Allowing yourself something that you love, wholeheartedly, is an act of self-love. Make a bit of space to give that to yourself.
Sometimes I have an idea that seems ‘new’ and then when I say it out loud, or write it down, it suddenly looks to me like the most blindingly obvious thing, that a child would know. Maybe that’s the point – a child would know, because it’s a simple idea and children sometimes get direct to the heart of the matter without the layers of complication and conditions that adults learn to overlay ideas with.
Anyway, the latest ‘idea’ was the reflection that connecting to something you love can be healing and enriching. Obvious, right? But the key word here is ‘connecting’ – by which I mean mindfully reflecting on the qualities of this loved thing, giving attention to what it is you appreciate and value in it. This mindful attention can enrich the relationship that you have with the loved thing, deepen your appreciation of it, and that in turn can deepen the nourishment that you get from doing it / being with it.
A couple of occurrences recently poked this notion into my awareness.
One is when I attended a webinar on ‘embodied writing’ by Ann Dowsett Johnston, an author and psychotherapist, who uses Focusing in her writing. (You can read about Focusing in a previous blog I wrote here). Ann led us in a number of exercises during the workshop, one of which was to free-write about something or someone we love. As the ten minutes set for the exercise began to tick away my mind battered around the inside of my skull like a moth trapped in a lamp, flitting from person, to animal, to object – but not settling. At the edges of my mind something was sitting and as I wrote ‘What do I love?’ and came into a more in-body-presence state, that ‘thing’ came into the foreground, and I wrote the following:
What do I love? I love to be in the sea.
Not to go in, not to come out, not the walking to and fro along the street….. I love that feeling, once I’m in the water.
The water is silky across my skin, supporting me. I swim out, out of the cove, towards the horizon. This is never boring! Never do I think to myself “Oh here I am again, it’s just the same as ever.”
Never is it the same.
The water changes…… today it is silvery, a long low swell that takes me by surprise, the shapes of the shadows and reflections abstract and two dimensional on the faces and facets of the waves. Tomorrow it may be milky, churned, grey and opaque, churning and pulling at me, holding me back as I try and push my way through the froth.
Never is it the same.
The land changes as the sea changes – the boundary between them moves and shifts with the height of the tide and the shape of the water and becomes visible and invisible.
I don’t want to leave and I’m scared to stay but in the moment I’m not scared of the sea – only of my own weakness, of getting it wrong. The sea is just there, under me and around me, making way for me, pushing against me. Silver silk slipping and sliding over my skin. Playing with me – slapping me round the head, sucking mischievously at my ankles as I stagger out. Waiting for my return.
I deliberately haven’t edited this passage, I’ve just set it down as I wrote it – though I know it’s clumsy or confusing in bits – because it’s real and what came to me in that moment.
And having written it, and then reading back over it afterwards, I realised, yes, that IS what I love about swimming in the sea. And although I hadn’t taken it for granted – in fact, I’ve particularly come to appreciate being close to the ‘wild’ over the last 16 months of reduced movement – this exercise, of really paying attention, has given me a new appreciation for my swimming. It’s encouraged me to prioritise it as something I can do conveniently, easily.
Of course there’s other things in my life that I love and that are more difficult for me to do right now, for various reasons, but having brought this one into foreground focus has somehow shifted my perspective slightly from regretting what I’m missing to appreciating what I’m able to do, and prioritising it.
Another example is a conversation I had at the weekend with a green-fingered friend. We were talking about growing, I was asking their advice, we were sharing experiences, practices, plant likes and dislikes – and something about that chat shifted my perspective. I let go of some of the stress that had been sitting on my shoulder, nagging at me about the various gardening tasks that I ‘should’ be doing or had got behind with, and instead took pleasure in the few hours that I then allowed myself to work away in the garden.
It was almost as if sharing the experience with someone else reminded me that I loved gardening, when I had turned it into a chore. (I’m really expert at doing that, by the way – doing something because I love it and then subtly shifting my approach so that one day I wake up and find that what I loved has become a stick to beat myself with.)
The work that I did that afternoon in the garden was the same, but my attitude towards it was completely different, as was my sense of being nurtured by it instead of tired out by it – I’d connected to it in a different way.
So……….. I really encourage you to pay attention to what you love, to remind yourself of what you love, and to pause, notice and connect to what you love. If you’re not sure how to do that, based on my own recent experiences my suggestions are:
Set aside half an hour for a creative exercise like the free-writing one I gave the example of above. Use whatever meditation, mindfulness or grounding technique works for you, or even check out the Focusing video on my blog and use the lead-in at the beginning of it, then when you’ve settled in your body, ask yourself ‘what do I love?’ and free-write what comes. (Ann Dowsett Johnstone used Mary Oliver’s poem ‘Wild Geese’ as a lead-in to her exercise. You can hear Mary Oliver’s reading of the poem here.)
Talking about what you love
Make time for a conversation with a trusted other who loves what you love. Resist the small talk……. Instead talk about what you love, even if it’s just for ten minutes. Then, set aside a little time to think about and reflect on your conversation. Was there anything that surprised you, that you hadn’t realised was important to you about this activity, or this object? Has it changed your relationship with what you love?
