Perhaps my new-found willingness to be in the presence of confusing and apparently contradictory ideas without demanding that one is right and the other wrong has come from learning about Dialectical Behavioural Therapy. DBT is an approach which can be helpful for people who find it difficult to regulate their emotions, thinking and behaviour (particularly those diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, eating disorders or addictions, or at risk of suicide or self-harm).
The dialectic at the heart of DBT is this: we can accept ourselves exactly as we are right now, whilst also committing to doing things differently from this point onwards. It invites us to be gentle with ourselves for the things we are not able to control (for example, what happened to us when we were younger, how we behaved in the past when we didn’t know better) and to step up and take responsibility for improving things in the future (by learning to do things in new and healthier ways).
In life (as in DBT) it seems there is a constant balancing to be done, a strangeness to be embraced, a middle path to be found which is neither-this-nor-that.
Increasingly, what I find to be wise and true cannot be expressed directly in language. It shows up in the spaces between words – an oddly beautiful, indescribable thing.
We routinely use thought patterns to conserve time and energy and help us to make sense of the world. We use them to help us predict what will happen, how people will behave, how we will feel – and they often serve us well. But when these patterns are over-simplified, or skewed towards a negative interpretation, we can start to have problems.
A 2018 study found that people who are experiencing anxiety, depression or suicidal thinking are significantly more likely to use ‘absolutist’ language than people who aren’t. Here’s a list of the kind of words the researchers were looking for:
Absolutely – All – Always – Complete – Completely – Constant – Constantly – Definitely – Entire – Ever – Every – Everyone – Everything – Full – Must – Never – Nothing – Totally – Whole
As someone who previously qualified for a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder and experienced decades of anxiety and depression (conditions which are strongly associated with this kind of language use), I can remember all too well what it felt like to think in these terms. Until a few years ago, if you had climbed inside my head and listened to the inner monologue there, you would have heard a lot of things like:
“It will always be like this.”
“You’ll never get better.”
“They all think so.”
“Everything’s gone wrong.”
In fact, at the point when I reached rock bottom, this was all there was to hear. I felt sure I knew how things were and how they always would be. It seems inconceivable now – but at that moment in time, and at many others like it, it felt completely and utterly believable.
So for me, the process of learning to be well has involved learning to think differently. I’ve come to understand that things are rarely as black and white as I used to imagine them to be. I’ve learned to see not just shades of grey, but a whole range of colours that simply weren’t visible before. I’ve found that it takes conscious effort and repeated reinforcement, but little by little, those old patterns of thinking can change.
Occasionally an old pattern will surface – most often when I’m tired or hungry or under a little more pressure than usual – but they rarely hang around for long. Because, as time goes by, I notice that life is infinitely more complex, more changeable, more subtle, more paradoxical, than seemed conceivable before – which makes concepts like ‘always’ and ‘never’ a bit harder to take seriously.
So if you sometimes find yourself imagining that everything is completely, absolutely, entirely and totally a certain way, if you fear that everyone, everywhere is doing something, or that you never, ever will – take a moment, if you can. A moment to stop and breathe and search for some colour in the situation. For some inbetweenness. For some not-quite-this and not-quite-that-ness.
Because somewhere, amidst the messiness and the blurred distinctions, there is relief, I think. The relief of discovering that things are often so much more than we allow them to be.
Having spent the last few weeks reflecting on some of the useful things I’ve learned since turning 18 – and inviting others to write in with their learnings too – I’ve found myself smiling wryly as I realise how many times people tried to share their wisdom with me over the years, and how many times I was completely incapable of understanding what they were trying to say.
In a recent conversation with behavioural scientist, Jason Hreha, I mention one such example. As a child, my dad would often tell me to “take deep breaths” – and I would often think how silly he was to imagine that something as inconsequential as taking deep breaths could be of any use whatsoever in the particular crisis I was facing. Fast forward three decades or so – and it turns out he was right. Deep breathing is good for all sorts of things.
