Fix the ship not the ocean…

sinking ship

As I sat in a busy bustling coffee shop on my own, I knew I was there to avoid thinking about things too much. My brain is constantly whirring, trying to work things out. So occasionally it’s good to just sit in the midst of it all, cradling a coffee (or the occasional cheeky glass of wine!) and watch other peoples’ lives unfold. As the warming taste of coffee started to kick in, I mused that there’s a sense of freedom to be found in concentrating on other people going about their business. And then it struck me like a slap in the face…I have more interest in helping to fix other people and resolve the external factors than I do in fixing up and looking after myself. When I start to sink, it would seem I’m too busy trying to fix the ocean around me to concentrate on the one thing I can truly affect…the ship.

I figure I’m not alone in this. Have you ever just reached the point when it feels like things are just ‘a bit much’ at the moment? I hit that point last week – I felt tired, low, unsociable and had a constant dull headache. At first, I put it down to ‘having a cold’ or some such excuse, but then I realised that when I laughed about something or turned my focus to anything other than my own life, the tiredness and headache lifted. I decided to be honest and acknowledge that there were at least two big areas of life where I wasn’t feeling happy or successful and for some reason, where I’d usually be able bang out a new plan of action faster than you can say ‘chaaaaange’, I was stuck, unable to come up with a way to make things better. Paralysis had set in and with it, even more feelings of guilt, uselessness and frustration.

So what happened next to make this situation a blog post rather than a tale of downward spiral? I realised that most of my issues were people related – it was the behaviour, words and actions of other people in a range of situations that were making me feel bad. For weeks (months in some ways!) I had been trying to get people to change. To be nicer / more appreciative / kinder (the list goes on). I’d done it because genuinely I felt (and still do an extent) out of principle they shouldn’t be given free reign to behave in a thoughtless, uncaring way. But in being blinded by my own values, I hadn’t realised the number one point that all great self-help books and motivational speakers will tell you – the one thing you will always be able to control and change is yourself. Now I know this is no great epiphany, people have been saying this for years…but the revelation for me was that, particularly where other people are involved, it’s near enough impossible to get them to change. People are like the ocean – wild, unpredictable and can be the both welcoming and destructive all at the same time. The self is like the proverbial ship trying to work with the ocean (people) but sometimes it’s just a rough day…and there needs to be to be a way to work with that. The ship needs to adapt to the ocean, not the other way around.

So, having written about this watery tale of reflection what have I learned? A lot actually, particularly about the sense of calm and clarity you can feel when you take back the control. Specifically:

  1. People are like the wind in your sails and the ocean beneath your feet. People can push you on and keep you on course, but sometimes they can knock the wind from your sails leaving you directionless and lost. But, you can choose to own your experience – choose to make the most of and appreciate the good conditions and fight to get through the rough ones. In some cases you can even choose to steer away from the rough waters into better seas. Put in real terms, love and appreciate the good people in your life and try to navigate through or around those who bring negative energy.
  2. When you feel like you’re sinking, perhaps it’s time to throw some things overboard. The guilt, the negative feelings and sometimes even some of your crew members need to go – to stay on course you cannot carry the weight of everything, much as you might want to.
  3. When the waters are choppy, keep the faith. Not necessarily religious faith (although of course this is fine too!) but keep faith in your course and faith in your destination. We all go through times where we question who we are, where we’re going and the decisions we’ve made / are about to make but don’t let one (or a few) bad days at sea make you turn back from your path.

So, in concluding I suppose to stop using analogy and to talk plainly, I’ve really learnt this past week that although I would never give up trying to change the world (and sometimes the people in it) for the better, the trick is to first fix yourself. Make sure you’re ready for the challenge before you embark upon it and be willing to take some knocks along the way in order to reach the best destinations.

“If the highest aim of the captain were to preserve his ship, he would keep it in port forever” (Thomas Aquinas). 

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Let me know if you need anything…

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‘Let me know if you need anything’ – a well-meaning, often used phrase which we’ve all used at one time or another to provide support to those around us. If someone is ill, upset or down we want them to know we are there and that we can provide things to help. But the issue with this phrase is that it supposes the person knows what they need to make them better and further, that they would feel comfortable in coming right out in asking for it. Personally I can think of maybe one or two times when I’ve known what I’ve needed to feel better and then asked for it… In fact I’d go so far as to say that the times when I’ve needed someone the most, have been the times when I’ve been unable to articulate why or what I need.

