On Perfectionism

I wasn’t always a perfectionist.

In high school and sixth form, all the way through to my final year of university, I was lazy. I knew I was smart enough to not do very much work and get by. My grades weren’t extraordinary, one way or the other. The odd A, the rare A* and a smattering of B’s. Nothing to invite great praise, nothing to cause concern.

I get into an average university (below average, let’s be real). I’m a solid 2:1 student throughout. Crippling anxiety and a less than joyful university experience probably don’t help matters but that’s a tale for another day.

I get to my third year and I realise I could get a first if I knuckle down. I really want a first. So I knuckle down. I get a first.

This is where it starts. I am so engaged with work in that third year. I love seminars and research and ideas and writing. The trend continues when I leave university – I throw myself into volunteering and work and then university again and more work and journo training and then, eventually, reporting, I start running and I want to be a great runner, when I was going bouldering on the regular I would stick with one problem until I cracked it.

Perfectionism is such a kick, I can’t tell you. Being good at stuff, consistently, whatever that might be, gives me a rush. Like the goody two-shoes version of crack cocaine (probably).

The problem with relying on hitting those targets is that each time you reach one, you need to push yourself a little bit further (be even more of a perfectionist, to a higher standard). What was once an adrenaline rush becomes the norm. Instead of achievement you feel relief that you didn’t mess up. For you to continue to get the same hit, the bar has to get higher and higher.

And the handful of times (out of hundreds) that you don’t scrape your way over the bar? You feel terrible. Utterly awful. How could you have missed? You’re a failure, a fraud. Everyone will notice. You’ll beat yourself up about it for days, weeks even. The memory of how it feels to miss the target will stay with you, creep up on you in moments of self-doubt. Missing the target is so much more powerful than the relief you feel when you hit it.

Over time, what started off as a positive thing – the high standards that accompany perfectionism are not in themselves bad – turned sour. I was burnt out but I carried on pushing. My physical and mental health were both suffering as a result of this desire to be the best.

So, here’s what I’ve been doing.

I stopped running and now that I’ve started again, I am learning to let myself go as slowly as I want to. I don’t have ‘mile’ targets or time targets or any target other than to start and finish the run. I put a podcast or a guided run on and I just go. The guided runs are particularly brilliant because they are full of the kind of inspirational bullshit that I need to hear. Today’s talked a lot about patience and recovery. I am trying my best at both.

I am writing. As much as I can. I don’t edit. I just write. My phone is full of notes, half written poems that my brain just needed to be on a page (or a screen), proper notebooks with scribbles and outlines and ‘here’s how I’m feeling at right this very second’ and ‘here are some thoughts I’m having’ and ‘here’s some more of that poetry good lord I am so bad at poetry but at least I am trying’. Streams of words that have will have no home other than the page they are written on.

I am trying to gloss over things less. ‘How are you?’ doesn’t always need an impressive answer.

There are other things, of course and there is a lot more to be done. Practising non-perfectionism feels unnatural and uncomfortable and like an awful lot of work. But a wise man once told me that this work isn’t about becoming a below average or even an average person/writer/runner/whatever else it might be – it’s about achieving brilliance without sacrificing your well-being.

With that in mind, sign me up to the hard work. I promise to do my best – no more, no less.


Social Media

Likes, comments, followers, proposals, babies, promotions, filtered faces, clichéd quotes over mountain-top images.

Social media, I think it’s fair to say, has a bit of an image problem. Vapid, vacuous, endlessly self-reflexive – read any of the thousands of think pieces written on how the millennial obsession with any one of these platforms is detrimental to our overall well being and the picture that’s painted is one of overwhelming negativity.

I would like to raise my hand to offer an alternative viewpoint, if you’d give me a few minutes.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of words. For some people, swear words hold power. So much so that they refuse to utter them and on the odd occasion when they do, you know shit’s getting real.

I don’t ascribe that kind power to (most) profanities. I see no reason why swearing shouldn’t be a part of my day-to-day use of language. If I used them less, they’d probably have more power. As it goes, I use them often and for me, it takes away their supposed edge.

