Declaring War on Captain Paranoia

Even though I spent most of last year trying to reduce my stress and anxiety levels and improve self-esteem and self-confidence, I’ve not really kept up with it during the winter months. For a couple of days this week, the weather has been absolutely terrible so, rather than head into town, I’ve legged it into the car park and sat in my car for an hour. Usually, I plug my earphones in and listen to an album, but today I only sat through one side. For the remainder of the hour, I sat, I thought and I read.

Last Sunday, we were discussing going out as a family to a National Trust property or just somewhere local. I thought this would be a great opportunity to get my kilts back out and carry on where I left off last year. I went upstairs, got dressed, and when I came back down, I asked my wife “does this look all right”. Her response was along the lines of “Well, yeah, but your kilt could do with being ironed and it looks pretty windy out there. You’re going to be very cold.” – I agreed with her instantly.

Now, I recognise it was pure optimism on my part, and sensible realism on my wife’s, but it knocked me down a little – not in a toys-out-of-the-pram way, but because I felt that, by asking her opinion, I was looking for a get-out clause. I was talking myself out of it yet again. I’d always convince myself it was the wrong time, wrong place, wrong weather – and when the right time, place and weather came along, I’d find some excuse, however small, to talk myself out of it. 9 times out of 10, it was the fear of embarrassment, ridicule or – in extreme cases – physical harm. It’s something I’ve carried with me since my teenage years when my internal program was instructing me that social inclusion is critical, and embarrassment leads to exclusion… so avoid it at all costs.

One thing I promised myself I’d try to do this year was to fix problems rather than avoid or accept them, and the first step is always to recognise them.

Whilst sitting in the car, I looked for various sources that showed positive experiences and reactions to men wearing skirts and kilts out in public. I actually came across quite a few. One wore them to work for a whole week as part of his normal attire, another was about singer/songwriter Will Young’s experiences, and another showed a video of three other men who took up a similar week-long challenge.

 

In the latter, all 3 felt at first as if everybody’s eyes were fixated on them – but there was one moment in the video that spoke quite loudly. One of them was told by a friend that “nobody cares that you’re wearing a skirt except you“. He was absolutely right! For all my experience last year, I experienced no negative reaction beyond a couple of immature remarks, yet here I was ignoring the facts and focusing on a hypothetical worst-case scenario. It is what Ben Elton dubbed Captain Paranoia.

BenElton
Ben Elton: The left-alignment of this photo was completely intentional.

My next stop was to find ways of dealing with paranoid thoughts. There is a Mental Health charity in the UK called MIND, and their website is a font of useful information. Reading their digital booklet on paranoia highlighted that my thoughts were just that. I was being completely over-sensitive and basing my negative thoughts on emotion rather than evidence and experience.

In addition to talking things through with my wife, I’m going to try practising Mindfulness as a means of focusing on the here-and-now, going with the flow and becoming more self-aware than self-conscious. I also feel this may help with other issues, such as when I beat myself up over mistakes I made back in my teens and early 20’s, believing they still reflect badly on me today.

If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work – but I’ll never know unless I try.

Bowie or Barlow: Dealing with Ennui

This time last year, when I really started assessing who I was and what I wanted, it felt as if I was undergoing some sort of mid-life crisis at the age of 37. At the time, my job security was uncertain and was having to deal with a lot of extra pressure. I’ve not been writing much here in the past couple of weeks because that’s all coming back.

While I was spared from the cull, the role I moved into was not what I was expecting and, with my current objectives, I could do with having an extra brain and an extra pair of hands. I had a pre-assessment for an internal position in the Procurement department last week, which I think went pretty well, and I should know some time next week if I’ve made it through to the face-to-face interviews. A change of scenery and a fresh set of challenges and experiences would be good for me right now, so if I am invited for an interview, I want to put everything I can into it. (I was invited for an interview, but taking recent events into consideration, I felt moving roles at this time would not be a wise decision and so withdrew my application)

With the weather starting to warm up, I’m also looking forward to getting out of this winter slump. I’ve been in jeans most of the winter and I don’t find them all that comfortable, especially when you’re active. I feel so much more comfortable in looser clothing, so I’m looking forward to getting my kilts out once more.

I watched this video on LaylahTalks earlier this morning about blocking out negativity, and it did give me some food for thought. I recognise that there are still some things I over-think to extremes, particularly when they don’t conform to majority opinion, but once I actually go and do it they don’t turn out anywhere near as bad as I think. It just needs a little confidence and a bit of a reality check: I’m lucky to have the support I need.

