Good girl gone bad?

goodandbad

People are good or they are bad. Is it really so simple? People throw judgments like these around every day, reaching a decision based upon the information they have to hand at that point.

You have a bad run at work, all of a sudden you’re a bad worker. You let down a loved one, all of a sudden you’re a bad person. Sometimes it surprises me how few people are willing to stop, think and perhaps ask more questions about a situation before reaching a judgment. I liken this to going to the gym – it can take you months (perhaps even years!) to build up your fitness levels and just days or weeks for it to disappear. Is it the same when it comes to our characters?

Before I go further, it’s worth saying that I know we as humans are programmed to make judgments, if we did not then decision making would be nigh on impossible. But something I’ve noticed recently is that the weighting given to a person’s ‘good’ behaviours and ‘bad’ behaviours seems off – it strikes me that to be ‘good’ you have to work bloody hard but to be considered ‘bad’ it can take just one or two actions. If this were illustrated in pictorial form it would look like a set of scales with one side having a huge pile and the other just a smattering…but the scales tip in favour of the lighter side.

I suppose all of this could just be put down to differences in perspective. For example, I know lots of people really value consistency and a meeting of expectations so when you do something(s) that goes against this, it results in feelings of disappointment and frustration. My own perspective is slightly different…I have always found the dark and light in people fascinating – it is part of what makes them beautiful. When someone is their imperfect self, the more real and raw they are being. It isn’t to say they can go around being awful, disrespectful or anything like that but rather I can forgive a relatively high degree of undesirable behaviour because I believe that it indicates something deeper is going on. Perhaps it’s my psychologist’s mind at play 😉 But… I am yet to find many people who will allow me the same understanding. How many people do you know who would still be standing there even in your darkest moments when you are not yourself? And not just standing there but holding your hand and telling you how okay it is to be imperfect.

Sometimes a few tough times come along and they really shake you one after the other, to the point where you can question who you are, what you stand for and why you bother trying so hard. When these things happen, of course you won’t be the same person for a while. But does that mean that you’ve somehow fallen from grace because you’re being selfish, moaning a bit or being sad? Are you no longer valuable for all the times you were at your best? Are you less strong because you can’t always find the strength to put on a brave face? And the big one that kept coming up…Are you destined to be alone because you can’t always project the people pleasing version of yourself?

These are all questions that run through the mind when those around you appear not to really ‘get’ it and / or don’t want to. I am thankful to say that for me personally, I’m coming through the other side of some dark times but I wanted to write this blog anyway to pose some questions that I think we can all reflect on a little more in a society where mental health issues are on the rise: am I being fair in my judgement of this person that I care about? Am I looking at the whole picture of who they are or just reacting to this snapshot of a time when they are acting in a hurtful way? How can I gather more information about what’s going on before I react? These questions I believe can help us to be better and more compassionate managers, friends, partners and people.

Before I finish up with the usual key reflections, I do want to emphasise that by trying to take a more forgiving stance on ‘bad’ behaviour I am not excusing sustained and repetitive hurtful interactions or cases where you have to sacrifice your own well-being long term to take account of the bad sides of someone you care about. Rather, this blog is about those people where if you were to take a step back and weigh up of the time you’ve known them, the main of it has been positive and good but there have been some times recently where this has taken a hit or something has happened that shocked or saddened you about them. We all have the right to be respected and treated well but sometimes it just isn’t possible for people to be the person we want them to be 24 hours a day for the rest of our lives.

So, in reflecting on all of this here’s three things I personally have learned:

