Giving up the ghosts

Our past is unchangeable – it’s the one aspect of ourselves that can never be altered, adapted or improved. How ironic then that it influences who we are so significantly – that who we are today is inevitably shaped by where we’ve been yesterday and all the days before that. Past experiences can be such a power for good – they may help you to learn, improve and grow as a person. But they can also be an influence for bad – dominating your whole existence so that you become afraid of being hurt again or repeating a past mistake. But surely there is a balance to made – a point at which you take heed of the warning bells in your head while at the same time not closing yourself off from experiencing life? A balance that minimises naivety while not quashing curiosity and hope?

Personally, I’ve always been a big believer in the ‘no regrets’ philosophy. Time is too precious to waste it dwelling on the past and wishing things had worked out differently. If you can’t change something (your past) then try and find something else that you can influence and control (your future). One of my biggest fears is to become a person who is so consumed by my past that it controls every part of my future – to become convinced that I know the outcome of a situation before I’ve even experienced it. To me, that’s when life becomes monotone and uninspiring…if I already know how things are going to work out why bother trying anything new, right? The very essence of living has got to be about keeping the hope and excitement alive when thinking about what might be just around the corner – whether that be a new job, a love interest, a hobby, a new friend or a new place to explore!

But all of that said, I certainly don’t think the past should be discounted and ignored altogether otherwise surely you’d just keep making the same mistakes all over again. As painful as it is remembering how you felt when that guy / girl broke your heart or when you found out that the person you thought was your closest friend was your biggest enemy or the time when a colleague screwed you over etc etc, you can use that experience to learn from it and ultimately, to help shape how you approach similar situations going forward. The film ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ epitomises exactly this concept – you may feel that memories are painful and destructive but until you have none, you can’t realise how useful and important they really are…even the really bad ones.

Perhaps though, my outlook is in part because I’ve had the luxury of being able to think like that. I’ve had my fair share of knocks in life of course (and some of them seemingly quite big to me at the time) but generally speaking, I’ve been fairly lucky and stable within my 27 years so far. I cannot speak for those who’ve been unlucky enough to have awful past experiences – memories so bad that even the strongest of people would find it hard to forget and move on. But the one thing we all do have in common regardless of the severity our past ghosts, is that we all have the power to determine whether we let it dominate our futures.

As is my usual way, I’ll use an example personal to me so that I can illustrate the point I’m trying to get to… So those of you who know me and in fact, even those of you who don’t but have followed these posts before – from my blog ‘Falling and Failing’, you’ll know that I’ve had some pretty phenomenally rubbish luck with men. I’m the sort of person who is generally pretty picky about who I go for but when I do, I fall fast and I fall hard. Each time I’ve liked / loved someone I’ve genuinely believed that they are a good person – admittedly more often than not with 101 issues to boot, but ultimately I’ve had a feeling that they are a decent person underneath (and even when others around me couldn’t see it). I also think of myself as fairly astute in assessing whether someone likes me and so I’ll never put my feelings on the line unless I’ve had some pretty clear as glass signs that they like me. But (and this is the big BUT) despite all of this not one of my (fairly substantial number) of relationships has worked out well – I have literally had my heart trampled on, squished, ripped into a million pieces and pulverised into a vague existence. Every variance of the girl-meets-boy-boy-breaks-girls-heart scenario you could think of I’ve pretty much experienced. And yet…I still remain open minded and hopeful that not all guys are the same. I refuse to let my past dictate who I meet in my future and if that means being hurt again, well I’d rather be hurt a thousand times more than never to open myself up and risk driving away the decent few that are out there.

Now don’t get me wrong, I would say my past experiences have definitely made me more wary and a little more cautious…if I have a feeling that another heart bashing might be on the cards I’ll be packing my bags before the baseball bat has even been raised – self preservation is key! But I’m trying to find that balance between letting my past change me a little and letting it control everything. I would be well within my rights to generalise and say that my generous sample of boys so far tells me that they’re all prats and that there’s no point even trying to find a decent one…but then that would make me a) a defeatist (which I mostly certainly ain’t!!) and b) a slave to my past (and I refuse to be controlled by a has-been!!). The same could be said for any number of scenarios where bad experiences have been had – work, friends, family, living arrangements etc etc – the point is, to truly move forward with life you have to learn to let go of some (not all!) of those past demons.

