It’s late and I can’t sleep. So I get up and sit listening to the rain and eat crisps. It’s the end of the first proper week of the New Year and I am feeling pretty good, which surprises me. Often at this point I am knee deep in vast seas of irritation or anxiety about myself – all the things I am not doing with my life (there is a lengthy, lengthy list). But I have decided this year to be kind to myself and I have noticed that it’s already making a difference.
I’ve been reading a lot of late about how we create habits, and this lead me to a little discovery. It occurred to me in a shocking, urgent way this evening that I’ve been telling lies about myself. A lot of lies and so consistently that I even believe them myself.
What was so wonderfully nice about this shock was that it was unlike most realizations I’ve had in the past – which always seem to revolve around something terrible in my life that I’m in denial about. Like epically dreadful financial decisions or the habit of saying something awful to my kids. Those thoughts that zip up your spine in ice-cold pain, and fill your heart and head with burning hot shame. I’ve had a lot of those.
No, this realisation was quite stunningly the opposite. Lies that I had told about myself that weren’t completely or at all, true. Things that I habitually denigrated myself for. Like – oh I am so disorganised! Laugh, laugh, laugh. How many jokes have I made out of that?
(A few days ago my husband told me my shirt was inside out. Oh, said I. Didn’t you notice when you were putting it on? said he. And I remembered quite distinctly that I did think there was something strange about the buttons that morning. But my mind didn’t seem to go beyond the thought of “that’s weird”….)
And things of that ilk will probably continue to happen because quite frankly I am what I shall politely (and kindly) refer to myself as a dreamy, intensely thinking person. I remember as a child feeling very relieved when I would find myself alone as I always had a backlog of thoughts that I needed to process.
But here is the truth that I have been hiding from the world and myself: I am not disorganised. I am actually pretty organised with the things that are really important to me: my kids’ very interesting lives and our business. I can’t add my social life into that mix because I don’t have one (I agree with Claudia Winkleman, women can have two out of the three big life things: a big career, children or a social life. I squeezed a too-wild and too-unteathered social existence into my pre-kids’ life that I am still exhausted from, so I don’t miss it.)
(BTW My husband organises the possessions in our house – and the kids ever growing toenails – he is great. I will be kind about my organisational skills now, but I won’t claim credit for the organisation I don’t do.)
And here’s the second great big fat lie that I seem to be spreading about myself: I am lazy. This evening I suddenly had this vision of myself age 17 sitting in a cafe. It was where you would find me almost everyday, and I would be writing. I would write for several hours at a time.
So OK, maybe I wasn’t going to school and doing my very best to get good grades, but I was extremely focused on improving my skills as a writer – which doesn’t sound very lazy to me.
Then life pushed me off course, and by the age of 24 I had quit dreams of being a writer. I remember a huge argument with my future husband on Hungerford Bridge in London about this decision. I told him I had nothing important to write about and I needed to go off and live. Maybe that’s true, maybe I was right in realising that my writing then was unsophisticated. But maybe I was just terrified and too scared to put myself in the firing line of other people’s opinions. Whatever the reason, I stopped my love of writing after many years of diligent practise.
But it’s funny that I now realise that for years I was paying attention to a story about myself that I was lazy – perhaps picked up because I felt guilty about missing school so often. But what I didn’t recognise was the story that I had extreme dedication and focus on something that was incredibly important to me.
“Most anxiety stems from self-fabricated stories based on speculation and assumption. We tell ourselves fictional stories about the people in our lives or the circumstances that befall us. We do it all the time. Seldom do we notice what we’re doing. ” Scott Gortno
I share these stories in the hope that you will reflect on the narrative that you tell the world about your life. Reality is subjective and we are often hopelessly bad at recognizing the good that we are – whilst completely overemphasizing all that we are not.
“The most difficult times for many of us are the ones we give ourselves.” Pema Chödrön
Why do we do this? Why do we emphasis the worst of ourselves? Spend so many acres of our time denigrating ourselves for the things we do badly and the things that maybe, just maybe, we actually do quite well. Isn’t that like some special form of craziness?
We carry these stories about ourselves like badges, identifying ourselves to the world. And it wouldn’t matter but they are ususally so negative. And when you feel a negative idea about yourself it seeps into other parts of you, poisoning your-self against your-self. And OK this isn’t a stop-the-press-new-idea, but wouldn’t you say that believing a lot of negative things is bad for your mind?
Because most of the things we think about ourselves are actually just formed through habit. Someone said something years ago about us that stuck, or we learned to interpret who we are from other parts of our personality. Like maybe how because I am drastically messy I assumed I was a super dis-organised person. (When actually when I have something I want to achieve – I am on it!)
Our habits are so entrenched and ingrained that our self-denigration eventually become normal, and who we think we are.
But once we know that these stories about ourselves are not real, we can start breaking this habit of bad-mouthing ourselves. It’s not easy – how much easier is it to just relax back into the can’t do it/can’t be bothered to change scenario. But it is possible. Just banish one negative story at a time. One – at – a – time. Until you get out of the habit of doing it at all (even if it takes a year who cares, I’d rather like to have the rest of my life after that being happier).
So this year, as part of my year of kindness I am not going to propagate any more lies about myself to the world. I’m going to break the habit of a lifetime. I will fact-check every funny quip, off the cuff remark and jokey banter. Although I will never ever, ever claim that getting dressed is something I have mastered.
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