Then there were the many times he reminded me that “charity begins at home”. Back then I thought he was using this as an excuse to be ungenerous to others. Now I realise that he was probably trying to share more or less the same insight I shared in a post just the other week. (see ‘Kindness’)
And there was the time he paraphrased Shakespeare’s: “To thine own self be true.” I’m not sure what I thought he meant at the time, but I remember not being terribly impressed. I had little interest in being true to myself at that point, busy as I was, gazing at others who seemed so much more deserving of my loyalty.
Ironic, really, that I find myself doing the work I do now – so much of which emphasises the importance of self-awareness and internal validation in building resilience and psychological wellbeing.
It’s tempting to imagine that we can save ourselves and those we love a lot of time and heartache by sharing wisdom down the generations, but the reality seems to be that we only take on board new ways of seeing things when we are ready to do so.
However, new research suggests that to focus on this is to miss an important point.
According to a recent study by Robin M. Kowalski and Annie McCord of Clemson University published in the Journal of Social Psychology, we “… should consult ourselves for advice we would offer to our younger selves… The data indicate that there is much to be learned that can facilitate wellbeing and bring us more in line with the person that we would like to be should we follow that advice.” (Read more here.)
In essence, by thinking of what we wish our younger self had known and then acting on it here and now, we can help our current self become the person we wish to be in the future. A useful exercise in its own right, one could argue.
Sadly, my dad isn’t around to share a wry smile at all the wheel-reinvention I’ve been doing. Nevertheless, I like to imagine that, even though I wasn’t able to comprehend the insights he was trying so hard to share with me all those years ago, there might have been some value for him in the act of sharing. It would be nice to think so.
In the words of Viktor Frankl, happiness is “the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself”. Like my robin friend, it shows up most often when we’re busy getting on with something else.
We are shaped by the people we choose to spend time with. Their words and actions influence our behaviour, health and happiness.
It’s worth taking the time to find the people that make your heart sing, the people who remind you of what is possible, the people who love you for being you. They will help you to grow into the person you want to be.
If we want to be kind to others, the most useful thing we can learn to do is to practise kindness towards ourselves.
It can be tempting to imagine that we can bully ourselves and neglect our needs whilst showing compassion to those around us. For a short while we might just about get away with it – but as a long-term strategy it simply doesn’t work.
Sooner or later, unkindness on the inside starts showing up on the outside, whether in words or sighs or thinly-veiled resentments or flashes of anger.
By contrast, the greater our self-compassion, the more resilient, happy and resourceful we are likely to be. And in turn, the more we will have to give to others.
So be nice on the inside first. It’s the kindest thing to do for all concerned.
Feelings and thoughts change constantly. Our view of the world is sensitive to hunger, fatigue, time of day and countless other things besides.
It’s easy to forget this, particularly in the moments when it would be most helpful to remember. In the grip of uncomfortable emotions or persistent thoughts, we can be tempted to imagine that we will always feel as we do right now. We won’t. On the flip side – wonderful feelings won’t stick around either.
Learning to recognise thoughts and feelings for the flighty things they are and not get too attached to them (whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’) makes life easier. Worth practising.
Ask yourself, what single habit would I like to create in my daily routine? Now ask, why?
“If you want to be calmer, if you want to be able to respond rather than react, meditation’s a great habit. If you want to get fitter, then your habit might be to walk for half an hour three or four times a week, the same time of day on designated days during the week. Or it could be reading poetry or it could be having a phone call with someone who makes you feel good regularly; reaching out in some way. Whatever the habit is, start today, but be clear on your why. What’s it going to give you? How will it improve your life? How will it create better, deeper connections? Because it’s the why that is instrumental in motivating us towards the behaviour we want to create every day… So many people want to change half a dozen things, which is overwhelming so they don’t start. Don’t worry, just choose one. That’s it.”
Look at people you pass in the street and silently wish them well.
“I look people in the face and wish them well for their day. Just in my own mind and my own thoughts, I wish them well – I don’t voice it. Wishing good on other people, particularly people who look troubled, I find incredibly powerful and energising. It helps me. I mean I kind of believe that we’re more connected than we believe we are, that we’re not all just these separate individuals. And if you think of it like that, if we’re connected, it’s kind of wishing well upon the system of which we are a part. And ultimately by doing good to others, you’re doing good for yourself. So I just have this practice that I find really helpful of ‘wishing well’. In a kind, gentle way, just doing that to 5 or 10 people as you walk along the street, I find really powerful.”