So, now we’ve clarified that point about letting go and moving on….how (particularly if you’re not used to putting the past to bed) can you achieve it?? Well, I’m no expert and I’ve certainly not perfected the art as yet but here are a few things I have learnt:

Sometimes you have to be your own hero. We could all wait around for someone or something to rescue us, like all of a sudden something will change that means that life is more amazing. Well the reality is that you could be waiting a very long time for this to happen. Why not instead decide that you are more than capable of being the hero of this story and make the changes needed by your own fair hand?? Trust me, it’s much more satisfying that way – AND you’ll get the what I like to call ‘go me!’ glow afterwards too 😉

Learn from your past like you would a sage old guru but don’t let it be your master. The trick is to recognise when you’re beginning to submit far too regularly to Mr/Mrs Has-Been and decide that for once you’re going to try ignoring him / her and give Mr/Mrs Future Opportunity a chance. Essentially, avoid the safe generalisations and self-fulfilling prophecies and start giving things a chance again…life might just surprise you!

Allow yourself to hope that things can get better. Without hope and faith life can be a very dark and lonely place. If the past has stolen hope away from you then embrace your inner hero and go kick some ass to get it back. To become hopeless is to become lifeless, but to become hopeful is to become ambitious…ambitious that life should and will give you more!

Keep an open mind. Someone once mused to me that they couldn’t decide whether an open mind was the same as an empty one…well I’ll say the same thing I said to them, it’s not. How can it be empty when you’re allowing so many new and exciting things to enter it? How can it be empty when you’re opening yourself up to learning all the time? So do keep your mind open – open to people, open to experiences and open to life. You never know, you might just find that the new experience / person / opportunity ends up replacing your past memories with a new and positive ones 🙂

And so ends another musing and at the end of it I find myself more determined than ever not to become enslaved to my past – to let it have its say but not to go blindly into situations thinking the outcome is pre-determined. Staying happy, hopeful and curious is what life is all about and it’s always important to remember that the future is full of opportunities as long as we stay open to them.

“When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which are wide open for us.” Never a truer word spoken…

Project Life

The great psychologist Carl Jung once said ‘The least of things with a meaning, is worth more in life than the greatest without it’. My own take on this is that life can be what you make it…meaning and purpose can be found in the most simple of things like taking a great photo, seeing a great band or going for an amazing bike ride. All those little projects, hobbies, interests, people and passions you experience everyday are what give life meaning and the great thing is, only you know what really, truly gets those juices a-flowin’…so to speak 🙂

To illustrate the point, here’s how my head has looked at various points over the past 4-6 months in particular:
I’m going to get fit! I want to find a new flat! I really like this guy.! I want to date and play the field! I’d like to organise a get together for friends! I’m going to do a leadership diploma! I’m going to achieve big things in my job! I’m going to book some holidays! And trust me, the list most definitely goes on… 🙂

It seems I am addicted to pursuing purposeful projects in order to ensure my life always has meaning. I flit from one thing to the next like a meaning seeking missile and if one area lets me down, well that’s okay because I’ll just move onto the next…

Now to many people looking at each of those things, you might think ‘well why does your purpose have to be one thing or another – can’t you just do everything at once?’ Well yes of course you can, and to those who do, I whole-heartedly applaud you – you must have a very rich life indeed! In fact you might just be my new rockstar 🙂 But I think one of the reasons I personally tend to focus on just one or two things at a time, is because I’m an all or nothing kinda gal. I’d much rather focus completely on a small number of things and do them well than to stretch myself too thin and wind up giving none of the areas the attention they deserve…That’s just how I make things more achievable! And if I’m honest it might also be in part because I’m an awful multi-tasker ;)!
But mostly I think it’s down to the fact that I like to have the option to switch my attention to something else should I happen fail or do badly on a ‘project’. Sort of like a safety net to ensure I’ve always got ‘something’ to fallback on I suppose…it also provides me a very convenient excuse for not performing well at something e.g. ‘I don’t have time to save money for a flat, I’m far too busy travelling and seeing the world’ 😉

