My self-identity has been constructed around my work ethic – I’m the one who works too hard; the one who has to consult my work calendar before planning social events; the accomplished one; the ambitious one. My name is Lou and I’m a recovering workaholic. It’s been eight months since I last worked. Actually – that’s a lie. I’ve done two days of consultancy and responsibly undertaking my duties as a Trustee.
What have I been doing in all that time? Honestly – there’s been a whole lot of Skyrim, a tonne of Magic: The Gathering, learning to paint miniatures, and a lot of podcasts. There’s also been a lot of tears, numbness, negative spirals, trips to the doctors and panic attacks. So many panic attacks! After six months of not checking in with myself, my old, old friend, the Black Dog, returned and this time, like every time, it felt like it was going to stay.
From a young age, I suffered from depression, anxiety and suicidal tendencies. From an even younger age, I was a dreamer, an adventurer and ambitious. I was bought up on stories of mythical proportions, of legendary superheroes and of life- and galaxy-changing events.
I didn’t want to be a princess when I asked what I wanted to do when I grow up – I wanted to work in a city, maybe in advertising (it was the 90s ok!) It wasn’t until I was an adult that I had the shocking realisation that I was ill-equipped to take on the world, with all its baddies and villains around every corner.
I didn’t pay enough attention to the parts of the stories where I had a partner, sidekick or an ensemble to help me on the journey; or why it was so important to risk everything to find that vital weapon, equipment or artefact; or where there’s was respite, a chance for the hero to rest and recuperate. My heroic journey looked a lot like the Hulk, bare-fist fighting through life – except it’s not the Hulk with his gamma-ray based superpowers, it’s Bruce Banner, his human alter-ego.
Unsurprisingly, it left me battered and bruised at times. Surprisingly, I managed to defeat a few bosses through sheer will and, later, accepted some help along the way. I was the first person in my immediate family to go to university. I was accepted onto a postgraduate research degree straight from my undergraduate. I was a Director by the time I was 32 and a Trustee at 33. As I turned 34, I was tired: burnt out and exhausted. At 34! Despite working with 16- to 22-year olds most of my life, I know that’s not old. I know I shouldn’t feel like I’m ready to retire at 34!
So, in the past eight months, I’ve taken a career break and recovering from ill mental health. I’ve been thinking about my journey and talking to others about their own. Above is what it looked like from the outside. On the inside, it was every bit the epic challenge akin to the heroic stories I grew up with. It was messy, visceral, glorious and rewarding. And it’s not over yet – but more about that later. Within that time, this has been brewing in the background: a blog for me to commit to my recovery and well-being. From different conversations I have had, I know that I’m not the only one who struggles to be both ambitious and anxious – or ambitious to overcome my anxiety. I’m publishing my musings in case it can help someone else who’s facing off against their own super-boss.
I know it’s been a while since I’ve written. On the face of it all, things have been going well. My resilience has been better, even though people I love have been going through a tough time. I got my first lot of feedback from my Masters – which reassures me that I’m on the right track, as well as the privilege of meeting some incredible people. My coaching practice is growing and maturing, and January introduced me to some new opportunities and clients which has been very exciting. I’m surrounded by people who love, care and respect me.
Over the last few days, I’ve been in a real funk. I can’t concentrate or focus. I seem to have a million thoughts and none all at once. My heart feels heavy and I can’t seem to feel grounded. And I had no idea why.
After distracting myself on social media, it dawned on me. The persistent news and climate had been overwhelming my subconscious. It wasn’t until I was having my monthly business catch up with a friend that I was able to finally be vocal about what the issue was. I am scared.
As a British Born Chinese person who lives in Norfolk, UK, my social media and news feeds has been full of people’s stories and experiences of racism following the news of the Coronavirus and of Brexit. The stories of British Chinese people’s experiences of racism in the past week has been relentless. People, including young children and the elderly, have been spat at, sworn at, laughed at and told to “go back to China” up and down the country. Although I haven’t experienced this personally this week, I realise now that it’s impacted me more so than I initially thought.
I was in London this week for a meeting. I’m there quite regularly and usually enjoy the hustle and bustle of the city. It felt different this time though. I was uncomfortable being surrounded by so many people. On reflection, it’s because I didn’t feel safe; I didn’t know what the danger might by or where it would come from. This is a feeling that is always there in the background, developed after years of experiencing comments, catcalls, threats and harassment as a woman of colour. But now, right now, I am so aware of it and there are people who have been emboldened to behave in this way.
I’m sad because I want to be optimistic about the world.
I’m afraid that my young sister will have to endure some of the bullying and harassment that I hoped was left within my own childhood.
I’m worried that my grandmother might get abused in the street as she goes about her day-to-day.
I’m anxiously assessing the risk has on my family’s businesses.
I’m frustrated that this still happens – and that there are people who experience this more often than I do, who are told to just get over it.
I’m angry that this hatred is creating a bigger chasm in society.
I feel helpless because all of this is bigger than myself.