Sharing with others
Start an appreciation group. I started a Facebook group a couple of years ago sharing recipes and meal ideas. Sharing with other people who love what I love (cooking and eating food) has been really stimulating, the ideas of others reminding me of things I’d forgotten or introducing me to new notions. Posh food, comfort food, food out of cartons is all welcomed. You could try a WhatsApp or Signal group of a few friends, or simply meeting up with folk, like a more traditional book group.
Give 5 minutes to reflect
Simply set aside five minutes at the finish of the day to ask yourself ‘What have I loved today and why?’ If you find it hard to think of anything go reeeeally small – a conversation, a much-needed cup of tea – and re-experience that enjoyment. Give yourself a bit of time to wonder how you can have another moment like that tomorrow.
I often don’t know what I think about something until I’ve put it through my typewriter.
Ann Dowsett Johnston
Joy is really important to wellbeing – the antidote to burnout. Paying attention to what you love helps you notice more opportunities to find that joy, enables you to be more open to joy where it arises. Allowing yourself something that you love, wholeheartedly, is an act of self-love. Make a bit of space to give that to yourself.
Get some tips on how to find a healthy balance if you struggle to relax.
I’m just back from a week’s leave. I’m being strict with myself this year about taking regular and frequent breaks. It’s been an interesting and useful experience; it was very much a conscious decision, and because a bit of me thinks it’s ‘self-indulgent’, I’ve been challenging that thought by talking about it – getting it out there to counteract any tendency to feel ashamed about it.
So many people I encounter – not just clients, but colleagues and friends too – find it difficult to prioritise time off. This has been the case especially in the last year where the usual ‘reasons’ for taking leave, many of which are connected to other people – visits to family, plans arranged with others, booked holidays – have been unavailable, leading to many people realising belatedly that it hasn’t occurred to them to take a break for a loooong time.
I feel a sense of responsibility to look after myself because of my work with clients; I use myself in my work, I owe it to my clients to offer value for money, and I’m less effective when I’m less healthy or emotionally unwell. This makes it ‘easier’ for me to take time off out of a sense of duty. That’s just the way it is for me; I’m a people-pleaser who worries about getting it wrong, and while I’m alert to that being a driver, changing it is an ongoing, slow process. In the meantime, if it encourages me to take time off, then I make the most of the result, without worrying too much about the initial impetus!
Exactly halfway through my leave I felt I had to make a significant decision – ‘how best to use my week off’. Essentially, having had the opportunity the day before to meet up with family for the first time in nearly 6 months, my attention up until then had been focused on that; and indeed, it WAS a highlight – being able to spend a few hours together eating, and walking, outside, filled me up. But after that, I had empty days in front of me and a sense of responsibility to not ‘waste’ them.
Of course, reality-checking after the event, I realise that the idea that there was a ‘right’ choice was a myth, and it was being faced with the emptiness of unplanned time that felt disorientating.
I was talking to someone a few days later who said they experienced a similar sense of pressure at weekends:
“During the week I’m just busy with work and eating and sleeping and recovering, then at the weekend I feel I have to make the most of it and often I end up not enjoying my time off because of thinking how else I could be spending it, and it’s almost a relief when Monday comes and I just slot back in to automatic work pattern.”
I’ve heard people say they need a week off just to get used to being on holiday, to let go of the feeling they should be ‘doing’, after which they can start actually enjoying it. But sometimes we only have a week, or even a few days (or a weekend).
And it can spiral into self-criticism too; for example I felt anxious about how to use my time off, then felt guilty for being bothered by such a first-world problem – ‘poor me, I’ve got a break’. It can sometimes take me a while to pull back, to recognise that yes, I am fortunate, and no, feeling guilty about it doesn’t make one jot of difference to people worse off than me, any more than enjoying it would.
So how to deal with that anxiety and fear of getting it wrong? For me, learning to tolerate that thought or feeling, rather than distracting myself from it by getting busy, has helped. I recognise it – not immediately, I’m not that expert – for what it is, a thought generated by my perfectionist tendencies, rather than an actual real-life risk. Being able to sit with it for a time helps it feel less urgent.
A few other things that I’ve found are useful:
1. Using my Focusing practice to sense bodily what I need.
You can read more about Focusing at How to ease coronavirus-related anxiety. ‘Clearing a space’ was a particularly useful exercise in my week off. Once I had settled inside myself I used the phrase ‘what’s stopping me feeling really fine right now’, seeing what appeared, acknowledging it and putting it aside. This is particularly helpful when there’s a few practical problems or life events that take up mental space. You can read about clearing a space here.
2. Giving myself options.
Sometimes ‘sensing into what I need’ can bring an urge to hide away or retreat. While hibernating is OK, I know from previous experience that connecting to the world by getting outside, getting moving, or being with people is often better at getting me ‘unstuck’, even if it feels like an effort initially. Sometimes it can be helpful to give myself options – ‘How do I feel about X? or Y?’ – and seeing what my gut response is. If I have a week off, making just one plan for something I usually enjoy takes some of the pressure off figuring it out.