It boils down to this question: Would you rather be a David Bowie or a Gary Barlow? Both are, without argument, successful musicians but the big difference being that Bowie was always breaking through the boundaries Barlow wouldn’t cross. Almost everything about him was chameleonic, yet always one step ahead of everybody else. He didn’t follow, he inspired. 

Let’s just say that, in my record collection, it’s Bowie 6 – 0 Barlow.

 

Gender, Marketing and a New Year’s Challenge

Last Summer, as previously reported, I made quite some headway into giving society the middle finger and expressing myself the way I wanted to, disregarding the opinions of complete strangers and trying my hardest not to read their minds or interpret their body language. Compared to how I was this time last year, I ended the year more confident and secure but still recognising I’d still got some way to go. Going out and around the Midlands in a utility kilt was perhaps the most outwardly-expressive thing I did towards this, but as the winter has taken hold, doing so has not been a good idea. With management approval, I wore it to work for Children in Need day back in November (which was a bit scary and a little stoopid, but still raised £15), but still feel I’ve lapsed somewhat and fallen “out of practice”.

I’ve become more aware in recent months of how gendered marketing is and why, some examples of which are borderline comical. I found one superficial example in my own home. There are two cans of shaving cream in my bathroom – one “for him” and one “for her” – and I compared the ingredients of the two. Apart from the odd minor ingredient, the only real difference was that my wife’s had aloe vera and mine didn’t, but the mere presence of aloe vera doesn’t make an item “for her”; if I went a little upmarket as opposed to buying my toiletries from Lidl, I would find plenty of shaving creams “for him” containing aloe vera. In a nutshell, the only real difference was that her can was white and pink while mine was grey and blue.

Obviously those who deny that gender is “a social construct” are oblivious to how much money is being made gendering identical items, playing on our insecurities to prevent “him” and “her” from sharing.

If anything, I’m a pragmatist or, at least, I’d like to be – brushing marketing aside, an item’s purpose should be of higher priority than its demographic. Scroll back through the contents of this blog and you’ll see that I’ve also mentioned “Mantyhose” a couple of times. While this would enable my utility kilts to make an appearance during the winter months, and also push my bravery/confidence/not-giving-a-fuck to new levels, there are always safety concerns. I’ve heard stories about people being assaulted for not conforming to the normal expectations of male behaviour and appearance, but in the same breath, I’ve not heard about anything like that happening in the UK. Even so, such an attack would be rare. Would anyone be even remotely bothered, or am I just over-thinking and grossly underestimating the population’s open-mindedness?

2016 may have been a bit of a bastard for many, but I have to reflect on and feel proud of the progress I made. A new year means new challenges, and I want to try and blast even more neuroses and anxieties than I did last year.

“Be yourself. Give your free will a chance. You’ve got to want to succeed” — Jon Anderson

I’m going to Hell in a kilt… apparently!

Sauntering around the internet yesterday afternoon, I did a Google search for “utility kilt opinion” looking for more information about how kilts are commonly perceived. One page contained a plethora of links to kilt-related sites all over the web, including one link under the heading of “Stupidity”. The link took me to a page boldly stating that “Wearing Kilts is sinful” hosted on a site called “Divided by Truth”.

The site appears to be a source of ultra-conservative Christian sermons, and on this one in particular, they use cherry-picked bible verses to emphasise their point that Man + Kilt = Cross-dresser = Abomination = Sinful. I didn’t know whether to laugh, or cry tears of laughter.

Allow me to pick several bits of it apart.

“Although 1st Corinthians 6:9 is clearly condemning homosexuality and cross-dressing, it is also equally clear that any form of femininity in a man is sinful.”

Right off the bat, they’re citing Paul’s first epistle to the church in Corinth. Last time I looked, we weren’t in Corinth, therefore we’re reading too much into a letter that wasn’t written to us. Paul was addressing a culture that, at the time, saw misogyny as virtuous and women as property with virtually no social status whatsoever. They were pretty, powerless, and their main duty was to bear children. That bears no resemblance at all to today’s culture. Moving on…

“This is why Deuteronomy 22:5 condemns men wearing women’s apparel. Clearly, it is not acceptable for men to wear women’s clothing.”

Except a Kilt isn’t women’s clothing… it’s been classed as Menswear since at least the 16th Century.

