Brain Boxes

Ever wondered why it takes me half an hour to get your names right, even though you are my favourite people in the whole world?   Did you know that we keep all the names of our loved ones in one box in our brain?

Unfortunately, when you get to my age you lose the ability to search the box effectively and end up just pulling every name out until you get the right one.

It can be easy to put people in boxes (metaphorically-speaking obviously – physically doing so is actually quite hard, so don’t try it, you’ll put your back out). 

It’s even fairly natural to put people into these metaphorical boxes as it helps us to deal with them psychologically.

Though it is natural to categorise people, and can even be useful, there is an obvious down-side; the problem with putting people in boxes is that they don’t all belong in there. 

Also, in reality there is no such thing as a “type of person”.  I mean seriously, humans are so complex that even a Venn-diagram couldn’t accurately categorise a single Space Cowboy without looking like someone had gone mad with a Spirograph.

One of the reasons that you rarely get people in boxes together in real life is because we really are all so very different and unique (…and tricky to get into boxes, as I pointed out earlier).

Even worse, it seems that recently many people are inclined to do more than put people into boxes in their heads, they put them into bins.  Which is a thing I would strongly recommend you should NEVER do.

The world is currently full of groups that have designated themselves and others as US and THEM, some are political, some religious, some fandoms, some gendered, some racial.  Being alive is not a team sport so this should NOT be happening.

One thing most people can agree on is that the world is a big crazy mess at the moment, but I promise you, the way forward is not to pick teams, it’s to try to understand each other. 

I’m not saying people aren’t stupid; I’m saying calling them stupid won’t educate them.  If you want to change stupid, you need to have a conversation where you truly listen, recognise the stupid on your own side (because there WILL be some) and then try and move forward together.

If you look at history there is only one result of declaring a set of people as THEM, and it’s not a good one.  Before I go on, I need to also clarify that I’m not just talking about one benevolent group of people mis-labelled as THEM, I’m talking about ANYONE labelled as THEM.

Here’s the important bit, that giant box (or bin) of THEM only exists in someone’s head, nowhere else.  I’m not saying there aren’t people out there who might be at home in that box but I am saying that the numbers are wrong, because nowhere is there genuinely a large box of THEM. 

As much as it might pain us to realise this, humans are simply one large, messed up, argumentative, crazy crate of US.

The Greatest Love of All

“Be your own best friend” is great advice, but it does beg the question how would you get along with your best mate if you were to spend every single minute, of every single day with them?  No toilet breaks.  Every.  Waking.  Second.  With.  Them.

Spending an entire lifetime with anyone, from the minute you are born to the very last breath you take is never going to be a bump-free journey, there will be fights along the way, but if you make that person a firm friend it will go a lot smoother.

It is after all a unique situation; you are the only person that you have to spend your WHOLE life with.  Everyone else can ultimately be escaped from, even those that require a Sleeping-With-The-Enemy-style fake-your-own-death level of effort (but let’s not talk about Grandad again this week).

Fair’s fair, everybody already knows they SHOULD “love themselves”, SHOULD feel they’re “worth it” and SHOULD “be their own best friend” which can make you feel even more of a failure during those times when you find yourself difficult to be around.  With that in mind my aim here is to impart as many helpful tips as I can.

You might wonder what qualifies me to give this advice, and the simple answer is absolutely nothing, but equally there is NOTHING stopping me either. 

I don’t know if it just comes naturally to me, or if I watched too many episodes of the A-Team as a child, but I’m so supportive of myself that I would more accurately be described as “my own best-enabler”.

This is how most people’s inner critic sounds if they eat a biscuit when they should be on a diet:-

Whereas I’m more like:-

First tip, be gentle with yourself, start out slow by looking out for opportunities to either compliment or support yourself with kindness. 

If you wouldn’t say it to a friend, don’t say it to yourself.  Easy right?  Wrong.   It is actually easier to be critical than it is to be constructive so you’re going to have to put some effort in.  Look at the judges on any reality TV show, who looks like they’re working hardest Simon Cowell or Alesha Dixon?

Sometimes an easier way to deal with internal criticism is to think of it the other way around – what would you do if your best friend had just said that to you? 

I’ll level with you, I used to have a vicious inner critic but I didn’t like her so I stopped listening to her, not by ignoring what she said but by internally screaming “SHUT UP!” before she got her first word out.  It took a while but that b**ch backed the hell down eventually.

Remember that ALL human beings are both fabulous AND flawed, those are not separate groups.  Stop being so hard on yourself, and start defending yourself instead.

You will spend your entire life with YOU, right from the very start to the very end.  The only respite you will get from yourself is sleep, and during your twenties some bouts of alcohol-induced unconsciousness, so my advice is to make good friends with yourself early on if you can, but if you didn’t, it is NEVER too late to start.

