A lesson on Christmas traditions

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Picture me aged 3. I’m making a snowman from cotton wool and toilet roll. I proudly present snowman to Mum and Dad when I get home from playgroup, and then again the following Christmas when he emerges from a dusty box of decorations. And just like that, a tradition is born. Snowman is a running family joke every Christmas, with his green fez and droopy eyes. Every year, he reminds us how much we’ve grown, what’s changed and what will never change. He represents the purest kind of innocence and he is protected and preserved the way we wish we could preserve time. He is a fond memory, and yet he is still there for us to touch, display and laugh at every year.

Well, he was there. This year, 23 years later, something quite terrible happened. This year, my dog ATE SNOWMAN. And I cried. And so did my mum. My mum and I cried over a small pile of cotton wool and toilet roll.

Admittedly, a part of me felt like Christmas would never be the same again. That silly tradition of unveiling snowman every year was gone. Which is ridiculous because the sentiment lives on regardless – I’d still have the memory without the physical reminder. Perhaps what we’re really afraid of is forgetting the small things; the forgettable things that are actually quite lovely to keep safe. After all, the moment an object jogs a memory (that might otherwise have been lost forever) is far too wonderful not to protect.

But still, why the hell do we want Christmas to be the same every single year? What is our relentless obsession with reliving the past?

After a couple of hours grieving over poor old snowman, I started to think about the impact personal traditions can have on our ability to cope with change and embrace the unknown. The truth is, there have been some big changes in my life this year, and seeing snowman in little pieces was like a visual reminder that my life, like most people’s, is subject to uncontrollable change and unplanned disruption. Shit happens, basically.

My mum and I were faced with two choices: a) to feel extremely sorry for ourselves, or b) make a bigger, better snowman, rebuilding him and adding to the story he represents. Our story. Which is of course guided by the way we respond to the unplanned. Sometimes all we can do is laugh and carry on.

We become so dependant on our traditions for things to feel ‘right’ that we often forget the bigger picture or fear life without them. Wrongly or rightly, we assign a great deal of profound emotion to the most useless physical objects or rituals. Cut yourself loose and you’ll be surprised how well you cope on the other side.

Christmas also has a tendency to make us EVEN MORE dependant on material things. We feel like we’re being sentimental, when in reality most of the sentiment is just another dose of consumerism in disguise. I mean, what is the point in crackers? Sure it’s ‘tradition’ but isn’t it also a royal waist of money? I love Christmas as much as the next person, but it does a bloody good job of distorting our perception of things. We run the risk of doing the same things over and over and over again, without pausing to stop and think about why. Christmas is a prime example of our susceptibility  to finding security in nostalgia  which is no way to live in the long term.

The lesson? Take Christmas and all your traditions with the biggest pinch of salt you can afford, take the pressure off yourself and remember what’s important. Shared traditions are a big part of celebrating a certain culture, but having the ability to break free from them when necessary is essential for culture (and your own sanity), too.

Lesson 27: turning 26

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So last week, I turned 26. That’s four years from 30. That’s too old to get a young person’s travel card and, let’s face it, it’s too old to fall asleep on the night bus and wake up in Orpington, with no phone and ketchup down your front. I am no longer in my early twenties, and do you know what? I quite like it. Here’s why.

Often one to let nostalgia lure me into believing that things were so much better in the past, I was all set to feel a bit weird at the prospect of leaving my early twenties behind. I had an absolute blast, and, more importantly, I had an excuse for when things didn’t quite go to plan. Ignorance and lack of experience in youth are the best excuses we ever have. And then, quite out of nowhere, we suddenly accumulate enough mistakes to know better. It’s not that life has to start being serious, I don’t think we should ever have to take ourselves particularly seriously; it’s more that I want my life to start having a different purpose. I want to reach a new level of productively, to embark on a new type of challenge; one that comes from hangover-free weekends and spending less time worrying about what to wear.

During my birthday celebrations, a friend and I had a conversation about whether we’d rather be 21 again. He said he would, and I disagreed. In fact, I can’t think of anything worse. He argued that back then, life was one big party, a party we were entitled to and expected to participate in. We didn’t have a care in the world. We were self-assured and the future felt far away. We could dream of being whatever we wanted to be. We were arrogant without reason.

