GAGging the voice of overwhelm

keep-calm-and-get-a-grip-18

I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth. Well, not quite; I’m certainly nowhere near Hamlet’s level of sadness and introspection, but I have found myself somewhat on the grumpy side recently. You know, that state where everything seems like a big deal, nothing strikes you as terribly funny, and life just feels like hard work.

The makings of such a mood can come from any quarter – professional setbacks, disappointments in friendships, money problems. For me, it’s been due to feelings of bog-standard overwhelm. I am coming up to the sixth month of my first pregnancy, and my husband and I are currently looking to buy a house and move just outside of Paris. Not bad when it comes to life-changing decisions, huh? Add to that our full-time jobs, families, friends, my writing and coaching, and it all seems like a mountain from which even the fearless Bear Grylls would run screaming.

The inconvenient truth

And the thing is, there’s not really much to be done about overwhelm. You can roll your sleeves up, make a plan, start a list, make a plan B, and discuss options with your partner ad nauseam, and those actions are practical and wise. But they’re not always enough to quiet the nagging little voice that pipes up at 2am and whispers some variant on, “It won’t all be ok; you shan’t get through this; you cannot manage”.

GAG thyself

It is my firm belief that the only thing to do in those situations is to GAG oneself. No, we’re not getting into 50 Shades territory here; GAG stands for “Get A Grip”. It’s an old expression that sounds rather shocking nowadays, doesn’t it? In an age that favours self-examination even to the point of self-torture over the old “buck up” attitude, exhorting someone to simply get a grip seems callous. But I maintain that sometimes it’s the only way.

It’s like a mental self-slap. A reminder that we really are dealing with first-world issues, here. My husband is fond of asking me to imagine how I would feel if the things overwhelming me weren’t happening – if I weren’t able to have children, if we couldn’t envisage getting a bigger home, if I didn’t have employment, friends that want my time, family who need me… The simple answer is: I’d feel pretty rubbish (he can be infuriatingly right at times)!

It doesn’t always work. Sometimes a problem really is a problem and needs talking through and solving, but it’s often just a proliferation of activity, obligations and, well, life that puts us in a tail spin. That’s when a self-shake and a firm “For God’s sake, Jo, Get. A. Grip.” works wonders for me.

Do try this at home

GAGging works best when performed using a specific accent. I occasionally hear a plummy-voiced Malory Towers- type Sports Mistress barking at me. You may prefer an American drill sergeant or even an exasperated version of yourself. Sometimes I like to hear my Scottish grandmother’s voice softly burring, “Now, now, dear, you know I love you, but do try to get a grip for goodness sake”. She never said anything of the kind to me, but somehow the vision of this strong, no-nonsense yet kind and loving woman works every time.

GAGging is also best achieved when used entirely on its own. No extra pep talk, no list of “examples of times when it has all been ok in the past as so will be this time too”, no reasoning or cajoling. Just a mental “No Entry” sign that brooks no argument.

It’s not easy at first, but if you GAG each time you head back down the road of ovewhelm, it eventually comes more quickly and more naturally. Give it a try. I’m interested to know how it works for you!

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Appreciating all the saints

It’s 31st October, Halloween; and pitch black outside. As I type, a single candle glows on the coffee table and the street lamps are starting to flicker to life. All spooky stuff, of course, if you’re in the mood to get into it, which sadly we in Europe don’t tend to do that much. I rather like Halloween – it has always seemed to me to be a great festival of autumn – the orangey colours, the pumpkins (a good excuse for pumpkin bread and soup), the nights drawing in. I love it for the same reason I love Guy Fawkes Night – the cosy, gather-round-the-fire, be outside wrapped up against the cold feeling it gives me.

Everyday saints

But this Halloween, I’m turning my attention to tomorrow’s holiday. Here in France, 1st November is a national holiday for All Saints’ Day, a Catholic celebration of all the saints in heaven, known and unknown. I’m not Catholic but the message of the day speaks to me on some level. For some reason, this year, it’s made me think about all the everyday saints that touch our lives.