3. Remembering that there’s no ONE right answer.
The reality is that whatever I feel I need, it has to fit in with life. Yes, it might sound great to be able to always follow my sense of what I need at any moment, but realistically it’ll be dependent on time, resources, other people, etc. So finding something that’s, say 60 – 70% good right now, rather than looking for the perfect answer, is fine. Good enough for now IS actually, sometimes, the perfect answer. I was talking to a friend who said:
“I had a few things I really wanted to do, things I like doing, but I felt like going back to bed. And when I was sitting in bed, I was thinking ‘Oh, I’m not doing x, y and z.’ And I had to remind myself that I WAS doing something else that I needed, by just being. But it took effort to do that.”
4. Noticing when I’m content!
When I can notice that I’m enjoying the moment, that’s really bloody useful. Because if I can do more of it (right now) then it’s fulfilling a need. That happened to me when I was sitting in the sun reading a book and – having finished my coffee – I thought ‘This is really nice. Oh, actually, I can carry on sitting here!’ It sounds so obvious, but it can be tricky to catch yourself at these moments – particularly if your pattern is that you can only do the thing that you LIKE once you’ve finished the task that you don’t (and it can lead you to NEVER getting round to the thing that you like).
5. Finding a balance.
On my week off, Covid restrictions at last allowed travel round Scotland. There was a temptation to rush around the place seeing people, to recharge my social battery. But one thing I’ve learned in recent years is that although I need people, I also need solitude. Someone told me recently:
“I’ve learned I need to consciously rest more to actively counteract those stress hormones…..I love lying cosied up with a book……and when I feel a bit sluggish or melancholy from that quiet time I know it’s time for a little activity”.
Most of us live such busy lives of doing that it’s no wonder we find it difficult to change gear and slow down. It’s also normal, as you get older, for transition from one thing to another to take longer – and that includes transition from one way of being to another.
It’s OK and normal for relaxing to not come naturally AND there are things that you can do to support yourself to let go a little. Although I’ve shared some of what works for me I’m really interested to hear if there are ideas or tips you have for how you help yourself relax.
The most important thing, I think, is that ANY relaxation is better than none. So if I can let go of ‘getting it right’ and allow it to be Just Good Enough For Now, that really helps. And if that letting go only lasts for half an hour, or a few moments, that’s OK, because that’s relaxation time I wouldn’t have otherwise.
When I want to escape to another world, I do it through reading. For that half-hour, I’m not in my own life anymore, I’m inhabiting a different world, where I really care deeply about the experience of someone else, where I feel their feelings, even becoming a different person.
I believe reading can change your life in different ways.
Throughout history, education has literally changed people’s lives, and there is a political and humanitarian argument for literacy being a right for that reason. While I completely subscribe to that (after all, restricting educational access to males, or to white people, has been a way of subjugating different parts of societies in order to keep power in the hands of the few)- what I’m talking about here is at a more individual level.
I grew up with my nose in a book. We didn’t have a telly in my house, a fact that I was resentful of at various points in my childhood. (If you want to know how to nurture a child’s belief that they’re the odd one out or will never belong, deprive them of the ability to engage in playground conversations about last night’s Grange Hill episode – I used to watch TV round at my best friend’s house, but Grange Hill came on just at the time when I had to go home for my tea.)
However, setting aside the injustices of my upbringing for a moment, what I did have plenty of was books. Apparently even before I learned to read, my parents would be woken up each morning by me calling from my cot “Light on and books!” I’m not sure I would describe reading as a favourite activity – it was, simply, an indelible part of my life.
When I grew up and left home for uni, then work, reading time was squeezed by the demands of adult life – and by my developing tendency to, at some level, believe that ‘unproductive’ time was self-indulgent. I wonder now if there’s some connection for me with reading being ‘lazy’ because it’s a sedentary activity. I still really enjoyed to read – but I wouldn’t let myself do it as much as I liked – I was always too busy.
I was well into my 30s when I started a bookgroup with a friend. Having to read a book a month, for that, encouraged me to make more time for reading. I think the logic probably went something like this: “Reading a book for bookgroup isn’t self-indulgent because I’m answerable to other people.” But I began to feel resentful that everything I was reading was chosen by others (we take it in turns to choose a book) and so that prompted me to carve out more time so that I could read what I wanted to read too.
My time was often constrained, especially when I started psychotherapy training alongside work – and transferred my ‘shoulds’ about productive behaviour to the self-expectation of reading books by therapy experts. But at least personal therapy, and psychotherapy training, helped me to recognise what a strong ‘Critical Parent’ lived in me – telling me what I ‘should’ be doing – and I gradually started to allow myself to trust my instincts into what I wanted – or needed – once more.
In recent years, reading has become a form of self-care, and I feel more connected to that little Lucy who liked to escape from the real world with a book.
One of the things I’ve appreciated about lockdown is that I’ve been able to indulge (that word again!) that love, because there’s not so much than I can do (regardless of whether I want to or not), and because so much of my work is screen-based, that looking at a page instead is a way of looking after myself physically as well as mentally.
The experience of recently ramping up my book-reading has prompted me to reflect on how I experience emotional benefits from it.
How is reading a form of self-care?