It IS bigger than me. There have been some incredible responses to the racist behaviours and actions that have taken place, such as this response to the “Happy Brexit Day” note left in my local area and hearing stories about active bystanders who intervene on public transport when abuse is happening.
This IS bigger than all of us and, in my current state of vulnerability, I want to say a heartfelt thank you to each of you who advocate, defend, and support others. The fact that you understand that the emotional and mental load of always being the person to stand up against the hate and ignorance (especially if it’s directed at them), and are willing to be an active and vocal ally means a great deal to someone who, at that point in time, doesn’t have the energy or courage themselves to deal with it – that is the work of a superhero.
It’s OK if you don’t know how, yet. But try. Ask questions. Use your kind intention and the skills you have to-hand. Please try.
I know it’s been a while since my last post. You know what it’s like. Life gets in the way and I’ve been sooooooo busy. Hang on… where have I heard that before?
As you may have heard, I’m a recovering workaholic. After two too many burnouts, I made the decision this year to take responsibility to and for myself. This year, I started this blog, my own coaching practice and my Masters. I know, I know. It doesn’t sound much like recovery, but I promise, to me, my partner, loved ones and friends, that it IS different this time. How so? Well – let me tell you…
Here’s the test – next time you’re at a work thing, whether that’s in the office, a social, or doing “one more email/report/phone call/ presentation” at home – do you tell yourself, your friends or family “I just need to get this done.” Need. How about another one? Have you ever cancelled plans with friends and family because of work? Maybe you even lied about it. Guilt. Shame. One of my personal favourites – have you ever resented taking annual leave because it takes more time and energy preparing for your absence and spending three days catching up on ALL the things you didn’t do whilst you were on holiday. Dependency.
You might have heard me say this before – when I was signed off work by doctor and work refused to have me on site, man – that was the hardest. I was heartbroken. Devastated. It took a couple of weeks to deal with that – not the delayed grief of my divorce, which was what I believed was the initial trigger. Withdrawal.
It took me a couple more years before I realised that my relationship with work was crippling me emotionally as well as physically. How did that happen?
I denied that work was a problem. I told myself that I loved and enjoyed my job. I believed that there would be dire consequences if I didn’t do the things that needed do. I told people that I got more stuff done when there wasn’t anyone else in the office. I told myself that it’ll slow down in a few days/weeks/months/a year or two – I just need to make it until then. As a result, I slept badly, ate badly and relationshipped badly. This in isolation is bad enough but I can’t be the only one to get caught in a weird, unhealthy game of one-up-manship with colleagues after bouts of staying late… can I?
Which isn’t always easy since my commute mostly consists of five steps from bedroom to the office. I know it doesn’t sound like it – considering my list of new in the introduction – but here’s how I’m maintaining a more balanced approach to work.
Being unashamedly me
As the title of this blog suggests, I’m ambitious. I want to change the world – even if it’s one person and one day at a time. Winding down would just be settling – and I’m not OK with that. I’m happiest when there’s an abundance of activity to satisfy the different Lous. Slowing down or stopping completely will not actually sustain my wellness – so that’s not an option. The caveat is to have a range of activities that nurture and appease all the aspects of me.
Know where it comes from
As part of my recovery, I’m trying to be honest with myself – and allowing me and others to call out my unhelpful bullsh*t. This includes the motivations behind my workaholic behaviours. As a people pleaser, it became too exhausting to try and please everyone. And attracting Fakers became an occupational hazard. Now – I choose who I want to please – and I rank them. You’ll be glad to hear that I am pretty high up on that list! This means that I’ve learnt to say no and not yet to more people.
As someone who has a minor dose of saviour complex, it’s not my job or responsibility to fix or save anyone else. I can help; I can empower, and I can advocate. I cannot take on the world’s evils all by myself, all of the time.
Finally – in the past, when things went wrong, my go-to optimistic statement was “at least I know that I know what’s going on at work”. I know now, that in all aspects of my life, I always have options. There are always some things within my control. I don’t need to use work as an excuse to get lost away, or as a distraction, or to combat loneliness, or to exercise some control at a time where I feel like I don’t.
Know what works for me
When my work addiction was at its peak, I averaged around 70-80 hours a week. It took six months to plan anything social. It resulted in more than a few conversations with my partner and friends about how absent I was. Even when I was physically there, my mind would be working out how to resolve that conflict in the office, or how that would be helpful for my team to learn, or figure out how that would impact our membership.
Protecting my time takes a lot of effort still but that’s more chance to practise! In this space of new projects, it gives me a chance to assess what productivity tools works for me. I use the Most Important Task (MIT) method, which allows me flexibility and more opportunities to be spontaneous, whilst getting my essentials done. Flexibility is important to me so things like the 90-minute focus sessions or the Flowtime Technique really appeals to me and my ambitions. My most favourite productivity tool is the priority axis; on those days where I don’t know which way is up – this is my map.