I’m thinking particularly of a man who works in the canteen in my office building. He rings up the workers’ meals for payment and cheerfully wishes us a good day. He reminds you if you forget to take a paper napkin, and always has a genuine smile and a “bon appétit” for everyone. I always go to his queue to pay for my lunch, just because I know he will brighten my day. Now, I’m not actually suggesting anyone petition the Pope for canonisation, but I do want to take a moment to give thanks for this unsung hero of the lunchroom who never fails to put a smile on my face.

They’re all around…

And while I’m at it, I’d like to remember my friend Patricia, who, while I was off work sick recently, texted me a video of naughty baby pandas that warmed my heart. And the kind lady on the tube who silently handed me a tissue when I was literally crying with laughter at a David Sedaris book. And Jennifer Worth, author of Call the Midwife – I’m on the third book of the most humbling and uplifting trilogy. And my chum Jimmy, who always greets me with “Hello, you beautiful thing”, something which will never cease to buoy me. And my Mum, who will make a full roast with parsnips whenever I am home for the weekend, as well as buying my favourite type of coleslaw, only to delight me. And my husband, who just has to look at me to make me smile.

These people will never have churches names after them. They won’t be praised in song or verse. But tomorrow, I’ll be thinking of them – and the million other people who touch my life – and giving thanks for the joy, warmth, humour, love and light they bring me.

Now that’s a happy thought strong enough to scare away any Halloween ghouls that may still be lurking in the morning.

 

Dear diary

How keeping a one-line diary has changed the way I look at, describe and recall my day… and my life.

On this day in 2013, I was having my first wedding dress fitting. And it’ll be a year ago this weekend that I saw a fantastic production of Sunday in the Park with George, with (and this pleases me no end) my friend George. And around this time last year, I was enjoying reading The Woman in White. Fascinating, I know – but more interesting is how I know and remember all this. Well, in 2013, I started keeping a one-line-a-day, five-year diary. The concept is this: each date has a page, each page is divided into five sections. You write on the same page on the same date each year – and you do so for five years.

I bought my journal for a song. Baby blue and leather-bound with gold-edged paper, it’s a little marvel that consistently makes me reflect on the passage of time – both looking back and thinking forward. I find traditional journaling a chore – the pressure to write regularly, the tendency just to pen a personal monologue of every worried, angry or depressed thought I’ve had. But this diary is different – I only have space to write two sentences, which only take a couple of minutes so there’s no pressure. Even more delightful is my discovery that, far from dragging me into a quagmire of self-analysis and rehashing my doubts and fears, it elevates my thoughts and offers me clarity and positivity.

Remember, remember…

Since I began the project, having just a few lines in which to sum up my day has made me think very clearly about what I want to be reminded of five years from now. Do I want to write that I had an argument with my boss, got a manicure and had drinks with a friend? Or perhaps I want to express something that I won’t remember unless I write it down. A stunning winter sunset watched from the office window with a couple of fun colleagues as we worked late? The stranger on the metro who handed me a tissue when I was crying with laughter reading David Sedaris? It makes me really choose what shapes my memories and thus my experience of the day.

How was your day?

And by making me consider what I want to remember about this day, the diary also makes me think about what I want to focus on here and now. So, when my husband asks about my day, I can go into details about an endless meeting, a last-minute request for a report, a coaching client who keeps changing her appointment. Or… I can tell him about a great book I read during my commute, the email I got from a friend I haven’t seen in ages, how I got on in my yoga class. What I choose to tell him about my day colours how I view my day even as I see it that very evening.

Looking back

Now that I’m in my second year of the diary, I also get to look back at what I was doing last year. I have cited just a few examples and every memory makes me smile. When I’m feeling in a rut and look back at what I was doing last year, I’m reminded of how far I’ve come. I’m also noticing potential patterns: for two years running, late January has not been a pleasant time for me. Maybe in 2015 I’ll be able to factor that in and find a way to take the edge off.