1. It can ease symptoms of anxiety, stress and depression
Reading a book that you can lose yourself in gives you a break from life. I don’t generally advocate distraction as a technique for managing anxiety or depression, as it can shore up a habit that if there are feelings that are too uncomfortable to deal with, they get ignored or suppressed, and however that might feel comfortable in the moment, those feelings don’t go away; they just get stored up.
Having said that, if you get into cycles of overthinking, ruminating, feeling anxious and trying to think your way out of it, interrupting that cycle can be helpful. The fight or flight hormones (that are running through your body as a result of some part of you panicking that it needs to do something to keep safe by ‘fixing a problem’) get a chance to dissipate. That allows your breathing to steady, your blood pressure to drop, your muscles to relax; there’s a physical as well as mental and emotional benefit.
Note – I’m recommending a book you can ‘lose yourself in’, that will allow you to switch off, so preferably one unrelated to the situation you’re worrying about or trying to fix. I know only too well that when my imposter syndrome kicks in, and part of me believes I’m not a good-enough therapist, I feel a pull to read ‘professional stuff’ – about techniques, or presenting problems or theory. That kind of reading has its place – but not here.
This is about taking care of your whole self, not about fixing the problem your busy brain is worrying away at.
2. It helps you make connections
There’s nothing like being immersed in another world to help me develop my empathy for what someone else, with a completely different life experience from me, might be feeling. The process of doing this by reading is different from that of watching a film because the brain engages and involves itself in a different way – for example, reading about riding a bike activates the parts of the brain that would be involved in riding a bike.
Even if you’ve never left your country or particular area of the world, you can visit other places through books and build your understanding, and that will help you connect to others – virtual travel broadening your mind. If you want a further stretch then reading in another language from that of your mother tongue can also help you shift your perspective, because the way that different languages behave shapes the way that people think.
Obviously this has potential to benefit others – if you meet people from different places and with different backgrounds from you, you’ve developed your intuition and empathy to respond to them – but there is also a benefit to you, because of the emotional experience of connecting more deeply.
You might make connections to experiences too, perhaps to something you didn’t notice you were missing. For example, I’m often drawn to books that are embedded in the landscape or nature and reading them benefits me in at least two ways; firstly, I get something of that experience of actually being in the place described, of feeling that awe or wonder or amazement; and secondly that they remind me to notice my environment when I’m outside, often at quite a small scale – they prompt me to rediscover the world around me and to really notice where I am right now, grounding me.
3. It improves your communication skills, helping you be heard and understood
Reading develops your language skills because it introduces you to different ways of expressing things you may experience around you, and to new vocabulary. Many languages – and certainly English – have a huge vocabulary providing potential for saying one thing in a myriad of very subtly different ways.
This isn’t just about ‘sounding more intelligent’(although I have had situations in my life where wielding words has helped me level a power dynamic) but also about being understood. If you can express yourself in different ways, it gives you more options when talking about difficult subjects, or when asking for what you want in your important relationships, and this can make a real difference to your ability to be clear about communicating your needs, setting boundaries and for saying No gently.
4. It can build and deepen relationships
As mentioned earlier, reading can be a way of connecting to others, but there’s another way that reading can develop relationships – through sharing your reading experience. That became important to me in the last few years when I moved away from the UK to live elsewhere for a while, and then, a year after returning, found myself in a different kind of isolation because of Covid 19 stay-at-home restrictions!
The book group I’ve been a part of for 15 years has been a precious lifeline over the last 4 – a steady mooring rooted in my diary when I’ve felt adrift and isolated. We’ve continued to meet and talk and argue and laugh via webcam when we haven’t been able to do it in person. (Obviously this would apply to many other types of groups as well as reading ones.)
Reading together with others has encouraged me to try and explore other worlds that I might not have done (even while complaining about being made to read about the real life drama of a college American football team, for example). It has given a focus away from the other struggles of life for a few hours a week. It has brought the joy of connecting through shared experience.
Our book group is the best in the world, which helps. Though I may be a bit biased.
5. It’s an overt message to yourself that you matter
Pausing to read a book is a commitment to yourself that you are important and deserve this time. It’s just not possible to read a book ‘busily’. (Actually, one member of my bookgroup, realising that they weren’t going to get the book finished on time, decided to listen to the audiobook at 4 x normal speed. They arrived at the meeting in a wide-eyed manic state having got quite a different sense of the book from the rest of us, and they didn’t recommend it as a relaxing activity.)
It’s one of the most common things I hear when friends say ‘Oh, I love reading, but I just don’t have the time’. I used to say it myself – especially while studying, when I would make time to read neuroscience tomes, but not to pick up a fantasy novel.
No one else is going to make that time for you. If you think you don’t have the time to read because that’s not ‘productive time’ – think again. Think of the longer-term benefits of allowing yourself to take a break, to do something that you enjoy, something that relaxes you, that slows you down.
6. It can teach you how to be healthier and happier
Personally, I very rarely read self-help books. Anything with a title that seems to be saying ‘This book will change your life’ is a definite turn-off (note to self: don’t title this blog ‘reading this will change your life’).
