Hurrah for the end of January: Empathy, Labyrinth, Rules of Civility

First of all, congratulations to everyone on making it to the end of January. All my close friends seem to have had a terrible January for one reason or another. If it wasn’t total job upheaval, or anxiety spinning out of control, it was relationship struggles, or having to move house. In some cases, it was a jolly mix and match of all of the above.

When you are having a difficult time at the same time as those around you, it can get very difficult for you all to really help each other. I recently read Brené Brown’s book I Thought it was Just Me (But it Isn’t) and one of the focuses of this book is empathy. Some of us may think we’re pretty good at being empathetic – I thought I was – but after reading some of the points she made I realised that it’s more complicated than it sounds. There is a big difference between sympathy (from over here, I can see that this looks bad and I’m sorry for you) and empathy (I am seeing this through your eyes, and I want to understand). When we are all struggling with things, and someone starts to talk about their own problems, it’s easy to get frustrated and respond in a way which shuts down what they’re feeling.

Some of the barriers to empathy that Brown talks about are the ‘stacking the deck’ response: I see your break-up, and raise you a father with an illness. “Oh, you think you’ve got it bad? Wait ‘til you hear about my day.” Sometimes of course it isn’t that black and white. People can think they’re ticking the empathy box by saying “Oh, poor you.” But then cut off the other person’s problems by expanding at length on their own, without giving the other person a chance to expand. Or someone might talk to you about something, and you can’t immediately relate to what they’re saying. Someone might say: “I have been thinking about self-harming lately.” And you think “Wow, this is heavy. I don’t know anything about that. I’ve never considered doing that. I don’t know what to say. So I don’t risk saying the wrong thing, I’ll say nothing at all.”

When somebody shares an emotional pain with you, it’s often easier to step back than step forward. Especially if you are having a hard time yourself, and don’t feel like you have a lot of energy or time to give the other person. But empathy is a two-way street. Showing empathy to somebody else helps you with your own issues. Maybe you haven’t experienced the exact same thing as that other person, but you might have felt something similar. Maybe you’ve never thought about cutting yourself when you’re feeling frustrated or unhappy, but you can probably connect to the idea of release that people can experience when they do that, even if you experience that release in less self-abusive ways. And if you listen to them, and respond to them, they will probably be happy to hear you, and will be in a better place to listen from a position of giving and thoughtful response. Empathy really is the practice of truly listening to and hearing others. It’s so common to try and explain a problem to somebody, but they will only half-listen and fill in the rest of the gaps for themselves. In the end the person reaching out is left feeling diminished and small because they haven’t been heard, and the person who hasn’t been able to fully hear them is feeling frustrated and bored. Sometimes the best thing we can do is to stop and fully listen to people.

Another point about empathy, which is part of this notion of giving empathy being as useful to the giver as the receiver, is that empathetic conversations are two-way streets. I speak to several friends every day, and we are all very good at talking about ourselves for a while, but making sure we also respond to the other person and ask questions and make them feel heard. I’m sure you all know how quickly a conversation dies when only one person is asking the questions, especially over text or email. The person doing all the asking will often eventually give up and respond without any questions either, and the conversation dies without having anything new put into it. It’s often very difficult to fully show empathy over electronic communications, particularly as we’re often replying quickly and may not have read every word of the message. It’s a good idea to slow down for those few seconds, and think about what you’re writing. If the other person has said they’re struggling with something, respond to that in the first half of the message. Then talk about yourself in the second half. Of course there are exceptions to this, but I think it’s a nice rule of thumb for making people feel appreciated.

There are many more aspects to empathy that Brown talks about in her book, but this is the one that really stuck with me and that I found most useful, this concept of truly hearing and listening to other people, and having the courage to reach out to others when we are feeling down. Reaching out in this way can be very scary, so it’s important that you know how to respond if someone does it to you: if you cut them off or make them feel unheard, they probably won’t reach out to you again. It is less painful to not reach out and to keep painful emotions to ourselves than it is to reach out and get knocked back.