  1. Behaviours are usually indicative of something deeper – ask more questions. More often than not, we judge behaviours because these are the tangible things that are obvious to us. Someone behaves in a certain way therefore it must mean XY or Z. But in many situations people behave in a particular way because they can’t or don’t want to verbalise whatever is going on in their head. Taking someone to one side and reflecting back in a kind way what you’ve seen and asking whether there’s anything they want to talk about could be all it takes to fully understand the situation.
  1. Be honest but be kind. Most people welcome some honesty from those they care about but the way in which it’s delivered is absolutely key. Generally people push back and / or defend against honesty delivered in a cruel or uncaring way but will react better to honesty they perceive to come from a place of caring and support.
  1. Take a step back, if you must judge someone then do it fairly. Have you got all the information you need in order to make the judgement you’ve made? We very often have a tendency to judge first and then seek out information to back it up – to affirm that we’re right. Try to fight against the natural inclination and approach it the other way around – gather more information through questioning and then make your judgement about what’s going on.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t profess to get it right all of the time and I’m well aware of how difficult it is to press ‘pause’ and gather information when you’ve been hurt, let down or disappointed by someone. But the conclusion I’ve drawn is that if it leads to the end result of a salvaged professional or personal relationship, it is well worth trying.

Plenty of people will say that they appreciate you for all of your sides – good, bad and ugly – because they know it’s the right thing to say. But how many remain by your side when you really go through something deep, dark and soul shattering? That is the true test of strength in a relationship and if you are lucky enough to find that kind of a friend, lover or colleague then hold onto them for dear life 🙂

“The imperfections of a person, their frailties, their faults, are just as important as their virtues. You can’t separate them. They’re wedded.” Henry Miller

Advertisements

When enough isn’t enough…

Locus

A good friend of mine recently said that I seem to give 110% to everything – particularly when it comes to work, friends and relationships. And what a wonderful thing to hear, that to the outside world it seems like you couldn’t really do or give much more. But it got me thinking, why is it then that despite the effort we invest into things it doesn’t always lead to the outcome you’d wanted? Sometimes it seems as though doing enough just isn’t enough.

Many people would identify with the notion that ‘what you put in, is what you get out’. That is to say, that in most cases the effort you invest is more or less equal to the outcome you will see in the end. One of the main reasons many of us like this concept is that it implies that the world is fair and full of opportunity to succeed and be happy… if you will just put in enough effort. But more importantly, it also suggests that you can be the master (or mistress) of your own destiny – that we are in control of the way that our life will pan out. People who will particularly like that idea are those who believe that their life and destiny is controlled from within themselves (as opposed to those who believe that life is controlled by external environmental factors). In psychology we call the concept of internal vs external control, your ‘locus of control’. From a young age, I identified as having an internal locus of control and believed that most things in life (good and bad) were as a result of my efforts and actions. You could also make a link with the concept of ‘karma’ too – the idea that your good and bad actions in life eventually catch up to you. If you believe in karma or something similar, you probably (but not always) will believe that your efforts determine your outcomes.

Sounds simple enough so far right? But the problem with this concept is that so often in life, situations involve another person (or several people) and therefore our own effort is no longer the sole determinant of the outcome. It is in these situations where people like me (and perhaps many of you reading this) can feel frustrated and confused. You can put in 110% effort and still end up with an undesirable result. If you take relationships as a prime example of this (romantic, friendship, work related – any type of relationship actually), you can invest so much time, effort and care into it and still end up with the other person(s) walking away, treating you badly and / or choosing to end their relationship with you. To an ‘internaliser’, this is when all hell breaks loose and can make you question your belief system and in some cases start to turn the blame for a rubbish end result inwards on yourself.

As an internaliser myself, I recognise this danger only too well and I’ve begun over recent months to reflect upon how to deal with a world that I want to believe is within my control but realistically in some circumstances is not. The conclusion I have drawn is that if control is something that is important to you in order that you can keep hopeful about the future and believe you can shape the way things go, then don’t relinquish that to others. Instead reassess where in the situation you can find your own little piece of control and try to stick with that. Also, shift your perspective to consider that control also equals responsibility. In personal relationships, the reality is that you don’t have all of the control and this is a good thing because it also means you don’t have all of the responsibility either. If a friendship, romantic relationship, work relationship succeeds or fails this is not all within your control and therefore is not all your responsibility either. If you give 110% it will not compensate for a 20% effort from someone else, much as we might wish it would. So let the responsibility go and focus on the thing that IS within your control…how you feel and react to the situation you are now faced with.

