What’s the etiquette if you use the last of your therapist’s tissues?

Everyone I know seems to be a little tired at the moment. Flaking on plans is the new normal; requests to postpone are met with welcome relief. Is it the change of seasons? Perhaps we are mentally setting out on a new year and a new beginning, a remnant from our childhood routines (or less of a remnant if you still work in education).

I am tired for more obvious reasons. We moved to London six weeks ago, and are still working things out. The admin of bills and old and new deposits is almost done- although we are still waiting for our old letting agent to give us back the scraps of our deposit left after their ludicrous demands (first time I’ve been charged for putting in picture hooks- £10 each, if you please). Everything is unpacked (although things are still missing) and we’re settling into our new routines. My new commute is only 15 minutes each way instead of over an hour and a half – everyone exclaims about how much my life must have changed, but so far all I’ve done with the extra time is sleep a little more, go to work early and watch more television in the evenings.

This move has been strange for me – it’s a moving forwards and a moving backwards at the same time. People ask how I’ve enjoyed exploring my new area, but I used to live twenty minutes from here and I’ve worked here for five years. I had a lot of plans for all the things I would start/finish/complete once we’d moved: start a new exercise regime, reconnect with dancing, see friends much more often, explore all London’s opportunities… the list was endless.

Of course, we’re only six weeks in so I shouldn’t really expect myself to have accomplished all those things at once. But as always I’ve been hard on myself and am disappointed in how little I’ve done- I haven’t joined a new gym, partly because of a prohibitively high joining fee; I haven’t gone back to dancing, because I’m scared I’ll be crap and that people will think I’ve put on lots of weight; and for the first five weeks I saw only one of my friends – all other plans were postponed by one or other of us because life kept getting in the way.

However, because of things falling in my lap or because I had priorities I didn’t realise were there, I have made a few changes. I get into work by half eight, which I like because it’s nice and quiet. I’ve become a regular attendee of a yoga class organised by a colleague. And I’ve started seeing a new therapist.

The decision to go back to therapy came about through lots of tiny steps. This therapist was recommended to me about a year ago by a friend – she urged me to look for someone who was trained in body psychotherapy after my car accident, as body psychotherapists are trained to notice how we hold tension in the body and help us to release it. I couldn’t find such a therapist in Canterbury, but I kept the idea in my mind, and was reminded of it often by my habits of tensing muscles in response to anxiety or frustration. I’ve clenched my jaw for about ten years, not grinding my teeth (thankfully), but tensing my jaw for so long I get headaches and my jaw clicks whenever I open my mouth fully. That tension has spread down the right side of my body, particularly since the car accident. I tense my right ankle as if my foot is on an accelerator, which tenses my hamstring and my hip, and you wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to get hip muscles to relax – especially when the tension is often unconscious.

I started seeing this therapist partly for those reasons but also because I am very tired of constantly doubting myself, putting myself down and not feeling good enough. Something my therapist has said more than once – in only two sessions so far – is that I’m very hard on myself, I don’t give myself much of a break. For the last ten months, since buying a full-length mirror for the first time in three years, I’ve felt deeply unhappy about the weight I’ve gained and consistently either feel disappointed when I see myself, or avoid looking at myself altogether. A friend finally suggested I speak to somebody about it, because while everyone has some worries about their appearance, mine have affected me very strongly and to the point where I’m using up far too much mental energy on what to eat and what to wear. Although my diet hasn’t changed very much – it’s pretty healthy in general – the amount of time I spend trying to decide if I should eat that Kit Kat or have cheese on my spaghetti Bolognese is simply exhausting. It has got too much for me and I can’t deal with it by myself. So for all those reasons together, I got the name of the therapist, and set up an appointment.

It’s an odd feeling, starting therapy. In many ways it’s so much easier not to go. Unlike many physical illnesses, when starting medication seems like an obvious choice, with mental health, you can always convince yourself you can beat it on your own. What good will just talking about it do? I can do that by myself. I can talk to my friends, or my partner, or my children. I can fix it, I don’t need to pay to go and sit with somebody for an hour. What a waste of money!

I understand that point of view. I’ve thought it myself, many times. I still think it to some degree. And seeing a therapist is tough – you are so vulnerable, and you have to be totally honest with yourself and them, and thoughts will come to mind that you’ve buried for years – and you have to express them to someone you hardly know. I have been very tired since I started, and have cried pretty much every day about something. I feel like a glass of liquid with some sediment at the bottom, and someone’s stirred the liquid very fast so all the sediment has flown up and is swimming round and round and round. A line from a book summed it up perfectly – “her mind plunged desperately for some hold upon slippery banks.” My first session with my therapist I started crying about two minutes in and barely stopped for an hour – for one horrible moment I thought I was going to finish his box of tissues.

At the same time as it’s difficult and tiring and I feel as if I’m three steps behind on life and running to catch up, everything is so unsettled and I’m so tired and I just want to sleep in a cave for a month, the therapy is worth it. It’s giving me some space to look some emotions in the face and square up to them. I’ve been more honest with my bosses at work about some things that aren’t going well for me, and received support in return. I’ve had wonderful conversations with friends, some of whom are also in therapy, and our bond has deepened through our shared experiences. I’m taking steps towards more self-care, making some plans for more exercise, and doing some yoga in the mornings to help stretch out all those muscles that get so tensed and strained from holding my anxiety and that of others.

