Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Who are you today?

This is the extended* Wellbeing column, first published in the York Press on Tuesday, November 8th.

A recently bereaved friend, Laura and I were having a chat and the subject of her new and unwelcome title of ‘widow’ came up. Further discussion revealed that Laura had other titles. She was also a mum, step-mum, sister, grannie, aunt, neighbour, friend, golf partner and cousin, to name just a few she could claim. Titles can also be labels.

As we were talking, I reflected on a recently hectic two weeks away. Time had been spent being a wife, sister, sister-in-law, mum, mother-in-law, grannie, aunt, schoolfriend, college friend and acquaintance. At times I felt like the comedian and magician, Tommy Cooper in his act where he kept changing hats and voices. Remaining at home was neighbour, writer, colleague, friend, volunteer and ‘me’.

These titles or labels, reveal the roles we have as life unfolds. It can be like a play with different scenes and actors who come and go, it certainly can border on a farce at times, tragedy at others. Or I like to think of a book with many chapters and characters, with each turn of the page providing the twists and turns in our story. Sometimes the focus can be on one role to the detriment of others. Perhaps it’s only temporary, but we need to remember the other roles we have. We can forget or have no time for ’me’, the narrator of our story. It’s not selfish to think of ones own needs and ‘me’ needs attention too, but in balance. Too little or too much ‘me’ leads to difficulties.

Illness and disability can be a title or label, especially if our needs are being met through playing this role. We should be careful of the role of victim. If played for too long, being a victim is ultimately psychologically and physically unhealthy. I was taught to ‘separate the person from the problem’. Saying, “I have an alcohol problem” rather than “I am an alcoholic” or ‘“I have episodes of depression”  rather than “I am a depressive’" can help people see that they are much more than their problem and therein will lie the solutions. 

*I have known people who have shared the same illness/disability, but the difference in managing their situation arises from their attitude. The people who live entirely in the role as a victim will not have as a fulfilled life, as the people to whom the illness/disability is only part of who they are.

Unhelpful labels that were given to us as children need to be challenged too.

* One of my first clients presented with anxiety problems. Almost immediately he explained that when he was a little boy, his mother used to introduce him to people they met as, "This is Peter, he's our anxious one." It had stuck with him all his life, but now he wanted to get rid of the label. Probably one of the most common labels from childhood, that adults can still feel attached to is, "you're stupid." It's so important to look at the context. Who said it? Why? What was going on? Is it really necessary to still keep that label now?  Throwaway comments made by parents, relatives, teachers and siblings can be extraordinarily unhelpful, if the child keeps them into adulthood. It can be a comment that hurt deeply, but as an adult with emotional maturity, we can see the fuller picture and see the comment for what it was. 

Unfortunately, we are given to recall the few negative words spoken in the millions we're heard over the years, rather than the positive ones. I'm reminded of an advertisement some years ago, with a cartoon demon character attempting to stop an adult taking a training course by whispering negative comments in her ear. It can happen to us every day and we need to blow raspberries at the demons and tell them to go away - strongly!

Meanwhile our story continues:
Let’s turn the page. I wonder what happens next?