So, the things I have decided to try to keep in mind as I currently go through a tough personal situation are…

Relationships are one part of life where enough is not always enough… but that’s okay. Sometimes we can give enough (more than enough) to another person (or people) or situation and it doesn’t guarantee success. Rather than self-blaming and looking at things you could have done differently, be fair and put some of the responsibility back onto the other person / people involved and just be proud of the fact that you made your best effort.

Sometimes it’s the ‘long game’ game that counts. Just because the effort and care didn’t pay off this time, should that mean you don’t try again (and again and again…)? Short term set-backs come along that may well shake your belief system and determination but the ability to get back up again and still put in effort may well lead to longer term successes. If a situation or person wasn’t a happy recipient of your efforts should that mean you stop altogether? No, move on and try again elsewhere where it will be appreciated.

Learn to let go and hand over control and responsibility. It’s impossible (and undesirable) to keep a handle on everything in your life and those who really love you sometimes want to shoulder that control and responsibility with / for you. Let go of the control and allow others to occasionally pick up the slack, this is the only way to build healthy intimacy and trust. When you let go and allow others in, you can get the clarity you need to resume life at full speed 🙂

So in concluding, it is true that enough is not always enough to secure a particular result. But there is a journey to be had through persevering despite set-backs and staying determined to keep giving 110%. I know more than most how much each perceived ‘failure’ strips away a part of you and it becomes harder to pick yourself back up again with the same enthusiasm and optimism as before but we have to keep the faith that in the long term it will lead to better things.

“Strength and growth come only through continuous effort and struggle” Napoleon Hill

Flourish or fail?

flourish

Working in the field that I do, an analogy has often been used comparing the success and development of people to the growth of a plant or tree  (yes, yes I know it sounds a bit ‘hippy’ but stay with me 🙂 ). That is to say, within certain conditions we will thrive and flourish and in others we shrivel up and shrink away. The idea of ‘greenhouse organisations’ in which staff are provided with the right conditions for growth, development and expansion is not a new one but I am reminded recently of how rarely our leaders and managers try to understand our individual level ‘greenhouse conditions’. The tragedy that subsequently results, is the shrinking and confinement of otherwise excellent staff.

As ever, I’ll start with a little context and perhaps a personal anecdote or two. Usually I choose to write about topics outside of a work environment but as I started thinking about this, it struck me that ‘greenhouse conditions’ and ‘nurturers’ are just as relevant to our personal lives as they are to work. We are talking about understanding our conditions for success and the people who support and encourage that.

I have been fortunate in my life (or unfortunate depending upon how you look at it!) to experience a very wide range of people, personalities and styles – most of them incredibly positive and inspiring but a fair few I have to admit unfortunately fall into the ‘soul shrinking’ category. As my experiences grow and I talk more and more with people of similar-ish life circumstances, ambition and outlooks it is becoming less and less the case that I hear somebody say ‘I love my job. My team are great, the work is interesting and fulfilling and my manager is fantastic. I feel valued and recognised for my contributions and I can see myself staying here for a long time. Better still, I look up to and admire our leadership and I’d like to aspire to be like that some day”.

Some people may look at that statement and say “huh? that’s idealistic thinking right there – no job is like that” but I can tell you, I have been lucky enough to live that job and thrive in that environment – it does exist! Perhaps I am now ‘spoiled’ forever more as a result 😉 One of the main issues is, we’ve all become accustomed to just ‘putting up with’ the quite frankly mediocre (and in some cases toxic) environments we find ourselves in – in many cases even thinking ‘perhaps it’s my own fault, I expect too much’. So what (in my humble opinion) is at the heart of this outbreak of unfulfilled, down-trodden, unheard staff? Bad management and bad leadership. And linked to this, an idea I am calling the ‘enemy within’ for many organisations of today. That is, a glut of bad managers and leaders who are poisoning the organisations from the inside out and bringing down many bright, passionate staff with them.

One of many issues with the ‘enemy within’ is that people are unaware it’s there and / or are unwilling to accept it’s existence. Bad managers and leaders are allowed to crush and shrink their staff like the proverbial plant shoved into a dark corner. This can be for a number of reasons – it might be because those people are good at ‘politic-ing’ and maneuvering away from scrutiny or that the organisation doesn’t care enough to honestly reflect in on and challenge itself. The most common thing I’ve heard (and seen) a lot of is the genuine belief of some leaders and managers that they are great at what they do, but the reality is a far cry from their perception.