I know this is a pretty heavy topic and many of us have had a pretty heavy January, so here are some other things from this month that are more cheerful:

After the terribly sad death of David Bowie, I finally got around to watching Labyrinth for the first time. What a bizarre movie. Apparently they’re making some kind of sequel, which got me to wondering how on earth they’re going to do the Goblin King without Bowie. How on earth he still manages to be sexy while sporting the worst wig I’ve ever seen, flowing blouses and those tights I don’t know. I was saying to a friend that it was bizarrely attractive but I don’t think anybody else could pull it off. Do you think anyone has ever asked their partner to dress up like that as a fun sexual fantasy type thing? “Yes, so a blonde wig with a kind of mullet, and a lot of silvery eye make-up, a low-cut blouse, and tights that are VERY tight in some places and strangely baggy in others… I don’t know why this isn’t working…”

I was ill in bed for a week this month, and discovered that I’ve finally overplayed Friends. It just isn’t so much fun when you realise that you’re older than the characters are, especially if you’ve been watching it since you were 12. I felt very old. My new mindless TV is now Sex and the City, which I was actually too young for when it was first around. They’re all a few years older than me so I have some time. This may be a sign that I should investigate getting Netflix or something, but the internet signal in my room seems to have been on strike for January so maybe it would be a waste of money.

I read The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat a few weeks ago. It’s incredibly gripping and interesting, and makes you feel supremely lucky for being able to do simple things like recognise faces, or for having proprioception – an awareness of the your own body. One of the women in the book lost proprioception through a freak incident with some antibiotics. She cannot feel her own body. She has had to relearn how to move and walk visually, because she doesn’t know where, say, her arm is unless she is looking at it. Extremely odd but many of the stories were surprisingly life-affirming and optimistic. Highly recommended.

I also tried to read The Knife of Never Letting Go this week. Not recommended if you are having any kind of struggles with anxiety or depression. It is BLEAK. I have sought solace in Rules of Civility, one of my absolute favourite novels, set in 1930’s New York. The writing is delicious, with such lines as: ‘The game had changed; or rather, it wasn’t a game at all anymore. It was a matter of making it through the night, which is often harder than it sounds, and always a very individual business.’ In honour of the characters in Rules of Civility, let’s raise a martini (or martini glass containing your beverage of choice if you think martinis taste like toilet cleaner) to a good February.

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Radical self-care part 2: Not Giving a F**k

Last week I mentioned that as part of my resolution to engage in radical self-care, thereby protecting my own mental health, I was going to read Sarah Knight’s book ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k.’ Thanks to the speed of online ordering (not from Amazon, I hasten to add: I refuse to buy books from Amazon now) and the fact I am a very fast reader, I have already finished said book. It’s amazing and I’m going to share its basic concepts with you, as well as a list of some of the things which I, personally, do not give a fuck about.

The basic premise of the book is that you should be spending less time you don’t have, doing things you don’t want to do, with people you don’t like. By deciding what you do and don’t give a fuck about, and compiling a ‘Fuck Budget,’ you can spend less time, energy and money on things that annoy, and use that time, energy and money on things that bring you joy. Knight divides your Fuck Budget into four different areas:

  • Things and concepts
  • Work
  • Strangers, acquaintances and friends
  • Family

For each you make a list of things to do with that topic that you just don’t give a fuck about, and then later work out whether you can not give a fuck about those things without hurting people’s feelings. Of course, some things are much easier to not care about than others, and you have to be careful at all times to be polite and honest without going over the line into the ‘Asshole Quadrant.’

I don’t want to deprive her of book sales by going into the details of how you achieve not giving a fuck about all these things, and as I only finished reading it a couple of hours ago I can’t tell you yet how well it works in practice. However, I have already mentally discarded several things or events that do not fit into my Fuck Budget, and just deciding to let go and not care about whole lists of things is fun and invigorating. By carrying out Knight’s NotSorry Method, I’m feeling stronger and like I’ll have more time and energy to take care of myself and do the things that I genuinely enjoy. Yay!

So, here is a sample list of things about which I, personally, give zero fucks. Most of these come under the heading of ‘things and concepts’ – by far the easiest category because, in general, not giving a fuck about these things affects nobody but you.