But the positive thing I’m beginning to learn more and more is that there is almost always a way to find meaning where it feels like there is none. We’ve all been there before where for one reason or another we lose our passion and we lose our purpose – it’s a very dark place to find yourself in and it can feel like you’ll never get your ‘zing’ back. It’s equally hard as a friend, family member, partner etc to see someone close to you go through it too. You want so badly to help them but the truth is, all you can ever be to someone in this respect is their support – the hard work and reinvigoration process is almost entirely up to them. Many, many people look at their lives and struggle to understand what the point of it all is – heck, the ‘what is the meaning of life?’ question is something philosophers the world over have been trying to figure out for centuries! But by jove! I think I may have cracked it…I have a little secret for getting your groove (read ‘purpose’) back – projects, projects and more projects!

So I know I said earlier that my purposeful project jumping can be a pain…well that’s still sort of true but when done in the right way it can also be a plus point too. One of the frustrations with trying to find ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’ is that the very things that would help you to achieve them can feel either completely unobtainable or a long, long way away. Let’s take buying a house / setting up home and applying for jobs as a couple of basic examples we can all identify with…

You long to have your own space, somewhere you can put your own stamp on it and somewhere you can have the creative space to indulge some of your favourite pastimes (like walking around the place naked lets say J). It’s really important to you and it’s all you think about…but the market is such that a) either you can’t afford it for a while and / or b) the right properties aren’t available at the moment.

You’re desperate for a new job – a new challenge, a new culture and hopefully a new attractive wage. The trouble is, the job market is just SO tough at the moment and there’s not a lot out there and even for those prospects that are decent, the competition is so tough it’ll blow you out of the water…

The positives here are that you have a vision – you know what you want to achieve and thus you have an endpoint / a focus / a purpose. The negative is that you either have no idea when it might be achievable or even if you do, it won’t happen for a long time since the funds / opportunities aren’t there to make it happen immediately. So it’s a lost cause right? Move onto another area to focus your efforts upon? Wrong!!

My take on it is that it can become a purpose project – something to work on day in day out towards an end goal. Even the smallest steps each day will be satisfying (like saving a tenner from lunches at work to go into a ‘furniture fund’ or making a future costs spreadsheet; Updating a CV or practising interview questions…). The way it becomes a purpose-filled project as opposed to another lost cause is through the steps you decide to put into action to make things happen. The smallest, teeniest-weeniest of victories each day, week or month can be meaningful and positive. You know exactly where you want to go, all you need to do is start the journey to getting there 🙂 But the key is really not to set unachievable goals / steps or to give yourself a hard time if you don’t do something…this should be like a hobby and as we all know, hobbies become rubbish the moment you feel like they’re an obligation and not a choice.

The other thing that can often be a purpose killer is other people’s opinions and perceptions. For example, ‘you want to do what?! Don’t be so ridiculous – you’ve always been a dreamer! You get so carried away with things and sometimes lose sight of the practical elements’. Well forget ‘them’ – as I mentioned at the beginning, only YOU know how important certain things in your life are and just because something appears meaningless to someone else doesn’t make it any less meaningful to you. So go for it! Another plus side of my so-called ‘purpose projects’ are that they have the added bonus of proving all the critics wrong 😉

So, what am I saying here? Well my message is this – you can always find meaning and purpose in your life, yes it may change from time to time (or even day to day if you’re me!) and sometimes it may feel like it’s been lost but it IS there, you just have to find the right tools to locate it! And never, ever let people tell you your dreams are wrong or unachievable – the moment you try to align your purpose and interests to suit someone else is the very same moment you start to lose sight of your own. So here are some tasty top tips:

1. Start with some PVC – plans, vision and creativity. If you have these three you can achieve most things you set your mind to – these are your tools that allow you to find your purpose and meaning.
2. Find meaning in the smallest, most simple of things. By taking the small steps which give you purpose each day, you can sometimes achieve the big things that give your life meaning in the long-term. Keep winning the little battles and you’ll eventually win the war!
3. Have some faith in fate. I never thought I’d hear myself say this since I’m an avid believer in the ‘make your own destiny’ philosophy BUT…weirdly it does sometimes feel like life has an alternate path or purpose for us and it does no harm to embrace that philosophy from time to time if it helps you to feel content

