Showing the Best Bits

Several things over the past months have got me pondering my use of social media:

1) My job has been hectic and stressful from day one. If you know me in real life, I have definitely complained to you about work at some point. I have written about it here before, to the extent that one of my colleagues (after reading a few blog posts) commented “Wow, work really isn’t a happy place for you, is it?”. But work is a happy place for me. While issues around pay and workload have contributed substantially to my stress levels over the last fourteen months, the job itself is interesting, flexible and challenging, my colleagues are wonderful humans, and we have a lot of laughs. That comment made me realise that I sometimes use this blog as a venting zone, a place to let off steam… not so much a place to highlight all the good things in my life.

2) Earlier this year, my dad stayed with me for a week when there were some particularly troubling things going on at work. Tempers were running high, HR complaints had been made, and the people involved were, to put it mildly, f***ing strung out. After dad had gone home, in response to a social media status update, he sent me an email that said something along the lines of “You’re doing really well, nobody would ever know that work is a shit”. At the time I was pleased – I do kind of take pride in my ability to keep myself together and not let on when I’m upset.

3) Over the summer I was working two jobs. Recently, one of them (not the hectic one) was wrapping up. I had a few things to get finished before I left, and not much time. In my main job, one of my colleagues was away and I had taken on some of her role, as well as having heaps of extra work related to another project I am seconded to. I was putting in long days (8am-6pm) at work, then going home and working until 10pm, just to keep on top of things. By mid-week I was exhausted and overwrought. To cheer myself up, I made a little list of the week’s highlights, and posted it as a status update to remind myself that, even though I was stupidly busy, a number of really lovely things had happened as well. One of my friends responded with the comment “I love your little life updates! they’re always so lovely and I’m always so happy for you!”. I replied lightly that I “leave out all the boring and crap bits”.

These three moments have brought to my attention the disparity between my ‘real’ life, and the way I portray my life online, and have led me to wonder:

When you wreck the hors d’oeuvres and burn the roast, do you go and tell the world about the amazing pudding you made?

There are undoubted benefits to focusing on the good things in life. Even thinking about things to be grateful for is good for your mental state – even if nothing actually comes to mind. I read that in an article recently. Online. So it must be true. But the flip side to ‘focussing on the good’ can be ‘ignoring the bad’, which can be damaging in a number of ways.

  • Pollyanna

When I was in my early adolescence I read Pollyanna. With two older siblings embracing their teenage rebellion, and four younger siblings keeping everyone busy night and day, home life was frenetic and fraught with tension. Pollyanna’s ‘glad game’ struck a chord with me, and became my main coping mechanism. No matter what happened (and some pretty rough things happened in those days), I would find some positive, some silver lining, something to glad about. It is a ‘skill’ I still heavily rely on, but it has definitely contributed to some of my more neurotic behaviour (sobbing in the arms of a friend while pointing out the good in some dreadful circumstance, for instance), and it has contributed to my difficulties in getting out of situations where I am uncomfortable. Instead of saying “No, nup, this is not good”, I tend to seek a positive and go along with whatever is happening. In the past, this has made it hard for me to set and maintain boundaries, and has allowed me to excuse some pretty shitty behaviour. I am unlearning this habit, and have greatly improved my ability to acknowledge things that are bad/crap/rubbish/not okay. I recognise that sometimes life deals out lemons. That’s okay, I can still get on with things, but  instead of rushing off to make lemonade (or line up tequila shots), I am increasingly happy to just carry on with a few lemons in my fruit bowl.

  • Unrealistic expectations

I was talking to a friend recently about all the things we do. She is the mum of a one-year-old, her partner works long shifts at odd hours, and she has recently gone back to study. Their car has died, but they still manage to get across town on public transport to go to galleries, play sport and see friends. I was saying how impressed I am with all the things she manages – when my daughter was that age, it was an achievement if I had a shower. She was surprised. She thought she was lagging behind everyone else and hardly getting anything done.

When we post and share all the great and wonderful things we are doing, it gives others a chance to celebrate them with us. It can also make us seem superhuman. By leaving out the boring and crap bits, we condense ourselves into just the positives. When everyone else’s life seems so great and fun and easy and exciting, it’s easy to put a heap of pressure on yourself to reach the same level, and to be disappointed in yourself when you don’t succeed. In reality, most people spend vast chunks of their time doing mundane, menial, but essential things. Housework. Commuting. Grocery shopping. Waiting in line for coffee. Scanning stuff at work. Surfing the net. Eating a bowl of cereal and staring at the wall. Not everything makes it to a social media post, but very little of it is wasted time.

  • Lack of support when everyone thinks things are fine

There have been a few moments in my adult life (not many, thankfully) where I have been broken. As I said before, I take a weird pride in being able to hold my shit together when things get rough, so at moments when things have been really, really bad, I have found it incredibly difficult to reach out for help. Some of those times, I have muddled along quietly until things have gotten better, as they inevitably do. Other times my distress has exploded suddenly onto unsuspecting friends, creating far-reaching shockwaves. In all those situations, if I had been able to articulate things to the people around me early on, I would have had instant support before things got out of hand. Instead, I went on Pollyanna-ing until I broke. This is a two-fold bad idea: it leaves me in a heaving mess, and it leaves the friends who eventually scrape me off the ground feeling like crap that they didn’t notice anything wrong. While I am learning to accept the challenges that come my way, I am also learning to be frank with people close to me about how I am coping with said challenges. I have noticed lately that I have a few choice friends that I share the warts-and-all version of my life with, while overall I still manage to portray myself as cruising along famously. This is also a bad idea. It means that I basically bitch constantly to one or two people about all the things that are going wrong, that are difficult, that are unfair (ie, that are perfectly normal). They get to see my mess, while the rest of the (social media) world gets the lemonade version. I dump all my negative on a few golden souls, so I can share my positive with everyone else. Not exactly cool. I read a quote a while back that went something along the lines of “Save your best for those who mean the most.” This is the opposite of the habit I have fallen into: of being cheerful and patient and kind at work, then short-tempered and grumpy when I get home to my darling child. My challenge for this year is to turn that around. To show some of my cranky to the people who inspire it (watch out, you bastards!) and to save my best bits for the ones I love.