Show More Than You Tell

There is a well-known writing mantra “show don’t tell” that applies equally well in life.  What you show people with your actions informs them about you far more than what you tell them about yourself.

Now just to be clear I’m not advocating for less talking, anyone who has met me knows that I will pretty much narrate my entire day to anyone who’ll listen, but what I am saying is people need to SEE who you are, as well as hear it.

Most people who care about each other, friends and relatives alike, show their respect for one another by consulting each other on matters than concern them both. 

It’s not always straightforward, admittedly. 

When arranging to meet up most people stipulate a few available dates.  Naturally, the other person won’t be able to make any of those dates, so they’ll then suggest some alternatives.  You then both get out your diaries and 4 short hours later you’ll have arranged to meet 2 months on Wednesday!

That’s how most people do things.  It is of course not how Grandad El Paso does things.  He likes to start with an angry answer-phone message to suggest he’s not at fault.

Then he makes an offer you can’t refuse, but still might not receive.

Am I being unfair?  I mean, sometimes he rings for a chat …when he’s stuck in traffic.  Also, if he’s stuck on a train, or- no, it’s pretty much only when he’s stuck en-route somewhere.  Nothing says “I love you” like “I had some time on my hands so I might as well”.

Still, when he does eventually turn up for a visit, every three months or so, it is of course the quality of the time we spend together that counts.  When he walks through that door, looks me in the eye, waves his phone at me and says:-

I choose to believe that him doing his phone admin the second he walks through my door is just his way of letting me know he cares, because clearly he’s really inconvenienced himself to come and visit us.

Whilst I maintain that the dog is definitely Grandma’s favourite child, she does tell us and show us she cares, in a variety of ways.  She voluntarily babysits (ha-ha fool!) and she brings us regular food parcels of fruit …although that could just be a comment on our eating habits? 

Also she tells me I don’t open my windows often enough – which tells me that she cares enough to look over and check up on us.  To maintain this beautiful ritual, and to let her know I care, I only open the ones she can’t see from her house.

So, if you want people to know who you really are, or you want them to know how much you care, don’t just tell them, SHOW them.

Relax, Do It

Frankie Goes to Hollywood was wrong when they sang “Relax, don’t do it”, you absolutely should do it (not the thing Frankie was talking about – bad analogy really) I’m talking about the relaxing. 

Life is full of relentless demands over which we have no control: work deadlines, house cleaning, form filling, insurance arranging, meal making, nose-blowing, lawn-mowing and list-making.  If you don’t take a break from those, and find some time for yourself, the minutiae of life can over-run you and bring you down.

“Me Time” sounds like something that involves incense and candles, and maybe some gentle-yet-potentially-crippling stretching; it can, but it can alternatively involve reading a book, watching a film, taking a walk or playing a computer game.  It is anything you do that is just for you.

I heard your giant gasp from the future and yes, I did just say you should play computer games, SOMETIMES. 

In a world where we are encouraged to work “smarter” to fit more in, to “clean whilst you lean” and generally “do more with less” we are missing out on essential downtime to rejuvenate ourselves.

In the olden days, before technology filled our every waking hour by making us infinitely contactable and in touch with the world, people used to have a little thing called “thinking time”. 

Have you ever concentrated on a problem so hard you got a head-ache but not much else?  Then you give up and do something else and the solution appears as if by magic?  Well, it’s not magic it’s a direct result of you taking a break.

I agree that occasionally pressure can be a great motivator; sure, without it I’d never get any exercise.

But to get the best out of ourselves we also need a little bit of downtime to balance things out and allow our brains to recover.

Find some time for yourself, each day if you can, each week if you can’t, and stop berating yourself for times when you feel like you’ve “done nothing”.  Human beings are amazing creatures who are always doing something, even when they appear to be doing little.

Make sure that some of the time that thing you are doing is resting, re-charging your batteries, processing problems sub-consciously and, most importantly, enjoying being alive.

Be Afraid – But Not Very Afraid

It’s Halloween weekend so now seems as good a time as any to discuss fear. 

First of all, the natural wariness we have as humans is actually a helpful built-in safety feature.  If a toddler’s fearless attitude and regular A&E trips prove nothing else, without fear there would be a lot more injury and death in the world.

We need a little bit of fear to make sure we correctly judge a situation for safety.  Also, in small amounts it can even be fun, like a rollercoaster ride or a scary movie.

It can be fun to gently frighten others…

…And be frightened by them.

Being scared can be a good thing; if I’d have stuck to my own comfort-zone I would never have watched the brilliant Haunting of Hill House recently (which I thoroughly recommend  …as long as you’re not alone at the time obviously, and maybe put ALL the lights on after).

One thing that I’m less keen on is when your Dad insists we watch a scary film and then 3 seconds into it he falls fast asleep and leaves me watching it effectively alone.