And as for anyone reading this who needs some reinvigoration in finding purpose and meaning in your life my message is…you can do it! This may sound a little preachy (well my friends would tell you that I’m practically clergy-like in my behaviour anyway ;)) but all it takes is a vision, a plan and a little bit of patience! And if all else fails, just take my lead and become a meaning seeking missile…keeps life interesting at the very least and I’m rarely in a head space where something random hasn’t captured my interest or imagination 😉

Sometimes the smallest things make the biggest difference…

People are funny. What makes us tick, what gets us excited, what makes us mad and which things we place value on in our life varies so much from one person to the next. I guess that’s why I’ve always loved psychology – the learning is never done; people and their behaviours never fail to change, inspire and surprise.

I’m a funny little creature myself – I fully recognise that…I’m constantly thinking, always questioning and continually trying to understand people. I value relationships and being sociable – the way people treat each other is something that’s always been important and interesting to me. Because of this, the people and dynamics of a whole range of relationships in my life are valuable – I care alot and at times this can be a real plus and at others can be my downfall…
But then generally speaking I’ve always been a great a believer in the saying that ‘you get back what you put in’. Give alot to your friends / family / colleagues etc and one day, perhaps the good stuff will come back around. Relationships should be balanced – not always entirely 50/50 but at least 60/40 – and for me personally, it’s the small things that can shift that balance over time for better or for worse.

This post focuses on friendship. Without great people around you I truly believe you’ll only go so far in life. So how do you make sure you surround yourself with the best people and get what you need from a friendship while also taking the time to ensure you’re giving enough back? What are all the things that ensure both sides feel valued and what are small things that can cause them to breakdown and / or start to leave someone feeling unappreciated? Because let’s face it, we’ve all felt both sides before!

I’ve tried different ways of thinking through this subject including splitting all the ‘trys’ and ‘try not tos’ into separate lists – but then I realised they aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Therefore what follows is literally as it comes out of my head.
I should also say I can only speak from my own experiences…but the messages are hopefully general enough that you, as a reader, will identify and get something from it in your own way – whatever that may be. But if you don’t and you really can’t bear to read on that’s no problem…leave it here and maybe even a comment telling me to ‘blog off!’(See what I did there?!) :). So here goes – my principles of healthy friendship…

Happy friend, sad friend, any friend
We all go through ups and downs in our lives and we hope as we experience the great times and go through the bad, our friends will be there for us in a way that we need. I know for example I’ve been to many weddings, been on various travels with people, been to countless birthday celebrations…but also I’ve supported people through devastations, heartbreaks, disappointments and disillusionments. I’m not perfect and I’m sure I could do even more than I do already, but I know that whether it’s a bright day, a rainy day or a downright torrential day that I’ll be there for all my friends…simply with an ear, a shoulder, a distraction and / or advice if it’s wanted. I don’t need someone to ask me – I keep me ears and eyes open for little (and big) clues and I’d be there in an instant when something important comes along.
Do I feel that people would all do the same in return? Yes for some but sadly a ‘??’ for others. Of course you aren’t there for people just so you can get support back – personally I do it because I never want anyone I know to feel lonely, isolated or unloved. But as you get older you begin to realise who the ‘yes’ people are and who the ‘question marks’ are… and you shift your priorities accordingly.

· Listening out for the clues of when someone might need your friendship, don’t wait to be explicitly asked.
· Reshuffling your ready made plans as much as is feasible (life of course gets in the way sometimes but some things are quite moveable).
· Thinking about how someone likes to be comforted (distraction / heart to heart / bevies / email etc etc) and offer up your time to do just that

· Taking all the support from your friend and giving next to nothing back. When was the last time you checked in on your friends to see how they’re doing?
· Ignoring it when seemingly unimportant things to you (but nonetheless important things to them) arise
· Lack of acknowledgment (little text, email, card, gesture etc) of the time they have taken to support you through the good, the bad and the downright ugly

