A scale of “My nail catches on things” to “Tsunami!”

I’m not very good at keeping things in perspective. I have no trouble believing that for the want of a nail, a kingdom was lost. Although with me it’s usually more feeling along the lines that for the want of a clear policy on a very tiny issue, a university will be lost.

Many people have said to me, “It’s not life or death” when I’m taking a small issue far too seriously, or they have suggested I need to step back to look at the bigger picture, but it wasn’t until this morning that I read the advice to “rank where this issue is on a scale of 1 to 10 before reacting.”

I’ve been aware for some time that I catastrophize, so my instinctive feel is that most things I get upset about I would probably consider to be at the upper end of the scale, even if others disagreed. But there’s no point having a scale without measurements upon it – a ruler without markings is just a stick – so I started designing my own personal “disaster” measuring tape. First I defined number 1 with the irritating but inescapably minor issue of a fingernail with a little tear that catches on things, and number 10 as a tsunami. As we live about 125 miles from a beach, any tsunami that reaches us is going to be a 10 by anyone’s personal disaster scale. Then I just started slotting stuff in along the scale, starting with the scary end. And I realised that unless you need at least 1 member of an emergency service to deal with it, NOTHING ranks above a 7. So next time we have a systems issue at work and my reaction goes to an 8, my reaction is wrong!

Pretty much every work issue that sends my stress sky rocketing on a regular basis actually belongs in zones 2-4 (and remember that number 1 is reserved for total non-issues).

I created my disaster ruler at about 11.00 today. By 1.00 I had sucessfully used it to adjust my stress level about 3 times. I can’t believe how good it is. It goes like this:

Oh no, there’s a problem with the phone that belongs to the other team we share an office with! Panic now! Everything is broken!

No, wait. Is it a tsunami? No. Do we need emergency services? No. Is it interfering with the function of the team I work in? No. Oh look, it fits in category 2 and classes as a “minor inconvenience to a few members of staff.” So why would I worry about that? How lovely it is that the worst thing that’s happened this morning is only a 2 on the scale!

Hopefully I’ll internalise the ruler at some point, and recalibrate my reactions, but in the meantime I’ll be checking anything that arises on my scale of “catching finger nail” to “tsunami” and finding that most things sit nearer to fingernails than to tsunamis.

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Crying & strength

“Crying doesn’t indicate that you’re weak, it just means that you’ve been strong for too long.”

I think this quote may have been doing the rounds of the internet for a while, but I’ve only just seen it. I don’t know where it came from originally, or I’d credit the author. I saw it here.

It totally knocked me for six.

A lot of the crying I’ve done in my life has been due to depression. So when I read this I see the surface meaning and I also see “Depression doesn’t indicate that you’re weak, it just means that you’ve been strong for too long” and that is true, true, true.

About a decade ago I read Tim Cantopher’s book Depressive illness : the curse of the strong which I thoroughly recommend. If I remember correctly, he wrote that people with depression tend to have been struggling on with massive pressures (be they internal or external) while beating themselves up about not managing better. That strong people are much more likely to get depressed because weaker characters throw up their hands and give up struggling long before their mental health suffers. That it’s not healthy to be so strong it eventually breaks you! That you need to literally give yourself a break and rest rather than battle on.

This was definitely the case for me.

—-

Earlier on today a colleague (previously observed to  have an unhelpful view of mental health issues) was telling me that in former communist countries depression is so rare as to be almost unheard of. Hmm. I thought to myself. Just because a thing’s not public doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Not wishing to be drawn into debate I let that slide. She then proceeded, telling me that if you say you have depression* in countries such as those, there is little or no help from the medical profession unlike in the UK. This I could find a little more believable (although I don’t know if it’s true or not). She concluded from this that people in those countries just have to get on with it.

“Or die,” I said, flippantly, but meaning it.

At my lowest point, had I lived in a situation with no medical support, no support from my employer, with a family & friends who denied the existence of mental heath issues, I would probably have been told to pull myself together. And I would probably have managed pulling myself together just enough to kill myself. And so I wouldn’t be here to disagree with my colleague. I wouldn’t be doing anything. I’d have taken the only way I could see of getting a rest, which would have been to Rest In Peace.

—-

So these days, I don’t stay so strong. I rest after little stresses, little strains. I cry sooner rather than later. But this quote about crying is one that I think the world should see. And they should see my version too.

“Depression doesn’t indicate that you’re weak, it just means that you’ve been strong for too long.”

………….

* Clearly she thinks it is a thing you say you have, rather than a thing you actually have.