This situation I think raises so many questions for the modern day workplace (and could be extended out to our personal lives too) about how we understand our people, value them and ensure the very best performance that comes from the heart.

I can’t (and wouldn’t want to) tell others what to do, as I am far from perfect and have much still to learn. But as usual I will share my thoughts on what works – as a manager and leader and as someone who has been managed and led. These are the killer questions I ask of myself:

  1. Have you sat down in a relaxed environment and asked your people about themselves, their interests and ambitions? This sounds basic and common sense but I believe this is where many managers and leaders are going wrong – they haven’t really invested time in getting to know their people so how can they genuinely care for and understand them.
  2. How clear are your expectations? Do your people know what you expect of them in terms of delivering specific things and the kinds of behaviours you would hope to see? This is another important thing for me, as a manager or leader there is no getting away from the fact that you will have expectations of your people – for me I think it’s about clearly articulating these but then allowing people the space to decide for themselves about the approach they take to meeting them. Goal and objective setting together is a great way to understand each others’ expectations and aims.
  3. Have you developed trust and openess with your people? This doesn’t just happen because you say it does. Actions speak louder than words so how do you really show people that you are to be trusted and that you truly welcome honesty.
  4. Do you regularly ask for feedback with a genuinely open approach? Are you prepared to hear the ‘bad’ things as well as the good? Nobody is perfect and hardly anyone gets things right first time. When someone is new to your team (or wider life) how do you find out how you’re doing and whether you’re hitting the right note? It’s by asking regularly and being prepared to listen to ways in which you can do better.
  5. Have you spent time reflecting on what things might feel like / be like for that person? Empathy is a hugely important part of connecting with someone, so being able to think about how you might feel if you were in their shoes goes a long way to helping them to feel understood and supported.

I know much of the above sounds simple and common place but having recently seen too many fantastic, intelligent and ambitious people be adversely affected by bad managers and leaders it struck me that perhaps more sharing of experiences and ideas wouldn’t go amiss. More challenge aimed at organisations to really assess whether they are good at leadership and managing their people.

So in finishing, here is my question to everyone out there…What will be your choice for 2016 and beyond? Do you choose to support people to flourish and grow or will you knowingly or unknowingly fail them, leaving them to shrivel in a world of disengagement and frustration? Will you choose to help your people to thrive and innovate or are you going to thwart ambition and change in favour of comfort and control?

An organisation is only ever as good and successful as the people working there and in investing time, effort and care in your people (much as that may require a cost to you in the short term) you will be successful beyond your greatest dreams.

“Success is a team sport. It requires dedication, inspiration, and passion; and one can never get that without cultivating the culture of trust, mutual respect, and empowerment.” Forbes 

 

First cut is the deepest…?

PhoenixRising

So the song after which the title of this blog is named, would have us believe that the first time you ever love, get hurt or feel let down is the hardest. The first ‘cut’ takes it so deep that the scars take years, even lifetimes to heal – that you’ll never quite get over that first time when you learned the hard lesson about how bittersweet being in love can be.

But for me it’s simply not true – the fourth, fifth or sixth time you finally allow someone in again only to have them hurt you in ways you never thought possible is truly the worst. You see, not only do you have the deep hurt to contend with but you also have to deal with the additional pain of knowing you ‘should have known better’, or that by now you somehow should have learned to spot the signs and switch off your heart a lot faster.

I can’t lie – it really, truly and utterly hurts to be let down and disappointed…and I’ve had more than my fair share. I’ve always believed myself to be a pretty resilient gal too, able (after a day or two) to dust myself off and come back stronger than ever and with a smile to boot. But just as the rocks start to crumble at a cliff edge after weathering one too many storms, I can feel myself slipping. Two people this year I guess have been those final storms and I just don’t know that bouncing back is an option anymore. Outwardly yes, I’ll ensure those around me aren’t made to feel uncomfortable and so to all intents and purposes I’m ‘over it’, but inwardly I genuinely feel as though something has gone, giving way to a feeling of loss and despair.

