What is ‘being a friend’?

Picture of slogan that says 'you are as great as a dress with pockets'

A Christmas present from one of my great friends who knows how much I appreciate practical clothing… (from Oh Squirrel, ohsquirrel.co.uk)

It’s been a while. I lost writing mojo over the summer – and partly the worry about upsetting people, and pressure on myself to keep producing writing led to the exact opposite of what was intended with writing: to do something I love doing and expressing myself using a method that works therapeutically and effectively. Of course as it’s January you can all assume that new year, new blogging… I don’t do new year’s resolutions, utterly pointless, as they become something else to berate yourself about. So consider this me not berating myself and the timing coincidental.

I’ve also had the relief of a fortnight away from working and commuting because of the joy that is our festive period in the UK, and that has resulted in some reflection and thinking about where I am and what makes me happy. I don’t have the answers, but back to the berating theme, I do know that I constantly feel there are things I ‘should’ be doing, and those pile up to the point where I do none of them, and thus back to the start. On the principle of one thing at a time – a principle I frequently exhort to friends – I figured that while I’m in a fairly calm place (the time off) I should use that as a place to begin with. The things I really have to do to survive (food shopping for example) manage to happen, and some weeks that really is the only thing I do that I ‘should’ do, but I won’t die if I don’t find the perfect relationship this week… Admittedly that last one is a fairly big one thing so incremental steps with that.

Friends are where much of my strength and inspiration to do a few ‘one things’ come from. I’m a shy person and much of my life one who has doubted her self-worth and finding people who want to spend time with me for the pleasure of only that, spending time with me, has been a source of constant amazement and disbelief. You may also experience that self-doubt, I have no idea, because I wouldn’t dare express it for the genuine fear that people would think either that I was very strange or that actually perhaps I was right and not a person to be friends with. What this manifests as is a constant need to be a source of help and advice, wholly unintentionally at first, but then a behaviour that I am unable to shake. The wanting to help people is not a bad thing, far from it. It being the only reason I think I am someone’s friend, as in, as long as I am constantly helpful I am worth being in someone else’s life and as soon as I become a person with problems or is unhappy, needs help or cannot be available all the time, then I must be a bad person. And I don’t say any of this because I think any of those things are bad things. Only that they are in me, because why else would I be liked if I weren’t providing some type of physical, active assistance, that if I can’t always ‘be there’ for someone I am not a worthwhile person to be friend. As I wrote down when a previous counsellor made me list the feelings and things I liked and didn’t like about myself, some of the latter included:

  • That I feel guilty for not doing enough
  • That I’m a not a good person if I can’t ‘be there’ for friends
  • I put myself last and don’t think I’m important to anyone
  • That I can’t support everyone I want to

I don’t expect this of my friends! They have been a constant source of joy, learning, inspiration, support, laughter, strength and love, and yet I find it hard to believe that they would find any of those things in me. I’m not saying this for pity or sympathy or dramatic effect; it was and has been my reality in my view of myself for years. And it is not because any of those friends have made me feel that way. It is my own sense of self-belief and self-worth doing that to myself. That, readers who’ve stayed this far, is hard work to fight when you have an illness that tells you all the bad things you already think about yourself are true, and a hundred times more true when it has a very strong grip on you. On normal days, I still fight an internal battle with myself about my closest friends who I still think will decide they’ve had enough and find new and more interesting, positive and entertaining people to spend time with. I know it’s crazy. And I know (well I think I know, but of course I wait to be corrected) that they would say it’s crazy. I don’t know why I think the friendships I have would lie on such fragile ground, but for some reason I do, and I hide how much pain the sometimes constant thought of they’re going to decide I’m not worth it causes. Because it sounds stupid and egotistical, and as if I’m selfishly trying to get attention.

My counsellor asked me to read out the list I wrote in response to her request to record the things I like about myself. I won’t lie, it wasn’t an easy list to start but it got easier! When I finished she asked me what I thought about knowing the person I’d just described, and I had to say that they sounded like a person I would want to know. It was a really huge stage to reframe my thinking in my head and that was four years ago; I still battle but I am looking at the ‘like’ list right now and it reminds me of what I have achieved. Just some of those things I like that have resonance with this post:

  • That I care and that I am emotional
  • That I have very good friends
  • That I want to help people
  • That I think trust is really important
  • That I think of my friends and my family

If you’re batting with similar thoughts of self-doubt and self-worth, I hope you can put them aside in time, or find strategies to reduce them. As always, links in About, and always believe you are a person worth loving.

Banging on about talking therapy again

There wasn’t an intentional break last week – and you did accidentally get two posts (here and here) the previous week which means technically I didn’t take a break. But last week was really tiring and I had to cancel my plans at the weekend, partly because of the snow and also because I felt what I like to call ‘a bit wobbly’ (translation: feeling like crying at the thought of leaving the house. I know, it doesn’t make a lot of sense given that I had left the house for 4 of the previous 5 days without a problem). Fortunately that doesn’t seem to have come to anything. It’s horrible to cancel plans, and I hate doing it. It is self-care when things are too much, and has no reflection on the people you had plans with. I have to retreat at weekends at the best of times. I am much much better than I was at not thinking it being selfish and unsociable, but there’s still a thought at the back of my head that it is selfish, and that I should consider myself lucky that I have the ‘luxury’ of a weekend to be able to retreat into.