Most of all, I feel like I’m helping myself. It’s a great (and expensive) gift I’m giving myself. It’s difficult not to feel sometimes that I’m a failure for doing it, especially as I’ve had some counselling before. But I remind myself that it’s because I’ve learned more about myself, and seen how much more I could be. And asking for some help to get there doesn’t feel like failure – it feels like strength.

Advertisements

Perfectionism

I haven’t been writing much lately. I have plenty of ideas in my head and still draft pieces as I’m walking around but haven’t found the time or the headspace to write anything down, and part of that is thanks to one of my biggest flaws: perfectionism.

I’ve often thought of it as being low self-esteem or anxiety, and I’m sure they’re contributing factors, but what it boils down to is that I am a perfectionist. I hate getting things wrong and hate feeling like I’ve made a bad job of something, or haven’t done as much as I could have done. In some ways this is useful and it makes me good at many parts of my job, but it is also self-destructive. I get far too upset about the little things and that lack of perspective is really unhelpful.

There are a couple of recent examples of this. One is the issue I’ve written a few blogs on this year, about body image. I am still struggling to view myself in a healthy and positive way since gaining some weight. I do not always recognise myself when I catch sight of my reflection, which I find unnerving, and I do not feel attractive at all. I think a lot of this problem is in my head: my body shape has not changed THAT much. But it is different. For most of my adult life I’ve been able to walk into shops, pick up the smallest size on the rack, and it will probably fit, or it will be a bit big. Now, I essentially have no idea what size I am. Clothes I’ve worn in the last few days have ranged in size from a 6 to a 12. I am throwing out a lot of clothes that no longer fit, but when it comes to buying new ones, as well as not knowing what size to choose, I don’t really know what will be flattering anymore. I can’t “get away with” some options I’ve worn in the past. High-waisted pencil skirts used to be sleek and slimming but now make me look squat and shorter than I am. T-shirts no longer sit neatly above my jeans but get a little stuck on a bit of tummy and make me look like I’ve had an over-generous lunch.

Or do they? I am aware that my own view of myself is not healthy and not necessarily grounded in reality. I’ve had other periods in my life when I’ve had half of my brain absolutely convinced of something, while the other half is fairly sure the first half has lost the plot. I had a brief period years ago when I was convinced I was pregnant. I wasn’t. I had nearly a year when I was certain that my hair was falling out. It stressed me out horribly, and I was forever checking my hairline in the mirror and trying to judge whether it had changed. My hair wasn’t falling out at all, or no more than is normal, and eventually the anxiety subsided and I forgot about it. I fear the same thing is happening with my view of my own body, that I see something that isn’t really there.

It is a certainty that my body has changed over the last few years, as I’ve hit 30 and been commuting and sitting down for an extra three hours a day. But I don’t know if the change is as drastic as I perceive it to be. I do have little stretch marks on my inner thighs, and I’ve never had stretch marks before so I’ve found that a little bewildering and upsetting. It’s on one leg more than the other, and they don’t seem to be fading, so I’m a bit worried that they’re not normal – even though really I know they probably are, it’s just new and I no longer have that “skinny” body I’ve had for so long.

The other ridiculous thing, as well as worrying about any of it unduly, is that even when I was very slim and had none of these issues with a tummy or stretch marks or anything else, I wasn’t happy. I thought I was TOO thin, a view backed up for me by various people at high school and all the media ever that tells you that “men like a bit of meat on your bones”, or “men only like big boobs”, etc etc. So I’m upset about losing something I didn’t particularly like. What a mess.

The other perfectionist example is from this week, when we had a pub quiz as part of a team building week. One of our founders is also a quiz master so once or twice a year, he puts together a quiz for us. In the first ever work quiz, I was on a team with the CEO and overruled him on a question about the bridge on the river Kwai. It turned out he was right, and although we won, he brought it up the following year, making me realise he hadn’t forgotten my mistake. (This is hell for a perfectionist, who hates being reminded of mistakes, even when they’re seemingly inconsequential quiz answers.) This week at the quiz, a question on the bridge on the river Kwai came up again. I completely lost my head (aided by some wine) and insisted I knew the answer – unfortunately, I once again put down the wrong thing (the bridge on the river Kwai is in Thailand, not, as I seem to be utterly convinced, in Myanmar). When I realised my mistake I felt like chucking myself off a bridge, and ever since whenever I think of it I cringe and inwardly berate myself for being such an idiot.

I bet you’re laughing though, aren’t you? To everybody else, it’s a very funny story about how fallible a person can be, insisting on making the same mistake twice instead of saying ‘bridge on the river Kwai? Count me out, I am not getting involved’ or thinking about it for two seconds and saying ‘I can’t believe it is Thailand, because they’re the only southeast Asian country not to be invaded in World War Two so I have no idea why anybody was doing anything with a bridge there, but it is Thailand’. I’m sure everyone’s lives are full of these silly moments which make you pull a rueful face, but to me they mean more than they should, and there seems to be a part of me which really feels like I’ve failed when I make any kind of mistake like that. Half the fun and potential for fallout from quizzes is that you have to make a decision as a team, some people will be ignored or overruled, some people will insist on certain answers, and everyone at some point will be wrong. It shouldn’t matter, but because I have an unrealistic idea of how perfect I can be if I only try hard enough, I feel like it does matter and everyone is sneering at me for being so stupid. Even though, really, I know they’re not, and it’s making mistakes like these that make people like you more because you are human and they can imagine the pain of realising what a goon you’ve been and empathise with that. (For the record, my team won the quiz anyway – and apparently the rest of the company have never seen me so ecstatic; I reacted as if I’d won the lottery and a gold medal at the Olympics and the World Cup all at the same time.)

