Leaping Forward

A year ago today, I started a 4 day trek to Machu Picchu. It was the biggest and most difficult challenge I have voluntarily undertaken, but also one of the best. While it didn’t immediately transform my life, as I had hoped, it has changed me in ways I’m just beginning to realise. The greatest effect is cutting through my excuses. I completed a major life goal, despite struggling with my mental health. Why shouldn’t I achieve more goals?

Parachuting
Photo credit: my dad, Darryl Jones.

In this spirit. I set myself a lot of goals this year. Some are boring and mundane (adding to savings, submitting more short stories), but a few are more exciting. One of them was to complete a tandem skydive from 15,000 feet.

enter As you can probably guess from the photo, I did the skydive yesterday — which happened to be my birthday. 

Last year, I spent my birthday doing an acclimatisation trek in Peru and being serenaded in a restaurant with the world’s longest version of Happy Birthday. I was surrounded by a wonderful group of people who have become my friends, but I was thousands of miles from home and had woken up very early, sobbing because I was scared I was making a huge mistake. I was worried I wasn’t capable of achieving any of my dreams, including walking miles up very high mountains.

My birthday this year was very different: I was at home and spent the day with my parents. However, I also wanted it to be as memorable as last year, so I scheduled the skydive and hoped for good weather.

Although the skydive was on a much smaller scale than Machu Picchu, it involved a lot of preparation. My first task was to get under the 210lb weight limit (the website says you can jump if you are heavier, but you have to tell them in advance and pay a surplus, so I wanted to avoid that), which was a big commitment since I started the year at 244lbs. I weighed in at 201.5lb yesterday morning and a few pounds heavier in my clothes and trainers when I got to the airfield, which was a relief!

I also needed to have my doctor sign a medical form to state that I was allowed to jump, because I have received treatment for mental health problems within the past 2 years and have a history of self-harm. I had an appointment a couple of weeks ago and my GP declared that I was at no extra risk compared to any fit, healthy person.

I understand the reasons for needing my GP to sign the form, but it feels disempowering to be told that I can’t sign my own medical form. I know my own mind very well precisely because I have mental health issues. Managing my mental health effectively involves monitoring my mood and motivation for doing certain activities. Far from being a form of self-harm or method to boost fragile self-esteem, the skydive was my way of celebrating my achievements and rewarding myself for getting through the almost constant struggles.

follow site Because I still struggle. Every small achievement, from walking the dog on my own to completing an assignment, involves facing my anxiety, depression and BPD and managing my current symptoms. 

My symptoms are less apparent to other people nowadays; partly because they have lessened in intensity, but mostly because I am much better at managing them. I was anxious yesterday, for example, but didn’t appear more nervous than anyone about to be hurled out of a plane for the first time. I was focusing on controlling my breathing and being mindful, rather than listening to my worries and letting them escalate — though, truth be told, my anxiety disorder is concentrated on the possibility of humiliation rather than harm or death, so I was more worried about doing the wrong thing or puking!

Tandem skydive
Photo credit: my instructor at Skydive Buzz

In addition to being a celebration and reward, skydiving was also a reminder that I need to take chances in order to experience fun and excitement. I need to leap forward, despite being anxious and having other obstacles in my way. I may never “recover” from my mental health problems, but I can manage them alongside achieving goals and chasing my dreams.

I think the main difference between my life now and the episodes during which I was trapped by my mental illness, is that my fears have shifted. I am more afraid of not trying to achieve my goals than the potential for humiliation. I’m more scared of spending the rest of my life confined to the house than chasing my dreams. I’m still fearful of failure and rejection, but my greatest fear is living without trying to create a better life for myself.

source link Which is another change: I believe I’m worth the effort.

I used to hate myself and thought I deserved nothing, but that has gradually changed over the past 10 years and the change has accelerated since I trekked to Machu Picchu. It started with asking for help when I needed it and investing in myself, going to university after thinking I had “missed out” on the opportunity. Then I realised I could contribute to the world, through volunteering and using my skills to help local charities/organisations. Most of all, I gave myself permission to dream again, to consider the possibility of a different life.

Along the way, I have met more people who believe in me. I have had small successes which confirm that I’m worthy of support and investment, contribute a lot and can achieve things I once considered impossible for me. 

Sure, my life looks very different to how I expected and what I would have chosen, but you work with what you’ve got. I still struggle, but the truly awesome days I enjoy make the weeks and months of struggles less important than the triumphs. When I look back on my Machu Picchu trek, I don’t dwell on the panic attacks, throat infection, rain and altitude sickness: I remember arriving at the Sun Gate with my fellow trekkers, achieving our goal.

Making Yourself Happy

My favourite mug (pictured) tells me to “do more of what makes you happy.” I bought it because I thought it would serve as a positive daily reminder, but the more I think about the phrase, the more I believe it’s a good philosophy for life.

Lilac mug

Doing more of what makes me happy fits with a couple of simple concepts I keep coming across:

1. Self-love and compassion get you further than self-reproach and punishment.

2. It’s up to you to make yourself happy — nobody else.

Society tries to tell us otherwise. We are told that the only way to achieve goals is to embark upon a gruelling regime, denying ourselves all pleasure until we attain whatever we want. We are expected to believe that the perfect partner will magically solve all our problems and make us happy. Yet what society tells us doesn’t work very often — and when it does, it involves making things more difficult and less fun than they need to be.