Making and breaking the rules
My busy brain means that I struggle to jam it into a typical working week. I thrive in busy-ness, on one proviso. Like a vampire waiting at the front door, it has to be invited in. The MIT method above is powerfully effective for me. Instead of setting myself up within a widely recognised work schedule, each day, I pick two or three things that I want to focus on. That’s it. If I’m having a brilliant day, I’ll tick off the additional one or two tasks that were allocated as extras for that day. If more stuff comes off my priority axis – then I’ve wooden-staked it through the metaphorical heart! These get set each day, once I’ve assessed what mood I’m in. This staves off the guilt and, when taking appointments, it prevents me from overbooking. This, and working in blocks, allows me to communicate more clearly with my partner, friends, clients and peers on my focus each day and to move things about as needed, which liberates me from the 9 to 5.
be such hard work, and it doesn’t have to be. It does take practise and I might
slip up but that’s what being human is about right? But I am trying, and I am
learning– and so far, it’s working!
Hello– before we get into this, today (10 September) is World Suicide Prevention Day. I just want to give you heads up that this article touches on suicidal thoughts, self harm and attempted suicide. If you need it, whether you read it or not, here’s a hug from me! We’re going to jump straight in and then come out of it real quick OK? Here we go.
There will only be a couple of handfuls of people in my life who knew me before my first suicide attempt. If you do know me in real life, it’s unlikely that you’re one of them.
I was 12 years old when I took my first overdose. I was still 12 when I took my second and third. I was 23 years old when I took my last. I was self-harming from the age of 11. I arguably continue to do so to this day. My last suicidal thought was about three months ago.
During my first hospital admission, I was kept on observation overnight and told that I would need to see a child psychologist before I could leave. I got up the next day and was taken to my appointment. As I walked in, my psychologist was there with each member of my immediate family, including my young brothers. My session involved the psychologist facilitated each of my family members telling me, one by one, how my actions made them feel. How I disappointed them. How selfish I was. I had no opportunity to respond or follow up. I was then released. This was after my second attempt on my life. My third came quickly after that – and remained a secret, like the first and like every attempt after that.
My fight with suicidal thoughts, self-harm and attempted suicides has been with me most of my life. On those very days, it has literally been a fight for my survival. A fight that I wasn’t always sure I wanted to win.
On most days, I’m great. Since I am lucky enough to be here to share my stories and have a platform to do so, I’m using it to say some of the things that someone else closer to home might be thinking, that they can’t vocalise themselves right now. Because I can, and because I care.
Because depression, especially to the point of suicide, is incredibly lonely. And as scary as hell. The feeling like everything is out of control can make anyone do things that they wouldn’t normally be capable of.
Each person reading this can save someone else from grief. Because these thoughts and actions do not happen in a vacuum. It’s not entirely all in a person’s head. Thoughts and beliefs are influenced by external behaviours. And vice versa.
If you believe the worst about yourself, and it’s reinforced by other people’s perceived behaviours around you, it does just that – it reinforces those thoughts and beliefs. If it’s been lived a long time, it becomes that person’s reality. And we all know how hard it is to change and challenge your beliefs. Suicidal thoughts and actions are built over years.
In my long road to recovery, there have been many people involved – directly or indirectly. My instinct of serving others has given me families who nurture, support and build me up. Where I’ve met adversity or someone taking advantage of my kindness, whether that’s another gamer in a relevant scenario or working with a competitive, self-serving colleague, my relationships with those I’ve nurtured and celebrated always stood by me. Even when I’m not there.
But you, yes you – you can change the trajectory of that person’s fate. Be the kindness that is missing. Be present in your interactions. Show others that it’s OK to slow down, take care and put your well-being first. Be honest about your feelings, needs and expectations. Be generous with your praise. Be constructive in your feedback. Build confidence and self-esteem in others. Be the advocate when they can’t represent themselves. Embrace uniqueness, community and diversity. Own your own sh*t, instead of projecting onto others.
But you do need to do it. Unless you’ve been through it, you’ll never really appreciate the impact that a well-timed cup of tea, or a statement of praise, or a surprise phone call can make. For me, each of these have saved my life at different points of my life.
So, to conclude – Mum, I love you. But you were wrong. My sensitivity isn’t my weakness. It is my strength. My superpower. Because now, after years of harnessing it, my vulnerability and honesty is what gives me the drive and power to help other people who are fighting for survival. Now and in the future.
Hello– before we get into this, I just want to give you heads up that this article touches on suicidal thoughts. If you need it, whether you read it or not, here’s a hug from me!
I’ve previously written about how it important it is to nurture different aspects of your identity – and I stand by that! As workaholic who found myself in a place where I couldn’t work, this shook my very core. In the past, when everything else went wrong, I had my work – my constant. Leaving my job, feeling like a failure – it put me in a long-spiral that I hadn’t been in before. My usual tools and techniques weren’t working, and I found myself in the darkest place; a place I moved away from as a young adult. A place I managed to avoid during my divorce; after my grandfather’s passing; and after being told that I couldn’t have children. A place where I felt like there was no way but out. The Demon Pit.