One of my counsellors gets very angry about the word selfish (when I say very angry, she does not rant, wide-eyed, in our sessions, that would be frankly weird. So let’s say she feels passionate about it, much as I do about things like the bonkersness of nationalism). She thinks that people frequently describe themselves as selfish when all they are doing is trying to carve out a bit of time or space for themselves, and that being selfless is not a good goal because all that does is place a huge emotional toll on the person trying to be selfless. And that does them no benefit, nor means that they can do what they want to do for others, which is support them effectively. As she would say, you have to invest in yourself in order to be able to invest in others. Actually I can’t remember if she’s ever used those exact words, but it is the kind of thing she’d say. What she would prefer is a middle ground between selfish and selfless, or a reclaiming, perhaps, of selfish so that its negative connotations were diminished. To be clear, sometimes people just are being selfish. But chances are if you think you’re being selfish, it’s unlikely as in my experience people who genuinely are being selfish don’t recognise that at all.

I wrote ‘one of my counsellors’ as the keen-eyed among you may have spotted. I don’t have several at once. That would be daft. And somewhat complicated. But I have seen 3 over the past 5-6 years. Not continuously, and if I had continued seeing a counsellor when I first spoke to one, maybe the meltdown 2 years later might not have happened. Who knows. I’ve briefly mentioned talking therapies before and I remain outraged that it is not a treatment available on the NHS for as long as people need it. I am lucky, and I do mean lucky, that I can afford to pay for private counselling sessions. If not, I would have stopped seeing my second counsellor nearly 3 years ago and I think I would be in very different place if that had been the end of my access to counselling. It is a space for you to express yourself in a neutral and unbaggage-laden place. And that is incredibly important when you are trying to work through emotions and understand why something has had an impact on you. My friends and family are fantastic and I know they will always listen, but, and I’ve done it myself, when you see someone you love in pain you want to try and fix them, often by trying to take the pain on yourself. And that can make you both feel a bit useless, or in the case of the friend or family, frustrated that your help hasn’t ‘helped’. It has, it really has, but it’s sometimes easier to share what you’re feeling with someone who isn’t emotionally invested in the relationship.

My first counsellor was arranged via the counselling scheme, Confidential Care, available to me via my employer. I don’t work in the private sector, so there’s not a vast amount of benefits (I won’t get into the pensions strike happening this week, as this isn’t that kind of blog…), but access to counselling support is one of them. Six sessions is what is available. Because counselling costs, as I might have mentioned earlier… Hannah was a kind and sympathetic woman, I think about my age, and had a room in her house where she did her counselling. I spent most of the sessions talking about the Original Acquaintance rather than myself, and we were getting to me when the six sessions came to an end. At that point I should have looked around for another counsellor but I felt a tiny bit better, didn’t really have the energy and spring was round the corner (winter flipping sucks when you feel lethargic at the best of times), and I thought I’d be grand as I’d managed perfectly well up to now.

That meant it wasn’t until I got the depression diagnosis nearly 3 years later that I saw another counsellor and that was via the excellent ‘Time to Talk’ programme via Greenwich NHS (otherwise known as Improving Access to Psychological Therapies). Not only that but I was fortunate to have to wait only 3 weeks before being assigned a counsellor and I got 8 sessions! Woo. Sharon was absolutely great, and seeing her meant 2 buses after work and waiting in a doctor’s surgery because she used an office there for evening appointments, but it was worth it. She was firm but kind and another post I might write at some point could be based on the sort of diary I kept at the time, as each session ended up with a seemingly identifiable theme that left me musing about particular words. She also taught me that responding to a compliment with a self-effacing comment, as the British are so inclined to do (‘what a really pretty skirt’, ‘*embarrassment and mumbling* oh only a tenner.’ Perceived subtext: not really worth the money, don’t know why I bothered, why on earth have you even noticed, I don’t want you to think I spend money on myself when there are people starving’), was potentially an insult to the compliment-giver. What, she said, would you say if someone gave you a gift? Thank you, obviously. I’ve been well brought-up, let’s make that clear. A compliment is a gift – so why do we try to turn it into something else. It’s bloody hard to change a habit of a lifetime, but I have done that work to say thank you when someone gives me a compliment. You might think seriously you went to counselling at a cost to the NHS, and that’s what you came out with?! It’s not all I worked on, so don’t worry. That was a good lesson to share, though.

The counsellor I’m seeing right now has been in my life for over 2 years, and that’s for other days, as you probably all need a loo break or a cup of tea by now. 

If you don’t have immediate access to a talking therapy, there’s still help out there. Links in About.