 

Treating yourself with love and respect

Self-punishment is counterproductive. It’s a lesson I have learnt many, many times over the years, but it’s a hard habit to break. Admonishing myself for failing to do something is the best way to ensure I continue to procrastinate.

We tend to assume that when we don’t live up to our own expectations, the answer is to get tougher: demand we work harder, faster and longer. Sometimes it works and we complete tasks we have been putting off, but this progress comes at a cost to our mental (and often physical) health. Worse, we start believing that this type of intense work under the threat of punishment is the only way we can achieve anything.

The true antidote to procrastination, anxiety, depression and most other problems is self-care . All of the bad things in my life are not the result of a lack of self-discipline, although they may appear so, but the consequences of self-punishment.

Even when other people have abused and bullied me, I piled on the punishment by believing it must be my fault. I must somehow deserve to be treated badly. Instead of seeking support, I alternated between harming myself — physically and psychologically — and seeking comfort in unhealthy habits which caused me more harm in the long term, including overeating and getting into debt through impulsive spending.

This kind of behaviour creates a vicious cycle. You berate yourself all the more because you have created new problems, such as debt and obesity. Other people also see these problems as a reason to insult and criticise you, pointing out that you and your life are a mess. You punish yourself more, which makes the problems worse.

It’s vital to realise there is another option — one which empowers you to solve your problems. To love, respect and support yourself.

I resisted this for a long time. When we say people “love themselves” it’s usually meant as a criticism — we think they are arrogant, conceited and/or selfish. Yet these traits actually indicate insecurity, not self-love. People either hide behind a mask of arrogance or build their sense of self-esteem upon a shaky foundation, like their looks or career. They don’t love themselves — they love the idea of themselves they want to project.

You can tell when people truly love themselves because they have a quiet confidence. They have no desire to show off or to belittle other people. They know they are not perfect — and that’s okay. While their self-esteem doesn’t depend upon their work or social life, they enjoy success in these areas because loving, respecting and supporting themselves is key to achieving their goals.

I’m learning to treat myself this way; it’s a work in progress and I still get bad days when I succumb to the old self-punishment routine, but I have made small changes. I think I’m more productive and I certainly feel better most days.

 

Stop waiting for a panacea

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing a single thing can be the solution to all of your problems. Meeting your soulmate, winning the lottery, losing weight, a lucky break… If only you could have this single thing, everything else would fall into place. But life doesn’t work like that. Even if you woke up tomorrow with all of the things I have mentioned, plus a bunch more, you will still have problems.

I’m not saying that those things wouldn’t help to some degree: lacking emotional support and money is tough. Being overweight and unemployed exacerbates problems. Problems also tend to proliferate,  especially if you have mental health issues. But if you focus on your problems, solving the major ones won’t help as much as changing your mindset.

Choosing not to focus on your problems is incredibly hard, but it’s possible.

Again, I’m a novice in changing my attitude, but I have already noticed positive effects. When you focus on your problems, it creates a tunnel vision which blinds you to potential solutions. It also blinds you to the good things in your life, so you believe your life is 100% negative. Because you are focused on your problems, they often get worse as you remain passive instead of taking action towards finding solutions.

Debt is a vivid example of how problems can spiral out of control when you don’t take action. If you continue the behaviour which caused the debt, your debt will get bigger. If you struggle to pay the minimum payments, your debt will get bigger as you aren’t covering the interest. If you do nothing at all, you incur penalties and your debt not only gets bigger, but can lead to legal proceedings.

Many of us have struggled with debt and a common reaction is to ignore it — except you can’t really ignore it, so you worry incessantly as you continue to overspend and struggle to afford minimum payments. You avoid taking the most basic steps towards tackling your debt, such as seeing what help and support is available (I recommend www.moneysavingexpert.com, which has loads of advice and supportive forums you can use anonymously). You are convinced you cannot solve the problem, so you don’t even try to create a plan.

This is a typical reaction to a lot of problems, from relationship issues to changing careers. We hope for a panacea to arrive as we watch our problems get worse. Perhaps you buy a few lottery tickets and then feel dismayed when you don’t win the jackpot, which is a way of fooling yourself that you’re taking action when you’re not doing anything productive. Waiting achieves nothing and makes us feel powerless.

You have to make yourself happy. 

Check your reaction to the above statement. Did you scoff? Did you accept the truth of it, but feel sad because you don’t think you can make yourself happy? Were you angry, because you were hoping for a different solution?

For most of my adult life, I would have reacted to that statement with anger, frustration, sadness and disappointment. I didn’t believe I could make myself happy. If anything could make me happy, I expected it to be money. Or perhaps an intensive therapy programme which would cost a lot of money.

If my beliefs were true, there would be no unhappy people earning more than £20,000 a year. Everyone lucky enough to own their own home would be happy. People with zero debt would be deliriously happy. Yet that’s not true.

You can do the same for all of these so-called solutions, because I’m yet to find one which can’t be disproved. There are plenty of people in relationships who are unhappy, even when they and their partner love each other and want to stay together for life. People with incredible bodies can be unhappy. Ditto those who have their dream jobs, travel regularly and are gorgeous.

First and foremost, you have to change your mindset. The good news is  changing your thought patterns is free and accessible to all. The bad news? It’s bloody hard and easy to give up, returning to your old beliefs that a million pounds and film star partner are the only solutions to your problems.