“Men are to be men! Men should talk like men, dress like men, walk like men, and act like men. Kilts on men are sissyish. Although a man wearing a kilt may be tough, the skirt makes him look silly and foolish.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. We’re no longer dealing in facts, but opinions. We’ve now learned that the author doesn’t like them, and is now trawling the Bible to back up his opinion with authority. More on that later.

“Although most men who wear kilts aren’t gay, it makes one wonder why any man would ever want to wear clothing that is considered women’s apparel by 99% of the population. A quick look at any bathroom door will quickly reveal that men wear pants, and women wear dresses.”

If you’re going to make a statement that says “99% of the population think Kilts are women’s apparel”, at least conduct a survey to back it up. I mean a proper, independent survey with a wide and representative selectorate – not just 100 random people from your Church where just one can actually point to Scotland on a map.

A look at the bathroom door will reveal that men wear trousers and women wear skirts/dresses, that much is true… but the bathroom door does not imply that they do so exclusively. And let’s not get into the whole gender/bathroom thing – it’s a sensitive issue for some people, and I have my own views on the subject. Let’s just say I’m in favour of gender-neutral bathrooms under certain conditions.

Next…

“John the Baptist was rugged, as a man should be. The men who lived in the palace wore “soft” clothing, i.e., they didn’t look or act like REAL MEN. I’ve never seen a construction worker wearing a kilt. I’ve never seen a truck mechanic or a coal miner wearing a kilt. I only see men with clean jobs, or playing bagpipes, wearing kilts. Kilts are for men in the palace, not for John the Baptist type men … real men!”

Okay, Mr. Stewart: there’s your foot, here’s a gun – fire away! So, in order to be a “real man”, you must have some rugged, manual profession and come home covered in oil and dirt? What exactly do you wear to church? Do you go dressed modestly in your best, clean clothes… or do turn up covered in camel hair and body odour, just like John the Baptist? I know I’m making an assumption based on the ultra-conservative Churches I’m aware of (including Westboro), but everyone there – including the pastor – is very suited-and-booted. Besides, just because you’ve never seen a mechanic in a kilt doesn’t mean that none exist. If we’re really going down the road of “seeing is believing”, exactly how many times have you seen God? I’m not talking about “his creation” either – I mean Big G himself.

“Clearly, men in the Old Testament didn’t wear the type of skirts or kilts, which some uncouth (lacking refinement or cultivation or taste) men wear today. There’s just something uncouth about a man wearing a kilt!”

Men in the Old Testament didn’t publish content to the Internet either, yet here you are. Yet, rather than take offence at being called “uncouth”, I’m willing to accept that. All I ask in return is for you to preach this at half-time during an Old Firm derby. Rangers are back in the Premiership, so now’s as good a time as any! A tenner says you’ll either walk out in a Wallace tartan kilt, or be carried out on a stretcher; but you’ll at least have united the Rangers and Celtic fans (albeit temporarily).

“Women in the Old Testament also wore robes with skirts; but they were more feminine, cut differently, and made with more feminine materials. Clothing which was transparent, tight fitting, loosely worn, or exposed intimate parts of the body were considered the ATTIRE OF A HARLOT (Proverb 7:10).”

We conclude the page with the indication that Mr. Stewart is completely ignorant to how Kilts are made, or what they’re for. Real Kilts are made of thick, heavy wool – not exactly light and transparent material. In fact, my Utility Kilts are made from heavier material to several pairs of trousers that I own. One of them has metal studs, the other has leather straps. It’s hardly Stevie Nicks, is it? While they can be considered “loosely worn”, the whole point of a Kilt being pleated is that it hangs vertically whilst also permitting maximum freedom of movement. After all, they were meant to be worked in and even fought in. They’re designed to be practical and durable rather than pretty, and they doesn’t expose any “intimate parts of the body” either because, even if you do go full-Scotsman, the sheer weight of the fabric prevents the wind from blowing it any higher than your upper thigh. That’s only an issue for the seriously well-endowed!


Before you mention women’s ability to wear trousers, I must point out that the men got off very lightly. The website has a whole page crammed with information for women. Particularly, about their role in the home, how women preachers are ignorant of scripture, and why they shouldn’t wear trousers. The latter is several times longer, and filled with far more cherry-picked verses, than the Kilt article I dissected above. They even deride feminism and gender equality as the work of Satan – now, I’m not very easily offended, but the statement that “No man wants to be married to a Mack Truck” was pretty damn offensive to me. We may appear so in magazines or on TV, but most men are not shallow. simple-minded sacks of walking libido.