  1. What other people think. I’m actually still working on this one, but Knight insists that it has to be on the list otherwise all those fucks you save by not going out to parties you don’t want to go to with people you don’t like will be wasted on feeling guilty for not going to said parties, just in case somebody noticed your absence and cared on some level. In my experience, this is, in any case, unlikely.
  2. Organic wine. I’ve tried it, it’s nasty. I’m going to waste no more fucks worrying about whether I’m a good person by not drinking it.
  3. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I know this is controversial because so many people love him, but I tried to read Love in the Time of Cholera and I just couldn’t get through it. I’m giving zero fucks about not wanting to read any more of his books.
  4. Political theory. When I arrived at university for my Masters I found that I’d missed a memo on doing at least an A Level if not a degree in political theory. And reading Foucault’s entire back catalogue. I tried but I just don’t give a fuck about any of it. Most of it sounds either so narrow as to be useless except in very specific cases, or so blindingly obvious I don’t understand why anybody felt the need to write a book (or several) on it. Perhaps I’m missing something, but really, zero fucks given.
  5. Dietary/alcohol intake/what does and doesn’t give you cancer advice from the government and various experts. I am sick to the back teeth of articles telling me what I should and shouldn’t be eating, and what is and isn’t going to kill me, and whether it’s okay to drink wine on a Tuesday but only if it’s a full moon and only as long as you then don’t drink ‘til the following month. FUCK OFF. When did we stop being trusted to realise what generally is and isn’t good for us, and act accordingly? The amounts of time, energy and money I will save by giving zero fucks about this is at stratospheric levels.
  6. Apple merchandise. Enough. I get it, it’s pretty. But it breaks like all technology, stop pretending it’s magic.
  7. I’m actually looking forward to the next fad so people can stop telling me to eat kale. It’s nasty and I don’t want it. (See also no.5.)
  8. The nuclear threat from Iran/North Korea/any country that America etc. have deemed too “uncivilised” to be allowed to hold a stick to have some defence against the bigger bullies in the playground. This is doubly useful as something to save fucks on as there is also bugger all I can do about the nuclear capabilities of any of these places. I could read all the news items and absorb the rhetoric that all these nasty barbarians are going to try and kill me, but really, it seems pretty unlikely so I just don’t want to spend a fuck on it.
  9. Conversations about TV programmes I haven’t seen. The list of things that have come out in the last several years that I haven’t seen includes but is not limited to: Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, The Walking Dead, Grey’s Anatomy, The Killing, The Wire, The Sopranos, The West Wing, Lost, True Detective, Dexter, Homeland, Parks and Recreation (although I wouldn’t mind seeing that), and Downton Abbey past series 1. As you can tell I give few fucks about keeping up with recent ‘must-see’ programmes. This means I give no fucks about conversations about any of these programmes. If you insist on talking about them at length in my presence then please don’t be offended if I check my phone, stare into space or go for an extended bathroom break. Telling me I’m “really missing out” will be met with death stares. Sorry NotSorry.
  10. Anybody’s opinion on whether I should or should not have children, including the opinions of friends, family and the media at large. I am tired of being asked if I’m broody, or being told that when I hit 30 I’m going to suddenly desperately want a baby. I feel like I’m waiting anxiously for a stealth attack from my own ovaries. I’d love to know for just a day, or a week, what it’s like inside a man’s head without this sodding pressure to think about children, and whether you want them, and just in case you do, to plan for the degeneration of your own body. I’m resolving to give no fucks about this from now on, and set up a zero-fucks barrier against all baby-related propaganda.

I feel like I’m taking better care of myself already.

I hope you’ve all had a good first ten days of 2016! And apologies for this post to anybody who had ‘resolutions/any New Year new you bullshit’ on their ‘Things I don’t give a fuck about’ list (Hi Emma!).

Resolutions and radical self-care

Last year I wrote a post about New Year’s Resolutions, looking back on what I had and hadn’t accomplished from the 2014 list. I have lost the proper list I made for 2015, which is probably for the best as I think most of them were extremely vague or fairly odd. As always at this time of year there is a lot of chat about what resolutions mean and whether or not they’re helpful. When I’ve asked people what theirs are, there are all the classics like ‘go to the gym more’ (one resolution for 2015 I do remember, go swimming or cancel the membership, is sadly still on my list for 2016) but others were different and often very specific. My favourite so far is someone’s resolution to watch all the Star Wars films, as he’d never seen any of them. That’s nice and easy, although I’m sure he’ll need a few drinks or a Jar Jar Binks dartboard to get through The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones.