 

Choose to see the amazing aspects

Yes, changing your mindset is difficult, but it’s also amazingly wonderful. Anyone can learn ro do it, for a start. You don’t need to spend any money (though a few books can keep you motivated) and you can start right now. There are loads of strategies for changing your mindset, including simply listing the things you are grateful to have in your life. Do some googling and see what speaks to you (after you finish reading this, obviously!).

I suspect some people would prefer a different solution. If I had told you that the key to solving your problems, or at least learning to live with them, is a magic gemstone you can only buy in the Himalayas at sunrise on the third full moon of the year and it costs half a million pounds, you would have lots of excuses for not doing anything. “I don’t have the money, I can’t get the time off work, I’m afraid of flying, I don’t know the language…” You could do nothing and feel justified.

The only excuse for not trying to change your mindset is the difficulty factor. But refusing to change your mindset is more difficult in the long term.

All of the improvements I have made in my life have been difficult. The first time I forced myself to go outside alone, after years of anxiety preventing me from doing so, I was extremely uncomfortable. I wanted to turn around and run back inside. So why didn’t I? Because I knew that staying inside for the rest of my life would be more difficult than forcing myself to go outside for the first time.

You face the same decision. Changing your mindset is hard, but not as hard as continuing to struggle.

 

Doing more of what makes you happy will change your mindset

You may resist this concept, too. You may believe it advocates a life of mindless hedonism, indulging in unhealthy habits which harm you and people around you. Except those things don’t make anyone truly happy.

Happiness is not a quick buzz from drugs, alcohol or junk food. It’s a long term effect of living a satisfying, meaningful life. 

The things which make you happy are meaningful experiences: spending time with loved ones, reconnecting with your passions, contributing to your community, working towards personal goals. You can regonise them by the afterglow they produce. For example, playing video games keeps me entertained for a while, but serves mostly as a distraction. In contrast, reading gives me pleasure while I’m doing it and afterwards, when I think about what I have read. A meal with friends makes you happier than scoffing junk food alone, even if you eat the same amount.

You may be surprised by what makes you happy — and what doesn’t. Tackling challenges makes me happy, even if I don’t appreciate it at the time. Exercise makes me happy, because it has strong neurochemical and psychological effects. Baking makes me happier than eating what I bake. Watching my favourite television programmes keeps me happy for an hour or two, but the effect wears off if I watch for longer.

I’m adopting this philosophy in the spirit of experimentation. So far, my mood has improved and I think I’m less anxious. I hope it will help me to be more productive and to find creative solutions to my problems in the long term. If nothing else, it has reminded me that my old regime of self-punishment resulted in mental illness and other problems. Self-care isn’t a luxury: it’s a necessity.

Try doing more of what makes you happy — and let me know what happens!

My 29 Gifts Challenge

In January, I came across a book called 29 Gifts by Cami Walker. It’s part memoir and part self-help book. At the beginning, Walker is bedbound by MS, in debt and has a strained relationship with her husband, who has become her carer. A renewed acquaintance, Mbali, makes a strange suggestion: she should give something away every day, for 29 days in a row.

Wrapped Gift

What I love about this book is that Cami Walker reacts in the same way most of us would in her situation – she thinks the idea is ridiculous, especially considering she can barely walk and has no money. She has no intention of carrying out her prescription. In fact, she is about to go into hospital and convinced she couldn’t start the challenge even if she wanted to. Being told it’s time to stop thinking about herself adds insult to injury.

Yet… She begins. She gives away her first gift and the rest follow.

The upshot is, Walker changes her life through completing the challenge. It changes her mindset and opens her to opportunities she hadn’t considered. The change isn’t miraculous in the definitive sense – she still has MS and debt – yet her attitude brings many positive things into her life, which help to counterbalance the negative and give it a different flavour.

After reading the book, I thought “that sounds like something I would like to do” but I wasn’t sure if I would follow through. After all, we all have a million excuses for not attempting such a challenge: lack of money, other things to focus on, it might be a waste of time, etc. But it lodged in my mind and stayed there.

My 29 Days challenge started by accident: I paid for a half marathon entry for my mum and myself, then I wondered whether I could count it as the first of my 29 gifts. I decided to approach the challenge as more of an experiment, to see what happened. I would make a conscious effort to give gifts for the following 28 days, without expectation or even hope that it would produce anything other than a warm, fuzzy feeling.

 

How to start the challenge…

The book sets out many suggestions for how to tackle your own 29 Gifts challenge. I didn’t remember to repeat the recommended affirmations every day and although I wrote about my challenge in my journal, I didn’t write a dedicated journal focused on the gifts and my thoughts/feelings surrounding them. I’m sure it’s helpful to do everything the book suggests, but it’s not necessary.

More importantly, the book points out that gifts don’t need to be monetary. You can give people your time, make gifts for them, do them a service or give them something you already possess. This is the crux of the challenge: everyone can give something.

You can also choose to give a gift to yourself. It may seem contrary to the nature of the challenge, but few of us consciously give to ourselves. Instead, we deny ourselves and then “treat” ourselves by overeating, overspending or engaging in other destructive behaviours – which gives us brief pleasure but leaves us feeling worse.

 

My 29 Gifts.

My own gifts tended to be about making time to connect with people. I made more effort to send my friends text messages, instead of convincing myself they wouldn’t be interested and would consider replying to be a chore. I shared things more, including sweets and blog posts. I also tried to be more thoughtful and helped around the house more than usual.

