(S)no(w) time like the present

So it’s post Christmas, in fact Christmas seems like a distant memory and the period that lead up to it a shameful waste of time. All those parties, the constant snacking, the giggles and mirth in the office leading to the patiently awaited, mostly guilt free, few days off. The days where you swore to yourself that along with merriment and booze you would also be productive, clean the flat, do some writing, go for walks. Hardly any of that happened and now, life and work are madness. The pressure is on and tensions are high, the flat ends up being a mess for most of the week, the other half is practically a stranger as you become ships passing in the night, and I don’t know about you but I spend more time placating people that actually getting legitimate work done. It is such a difficult balance sometimes, your coworkers obviously need support but you don’t really have the time or energy! I am not talking about subordinates or close colleagues, I am talking about everyone else you come into contact with on a daily or weekly basis, outside of the initial team but just as valuable and clearly struggling.

I don’t know if it’s just me, with my hyper awareness surrounding mental health, but after the initial moment of irritation at a particularly spiky email I start to worry about their mental well-being. I admit sometimes this is probably too kind a concern but more often or not, it is a fair assessment on someone who is currently struggling, professionally or personally or in that funny mid-way version of ourselves that is both the worker and the human being. It happens in everyday life too, someone is behaving like an absolute poo-face, but beneath that bad behaviour and those hostile words is often someone struggling, quietly and without understanding of the depth of their own struggle. It is part of what makes us innately human, to push people away at these times instead of asking for support or help, so intent are we on proving ourselves (both to others and to oneself)  that any hint of submission feels like a weakness. This usually means that on top of being stressed and frustrated which often manifests itself in hostility and passive aggression we are also teetering on the edge of defensiveness and self-deprecative behaviour.  Well I say RUBBISH to that. I can honestly say that by assessing this negative automatic behaviour and finding a new automatic behaviour, life becomes much more manageable. Asking for help becomes a strength and offering it becomes easier too.

It is almost impossible to change the way that we react, that is because the way that we act and react is habitual, it was learned along time ago and we adapt with time but we never truly change, at least not without applying a conscious and difficult decision to change the way our brains work. I think the technical term is cognitive restructuring and it is one of the many tools used in CBT.

The hardest part of the process comes right at the beginning, admitting that the way that your brain currently functions and processes thought doesn’t work for you. I thought for years that my OCD tendencies, my self assured belief of the right way to do things (be it processes in work or as simple as always being totally honest) among other quirks, were my strengths. Well I was wrong, or at least the way these things manifested were detrimental to everything I did. That isn’t to say attention to detail and a good moral compass aren’t strengths, but its like cracking an egg, you can crack it with one swift whack on a glass bowl and watch the yolk and the white pour smoothly into it, or you can give it a couple of precise bashes on a plastic surface (trust me its annoying difficult) and watch the same end result happen in a much messier way, bits of shell splintering into the bowl and your fingers covered in white. Afterwards you spend as much time tidying and rectifying as you did in the initial move and you end up unnecessarily exhausted. It might seem a strange analogy but I will blame my bakers mind.

The best way I can explain, in a way that will hopefully be relatable, is by focusing on my understanding of honesty, I am an honest person and to fault, even now. If someone asks me a question I feel the cold prickle of sweat on my back and the compulsion to say exactly what I am thinking. But there is a power in saying less. In fact there is an irony in the fact that total honesty can often be inflammatory, even if that was never the intention. People often ask questions they don’t really want the answers to, to explain to them in full detail your motivations and reasons won’t make any difference what-so-ever except to be a waist of time and often make a situation worse and more stressful for all involved. Is there a trait that you can relate this to? A trait that you have always thought of as a strength but often seems to be looked on with a dim view or cause you trouble? It probably isn’t that you are wrong, it’s just that you are investing too much time in being totally faithful to it. This is what I mean by habitual behaviour.

One of the most damaging strengths out there, is being contentious. ‘What is she on about’ is what you are probably thinking. Well, think back the last time you did something in what you would consider the absolutely right way, but the outcome was less than satisfactory. Did you let it go or did you spend hours thinking about it? – Obsessively even? I am not saying become an emotionless robot, I am saying use your strengths but don’t feel like they need to be visible on your sleeve all the time. I am saying take that strength and mould it into something that genuinely offers your mind some peace as well as being true to yourself. I am saying, I you are struggling or stressed or have that urgent prickle of anger in response to someone who is clearly struggling or stressed, take a step back. Literally. Don’t react immediately, take a moment to think:

Why is this bothering me so much? (Is there a fear this person is playing to without realising it?)

What effect is this having on me? (Physically and mentally.)

Why might this person acting/reacting this way?

How can I make the situation neutral if not better?

And this all comes down to my new mantra, you have heard me say it before and I will say it again – you cannot change other people, but you can change your reaction. The more you do it, the more naturally it comes, the old anecdote practise makes perfect is absolutely true.

If, after responding in a way that you are completely happy with in the first instance, it still bothers you and you can’t let it go then the situation needs more thought and possibly for you to apply an action. Thoughts can be categorised in a few ways, they can be hypothetical (usually referring to catastrophising a ‘what if’) or practical (a situation with a legitimate concern) and practical concerns often need a solution be it facing up to an issue or simply coming up with a plan. I learned to address these issues with a ‘thought diary’ (not the same as a worry diary). There is great explanation of this on Mind tools, and you can find templates which can be used as prompts for writing out the scenario.

What it comes down to is living in present, by taking a step back and truly assessing a distressing situation it forces you to be mindful of your actions both in the present and for the sake of future you. Christmas comes with such a huge shove of excitement and good will, yet afterwards it often leaves an empty exhausted hole as you battle through and with the cold weather and the grumpy, stressed commuters who resent having to be back to their worker selves already.

 

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