Being a perfectionist is a real pain in the arse. I wish I had a more realistic and healthy view of myself and a more positive attitude towards my own failures. I waste a lot of time worrying about things I can’t change that nobody else thinks are problems anyway. I don’t really have a neat solution today – I’ve been this way for a long time and learning to be kinder to myself is not going to be quick or easy. It doesn’t help that most of what we read tells us how happy we’ll be once we’re a) thin and beautiful and b) wildly successful. And all that involves striving for perfection, being your “best self”, picking the best selfie for Instagram, never eating cake, always getting the promotion, never getting fired, always being in a relationship, never regretting a decision, and so on. I’m trying to take baby steps, giving myself permission to shop around for new clothes, and practising self-care when things don’t fit; and reminding myself that embracing imperfection makes you far more fun and likable than if you’re always pristine and never trip over your own feet or say something stupid. Nobody is ever going to be perfect, despite what social media may want us to believe. I will, however, learn something about the bridge on the river Kwai, other than the fact that it is – allegedly – in Thailand.

Thinking like a smartphone

I saw a Reddit quote the other week in response to the question, ‘If aliens landed what would they find strangest about our society?’ The answer said: We carry around super computers in our pockets capable of looking up nearly all the information known to mankind, and we use them to look at pictures of cats and argue with strangers. I would add to that: and ignore the people we’re physically spending time with, without considering how rude it is. Because it’s just the way things are now. We are in a new age of communication – although people have been saying that for the last hundred years at least. But we are now in a revolution of manners, and of how we actually think.

Smartphones play a totally new part in our daily lives. Before, if someone was talking to you and you picked up a book or a newspaper and started to read when they were mid-sentence, it would be considered unbelievably rude. And yet we do it with our phones without thinking. I’ve had meet-ups with friends when they’ve spent more time texting someone else than they have speaking to me. (Which has on occasion felt ironic because they’re so bad at replying in general. It makes one wonder if you’re the only one who has to wait a week for a response.) Yet even though this infuriates me, I still do it to other people. I’ll check my phone while I’m out with a friend or talking to somebody else, and it doesn’t feel like a big deal. But it is.

I am genuinely worried about what smartphones (and smartphones specifically, as well as technology in general) are doing to our societies. When was the last time you switched off your phone? Even on planes or in cinemas or theatres, people can’t bear to switch them off. They’re just put on aeroplane mode. I switch mine off, but the first thing I do as I’m leaving is turn it back on. Why are we so addicted to these tiny pieces of technology? I would estimate that about 90% of the times  I check mine, there is nothing remotely interesting for me to look at. And yet I keep doing it. I’ve noticed on nights out when I’ve forgotten it or I have no signal I still get that automatic message from my brain: check your phone. I start feeling like I’m going mad because I get this compulsive urge, and reach for my phone before realising it’s not there – like looking for a phantom limb. It’s pretty alarming.

I read a book in the summer called The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, about the ways that technology is changing the way our brains work. Not that this hasn’t happened before – it happened with the advent of deep reading. As writing materials became more widely available, and larger, people started writing more, and more people started reading – at first aloud, and then gradually, silent reading became the norm. ‘As language expanded, consciousness deepened.’ ‘The quiet of deep reading became part of the mind.’ Doesn’t it sound fabulously peaceful? But now: we are physically shortening our brain’s attention span with our use of technology. In simple terms, our working memory can only ever absorb a certain amount of information at a time, and then it gets stored in long-term memory. But we aren’t retaining as much of the information we look at because we don’t look at it for long enough. ‘Our brains become adept at forgetting, inept at remembering.’ We skim, and flick between tabs; minimise windows and move them around, read half an article then click a hyperlink to read another article, on and on, always with twenty things going on at once. Some people say this is multitasking, but multitasking has been proven to be a myth. The brain is not capable of performing two complex tasks at the same time. You can see this for yourself if you’re walking with a friend and ask them a complicated question they really need to think about to answer. Their pace will slow and may even stop. The brain cannot keep doing something even as simple as walking if it needs all its energy for another task. The same thing will happen if you are driving and chatting and then need to navigate a busy intersection. You will stop talking, often mid-sentence. You may be able to return to the sentence afterwards, but for those seconds, you cannot do two things at once. When we think we are doing two complex tasks at once, we’re actually switching between them very fast – and losing a little time every time we switch.

The leaders of Google and Apple and Microsoft don’t want us to believe this, however. No, the more apps you run at once the more efficient you’re being! Buy more processing power! Buy more gadgets to be EVEN MORE EFFICIENT! Schmidt, a former CEO of Google, came out with this truly terrifying quote: ‘The most obvious use of Twitter… can be seen in situations where everybody is watching a play and are busy talking about the play while the play is under way’. This doesn’t make sense. If people are talking about the play, they aren’t watching the play. You cannot do both at the same time. The last time I went to a concert, I ended up being forced to watch half of it on somebody’s phone, held up in front of my face. Whoever it was lost half of each song because they couldn’t wait until afterwards to upload the pictures and videos to the internet. It’s all about sharing and tweeting and making people aware of what you’re doing, even though at the moment you’re staring at your phone, you’re not at the concert. Your brain is elsewhere.