I had fun sponsoring a few friends, too. I gave small amounts and wished I could afford more, but their appreciation was reassurance enough that a few pounds can make a difference. It reminded me of how encouraging it felt when someone donated money for my Machu Picchu trek – no matter how much I doubted myself and my ability to complete the challenge, I felt supported and motivated.

 

So, did my life change?

Yes and no. My mindset has certainly changed. I had a terrible episode of depression before Christmas and started the year feeling more depressed and anxious than I had been for months. I was stressed about everything and as usual, a lot of this stress was concentrated on my debt, low income and lack of work prospects. Completing my 29 Gifts experiment reminded me that while I might not have a lot of money, I have enough. It made me more grateful for everything I have and switched my focus.

I also realised I have a lot to give, apart from money. I started valuing my time more. I strengthened my connections with other people. I feel more positive about my life.

Yes, it would have been cool if my challenge had resulted in bigger changes, but it has definitely had an impact. I don’t spend every day feeling sunny and serene – it hasn’t cured my depression, for a start – but I feel better overall. I have more confidence in my ability to change my life, though it will probably happen slowly rather than in huge, dramatic leaps.

It really does feel like the negative and positive aspects of my life are more in balance.

 

Try giving and see what you have to gain!

There is something special about the 29 Gifts challenge. It connects with a lot of concepts which I believe in, such as karma, compassion and gratitude. As Cami Walker’s friend, Mbali, pointed out, it takes the focus away from yourself and your problems. When you are looking for opportunities to give, you can’t wallow in negativity.

The beauty of doing the challenge is there’s nothing to lose. At the very least, you do a bit of good in the world. Its effect on your own life is a bonus.

And that warm and fuzzy feeling you get from giving is pretty damned good.

Lessons from Machu Picchu

It’s just over 2 months since I completed my trek to Machu Picchu and I’ve only begun processing the experience. It still feels a little unreal, like a bizarre dream – only one which everyone knows about! I have been trying to make sense of it all and some lessons have emerged…

Machu Picchu view
  1. You get to decide what your goals are, but not how you achieve them.

If you had told me what I would have to battle in order to reach Machu Picchu, I doubt I would have tackled the challenge. I faced physical illness, a decline in my mental health and bereavement – and that was during the preparation. The trek itself brought the joys of constant rain, altitude sickness, a throat infection and panic attacks. It was worth it in the end, but I wouldn’t have chosen to go through any of those additional challenges.

I thought my toughest difficulties would be improving my physical fitness and social anxiety. These were factors in making the trek one of the biggest challenges of my life, but they were overshadowed by the ones mentioned above. Everyone knows that life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans (which is a phrase I always hear as John Lennon sings it, though I know he probably wasn’t the first to say it), but sometimes life throws so much crap at you that you think there must be a sadistic god somewhere, having a laugh as he hurls misfortunes your way.

Yet I still achieved my goal. I achieved it because I wanted it more than almost anything else in my life.

You get to define what you want out of life and the only way you will get what you want is by defining it; goals give you a target, something to drive towards. You don’t get to dictate exactly how you get what you want, because there will always be obstacles flung in your path, but you can try one way and change course when needed. As long as you keep trying, there is a chance you will get there in the end.

 

Peru mountain home
  1. Your limits are further away than you realise.

I felt like I was being pushed to my limit many times during both the trek itself and my preparations. On the last day of the trek, getting derailed every few minutes by panic attacks as I climbed the 3000 (apparently) steps to the Sun Gate, I thought I would never get there. I stumbled along, feeling utterly wretched. Yet I didn’t reach my limit – I wasn’t even as close as I’d felt at the time.

I was walking. Very slowly, but I was upright. If I had been close to my limit, I would have been crawling. And yes, I would have crawled before I quit.

I was stronger than I realised, though I felt weak. I think this is something I need to apply to the rest of my life, especially during worse episodes of mental illness. I think most people would be surprised at what they can achieve – if only they would set themselves bigger goals. Myself included.

 

  1. Most people want you to succeed.

Sure, there are some nasty, petty people in this world who take pleasure in other people’s failures and miseries, but the majority want others to do well. I have received a lot of support, encouragement and congratulations over the past year – some of it from unexpected sources. People like seeing others achieve their goals; especially when doing so helps others.

This makes a lot of sense: people are in a better position to help others when they are successful. By supporting others in achieving their goals, you might be helping yourself (and others) in the long run. Unfortunately, some people have a win-lose mentality, whereby they see someone else’s success as their own failure. This is nonsense in most circumstances, when people are not competing directly for a limited reward, but it’s an attitude to which some people cling. They view life as an individual race, not a team game.

Seeing others succeed can also inspire and motivate you. From the moment I signed up for the trek, I hoped that my experience would inspire other people – especially those with mental health problems – to follow their dreams. I have since found out that at least one person has done so as a result of seeing me achieve my goal, which makes every single moment of struggle and despair well worth the effort.

 

Winay Wayna ruins
  1. You can help yourself and others – there’s no need to choose.

Following on from my previous lesson, achieving your own goals can help others – even if the link isn’t apparent. I thought of my goal of trekking to Machu Picchu as inherently selfish, despite the fact that I was self-funding and raising money for Amnesty International, because I wanted first and foremost to do it for myself. I hoped to inspire others, but my main motivation was to prove to myself that I could realise a long-held dream.

I think this was symptomatic of my own version of the win-lose mentality. While my “winning” didn’t necessitate another person’s loss, I thought of the trek as an individual pursuit. In reality, it was a team game.