However, there are other words (when said in the right order) that do have power. Feelings I’ve buried away and memories I’d rather forget in their entirety. Unspoken transgressions, some of them that have gone for years unsaid. They’re rarely said and that’s part of their power.

There are some Big Serious Important things in the list of unsaid things. There are also some less serious but still daunting things. The honest answer to ‘how are you?’ or ‘how do you feel about that?’ Still rarely said, still powerful.

Where are you going with all of this, you might be thinking? Hold on, I’m getting there.

Learning to talk about myself, about the things in my brain, about how I’m feeling – these are big and difficult things that come (I am promised) with great rewards. For me, social media allows me to dip my toes in the water. A blog post that I’ve been able to take some time in putting together, a Facebook status about mental health, an Instagram story about what I’ve been doing to look after myself after a bad day – all of these seem less daunting (but still as effective) as sitting down and having a conversation about the very same things.

Instagram stories, in particular, has been glorious for this sort of sharing – there’s huge safety in the fact that they disappear in 24 hours. However, on all platforms, I have had so many kind and genuine messages in response to some of the more personal things I’ve posted. From friends and old friends and from people I barely know at all. Messages of support and messages of ‘me too’. It feels like community and despite how public it is, it feels far safer than I would have ever imagined.

Each time I share something, it has less power than it did the previous time. There’s less shame attached to the words – they’re starting to feel more natural, less out of place. It feels less daunting, more manageable.

If I can get that sort of pay off from simply posting a picture and a caption, then that’s what I’ll continue to do. Think pieces be damned.

The Great Outdoors

Let it be known that the irony of writing this while sat in my single room, radio on, laptop perched on my lap and phone by my side is not lost on me.

Minor details. Let’s not get caught up in them.

Last Saturday morning I woke up at Ida’s (as I so often do, almost certainly fuelling the suspicions of her neighbours that we’re together. If only they knew we spent our heterosexual evenings lusting after the male presenters of quintessentially British television presenters).

“I don’t want to go,” I whined, referencing the plans I’d made two weeks beforehand to go walking with a friend.

“Oh how terrible, you have to go and do a nice thing,” Ida says (probably. She won’t mind if I wildly misquote her).

I huff and puff and take three times longer than I ever normally would to get ready.

The thing is, Ida’s right and she’s also gently poking fun at me because she knows how many steps there are for me to going to a Nice Thing. It’s all in the anticipation. The ‘what if I have nothing to say’, ‘what if I fall on my arse in the snow’, what if what if what if.

The point is that I love being outside. I love being outside and even though I KNOW I love it, that does not make it immune to becoming a thing that I am nervous of. Of not having the right kit, or not being ‘good’ at it, of being scared of falling on my arse. My mental health is an equal opportunist in that regard – it cares not for how much my rational mind knows, it will take any and all hostage. You have to respect that sort of equality, in a way.

It took so many steps for me to get to Ambleside. Getting up, getting dressed, driving, desperately trying to conjure up any sort of anecdote or at the very least an unfortunate event that had befallen me that I could spin into lighthearted comedy.

It then, of course, took an awful lot more steps to get to the top of Wansfell. It took less to get down due to the fact that I mostly slid.

It scared me. From the Friday night until I arrived at Ambleside’s overpriced car park and beyond, I was riddled with varying degrees of anxiety. But, what I want to emphasise, and I suppose that I want to write down to remind myself when I inevitably forget in the future is what scared me most was the anticipation. The ‘what if’ factor. The step beyond the safety of Ida’s flat, the tug between not wanting to let a friend down by cancelling but equally not wanting to make a dick out of myself, the ‘what if the vampires are in the forest today’?

And, as so often is the case, the anticipation was far scarier than the thing itself. The slippery climb to the top of a viewless summit was nerve-wracking only when I stopped for long enough to consider my footing. The placing of the feet isn’t the part that sets my nervous system alight – it’s the prolonged moment before you lift up, the space that I give to ‘what if’.