Important vs. the unimportant
What seems small and trivial to one person may well be a big deal to others in your life…are you sure that you know your friends well enough to know when something means a lot to them? I personally believe that those who care for you should naturally know when something is important to you and should make every effort to share in it / support it even when they don’t feel the same way or place quite as much value on whatever it is. Here are just a few personal examples of recent ‘things’ for me:
· My blog…I know that around 30-40 have read each post but how many have seen it, found it fairly interesting and then not thought to acknowledge it in some small, tiny way? Those who know me will know I crave feedback as well as love the sharing of views, thoughts and perspectives.
· Organisation of what I thought to be a highly creative and generous gesture to friends…how many didn’t reply, showed no flexibility or showed a distinct lack of enthusiasm? For the effort that was going to go into it, enthusiasm was really a minimum requirement.
· New Years Eve – those who know me well should know it’s an important time for me…taking stock of a year gone by and trying to stay positive in looking forward to a new one. But even with all the lovely people I have in my life, year after year I rarely do something that’s not been driven / organised by me or rarely find many people around willing to compromise their plans just for one year for once celebrating with me…

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m more than aware that as isolated examples these will seem (and really are!) trivial but it’s more about what they represent to me and as friends, you’d hope people would ‘get’ that side to you. But in terms of values, I (for example) know people whose values range from tidiness to busying the mind; from control through to letting go; and from creative space to structured opportunities. I suppose what I’m saying is that as a true friend to someone, you understand all their weirdies and foibles but you support them anyway…after all our difference is what makes us who we are 🙂

· Knowing what makes your friends tick – you’re there for the important stuff in their lives…whether that’s ups, downs or in-betweens
· No judgements – just because it’s not something of value to you doesn’t make it any less worthy
· Don’t know, then ask – if you find you’re not sure of their ‘weirdies’ then you strive to find out. Just ask, read their Facebook, Twitter etc. Information is surely not an issue in this day and age!

· Trivialising the things that seem unimportant to you. I once had a friend whose wedding planning took over literally everything, so much so that she barely acknowledged I had a life outside of hers. For example, she dismissed my excitement about a holiday and didn’t ask how my recent birthday bash had gone…! One person’s ‘important thing’ does not have to trump another’s – there is room for both!

A good friend is able to sense when something might be a bit off in your life or if you’re feeling super excited about something. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting anyone should become the new Mystic Meg but with information at your fingertips now (Facebook is a prime example), it’s not entirely impossible to be aware of how the people in your life are feeling. And if they’re FB-phobes why not give them a quick call or text…you’ll quickly sense from that how someone is doing! I know from experience that some people need a huge amount of support and coaxing to reveal their true feelings and sometimes without that coaxing you would never know what goes on in their head. Are you really a friend if you only know their outer projection?? Equally I know people who are incredibly forthcoming with their feelings – so much so you can’t get a word in edgeways! But it’s about knowing someone’s style enough to ask if they need asking or listen when they need a listener.

· Picking up the phone / send a text / write a letter / check out Facebook etc when you sense that it’s been a while or that someone might be going through something
· Understanding how to get to the bottom of how someone feels, whether that be providing an ear / writing it down etc

· Relying on being explicitly told if a friend happy, sad, blue, contemplative etc…you could be waiting a LONG time for that to happen in some cases

When was the last time…
Can you remember the last time you sent a nice text / a little card / an email etc to each of your friends? Either just to say hello or to let them know how much you appreciate them being in your life? It sounds soppy but even the smallest of gestures can ensure your friendship stays balanced and people feel appreciated. If you’ve never really said it, how do people know how much you think of them? Thoughtfulness can be a thankless task with the wrong people…but with the right people it can go a long, long way 🙂

· People who send you unexpected little texts / calls / messages / gifts…usually when you’re in most need of it too!
· Those who do the smallest, most thoughtful gestures when you least expect it
· The friends who you know truly appreciate you – even if it’s only said / shown once in a decade

· Those who seemingly don’t appreciate the efforts you make to be there for them
· Looking back on the relationship, the friends who you cannot think of the last time they did something for you / organised a get together / text or called you without being prompted etc etc

Some conversations will inevitably be one-sided – there are times where someone needs to talk at length about their situation on a 90/10 split for good or for bad reasons. I’m always more than happy to listen and I like to be able to help people when they need it. But, ‘me,me,me’ conversations should most definitely be the exception and not the rule. For both sides to get the most of a conversation there has to be a balance between talking and listening…and that usually relates quite significantly to whether people have a degree of self-awareness or not. The same can be said for the person who tends to keep the conversations moving…I’ve met my fair share of people where it’s always left to me to ask the questions or fill the gaps. A good, healthy friendship should have a balance of conversation on a whole range of subjects and it’s both people’s responsibility to keep it moving and provide the ear.