The problem with wariness is that it can sometimes tip over into a more unhealthy restrictive fear, as any parent of a 7 year-old who won’t go to the toilet alone in case “Metal Sonic” gets him will tell you.

It’s not just children, sometimes grown-ups are afraid of silly stuff that isn’t perhaps as frightening as they immediately think it is.  Failure for example, a lot of grown-ups are unduly afraid of this, myself included.

Failure isn’t a barrel of laughs admittedly but outside of a health and safety setting it’s never actually killed anyone.  The great thing about failure is that it’s only a temporary state, and often it’s actually one of the necessary steps on the road to success.

As Nelson Mandela famously said

Full disclosure, if you previously read my post entitled Wildly Cautious you will already know that I am in fact a massive wuss and scared of lots of things and a big fan of the phrase “just because I’m paranoid, doesn’t mean I’m not being followed.”

All the same, my Halloween message to you is: it’s good to let fear of death stop you doing something stupid, but don’t let fear of failure stop you doing something you love.

 

Marriage

Ok, so there is still time for a late divorce, but your Dad and I have been together for 27 years this December.  No, no applause please – after this length of time Stockholm Syndrome would have set in sooner or later anyway.

Following the recent royal wedding now seems like a good time (from a marketing perspective at least) to impart some tips for a successful (or at any rate, lengthy) marriage, so here goes nothing. 

Firstly, never take each other for granted.  Life as a couple involves a certain amount of shared work and admin; renewing the car insurance, mowing the lawn, pretending to like each other’s friends.  Remember to thank the other person for all that they do.

Secondly, there’s an old saying “compromise means neither side getting what they want” and there is nowhere that applies more than marriage.  However when any two people live together, whether they be room-mates or the love of each other’s lives, compromise has to be involved, otherwise you end up with a relationship like Grandad’s.

Constant compromise doesn’t work either, you can’t go through life painting everything magnolia because you can’t agree on a colour – although we do paint every thing magnolia but that’s because we both like magnolia, and anyway it’s called Antique Cream so shut up.

To avoid the resentment that can build up from day-to-day compromises, make sure you both regularly get your own way over something.  Even if that’s just by eating a whole Toblerone to yourself, whatever floats your boat.

Thirdly, communicate, don’t point score.  You are team mates, not opponents.  Discuss everything, listen, find out details and talk towards resolution of any disputes.  If you find your discussions contain phrases like “Yes, in your face!” or “told you so” then you’re off track. 

If your discussions contain gossip, and irrelevant tangents, it’s probably a good sign that you are friends first, right?  Right?!  Friends with ADHD yeah, but still friends. 

For more detail on communicating see my earlier post Tell Them.

Lastly, and most importantly, ignore everything I just said because there is no magic formula to relationships.  Perfect people don’t exist, it’s how they fit together that counts. 

ALL people will drive each other crazy sometimes, and in their own unique, special, individually awful ways.  You know you’ve found the right one when you realise you can both put up with all that crap, in exchange for keeping the other one around.

 

Other People’s Thoughts?

Should you care what other people think about you?  I mean, have you met other people?!   

Let me tell you a little something about other people.  Other people like that TV show you think is stupid.  They like that popular book that you think is dull.  Other people think specifically is pronounced “pacifically”. 

Ok, yes, SOME other people, but if you extrapolate those results to include all the other nonsense in the world that you disagree with, like say fruit teas, I still think it’s safe to say that other people’s opinions, en masse, are no useful measure of anything.

Ok, so we’ve established that you SHOULDN’T care what other people think about you, but to be honest you already knew that didn’t you?  No one is sat around wishing that they cared more about what other people think.

Nobody likes the idea that someone else might think badly of them; it’s not a fun feeling.  As humans we are hard-wired to care what other people think, it’s a survival tool left over from times where you could be murdered on a whim.

Everyone cares at least a little about what other people think, but it is still better for your mental health if you can learn to care a little less. What you’re aiming for is to take the caring well below the red line of obsession, whilst still keeping it well above the blue line of psychopathy.

There are two things that have helped me to stop caring what other people think about me quite so much, and I’ll share those with you here.

Firstly, the realisation that other people seldom think about you, and when they do, it is short-lived.  I can promise you other people spend most of their awake-time thinking about their own lives, not yours. 

Secondly, people who really know you won’t judge you unfairly, and people who don’t know you, aren’t in a position to judge you.

It really is mind over matter, or as Dr Seuss so brilliantly put it:

I once had a “friend” who told unpleasant lies about me, in whispers, to our social group.  When I found out I was devastated and embarrassed initially, until I realised that anyone who really knew me had known immediately that the lies were untrue as they found me and told me so.   

This one incident in my life, which seemed so small and petty at the time, completely freed me from caring about what other people think.  It really hammered home the point for me because a couple of people did believe the lies and I discovered for myself that I honestly didn’t care, because I realised that they didn’t know me at all.