The realisation that you allowed yourself to develop deep feelings for someone who can pass you off as ‘not important enough’ or as second best to someone else is a feeling that makes me feel sick to my stomach and entirely deflated. And yet I can never say the words aloud because vulnerability and bare naked emotions seem to be synonymous with weakness and unattractiveness in today’s society. Quite aside from that, they also seem to make people pretty uncomfortable. The trouble with hurt and heartache is, there is no easy answer or quick fix – sometimes I do sympathise with friends because quite frankly, there is nothing to say to make things better.

Even now I am sat here thinking twice about whether to go ahead and publish this. I’ve been a strong and sassy gal in so many ways and I know that writing as I am, I’m revealing a side of me I try to keep locked far away. The side that openly admits I’m feeling bruised, stupid and alone. I have no idea where this shame comes from because, hand on heart, if anyone I know came to me with this, I’d think them brave and offer a very open, judgment free ear. But somehow I can’t quite expect the same for myself…

And I think this is the way in which multiple hurts and heartbreaks really affect you – it cuts right to the core of your being. You look around you and feel as though you’re the only one allowing yourself to be hurt time and again, so you actually start to think that somehow you’re not good enough, there’s something wrong with you and that you don’t deserve (and will never have) the happiness that others seem to find so easy. These are the true scars that opening yourself up to the wrong people leave behind. These are the consequences. Your self-love and self-belief are shot to pieces until all that is left are the ashes of your optimistic self. This, no-one will ever truly understand because they haven’t been where you are and haven’t felt the things you have felt.

But..(she says with a faint glimmer of a smile) I have always loved the story of the phoenix rising from the ashes and so perhaps there is hope for me yet. As utterly pained as I feel now, I will find a way to heal – I just need to work out what it is. Writing is a help clearly and so, too is being honest…:) Distraction could also be a very attractive option right now! I do try really hard to see the positives in life and so I need to really try to do the same here.

Putting my measured and balanced head on for a moment I think I’ll conclude with this thought: In being hurt by people I don’t think I have shown weakness, instead I have shown a willingness to be open and true – to keep hoping and to keep ‘putting myself out there’. With any luck one day I’ll find someone who doesn’t abuse that but instead respects and admires it – it will be the glue that holds us together and the thing that will heal all the ‘wrongs’ of my past.

Afterall, if you don’t have hope (however small it may be) then you don’t have a huge lot.

A passionate compassion…

Image

I feel haunted and chilled to the bone – it’s cold and icy outside but that’s not the cause of this feeling of sad unease. Last night I watched what is usually considered light entertainment (and I’m sure by some, even as banal brain dulling fiction) but there is no denying that sometimes soaps on the telly tackle some pretty hard-hitting topics. The one turning my blood cold is a storyline where a young school-girl has been the victim of long-term, unrelenting emotional torture from her peers – I want to say bullying but the treatment is just so cruel it doesn’t seem to do it justice – and has resulted in her attempted suicide. It’s just so incredibly sad and one of those times where I wish so much that it was just another example of over-dramatic, unrealistic rubbish. Sadly though, the story is one that is all too commonly repeated in the media nowadays and one with which I am personally familiar after growing up in a not-so-brilliant comprehensive school.

Now I am well aware that this might make for a somewhat depressing and ‘serious’ blog entry but I feel so passionately about anti-bullying as a subject that I am obliged to write about it anyway. I think the reason it affects me so badly is two-fold – an absolute empathy for victims of bullying in all its forms and a desire to understand the despicable behaviour of those who take the decision to bully and torment.

To give a small snippet of background, the girl in the storyline has been visibly and quite obviously deteriorating emotionally and physically for some time while those around her miss or ignore the signs. She is 17 and at an age where life should be fun and the years ahead filled with excitement and opportunities to learn and grow. Instead the only path she can see is one ending with a bottle of vodka and a gutful of pills. Tragically, right to the very scene where she is about to try and end it all, people are doing her down and treating her with absolute contempt. I literally sat there on the sofa feeling sick with sadness for the situation. The thought that any person in this world (and particularly so many young people / children) could feel just so awful about life that they would consider ending things is beyond words to me… That so many people miss the signs and the opportunity to help makes it all the more upsetting. Couldn’t we all just be a little more aware and vigilant if it might help to save a life? I’m not saying the signs are obvious or even that there is always a way to save the situation but it seems to me that us adults have more that we should be doing to effectively tackle these awful situations.