But the more time people spend doing real things in person, the less time they’ll be spending on Twitter and Facebook and shopping and buying and looking at adverts and making tax-evading billionaires lots more money. Or, in less cynical terms, the less time is spent communicating with wide networks of people and sharing information and expressing ourselves to our beautiful huge communities of online followers. That’s how it works, right? Everyone’s our friend. Except, if you’re me, hardly anybody notices what you’ve said/seen and you are left with that odd feeling of disappointment, of losing something you never really had. We are, according to Nicholas Carr, ‘lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment’. I certainly feel like a lab rat sometimes.

But what’s complicated about uploading a picture and listening to a concert at the same time, you may ask. Or having a conversation and reading a text.  You can do that easily. Can’t you? If your attention is focussed on reading, your ears won’t work so well. I do it all the time. “Sure, I’m listening, keep going, I’ll just answer this email while you talk… mm hmm… what? Sorry I didn’t quite hear that bit.” Much as we all want to believe we’re super-powered computers who can run a million jobs a minute, that isn’t how our brain works. It’s both much simpler and far more complicated than a machine.

I read a book recently called ‘To be a Machine’, about transhumanism – people who want to extend human life, often through part or total melding with machines. Some people believe if we find out enough about the human brain, we could recreate a mechanical brain. We can make ourselves into a computer, and thereby live forever. Or create androids, robots, replicants, with brains like ours. But is this really possible? We all talk as though it is: the metaphors linking our brains and computers are growing all the time. Processing, memory, bandwidth, the ‘space’ in our brains – brains or hard drives? – and so on and so on. Yet these ideas ‘take for granted that the brain operates according to the same formal mathematical rules as a computer does – that, in other words, the brain and the computer speak the same language. But that’s a fallacy born of our desire to explain phenomena we don’t understand in terms we do understand.’ It may seem odd to say that we understand computers and don’t understand our own brains, but it’s true. Even those scientists working right now on recreating a brain don’t know how to answer the question ‘will it be conscious?’, because we don’t know what we mean by the term conscious. Our own minds and the ability to have this concept of ourselves, of ‘I’, is something philosophers and scientists and theologians have been arguing over for centuries – and they’re still arguing, because we haven’t understood it yet.

So we’re convincing ourselves that computers can mimic our brains, and also persuading ourselves that our brains can mimic computers. We try to do everything at once, concentrate on ten different things and who cares if we look at our smartphones when we’re doing another task, or talking to another person? Why can’t we do two things at once? Perhaps our smartphones are already becoming extensions of our brains, relied on for looking up information, remembering phone numbers, doing even simple arithmetic, and communicating with people. We are making it easier to imagine being able to meld man and machine, as that deepening of consciousness that came with reading, the questioning and reasoning that it brought out in our brains, is made shallow and vague as we forget even the simplest things in preference to looking at the little rectangle in our hands. We forget how to have a full, complicated conversation, and how to wait for things instead of getting instant gratification. We become more rude and distant – even if nobody notices because everyone’s the same. Nobody notices what the person opposite them is doing, because nobody’s looking each other in the eye.

I know that when I spend a lot of time looking at my phone, I get this irritable, slightly queasy, flickering sensation in my head. Often I’ve been conscious of wanting to stop looking at this pointless endless scroll of information long before I’ve actually looked up, but have stayed glued to the screen: ‘we crave the new even when we know that the new is more often trivial than essential’. But I hope we retain some way of teaching young people how to process (!) information without the aid of technology. We risk losing this ability to choose what we see, choose some of what influences us, because we’re all addicted to the stream of words and pictures dictated by who knows who, with who knows what aims in mind. I’ll end with a quote from David Foster Wallace, who said that giving up this control, this means of exercising command over our own brains, is to be left with “the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing”. Our brains’ abilities are infinite. Those of a smartphone are not.

All quotes are from the book The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. The last, from David Foster Wallace, is also quoted in The Shallows.

Relaxation

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about relaxation. I’ve realised that I’ve slipped into a place where I find it very difficult to fully relax in my own flat. I always feel like I should be doing something, should be cleaning or should be putting things away. I can’t quite remember what I used to do all the time when I lived in a flatshare and had a space only for me. In this flat, the spare bedroom is my partner’s office, and my space is in the living room. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to be swallowed up by the half of the sofa I always sit on, I spend so much time there!

In the last couple of months I’ve started taking myself out to the café in Waterstone’s at the weekend, sitting with a book and a cup of tea (sometimes cake too if they have a good one) and relaxing there. My mum wouldn’t understand going out and spending a fiver on tea and a biscuit when I could have them at home, but at least when I’m out, I don’t feel like there’s something I need to be doing. It doesn’t last long, though – I start feeling like I’ve stayed too long, even if I don’t have to get back for anything in particular. I read an article a while ago about women often being the manager of household chores. My partner and I do about equal amounts of stuff round the house, but it’s usually me who’s the organiser, the decision maker, and the instigator of getting things done. Maybe that’s my natural role, or maybe I jump in too often, or maybe I’m too critical when he tries, so me organising everything becomes the status quo. But it is exhausting.