Having said that, I do read books to educate and ‘improve’ myself. Like many other white people, over the last year I’ve been reading more literature by Black authors on addressing my privilege and unconscious racism, and of course, that hasn’t been comfortable. But without building my tolerance to that discomfort, I can’t engage in the antiracist behaviour required to mend that disconnect between ‘thinking I’m a good person’ and ignoring the benefits I enjoy by living in a white-centred society – i.e. I see it as enabling me to become more true to who I think I am.
Lots of people find self-help books useful, either because of the practical steps that they introduce to doing things differently, or even because – as mentioned above – picking up a book that promises to improve your life sends a little message to yourself that you matter.
If you’re attracted to self-help books, but find that they don’t seem to bring the change that you want, it might be useful to reflect on whether the subconscious message you’re directing at yourself is ‘you’re not good enough and need to change’ rather than ‘I want you to be happier because you’re important’. See if reframing this shifts the sort of book you want to read!
7. It can take you on a voyage of self-discovery
In another form of self-help, I believe books can help you become more understanding of yourself and more aware of what you need. If you have a strong reaction when you read a book, taking some time to reflect on this can lead to you learning more about yourself.
What is it in this book that triggered that anger, or feeling of being overwhelmed with love, or despair, or feeling a bit lost, or defensive? Did something about one of the characters speak to something in you? Was it a sense of affinity that you felt with a particular event?
I sometimes find that a book that I didn’t feel I was particularly enjoying at the time of reading can stay with me for days or even weeks afterward, returning to my mind as if there’s some kind of message there that it has for me. I can be prompted to notice something that I’ve let go in my life, that feels missing or that I need more of, by my reaction to what I read. Even if I can’t pin my finger on exactly what it’s about, spending a little bit of time alongside that part in me that responds strongly feels therapeutic, as if it’s meeting a need of something that wants attention.
Reading tastes are so personal, and what some people find therapeutic, others may feel is just too much hard work. Here’s 7 books that do it for me in different ways.
A book (or series – the Winternight trilogy) that I really lose myself in, this story has the flavour of a Russian folk tale, with a very strong young female main character – who is only too aware of her own vulnerability. A fantastic illustration of resilience, set in a wonderful magic realist sweeping fantasy.
A book that has stuck with me long after reading, this novel is set during the real life events of the Italian invasion and occupation of Ethiopia in 1935, and tells the story of the women who fought in that war. It pushed me to read more about Ethiopian history as I realised how little I knew of one of the world’s oldest civilisations, and how much my perceptions of a country had been influenced by growing up in the 80s amidst white Western media depictions of famine victims.
One of my all-time favourites…….a novel, but also a poem to the land, and humans’ relationship to it. Every time I read this book I’m reminded of what it is to be human, and how imaginary and transient many of my worries, fixations and anxieties are. Books like this give me a way to talk about and develop my understanding of what really matters to me at my core. This book is an antidote to social media life of the 21st century.
This was almost unanimously popular (an unusual occurrence!) in my book group. Evaristo manages to succinctly capture on paper so many different lives, of mostly – though not entirely – Black British women. For me this was a fantastic combination of entertainment and exposure to lives different from mine, but also, in sharing our responses to the characters, and which ones we loved, a great book group read.
For escaping into new worlds, NK Jemisin, a science fiction / fantasy writer I’ve only recently discovered, takes some beating. (As a Black woman, she also challenges stereotypes of what a sci-fi writer ‘looks like’.) This book is set in a New York that is – and isn’t – just like the real one, and as well as having some full-on sci-fi concepts that take some bending your head around, is chock-full of strong female characters.
The closest I’ve got to self-help recently, Rewilding Yourself is a gentle book that brings you closer to nature. In a year when taking cruises to Alaska to see arctic wildlife hasn’t been an option (even for those who can bear to burn the fossil fuel to do it), this little book is a great introduction to becoming a small-scale David Attenborough in your own back garden or field.
Le Guin was an amazing writer – her Young Adult Earthsea books were a part of my growing up – and I recently discovered her adult fiction. I never read one of her books without being given pause for thought – about the assumptions we make about what is ‘normal’ or ‘real’ based on our experience, environment and upbringing. She deals with philosophical questions with a light touch. The Left Hand of Darkness – written in the 1960s – challenges concepts of sexuality and gender with a delicacy that is impressive 50 years later.
If you think you don’t like reading – perhaps you just need to give yourself more of a chance. Start with something that fills your soul. Read a love story, or a children’s book. A graphic novel (I’ve just finished the fantastic ‘Persepolis’ by Marjane Satrapi, which tells her early life story, as a girl growing up in the Iran of the 1970s and 80s). When I need the reading equivalent of curling up under a blanket and hiding from the world, I read Joan Aiken’s children’s books, even now. Reading takes practice – but the rewards are so worth it!
It’s cheap, too, especially if you’ve got a library that is operational at the moment, or by making use of charity shops, or Betterworldbooks – although it’s also great to support authors by paying full whack for their labour, when you can afford it.
Of course, reading isn’t the only way of taking care of yourself! But it sure has benefits that can include learning more about yourself, giving yourself a break, connecting to others and building relationships.