Choosing your memories

Journaling, of either the traditional sort or the type I’ve embarked upon, may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but really thinking about how you want to describe your day, week, month or year and what you’d like to remember are great habits to adopt. It’s so easy to get caught up in what went wrong with your day or what you didn’t get done, but those things don’t have to be the sum of your experience. So, the next time you’re having drinks with a friend on a Friday night and she asks, “So, how was your week?” think about what you want your week to have been about and the experience you want to call to mind before you answer.

Lighten your load

January is traditionally a time when we start expecting more from ourselves, imposing diets and exercise regimes on our bodies, beginning new projects and giving up vices. But what if, this year, you chose to lose a different kind of weight? 

Happy New Year, readers! A bit late this time in the month but a hearty wish for health and happiness is never de trop. Actually, my first column of 2013 is coming to you late in January on purpose. We’re spoilt for choice in terms of resolutions and self-improvement articles from about mid-December to mid-January every year and, while I’m a big fan of making resolutions and setting goals, I thought I’d opt out this year.

January is a horrible month to make changes in your life, isn’t it? It’s cold out and you’re trying to take up jogging; you’re stomach’s stretched from all the Yuletide excess and you’re trying to eat less; the post-Christmas blues set in and you’re trying to give up your favourite vices. The back-to-school time in September is a much easier time to start any project, in my opinion, but my letters to the UN suggesting we re-think the calendar fall of deaf ears each year, so I guess we’re stuck with January resolutions.

But hey, here’s an idea, what if this year we made a different kind of resolution? Or rather, what if we framed our resolutions differently? Instead of thinking about “making changes” and “giving things up”, how about simply letting go of things that do not serve your wellbeing?

What are you carrying around?

Let’s take the humble handbag as a nice tangible start. Many of us are guilty of filling to capacity. If you had emptied mine out not so long ago, you’d have found at least three pens, a filofax, my phone, a notepad, lip balm, paracetamol, plasters, tissues, an assortment of hair pins, a novel, a comb, two memory sticks, a few business cards, perhaps a journal, an apple, some post-its… you get the idea. It was like I was trying to prepare for every eventuality in life, make sure I had everything I’d need in all circumstances. One day I got so fed up (and my right shoulder got so sore) that I decided to downsize my handbag – and now I only ever leave the house with the things I’ll really need. The rest – I’ll make do! One pen is fine; leave the journal at home (I never stop in a charming café on my way home to write a few lines); put my appointments into my phone diary… I literally lightened my load.

Shake it off

Applied to other areas of life, the benefits of lightening your load are myriad. Why not stop expecting yourself to behave perfectly all the time? What would happen if you took that weight off your shoulders? Or what about not always obliging yourself to answer your phone or reply to texts the minute you get them? What if, every so often, you let yourself off the hook? As well as getting rid of self-imposed expectations, we can all do with letting go of some other, heavier, mental baggage. Like perpetual pessimism; the long-held and unjustified belief that we are not good enough; the conviction that we’re not great at sports; fear of commitment…

Eliminate the negative

Whether it’s by travelling light, or working to shed a few psychological kilos (yep, living in France, I’ve gone full metric), we can all lighten our load a bit, without dropping balls or becoming irresponsible or unreliable. As we enter 2013, why not think about imposing less on yourself rather than more? I’m not saying don’t give up smoking or take up exercise, of course. But do think about framing them in such a way that you’re more aware of the ways in which you are freeing yourself up than the things you are giving up.

 

 

 

Breaking the mould

Whether you conform to society’s current physical ideal or not, you can only gain from opting out of the rush to look like the latest image of perfection and taking the time to find your own beauty – whatever it looks like.