The second disturbing aspect to the storyline is the attitude of her tormentors and those around her who did nothing to help. The coldness in the eyes and the denial of any kind of responsibility even when a young girl is lying on her deathbed is the thing that chills me right to the very core. How any person on this planet can find it amusing or entertaining to treat another with such contempt, disrespect and cruelty is just impossible for me to get my head around. I studied Psychology at university and looked into the minds and behaviours of a whole range of psychopaths and sociopaths and yet I will never, ever understand how a person could drive another to such despair and seemingly not bat an eyelid at the heartbreaking result. The final point of sadness is then how the school chooses to deal with it after the fact – denial, denial, denial. They ran a workshop and had a policy on anti-bullying and somehow thought that a piece of paper and half-hearted tick box exercise would constitute a robust and effective strategy…although I suspect if they reflected and were honest with themselves, they would know where the buck truly stops. The storyline in this soap just highlighted a prevalent and unrelenting problem in schools, offices and indeed within the playground of life generally. It also spoke to me of the disappointing fact that victims of bullying are let down by the people closest to them everyday.

But I wonder why I feel so incredibly incensed and distraught about it all because although there is a general consensus amongst most decent people that bullying is wrong, I’m yet to find anyone to talk with on the subject where I get a similar sense of feeling and shared injustice (correct me though if anyone reading this feels differently). I guess I have always had a burning passion for social justice and giving people a fair chance in life. I also ardently believe that respect and compassion should not be earned but instead freely given as a basic human right – bullying and any kind of ill-treatment of people is so counter to that value that perhaps it explains my intense feelings on the matter. I’ve also often thought that life can be tough enough on its own without having to put up with the cretins of this world who laugh and pick at others’ misfortunes.

So, what am I going to do about it I wonder? It’s all well and good writing on the subject but results and change are to be found in action, not inaction. Well I can’t say exactly what I’m going to do other than to think about it ALOT and find a way to make a difference. If I could, I would like to look every victim in the eye and tell them it is not their fault, that they ARE worth something and that they are a truly brilliant person capable of so many things…do NOT let those small-minded cretins win. And to the bullies… simply to tell them how utterly disgusting and repulsive their behaviour is and that one-day karma will bite back.

So, my humble lessons on what I know to be a highly complex subject with no ‘quick fixes’?

For those who have experienced bullying in its many forms:

  1. Please, please, please speak up to someone and tell them what you are going through. So many people would love to help and will work with you to find a way to tackle the situation in a way that suits and doesn’t compromise you in any way. But before anyone can help and support you, they need to know what’s been going – however, big or small it may seem.
  2. There is always a way out that doesn’t have to end in you getting hurt or ‘going away’. It is your right to be here  and  to be treated with respect –  if anyone tries to take that away from you then they are the ones in the wrong so why in the world should you have to be the one to ‘disappear’?!
  3. Bullies will never go far in life – trust me I  know. One day their stinking attitude will be their biggest barrier and that karma I talked about earlier? It’ll be back to bite right where it hurts.

Schools, employers, parents, carers etc

  1. Don’t bury your head in the sand. As a favourite philosopher of mine once said “If you look into your own heart, and you find nothing wrong there, what is there to worry about? What is there to fear?” You have a duty of care to all those who are under your watch and unless you can be 100% confident that the person you care for isn’t experiencing bullying / is the bully then there is some soul-searching to be done and there are some open and honest conversations to be had to make sure the signs are not being missed.
  2. Take a preventative stance – don’t wait for things to go wrong before anything is done. Forget books, policies and tick box exercises as standalone measures…preventing bullying is about setting expectations about a positive and respectful culture and behaviour and instilling the values in people that make it impossible to bully without going against those core values. It can be a long and tough road to change cultures and to teach values but truly, this is the ONLY way in which bullying will be stamped out for good.