If you’re a reader who struggles to prioritise time to read as much as you’d really really like to, I hope reading this may have helped you to recognise the longer-term benefits of doing what you love.
I’d love to hear what reading means to you, if you feel reading has a therapeutic benefit, and whether there are particular books you return to again and again.
And if reading isn’t enough, and you feel you could benefit from learning more about yourself through talking to someone, please get in touch here.
“You never know ahead of time what something’s really going to be like.”
Katherine Paterson, ‘Bridge to Terabithia’
At the start of a new year, I always feel a sense of hope. The year is spread out in front of me like a beautiful expanse of pristine snow just waiting for me to make a path off into the distance. Or indeed, rush off, fall over and flail around getting wet. Even this year has had that sense of hope, although I don’t buy in to the fantasy that 2021 is going to be wonderful, as if we can somehow close the door on what happened in 2020 when it still is happening.
I like to set goals at the start of the year. I don’t like New Year Resolutions (you can read more about this in my blog ‘Drop the Resolutions’). Even the word ‘goals’ smacks of business and sales targets, when what I’m talking about is a reflecting on what I want for myself – but ‘goals’ is the word that seems to fit best, so bear with me!
You may feel that with everything still so uncertain in the world, there’s no point in planning ahead. Perhaps you feel as if you’re just keeping your head above water in the latest phase of the pandemic battle. But goal-setting doesn’t have to be about major life changes or dream holiday plans.
Reflecting on what you want in the medium- or long-term can be a way to regain some control of your life, and can help provide a sense of purpose to support you when you’re finding things difficult, especially if you approach it in a way that is compassionate towards those parts of you that may be feeling anxious or worried.
So how to do it?
This is the process that works for me. I like to do it with paper and pen; you could do it on your laptop – but what’s important is to record your thoughts somehow so you can go back to them.
1. Review the previous year
2. Set your goals for the coming year
3. Check how you’ll know you’ve achieved your goals
4. Consider what might get in the way
5. Think how you’ll support yourself to get there
6. Review and refine your goals
7. Choose your Word of the Year
8. Keep your goals under review
Let’s talk about these in more detail.
1. Review the previous year
OK, so 2020 was a bit of shit-storm in many ways, and there are very few of us who didn’t find some of it difficult to a small or MASSIVE degree. This exercise needs to include acknowledging that, and appreciating that you got through it and survived.
But you can still take a bit of time to notice what went well for you, and/or what you achieved. For me, although my business increased and I feel very fortunate in that, what was more of an achievement, was noticing that I’d prioritised work over me. Revisiting what I needed in terms of my life balance led to me wild swimming regularly – in the process, discovering something new.
Over the last year, the circumstances we’ve been living in have meant that many more people have struggled with anxiety, with low mood or depression, or with feeling they have no control. If you feel you didn’t achieve anything, try to step outside yourself, look at what you were up against and how you’re still here. No achievement is too small to acknowledge.
If you did set goals last year, where are you in relation to them? What got in the way (hm, let me think, was it by any chance a pandemic?) and what can you learn from that? I didn’t achieve ANY of my goals from last year, other than my target client hours, and I’m fine with that, because I believe I focused my efforts to the best of my ability in the 2020 storm and ended the year healthy and mostly content.
2. Set your goals for the year
Do you have some kind of idea what you would like from your year? Probably. But it can still be helpful to think about it. If you’re self-employed, like me, then there’s a temptation to assume the goal is to increase income – but this may not always be entirely within your control, and anyway may not fit with what you actually want deep down.
Some people find it helpful to look at where they want to be in 5 years’ time, and then reflect on what this might mean for the coming year.
And this doesn’t have to be about professional goals. I always include at least one non-work goal, sometimes more, depending on what’s going on in my life. If the idea of setting goals doesn’t fit for you, you could try the ‘average perfect day’ exercise, where you spend time dreaming about what the average, routine day in your life would look like in an ideal world, in detail, so you can focus your attention on the gap between ‘here’ and ‘there’. You can read more about this exercise at ‘Average Perfect Day’.
Spend some time daydreaming to help you set some goals – ideally 3 at the most, so be strict with yourself!
3. How will you know you’ve achieved your goals?
Thinking about this will help you refine your goals if they’re a bit ‘woolly’.
As an example, if I set a goal ‘to write more’, how am I going to know at the end of the year if I’ve written more than I did the year before? And what am I writing? On the other hand, if my goal is that I’ll have published a blog per month……….. if I get to the end of the year and I’ve published only 6 blogs since January, I’ll know I haven’t attained that goal (here’s a clue as to what one of my 2020 goals was 😉).
Imagine you’re at the other end of the year looking back. Think about how the You in 12 months’ time is going to know whether you’ve got what you wanted. Getting a sense of this now will help you celebrate, but may also help you see where things have got in the way of your achieving what you wanted.
Are your goals concrete and clear enough?
4. What might get in the way?
It’s tempting to avoid thinking about this……… but ignoring it can be your downfall!
a. How might you sabotage yourself or allow others to sabotage you? It’s all very well to have ideals but it’s easy for old patterns of thinking to cut in and prevent us achieving them, with the result that we feel bad for not getting there and then get into self-blame for feeling bad.