Hungry but chic. What does that mean to you? Think about it for a moment while I give you some context.

This week, I was blithely staring out of the window of the bus as we jerked through the 11th arrondissement of Paris when I saw a poster that made me sit up and take note – literally, I wrote down what I saw. It was a picture of a woman crouched down before a slightly open refrigerator, eating what appears to be a yoghurt. She’s nicely dressed and perfectly coiffed, but her eyes suggest we have surprised her in some kind of clandestine food-fest. Below her floats one of high-street retailer Kookai’s new advertising slogans: hungry but chic.

A widespread trend

I have to say that, living in France, you get somewhat used to slightly sexist advertising (I have never understood the need for naked women in TV ads for yoghurt) and provocative billboards. But this really did stun me, so I went online to see if anyone else had noticed the ad. I remember when I was a student, the university women’s group successfully campaigned against another of Kookai’s ads – a woman in a bikini with a miniature man pushing a lawnmower trimming stray pubic hairs – on the grounds that it depicted a judgemental and violent image of a woman’s body. I assumed that the web would be filled with outraged blog posts and perhaps even an online petition. I was wrong.

I found a couple of French blogs that echoed some of my own shock, but nothing that really interpreted the ad the same way I did. So, I checked with the beloved. He’s a down-to-earth guy with a naturally unsexist attitude but very little actual engagement in any kind of feminist debate. I figured if he could see what was wrong with this, I wasn’t over-reacting. His analysis? “Well, it kind of sounds like they’re saying it’s ok to starve yourself, as long as you look good doing it.” Then, warming to his subject, “It’s almost encouraging or at least condoning eating disorders, isn’t it?” Aha! This had been my exact reaction, and I wasn’t the only one! I read that slogan and immediately saw: this woman doesn’t eat enough and is always hungry, but you shouldn’t feel bad for her, she’s chic so it’s OK. Her perpetual hunger isn’t a problem, it’s for a good cause!

The vital statistics

B-eat currently estimates that 1.6 million people in the UK suffer from an eating disorder, and 6.4% of adults display signs of disordered eating. The National Centre for Eating Disorders has found that over half of all dieters are not actually overweight, which means that 1 in every 2 people on a diet does not need to be. In a time when weight and eating issues – anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating, excessive dieting and even the flipside, obesity – are so much in the news and on our minds, Kookai’s choice of advertising seems at best irresponsible, at worst dangerous.

I’m not suggesting that seeing this one advert will instantly provoke the development of eating disorders up and down the country, but this kind of message does contribute to our society’s continuing cult of skinniness which it has been proved is indeed having an effect on women (and men – 11% of people with an eating disorder in the UK are male). Between the proliferation of dieting products offered in pharmacies (terrifying to behold in France, I have to say), the size-tiny actresses coming out of Hollywood, the increasing acceptability of cosmetic surgery to “correct” natural body shapes, catwalks displaying ill-looking models, and the insidiously generalised attitude that certain foods are bad and that we all have to “be careful” all the time, it’s true that Kookai’s nasty little contribution is but a drop in the ocean.

For me, though, it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. I write regularly about self-acceptance, being kind to ourselves, and learning to treat ourselves as we do other people. But seeing this advert made me seriously think about my own capacity occasionally to beat myself up for not being thin enough, willowy enough, this enough, that enough. Messages just like Kookai’s abound in our society, and I for one have had enough.

The ideal prison

The path to self-love and contentment doesn’t start with internalising someone else’s – or society’s – version of what is good and attractive and acceptable and then spending your life trying to conform to it and judging yourself by it. It starts with making sure you’re healthy and then celebrating your body and your looks, enjoying the way you are, flaunting your assets and playing to your strengths instead of lamenting “cankles” and “bingo wings” (that we have actually given names to perceived bodily imperfections is horrifying). Happiness cannot take root in an attitude of “I’m not thin like the models, but that’s ok” as that upholds the notion that the models are an ideal of how we all should be. Happiness comes from throwing away the supposed ideals and the notions of what’s right and perfect and revelling in our different shapes and sizes, seeing beauty in more than one physical type, and deciding on our own what we find attractive and how we want to look.

