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.

Happy New Year

It seems somewhat obligatory to do some kind of self-assessment at this time of year. Mine was influenced by this website, but I didn’t follow all the steps or do it “properly.” As is normal for me, I evaluated it and used it to inform my own interpretation of the process, paring the product of the process down to the essentials.


1 New Year’s Resolution (Apply to all years of life):

Learn from previous years of life and act on what has been learnt, with the goal of making this year happier and healthier than it would be otherwise.

I am aware that this falls down when measured against S.M.A.R.T. goal setting. It is not Specific or Measureable. On the other hand it is Achievable, Relevant and Time-limited, and I think A and R are the most important parts, so I will not be adjusting it to make it SMARTer.

So what have I learnt, in my 34.5 years so far?  Whoops, that question was far too broad. Let’s try again.

What have I learnt so far that is relevant to the goal of being happier and healthier? I think the most valuable relevant lesson is that my brain and my body have an unwritten user manual that is very different from “Everyman’s” manual. And not only because I am not a man!

I have learnt many different things that help me understand my secret user manual. There are chapters labelled Introvert, Menstruating Female, Detail Focus, Complex Feeding Requirements and Sleeping. There are other chapters where I’m starting to see the text, but don’t have a handy heading to put on it yet. The lesson here is that instead of quoting Everyman’s manual, and stating for example that as I put 8 hours sleep in I have achieved the requisite number, I need to look at my own manual and read the cross-references and scribbled notes in the margin to see that my sleep need will change based on physical exertion, mental state, menstrual cycle, etc., etc., etc. I also have to accept that the manual will change as I go through life. I don’t have all the answers, but thinking about my user manual being unique to me is a very powerful tool that I can use to my advantage. Once I understand that my needs are different from other people’s I can act on them, communicate them and advocate for myself to ensure life is a little healthier and a little happier for me.

The biggest new chapter I revealed this year is to do with sensory sensitivities. I discovered that there is a new shop in town with florescent lighting that makes me feel physically sick because it is so bright and harsh. I feel like I will throw up if I stay in that shop for even the shortest amount of time. Seeing other people able to happily shop in it helped me to see that this is an area where my manual differs from theirs, and so to ask where else in the sensory ranges I differ from them? Thinking about sounds encouraged me to try some Active Noise Cancelling headphones, which are fantastic for cutting low frequency background noise. I am now wearing them around the house (sadly they would not be considered office-appropriate) and my down-time is so much more positive for it.

So I head into this new year armed with a single resolution – to make good use of my imaginary secret user manual and other things I have learned to make 2016 happier and healthier than it would otherwise be.




On insides

“Everyone’s the same on the inside.” That’s what we’re supposed to think isn’t it? That’s the PC view, that everyone, regardless of skin colour, disabilities, intellect, weight, class, age, health or belief is the same inside. It’s even quite easy to understand in a self-centered way, because it boils down to “Everyone is like me.”

But that’s what a child thinks. Children start off thinking, “Everyone is like me. Everyone likes what I like and hates what I hate. Everyone thinks like me and feels like me.” I can’t remember where I read it, but I once read that if you hang a seven-year old upside down in a cupboard everyday that he’ll assume that’s normal and that’s what happens to everyone else. Once a child grows beyond that stage though, they’ll start to see that everyone’s lives are not the same and subsequently that everyone’s thoughts, choices and feelings are not the same. As adults we are much more conscious of our differences, which is why the “everyone’s the same” message is pushed.

So in a world where we’re supposed to pretend everyone’s the same, it’s easy to put unrealistic expectations on ourselves. If we’re pretending to ourselves that we’re the same as an olympian/millionaire/model then it follows to think that we should be able to compete with them.* Thatcher’s (in)famous ability to survive on all but no sleep surely means I don’t really need 8 hours? A friend’s ability to work two jobs and still go out and party must mean this tiredness I feel on one job isn’t really valid. That girl in the yoga class can bend into all of those crazy shapes without trying, so I just need to practice harder to get there.

No. This is just a way of making ourselves miserable. Everyone is different, inside and out. You are not me. Maybe sometimes we have a lot in common, but we still have a lot of differences. Perhaps it’s scary to see that we are alone in ourselves, that the things that hurt me don’t hurt you, but it’s better to see that than to hurt ourselves with needless comparisons.

One of the triggers for me to write this post came from the website http://www.paulgrilley.com/category/2.html which has fascinating pictures of human bones. As I understand it, these pictures are designed to show yoga teachers what a wide natural variation there is between different people’s bones. Some of the pictures have captions such as “The bend at the neck of the femur of these two specimens vary by 40 degrees. This could mean 40 degrees wider splits.” It’s easy to imagine that, even though some of us are taller or bigger than others, our skeletons would be pretty much the same, but the variation in these pictures shows how much difference there is in our bones and so in the ways it is possible for us to move. I can’t get my body to do what an olympian’s does, but maybe that’s because my skeleton just isn’t capable of that. We’ve all got to work with what we’re given and accept that our differences are valid restrictions on what we can reasonably expect from ourselves. Managers speak of “managing expectation” as a way to prevent your customers being unhappy when you can’t give them the moon. On the one hand it’s corporate manipulation, but the other it’s a wise example to follow. When your expectations of yourself are unreasonable you can’t help but be disappointed.