Here’s an example. My main goal for 2021 is to complete my Focusing Practitioner Training, which I’m partway through. In order to be able to focus on my own training this year, I’ve decided to restrict my workload – but I know that this’ll create some anxiety for me around ‘not being a real therapist’; this anxiety has the potential to push me to take on more work, thereby sabotaging myself by not leaving enough time for the training course.
b. What will achieving your goals cost you?With any goal of doing something additional or different, there’s going to be something sacrificed – time, energy, money, etc. With the example above, achieving my training goal will cost me money this year, as my earnings are going to be lower. On the other had, what you sacrifice may be something you’re quite glad to let go – a toxic relationship, for example.
It’s important to take the cost into account, so that you can be more mindful that you have made a choice to prioritise one thing over another.
5. How can you support yourself?
The flip side of No. 4!
a. What will you gain in achieving your goals?This can be useful to consider, alongside the question of what achieving your goals will cost you. You may need to allow yourself to mourn for what you have to let go in order to achieve your goals, but you can balance that against what you’ll gain – why do you want this?
b. What do you need to do or NOT do to achieve your goals?Look at your responses to how you might sabotage yourself. So, with my example; I need to say No to additional clients over and above what I’ve decided is an OK level for me to maintain alongside my training. I also need to review my goals on a regular basis, so that if I’m struggling, I can decide what to prioritise, and what needs reassessing.
c. What resources do you need, and who might support you? This question will help you be realistic; you need to have the resources to get to where you want – whether it be financial, or emotional, or something else. For example, I need to remind myself that social supports are important for me – to ensure that I maintain contact with the people in my life who nourish me. If you can’t see where you can get the resources or support you need, you may need to get creative – perhaps by discussing this exercise with a friend or family member.
6. Review and refine your goals
Once you’ve completed steps 3 to 5, go back to the goals you set, and consider again whether they feel achievable. The purpose of those last few steps was to help you set goals that are realistic. If we continue to live through a series of lockdowns for the coming year, will this affect the achievability of your goals? Are they within your control? Are there less ambitious goals that are within your control and would move you toward where you ultimately want to be?
There’s a tendency to think that setting yourself high targets makes you work harder. Well, that might be the case for some people, but for most of us, we’re already pretty good at seeing where we feel we’ve failed; we don’t need to set ourselves up to do that.
Can you simplify or reduce your goals? Can you make it easier for yourself? Setting a goal or a target or a to-do list that some part of you believes is ‘too easy’ is more effective and more motivational than setting yourself one that you feel you ‘should’ be able to reach. Trust me on this, I’ve been there.
Now – adjust or rewrite your goals if necessary.
7. Choose a word for the year
You might already have something in mind, stimulated by this exercise. For example, the word that floated up for me was ‘Choice’ as it feels particularly relevant when I’ve chosen to commit to a goal that is going to affect how much work I can take on this year. Reminding myself that of ‘choice’ when I think ‘I have to’ is going to be useful.
If you don’t know where to begin, you could try simply writing down the first 20 words that come to mind and see if one fits, or do an internet search for ideas, such as 2021 Word of the Year. There’s no right or wrong with this.
Once you have your word, stick it up where you can see it from time to time.
8. Don’t leave your goals just lying there
Once you’ve done this exercise, come back to your goals in a week or so, to give yourself ‘settling time’. Read them over and see if there’s anything you want to add or change. Then, consider what smaller steps you can take to move forward. Break your goals down into the very smallest steps you can take.
Looking at the interim steps in this way might be particularly important if your ultimate goal is, for example, dependent on an end to pandemic restrictions. At some point, we will reach a less constrained ‘new normal’, and so there’s a good chance that there are smaller steps you can take to get yourself into a good position. Don’t forget to include attending to your own wellbeing as part of this process; your ultimate success requires you to be resilient and resourced.
Then pop a reminder somewhere to review your goals monthly or quarterly. Life gets in the way and for sure at the moment there may be lots of reasons why you feel you’re just plodding on. So make time for an occasional review of what you thought you wanted at the beginning of the year; this isn’t set in stone, so check – are your goals still relevant? What can you do to get closer to them?
Setting goals at the moment can feel as if it’s just another thing to make life hard. I’m tired of hearing about people who’ve seized the opportunity of lockdown to become expert on the piano, learn a foreign language from scratch or write a book. But this doesn’t have to be an opportunity to make yourself feel shitter; reflecting on what you want in your life can give structure and focus and bring your attention to what you can control rather than what you can’t. And by approaching it in a self-compassionate way, you might even help your dreams come true.
If you know what you want but aren’t sure how to get there (or if you don’t know what you want) you might find it helpful to speak to a therapist to clarify what you want for yourself and how you might make changes to help you move towards your goals. Get in touch with me via Contact details or search in a reputable online directory such as Counselling Directory, BACP or ACTO.
I had a week off recently. It was a bit ‘meh’. My previous week off had been a couple of months into lockdown and I relished being prevented from doing anything very much, in glorious weather. I expected to feel the same this time, and I didn’t.
