitch it wrong. Sometimes in this case the splaining is in the ears of the listener, because we’re not splaining, we’re trying to tell them our truth about similar experiences. Maybe, because we’ve not previously found someone who might get what we’ve been through, we get over excited and don’t pick up on cues.

We may be someone who, due to hardware issues, can’t easily read the kind of social cues people give off when they are hearing something they know about.

This is why I won’t leap to the conclusion that I’m being splained to at the first round. I won’t default to the assumption that the other person is trying to patronise me and under-estimates my knowledge, experience and brain capacity. I wait and see what happens if I then get to say ‘yes, I know how this is.’ At that point, I might get a solidarity conversation. I might get a bit of back-pedalling, an apology or a change of direction – all of this tells me there was only the desire to share information, not to put me down. The person who ignores this and keeps splaining – then they could well be splaining for real, and I’m likely to be rude. But they could have learning difficulties or problems with social situations and I don’t want to give someone a hard time for things they have little control over.

Some of it, is about knowing how to have a conversation, and not everyone does. Rushing in with a big information dump can be a sign of social difficulty – nerves, inexperience, difficult dealing with people and the such. The more socially skilled person will ask a question to try and get a feel for what the other person knows, and will proceed slowly, so as not to look like an arse.

Splaining is definitely a thing, I’ve been on the wrong end of it. It is a thing men all too often do to women. It can be a thing adults do to younger humans. It can be a thing those who are ok do to those who are not ok – and mostly it’s about shutting the other person up, and making them feel so small and stupid that they go away. It’s about power, and it is a way of asserting social dominance.

However, like many expressions of a problem, it can be taken up and used against people who are vulnerable. It’s not a good idea to get angry with an excited child who has just splained something to you. If we’re to quick to hear splaining, we can miss that this is someone trying to express solidarity and shared experience. If they didn’t look disabled, or gay, or mixed race, and we assume we know what they are by looking…  it can be unpleasant.

Calling something ‘splaining’ can be a way to shut down a conversation, derail it and humiliate the other party. If that’s the main aim, then it needs looking at. We won’t solve the real issues of condescending explanations and misplaced assumptions by letting everything that annoys us get labelled that way.


Dependent human

We evolved to be communal creatures living in extended families. And yet, I see so much contemporary advice on the importance, and healthiness of being independent. Need someone too much and you’ll get labelled as co-dependent.

We start early with this process. It is normal to hand over your baby to someone else when that baby is only a few months old, and go back to work. No doubt human history is full of things you didn’t do while holding a baby, but in a hunter-gatherer arrangement it is fair to assume the gatherer has the baby tied to them. Generally, mammals keep their offspring close beside them until the offspring is ready to fend for itself. Parents take it in turns to hunt, and to watch the little ones, or they hunt and come back and the little ones are not left for long. We don’t do that.

Family life is ever more fragmented, with few households sitting down regularly to eat together, or just spend time together. We are to sit alone in our own rooms, staring at our own screens and eating our own ready meal… what a miserable way to exist.

I’ve seen estimates that the modern human sees more people in a year than a mediaeval person would have done in their whole life. We can have a lot of human activity going on, but no intimacy, no depth of relationship, no reliance or trust. If you are surrounded by a vast sea of people who mean very little to you, perhaps independence makes sense as an idea.

I am a social creature. I need to know where I belong and who my people are. If I don’t have a tribe, I feel ungrounded, and a bit lost. For preference I want a tribe that knows it is a tribe, where conscious involvement in each other’s lives, care and mutual support is a given. I function best in groups of less than a dozen and I can comfortably belong to more than one such group, although I find I have one group where that feeling of connection is most profound and important to me.

Unashamed of being a social creature I can admit that I need the people around me. Most of the time I don’t need them to do anything specific, just be themselves and be part of my life. Their stories and adventures, their cares and ambitions become part of my story too. We make a life, and a future out of that.

There are people who recoil in horror when anyone says ‘need’. People who have learned to fear the idea of being thought co-dependent. People who fear being diminished if they hand over anything of their precious independence. But, there’s something very beautiful indeed about being in the company of people who are not afraid to need each other.


Keeping it real

We are social animals and we often do better when we can gather with other people. I’ve been noticing over the last few months some of the ways in which social media doesn’t answer social need.

In times of difficulty, many of us seek relief in saying what’s going on, but on social media at the moment this translates into a relentless wall of negativity. I find, and I’m no doubt not alone in this, that I can’t come up with something good, supportive, encouraging or just simply witnessing for every facebook friend who is struggling each day. I’d like to be able to, but with the way politics is grinding most of us down right now, it would be a full time job, and I don’t have the emotional resilience to do it.

