The news in 2016 was… Big. Once in particular it had me shaky with anger and close to tears. Twice, it deprived me of sleep while I stared in silence at the poll results. And twice more, it burned into my brain a picture worth a thousand desperate words. It made me feel totally inadequate, powerless to help, and guilty for not somehow helping more.
I’m not going to write about the news here, but like everyone else who holds their hands up to ‘first world problems’, I kind of feel it’s necessary to preface a little bit of self-reflection with some OFFICIAL statement along the lines of being lucky to worry about our trivial things when we know what’s happening ‘in the bigger picture’.
And on this, I borrow the sentiment from the twenty-somethings’ guide to the quarter life crisis, One Day, and I mash it up with the best line from the teenagers’ guide to love and heartbreak, The Fault In Our Stars, and I say this: some big pictures are bigger than other big pictures. You’re allowed to care about both.
Here are the things I learned in my smaller big picture this year:
1. It helps to say your (actual) fears out loud
In fact, I’ve always been an advocate of this; a problem shared is a problem halved and all that. But while we’ll talk for hours about the ‘normal’ things that might get to us – like our jobs, our loved ones, our futures, our finances – we too easily keep the scarier things to ourselves, to tackle alone and late at night (Fear’s favourite conditions, are they not).
I’m happily quite open about my experience with anxiety which, at its worst, took the form of panic attacks on a weekly basis. I think it’s important that we are honest about it. But still, this year was the first time I said exactly what was going through my mind when an attack was building and taking over. This won’t surprise you if you’ve ever had one, or supported someone else in the midst of a panic attack – it’s the overwhelming feeling that you are absolutely going to drop dead at any second. An entirely rational fear if you ask me, a thought that would make anyone sweat – it’s just the logic that’s a bit skew-whiff…
Saying it out loud and breaking it down showed me where and why the logic had gotten lost and how the fear had taken over. It demystified it – I could finally see it for what it was. This was the first and most important rung on a upward climb to where I am now: panic attack-free for seven whole months. That’s A Very Big Deal.
So why share this again now? Because I really believe it’s time to talk: mental health is relevant to everyone. The more people that share, the less surprised we’re going to be that someone can be happy, social, successful, busier than ever and have really difficult days. I don’t mind people saying that my relationship with anxiety surprises them, they mean well by that, but I’m not embarrassed by it either. We need reminders that everyone is coping with something.
Sharing our experiences means there’ll be more resources out there for the people who need reminding that they’re not alone or being stupid – this is just one part (not all) of them; as well as for the people on the receiving end of that friend who just needs to talk. And it helps spread the message that there is no shame in prioritising your mental health – in fact, we’re much stronger for doing so.
2. The Bucket List has an unsung hero of a sibling: The Ladder List
After that conversation, I sat down with my best friend who happens to work in psychology (handy) and she gave me a bunch of resources, including a blank template in the shape of a pyramid to fill in with challenges, ranked in order of immensity. I don’t know how that will sound to anyone outside of this bubble, but if it seems odd look at it this way: it’s really no more abstract than creating a To Do list – they both help you prioritise what’s important and achievable.
Anxiety affects everyone differently, but when it has been bad for me, being alone or really cut off from people has been HARD. I’d find myself torn between hiding in a ball of tea and blankets/the arms of my boyfriend/back home in the Sticks, and well… just getting on with my life. And sometimes you just need to stay in the safe place and be surrounded by comfort – I know I’ve stolen extra hours there when I’ve needed them, but as soon as I can I’m up and pouring all my effort into baby steps that will get me back to normal because otherwise, what?
I owe most of my best experiences to the freedom of feeling independent or the willingness to put myself out there: everything I learned travelling; every friend and experience from uni; meeting my boyfriend on a spontaneous holiday; relocating to London with four days notice; throwing myself into my work. The opposite of anxiety, for me, is not calmness, and it’s not the absence of stress or pressure; it’s independence.
So with this template in hand, I started small, adding steps in for the things I take for granted during good periods: going to the gym alone, shopping alone, travelling (and inevitably getting stranded) alone. And after I ticked all of those off – some requiring more attempts than others for me to really feel content about – I came to my final aim in August: flying and staying overseas (cough, Ireland, but still) alone.
This was one of the highlights of my year, and not something I hadn’t done before, by the way – I flew and stayed in Munich alone and had a great time two whole years before – but anxiety is a guileful sneak; it can knock you down in different ways at different stages. The ladder list is there to help push your comfort zone back up to the place where you want to be; that’s where I am now.
3. You don’t owe everyone all of you
I’m still working on how I want to interpret this one, but at some point in the past year I realised it’s completely ok – necessary, even – not to give 100% of yourself to everyone.