I know I’m approaching this with my rather liberal-minded head on, but I found it rather ironic that this website, hosted in the “land of the free” and advocates its first amendment right to free speech on the homepage, seeks to control said freedom using “Fear of God” tactics to hammer down the authority their “godliness” apparently gives them. Such patriarchal mind-control was one of the reasons I turned my back on Christianity a few years ago.

As the late Bill Hicks once put it: “You are free… to do as we tell you!”

Daring to be Different Part 2: Time-Manner-Place

I like reading articles on Reflect On This and Tiny Buddha – you don’t have to delve too deep into them in order to find something positive, inspirational or motivational. They were two sites I visited often during my post-counselling homework.

The sentiment of this article from Reflect on This I agree with completely – I’ve mentioned before how much respect I have for those willing to break the mould and use their creativity and lateral thinking to solve problems. Applying its teaching in the real world has its rewards, but from experience, it’s not as simple as it sounds.

I’ve brought up my fondness for wearing a utility-kilt a few times before, and I make it sound like it’s one of the most liberating thing I’ve ever done… because it is. It’s certainly the most visibly different thing that I do, but the transition from private to public was hardly instantaneous and I still feel a little self-conscious when I am out and about. I’d love to just give the world the middle finger and say “this is me – deal with it!” but, as I’m going so far against the grain, it was better for me to start off a bit defensive and move forward in baby steps.

I started just wearing it inside the house, then I ventured outside only as far as the bin, then as far as the car. My first real outing was wearing my kilt in front of my in-laws before we all headed off to the pub for a family meal. The next step was a trip to the supermarket with my family, then another with just my 4 year-old daughter (including a tiny solo excursion just to pay for a tank of petrol). Only then did I feel confident enough to tackle a town centre on a Saturday afternoon.

That was the first and, to date, only negative verbal reaction I’ve had – a couple of youths thought it was hilarious to yell “lady boy” and “batty man” as I walked past… but I just carried on walking. I’d been visible to hundreds, if not thousands, of people that afternoon and the worst I got was a couple of immature remarks; I’d be lying if I said it didn’t replay in my head over the next few days, but I remained unperturbed and came out of it even more determined (if a little self-conscious).

It’s proven to be a huge boost to my self-confidence, but I was always mindful of three things: time, manner and place.

Even though it’s technically not against the dress code, I still wouldn’t wear my kilt on casual Fridays. Company time is not the right time – they do help me pay my mortgage, after all.

I also make sure that whatever I wear with my kilt is pretty standard – I don’t go to too much effort to stand out. It’s a plain, black kilt (no tartan) so I tend to draw attention away from it with either a band t-shirt, or a more colourful, checked shirt.

And finally, there are places where I wouldn’t dare wear my kilt: one of those is my local newsagents. Not that the staff would even remotely care – my money’s as good as everybody else’s – but the distance between the post office and the local pub is too close for comfort. Let’s just say that the word “cosmopolitan” does not exactly describe the area where I live, and I don’t think singling myself out as somebody “different” is a particularly wise move when the local residents have been drinking. It’s also a meeting place for the local Outlaws… make of that what you will.

I know the tone of this post has been a little bit negative – just emphasising that fulfilling an ambition needs as much realism as fantasy – but the overall picture is very much positive. Being able to stand up and be myself, however different that may be from the norm, is proof of how much my self-confidence and anxiety has improved over the year. I still think it’s “strange” and “weird”, but such words sound more like compliments to me today.

12 months post-counselling: Lessons learned

It’s now been over twelve months since my last counselling session, dealing with the issues I had with anxiety and self-esteem. As with any professional therapy, it can be quite cathartic talking through one’s issues, but any real change involves a lot of homework – the therapist plants the seeds, but you have to take them away and nurture them.

This past year, I’ve been taking what I learned from those weeks of counselling and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), fleshing them out, putting them into practice, tweaking, probing, experimenting and drawing conclusions. There are three main lessons I’ve learned from all of this:

It’s okay to be an introvert

Through my teens and twenties, I was of the belief that, to get anywhere in the world, you needed to quite loud, assertive and sociable. I wasn’t ever going to find someone or start a family if I didn’t actually go out and meet people, and my career would be stuck at the bottom if I wasn’t visibly networking.

Introversion isn’t just some illness that can be cured – it is a significant part of my personality. I simply don’t need as much social interaction as others, and I’m much happier in small-yet-close circles. I find it difficult having fun in loud or crowded spaces, and when I’m in such a place, I want to bail out after as little as thirty minutes. I derive the same amount of fun from listening to an LP or watching a good sci-fi film – boring as that may seem to a lot of people, it’s a case of each-to-their-own.