I got to the top of Wansfell and I felt like I’d done something. On the way down I went as fast as I could manage, footsteps sinking into snow that was deeper than anticipated, falling down a handful of times, not caring about falling down a handful of times. Wet feet, snow that had melted and seeped through my gloves, exchanging small talk with strangers on their way up. In short, I felt like a person. A rough around the edges, never going to be Berghaus sponsored, taking part in life person.

No matter what rich hippies on the internet tell you, the outdoors is not going to fix you. For me, it’s certainly a tonic but it is by no means a solution in and of itself.

What was infinitely more beneficial about this Saturday was all of the steps that I didn’t want to take but took anyway. For you, those steps might not lead to a snowy fell. They might be that doctors appointment you keep putting off making or a difficult conversation with a friend or a first date.

The things that make us feel like people vary wildly and I have found that they very often have an element of ‘what if’ risk attached to them. But, I am learning (always learning) that those are, in fact, the things that are undoubtedly the most worth it. Even if you fall on your arse.

Unworked Muscles

This post is not about the fact that I haven’t been running in approximately four months. But, seen as we’re here, let’s get that out of the way – I have not been running (save for the odd out of breath good god how did I ever run a half marathon I’m fairly certain a woman with a zimmer frame just lapped me jog around the block) in four months. It was doctor recommended, don’t look at me like that.

I’ve heard, from others, that knowing what you want is instinctual. We use words that support that belief, too.

“I just fancied it.”

“I’m in the mood for…”

“I saw it and just knew.

A feeling. Whether it’s what you choose for dinner or how you spend your Saturday afternoon – the things we want, the things that we like, that we find fulfilling – we know what those things are, without even trying.

Except when we don’t.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately, about the things that I want. The things that I like. It takes me a long time to figure out how I feel about something, about other people. It takes me a long time to persuade myself that I deserve the things that I want.

This, I am finding, is a problem.

For me, the ‘I wants’ (as opposed to the ‘I needs’ on a basic level to survive or the ‘achievements’) are few and far between. I have made less and less time for them, focusing purely on the basics or the achievements. No reading, no films, no listening to music.

And I barely noticed it happening. It became a matter of course until the idea of sparing 30 minutes to take myself for a coffee and a read felt like the most indulgent of luxuries. And, conveniently, there was always a plethora of excuses to not do those things – too much work, too tired from too much work, money should be squirrelled away rather than spent on frivolities like new clothes or haircuts or tickets to a show.

And it became so utterly normal that when I began to think about what I did want, I came up short. The muscle hadn’t been used in so long, that (as well as feeling selfish for even contemplating it) I just didn’t know what the answer was.

So, I’m starting to learn. It feels a little like starting from scratch but I think that’s okay. When I start to feel overwhelmed, I’ve been trying to let myself feel whatever it is I’m feeling and then distract myself which has often resulted in me reading. Reading makes me want to write. Those are two things I know for sure that I want to do more of. Not to be better at my job or to be able to say I’ve done it – just because I enjoy it. Just because.

And there will be other things. Some I feel confident that I will like – the cinema or the theatre or finding new music. Some I hope will be more like experiments. A new group, a poetry reading, an activity I’ve been putting off trying through fear of not being immediately good at it. Experiments don’t always go according to plan. That’s scary but I think that’s okay, too.

The idea of having to put so much work in to finding out something that others seem to just know, without thinking, seems unfair and tiring. But the alternative, a small world that has become comfortable but is in many ways unfulfilling, seems far worse.

Time to get to it.

p.s. featured image comes from Frances Cannon who is frances_cannon on Instagram and who is ace and you should definitely follow.

Reasons to Stay Alive

When I’m not feeling my best, one of the first things to go is my ability to concentrate.

This applies to almost anything. Films with complex plots, writing that I’m not being paid for, reading. It’s one of the reasons I love having the radio on as much as I do – there is huge comfort in the murmuring of voices that aren’t your own, conversations that you can dip in and out of as you please (plus Radio 4 makes me feel smarter than I am).

So, when I managed to read Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive in one sitting, it felt like a gold medal standout where the hell is my cookie achievement.

