In an earlier post, I expanded on three things I’d learned in the twelve months before I sought one-on-one counselling. Naturally, nobody goes to a counsellor for no reason, and what I learned has made some significant difference. This is what I was like just over two years ago:
The Really Useful Engine
I didn’t intend to throw in a Thomas the Tank Engine reference, but the analogy is quite apt. In the show, all the engines have various roles and duties they must carry out under the knowledge that Sir Topham “Fat Controller” Hatt prefers his engines to be “really useful” and not cause “confusion and delay”. Whenever they make a mistake – and they make them a lot – The Fat Controller gives them a full-on shaming, guilting them into to putting things right.
That was, more or less, me two years ago. I’d got it into my head that I should always put others first – doing otherwise would be considered selfish – and so I was always keen to put my own needs to the bottom of the pile. I felt I had to be the “really useful engine” by not only working through all my responsibilities and duties, but also taking on extra if required, or if I felt best-qualified, to do so. Underpinning all this was a pathological fear of failure, which I’ll come onto next. With responsibilities at both home and work, I ended up burning out and (no pun intended) coming off the rails.
I learned, through counselling, that there is a big difference between self care and selfishness. Selfishness is putting yourself first regardless, but Self Care is understanding when your needs are greater. It’s like white-hat selfishness – by doing a little bit for yourself, you’re actually making yourself more useful to others by keeping yourself within its normal limits. I make sure I get a little bit of “me time” each day, even if it’s just to listen to a record or play a computer game for a bit – just enough to recharge the mental batteries and keep me going. All work and no play…
As touched on earlier, I took on extra pressure to move onwards and upwards – this was more so in my old job where all the technical roles were at the Head Office on the south coast, and the only local opportunities were in people management. As an introvert, moving upwards takes a lot of effort given how visibility and the ability to network doesn’t come as naturally as it does to extroverts. You move one step upwards, but one small mistake sends you back down to the very bottom because of an irrational belief that disappointment equals disapproval, and that people are more likely to spread word of your failures than forgive you for them.
The issue really became noticeable to me early in 2015. I’d re-started making music just over a year previously, and had been networking with other musicians through social media. Towards the end of 2014, I put together my own NetLabel called Dischi senza parole (Italian for “Records without words”) and had several submissions lined up for release during January and February the following year. After the first two releases, I realised I’d bitten off far more than I could chew. Just a week after launch, I’d closed it all down – fearing that I’d left many people disappointed, and feeling quite embarrassed about this somewhat public failure, I had my first major meltdown and started withdrawing from social media, un-friending almost all of the other musicians I’d connected with in order to hide myself away from them.
Looking back at that incident today, it was a foolish and mindless over-reaction brought on by levels of stress and anxiety that I couldn’t cope with. Back then, I regarded asking for help as an admission of failure or incompetency; if I’d have set the label up today, knowing what I know now, I’d have definitely asked for help in the day-to-day running of the label.
It was often discussed in counselling sessions how we tell ourselves who we should, must or ought to be. We set ourselves unrealistic standards, often based on what other people expect of us. We try to build a brick wall around everything we believe is undesirable or unacceptable about us, and expend so much energy in maintaining that wall to keep them all hidden. That’s why I always believed I should always be somebody who’s selfless, who ought to be able to cope with everything on his own. I’ve since come up with a name for that: “Wagging Tongue Syndrome”. It’s a fear that if we don’t meet the expectations of the majority, “tongues will wag” and we become a target for shaming and shunning.
Thing is, it’s borne out of old-fashioned conservatism – we no longer live on the set of Call the Midwife where cliques are formed on neighbouring doorsteps and gossip is traded like currency. Attitudes and behaviours are not so aggressively policed today – the late 60’s saw a revolution against such conservative attitudes and this liberation is still present today. Eyes were opened, minds were expanded and we became conscious of all the drivel we accepted as standard that wasn’t reflective of reality. Case in point: it’s now legal for homosexual people to marry – fifty years ago, it was illegal for them to even exist.
When coupled with my acceptance of my introversion, I realised that there’s no reason to be so fearful of social exclusion because my social life is centred around quality over quantity. Outside of that core, I couldn’t give a rodent’s rectum about any negative opinions of me.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), coupled with talking therapy, has been instrumental in exorcising those inner demons and training my brain to refocus its thoughts onto more productive or beneficial areas. I have to re-iterate that it takes a lot of practice and patience, but it certainly helped me to recognise and reward myself for the positive things I contribute.