Wednesday, May 12, 2021 Leave a Comment
Key factors in maintaining a sense of wellbeing and good mental health are to feel in charge of one’s life and to feel acknowledged and appreciated – yet many of us struggle to achieve this and instead live our lives as if in response to an old school report: “Could Do Better” . This maxim is a terrible tyrant. Usually absorbed in childhood, it can stick around, creating constant pressure to drive us dutifully and anxiously on by telling us that we aren’t doing well enough.
The unhelpful sidekick of the ‘Could Do Better’ injunction is the critical voice in the head that says that everyone else is doing OK – keeping up and managing – and it is only you who are not. You are the odd one out. It can make you feel alone and lonely; reminded of all those times you felt a bit different or not good enough.
The idea that everyone else is coping and that you are the only one who teeters constantly on the brink of failure is, I think, a common anxiety driver in society. It is a close relation to Imposter Syndrome and as equally unkind and unhelpful.
The final ingredient in this unholy trinity is a context such as this current pandemic: highly stressful and full of unknowns. Such contexts can provoke memories of the times when life was unstable and liable to fearful eruptions and when you felt powerless to do anything. They can bring forth feelings of having to be over-responsible, vigilant and alert: everything relies on you and you have to ‘get it right’ or there may be a catastrophe.
Given these factors, it is little wonder many people can find themselves operating at some level of stress and anxiety or retreating into depression.
Undermining the shaming power of these critical and anxious voices and introducing instead supportive and appreciative ones is an important part of the change process and involves four steps:
Noticing and Interrupting
We tend to operate in life without being conscious of the rules and beliefs that influence our thinking and behavior. These are born over years, absorbed from family and social discourses. Think of them as internalized voices and start to notice them – notice when they seem to be telling you off or making you doubt yourself. Hear how loud they are and hear what they are saying. Notice what kinds of situations make them more powerful.
This very act of stopping what you are doing to notice and single them out can help to interrupt them and to create a space for other ideas and thinking to develop
It’s no good trying to ignore them or block them out – they will just get louder so instead, get curious about them:
What are the beliefs they support and where do these come from? How helpful really are these voices, these rules?
Do they make sense?
What are the situations that bring them on?
And conversely –
In what situations do they not run your life?
What sorts of situations help you feel calm, capable and appreciated? What is it about those situations or the people you are with, that contributes to you feeling good about yourself?
What situations help you feel you are living according to your values not anyone else’s.
As soon as you notice and become curious about the anxious and critical injunctions in your head you start creating an opportunity to reduce their power over you. Instead you can start to take charge of them.
To feel safely in charge of our lives we need to feel competent and able to trust our judgement, yet it seems we are all very good at identifying things we don’t do well or our mistakes and we can make copious lists of these, but we find it much harder to list our achievements. To undermine the power of the ‘Could Do Better’ rule we need to encourage our brain to identify and pay more attention to the things we do well, however tiny these may seem.
a)Notice and appreciate at least 4 achievements each day. These can take any form. The challenge is to notice the tiny achievements and not just pass them over as trivial.
b)Write these down each day in a list. Attend to the detail.
c) Identify what values and beliefs are important to you and notice the times that you live and behave according to these values. Think about how you want to reinforce them for yourself.
d) Self-soothing is an important tool to help you feel grounded when life feels unstable and stressful so develop appreciative and soothing self-talk. It can help to have a maxim that you say to yourself regularly. e.g. “It’s all going to be OK” “I’m managing very well under these circumstances” “This too shall pass”
It is often the case that the most caring of people are very poor at looking after themselves and being compassionate about their own vulnerabilities. This is where you start!
e) Introduce yourself to the ‘Good Enough’ principle. This is an important way of helping you select the degree of energy and concern you give to different aspects of life. It helps your brain recognise that you are managing life according to new guidelines and reassures it that you don’t need the school report any more.
f) Learn how to affirm yourself. On post-it notes write supportive and appreciative comments to yourself. Have these in your pocket and stick them around your house – on your desk or computer or mirror. Read them regularly. Again this is brain training.
g) Encourage yourself to notice when other people appreciate or acknowledge you. These moments aren’t always writ large or loud so you have to develop a keen awareness on your own behalf.
The kind of change we are discussing here invites you to be your own best friend, but change is encouraged and maintained when other people are on board to notice and support it.
a) Recruit support from any friends colleagues or family members you can share this with, so they keep you to ‘task’ and encourage you to acknowledge and appreciate your strengths
b) Ask people what they like, appreciate or respect about you.
c) Check in with others who are close to you about their own experiences of the School Report and its colleagues. It can be very helpful to realise you are not alone in these experiences.
d) Write a letter to yourself as if ‘from an admirer’. Put it in a stamped self-addressed envelope and get someone to post it to you at any time they fancy so when it arrives it will be a lovely surprise.
e) On bad days write RESET on your hand and look at it from time to time to encourage you to stay in the moment and breathe!