The obvious teammates were my fellow trekkers, guides and our group’s doctor, without whom I wouldn’t have reached my goal. We cheered each other on through the most miserable moments, when we were cold and soaked through, denied even a decent view by fog/low cloud.

Everyone’s support was incredible. There were so many kindnesses. My roommate lent me fresh socks and carried my bag and walking poles up the monkey steps near the end of the trek. Team B (who know who they are!), kept my spirits up when I wanted to collapse on the bloody mountain and stay there. My success is their success.

However, I also had a great support team at home. My parents lent me money, enabling the whole challenge. My dad drove me to Heathrow and back (partly as my birthday present, to be fair), so I wouldn’t have to deal with the added stress of coping with public transport. My mum walked miles – literally – up hills to help me train. My friends kept encouraging me through the darkest moments, when I didn’t know whether I could carry on living, let alone training. Again, my success is their success.

I also realised that everyone I just mentioned (and more besides) took pleasure in my success. Just as I am glad when my friends and family achieve their goals. There might not have been an obvious or direct link which benefits others, but that doesn’t mean others didn’t benefit in some small way.

In fact, assuming your goals don’t cause direct harm to others, I would go so far as to say that achieving your goals always benefits other people – if only because you are showing them it’s possible.

 

Machu Picchu view
  1. Every step is significant, though most of them feel insignificant.

As long as you are moving forward, you are getting closer to your goal. It might not feel like you are progressing fast enough, or like you are progressing at all, but taking any action is a vital step. Again, this is something I need to apply to my life in general – I often feel frustrated because I’m not achieving my goals as quickly as I’d like. Of course, if your goal involves walking to a destination, there is a clear path (or at least direction) which will lead you there. For less tangible goals, you need to keep faith that you will reach your destination as long as you keep taking action.

When I was trekking to Machu Picchu, the majority of my steps felt insignificant. Having a clear path and destination, not to mention guides, didn’t stop my mental battles from hindering my progress. Blind faith didn’t keep me going – stubbornness did.

You have to apply the same determination to working towards your goals, regardless of how insignificant each step seems. The only other option is giving up, which is the one sure way to failure. I think individual steps will always tend to feel insignificant and it’s only in hindsight that you can see how fully they contribute to achieving your goals. It’s part of the challenge, to keep taking action when it feels pointless.

 

As I said, I’m still processing everything.

These are the initial lessons I have learnt, but I feel like the challenge has changed me in ways that I’m yet to notice or appreciate. The changes aren’t exactly what I expected either – sure, I have more confidence and am determined to achieve more goals, but I am still dealing with anxiety and depression so they get in the way. I wasn’t anticipating a dramatic transformation, but part of me is disappointed that I didn’t get one.

I guess the main change is that I trust my intuition more. My instinct told me that trekking to Machu Picchu would be one of the best decisions I have ever made (as much as I dreaded it might turn out to be the worst) and I believe that’s true. It was an incredible experience. Trusting my intuition more has also brought me closer to my core values, making me think more deeply about how I want to live my life.

I guess I have to wait and see what the long-term effects of my Machu Picchu challenge will be. Perhaps the dramatic transformation will manifest in the future…

Be Like a Bluebell

I took this photo because this is the first bluebell I’ve seen this year (a couple of weeks ago – I’ve since seen loads more). I thought I might use it in a blog post about hope or my relief that spring is easing my symptoms a little, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised how perfectly the picture demonstrates something else…

Bluebell
Bluebells are experts at showcasing themselves.

The contrast between their purple flowers (let’s face it – they are more purple than blue!) and green leaves makes them stand out. In the case of this particular bluebell, the surrounding plants are green and it stands out all the more. The colours complement each other and the spread of foliage acts as a backdrop. While a carpet of bluebells is spectacular, one alone can be stunning.

Bluebells also enhance each other, instead of competing, which is why the carpet effect is so spectacular. Being surrounded by other bluebells doesn’t detract from the beauty of a single one, but their beauty is multiplied through togetherness.

I think humans can learn a lot from bluebells.

We need to find ways to showcase ourselves and each other, working together instead of buying into a zero-sum philosophy which dictates that there must be winners and losers. A lot can be gained from a simple change in perspective: instead of criticising everyone and pointing out flaws, what if we actively look for things to praise?

Human brains love problem solving. As soon as you make a statement, your brain looks for evidence to support that statement. If you think “I am unlucky”, you can find dozens of examples as evidence. Likewise, if you think “I am lucky”, you will find dozens of examples. Neither is “true” because luck is a matter of perspective. This is why breaking out of negative thinking patterns is so difficult – your brain follows the well-trodden path and seeks evidence to convince you it’s the only path.

Taking a different approach doesn’t come easily, but it’s worth the effort. Seeking positives is empowering – both of yourself and others. When you start focusing on people’s strengths, including your own, opportunities come into view.

I have been trying to focus on my strengths recently, but it’s difficult. Not because I have none (though I certainly believe this at times, that’s just a symptom of my mental illness), but because our society seems so determined to knock people down. There is a constant stream of negativity from the media, social media, the general public, etc.

An article in the current issue of Mslexia, a writing magazine I otherwise love, the lead feature is about the financial difficulties writers face, especially in old age. It brings out the old “don’t give up the day job” advice, which is great for people without mental health problems who have a day job, but demoralising for those of us who are unable to work in the jobs most readily available, which all seem to involve a high degree of interaction with the public (not great for people with social anxiety). While the article goes on to explore a few solutions, I think it would have been much more interesting (and relevant) if it had taken a different approach: how can writers use their skills to earn a living and provide for their future?