Yesterday I woke up with a horrendous sore throat. I’ve had sniffles and a neverending almost-cold for months and months, but this was the first proper cold I’ve had for a long time. Finally, I had to stop and do nothing. I barely even checked in with work. Many of us who have the means to work from home find it truly difficult to switch off when we’re ill or on holiday – for me it’s the trade off I’m happy to live with for the flexibility of working from home one day a week, and occasionally other times if I need to. The only issue is it can mean your brain never quite knows how to switch off. It’s turning into a cliché now to say we’re always working or always on call, thanks to smartphones, but I’m starting to realise how true it really is. If we don’t set up our own boundaries, we can’t complain when work seeps into home life. And it’s easy to feel like you’re missing something or messing something up if you don’t keep checking in.

For me this inability to fully relax is combined with a shyness around my favourite things to do to unwind – mostly watching Friends, Sex and the City, or The Good Life. I’ve seen them all many times, and there are no surprises anywhere anymore. With Friends, I could recite the dialogue from beginning to end of most of the episodes in my head if I wanted to. Sex and the City I know less well but it’s equally brainless. Sometimes I’ll watch while doing something else, fixing something or browsing for things on the internet, but the best times are when I just watch it and relax completely. However, I feel silly watching the same thing over and over again, and worry that my boyfriend thinks it’s stupid. He has tried a few times to get me into his hobby of choice, playing computer games. It doesn’t work for me, however: not having grown up with them I feel lost and like I’m making a mess of it, and no matter how many times someone tells me that doesn’t matter, I don’t find it that enjoyable and don’t have the urge to keep going until I get better. My brain doesn’t get involved or particularly care about the outcome, which makes it difficult.

One of the other things I used to do to relax was write blogs. I would get a topic in my head and turn it over for a few days or a few weeks and eventually sit down to write and it would all pour out. Lately the pouring out hasn’t happened, for reasons I’m not quite clear on. I’ve been struggling to find that relaxed state of mind where I can turn off the cynical, judgemental switch until I’ve got to the end or at least got something written down. There hasn’t been any particular reason for this that I know of, although some people have suggested that being on anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medication can cause blockages in the creative flow. Maybe I’ve got too tired of staring at a screen all day. Maybe I’ve got too used to jumping up to tidy my flat. Maybe I’ve forgotten how to get my brain to really relax.

I’ve thought a few times of writing more about the car crash I was in in the summer, but I was worried people would be bored of that and not want to hear any more about it. But I write this blog for me, so it doesn’t really make sense not to write about that if I want to. My anxiety around driving has got worse again the last few months, and I’m now trying to decide which form of help would be most useful for me. I’m considering ordinary counselling, hypnotherapy, and standard driving lessons. The hypnotherapy is pretty expensive – £370 for six sessions, and the lady assured me I would need that many. Her whole tone was somewhat mercenary and not particularly encouraging. A counsellor I got in touch with had no space and was hardly any cheaper. A driving instructor replied to my email saying ‘Yes I can help you’ which is what I needed to hear, but I haven’t had the guts to call and arrange a lesson yet. I’m hiding behind excuses. This cold this weekend is very convenient.

The only positive and concrete step I have taken is to have a biodynamic massage – a friend has recently qualified as a masseuse and I was eager to give it a try. Biodynamic massage is psychotherapeutic massage, investigating the energy in the body and releasing it from places it has got stuck (apologies Anita if this is a shocking description!). I had my first session this week. Since the crash the issues I’ve had for a long time with muscle tension in my right jaw and shoulder have spread down into my hip and into my foot – I’ll find my right foot is tensed upwards, as if it’s resting on an invisible accelerator. One thing Anita suggested at the start was that my body might be trying to relive the accident to get a different result. I realised that that’s what I’ve been doing psychologically too: I haven’t let it go because I keep thinking I should have done something different, but without being able to go back in time and change anything, that sense of guilt and unease has stayed with me.

During the session the tension in my right arm started to improve, although it’s always difficult for me to relax it after years of computer and mouse work. After massaging my legs, Anita held both my feet calmly in both hands. I can’t explain it, but I started to feel a twitching and a shuddering in my right foot. Odd as it sounds, I felt the guilt and self-blame I’ve had since the accident rise up and find a measure of release. I started to cry. After the session was over I felt calm and light-headed but immensely tired, and a couple of days later I got this cold. Perhaps this is my body’s way of taking control and forcing me to get some real, proper rest, without the shoulds and shouldn’ts that so frequently consume my thoughts.

Today I’m trying very hard to relax, which is a contradiction in itself. Perhaps it’s better to say I’m not trying to tick off a to do list, or find something to do that other people would think was a good use of time. (It helps that the flat is already clean and tidy so looking around, there aren’t many tasks that jump out for me to do!) It’s still difficult, but I don’t want to have to get ill to start feeling like I’m allowed to sit down and do what I want – even if other people would think watching fictional people make the same stupid decisions over and over again is a pointless thing to do. It’s only for me.

You should’ve asked

Working Out the Gym

Over the last few months, I’ve taken up going to the gym. I can hear the eyes roll and the bored sighs from here. People hate people going to the gym – until recently I was one of those people, and honestly I would also sigh and roll my eyes at a blog post about going to the gym. Stick with it, my friends. Hopefully it will be faintly informative, or at least faintly funny.

I started going because I have an ongoing issue with the nerve in my right elbow, due to the amount of time I spend sitting at a computer. Three physiotherapists have asked me if there’s anything I can do at my job that doesn’t involve a computer – the answer is no. Perhaps I need to retrain as a shepherd or a taxi driver to avoid the problem. But in the meantime, my solution is to go to the gym to try and release the tension that runs from neck to shoulder to wrist and back again.