I intend to start down my own path to self-respect and self-love by no longer shopping in Kookai. It’s a shame as I often like their styles, but until they produce advertising that shows me and all women more respect, I’ll celebrate myself elsewhere.

Seeking inner strengths

We may not always see the qualities other people value in us, but our strengths are there – we just need to see ourselves from the right angle.

If you had asked me what a manga was nine years ago, before I had lived in France, I probably would have guessed it was some inedible and potentially poisonous cousin of the mango fruit. Or I might have supposed it was an up-and-coming couture house (think Prada, Escada, Kenzo… Manga would fit right it). Given time, I could have come up with quite a few ideas but I never would have guessed that some day I would be taking life advice from one.

Affirmative action

Earlier this week, I was discussing the development of self-esteem with a French friend, Elodie, and the role that affirmations of one’s strengths and qualities could play in helping to shore up a shaky sense of self-worth. Modern life coaching techniques include the use of a positive personal affirmation that you can call upon when tempted to negatively compare yourself to others or minimise your own value. Obviously, the first step in developing such a personal statement is to identify your strengths – something a lot of people have a hard time doing. It’s often easy to look at others and pronounce confidently, “Oh, he’s always so generous”, or “She’s such an insightful soul”, but when asked where our own strengths lie, we hum and haw, eventually muttering something like, “Well, I guess I’m pretty punctual…”

Manga psychology

Why do we do this? What makes us so reluctant or incapable of appreciating ourselves? Well, according to Elodie, mangas have the answer. Now, for those who don’t know, mangas are neither fruit nor designer handbags – they are Japanese comic books, created for children and adults alike. They are wildly popular in France, and for the last eight years, I have resisted the Beloved’s attempts to get me to read them. I never saw the attraction (partly because his mangas all seem to be about warrior heros fighting with magical forces), but now Elodie has piqued my interest.

As we sat discussing lofty questions of self-esteem and personal growth, Elodie had one of those lightbulb moments, jumping up from the couch and running to rifle through her bookshelves. She returned, triumphant and recounted an episode not from Freud or Jung but from her favourite manga… and it’s all about Asian fast food. Yes, readers, today’s wisdom comes in the form of Japanese rice balls.

The story of Kyo-kun

In the manga story, there is a girl called Kyo-kun who is deeply kind, but who can’t seem to like herself. One day, a friend of hers tells her that people are just like onigiris – Japanese convenience food in the form of rice balls. The rice balls are often filled with umeboshi (pickled plums). The balls are formed in such as way that you can only see the filling from one side, the same way you can see the spot where jam has been pumped into a doughnut. Kyo-kun’s friend tells her:
If you think of someone’s good qualities as the umeboshi in an onigiri, it’s as if their qualities are stuck to their back. People all around the world are like onigiri. Everyone has an umeboshi with a different shape and colour and flavour. But because it’s stuck on their back, they can’t always see it. We think, “There’s nothing special about me. I’m just white rice”. But that’s not true – there is an umeboshi – on your back. Maybe the reason people get jealous of each other is because they can see so clearly the umeboshi on other people’s backs. I can see them, too. I can see them perfectly. There’s an amazing umeboshi on your back, Kyo-kun.

Our own sweet filling

It’s hard to see our own special qualities, often because to us they are just a normal part of who we are, but it’s important to stop and see them for the strengths they really are. Our qualities are our allies, helping us through life’s challenges. When we start appreciating instead of denying them or assuming that other people’s qualities are better, more numerous, or more valuable, we strengthen them and can draw on their full power.

Whether it takes a good friend to help you see the umeboshi stuck to your back, or a manga comic book, or even a 360° mirror, the benefits of identifying, knowing and owning your best self are multifold.