I have discovered something interesting from my reading and talking to people: those who advise me to focus on my strengths and what I enjoy are happier and more successful.

I should clarify that I mean happy and successful according to their own terms. Many of us, believe it or not, don’t aspire to be millionaires. Sure, it would be nice, but money just isn’t a priority. If I could earn a living doing the work I love (which doesn’t mean loving every minute or every aspect of it, but loving it overall), I would be satisfied. I don’t need expensive holidays and designer shoes to make me happy (though both are appreciated!); I want to write and help people with mental health problems. Meanwhile, I’m trying to fight through the pessimism and find ways to help me achieve what I want.

I’m trying to focus my attention on what is helpful, instead of being demoralised by negative diatribes which assume everyone is physically and mentally capable of following the conventional path. I keep reminding myself to be like a bluebell, to show myself to my best advantage.

It’s also worth noting that while bluebells showcase themselves, they are not showy. They are modest flowers and all the more beautiful because of it. They don’t need to showboat, boast and seek attention. They quietly do their own thing and let their beauty shine for those who take the time to look. I think we can all learn a lot from bluebells.

New Year, New Me? No, Thanks.

 

It’s two days into the New Year and I’m sick of seeing adverts inviting me to become “a new you” or to start “your new life.” I like setting goals, whether New Year’s resolutions or otherwise, but I hate this emphasis on The New You. Using this language doesn’t evoke transformation – it implies obliteration.

The message is “you need to change every aspect of your being and become someone else.” This is not empowering: it’s impossible. If you aim to become this mythical New You, you are setting yourself up for failure. What a great way to start the year!

 

Value who you are.

You don’t need to become a New You. No matter how unhappy you are with your life right now, your core being is not the problem. There is nothing inherently wrong with you that needs to be eradicated.

Erasing yourself is not the answer; valuing yourself is the answer.

It’s a hard lesson to learn, but nothing really changes until you learn that you are valuable, useful and worthwhile. Until you decide that you are valuable enough to deserve everything you want, it’s extremely difficult to get anything you want. If you manage to succeed, you will find that the effects aren’t what you’d hope – winning a prize won’t make you value your own achievements.

Losing weight is a common example: when you don’t value yourself, you decide that your life would be perfect if only you were thinner (because you will be more confident, powerful, etc.) and you throw yourself into a punishing regime. Often, you will fail to lose a significant amount of weight because your regime is unrealistic. When a month of starvation results in misery, no energy and just a few measly pounds lost, you give up and believe you are destined to be a failure.

On the other hand, if you hate yourself enough to stick it out and reach your goal, there is a surprise in store: you realise that nothing much has changed. You have some new clothes and a temporary confidence boost (it’s alarming how quickly the confidence wears off after you lose weight), but the same life. The same you.

You react to this problem of the same you in the same way – you find a different aspect of your life to blame for your unhappiness and set out on the same path of punishment and self-sabotage. The self-sabotage can crop up at any time, whether it’s a week into your attempted transformation or months after meeting your goal. You will find yourself adopting unhealthy habits which build more obstacles between you and the mythical New You you are trying to become.

As you probably realise, I have been through this on many occasions. When I was 18, I lost 60lb and thought my life would magically become a life I wanted to live. It didn’t, because I hated myself and hadn’t tackled the underlying problems, which included zero self-esteem and clinical depression.

It was an awful shock to reach the milestone I had been striving towards, only to realise that nothing had changed apart from my dress size and the assumptions ignorant people make based on one’s dress size. I wasn’t even much healthier than when I was overweight, because my weight loss tactic was eating very small amounts of junk food. My mental health problems worsened and I regained all of the weight, plus a lot extra, within a few years.

There are no short cuts or workarounds: you need to start with valuing yourself. So forget all ideas of becoming a New You – aim to be the same you, but better.

 

Use your goals to become closer to your true self.

Forget creating a New You from scratch – instead, focus on getting closer to who you really are. Think about what you want, not what the media, advertising and other people tell you to want. What would you like to do more? What would you prefer to do less? Move towards the things which are working in your life and away from the things which aren’t.

Don’t fall into the trap of doing what everyone seems to be telling you to do at this time of year. Even if you want to lose weight (I do – healthily and permanently, this time), it doesn’t mean you have to join one of the slimming clubs advertised on TV and join a gym. You can find the methods which work best for you, without paying undue attention to all the crap flying about.

If it helps, take time to consider what you want – many people seem to have the attitude that New Year’s resolutions involve throwing yourself in the deep end, but that is not the only option. You have time to research, make small adjustments, experiment, etc. and still achieve your goals by the end of the year.

Embrace who you are and what works best for you.

If diving in at the deep end is the most successful strategy for you personally, go for it. If you are more likely to reach your goals by making slow and steady progress, do so. I suspect most of us flourish from a combination of big and small changes at different times – but remember that the ultimate change, the mythical New You, is impossible.

 

Become a better version of you.

Instead of chasing the mythical New You, work on becoming a better version of who you already are. Because you are pretty awesome. Seriously. Everyone has admirable personality traits, talents and skills; make a list of your own if you need reminding.

Consider how you can focus on these strengths and use them to make changes in your life.

Achieving goals involves working out how to incorporate them into your current life. Your life may change as you progress towards achieving goals, but you will always have this starting point. You need to create a path leading from here and now to the life you want. It goes back to learning to value yourself – you also need to value your life as it is right now, even if you don’t like it very much. You can’t exchange it for a new one.