The gym is a fascinating place to observe human behaviour. It is at the same time an intensely private and completely public place to be. People are frequently half-dressed, or in clothes so tight-fitting they may as well be half-dressed. Men with shoulders the size of their heads stride around calling to each other, obviously at home and at ease. Women run on the treadmills with their headphones in, making no eye contact. I am one of these – I avoid looking any other people in the eye, mainly for fear of judgement. I am blessed with a slight physique, so don’t have to worry about people thinking I’m too heavy to be in a gym (which is, by the way, a completely bizarre piece of logic) but I worry anyway about being judged on my appearance or abilities – and on being compared to other women.

There is one woman who goes to my local gym who is pretty, petite and blonde. She wears a crop top and leggings, showing off a lovely figure. She does do some exercise in the gym but she also spends a lot of time chatting to the guys with shoulders the size of their heads. It’s a proper flirt party in the middle of a gym. Once, she was doing some kind of squats while kneeling on the floor – fair enough – but was pausing for minutes at a time in between sets to chat to the guys while rocking back and forth on all fours. For heaven’s sake – just grab your favourite and take him home for a romp in the sack.

I feel bad for judging her. I shouldn’t really, and honestly she only really annoys me when she’s hogging some equipment I want while doing her flirting workout. Obviously, the main reason she makes me feel bad is because she makes me feel unattractive, with my unwashed hair (I’ll never understand people who shower BEFORE going to the gym) and my already modest chest squashed a little flatter thanks to sports crop tops. I act aloof among the men at the gym, rejecting them before they can reject me. I’m quite sure they don’t notice and don’t care even if they do notice, however. While I’m feeling insecure and worrying about people watching me, most of the people at the gym are entirely focussed on themselves.

I mostly do weights stuff at the gym, trying to strengthen my arms and back to take the pressure off my arm. The weights area is lined with mirrors, which are sometimes useful to make sure you’re straight and centred, but which personally I hate because it brings my attention back to my appearance instead of my performance. If I’m not in front of a mirror, I’m in front of screens playing music videos (without the sound, the music is something else) which infuriate and depress me in equal measure as the women bounce around and stretch and make sexy faces at the camera. Why on earth would anybody find me attractive, I think, after staring at them for five minutes, getting up to do something else, and trying to surreptitiously wipe sweat marks from my hands or back or arse off the equipment.

I’m really selling it, aren’t I. Of course the point of going to the gym isn’t to judge yourself and come out feeling like a bag of manure. It’s to take control of your body and push yourself and feel the difference, in fitness or strength. In the media, for women it’s always about losing weight or getting toned, which I hope is slowly beginning to change as the world and her mother push the benefits of exercise, quite apart from any weight loss. Even though I’m not really going to the gym to lose weight, I am still (clearly) thinking too much about how I look while I’m there. I read this article this week about taking exercise in a body positive way, which has some great tips. I went to the gym after reading it but tried to ignore everyone else, view myself with detachment instead of negativity, and focus on how my body felt and on whether I could push myself to do a little more. It worked, and I set some new personal bests.

For my partner, going to the gym is very useful for his mental health. It’s a pure, uncomplicated feeling for him. He enjoys going through motions, going through routines, and appreciating the complexity of simple exercises. Doing things properly requires focus, and practise. He says although our stereotypes are of meatheads in the gym, they are good at what they do and often I see them helping each other with exercises, making me think they are just nice normal guys even if seeing them in the gym I’m tempted to stereotype them as dull and narcissistic. In a way, the gym is an entirely judgement free zone, because whatever anyone thinks of you you’re unlikely ever to hear about it. You are all strangers. I see the same people, I’m sure, but I’ve realised how little attention I pay to them, because I can never remember whether I’ve seen them before or not. As much as you may think people are watching you and laughing behind their hands, it’s in your head. It’s a natural thing to think, because that’s how we’re wired – to think people are hyperaware of our mistakes and completely oblivious to our successes. For me, that’s how I think of myself, not how other people think of me, and I need to get out of the habit of projecting those negative thoughts into other people’s minds.

So gyms may be a bit strange and a bit intimidating and some might say a little dull, but they are also fascinating and interesting and fun places to find out what your body can do. There are people doing every type of workout, and it’s entirely up to you what you work on and why. I like that freedom, and at its best it feels like you’re a child again at one of those play centres – although without the ball pit, thank goodness, because as an adult they’re impossible to get out of. People might go there for different reasons, but remember that you don’t actually have to give any of them a moment’s thought. They are all there for themselves, and you’re there for yourself too.

Everyday Powerful Women – Appearance

For more than a year, I’ve had this definition of power saved on my phone: ‘Power: the ability to act or produce an effect’. Lately I’ve been thinking more about the word ‘power’, and in particular what it means to be a ‘powerful woman’ in today’s world. In this brilliant article on women in power throughout history, Mary Beard suggested that one of the main problems we still have is that we don’t really know what a powerful woman looks like. Most women we think of as ‘powerful’ are adopting the clothes and style of powerful men, rather than inventing a new way for women to appear powerful.