I don’t like reviews. I avoid them where at all possible (including reviews from friends. INCLUDING how something made them feel. I am, it has been suggested, hard work). This isn’t a review and I’m digressing.

When I manage to maintain my concentration levels for more than a 22 minute sitcom, when I read a book (in one sitting or in 20) that resonates or that I hate or makes me feel anything at all, when I watch a documentary or I have the kind of conversation that requires me to be fully present, I feel like a person.

This, I appreciate, is a strange concept if you have never considered that there are people who do not feel like people. Let me try to explain.

The demons that live inside of my head like structure and routine. Thrive off of them, in fact. There are set rules and regulations that they follow and following those orders brings a minuscule amount of powerful relief and comfort.

An example.

Cancelling plans. When I’m feeling particularly anxious and I don’t want to socialise, I (not often, I should add) will cancel. It brings temporary relief to the anxiety I was feeling about whatever it is I’ve cancelled. However, the next time I’m in a similar situation, I’ll recall that same feeling of dread and the relief I felt for cancelling. Vis-à-vis, I am more likely to cancel to get that same ‘relief fix’. More likely than not I will then feel guilt-ridden about the cancelling. The only way to break the cycle is to do the thing I don’t want to do (vampires) and start collating a new set of data.

Doing the thing I don’t want to do is much harder than doing the thing that I know brings relief, however temporary that relief might be. But as time goes on the relief payoff lessens. I close off. Days of saying ‘no’ becomes weeks of saying ‘no’. Life becomes monotonous and stale. I don’t, in essence, feel like a person.

Reading can feel like an overwhelming task at times but it also makes me feel like a person. It makes me cry and laugh and think. It leads to conversations and questions and it makes me want to write even though I know the writing won’t stand up to the thing I just finished reading. It makes me feel like me, whatever that might mean.

It helped, of course, that Matt Haig’s book was about his own mental health journey (spoilers, I know). So although this post wasn’t really about his book at all, I think you can safely consider it a recommendation.

“And most of all, books. They were, in and of themselves, reasons to stay alive. Every book written is the product of a human mind in a particular state. Add all the books together and you get the end sum of humanity. Every time I read a great book I felt I was reading a kind of map, a treasure map, and the treasure I was being directed to was in actual fact myself.” – Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive.

Vampires & Forests

A wise man once told me a story about vampires and forests. It went something like this.

Imagine a village. Everyone in the village believes that there are vampires in the nearby forest. The stories go back for generations and generations. Great Auntie Gertrude swears she saw a glimpse of one once (“it was quite far away but it sure LOOKED like a vampire”), newborns are issued with vampire warding crosses as a matter of course and the local Tesco makes a killing on garlic sales.

One day, you (an outsider) are tasked (don’t ask me who set the challenge, this metaphor isn’t that specific) with getting the villagers to head into the forest.

“Gee, doesn’t that forest look lush, green, pleasant and TOTALLY NOT SPOOKY AT ALL?”

It goes down like a lead balloon.

They agree to go with you on the proviso that they can at least take a cross and some garlic along for the ride. They are not thrilled about the situation, to say the least. Downright terrified, in fact.

Hearts pounding, hands shaking and minds racing, you all head into the forest. After a quick look around, there are no vampires to be seen. You scurry back to the village.

“Phew! What a relief! Those garlic bulbs and crosses are sure doing the trick,” the villagers collectively declare.

Next time, same deal EXCEPT you’ve managed to convince your new (slightly cult-like) mates to head into the forest with just a single clove of garlic in their respective pockets.

Still no vampires.

“Sweet, this garlic really is the good shit. Remind me to thank Mr Tesco for his quality produce,” the villagers declare in a unison that sets you slightly on edge.

Third time’s a charm, right? No garlic, no crosses. Your group is absolutely petrified. Why did they agree to this in the first place? They are visibly nervous. Palms are sweating, they can’t help think about Great Auntie Gertrude’s campfire warning tales and the constant mantra of ‘what if’ is repeated and repeated and repeated in their heads.