So my bones might be really different from yours, and that’s something people need websites to show them. How much more different from yours might my brain be? We’ve been looking at bones since we were cave men, and it’s pretty easy to see how they fit together, but the workings of the brain? That’s not so easily understood, and a photo doesn’t convey much of use. But an understanding of the fact that our own brains might not be quite like everyone elses seems to me to be a useful weapon in the hunt for happiness. Before I can work out what makes me happy I’ve got to accept it might be different from what makes you happy. I’ve got to understand that what you thrive on could make me unhappy, and learn the way my brain and body work instead of worrying that they don’t work the same as yours and trying to “keep up with the Joneses.”

*Note to my readers who are interested in advice on weeding the mental garden: Here the weeds are “pretending to yourself” and “should.” I’d also be wary of “compete” which while not always a weed, can spread undesirably and be hard to control. Identify the weeds – and then don’t permit yourself to think that way. If you catch yourself thinking in weed ways, correct it. Of course, this is advice that works for my brain, so it might be different for yours!

With thanks to http://braithanlithe.wordpress.com/2012/10/04/a-bit-of-anatomical-wisdom-to-temper-my-courage/ for pointing me to the pictures and contributing to my theme.

Image courtesy of Master Isolated Images / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Not enough stress to go around

A friend pointed out to me yesterday that sometimes it’s a good thing to have more than one thing on your mind because you only have one “pot of stress” and you dole it out to all the things that are stressing you at the time. If you’re only stressed about one thing you can assign 100% of your possible stress levels to that one thing which makes it much harder to keep your life in balance than if you have 3 stressful things weighed at 33.3% each or, even better, weighted for natural prioritization at 50%, 30% and 20%.

I find this a very interesting way of looking at the matter, and therefore an enriching experience. Perhaps thinking of stress this way will help me not to assign the whole pot of stress for something that may not be as critical as my first instinct suggests.

Of course the big problem with stress is when I’ve already assigned my whole pot-full  and then something else comes along that definitely needs to be assigned some of my stress-allowance. I could describe my past reactions to that situation in terms of suddenly realising my percentages add up to more than 100%, in which case they aren’t percentages, which does not compute, therefore brain crash ensues and I cannot function. Perhaps in the future if I think about reassigning some of the stress I can keep all the percentages adding up as they should rather than suddenly falling apart because there isn’t enough stress to go around and I don’t know how to carry on with the new stress as well as the old ones.

So in the future I will be carrying around my little pot of stress. Hopefully most of it will stay inside the pot most of the time, but when it is assigned to things I will remember that there is only a finite amount of stress in the pot and the laws of mathematics insist that I have no more than 100% to use.


  Image: Michal Marcol / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

On the benefits of failure

Failure is a rather unpopular concept and many people feel that failure has little to offer them. I would like to offer few thoughts on why you should get failure working for you.

The main benefit of adopting failure is that it provides you with an alternative to success. The importance of success is stuffed down our throats from a very early age – from before we learn to talk or walk. Throughout our childhood and education, success is held before us as the only possible objective. Don’t even get me started on success in the jobs market and in the workplace!

But you can break free from this endless treadmill of succeeding, simply by choosing to fail. Decide that a thing is too difficult for you and you are immediately freed from the need to try, so you can expend the saved energy on being happy with the rest of your life. Personal failure levels vary from person to person, so you probably need to experiment a bit to find the optimum level of failure.

Once you have given yourself permission to fail you should experience a new freedom in your life. You can learn to say “I can’t do that”, which will free you from a great variety of unpleasant obligations. You can begin new endeavours secure in the knowledge that you can discard them as soon as they lose their initial attraction. You can have adventures knowing that the safety net of failure will be there for you.

Often, however, it is the case that permitting yourself to fail will actually make you succeed. I make no apologies for this side-effect. It’s an idea explored in The Inner Game of Music by W. Timothy Gallwey and Barry Green and probably in Gallwey’s other Inner Game books (which I haven’t read). I think the logic behind it is that your fear of failure is often the only thing keeping you from succeeding and so if you remove the fear you stop getting in your own way.

The only place failure is championed is in the gym. Not down at the girly end by the mats and swiss balls, but in the sweaty region around the free weights (no, that’s not a euphemism). Only in weight training is working to failure considered a success (this is also why you should always have a spotter when working with any serious weights).

Owing to time constraints and distractions I’ll have to finish this post here, un-concluded, but I do not see this failure to complete as a bad thing – it frees me to do something else and you to draw your own conclusions on the place of failure in your life.