Lies I tell about myself

 

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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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All you need this year is one good idea

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I slipped out of bed this morning, careful not to disturb the sleeping bodies so easily woken. I was eager for a few moments alone in the quiet of my house with my morning drink.  I walked around the corner to replenish our coffeepot; the streets were empty and the sky was covered in bands of pink clouds. It felt like an illicit pleasure – aloneness, beauty and eventually, a strong and deep cup of coffee.

I’ve been reading tonnes of blogs these past few days about planning and new year’s resolutions. I love a good plan, a strategy to pull all my thoughts and ideas together, something documented that makes it all real and possible (and so it seems does my son, who sat the family down last night for a presentation done in his giant notebook with a plan to become a more relaxed family. Boy genius.)

One blog stood out to me more than others – Penelope Trunk’s Resolution for 2016. In it she discusses how resolutions don’t work unless you can express them in a simple way. For her:

“So for 2016 I’m going to accept who I am:  Someone who struggles everyday to accept the realities of parenting in the context of a world that celebrates people who give up everything for work.”

And I love, love, love that instead of something like – get fit! get rich! be better! – it’s an idea. And so for me my overall desire for 2016 is actually a continuation from previous years, but I hope to get better and better at: being ridiculously, abundantly, wonderfully kind – to myself.

Possibly you might think I was going to say it to the world, my local community – hell, maybe even my kids. But myself, why? Because I know that really all of things I want to achieve this year – publish another photo book with the husband, launch an online photo course, be a great mum, a wonderful friend etc –  are only possible, really possible, if I feel good about myself.

And one thing I know very well about myself is – if I am not kind to myself I am at risk of mentally beating myself into a bloody pulp everytime I mess something up (and messing up is inevitable seeing as I am a human being). I have found that the first step in that process of feeling good about myself, is to treat myself with absolute kindness.

It’s so intensely easy to be hard on yourself in today’s culture. Always being reminded of what you are not, always falling short of a perception of perfection. But I have decided I don’t care what crimes I am committing against domesticity or slenderness or grown-upness. After all – I am not a serial killer. I am (mostly) quite a nice person. So in 2016 I will:

Appreciate everything about myself,  even the crap things, and treat myself with the gentle, loving kindness that I treat my most treasured gifts – my friends and family. I will accept my imperfections as a mother, a wife, a friend, a human, and treat myself with kindness and love all the same.

This idea of kindness to myself has been a theme for a number of years. Ever since at the age of 31 I found myself lost and broken by grief when I lost a baby girl late in pregnancy. I found a pathway back to life, and eventually to joy, when I decided to abandon my previous ways of being so insanely hard on myself and instead embrace myself with kindness.

So when my mind starts on that path of being hard on myself, on my many imperfections, instead of beating myself up I try to offer up the kind of kindness that I would offer a friend or my child when in pain. I try to imagine it not being my problem, but voiced in that wonderful voice of my best girl friend or my beautiful son. Sometimes even to my husband (well not that often. Maybe next year I’ll start a be-kind-to-my-husband-most-of-the-time resolution. But like the airplanes say, put your safety mask on first before you help others.)

By being gentle and kind to myself I have managed to transform my relationship with myself and with the people around me. I am a much better mother (most of the time), I am a better wife (the husband has testified to this and I’ve been with him for sixteen years).

I couldn’t have started a business without it or stopped myself from crumbling with guilt over my various parenting disasters without this attitude of kindness.

And so it’s this idea that I am completely committing to this year, my year of kindness.