All of us:

  1. Treat every person you meet with respect and value them as individuals – we may not like everyone that we meet and we may not agree with their view of things but there are still ways to interact without (sometimes subconsciously) treating them badly, dismissively or disrespectfully.
  2. Stay aware – anyone can be a victim of bullying or harassment and they won’t always feel able to speak up. We all have our own challenges to deal with but by being more vigilant maybe together our society can prevent the tragedies associated with victimisation. I don’t believe it should be ‘every person for themselves’ – some people are stronger in certain situations and its about time they stuck up for those  who are struggling

I realise some of the above may sound a little preachy but I’m really just sharing what I feel might actually help to make a difference. I want to live in a society where nobody ever sits idly by and witnesses bullying and I certainly don’t want to continue to be part of a world where suicide and self-harm are ever considered an acceptable consequence. One day I will find a way to really do my bit (I’m already doing a few things and recognise I could do more) but for now I’m actually going to feel glad that the storyline of this tv programme has moved me so much – perhaps it shows my motivation and desire to do better for our young people so that no-one leaves this world lost and without hope.

Testing times…

imagesCAR0D7YF

When I moved house recently, I was daunted by the prospect of doing it all on my own. I’d always had this vision of moving where all of your friends and family take a box, sit you down with fish n chips and a glass of bubbly and help you plan where everything could go. How on earth was I going to get four full cars worth of heavy boxes and furniture across a long courtyard, past a heavy closing door (which, by the way, gives you a damn good smack on the bum each time you walk through it) and up 52 steps without collapsing at the top in an undignified, emotional, heavy breathing mess? But two days and an aching body later it was all completed and it showed me that when you set your mind to something you can ruddy well get it done. I also realised that in some ways I’d set myself a test…I could have begged my friends and my family for help, could have asked them to change all their plans to lend a hand but instead I began to think that if I could things done on my own without relying on others, then I would truly be ready to live on my own. So I did and I now know I definitely am 🙂 The purpose for this anecdote is to set the scene for this latest musing… I’ve noticed more and more that life is made up of a series of ‘tests’ and challenges – some for us to pass or fail but others that we make for people to try out against. I guess it’s our way of reaching a decision about someone, a situation or a choice – if you pass the test then it was meant to be and if you don’t, well it wasn’t right in the first place anyway.

Take New Year resolutions. I confess that I love setting them. I see it as a great chance to look ahead to a new year and have a really good think about what I want to achieve – they also provide something tangible to reflect back on as another year passes by.  But what are resolutions if they are not just a series of little tests? If we don’t meet our aims for a year we often feel we’ve failed in some way and when we do achieve them, we get that great feeling of success and contentment. Resolutions seem to be our way of testing whether it has been a good year or not…we measure ourselves by the goals we set and our ability to meet them. It makes sense in a lot of ways…we are by our very nature stimulated by challenge, reward and outcomes – these little tests are a good way to ensure we get all of these things.

But I also think tests are used in decision making too – a way to make a judgement about the best thing to do or to check whether the right course of action was taken. I recently took a decision to bare my soul to someone – I really made myself vulnerable and it took a lot of courage to do. There were a number of reasons for deciding to take that path including the start of a new year (and letting go of past of ghosts), being honest and true to myself, wanting to move on, wanting to help the other person etc. But then it struck me today, the situation and my subsequent approach to tackling it also provided a very a good test of the other person’s nature. Who, with even an ounce of decency, respect or heart would not understand what it might have taken to lay my feelings open like that? The way the person chooses to react tells me a great deal about their character. I could only ever truly love someone who has a good sense of decency, empathy and respect for others – someone who faces issues head on rather than run from them. A shame then that it seems I’d understood this person wrongly – they have failed my test, but in doing so, allow me to move on without ever looking back. The day will come again when they try to make contact but because of the outcome from this little test, the decision at that point will be an easy one for me.