You go into the forest. No vampires. Not a one.

“It’s a big forest. The vampires must have been chilling in a different part today. What a relief. Italian food for dinner tonight? Again? You’re right, it’s probably for the best.”

So you, the intrepid tour guide with what seems to be an endless amount of free time to invest in this pet project, takes the group out again. And again. And again. To different parts of the forest, to the same parts of the forest, at varying times of day. No comfort blankets, no vampire protection.

Each and every time – no vampires. Each and every time, it gets a little less scary to go into the forest. Slowly, they’re building up a new data bank, replacing generations worth of vampire learning.

When I’m stuck in a rut with just my unhinged brain for company, when I’m thinking about how I can possibly go about getting better when everything feels paralysingly overwhelming, this is the metaphor I think about.

Making progress is work and it is work that has to be put in every single day. It might start with answering text messages (consistently, not just once), with a meal you cooked from scratch or with an admission that you are not doing A+ super great all the time, but in the end it will (I am reliably informed) lead towards a life where no part of the forest is inaccessible. And that, to me, seems very much worth the work.

To Be Continued

Well over a year since I used this slice of the internet. Let’s not get caught up in that.

“Over the years, I have noticed that I have not been myself.” – Chris Baréz-Brown.

When I was 20-years-old, fresh out of university (the first time round) and faced with a path with too many off-shoots, I started having panic attacks.

I’ve told this story a hundred times before. I’ve got it down to a fine art. It’s a narrative I have become comfortable in telling – it ticks all the right boxes. There’s a young female lead, heartbreak, an internal dilemma, a strong supporting cast, an appropriate sprinkling of humour (because if you can’t make fun of your own mental breakdowns then, really, what’s even the point of having one?) and a happy ending. Girl works hard, girl overcomes her demons, girl thrives and flourishes despite the odds.

Fine. Dandy. Super. Glad to hear you’re doing so well, Sara.

Except. Except, except, except.

There is a dishonesty to the way that I spin that yarn. And it’s in the ending.

For the longest time, I wanted my mental health journey to be one of success. It let me talk candidly about it with whoever wanted to listen. “I used to suffer with anxiety but I did xyz and I’m better now.” Work hard and reap the rewards – it’s a mind-set I often adopt. I didn’t feel any shame in telling that story. Anxiety-ridden, couldn’t go to the supermarket without her heart going like a jackhammer, once had a panic attack after eating a piece of beetroot Sara (third person, like we are two entirely different people) was no more – she’d been slayed by Sara 2.0. It’s a good story. I feel proud of me when I tell it.

But it’s only part of the story. It conveniently bypasses the part where you are never ‘fixed’ from any ailment that your brain is suffering. That every single day you will have to make choices – both easy and hard – that go against the part of you that gives you butterflies, makes you dizzy, blinkers your vision.

And, for me and for all I shout about the importance of mental health, there is shame attached to the fact that I am not ‘fixed’. That I will likely never be 100 per cent better. That the climbing wall fills me with dread (what if I mess up? What if I’m not good enough? What will people think?), that when I’m having a particularly bad week I have to steady my breathing in the stalls of public toilets, that I am not (despite all that I try to be) actually a superhero.

My mental health, whether it is in good working order or whether it is leaving text messages unanswered and invitations turned down, is a part of me. It is not a story with a neat ending or a quirky soundtrack and there is nothing romantic about the hours I’ve wasted stuck in my own head. And it continues, almost every day, to throw up challenges.

But, if I am to believe the words a wise man with surprisingly green trousers once told me, that the only way to improve is to face the shit that scares us (I’m paraphrasing, a little) and to keep facing it until it doesn’t scare us anymore, then I think it’s time to move away from the hermetically sealed story I’ve got so used to telling.

If you’ll indulge me for 500 words (once, twice a week? Whenever I’ve got 20 minutes and the desire to talk about myself?), I think it’s just about time that I used this dusty space on the internet to talk about what came ‘next’.

p.s. that ‘featured image’ picture is by the ace https://www.instagram.com/rubyetc_