I was thinking about my winter wardrobe, which I do a lot. In particular, I was thinking about the brown splashy-flower-print skirt from the clothes swap. I adore this skirt, and I would wear every day if I could work out how to stop it being too revealing when I walk.

It put me in mind of a black splashy-flower-print shirt that I had in college, which I idiotically swapped with my friend E for a white delicate-flower-print shirt that, of course, looked appalling on me. It was a ravishing garment, but it just did not suit me. I felt like I was trying to be E (which I was) and failing miserably. I felt like a carthorse next to her delicate beauty.* (And, of course, my shirt did as little for her as hers did for me, although I couldn’t see that at the time.)

Then I started thinking, what would happen if I saw that shirt now? It would still be utterly, utterly beautiful. But I would not buy it. Because I know it isn’t me.

So what changed?

One thing that changed is that I learned that there are things I look good in. As a student, I thought myself very plain, and I didn’t know about clothes, so I didn’t think it made very much difference what I wore. So I wore what other people were wearing, especially the people that I wanted to be, and I wore what I thought men would find attractive. And, for years, that’s how I bought clothes, as if the garment would somehow magically confer upon me the properties of the wearer.

And, over the years, I slowly found more things that I actually looked and felt good in, that were me. I started wearing long skirts because I wanted to look like someone I worked with, and I discovered that they felt wonderful, floating and sensual around me; I felt like a goddess. I started wearing colours that people admired me in, and discovered that green wakes me from the dead like Sleeping Beauty, but black and beige, the colours that the other bankers were wearing, made me look like a zombie Lady Macbeth. And I started being willing to look like me instead of wanting to look like someone else, because I started thinking that it might be okay to look like me, and because I realised that I would always be better at looking like me than I would ever be at looking at anyone else.

And, thinking about this, I started to get the glimmer of an idea that I think might be important.

My research focuses on strengths – star-shaped points. What are the unique qualities that make us who we are? What happens when we use them? And one of the things I keep noticing is that, when people use their strengths, they become more okay with being themselves. It switches from a vicious circle to being a virtuous one – the more they feel okay with being themselves, the more they value and use their strengths. And the more they value and use their strengths, the more they feel okay with being themselves.

And I’m starting to wonder, is the same true of how we look? When we see ourselves looking our best, or when someone else can see the beauty in us that we can’t see in ourselves, do we become more willing to look like ourselves instead of trying to look like others? Is this one step in the journey?

And, if so, how do these two things relate?

* Analogy nicked from Jilly Cooper

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I was attracted to mindfulness because one of our lecturers told me about the Buddhist monks who meditate. After a while, neuroscientists measured their amydgala, the centre of emotional reactions in the brain, and found it had shrunk.

I want that.

Until this year, I’d have said that I was the sort of person that things happen to. There was always stuff going on. Sometimes I was in the heights, but more often I was miserable. Life was never calm. There was always some romantic drama or some work drama (or, usually, both).

Sometimes I wanted a quiet life, but I defined a quiet life to be ‘quiet circumstances’, rather than ‘a quiet me’. But more often I liked my dramatic life – okay, so I was miserable, but at least I wasn’t bored. But I was miserable a lot of the time. And I made the people around me miserable, because I created drama, because I sabotaged the good things in my life.

And the reality is that most or all of this drama took place inside my head.

I have always been very emotionally reactive. Under the name of ‘neuroticism’, this is one of the Big Five personality traits that have been extensively studied by psychologists. Neuroticism is a big predictor of unhappiness, and of lack of success in life.

Neurotic people lead with the amydgala. Something happens, they react. Then the reaction becomes their reality. That’s been me for most of my life. It’s been very painful and it’s certainly been a major factor in the failures of my career and my relationships.

As with so much, I’m learning that it doesn’t have to be like this.

The first thing I’ve learned is that my emotions are like Scottish weather. They don’t last. My ex and I stayed on the West Coast of Scotland, and our host said ‘don’t worry if you don’t like the weather. There’ll be some more along in a minute’. I think that how I feel at the time is the truth. But it isn’t, any more than rain is the truth of the weather.