Here’s how the Demon Pit works. Its special power is the ability to distort your thoughts. The walls are built from external factors, messages and observations that’s been internalised. Its narrow walls bounce those morphed and mutated ideas over and over, unceasing in its echo. “It’s too hard.” “You’re not worth anything.” “You’re a waste of space and time.” “There’s no point.” “Everyone would be better if you would just disappear.” “Just give up already.”
In order to work through the unrelenting darkness, I took time out to be still, to listen, to decipher. I started to spot themes and to name them. I identified them by their own needs, passions, concerns and origin stories. And now, I’d like you to meet them.
Little Lou (AKA Geek Lou) – she’s usually involved in some form of discovery, whether it’s practical, creative or non-nonsensical. She’s curious, enjoys puzzles, loves to laugh and likes to experiment and play. She’s a bit of a mischief, will play really crap but harmless pranks, and is competitive as hell! Even if she is rubbish at something, she’ll do her damnedest (go ask the other girls on the school netball team!) She is a joy seeker, with a rare but deadly tantrum tendency. Her love language will involve some form of crafting, puzzle, or pop quiz.
Warning – being the youngest, she’s mostly likely to get neglected. Her boundless enthusiasm but flighty nature tends to grate against some of the more mature personalities. She’ll also ask A LOT of questions and will eat ALL of the cake if you let her.
Mumma Lou – she’s usually lurking about but will make a grand appearance when around vulnerable, drunk and/or lost people. She’s pragmatic, sensible, and unashamedly a feeder. Will always have a handy pack of everything on her and is frequently heard to shout “make good choices” at people she deems in her care. Her love language is pretty much exclusively food and servitude.
Warning – she will absolutely put you first, at the cost of her own needs or wants. This will likely result in her inability to decide where or what to eat. She does not know how to look after herself anywhere near as well as she looks after others. Also, you’ll know by the tone of her voice if you’ve done a bad.
– mostly dormant but will take over the gears when things get too difficult.
She’s focused, pragmatic, capable, and a bit of a control freak. Her role is to
take over the day-to-day stuff when there’s too much emotional clutter in the
way and box them away for you to deal with later. Her love language is taking
on the load, so you don’t have to.
Warning – she doesn’t turn off automatically so you must remember to do that, otherwise she might just run, say, ten years of your life! The longer she’s in charge, the more emotional clutter you must deal with when she’s gone.
Warrior Lou (AKA Super Lou) – like Ms Marvel (spoilers!), she’s busy battling bad guys all over the show, so isn’t always present but is about as much as she can and certainly when it counts. And when she is, she’s unmatched! She’s strong, independent, strategic, and empathetic – a champion for the underdogs and oppressed. She will fight to rid the barriers to opportunities, equality, and happiness that people face, with superhuman endurance and classic comic-book sass. And she tends to show up just in the nick of time. Her love language is to challenge you to a duel of some kind.
Warning – like the X-Men’s Dark Phoenix, even Warrior Lou needs to refuel (hopefully not instigating casual genocide in the process – Uncanny X-Men #135). She might not think it most days, but she really does!
Worrier Lou(AKA Anxious Lou) – she’s really struggling in the Demon Pit. She’s fiercely protective and a bit of scaredy cat. She just wants people and things to be safe. She struggles to keep up with the other personalities, hates thinking she’s being a party pooper, and just wants to know there’ll be somewhere to rest at some point. Her love language is doing her best to protect you from harm.
Warning – like her mythological counterpart, the prophet Cassandra, she’s sounding the alarm but no one’s listening. Ignoring her just makes her worse, desperate for someone to believe her. You comfort her by acknowledging her and listening to what she has to say, so she doesn’t feel so invisible. Remember, she’s only trying to help. She also loves a good risk register!
In my twenties, I was told it was important to distinguish the two. Especially as people were getting used to the implications of social media. Even I have spoken to students about managing their external brand. In my thirties, I realised how ridiculous this was. As a manager, I could see clear examples of how this could be detrimental to staff, especially in a membership charity, led by collaborative values. As a leader, I wanted my teams to trust me, to understand my motivations and to come with me on my ambitious adventure. It’s too much work to drag people along with their defiant dead weight! To do that, being an authentic version of myself was key.
because they saw that I was a complex human like them and that we’re all in it
together, but that being myself made me a happier, more optimistic, and more
productive. Ergo – a much more pleasant and positive influence. By celebrating
my own quirks, interests and peeves meant that one, they were prepared for them,
and two, that it was safe to celebrate theirs. Unsurprisingly, I’m not actually
that much different at home or with friends.
Work Lou will have a stronger leniency towards Warrior and Worrier Lous but actually,
Little Lou allows for unabashed celebration and praise, innovation and creativity
that the others don’t really bring to the table. Robot Lou can calmly navigate any
situation, whilst Mumma Lou will nurture, support, and bring in cold medication,
tissues and a bucket of vitamins come flu or Freshers season.