My introversion was never the problem – it was the persistent belief that I needed to be somebody more visible against my will.

Mind-reading and catastrophising don’t mix

Having been an introvert trying to live in an extrovert’s clothing, I was often obsessed with making sure other people saw me in a positive light – in the absence of any mind-reading abilities, I was frequently analysing their posture, body language and tone of voice for signs of approval or disapproval. If that wasn’t enough, my brain was always giving me the worst case scenario in the event of any ambiguity, feeding me all these negative words that I began to believe about myself. Dwelling on this only ever made me anxious or, at worst, paranoid. I believe it all stems from a fear of gossip, shame and embarrassment – when you’re trying so hard to improve your standing on the social ladder (for an introvert, that takes a LOT of work), the last thing you want is to be knocked down a rung or two.

It took me quite a while, and quite a bit of practice, to live in the present, stop over-thinking about something I have no control over and to stop living for other people who don’t matter. With this anxiety lifted, I no longer take myself quite so seriously, I can laugh about myself without becoming self-deprecating, and I feel a lot less tense. If I find myself trying to mind-read, I also try and tell myself that unvoiced opinions can be positive too.

There are no “normal” people

When we talk of normality, it’s usually in the context of something measurable and analytical; if we get sub-zero temperatures in the summer, we know that’s abnormal because we have historic data showing that summer temperatures have never been that cold. You can’t apply the same methodology to determine a “normal” person since you can’t quantify individual personalities.

Certain behaviours may be perceived as “normal”, but this only implies statistical likelihood within a given sample. I wore my utility-kilt when I went to Derby last Saturday – it was a lovely day so it kept me cool and comfortable, but it’s likely I was the only bloke in the whole city centre that did so – that doesn’t imply that I am abnormal, just that the odds of finding a kilt-wearing bloke in Derby are extremely low. I probably looked a bit of an oddball, but nobody said a thing – some may have found it weird, others may have found it inspiring. Who knows? All I know is that I couldn’t have done that 12 months ago.

Daring to Be Different

What other words enter your head when I mention the words “different” or “alternative”? How would you feel if somebody used the words “different” or “alternative” to describe you? Would you see it as a condemnation, implying you are somewhere you don’t belong, or would you see it as a compliment, implying you are creative or individual? In the past twelve months, I’ve steadily progressed from the former to the latter.

Twelve months ago, I was a lot more reserved than I am today. I was quite defensive when in the company of others, and kept parts of me hidden that I didn’t want anybody to know. I even invented things just to fit in – truth be told: I really don’t care about football. I was just so worked up about creating the right impression, believing that the real me was just a flawed and socially-unacceptable mass. There was actually nothing wrong with me, just part-and-parcel of being an introvert, and the more I came to accept my introversion, the less I had to pretend and the less it bothered me. The tiny handful of strong relationships I have are of exponentially more value than all the casual acquaintances.

Can you spot the person who's into Extreme Black Metal. Bet you can't!
Can you spot the person who’s into Extreme Black Metal. Bet you can’t!

When I’m at work, I kind-of just blend in. The company dress code means I don’t look noticeably different to anyone else, I get on with my work just like everyone else, and at lunchtime, I do what introverts usually do and grab some all-important me-time away from my desk. I am my true self the whole time I’m in the office, but the avenues for self-expression are rather limited – I am on company time, after all. Outside of work, when I’m no longer bound by company policy, the true self becomes noticeably visible; in other words: I look different. Ever seen a man wandering around the Midlands wearing a kilt? If you have, it was probably me. I could NEVER have done that twelve months ago.

The "Utility Kilt". Smart-Casual with a Celtic twist.
The “Utility Kilt”. Smart-Casual with a Celtic twist

Being among a tiny minority of kilt-wearers in the Midlands (I don’t assume I’m the only one) has taught me one thing: nobody really minds “different”. The people who know me best already accept me for who I am, and they’re the only people who matter. Pretty-much everybody else is too busy concentrating on their own little agenda so, if I’m not breaking any laws or causing any harm, nobody’s really minds. A few may giggle or make silly remarks, but that’s either jealousy or ignorance at work. I found expressing this more visibly-adventurous side of me got easier the more I kept at it – my self-consciousness continually decreased over time, and I became more comfortable in my surroundings.

If you’ve had any similar experiences, or if you feel you are struggling to be the real you, feel free to leave a comment below.