By contrast, I found myself at a spoken word event at the weekend, where politics came up. Politics handled by clever, funny, good hearted people turned into the cathartic power of being able to laugh at it in a room full of likeminded souls. I came away feeling better about things.

I’m lucky in that I live somewhere there are more good and affordable events than I can get to in a week. I’m blessed with a fantastic network of friends as well. No matter how bad things look, they seem less grim when in the company of other people who care, and feel anxious, frustrated, angry… because what we do with those feelings over a pint or on a walk enables us to witness each other, and think about how to keep going, where the bright spots may be and so forth. Sharing with people in person has power.

Of course not everyone can get into spaces with other people, for all kinds of reasons. I’ve been there – cut off by a lack of transport and money, living in a place where very little happened. It helps if those who have the means are willing to get themselves to the people who don’t once in a while. It helps when we think about each other and support each other.

It doesn’t take prohibitive amounts of time and effort to name a place and time. I’ve been doing this for a while now, and doing it as someone with unreliable energy levels and limited resources. Keeping it minimal helps. A drink and draw in the pub. A walk. A picnic. Making sure there’s easily accessible space every weekend for anyone who wants it. Posting on events and social activities other people are running. It’s important that we keep putting our bodies in the same space when we can, because humans respond well to being in the same space as other humans we like.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless. It’s easy to feel lost and alone. Ostensibly social media can often be a blessing, but it can equally serve to make things seem even worse. Being with other people gives us more scope to change things within ourselves. It’s a small resistance, a small revolution, but I think that right now, just refusing to be beaten by all the hate and mean-spiritedness out there is a significant act of resistance.


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.


Swimming metaphorically with the social jellyfish

I’ve picked up the concept of jellyfish from other bloggers, I think it’s a helpful term. It’s a label for those people who leave you feeling crap, and you can’t put a finger on why – the invisible sting that does so much damage and is impossible to challenge. Having been round this repeatedly, trying to figure out why I felt so useless, the notion has helped me make sense of a few things. Of late, I’ve been watching a few jellyfish (social media is incredibly helpful) to make sense of the mechanics.

The jellyfish presents as a lovely person. They’re always there to say something nice, something kind and supportive. This is a big part of why it seems so unthinkable that they’re hurting you, and so obvious that you’re the problem. However, the ‘compliments’ stand close attention. “You did far better than I thought you would, well done you!” “I’m really impressed by how well you’ve handled it, this time.” “You’re so much more confident.” “You look so much prettier when you smile.” “No,  you made it, and that’s what counts.”

The jellyfish compliment carries inside it the sting that they are surprised. You looked ok, you coped, you didn’t mess up, and the compliment depends on the idea that this is an achievement. This in turn suggests that the rest of the time, they don’t think that well of you. One or two of these will cheerfully slide off a person, and we all say things of this ilk by accident now and then, but with the most toxic jellyfish it can be constant, and if it isn’t intentional, it still doesn’t come from somewhere good.

What the jellyfish implies is their own superiority. They are very kindly, supportively, judging you, and giving you the verdict of their judgement. And you know, you did ok, you haven’t let them down, and you are to feel a little bit reassured about this. You are also to stay alert to the idea that they could easily find you lacking, and judge the other way.

Presenting as a lovely person is really important to the jellyfish. I think sometimes it is the entire motivation. The need to seem kind and lovely means that they’ll pile in to any situation or conversation and make nice-noises. Those noises may be empty, useless or even harmful – all that matters to them is their seeming to be lovely, and that other people will perceive them as lovely. They may be good at making empathising noises. If you let them in based on those noises, you can find that you are forever cast in the role of the loser, the leper. You have to be something a bit fragile and useless so that they can heroically put up with you and generously soothe you, and the further you go down this route, the worse it gets.

If something stings, it’s always important to figure out why. We can all be twitchy about things we find difficult. We can all over-react. But if you keep feeling stung, and diminished in the company of a person, it is worth stepping back and asking whether they are quite as lovely as they’d like you to believe. A persistent jellyfish can do a lot of harm, not least by making it so hard to believe they’re doing anything nasty at all. Feeling both hurt and ungrateful, the diminished person just keeps getting smaller. If you’re lucky, the jellyfish gets cocky, and does something more obvious, revealing what they really are, but it can take years for the true colours to show.


The necessary ingredients for a social life

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, following on from feeling sorry for myself earlier in the week. What does it take to have a viable social life?