Instead my mood yo-yoed and I found it difficult to settle. I enjoyed seeing some friends in real life – it felt like an ‘event’ – and I was also aware that in some ways seeing people in real life now feels a bit weird. Some days I kept bursting into tears and couldn’t motivate myself to do anything. One day the weather was terrible and I was relieved because it meant my options were reduced!
Exactly halfway through the week I crashed and had to go back to bed after breakfast. Initially I was railing against myself; unable to get up, to move, yet unable to allow myself to lie there – but by the afternoon I was able to surrender to not being able to do anything other than lie in bed and read Joan Aiken books. And that ‘surrender’ felt like an improvement – rather than being consumed by frustration that I wasn’t ‘making better use’ of my holiday.
The day after I felt, quite simply, better. We went to a wildlife reserve that we hadn’t been to for a few years……..and I realised how much I had needed to get away from home. I recognise how lucky I have been during lockdown to be able to get out for walks locally but something in me had really needed more country and to be out of earshot of traffic. For a while we just sat and listened to grasshoppers, birds and wind.
I caught up with a couple of people by phone/Zoom and discovered that I wasn’t alone in struggling, and that what I was dealing with was partly ‘Covid weirdness’. We spoke about places we’d been together, and I was taken a little out of myself and my horizons pushed further away.
It occurred to me that I’d shifted into another state from the initial fire-fighting in the weeks immediately before and after lockdown, through the girding-my-loins for the long-haul, and into something that felt a little like ‘pandemic fatigue’.
As I got ready to return to work, I noted down some of the things I’d learned that week. Here they are, in no particular order.
1. It helps to reach out
………even in a small way. Let others know that you’re finding it tough. Sometimes opening up to someone new can really help – not necessarily a counsellor, but someone you don’t normally have such conversations with. It can help you feel you’re not moaning all the time to the same people about the same old stuff.
2. Sometimes you need a few plans in place
Having a completely empty week that I could do what I liked in didn’t help me on this occasion – I just felt additional pressure to Use It Well. A couple of appointments, days out or even planned tasks, would have given me a bit of structure……….
3. …………and routine
Even on a holiday routine can sometimes be helpful; not necessarily the SAME routine, but something to create a scaffolding to hang your day on, such as getting outdoors at the start or end of the day.
4. Finding ANYTHING weird at the moment is normal
Even things you think are ‘just the same’. So much has changed in how we do things, that it’s affecting relationships, work, leisure. We’re more likely to notice BIG changes and consciously attend to them, but the subtle ones can be slightly out of our awareness and hence more destabilising.
5. Getting moving helps
Going for a walk is always useful for me; I had a looooong walk one day. Although it didn’t ‘make me feel happy’ something about the movement and being in a different space stirred me up and enabled me to clarify and voice some of the stuff that had been going round in my head and bugging me. Walking brought some kind of shift, and that’s what I needed. Swimming outside helped too, for different reasons. When I’m swimming in the sea, most of my focus is on not drowning or doing anything (too) risky and that makes it hard to ruminate – in fact, I’m too busy ‘being’ to notice how I’m feeling.
6. A change of scene is good
It doesn’t have to be a trip abroad. Taking a train, a drive, a cycle to somewhere else gets you away from your usual space. In my case this meant getting away from the reminders of all the things I wasn’t getting done at home, freeing up a little bit of space in my head. The risk of catching Covid from the car club car was outweighed, for me, by the emotional benefits.
7. Small tasks or activities help your mental health
Even things like cleaning or tidying. Finding a way to bring it back to one thing and focusing on that rather than being overwhelmed by the enormity of everything that I wasn’t getting done enabled me to do something and to feel a small sense of achievement from that, even where it was just cleaning the bathroom. It helps if it’s something you can do mindfully, bringing your attention to what you’re doing as you’re doing it (I did a bit of berry-picking) rather than, for example, clearing a pile of paperwork where each piece can potentially lead to another ‘to-do’!
8. Sometimes I just need to surrender to misery!
…….and to hide in bed. Fighting it can mean it takes longer to get through. For the morning of the day I spent in bed, I had a voice in my head telling me I was being lazy / needed to pull myself together / was wasting my week off, but once I’d made the decision to just stay there until I sensed that I wanted to get up, the relief of giving myself permission to collapse was – well, a relief. It was a turning point that seemed to free up more of my energy for the next day.
I’m not saying just letting go and being miserable is always the solution, but my hunch is that it’s more often helpful than you think – because there’s something about giving yourself permission that sends a really significant message to the part of you that might feel it’s not good enough.
Part of me continues to say “but you’ve had it easy during 2020 compared to many people”. I get that. I am grateful that my income hasn’t been affected, that I haven’t had to worry about home-schooling, that I have other privileges that many people don’t (not just my colour, but economics, class and where I live, too), that have meant that I haven’t been hit as hard as many people by this.
I can be grateful for all of that and I can also listen to that part of me that’s frightened and fed up and doesn’t know what’s going to happen…… and to let it know that I hear it. Expending energy on giving yourself a hard time for being a snowflake doesn’t help anyone else (or yourself).
If you can find the things that support you in difficult times you’ll have more energy available to support others.