On self belief

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One of the things I’ve been thinking about this year is self-belief. I was wondering where I could get my hands on some, because if I ever had any I must have misplaced it. I’ve always done the best I can borrowing other people’s belief in me but that only goes so far and I came to the conclusion that it was another one of those things that you really have to do for yourself.

So at some point in January I did the modern thing and Googled “where can I get some self belief.” I did not find much that I considered helpful. Dressing better is not the solution for me, nor is walking faster and I have to say I can’t manage mantras. I have tried, but I usually disagree with the mantra and so refuse to repeat it.

It goes something like this.

In every day and in every day I am getting better and better. In every day and in every way … like nuts I am! I’m coming down with a cold and I’ll spend the next few days getting worse. How is that relevant to my journey? Try again.

In some ways I am getting worse but in others I’m possibly getting better, with a small setback before lunch and then improving slowly after. In other things I am remaining the much the same which may or may not be a good thing. All that is guaranteed is that there will probably be some change, in some ways, most days, assuming things progress as expected.

Hmm. That seems to have turned into a weather forecast. Maybe I’d better try a new affirmation.

I love myself exactly as I am. I love myself exactly as I am. I … No. I don’t. That’s simply not true. If I was totally happy “exactly as I am” I wouldn’t be doing this work on myself and using affirmations in the first place. What a load of rubbish. Surely anyone who’s trying to use these mantras is doing it for the same reason; that they don’t want to be exactly as they are? That’s it. I’m not doing any more affirmations.

Actually it seems I’m not the only one who finds this stuff irrelevant. According to Canadian research, discussed here on the BBC news website, if you have low self-esteem, repeating positive statements is bad for your happiness. I have to say that makes perfect sense to me – I cannot see how repeating things you don’t believe is supposed to help anyone.

I’ve wandered off my point, which was that I didn’t find anything particularly useful or new to me by interrogating the internet in search for some self belief. I felt that if I had some self belief already and was just wanting to polish it up a bit then some of the websites would be useful, but as I didn’t, they weren’t. I have had similar problems on my quest to learn relaxation and my quest to learn to cope with change.*

So I set my quest for self belief onto a back-burner. Weeks passed, as weeks do, and I thought about other things, blogged about other things. And slowly I came to this conclusion:

Self belief happens while you’re doing other things.  It doesn’t like to be fussed over or forced, you can’t buy the seeds and plant it, it but it will self-sow on its own. You won’t notice the first shoots, but once your mind is free enough of weeds, it will grow slowly in the spaces you have made for it. You don’t need the positive mantras but if you are (consciously or subconsciously) using any negative ones they’ll stunt it, so get rid of them and just wait for the seasons to pass. When you need your self belief some will be ready for harvest. If life means you have to take a lot at once it may take time to replenish, but as long as you give it space in your garden, it will quietly grow.

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*Of particular note was the Change-management workshop my employer sent me on. The afternoon session was being billed as techniques for coping with change, but it turned out there was actually only one technique offered: think of a time you coped well with change and repeat what you did then. What??! I’m on this course precisely because I don’t cope well with change and have never coped well, and don’t know how to cope well in the future! How is this supposed to help me?! Useless.

On tending a mental garden

The idea of the mind being like a garden is one I first remember encountering in a novel, in the following passage:

… being tired he lacked the energy to ‘weed the garden of his mind.’ This was the metaphor that Kang had been taught … Some thoughts were flowers; others were weeds; still others were vipers. Constant vigilance was needed to correctly identify each.*

Although I’m not particularly enamoured of this novel I have read it several times and each time found this concept interesting without particularly thinking about it or fully understanding it. I tend not to think when I’m reading – if I wanted to think I wouldn’t be reading in the first place, I’d be thinking. But recently I’ve been on the search for metaphors that will help me understand and describe the mental processes and changes I’ve been experiencing recently.

Many things have become easier for me of late. Progress in all things is simply less difficult because I am learning to reduce the time I spend standing squarely in my own way and defeating myself. Goals that once seemed unattainable are now realistic and certain things that were once stressful are now barely worthy of my attention. And now, as you may have read in recent posts, I find that new positive changes seem to happening of their own accord. This made me curious and I wanted to find a way to explain why that is happening. After some thought I realised that, lurking in the silty chaos that is “stuff I’ve read somewhere,” was the garden metaphor which is proving very useful in helping me understand what’s going on. So here’s the metaphor as it applies to me.

Firstly I want to say that the word ‘garden’ could be misleading to anyone who’s only ever known small tidy urban/suburban gardens. My mental garden is probably at least a couple of acres. Do not imagine manicured lawns, neat flower beds or tidy shrubs. Instead imagine what would happen to a rough, fertile piece of ground left entirely untended for approximately a quarter of a century. First the small weeds take root and spread; the fireweed and the rough grasses. Over time a single bramble becomes an impenetrable head high tangle and a stinging nettle sprout becomes a shifting sea of dark green fronds.

Of course I was still living in my mind during those 25 or so years. If I’d had some idea of how to weed out the unwanted thorns and intrusive invaders perhaps I would have done so, but what happened instead was that I walked around the bramble snarls and circumnavigated the tide of nettles, occasionally wondering why my strawberry bushes weren’t thriving like other people’s. Gradually the paths became narrower, the weeds around them higher, and it became harder and harder to avoid the thorns. There wasn’t any point trying to plant flowers, fruit or vegetables because I knew now they had no chance of growing.

It got to the point where something had to be done because my mind had become entirely uninhabitable. I called in professional advice. Of course landscape-gardeners on the NHS are not able to offer much, but they did supply me with an SSRI-type weedkiller called Sertraline. Like all weedkillers it was no substitute for having kept a clear garden in the first place, but it did make things more manageable. The toughest weeds were immune but it cleared some of the softer ones and gave me space to consider the ways to tackle the rest. It also gave me some stout overalls and thick leather gauntlets. I still didn’t know how to tackle the weeds but I had some of the tools I would need when I was ready.

Gradually I was able to begin recognising the different types of weed and the different approaches I needed to get rid of them. Some could be simply prevented from seeding and left to die, others could be pulled up by the roots and others would have to be dug out. Some had deep roots that I still can’t get to; others had suckers to other areas of the garden that made them difficult to handle. Still others I didn’t recognise as weeds because they were so familiar and needed other people to show me that they were undesirable.

As I made progress it became easier. I was so much more experienced with the weeds and the few attractive plants I was replacing them with. There was room to see what I was doing and to look at all sides of a large problem area before deciding how to tackle it. I was able to stop using the weedkiller and return to organic methods.

Five years on, I think I’ve reached a place where it looks like a garden and not a terrifying waste. I don’t have to hide it behind 12 foot concrete fences any more because it doesn’t hold the horrors it once did. I can look at other people’s garden and maybe even help them see the ragwort, the dandelions and the docks and offer advice on dealing with them. I can look at the good things in others’ gardens and see how I can grow them in my own. At last there is free, fertile soil for the offspring of the new thoughts I carefully planted. The first-generation flowers and fruit have hybridized, producing stronger strains that I couldn’t have predicted. There is room for them to grow and no hostile competition for the soil and light.

Weed seeds will still blow in and sometimes I’ll struggle with them, but I’m a gardener now; I’ll handle them.

* John Case, The first horseman (1998).

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