I’ve also seen various alternatives to resolutions which I’ve found interesting. One was to find a word for 2016 which would guide you through the year. This is through Susannah Conway’s website, which has some really interesting and useful pieces on it. I haven’t found my word yet, and I feel like it might be difficult at the end of the year if you want to try and measure your success rate. But then maybe that’s one of the less helpful things about resolutions: if you haven’t ticked them all off, you feel like a failure, even if in other ways your year was very successful. Just because I didn’t make fishcakes last year (strange resolution) doesn’t mean 2015 wasn’t a success. A website called moodnudges.com had a potentially more helpful and healthy way of looking back on the last year – an Old Year’s Revelation. The idea is you look back over your past year and find the one thing you are most grateful for. This at least has the benefit of highlighting the positive.

I really only have one major resolution for 2016, but I think it’s going to be broad enough to encompass almost everything. I follow a woman on facebook called Laci Green, who posts fantastic videos explaining a lot of different topics, including what ‘Intersex’ means and Condom Tips for the Ladies. She hasn’t been posting so much for a while as she was suffering from some mental health issues, but she’s recently said that she’s feeling much better after taking a break and practising ‘radical self-care.’ This is a term I’ve read elsewhere in the last few weeks and both times what was meant by ‘radical self-care’ wasn’t explained. I found this frustrating until I realised that self-care probably means different things to different people, and I need to come up with my own ways to care for myself and feel better. The last few months I’ve been suffering more with anxiety, and been in and out of depressive moods, which I thought were just blips until someone pointed out that I’d been low more often than I was up for quite a while. I needed to evaluate where I was going wrong and what I could do to give myself some help.

I haven’t got a fully-fledged plan yet for how I’m going to do this, except that I need to make time to exercise and also make more time for writing, which has been neglected lately. I have ordered a book which I’m hoping will be my guidebook for practising radical self-care, called The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k, by Sarah Knight. I am a terrible people-pleaser, to the point that sometimes I genuinely can’t work out what I want to do because other people’s wants are encroaching too much on how I think. I am also highly empathetic, so I can often tell what people might want me to do even if they think they’re being subtle about it, and have a habit of trying to mind read which can backfire as I will normally assume people are thinking the worst, and often they’re not. This all means that I struggle to put my own needs first, because I haven’t defined what they are, and only realise too late that I’m doing something I’d rather not be doing. The subtitle of this new book is: ‘How to stop spending time you don’t have with people you don’t like doing things you don’t want to do.’ I definitely need this. I am often astonished by other people saying no to things I wouldn’t be able to say no to for fear of hurting someone’s feelings or altering their opinion of me, or people asking for things they want and need without tiptoeing around or saying ‘just’ or ‘maybe’ thirty-seven times. The book is winging its way to me as we speak, and I will let you know who I get on and whether it’s useful.

The only other definite thing I’ve thought of in terms of practising radical self-care is turning off facebook more often. I find it exhausting, the constant barrage of negative news and the pictures of people apparently having so much more fun and being so much more productive than I am. It puts my brain in a strange sort of trance, where I’m not really focussing or taking anything in but not in a relaxing way, more in a way that makes me feel strained and anxious when I stop. Of course, sometimes facebook and other social media pages are useful for links to interesting sites or funny pages, but in many ways they just aren’t useful, especially because they encourage you to have a shorter and shorter attention span. I’m hoping to use facebook in particular less and less this year, and escape that odd compulsion to check my news feed just because I can: if I’m away and have limited internet I find I do not miss it at all, which I think is very telling.

I’m hoping that by setting more boundaries for myself and deciding what I need to feel good, I’ll feel more confident and successful this year than I did last year. I don’t exercise good practice when it comes to measuring my own success, as I am a perfectionist and likely to berate myself for very small things. During my Masters it was easy, in my head, to measure my success: I got given grades every few weeks which told me if I was successful or not. Of course, academic grades aren’t a very good way to measure your self-worth, as they only cover something so specific. I placed very tough expectations on myself to keep improving where improvement wasn’t possible, or to be perfect where perfect wasn’t attainable. At work I feel like I need to find my own way of measuring my success, something I am still working out but which makes me feel quietly confident. I’m also thinking of ways of widening my perception of what makes me successful, and counting up all the things that I discount about myself but which are actually worth their weight in gold. I tend to assume that things I find easy are things everyone finds easy, even when other people tell me that this isn’t the case.

Whatever resolutions you make, or don’t make, I hope 2016 is a successful one for you, by whatever terms you measure success. Take care of yourselves.