The next thing I’ve learned is that I don’t have to react from my emotions. In the past, when I got an email, I’d dash off a response, led by my impulses, driven by the feelings that the email had triggered. This was often unwise and certainly never optimal. When something happens, I’ve learned to wait before I respond, and I’m getting better every day at consulting someone else before I do anything, especially for the big stuff. So my actions are wiser. But, more importantly, I’m learning new and less reactive behaviour patterns. This is calming down my life from the outside in, and the mindfulness is calming it down from the inside out.

And it feels different now. When I get an email that I don’t like, I feel a twinge, but I don’t feel a jolt that slams my whole body.

I bet my amygdala is a bit smaller than it was at the beginning of the year.

For what? A rainy day?

August 7, 2008

I am brewing a post on dark happiness.

This is not that post. That post is going to be hard, and it might not appear for a while. But I do want to focus on one aspect of dark happiness taken from Dr Wong’s post: the idea that one can experience happiness even when life is grim, simply by placing one’s attention on the present and very near future. The example he gives is of someone who has made a tiny amount of medical progress. Maybe they are still in the hospital – and maybe they are never going to get out of the hospital – but they are in less pain for now, or can move something that they couldn’t have moved before. The prognosis is still bleak, but in that moment there is progress.

I really get this, and I find it valuable. I’m fascinated by the idea of ‘the noxious world’ that affects so many of us, and what positive psychology can mean for people facing such traumas and challenges. One criticism often levelled at positive psychology – and it is a fair one – is the idea that it is a ‘Pollyanna-ish’ science, and even politically dangerous because of it – encouraging people to seek happiness within themselves, whilst ignoring the genuinely unacceptable conditions of their life or the injustice and lack of compassion that leads to it. But I have also seen some of the most beautiful things in life arise from some of the darkest, even if these flowers bloomed for only a few moments before they died.

I can also see it in my life at the moment. I am not facing the trauma that Wong is facing, but many things are dark and the future is uncertain and frightening. If I concentrated on the circumstances of my life, I would be miserable. And I don’t want to be in denial. I’ve spent a lot of my life in denial, and it’s harmed me and people I love.

So I have a deal with myself. It goes like this. I ask the question: ‘What can I do today to work towards a better future?’ It might be step work, or college work, or starting to look towards the future – making a phone call or taking notes towards a CV. It might be having the courage to look at my financial situation even though it frightens me. So I do that.

Then I have the rest of the day off from thinking about it. There’s nothing else I can do that day. I have permission to put all the bad stuff out of my mind and concentrate on the day. And for the rest of the day, I feel okay. Then it starts all over again tomorrow.

I don’t know how long this is going to go on. There’s certainly no end in sight right now.

But I’m still okay. I’m not at my best ever, but I’m okay. I’m cherishing the few bright moments, and I’m really living in them, because I don’t know when I’m going to get any more. I get far more happiness out of small things – a nice outfit, a crossword, an episode of Father Ted – than I used to. I don’t think about the future at all. My horizon is really, really narrow.

It’s dark. I would not choose for my life to be like this.

But it’s happiness. And I think that learning to do this will serve me well.

I had some more driving lessons at the weekend.

I am still not a very good driver. Paul downgrades his ambition for me further with every lesson. Now we’re at ‘I’ll be happy if you can take the car out without having a panic attack.’ I point out that I still need to be able to park the damn thing. He says, ‘You might never be able to understand what the car’s doing, but if you learn the instructions for parallel parking then you’ll be okay’.

It got me thinking about strengths again. Peterson and Seligman claim that we have signature strengths, and that we’re at our best when we use them. They argue that signature strengths are innate and immutable. Similarly, Marcus Buckingham, who has led much of the extensive research on this at Gallup, makes a powerful case for focusing on our inborn talents. It’s an efficiency argument: we work hard on our weaknesses to improve slightly, whereas we can improve our strengths rapidly with much less investment, working with the grain rather than against it.