Where does power come from, and is it different for men and women? Historically men have been physically powerful – in terms of strength – and powerful in terms of intellect. When we read the history books, the politicians and the warriors and the philosophers and the scientists and the decision-makers are overwhelmingly male. There are examples of women, and they are often passed over or forgotten, but even so the men are primarily seen as the ones with this power. Women are powerful in terms of their beauty, and their ability to bear children. The latter is a never-ending political hot potato, as the life of an unborn child is frequently seen to be more important than the life of the woman carrying it. This is the paradoxical power of being able to carry a child: it overwhelms all other purposes or needs a woman may have.

Mary Beard also wrote that women may not want political power or to stand on a soapbox, they just want to be taken seriously. I caught my breath a little at that, because it struck right to the heart of what feminism means for me. I want to be taken seriously. I want people to meet me and listen to my ideas and take them seriously as ideas coming from a person, not a sex object. Unfortunately the week after I read this article I was reminded how little women are still taken seriously, even in the middle of London. I was cat-called by a man on a bicycle while I was on the phone to my mum. I was pointlessly challenged in a pub by some idiot propping up the bar, who thought it would be funny to say ‘no you can’t!’ when I asked if I could have a pint of some beer or other. And I was threatened with bodily violence by a stranger for passing comment on a horse he’d tied in the middle of a pavement (don’t even ask).

Our appearance and our ability to bear children both give us power in myriad ways, but as a primary source of feeling powerful, they often suck. To have your ‘ability to act or produce an effect’ determined by the way you look means that your brain and personality are frequently ignored in favour of being summed up instantly as a) a woman, and b) on a sliding scale of attractiveness. This is endlessly frustrating, and is applicable to all women everywhere. In some parts of the world, it means your own will and wishes are considered to be secondary to those of others. When you are only judged on the outside, you are essentially a doll, and considered to be a second class of citizen. And even in the UK, which is apparently enlightened, and even if you are running a country, some people still won’t take you seriously – and prefer to comment on the shape of your legs rather than your ideas and your actions.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to look good. I see women every day on the train putting on their make-up, and I don’t think this is a bad thing. The thing I hate is the system that makes women believe that they have to spend a lot of time and money on improving their appearance. All of it speaks to a notion that we are not enough as we are. We are not enough unless we spend hours removing hair and shaping brows and going on diets to get a ‘bikini body’. And this is all because the whole system still buys into the idea that women’s power, and worth, comes first and foremost from how they look.

This is made clear from childhood. I hated looking stupid or wrong or ugly from an extremely young age. I didn’t want to pull faces, or get dirty, because then I wouldn’t look pretty. My body was rarely praised or criticised for its abilities, only for the shape it made. I have grown up continuing to evaluate it in the same way. I hated playing sports at school because I didn’t think I could do it properly and I hated looking like a fool – I also hated wearing shorts for P.E. because I thought my legs were too skinny (this was enough of a problem that at age seven I feigned illness to get out of a school Sports Day).  It was all about how I looked doing things, and because I was so concerned with that, I was inevitably bad at things that required full concentration on, say, where the ball was, and whether I could swing a stick in time to hit it. I thought that if I tried to hit it hard, it would go a pathetic distance, so I put no effort in at all so at least it wouldn’t look as if I’d tried and failed. Clearly the only way to be good at any physical activity is to keep trying and failing until you stop failing so often, and begin to succeed, but nobody told me that. Sport seemed to me to be for boys, and I was no good at it. I didn’t take myself seriously, but did that start because nobody took me seriously? I don’t remember ever being really coached at sport, you just did the activity and then stopped. I sucked, and wasn’t told how I could get better. This creates problems throughout life because exercise is key to health and happiness.

When I was growing up, I was not popular with boys – which I shouldn’t have cared about as most of them were idiots. But somehow it seemed to be the most important thing. Getting a boyfriend seemed to be key to happiness (a problem which the media and society do nothing to assuage as you get older) and thus I needed to be more attractive to fulfil this goal. I was lucky that I had very supportive parents and I grew up before social media was really a thing, because I can’t imagine what it’s like without a good support network and with other people constantly pushing idealised images of people in your face. With Photoshop and filters used on every picture in the public eye, people judge themselves against CGI and even forget what they look like when they haven’t edited their own face. People like Kylie Jenner, who apparently had her face, boobs and arse remodelled at age 16, are truly terrifying examples of what can happen to young women who have one goal: to look perfect. When women in the news are judged on how they look every single day, young girls absorb the message from everywhere that how they look is of utmost importance.

Unfortunately, women frequently perpetuate this notion themselves. Women put down other women like pros: many magazines ‘for women’ make an industry out of criticising other women for being too fat/thin on a daily basis. We are so chronically insecure and tired from judging ourselves all the time that the only way to make ourselves feel better is to judge everyone else too. For example, many people have many issues with Lena Dunham, but the fact that people got upset because she started seeing a personal trainer and doing some exercise absolutely astounds me. This reaction proved a few things: a) that Lena is still extremely rare to be a woman in the public eye owning power in her less than “perfect” body; b) that people hate people who go to the gym; and c) that women have such serious insecurity issues that one woman taking some exercise is enough to make them very angry. It’s fairly obvious that Lena going to the gym on its own isn’t enough to annoy anybody, the problem is that she was “fat” and said she was happy being “fat,” so other women who are “fat” can also feel happy the way they are – but now Lena is betraying the tribe. She’s taking exercise because she wants to help herself with serious mental health issues and endometriosis, but she is attacked for apparently wanting to change the way she looks. Everyone thought that if she was happy the way she was, and achieved what she has looking that way, then she could be taken seriously without being thin and conventionally beautiful. And if she could do it, everyone else could stop worrying about how they looked too and think about something else. The ridiculous thing is that of course one woman doing some exercise doesn’t affect anybody else’s self-worth or power, and that there is nothing wrong with doing exercise anyway – even though many people hate it, exercise is always good for you. And it doesn’t have to be anything to do with weight loss, although infuriatingly exercise and weight loss are almost always connected for women. I would love to be able to change this. The negativity surrounding exercise for women is toxic.