So why do we use this phrase so much when it sort of implies that if you don’t tell me what you need, I won’t help? Has it perhaps become a lazy way to show support without the commitment of actually doing anything about it – an absolution of the guilt of inaction because ‘they didn’t let me know what was needed’? Or are we truly unsure of the best way to help some people and therefore must ask them for guidance on what to do? Perhaps we think we’re helping by getting the person to outline what is wrong and therefore what they need to change – a sort of soft coaching approach? Whatever the reason, I would hazard a guess that if you think back to the times you’ve said this to someone, they’ve often politely replied with a ‘thanks’ but not advised of you of what to do to help.

Sometimes someone just needs a hug…without first having to admit a hug is what they need. It takes a great friend indeed to pick up on that and do something appropriate and tangible rather than asking you to spell out what you need…

But I’ll be the first to admit that I too have been guilty of using this phrase – until recently I thought it was a really good way to offer support. But being entirely honest (as I always am in these blogs!) I’ve recently being going through some hard times – I’m a classic case of the clown, mostly smiling and bouncy on the outside while on the inside really struggling to feel good about life. I’d much rather talk about other peoples’ problems than my own – mostly because I care and want to be of help and support but it can also act as a subtle deflection technique as I find it hard to articulate personal challenges when not in paper form. The way this has manifested for me now is physically in the form of migraines – it cannot be a coincidence that having previously never had them, I’ve had a year of getting pretty regular attacks. My friends and family are wonderful, they’ve all texted / emailed in one form or another and have all said to ‘let them know if I need anything’ – but I truly don’t know what I need. It might be for someone to turn up on my doorstep and take me out for a walk and talk somewhere far away or it might be to drag me out to listen to some upbeat music for a bit. But I would never be the one to directly ask someone to do that and I can’t honestly say it would work either.

I remember back to a time when a really close friend of mine split with her long-term boyfriend and was absolutely gutted. Myself and another friend wouldn’t take no for an answer and told her we were coming over to eat chocolate, drink wine and watch gory vampire movies – we didn’t ask her what was needed but intuitively tried to guess what would help. And if that approach hadn’t worked, I’d have made my way through a great long list of things until I found out what did.

Now I know life isn’t always simple like that – I guess I’m ‘lucky’ (hmm) that I’m free and single so I can jump in a car at my will and be there when needed. The point here isn’t about grand gestures but I think it has to be something more than a ‘tell me what you need’. In a society where mental health issues are on the rise and suicide rates are higher than they should be, I’m absolutely convinced that although a text to say ‘you’re thinking of someone’ or ‘you’re there if they need’ is a good first step, there needs to be more action behind the well meaning. Clearly it will depend very much upon the person, for example, if someone is more of an introvert and hates being surprised then you wouldn’t turn up on their doorstep in the middle of the night (you’ll give the poor blighter a shock and a half! 🙂 ) but let’s get creative and stop putting the pressure on people to outline exactly what they need.

In a world where social media, mobile phones and other technology makes it easy to be in touch but not fully connected, how can we give support to people going through rough times in a more meaningful way…Here are just a few of my ideas:

1. If you live nearby, pop over to their house and see if you can have a cuppa or go out for an hour. Seeing someone in person can make the world of difference and really, an hour out of your day vs. the five minutes it takes to send an email or text can be time well invested. Catching someone when they’re feeling whatever it is they’re feeling is important, because the next day / time you meet it may have passed or been down played. If they’re not in / not answering drop a nice note through the door with some times when you might be in for them to visit back.

2. Organise something to distract / relax them – a film, a walk, a gig or something else. Sometimes in order to talk about something, you need to stop thinking about it too much so it then flows out naturally. If you’re a good friend to someone, you know the things they love so pick something nice to do and take it from there.

3. Make an expression / vision board. Some people are really rubbish at expressing themselves and need a stimulus to get them talking…how about cooking a meal and then spend some time rooting through old magazines and cutting out pictures that jump out. Ask them to talk about why the pictures they have chosen hold meaning for them…often this leads into topics that have been on their mind / are important to them.

4. Don’t ask if they’re okay / need anything…because 9/10 most people won’t admit to being down or needing help. If you need to ask the question, then chances are you’ve intuitively picked up on something that suggests all is not right. Why not gently acknowledge that with them and come up with some ideas for spending time together so you can get to the bottom of it?

I suppose the bottom line is to ask yourself when you’re tempted to use that well-meaning term ‘let me know if you need anything’ – will this person actually tell me what they need? And if the answer is ‘no’, how can you make the first move by doing something tangible right here, right now? There is absolutely no doubt that if you’ve used that term (or another similar one!) with someone then you are a lovely, caring and thoughtful person… but there’s also the risk that someone who needs your help desperately just isn’t brave enough to ask for what they want.

So to wrap this post up, I’ll finish (as ever!) with a quote I found on Pinterest which I thought sums things up pretty well:

“When a friend is in trouble, don’t annoy him / her by asking if there is anything you can do. Think of something appropriate and do it.”