I mostly agree. In particular, as I believe I’ve written before, I think we waste a lot of time trying to be good at everything. In the corporate world, employers waste a lot of time trying to get their staff to be good at everything. And they sideline those who aren’t gifted at their ‘core competencies’, rather than finding out what people are good at. That’s the genesis of SSP.

I do better when I focus on my strengths than my weaknesses, even when my weaknesses are more directly related to the task in hand. I don’t understand why this is true – and I’ve never successfully made the case for it to an employer – but I believe it.

But I’m not learning to drive because I want to be good at everything. I’m learning to drive because I don’t want my father to be confined to barracks when my mother isn’t there. Whether I have natural talent is a moot point. It does raise an interesting question, though – how good should I try to be? Is there such a thing as a ‘good enough’ driver? Is it sufficient to have a formula for parallel parking, or do I need to understand exactly what the car is doing? It’s particularly interesting because the stakes are high.

And, as so often, I also think that it’s Always More Complicated.

Growing up, my gifts were those of the intellect – logic, analysis and synthesis, mathematics, creative thinking. I couldn’t relate to people at all. I didn’t understand them and they frightened me. I couldn’t work out the rules of saying the right thing, and therefore I usually said the wrong thing, and I couldn’t understand why it was wrong. In this day and age, I might have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.

Over twenty-years, I taught myself to be good with people. It has been slow. It has been difficult. I have had many setbacks and I have often been tempted to give up. But I am now better at being good with people than most of the people who are born good with people, because I have worked at it so hard. For the last five or ten years I have mostly been employed to be good with people.

And – here’s the interesting thing – when I work with people now, it feels like I’m using a signature strength. I’m in flow. I am energised and enthused. My soul is saying, yes, this is the work you are here for. It feels very similar to solving a complex problem, which really is work I was born to do.

So what’s happening when we use our strengths? Is it nothing more than the pleasure we take in the exercise of competence? Could I feel like this when driving if I practised enough?

Or is there more to it than that?

Giving in to temptation and live-blogging the preparations for my parents’ seventieth birthday party. (And, no, it’s not just so that I can use the title. Although now that you mention it.)

This post could actually be titled ‘project management lessons from the asylum’, or similar. We have thirty-seven people arriving in just under two hours. A little of the food has been ordered in, but most of it has been prepared by us. And, my family being what it is, we could easily accommodate another thirty-seven unexpected guests without running out of provisions.

We do events like this on about a five-yearly basis. It is completely bonkers. My mother does not enjoy it, because she is terrified that my father will overdo it and sustain an injury and put himself in hospital for months. (This is in fact quite likely.) My father does not enjoy it, because he hates parties. And, yet, there is a bizarre adrenaline-fueled kick to it all. I have been chopping eel fillets and dressing salads since early this morning, and I am rather disappointed that I now have enough of a break to write this post.

My family are all insanely competent. They all know exactly how to go about everything. They are very opinionated. They care very much that everything is done right. Therefore, there are lots of arguments about things like what size cheese knives to use and whether to stack the glasses on the left or right side of the table. In the past, I would have been in there with the best of ’em. These days I keep my head down and do what I’m told.

And, doing this, I notice that it’s a lot less stressful than it used to be.

It’s not completely comfortable. It is not comfortable taking orders from my younger sister on how to fill a water jug. My ego rebels. It is not comfortable observing the flaws in their project management . Who has an overall list of tasks in order? Why is C. making decisions and also doing tasks, which makes her unavailable to give orders to the next available minion? Why do I have a list of tasks without instructions, which means that someone has to stop what they’re doing and show me which bench is to be moved and where? I want to step in, not to get my way about how to cut the game pie, but to get them to improve their decision-making structure. Once a management consultant, always a management consultant.

Bu, y’know what? It doesn’t matter. Parties are like conferences. As long as there is enough to eat and enough to drink, it is very hard to screw them up. It will be fine.

It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t matter if there is a bit of extra angst or unnecessary activity. And I don’t have to make it right. I’m not responsible. Actually, it’s none of my business. I’m just the sous chef. It feels okay.