So much of our lives are in the public domain these days. It’s easy to post an anecdote, a photo, or whatever else without really examining the motivations behind it. Most of the time it would be overkill to have an existential crisis about what we are sharing and why, but I do feel it is important to pause and think about it now and again.

Sharing on social media can go both ways – I tend to err on the side of positivity, but we all have that friend who constantly posts about their difficulties and struggles, rarely mentioning the triumphs. The triumphs definitely happen, but maybe that person is too busy living them to bother posting about them. Obviously there’s no right or wrong way to use social media. For me, it’s important to continue developing my awareness of the distinction between what I project and how that is received. And also to receive what others project in a way that allows space for all the things that don’t warrant a post.

But rest assured, friends, that for every ugly pudding that makes it onto social media, I have made a dozen uglier ones. And a few pretty ones, too.

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Comfort Food

I must confess, I am a comfort eater.

When stressed out or upset, in the throes of PMS, or just plain bored I can eat an inordinate amount of chocolate, doughnuts, or any other delight full of sugar and grease. I have eaten half my weight in peanut m&ms, and not batted an eyelid. I once melted butter, mixed in brown sugar, called it ‘caramel’ and ate it on a slice of bread. I have been known to literally eat a spoonful of sugar to cheer myself up – good ol’ Mary Poppins was not wrong. I have a snickers bar in my pocket right now. True story. I acknowledge that carbohydrates and saturated fat are not a healthy way of dealing with difficult situations. I have also come to accept the fact that this is a coping mechanism I am not ready to relinquish just yet.

This week saw ‘R U OK Day’ providing a national reminder to enquire meaningfully as to how the people around us are coping with life. Although geared specifically towards suicide prevention, asking with genuine care how someone is going can open real conversations about mental and emotional health; it can provide a space for people to speak out before things reach crisis point. It’s important to remember that answering ‘no’ to the question ‘are you ok?’ is not a sign of weakness.

This week, I didn’t go out of my way to ask others ‘R U OK?’. I do this in the course of my everyday interactions with people, and my intuition often allows me to know the answer without needing to ask. Instead, I turned the question inward and asked it of myself. And the answer was, quite simply, no.

Lately, despite consuming vast amounts of rum n raisin chocolate, I have not really been ok.

I have been physically, mentally and emotionally stretched, further than at just about any other point in my life. I am a mother-wife-daughter-sister-colleague-student-writer-friend, and I often feel that I fall short of expectations in all of these roles. I can’t seem to manage one without letting the others slide. But let me be very clear – I’m talking about my own expectations here. This is not about how I am seen from the outside, by my wonderful and amazing network of family and friends, with their rather generous opinions of me. Rather, it is about how I perceive myself, what I expect of myself. And I expect a lot.

But don’t worry! Being able to admit (to myself, let alone to you, my adoring public!) to not-ok-ness is a huge step forward. Acknowledging the fact that I often feel overwhelmed, swamped, all at sea, completely scattered and amply less-able than I used to be is, for me, an important step in the road back to sanity. Some days I am not ok. But I always know that I will be. And that is such an important distinction. Because when someone loses their confidence in the future, their conviction that things will get better, that is when we need to worry.

A couple of months ago, I started seeing a psychologist. This is something I haven’t exactly kept a secret, but it’s not something I have broadly advertised, either… until now, I guess! I felt that things around me were spiralling out of control, that I was losing my grip and my ability to cope, and that this had the potential to seriously impact important aspects of my life – my family, study, work and friendships.

I am a firm believer in taking responsibility for my choices. I don’t like to indulge in self-pity or wallow in regret. I realised that in this, as in all things, I had a choice – not about the circumstances I was experiencing, but about how I reacted to them. I could passively watch my life unravel, becoming a victim of circumstance, or I could take steps to understand what was going on, to carefully deconstruct my life and piece it back together in a manageable way. I chose the latter, and booked myself in to see a psychologist. His name is Woolfie – he is a softly spoken German who looks a little like John Malkovich. Whatever stereotype you are imagining, you’re probably not far wrong. Seeing Woolfie isn’t easy. He doesn’t shy away from questions I hesitate to ask myself. We explore the mysteries of my subconscious using a metaphorical landscape – my inner cynic rolls her eyes at how corny it all is, but I know it’s doing me good, so I just give her the finger, placate her with the promise of malteasers, and push on.

So I guess that, after all, I am ok. Not great; not terrible. Ok. I’m firmly on the middle ground where things could go either way, depending on the moment. But actually, I’m more than ok – in the sense that I am on my way to a better way of being. I’m looking after myself (apart from my little sugar addiction… one little step at a time!), and that in turn will allow me to continue looking after those around me. In recent times I have well and truly bitten off more life than I can chew – but that doesn’t mean I’m choking. Instead I’m spitting it all out and starting over. And while I sort through the slimy, semi-masticated, uglyfood mess of my inner self, I take comfort in the delicious, hearty, warm and cosy sustenance afforded by the wonderful people around me… and also the confectionary aisle.