Similarly, another experience I will share is in relation to job searches and applications. When considering applying for a job recently I contacted a woman (the person who the advert told me the position would be directly accountable to) with a polite and friendly enquiry about the role. The response back could be described at best as frosty and abrupt. I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt however and call her up to see whether her demeanour over the phone was any better…it was not. She failed my test miserably. The attitude I should have experienced should have been friendly and welcoming of an application – instead (and I suspect in the current economic climate many companies make a similarly tragic mistake) her responses sounded like she had her pick of hundreds so why on earth was she wasting time on my questions. The sad thing about this situation is that many decent candidates (who have a good deal of choice about which jobs they apply for) will do as I did and choose not apply since the attitude speaks volumes about the person, team and organisation you would work with and for. In this situation my test probably saved several hours of wasted time in applying to an organisation I would ultimately not enjoy working for.

The thing about this concept of ‘testing’ though is that I think the extent to which people set or undertake them varies a lot. Some people set tests and challenges rarely, while others do it all day every day. I think I’m probably one who does it quite a bit unknowingly (unknowingly that is until my mini epiphany today!). I’m sure there are others who do the same… For example, have you ever found yourself feeling disappointed that a friend didn’t make it to a party or an evening out? That in itself could be seen as a little test of the friendship – your disappointment perhaps indicating you feel they’ve failed you a little bit as a friend. Or have you ever felt pleased that you managed to avoid the booze for a week, month, etc? A little test of your willpower and the joy you feel at having passed that test. Or maybe you asked a colleague at work for a favour and they were too busy…a test of their reliability in the future perhaps.

But I think testing and challenging yourself and others in life can be a positive thing – it allows us to know our boundaries and understand where we are at with certain people, situations and dilemmas. But the challenge this presents is when we begin setting unrealistic goals or living the entirety of our life by the results of a test – it inevitably can only lead to disappointment. Testing a situation or testing yourself can be a useful tool but doing it too much can mean constant pressure, intensity and stress. I suppose the trick is to get a balance – live your life as a journey to be enjoyed and occasionally use tests to stretch yourself and achieve great, realistic things.

Nowadays it sometimes feels as though there are tests everywhere too…at job interviews, to volunteer, to give blood – they are even popping up in magazines, newspapers and occasionally down the pub! I joined a dating website recently and a guy emailed me to tell me to say that before we could speak properly, he wanted me to undertake his compatibility test! (In case you’re wondering, no I didn’t take it 🙂 The very fact I had to do that meant that unknowingly he’d failed my test relating to spark, and conversation!).

So I suppose in musing over this there are three things I’ve learnt:

  1. Challenges are good but keep them realistic – life is tough enough without beating yourself up for not achieving the unattainable or failing to pass the impassable. A good challenge pushes the boundaries while staying mindful of your individual abilities and talents.
  2. Failing at one test sometimes means you’ll succeed at another – each time I ‘fail’ to secure an interview or ‘fail’ to go on a successful date just means that I’ll succeed at / with something or someone else. In fact as with my earlier description of a personal situation, sometimes it’s even a good thing that people don’t pass your tests – your time can then be given to people and situations that truly deserve it
  3. Testing  times can both develop and reveal character – through regularly facing challenges you can develop as a person. Equally through sometimes testing your perception of others, you can get a good glimpse of the true person      underneath. No one likes to feel like they are continually under the  microscope or under exam conditions but the odd challenge from time to time can help to clarify or reinforce a feeling where previously there might have been confusion.

In concluding I guess I would say to use the idea of testing in a positive way. No good can ever come of feeling like you always have to fail or succeed; instead use the idea to reinforce what you probably already knew deep down inside. Going back to my first paragraph… of course I knew I could live successfully on my own otherwise I would not have made the decision to move, but the physical and emotional test of being able to move everything on my own just helped to silence the niggling little doubts at the back of my mind. The same can probably be said with my job application scenario and with my ‘declaration’ to someone clearly not right for me.  Sometimes it’s better to run the test and get your answer than always wonder ‘what if’. But perhaps more importantly you could even say that the best decisions, the best people and the most amazing experiences are those you never need to test or question at all – you just know when it’s right 🙂

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 😉