It is SO much fun to be yourself, don’t let people who don’t matter take that away from you.  Please resolve today to not let what other people MIGHT think stop you from being you. Instead, do what you choose, say what you feel and be YOU.

Brave People

Personally, I’m not that brave, I’m really more of a filter-less complainer.  If I have something wrong with me EVERYONE gets to hear about it.

I do know a few brave people though and they really are wonderful.  In fact there is only one thing they are bad at and that is asking for help when they need it.

Some people choose careers where they need bravery every day.  Those people amaze me and I’m so thankful they exist, because I am NOT that guy.

Even so, people in careers where bravery is compulsory, still sometimes end up witnessing something that they can’t un-see or un-hear and therefore struggle with.  Being in office-work myself this is less likely to happen to me, unless gross crimes of personal hygiene count.

What I’m trying to say is, sometimes bravery is a reaction to bad stuff that happens to you, stuff you can’t control.  I have friends who are in pain every day, sometimes physical, sometimes mental, sometimes both and their bravery amazes me.

The only thing that amazes me more is how they beat themselves up for not being brave enough sometimes, or being the “wrong kind of brave”.  For the record there is no wrong kind, there is only dealing with what has happened in the best way you can, by any definition that is bravery.

If you ever have to be brave about something, please know that being brave doesn’t look like Bruce Willis in Die Hard (although that is a great look).  Real-life bravery can sometimes involve a wider range of emotion (no offence to Bruce).

I know that brave people often don’t expect, or ask for, help but that doesn’t mean they don’t sometimes NEED help.  Where possible don’t be brave on your own.  Let people who care about you know that you are struggling – they won’t always be able to do anything about the problem but at least they’ll be by your side.

Where’s E.T.?

Grandad almost always buys you fabulous gifts, partly because he loves you, and partly because he wants to OWN your happiness (for further details on his behaviour with gifts please see my previous post “How to Respond to Gifts“).

Despite all this, occasionally Grandad gets it very wrong.  This is usually because the bargain-hunter part of his brain has wrestled the controls from the mafia-boss.

Recently, knowing your love of Sci-Fi, Grandad bought a second-hand, multi-stained, homemade, E.T. toy for you from his local car-boot sale – I can only assume located somewhere in the ninth circle of hell. 

I know what you’re thinking; what child wouldn’t want a misshapen corduroy alien smeared with mysterious brown stains, smelling of mould?  

As Grandad attempted to hand you this sack of botulism, I physically stepped between you looking so horrified that even he realised the gift wasn’t entirely appropriate.

I didn’t actually say this last bit out loud (unless saying it with my face counts?)

Gratitude

You’re right, the above does sound a bit ungrateful as Grandad’s intentions were good (if you ignore the part where he wants to own your happiness anyway). 

When someone gives you a gift that’s not something you really need or want, you should thank the giver politely.  When someone gives you a gift from a car-boot sale that smells, drips, and is covered in miscellaneous stains, it’s ok not to look too impressed.

Please note, in both situations, ALWAYS wait until they leave to burn the gift.

Tell Them

“To communicate effectively, first you need to listen.”  Yeahhhh…   I mean, sure listening is important, but only if one of you is already speaking.  It seems to me that maybe listening should logically be the second thing; first SOMEONE needs to speak.

Of course I’m mostly being deliberately obtuse, I know the point being made, is you need to know how the other person feels, to know how best to communicate with them.  True, but my point still stands; someone has to start that off.

Forever Hold It

I know a couple who moan ABOUT each other constantly but never actually say a word TO the other.  

Whilst they are both silent, they are silent in very different ways. 

If you are mad at someone for something, you have to TELL THEM.  If you don’t tell them, then you have to accept that they might not know what you’re mad at them for.

I blame old films and television; they are full of role models for high-maintenance women, and stoic, taciturn men.

Psychic Powers

There is no good time to expect someone else to be psychic.  If we have learned nothing else from TV psychics, psychic powers can’t be utilised at will (also, that an 18-month waiting list to get on a show will improve them no end…)

But How Do I Know If I’ve Already Told Them?

  • Simply thinking about what makes you mad every day is not the same as having told them. 
  • Mentioning in passing that you don’t like the thing that annoys you, without specifying that they do it, isn’t telling them.
  • Telling everyone else you know except them, isn’t telling them.

Life can be busy and frantic, and memories are not always what they should be.  If you are not sure whether you have told someone why you’re mad at them, give them the benefit of the doubt, tell them again.

P.s.  If they’re under 18. You probably did tell them already.  Several times…

P.p.s.  If you’re thinking of telling someone that they drive you crazy in some way today, maybe also think about communicating all the reasons that you love them too – a spoonful of sugar and all that.