Take a few moments during your lunch break to practise yoga.
“Lunch yoga is the Little Challenge that I’d like to offer you. Not eating lunch while doing yoga (although maybe I shouldn’t knock it until I’ve tried it). Lunch yoga is simply doing yoga during your lunch break. There are a million videos on YouTube iff you want to just follow along with someone, One thing that I’ve done, not that I’m brand loyal or anything, but I’ve used the Nike Training Club App. They have a lot of exercises. You can just filter by yoga, pick one that fits the amount of time that you have and you’re good to go.”
Choose a small object that has meaning for you that you haven’t thought about for a while. Put it somewhere obvious. Each time you notice it, pause and notice the thoughts that come up.
‘Three Simple Steps To Find Meaning From A Personal Object’.
“Here’s what you do. Find something wherever you live that’s kind of small, something you’ve had it in some place for so long that you’ve really stopped noticing it, but it’s important to you. It might be something you picked up on a vacation or a gift that you were given at some point, but you put it initially in a spot and it had meaning for you, but now it’s been there so long that you’ve kind of lost track of that meaning. Take it and put it somewhere else. A conspicuous spot where you’re going to see it and then, each day, when you come across it, just pause for a split second and see what comes up in your mind. Pay attention to what happens and just take note of that. It could be, now you’re thinking of this person who gave this to you. Or you’re thinking of the vacation that you got it or whatever the case may be. That could be enough right there, but if you really want to extend it, take a minute to jot that down. Write down what feelings, emotions, people that this is evoking and then act on one thing if you want to go a little bit further. You could jot someone a little note and say, “Hey, I’ve been thinking about you”. If it’s a memory that that triggers, maybe you’ve got a photo or two that you want to share or maybe you were on that trip with somebody and you want to talk to them about it.”
When you’re in a stressful situation, pause for a moment and think of three things you’re grateful for.
“When you get really anxious or mad or unhappy with something – let’s say you’re in traffic jam and you’re getting really riled up and you can feel your heart beating and your temperature rising – you’re locked in an emotion, a stress reaction that is really hard to get out of. And that’s kind of like the lizard brain has taken over, and that can be quite harmful because you’re producing a lot of stress hormones. When you’re in a situation like that, find three things you’re grateful for. Because two things are happening. First of all, you are forcing your brain to use a different part of the brain. So it’s interrupting the stress response because you’re having to think for things that you’re grateful for. And the second thing is that you’re rewiring your brain to become more sensitive to positive things. And it can be something really silly like, “The sun’s shining”, “The car smells good”, or, “I like the way my hair looks today”! Whatever it is, every time you feel yourself getting into that spot of darkness, just come up with three things you’re grateful for and you will see yourself immediately calm down. Over a period of time, within two weeks, you can actually find yourself being a happier person.”
Find out more about the line-up of guests for Series 2 of Adventures in Behaviour ChangeHERE.
There is such power in the act of standing alongside someone:
in acknowledging their experience
in accepting them as they are, without judgement
in believing in them
Such simple things, so easily overlooked.
Yet, the times when people in my life have chosen to stand alongside me – to listen, to acknowledge, to accept and believe in me, even when I scarcely knew how to do those things for myself – have been the times I will never forget.
To be accompanied, when we feel afraid or alone or doubt ourselves, by others -who through their words or their actions reassure us, “You got this”- is a precious thing indeed.
I started trying to list some of those moments to include here and as I did so, I realised how many of them there have been. How many times people have chosen to be kind, when they didn’t need to be. And how the fact that I am here today, happily doing what I do, is a direct result of that kindness.
So, to the various friends who:
came to my mum’s funeral, simply to be with me, even when it was completely impractical and difficult to do so;
brought flowers and took me for walks when I was on a secure psych ward, unable to go out alone;
made a point of thinking of me when they knew I was doing something I was apprehensive about, and emailed to let me know;
shared what they had, even when they had little for themselves;
listened, accepted, encouraged, waited patiently, showed up, sat quietly, cheered loudly, gave lifts, boiled kettles, made food, offered hugs and smiles and handkerchiefs and company, and so much more…