Life Lou is really not all that different – she’s been running a successful gaming community with her friend for over four years; she’s convinced that she’ll learn Dothraki one day – just because; she’s excited by travelling but terrified of things that might try to eat her; she hangs her laundry just so, to minimise creases before folding them away; and she will whip you up three course banquet because you looked like you had a bad Tuesday. To be fair to my patient partner, on those days that Warrior Lou’s done a full shift, I’ve been known to completely forego decision-making responsibilities at home.
Despite being in deepest, darkest abyss at the end of 2018, despite being overwhelmed by a thousand seemingly terrifying voices, feeling all alone in that despair, it is this group of amazing personalities that gets me through. When we first landed at the bottom of the pit, each of them fought to be heard, each of them scared of the unknown. In time, I learnt to listen carefully and learn from them; to learn to love them for the individuals that they are. Because they really do make one hell of team.
Together, we’re climbing towards those outreached hands trying to pull us out of the darkness. Some days, even now, we slip and fall but we’re still making out way up together.
IF YOU DON’T FEEL THAT YOU CAN KEEP SAFE RIGHT NOW, PLEASE SEEK IMMEDIATE HELP. YOU ARE ABSOLUTELY WORTH IT! CALL SOMEONE: A FRIEND, A FAMILY MEMBER, AN AMBULANCE, A LOCAL CRISIS NUMBER… SOMEONE.
It was my first day at school. I don’t really remember feeling nervous. I learnt to speak English at nursery (or kindergarten for non- UK readers) so, as far as I was concerned, the hard part was done. My mum and I got to the school gates and went to say goodbye. She put her hands on my face and told me to have a good day. All pretty standard. She then handed me a bag of pick-and-mix sweets – not the penny sweets kind, but the fancy ones from Woolworths in the pink stripy bag! She instructed me to share them with the other kids so I could make friends. This was one of those innocuous memories that I had that I didn’t realise left a profound message on me – at least not until I explored this with my therapist as an adult.
In support of my mother, this was fair. She grew up in the UK as a teenager, after my grandfather moved the family from Hong Kong. I grew up in a Norfolk town where, let’s be honest, isn’t known for its diversity. Like lots of first generation British Born Chinese (BBCs), we were the only Chinese family in our town, especially in the early days. One of my classmates was of Asian descent and we contributed to the handful of ethnic minorities in our school. So, on that first day at school, she unintentionally implanted a belief that I still struggle to shake off on a bad day –
As a child, I never really fit. I was too Chinese at school;
too English at home. I was taught to integrate by my parents and taught to
embrace and celebrate my family’s heritage by my grandparents. I stereotypically
worked in our family friend’s takeaway as a teenager. I would deal with racial
slurs from some customers at the counter and then be ridiculed for using the
wrong Chinese words in the kitchen (if you’ve ever tried to say “wash” or “die”
in Cantonese, you’ll know what I’m talking about!)
It wasn’t just about race. I was told to work hard, to make a better life for myself. This wasn’t the general culture at my school, so I was torn between studying hard and fitting in. I tried desperately to be good at sports and the arts. I was lucky to have found a great group of friends, even it changed about sometimes. We were working it all out together. However, I stood out like a sore thumb for some people. After a childhood of bullying, when it started to happen to my younger brother, I learnt to fight back. I became a defender and a champion for those who were being victimised. This certainly meant it was harder to keep a low profile, so I got on with it. As lots of us felt as teenagers, everywhere felt like a battleground. The clash of different cultures, expectations, and languages shaped my upbringing of conflict.
And then I left home. I finally finished school, I packed up my stuff into a car, kissed my tearful mother goodbye before I drove off to university – with my two youngest brothers dragging their mattresses to claim my newly vacated bedroom. To cut a long story short – this is where I found my people. Other outcasts, geeks and freaks. My longest love – my best friend – told me a few years back that she was so grateful this unlikely band of misfits found one another. We all grew up feeling the same – like we didn’t fit, for lots of different reasons. We had also picked up the same skill to “fit in” or “fight it out”. Our adult version of the bag of sweets at the school gates was servitude and usefulness.
For example, one of my fondest memories was hearing a rabble outside, chanting. When we went to see what the fuss was, it turns out the rugby teams were outside of my house, chanting “Mama Lou” en route to their social.
Of course, it’s nice to liked. It feels good to be needed
and important. But as I argued in my previous blog, agreeableness isn’t always
helpful. I developed an unhealthy relationship with boundaries – or the lack
of. I gave so much of myself away, I had nothing left. When I had to take time
off work due to my mental health, I hated myself for being so selfish, for
being a failure. I then felt complete loss. How am I still me if my driving
purpose wasn’t to take care of others? It took me three months of crying, therapists
and hard work to begin to unpick and rebuild my core identities.