On mental flexibility

Having done plenty of gymnastics in my childhood, I have always been more than averagely flexible. There was a time when I was about 10 when I was flexible enough to frustrate other gymnasts, which was a matter of some pride for me. These days, having spent my entire working life wearing at least 2.5 inches of heel (apart from a brief spell in steel toe-caps) my ham-strings are no more than averagely flexible. The rest of me is still more bendy than most people, but only a little more flexible than your average regular easy-yoga class attendee.

Because of this background of flexibility I am used to thinking of myself as a very flexible person. But this is wildly inaccurate. My mental inflexibility is such that I can more truthfully be described as an inflexible person.

It is because of this inflexibility that, by the time we get married, we will have had a 2.6 year engagement. Although we might justify this to the casual passerby as being for financial reasons, the main reason for me was that I needed time to understand the idea and adjust to it. Despite being as happy as a girl should be to have her husband-to-be propose, the idea was too far for me to quickly bend my mind to so we planned time for me to adjust before the wedding. Now, with less than 6 months to go, I am ready for the final stages of wedding planning and the beginning of marriage because I have had time to adjust my thoughts towards the new, shared, long-term goals.

My mental inflexibility also explains why I do not like surprises. A surprise birthday party, of the kind television characters seem to be presented with on a  regular basis, would be an absolute horror for me because I would have no mental warm-up stretches done and consequently would likely do myself an injury attempting the mental contortion of getting myself into party mode.

I become even more intransigent than normal when I’m under pressure or tired. I get tunnel vision both literally and figuratively and if not carefully handled will oppose any suggestion that would prevent me continuing with the task in hand until it is complete, however unreasonable that is. Anything else is outside the rail-tracks my mind is running on and I cannot turn the train aside without a mental derailing or the above mentioned careful handling by a points-controller and a signal-man. With luck I will come to a controlled stop in an abandoned siding.

So I think what I need is a beginners’ mental yoga class to improve my mental flexibility. One that will begin with an easy, non-challenging mental warm-up, progress through a few more difficult thought-poses and conclude with a nice relaxation exercise. Unfortunately my gym does not seem to offer this class.

I am not sure what beginners’ mental yoga would be like, but Lewis Carrol certainly knew about the advanced levels:

“Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Alice in Wonderland.

So if that’s what I’m working towards I think I need to start out by believing slightly improbable things, and, eventually practicing for 30 min. per day, work up to believing the impossible. Unfortunately, I’m struggling to think of anything slightly improbable that I can believe in.

Hmmm. I think I need to find the instructor who tutored the White Queen and get some tips!

Image: Stefano Valle / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

On wrongness

I cannot handle people who claim black is white for the sake of an argument. Even if I know that they are just doing it to wind me up I cannot stop myself. Black is not white. (White may be the new black, but that’s an entirely separate conversation.)

Black is not white, 2+2 is not 3 and an orange is not an apple. How can you even say that it is? You know it is wrong and yet you’re still saying it! You know I know it’s wrong, I know you know I know it’s wrong, everybody else knows it’s wrong, so why, why, why would you say it?

As you may see, I don’t deal well with this kind of wrongness.

I’m not great at keeping my mouth shut about anything that someone has/says/does wrong but I do respect that everyone has a right to get things wrong by accident, mistake or having been mis-informed. You have a right to be wrong, as long as you’re not doing it on purpose to wind me up 🙂 And I’m working on being more tactful around accidental wrongness, despite my almost overwhelming instinct to leap in and correct it before anyone’s had a chance to draw breath.

I do wonder why I am so affected by this. Why can’t I just let it pass? It might be more understandable in some ways if I had this strong sense of outrage at moral and ethical wrongs, not these provable, simple, science-logic-and-maths kind of wrongs. Perhaps though it is because they are so simple that they elicit such a strong response. The difference between a right and a wrong answer to simple questions is something we learn very early in life. Not all children learn their colours at the same age but most adults have known the difference between black and white for most of their lives – knowledge like that, gathered early in life, helps us make sense of the world as we grow up in it. Learning simple truths like the difference between colours and words helps give us some rules to build on so that we can begin to make sense of the chaotic world we are born into and understand how to function in it. If you challenge those rules, which are the foundations of the understanding of the world I have today, perhaps I am reacting strongly because you are chipping at the underlying structure of my understanding of the world. Therefore if you persist in telling me black is white, I may forget how to understand the world, forget how to function in society and, as an unfortunate side effect, forget that it’s impolite to defend myself from your attack by punching you in the nose. Oops!