  1. People, obviously. People you like and have things in common with and want to spend time with and who do not run away when they see you. (There are many people I like, most of whom do not run away. Many of them do not live in viable travelling distance. Most of the more local folk are very busy already.)
  2. The time and energy to go out and do things with people. (I struggle with this one, especially when the only social stuff is in the evenings.)
  3. The means to go where there are people, or the means to have people visit. (Flat is a bit small for inviting people over, no car, often too tired to walk as transport in the evenings, public transport useless after dark, taxis expensive and difficult to sort in the evenings unless you know in advance when you will be leaving).
  4. Disposable income – for transport, door costs, drinks, appropriate clothing etc. (Not currently a problem but certainly has been in the past).
  5. The concentration to engage socially. (Intermittent and unreliable especially at night).
  6. Being sufficiently not anxious and not depressed to be able to function socially. (Unpredictable, gets worse as I become more tired).
  7. Being able to access and function in the space (not an issue for me, but I know other folk who can’t do stairs, or have other practical considerations that make many venues impossible).

We evolved to be social creatures, but live increasingly isolated lives. I remember what it was like being the parent of a small child and being almost entirely dependent on people coming to me for any social contact at all. I had a much bigger living room then. Almost everything runs on the assumption that you have a car, for those of us who don’t, participation in all manner of things is really tricky. I wonder how many other people are isolated by being too tired, by not having the funds, or are not emotionally together enough to be able to face being where other people are. It’s difficult, showing up to anything when you feel like you have nothing to offer.

A tough recognition for me, this week. I don’t have the energy and the concentration to be very socially engaged. I can’t put enough into the world to be a good person to spend time with. Frequently I am no fun at all to be around. I miss having a tribe of people I’d regularly and reliably spend time with, as was the case back when I was running a folk club, and a moot, and meditation groups and rituals. I don’t have the energy to be that person any more, and there are consequences.

Being able to show up is absolutely key to having a place in a social group. No one can do that for me, and I cannot do it for myself. I need to work on accepting my circumstances and limitations, rather than trying to do things that don’t work, or waiting for some kind of magical solution to turn up. I cannot be sociable. Therefore until or unless something changes within me, I had better get my head round mostly being a hermit.


Who are you, anyway?

People fascinate me. We have a social habit of constructing ourselves according to who we are with. Our professional at-work persona may be very different from who we are with mummy, and who we are in the dungeon – to offer a possible array. For many Pagans, the spiritual self is held separate to the everyday self, as a necessity. Being at odds with the mainstream, we often find it essential to lay that bit aside for many activities. We all hold our social groups separately. We do not want the boss to meet mummy and we sure as hell don’t want mummy to know about the dungeon… It makes the idea underpinning facebook’s ‘real name’ policy’ seem rather childish. Of course many of us have multiple identities. Of course we don’t want to make everything we are available to everyone. Life would be miserable for a lot of people were that to be forced upon us.

Even in close knit communities where there is an appearance of everyone knowing everyone else rather well, we do not always share our secret selves. The intimacy of our spiritual experiences, the privacy we build around our sexual lives, our darkest fears and most treasured hopes are not available to everyone all of the time. Rightly so. No one should be obliged to share anything. There is power in both the sharing and the withholding, and the right to choose how we do that is of great importance.

Sometimes we wear masks, and sometimes we are soul-naked honest with each other. Sometimes what personality we express is part of a complex, even contradictory character. Sometimes it’s what we did because we thought it was expected. Acting roles or baring hearts, we construct ourselves from moment to moment, scene to scene. Often we do that based around habits and notions of normality, and without much thought. At the same time, we’re trying to decode what everyone else is doing, trying to figure out what they meant, if they were truthful, if that whole encounter was real.

No wonder we get so tangled up and confused sometimes!

If someone shows you an array of faces, it raises interesting questions about which ones are ‘real’. What of that was meaningful? What of it should inform all future interactions, and what should be disregarded as white noise or conformity to expectation? In Pagan contexts we may be tempted to big up our Pagan qualities. If everyone else apparently has a spirit guide, totem animal, deity spouse, angelic guardian, witchy granny et al it’s tempting to re-craft what we have in order that we might fit in. Humans are predisposed to wanting to fit in. I have argued before that our most authentic self is the one we aspire to be, but we have to watch out for the person we want people to think we are – which may not be the same at all.

Working out who ‘the real me’ is in all of that can be difficult and confusing. Working out the reality of anyone else is nigh on impossible. And yet it is from these shifting sands that we try to build relationships and communities. It probably explains rather a lot.