It – and some incredible support from awesome people – eventually
helped me unlearn the unintended lesson my mother taught me on my first day of
school. I didn’t have to show up with something to make friends; I just had to
show up. I didn’t have to pretend to be something I wasn’t to make other people
love me. If I did the things that made me happy, I would meet other people who
loved what I loved; luckily for my former colleagues, one of these activities was
learning to bake! If I was excited and enthusiastic, people around me were too.
If I was happy in myself, then I could help others with energy, generosity and
So now, I nourish different aspects of my identity – I am a
British Born Chinese person, who connects with other BBCs; I am a Magic: The
Gathering player, who spends too much time and money on cardboard; I am a
budding miniatures painter, who really wants to win my first painting competition
in a year’s time; I am a compassionate, loving friend, who is anything between
20 minutes to two hours late for social engagements (patience is pretty mandatory
for my closest people); and I am writer and coach, who is still working some of
this stuff out herself.
There is so much fear and uncertainty out there – no wonder we’re all a bit anxious. I know the only thing I can truly do is to look after myself and doing the things that gets me “talking hands” excited, so that I can keep helping others find and maintain their joy.
“You’re so lovely.” “You’ll never meet a nicer person.” “Have you met Steve – he’s great!”
All these sounds like compliments, right? Absolutely! I pride myself on my my level of agreeableness. I like the positive impact I can have on others – in fact, I thrive on it. It makes me happy that that’s how my colleagues, staff and stakeholders see me. My last 360˚ feedback contained the most comments on my approachability, empathy, personability, and positive approach. So why am I making a case against agreeableness? Why am I arguing against something that’s integral to my own nature?
We make decisions about who to trust and who to work with based on how well we get on with another person. We avoid interacting with people who make us feel uncomfortable and awkward. We make assumptions on individuals based on how they make us feel – if they smile at us and seem excited to see us, we assume we can trust them and that they will open and honest with us. Most of this is decided almost the instant we meet someone. My fellow people-pleasers, this works well for us. We’ve had years of practice putting people at ease and building an atmosphere of trust and safety. Do you know who else masters these skills?
For those of you unfamiliar with organisational psychologist Adam Grant’s work, his video here and book, introduces to us the concept of Givers and Takers. Super quick summary – Givers help others, usually at the expense of themselves. Takers will trample on everyone else to meet their own needs. There is another group – one where most people fall into; the Matchers. These are people where help is transactional.
As a Giver, who is now in my third burn-out in my career, there are some lessons to be learnt by this Ted Talk. Here, Adam explores how agreeableness skews how we identify those people. We assume that if someone is approachable, they’re likely to be Givers. Let me just elaborate on Adam’s point on why this is incorrect…
I can safely say that *spoilers* the demise of Games of Thrones’ Petyr Baelish, more commonly known as Littlefinger, was joyous and cathartic. Why? Sorry if you’re not a GoT fan. To catch up, this video explores the methods he uses to be the absolute worst.
He was hateful character – manipulating the key plot points in the
whole series, without guilt or remorse. And he got away with it because he was
agreeable; he was able to win people over and influence those around him. He made
sure he was in the right space, at the right time, with the right people. His
focus was laser-sharp, and his favourite tools were concealment, misdirection
and his disarming smile.
If this reminds you of someone, trust that instinct and create
some distance, especially if you’re a Giver. Fakers thrive off Givers, more so
than disagreeable Takers. We’re likely to stay away from people who are difficult
or create strategies to deal with them. We’re not so good at identifying people
like Petyr Baelish in real-life. Have a strategy that protects you from that type
of person. Distance yourself if you need to. Or join me in Adam’s revolution to
move them out.
On the other hand, there is a final group who are unsung, hidden
allies. The disagreeable Givers. I’ve made friends with a few of them in my
time – the ones who are grumpy, difficult and critical; they’re usually quite sweary.
They seem to be the cause or in the middle of conflict. If you take a deep
breath, close your eyes and listen – their argument will always be focused on
the problem; it doesn’t get personal (unless the conflict’s been allowed to continue
for too long). As Adam says:
What I’ve learnt through this talk and book has been threefold:
1. Even though I want to help others succeed, I can’t sacrifice my well-being to do that – especially when there are people who will take advantage of that
2. I now understand why I found connecting with some people who were perceive as disagreeable quite easy – disagreeable doesn’t mean that they are a selfish person
3. I absolutely want to work and influence the world of work where people can contribute in the way that is best for them, without being taken advantage of – or the fear of that happening.
I really struggle as defining myself as someone who has ill mental health. Despite my drive to raise awareness and combat stigma, it still gets to me sometimes. I get frustrated that I’m not better yet. I get annoyed at myself that there are some days where I feel limited by my anxiety and depression. I get wound up that I’m not ready to take on the world. Yet.
Yet. That’s such an important word that I’ve tried to introduce into my day to day lexis. It reminds me that I won’t always feel this way. It reminds me that my limitations won’t always be there.
My ambitious brain is starting to make more of an appearance these days – which is nice. It’s completely at odds with my anxious brain, who really doesn’t like another in limelight but that’s OK. My anxious brain is trying to keep me safe. Unfortunately for it, I’ve always been more comfortable in the stretch zone. Oh the ongoing conflict of an anxious, ambitious person!