· On the whole, a mix of conversation that both people have an interest in but an acknowledgement that on rare occasions, a situation will arise where the focus has to be solely on one person
· Being self-aware enough to perhaps acknowledge if you think you’ve hogged the conversation

· 90% of conversations are ‘me,me,me’ with absolutely no self-awareness of the fact
· Lazy conversationalists – those who leave you to do all the work and don’t give a lot back

And finally, but by no means least importantly – friends should be able to be honest and open with each other. I want the people in my life to tell me in a constructive way when I’m out of line / being an idiot / being brilliant / being a drama queen / doing something wrong etc etc. I don’t like brutalists (i.e. those who seem to pride themselves on ‘telling it how it is’) but I do appreciate well thought out honesty. In a true friend I want to be able to turn and ask for an honest perspective – even if it stings at first I need to have those people who will tell me the truth even when it’s hard…

· Those who give you an honest perspective but in a sensitive, thoughtful way
· Friends who can also genuinely take feedback as well as to give it – honesty cannot be one-sided
· Someone who knows you enough when to hold off the truth until you’re ready (it should never be permanently but I do believe there is a time and place where truth becomes destructive or unhelpful for now)

· If someone cannot bring themselves to tell you a truth because it’s too uncomfortable
· A brutal way of delivering a truth is not something to be proud of – pick your moment and pick your approach, especially if it’s a sensitive subject

And there we have it – my super-duper guiding principals 😉 I suppose as I come to the end of this I’ve realised something…just as I referred earlier to knowing what’s important to people, it’s often the case that what is important within a friendship and relationship will also vary hugely from person to person – this is more my take on what I consider to be important to me. For example, much of the above probably wouldn’t be all that relevant to a f-buddy situation…there’s only one essential element there 😉 But seriously, it’s up to your friends to know what makes you tick and try to support accordingly…and if they can’t, well maybe it’s a friendship that needs to be put on ice for a while! I do however believe there are a few simple lessons I’ve learnt along the way in trying to achieve balanced friendships and good karma:

1. True friends will be the ones who ‘get’ you. They are the ones who will ‘get’ when something is valuable to you, even if at face value it seems fairly trivial. They’ll pick up when you’re feeling happy and help you to celebrate but they’ll naturally sense when you’re feeling rubbish…In my view friendship isn’t about having to explicitly tell someone to be there for you, your friends should be those aware enough to do it without being asked.

2. Everyone to a certain extent fulfils a particular ‘role’ within groups – embrace it! Whether you’re the organiser, the party animal, the conversation filler etc etc be proud of that fact and enjoy it…it only becomes a problem when people around you start to take your talents for granted – it’s up to them to value and recognise your efforts if friendships are to continue successfully.

3. Try to take a regular ‘balance’ check. By this I mean how often do you check the balance of your relationships? We’re all so busy just living life that sometimes we can do a lot of taking from people without giving just a little bit back. When was the last time you did something nice, surprising and thoughtful for someone…just because you can? A small gesture or message is all it takes sometimes to show those you care about how much you appreciate them and all that they do in your life. Soppy I know but trust me, even the most feisty and seemingly hardened of people will love it J

4. If you’re not feeling the love, take a step back for a while. Everyone deserves to feel appreciated and if you get to a point where you’re not quite feeling it, it’s fine to take a step back. I figure one of two things will happen: either someone will realise and figure out why or…if they don’t, it probably tells you that at this point in time they’re too wrapped up in their own life to appreciate you. And lets face it, sometimes it’s likely to happen with work, kids, money, family etc. The difference with a good friend though is that once they get through the ‘mist’ they’ll pick up the phone, send an email etc and let you know you’ve been missed.

So, in concluding after this longer than usual post I’m going to refer to someone a little cleverer than I, who can summise intelligently within a quick one liner. Beethoven (!!) once said ‘Continue to be my friend, and you will always find me yours’ – since Beethoven was a pretty intelligent dude I think you should listen to him! But put simply – keep showing your friends / family / colleagues / partner etc etc the love, you never know when you might need you a good buddy 😉