Socially, it could be that friend who leaves all the planning up to you, every time; a group you’ve got nothing in common with anymore, or who you feel worse off for seeing; someone who’s jokes just aren’t funny, or whose digs are getting old.
Professionally, it’s all the challenges that come with business and people; it’s about pulling weight and playing fair; how invested you are; how emotional you are; and what balance you keep. It’s understanding both that being likeable pays off, and that not everyone will like you.
It has taken many reminders for me to stop worrying about what someone else might think and to put myself first when I need (or just want) to. And I’m learning that there’s nothing wrong with turning down an invitation you’re not excited about, keeping a guard up to control how much something can impact you, or wearing a confident face when you’re feeling anything but that.
In this field of being ourselves, we are our own bosses and our only candidates. It wouldn’t be wise to spread ourselves too thinly, or invest our time or energy in things which neither reward us nor help us grow. For me, success is treating people how I’d like to be treated, but calling the shots when it comes to the pressures I’m willing to take on.
4. I didn’t look big in that
A complex relationship with body image is an assumed part of being female. I thought I was an exception, because I didn’t recognise myself in the profiles of women who’ve had to suffer through eating disorders, or spent hours pulling apart their looks in front of the mirror, or had their confidence so badly knocked that they’ve never felt good enough.
The truth is, most days I’d get up and get ready and feel absolutely fine about how I looked – I’d make an effort but not think that much of it. And for most evenings out, I’d leave feeling happy and confident.
My profile is not an extreme one. And maybe that’s just as worrying, that it was normal for those everyday healthy habits to coincide with tendencies to linger over transformation photos; to take ‘progress shots’ myself and feel defeated when change didn’t come; to stare at a stranger’s slim legs in skinny jeans and wonder if that would ever be me; to have felt self-conscious and somewhat inadequate on two out of two holidays abroad this year; to be in tears on the way into town for a friend’s birthday, because she looked amazing and I felt like a lump; to buy a top for my 25th that I didn’t wear because I felt I hadn’t toned up my arms enough.
Too much of our valuable brainspace goes on this stuff, and it completely warps our perspective. I look back at photos now where I remember feeling huge, and I look absolutely fine, GREAT even, save for the fact that I’m not genuinely smiling…
Am I healthy and happy? Yes. Surely that’s all that matters, whatever size or shape you are – I know that’s easy to say when you’re out of the cycle, and it’s not to say you can’t have fitness aims or take lots of pride in how you look, it’s just being sure that your intentions are kind. It’s being able to see yourself through the eyes of others and choosing to believe any nice thing that any person has ever said about you. It’s understanding where your worth really comes from. It’s finally feeling savvy (not to mention all fired up) about the industry players whose actions – by interpretation or by design – make you feel bad about yourself.
I’ve unfollowed ALL the glossy Instagrammers perpetuating that, I’ve stopped buying magazines that talk more about cankles and selfies than our minds and our futures, I’ve started a trademark toothy grin in every photo because life is just too short not to really smile, and I’ve worn that bloody birthday top since and you know what? I’d never felt better because I’m. So. Over this.
5. Not everything has to be all or nothing
We have a strange habit of trying to clamber into boxes – I guess there’s comfort and identity and purpose in labels, and they’re not always a bad thing… I always wanted a label on a relationship. I was proud to be called a Graduate, and to wear my university’s name across my chest. At different points I’ll refer to myself as a professional, a country girl, a home bird, a foodie, a gym goer, a bit of a worrier, an A type personality, a lover of rom-coms, a hopeless mathematician, a red wine drinker and so many more things I’m sure – we create these kinds of labels because we feel they say something important about us and because they connect us to others.
But we get into a tricky spot when we’re not 100% that we really belong, as if that un-does all the good in trying. We feel bad about it. You know, when you’re like…
- I’m a feminist, but I wear heels and make-up “for me”.
- In fact, I think I’ll go make-up free from now on… except on the days I’ve got bags under my eyes or spots on my chin. Obviously.
- I’ll buy all my veg as organic… Wait, HOW MUCH for broccoli?
- I’d like to try being vegan [buys suede boots in the sale]
- That’s it, I’ll do a daily digital detox. No screens after 9pm [stays up until after midnight watching yet another episode of First Dates]
The biggest thing for me was being encouraged to drop those bottomless “should” statements and replace them only with the facts:
I should be doing something productive instead of lying in/going out
– VS –
I’ve got things I want/need to do. They will still be there later. Down time is good.
I should go vegan
– VS –
I like vegan food, I get the cause. My health is a priority. I can try this in small amounts to see what works.
I should go to bed early
– VS –
I’ll feel better for a good night’s sleep. First Dates is on… Fred is so wise…
In a nutshell: I understand now that we have to pick our battles. We cannot be all things, all at once. We have to learn what works for us in our smaller big pictures, and then if we want to change the world? The little bit around us is the first place we’ll start.