I’m not saying you should dream small – far from it! – but you need to figure out how to get from your current life to your dream life.

Stop thinking of yourself and your current life as things you are stuck with, but don’t buy into the fantasy of a blank canvas either. Instead, consider your current situation and your core being as materials which you can sculpt. You can’t change the molecular structure of these materials, but you can shape them into something beautiful.

I realise now that I don’t want a blank canvas. I’m enjoying sculpting my life. The materials are more interesting, problematic as they may be, and the flaws have their own beauty. I’m learning to chisel away the negative stuff and to polish the best material so that it shines.

Use the materials you already have and value their colours, shapes and textures. Say “no, thanks” to the mythical New You advertisers are trying to sell.

 

Beauty Can Flourish Amidst Devastation

Nature regenerates when faced with disaster
Nature regenerates when faced with disaster

Three years ago, in the location of the above photo, were hundreds of trees. I used to walk my old dog there regularly and it’s where my current dog had his first walk. Then, one winter night, a storm flattened all but a few of the trees. The woods became a wasteland.

But this year, just over 2 years after this loss, a field of foxgloves blossomed amongst the debris. The space is beautiful once again, in a different way.

I have been drawing some parallels with my own life: just as I would rather the trees hadn’t been uprooted, I would rather not have experienced mental illness, but the experience has enabled some good things to happen. My life isn’t a wasteland, though it may have appeared so for a while, because new growth is possible. New growth that might be more beautiful than what came before.

You can find beauty in your own life
You can find beauty in your own life

After all, if I didn’t struggle with mental health problems, I wouldn’t have been forced to focus on my priorities. I wouldn’t have found the courage to take risks or to actively pursue a writing career. Mental illness also shows you who your friends are — and which people in your life are unsupportive and best cut out.

I think we often forget that beauty can flourish amidst devastation. Yet we are all conscious of famous examples, such as the fields of World War One erupting in poppies. The same is true on a human scale: Malala Yousafzai comes from a war torn area of Pakistan and nearly lost her life when she was shot by the Taliban, yet she is a strong, intelligent, inspiring woman whose message is so far-reaching precisely because of what she has suffered.

Why shouldn’t the same apply to you?

Why shouldn’t beauty flourish in your life? No matter how disastrous your current situation appears, the laws of nature apply to you — that’s part of being human. You can go on to achieve things you never thought possible.

My own achievements (so far!) are very modest, but there were times when I thought they were impossible. I believed I could never go to university, let alone gain a BA and MA. I didn’t even think I would learn to drive. Sure, I have had to do things in somewhat unconventional ways, such as living at home with my parents throughout university, but I still did them.

Nowadays when I feel hopeless and useless, I try to remind myself of how stupid and ignorant I was when I thought that going to university and driving were beyond me. I don’t know what I am capable of achieving — but I do know I will never find out until I try.

Look for the beauty in your own life

Search for the shoots of potential foxgloves. It might be as simple as deciding you would like to do something. It might be acknowledging a couple of wonderful people in your life. But even if it all looks disastrous, remember that there is hope — beauty can flourish.

The Wednesday Recommendation: Dream Save Do

Dream Save Do: An Action Plan for Dreamers Like You by Betsy and Warren Talbot is exactly what it says. Whatever you want to achieve, you can use this book as a guide to get you there. It’s full of practical advice and examples, with a particular emphasis on funding your dream. Of course, it’s up to you to use the information in the book to work out the details of your action plan — at the very least, you will need to do some research to find out how much your dream will cost — but the Talbots demonstrate how to tackle every aspect of your plan.

Betsy and Warren Talbot decided to take a year off to travel the world. They were persuaded to do this sooner rather than later when two people close to them experienced serious health problems in their mid 30s. They realised that putting off travel until retirement was not a wise choice when they might never reach retirement. So they saved like mad and decided to travel in the year they hit 40. The Talbots did not achieve their goal — they surpassed it, travelling much longer than they had originally planned.

The relentless practical focus of this book is inspiring. You can’t make excuses for not pursuing your dream when you are provided with a plethora of practical advice which tells you what steps you need to take. Sure, you will need to figure out the details of those steps, but the book gives you a template.

The book is realistic and honest too, telling you that it will be hard to turn down things which stand in the way of your dream. You will have to sacrifice a lot in order to achieve your goals, whether that means studying while your friends are socialising or not being able to afford meals out. There will be difficult times as you prepare to achieve your dream — but it is, ultimately, worth the sacrifice.

I love the proactive approach advocated by Dream Save Do. My own situation is very different to the Talbots (they were yuppie types with a big suburban house and no debt), but their advice is universal. Their dream is different to my own, but the route I need to take to get there runs parallel to theirs. The very title of the book reminds you of what needs to happen if you want to be happy and fulfilled: dreaming is not enough on its own. You need to work out how to fund your dream and then go out and live it.

Learning to Play Big

This post is dedicated to Kathryn Bond, one of the most awesome women I know.

A couple of months ago, I read Playing Big: A practical guide for brilliant women like you by Tara Mohr and was inspired. The book calls on women to stop limiting themselves, to stop believing  the crap society tells you about knowing your place and to chase your dreams. Women tend to “play small” in their careers and personal projects. They regard hugely successful women with awe, wishing they were like her, instead of realising that they — and you — are that woman.