Anyway, how do I get by with such an internal feud going on. I’ve had to learn to listen to my body. A few years back, I underwent a programme of therapy using the Rosen Method, and as odd as it was, I found it so helpful in understanding how my body undergoes this stress and how it tries to protect me from it.
On those days where I feel energised, focused and driven, I’ll try to write some goals and allow myself to do some day-dreaming. I might even get a few bits done. Right now, I’m developing this blog and looking at starting up my own business. There’s lots to do and lots to learn, which really excites and satisfies my ambitious brain. It also really helps on those days where I wake up and I’m not so sure. There’s a list ready and I know that even on those tentative days, I have a plan to follow and I can just do the bits that I can handle. They help me get to my goals one step at a time.
On those days where I’m low, depressed and anxious, I’ve learnt to take care of myself without the guilt. Guilt for me is the biggest trigger for a downward spiral. And so I try to keep it at bay, reminding myself that I’m not OK but I’m working towards it. I appease my anxious brain by taking a break. On those days, my goals are smaller. They include getting out of bed and getting into clean clothes. Remembering to eat something. Keep drinking squash (I’m not keen on plain water). Maybe drop a message to my tribe (I’m guilty of locking myself away when things are bad). Nothing dramatic but just so that they know and they offer their love and support when I need it most (people can’t actually read minds. Yet.)
Wherever you are on your own journey, I hope that you are kind to yourself and remember it’s OK to have a bad day. There’s lots of stuff around self-care at the moment so it can get confusing. For me, it’s knowing that on those days where I’m particularly tough on myself, I remind myself that I am my own worst critic so no-one else actually thinks these things. I try to human and I will do something that I enjoy and can feel a sense of achievement. Whether that’s painting a new model, levelling up on my game or making the bed.
Overcoming anxiety and depression is hard work, particularly
if you have an aversion and cynicism to therapy like I did. I had a traumatic
experience as a child, which took me well over a decade and some convincing
from work to get over. When things got bad a few years back, I tried whatever
therapy I could, mostly because I wanted to avoid medication. I worked with a
counsellor and I was also introduced to a therapy, commonly known as the heart
and mind method.
The Rosen Method, it’s official name, was one of the
strangest experiences of my life.
You get undressed so that you’re in your pants/briefs/knickers/boxers/etc
– like you would do for a massage. The therapist then touches you lightly as
you go through talk therapy. What happens next is weird – but not in a
safeguarding kind of way. Despite practising yoga on and off for years, it was
the first time that I really understood that my body’s been trying to tell me
about my feelings.
In my first session, the therapist was able to tell that I had a long history of being burdened with responsibility – just from looking at my shoulders. As I laid on my back, she asked me a bit about that, and as I spoke, she put her hand on my chest above my heart and observed how much emotion I kept locked up, in my chest. Well, that did it. The dam opened and I cried like never before.
And so embarrassing. Luckily, she’s seen it all before and
reassured me that people react very differently to different things during
therapy. Some cried like I had; others laughed uncontrollably. Throughout the
course of my programme, I discovered my armour – the things my body did to
protect me. For example, it helped me understand why I would make myself as
small as possible during a panic attack, balled up and clutching my chest. It
helped me to realise how much moving, having my feet on the floor and dropping
my shoulders would help me fend off an incoming anxiety attack.
It helped me understand that whilst my depression and anxiety
felt like it was all in my head, my body was trying to help, and it would
suffer too during a panic attack. I frequently had knots in my neck and
shoulders, particularly after I’ve managed to unbunch myself after a panic
attack. It’s why my therapist was able to see that I had a history of ill
mental health – my broader shoulders indicated the number of panic attacks and
stress I carried. That’s not to say that if you’re broad shouldered that you
should get help, but it was interesting to see. My frame isn’t naturally so, and
my therapist’s experience could see that.
After every session, my body felt heavy, grounded. For those
who practices/d yoga, it was the same feeling as coming out of a yoga session.
Just with some damp tissues and runny nose (in my case anyway). My mind felt
less cloudy and my heart felt lighter. It didn’t fix everything straight away.
I saw my therapist for eight months. There are days where I feel I should
probably go back. It did, however, give me some insight and tools that I only
really forget when I’m having an incredibly bad day.
I’m not saying it will work for you, but I am saying that if you have panic attacks and/or some really old stuff hidden in there, maybe give it try. What’s there to lose? For me, it was some of my insecurities and ignorance to how much I really do beat myself up. And a couple of quid each time. But do you know what, I’m worth that investment. And I have sneaking suspicion that so are you.