The forgotten commandment: Thou Shalt Not Whine

In the long grey winter months, it’s easy to be negative and hard to act cheery, but just as you are what you eat, so too you feel what you focus on. Choose to change your focus.

You can’t really argue with the Ten Commandments. I mean, as rules for happy and harmonious living go, they’re a pretty solid base: don’t kill; don’t cheat on your spouse; don’t steal; don’t lie. So far, I’m on board. Have a day of rest every week. Yep! Take care of your parents. Absolutely. Without wishing to labour the point, I don’t think many people would take exception to any of the above, whatever their religious leanings. Sadly, however, I have often felt that one commandment was missing.

Don’t get me wrong. Ten is a great figure – it’s even, pleasingly round, fits with our decimal currency, can be nicely spaced out into two five-item lists on a couple of handy stone tablets. I can totally see why Moses would get to the end of dictation, see a nice symmetrical pair of lists, and casually decide to leave commandment Number 11 at the top of the hill, but honestly, I really think he dropped the ball. Our lives would be infinitely more pleasant had he just added one last rule to the list:

Thou shalt not whine

The addition of those four little words to that fateful list would have made such a difference, wouldn’t it? Whining is perhaps one of the least attractive traits in a person, and is certainly one of the most draining. I have an acquaintance – let’s call her Wendy – who, whenever I ask the innocent question, “How are you?” replies with some permutation of, “Oh, I’m so tired. Yep, really shattered – I worked until 10 o’ clock every evening last week. It’s just crazy.” When I first knew Wendy I made the mistake of trying to help her with this apparent problem – suggesting she speak to her boss about her workload, asking whether she was eating properly, that sort of thing. Recently, however, I had an epiphany (I don’t know why I’m on such a religious theme today, I’m on a roll and I’m just going with it). I realised that Wendy isn’t actually asking for help, nor does she need to talk. The bottom line is: Wendy likes whining. And she particularly likes whining about being tired.

You feel what you focus on

I don’t actually know anyone who isn’t tired right now. In the bleak midwinter, it’s dark when you go to work, dark when you leave work. You’re trying to lose the Christmas bulge, keep that resolution to go to the gym, maybe even give up or cut down on something – cigarettes, chocolate, wine… The post-Christmas winter months can feel grim at times, and yes, they’re tiring. But does saying you’re tired all the time help at all? If, every time someone asks me how I’m doing I answer, “Crikey, this rain is getting me down, I just can’t seem to get warm, and I have a splitting headache”, all I can think of by the end of the day is the rain and the cold and the headache and, lo and behold, it’s all actually worse than at the beginning of the day. But if I reply, “I’m great, thanks! Looking forward to a quiet night in, that’s for sure”, miraculously, I can actually convince myself that I do indeed feel full of beans, and that quiet night has become a choice I’m making in order to take care of myself. I find that I feel what I talk about; which means that I don’t also choose to talk about what I feel.

Accentuate the positive

Now, I’m not suggesting we bottle up our feelings or lie, but unless mentioning aches, pains, gripes and groans will actually do some good, why go on about them? Now, whenever I see Wendy, I avoid asking how she is and instead pose very specific, fact-based questions: What did you do this weekend? Did you go jogging like you wanted? It’s not that I don’t care, it’s just that not only does Wendy’s whining about being knackered exacerbate her own tiredness, it also exhausts me! If only she could take her focus off the negatives she’s feeling and concentrate on something – anything – positive, that good feeling would be increased instead of the bad. The mind is like a magnifying glass – whatever we choose put under the lens is what our eyes will see enlarged; whatever feeling we choose to talk and think about is what we’ll feel magnified. Luckily, we get to pick what we train our lens on. So, it’s precisely when I’m tired and a bit hungry and maybe a little paranoid that I try hardest to remember to apply the 11th commandment and silently order myself not to whine.