All these perceptions of women and their power need to be taught differently from childhood. Being a girl should not be about being pretty and looking nice all the time, about never being awkward or doing something stupid or getting into trouble. Girls should do all those things, and be encouraged to move and exercise to enjoy it, as well as be good at it. Hopefully as more girls see female sports players, politicians, writers, scientists, and decision-makers on the television and elsewhere, they will see women showing power and strength through something other than their physical attractiveness. The outcry when the media and people in top positions treat women like dolls must be louder and longer until it’s no longer acceptable. Unfortunately America just voted in someone who speaks about women as if they are not just dolls, but sex dolls, provided for his amusement. But I am hopeful that the next four years will show him just how many powerful women there are around the world who are willing to show him he is wrong and repulsive, and needs to take women seriously. We can all do our own bit by taking ourselves seriously, every day, and taking the other women around us seriously. Only then can we link by link undo the chain that stops us from being judged – by ourselves and everyone else – on our internal worth.

Do you have a plan?

“Phoebe, do you have a plan?”

“I don’t even have a pl-.”

The above is a quote from one of those Friends episodes that absolutely nails being a mid-twenty-something with no bloody idea what you’re doing. We all assume when we’re growing up that you reach a certain age when everything will work itself out: you’ll marry your partner and buy a house and start having a family, all while holding down that great job you fell into after university. I used to watch this episode of Friends without really getting it – of course people worked out what was going on in life! I wouldn’t still be floundering in my mid-twenties!

Well here I am in my late twenties and the shit is in many ways not coming together into a perfect sphere like it was supposed to. I graduated into the second year of a global recession and suddenly realised I should have spent the last three years getting masses of work experience as well as a First Class degree. This is thanks to what I see as the ultimate Catch 22: you can’t get a job without experience, but you can’t get experience without a job. One mildly embellished CV later I got a job on the minimum wage working for a man who shouted himself puce in the face whenever he thought I’d made a mistake. A few years later, the relationship I’d started at university which I assumed would end in marriage – because that’s what happened with the relationship you started at university, according to my parents and most of my friends – finally kicked the bucket, and I went back to university to restart my career and, suddenly, restart my love life too.

Fast forward a few more years and I’m in a happy relationship, but about as close to acquiring property or a dog as I am to writing a bestselling book – i.e., some light years away. I have a job I enjoy with people I like very much, but the boundaries of it are constantly shifting and I am frequently plagued by worry that the problem with creating a job from no job title, is that the job title can disappear and the job can go with it. Throughout it all I wonder if my problem is the same as that of Monica and Phoebe: I don’t have a plan.

When I was at university a friend told me the plan she’d made for the rest of her life. She knew what kind of man she wanted to marry, how many children she wanted to have, where they would live, and what job she would do, right down to the events she’d host for local disadvantaged children when she was retired. She asked me what my plan was. I said: ‘Well, I thought I’d finish this degree, and then… see what happens.’ She was as astonished and terrified by my lack of a plan as I was by her planning down to the nth degree.

I don’t do well with long-term plans because I’ve always found the ground shifts too much underneath me for any plans to be of any use. This shifting ground can be good or can be bad. Sometimes opportunities pop up unexpectedly and I like not having a plan to change – I don’t like changing plans if I do make them, in terms of the day-to-day and longer term. Other times, people disappoint you, and I feel it’s slightly less painful if you haven’t pinned too much on them to begin with, so I try not to. Most of the time any plans I put in my diary or on my calendar have a question mark after them, because then it hurts a little less if it turns out people have forgotten, or they cancel at the last moment.

But not having a plan can also be very unhelpful. There can be things you want to achieve but if you don’t set down the end destination it’s difficult to plan the route to it. I shy away from deciding, even in my own head, what I want the destination to be because I don’t want to be disappointed when it vanishes into the mist. Or because I fear that I won’t be strong enough to get there, and it will be twice as embarrassing when I collapse in a heap and have to be carried home. This is going against every motivational quote and women’s magazine ever written, not to mention all self-help books, but to be honest they always speak in such vague language that I’ve never really known what they meant. ‘Don’t limit your challenges, challenge your limits!’ What does that mean, in concrete terms? Show your working! Give me diagrams! It’s only now, when a potential goal of mine has been moved further away, possibly due to my own lack of certainty, I can see that I do need to set down that destination – even if I’m not 100% sure about it. Sometimes it’s impossible to be 100% sure, especially when it involves other people being on board too. But your determination might be a guiding light for them.

One of my science teachers in high school praised me for saying that I thought X was the ‘probable’ outcome for the end of an experiment. In science, this lack of ego is good because it’s often difficult to be certain. But in life, going around saying ‘maybe’ and ‘I might but I’m not sure’ could just end up with me not quite going anywhere. And that would not be a good plan.