Let’s get something straight – I’m objectively OK at maths. I got a B at GCSE. I enjoy research data. I can get by in life. It’s such a simple thing so why am I exploring this? A friend gifted me a copy of Rachel Hollis’ book ‘Girl Wash Your Face’. The premise of this book is addressing the lies we tell ourselves (chapters named as such): “I should be further along by now”, “I’m a terrible writer” and “I need a hero”. This was just after a week-long work cult looking at personal effectiveness and power, where we explored the relationship between thoughts, feelings and external experiences. It wasn’t until I was applying for CEO jobs that my own lie of “I’m bad at maths” started to really resonate with me – and hammered home my understanding of what Rachel and my course were trying to outline.
In the height of my anxiety, I was applying for ambitious roles – because it was the most natural step for a go-getter, right? My tribe and fellow professionals were supportive and, on paper, I was a good candidate. I had experience, a vision and the drive. It was logical. So that’s what I did.
And it was horrible. Not the interview, or the panel, or the structure of the process. In fact, it was one of the most positive recruitment experiences I had had! So, what went wrong? My narrative that I was bad at maths was stumped up against psychometric testing required at that level. This combined with my crippling anxiety meant that I couldn’t get past just doing what I needed to do. This lie that I had been telling myself had formed into a belief; I believed that I was bad at maths. I believed that I couldn’t demonstrate my ability to work out percentages, analyse stats and budget forecasts.
Objectively, I’ve set and managed multi-departmental annual budgets worth over £1 million. I worked on recruitment and student data throughout my career. I happily completed project bids and evaluation projects. But this lie, this belief, combined with my ill mental health, made me less than rational. It consumed my self-confidence, leaving me feeling completely unprepared to something that I really wanted to do.
I bombed it – full blown apocalyptic decimation. Half an hour before my panel interview. Even after a pep talk from my people, I couldn’t shake it off. So, for the first time in a very long time, I bombed the interview too. This then reinforced other lies I told myself – “I’m not good enough” and “they found out you’re a fraud”. For those of you who have experienced anxiety, you’ll recognise that I went into a spiral. Hard.
A very honest but tough conversation with my partner helped me realise the most harmful result of my lie about my mathematical abilities was that it hid some hard-hitting truths from me.
I wasn’t ready to get back to work. I wasn’t ready to take on the world. I wasn’t well enough. Yet. And that hurt. It was frustrating. To the point where I’m still reeling from it. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I felt like I let people down. I felt like I lost a huge part of my identity.
It was then
that the very first seed of this blog was sown. I wanted to focus on getting
better, to feeling more like my authentic self. Don’t get me wrong, this is
difficult when depression kicks in too! It’s been six months from that point to
finally getting around to writing my first post, but I’ve been taking each day
as it comes since. And will continue to do so each day after.
If you’re like me, you love and hate lists in equal measure. It feels great when you’ve got 30 minutes to sort through your workload and get it all down. It feels even better when you can get lots of stuff crossed off! On the other hand, you may also have been paralysed by the sheer amount ahead of you. I can’t be the only who feels like for each thing I cross off, like the heads of the Lernaean Hydra, two more grew to replace it. Emails, meetings, and “have you got five minutes” chats were a very real Sisyphean struggle.
It wasn’t just the actual work, but also the mental load. If you’re unfamiliar with this, an anonymous French illustrator, known simply as Emma, has gone viral over the last couple of years with her comic demonstrating what the domestic mental load looks like. In a previous role, being the only female senior manager and as a people-centred leader, lots of this mental load fell onto me. This meant that outside of the 50+ hours I did in the office, this invaded into my spare time – running to the supermarket to pick up the birthday/leaving/well done treats; looking up local specialist contacts for staff I couldn’t help on my own; and keeping a note of who was struggling with what and triggering issues.
After checking in with my closest people, I decided to be more disciplined with my time and energy. It reminded me that I stopped doing the exercise that my former counsellor shared with me – to protect my boundaries. In a bid to get some of my life back, I pointed out to my line manager that I was the only senior manager that the crying people came to. This was having a negative impact on my well-being and my workload. We then implemented a staff well-being and resilience programme. My other tactic is the main one and one of the few habits I’ve managed to maintain longer term.
I started to
set goals for my hobbies. Yes – just like I did at work. I wanted to finally
learn to paint miniatures for this game that I invested heavily in; I wanted to
finally reduce the ridiculous amount of open missions on Skyrim; and I wanted
to be good at Magic: The Gathering again. This retrained my brain in a
significant way – if it wasn’t on my list, I wouldn’t get around to doing it.
If it’s not on the list, it’s not important. Take a deep breath and listen
Got that? If
you replied yes, then you got it much quicker than I did. But let’s talk about
how helpful (or not!) guilt can be another time. Ultimately, setting hobby
goals gave me a chance to work out why I enjoyed the things I did and want I
wanted to get out of it. Having goals and an action plan gave me a weapon to
bat off things that tried to leech off my free time. It gave me time to rest
and recuperate. Unlike lots of aspect of my job at the time, which involved
long term projects and cultural changes, my hobby goals gave me that instant
hit of achievement in a shorter space of time. It made me save some time and energy
aside to spend with people who nurtured other aspects of my personality – not
just Work Lou.