Maybe I will be able to go back into the workplace and just do my job. That would be very good news, if so.

This started as a comment, but got too long.

I agree with this. I don’t think it’s a good idea to be committed to an organisation, because it can’t commit to you. I know too many people who’ve had their hearts broken by redundancy after a lifetime’s service – not because of the loss of the job per se, but because they’ve discovered that their commitment to the company is not reciprocated.

But I think it’s possible to be committed to work in other ways. I think we can be committed to do a job as well as possible, even if it will be over by the end of the week. I think we can be committed to be present, to show up and do our best, even if we have no control over the outcome. I think we can be committed to people, to keep our word, to do what we’ve said we’ll do either verbally or through signing a contract with an company. I think we can be committed to learning, or to giving of ourselves without requiring reward or validation. (Not giving everything, but giving something real.)

We can be committed to a mission – to contribute to building equality, for example – through our work, through relationships and conversations, through how we lead our lives. (This isn’t a post about spirituality, but one of my favourite quotes is from St Francis of Assisi: evangelise wherever you go, and, if necessary, use words.) We can be committed to a path: to be loving, to grow, to spread clear thinking and reason. We can be committed to humanity – to do all our work in a way that will give something to others. I expect there are more.

At the moment, I’ve got as far as the concept of commitment. It’s everywhere in my thoughts right now. But I don’t yet know what I will commit to, and how I will practice it. I think it will take a while, because I’ve been doing the opposite for so long.

This list is a good place to kick off my thoughts, and I hope that more insight will come.

This post started about procrastination, because I am doing too much right now. I have a big college crunch and I should be working. Instead, I’ve spent today reading Reginald Hill and helping my flatmate spend money on clothes.

The first SSP post was about procrastination. SJ hasn’t done it all her life, but I have, and it’s a real problem. I’m better than I was, but I still procrastinate, especially working on my own. (Of my three assignments, I’m currently doing most work on the one that involves other people, even though that one has the least scary deadline.) SJ wrote about fear of failure, and I can certainly stick my hand up for that.

But I’m no longer sure whether procrastination per se is the problem, or whether it masks something deeper.

I spent Saturday morning finishing off step 5, confessing my somewhat tangled relationship history to C. And she noticed something that came as a surprise: the common thread is my fear of commitment.

I’d never thought about it like that.

But she has a point.

I looked up the dictionary definition and got the official act of consigning a person to confinement (as in a prison or mental hospital), which made me laugh a lot. But then I got this: The state of being bound emotionally or intellectually to a course of action or to another person or persons. That’s what I’m talking about.

I have had quite a few relationships, and I have twice cohabited with a partner. The second time, I thought we were going to get married, and I was devastated when it fell apart. Cohabitation, that’s commitment, isn’t it? Surely if I share my life with someone, I’m committed to them?

I’m not going to write about that relationship, because he would hate it. But I have come to realise that commitment is not what I believed it was, and that I was not as committed as I thought. In some ways, I was keeping myself apart, expecting that I would have to take care of myself. I didn’t really share myself. I didn’t give up control of my future. I didn’t put the relationship first and myself second. That’s one of the reasons the relationship didn’t work, and I regret it deeply.

It’s similar with work. I’ve never done a job for longer than two or three years, max. When I’ve got bored or the illusion has been shattered, I’ve walked away. And I’ve always been attracted to what I didn’t have and quick to find the flaws in what I did.

I need to learn commitment. I’ve worked harder on this course than I’ve ever worked before, but that’s not the same as commitment. If I were committed, I’d be working, not reading detective novels when the going gets tough.

I need to be committed to the work that I do. I need to be committed to the people in my life. If I am ever to have a relationship again – and I hope I will; I’m not even thirty-seven – then I need to be able to commit to a partner. I need to be committed to myself. Commitment needs to be at the centre of my spiritual practice right now.

I might be wrong. I’m often wrong. But I think that if I were committed, I wouldn’t procrastinate.