There is no “success” gene or magic elixir. There is nothing fundamentally different about the women who achieve great goals; all women have such potential. The difference is, ultra-successful women have seized opportunities ities, persisted in the face of criticism and aimed high. When they have been discouraged and their confidence has failed them, they keep going. Mohr calls upon all of us to keep going and to support others in their endeavours.

Read Mohr’s 10 Rules for Brilliant Women for an introduction to how to play big.

Another woman who is no stranger to playing big, Mayim Bialik, launched a website last week: GrokNation.com. For anyone who doesn’t know, Bialik plays Amy Farrah Fowler on The Big Bang Theory, was the eponymous Blossom in a former life and got a PhD in Neuroscience in between. in addition, she has published books on two of her passions: veganism and holistic parenting.

I have enjoyed reading her posts on GrokNation so far — it’s refreshing to read open, honest viewpoints on a range of issues, especially from someone in the public eye. I don’t share all of Bialik’s views, but I admire her integrity and intelligence. I was also delighted to read (in a reply to a reader’s comment) that she plans to write about mental health.

My mentor, Emylia Hall, is another amazing woman. She has written her third novel, The Sea Between Us, which will be published in paperback on 27th August and is already available on Kindle. It’s a love story with a difference — the protagonist finds fulfilment in herself, through surfing, family relationships and art, becoming a whole person in her own right. Whether or not she gets the guy who seems to be her destiny is another aspect to her life, not its raison d’être. 

Emylia’s first two novels, The Book of Summers and A Heart Bent Out of Shape are also fabulous. They also tackle issues of identity as young women learn about themselves and their place in the world, which is one of my interests — probably because identity struggles are a common element of Borderline Personality Disorder. I think it’s a topic that doesn’t get discussed enough, particularly when you consider that women are in a strange position, experiencing a lot of inequality and prejudice despite not being a minority group in any society (bar a few religious enclaves).

Emylia is also an incredibly supportive mentor. I was selected as her mentee after I applied to the mentorship she was offering through the WoMentoring Project, which links aspiring female writers to mentors who are established in their fields. It’s all done on a voluntary basis, which means people of limited means (like myself) have access to mentorships. Emylia has continued to encourage and advise me, long after my initial mentorship ended, for which I am incredibly grateful.

I’m trying to play big and struggling, but reading about other women who are defining success on their own terms and striving towards their goals keeps me motivated. The women I know who do amazing things every day, like working with children with challenging conditions like autism while raising a toddler and being an awesome friend, also inspire me.

Reads to Rewrite Your Life 4: The Art of Non Conformity – Chris Guillebeau

The Art of Non-Conformity by Chris Guillebeau is a call for revolution. It’s about challenging convention and figuring out what you want from life, not what others expect you to want. It’s about discovering a lifestyle which works for you – whether that means travelling the world or living on an isolated mountaintop, working a few hours a day or making your work your life, spending your time partying or wandering alone. Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to look past the limitations put on you by society and live your dream.

Guillebeau is living his dream and uses his experiences to explain and illustrate his points throughout the book, but he also features many other people as case studies or examples. You might not want to follow Guillebeau’s lifestyle of frequent travelling (I don’t) but there is plenty of inspiration for different types of people. The Art of Non Conformity will appeal to anyone who has wondered “why should life be like this?”

It’s refreshing to read a book that encourages you to follow all of your crazy goals. So many lifestyle guides and self-help books take the opposite approach, asking you to reduce your goals – or abandon them – and focus on what’s “realistic” or “achievable”. The problem is, we don’t know what is achievable until we try. Throughout history, people have achieved what was previously believed to be impossible. Many of those things have become banal – I’m typing this post on a laptop that is more powerful than any computer that existed a few decades ago, yet it’s not the best model available (by a long shot) and although it’s purple and I like it, it is not particularly impressive. Some ordinary tasks, like online banking and internet shopping, have only taken off in the past decade. What if the people who originally had these ideas gave up their goals because they seemed unlikely to succeed?

The Art of Non Conformity teaches you to become a trailblazer. It doesn’t matter if your goals are small or weird or unique to you: you can experiment and discover new ways to lead your life. You might have an innovative idea that could change the world, or you might want to work out how you can do as many of your favourite activities for as long as possible. It doesn’t matter – be the trailblazer for your own, personal lifestyle.

It’s early days, but I have been inspired by The Art of Non Conformity and I’m trying to create the life I want. Guillebeau presents a range of advice and I can’t do it justice by summarising everything, but my favourite piece of advice is to write a to-stop-doing list. This is what it sounds like: a lists of tasks which waste your time and sap your energy, getting in the way of you achieving your goals. My list includes “watching TV programmes I wouldn’t bother recording” and “stressing about ‘what-ifs’”. If you would like to change your life and are looking for inspiration and ideas, read The Art of Non Conformity and check out the blog at www.chrisguillebeau.com

 

About the Reads to Rewrite Your Life series

This series discusses books which have helped to change my perspective on life. Many will be self-help guides, some will be classics and others will be a little different… I aim to provide an eclectic mix to inspire everyone, regardless of whether or not you have mental health issues.

  1. Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway – Susan Jeffers
  2. Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking – Susan Cain
  3. The How of Happiness – Sonja Lyubomirsky
  4. The Art of Non Conformity – Chris Guillebeau
  5. Wherever You Go, There You Are – Jon Kabat-Zinn
  6. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  7. Undoing Depression – Richard O’Connor