It’s not that I’m necessarily happier at 26. I just feel like I’m more the person I was supposed to be. At 21, I couldn’t see past my degree and my next night out. My life feels a whole lot fuller now. Complex and challenging sure, but it’s grown and developed in ways I never expected. I look at pictures of 21-year-old me and feel like it’s not me at all. That hair, that place, those clothes, those relationships etc, etc. I was having a great time at the time, but with everything I’ve learnt and experienced since then, I would never want to go back. For anyone who is wondering why, here are 10 reasons why I think being 26 is better than being 21:

1. I look better
After so many years of experimenting with my hair and face, I have finally worked out what suits me, and it’s definitely not a side-swept fringe, heavy bronzer and skin-coloured lipstick. In fact, I now look more like me at 17 than 21, I’ve reverted back to a more natural me (but with bigger eyebrows). At uni, I never quite looked the way I wanted to look. Lack of extra cash had quite a big part to play. I couldn’t always afford nice food, a decent hair cut, and skin-care products that actually work. All my money went on booze and books. Somewhere between graduating and finding my first proper job, I started to feel much more at ease with my appearance, more so now than ever.

2. I can dress myself
The same goes for clothes. I would rather go naked than trade my wardrobe with the one I had five years ago. Being 26 and earning a decent salary means being able to buy the things I always wanted but could never afford. It also means I’ve worn enough what-the-fuck-was-I-thinking outfits to know better.

3. I can drink responsibly
Kind of. In comparison to how horribly drunk I used to get anyway. Vomiting from too much alcohol has thankfully become rare and I actually remember my nights out now. Plus, I drink in much nicer, less cheesy vicinities. I go to places for the music, rather than getting wasted because the music is so awful.

4. I’ve found ‘the one’
I am now capable of being in a serious relationship and I no longer question whether I’m too young to properly settle down. Being so excited for your future with someone gives you very little reason to look back. I couldn’t imagine life without Joe.

5. I’m more interested in the world around me
Which has brought on a burning desire to travel and volunteer. I actually feel guilty about how little I’ve experienced of the world, and how much I could be doing to make some sort of difference. If I had travelled at 21 (which I’d originally planned but couldn’t afford to), I would have partied my time away.

6. I can picture my future
The future is no longer the bleak, scary place it used to be. I’ve worked hard and can see where my career is going. The thought of marriage and babies isn’t terrifying and there’s a slight possibility I might someday own my own house. Although, there are quite a few things I still need to get out of my system.

7. I have a more positive outlook
Which has largely come from learning to let go of the things I can’t control. I also care a lot less about what people think of me. There is very little point. Converting negative energy into positive isn’t easy, but I think it becomes more possible with age, confidence and experience. We have a limited amount of energy, what we spend it on is up to us.

8. I know who my friends are
I’ve discovered what true friendship is. I’ve met many of my closest friends in the last five years. We’ve come together through shared experiences, tastes and values. I’ve learnt that sometimes people drift apart, and that’s ok. Very few things last forever, and that’s what makes the things that do so amazing.

9. I’m no longer a junior or assistant at work
I’ve worked for successful brands, going from intern to editorial assistant to copywriter to senior writer. I’ve been rewarded and promoted and I now have a level of confidence and authority I couldn’t have dreamed of at 21. I used to worry that hard work and ambition wouldn’t be enough, but it turns out, it was.

10. I’ve made so many amazing memories
In the last five years, I’ve graduated, fallen in love, lived in three different London boroughs, covered London Fashion Week, doubled my salary, been to countless festivals and far too many crazy nights out, visited Paris, Ibiza, Aruba, Fuerteventura, Cape Verde, Austria, Egypt, Venice and Lisbon. I’ve written thousands and thousands of words and read hundreds of books. I’ve discovered the music that really moves me, and people I’d do anything for.

There have unavoidably been lows as well as highs: unemployment, uncertainty, loss, illness, mistakes, sadness and big changes. In fact, the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with have happened in the last five years. The most important thing is that regardless of the darker times, it’s the positive things I hold close. I’ve learnt so much, and I hope reading this encourages you to always look forward. Keep learning from the lessons life throws at you, and the good will always outweigh the bad.

Lesson 25: believing in yourself

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The trick?
Believe in yourself,
But don’t believe everything you think.

As some of you might know, I’m currently receiving CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). It’s not something I’m at all ashamed of, so I don’t mind touching on it from time to time. I find it all quite fascinating. I’m not cleanliness-obsessed and I don’t struggle to go about my day if things aren’t arranged a certain way, but I’ve been diagnosed with OCD based on the way I interpret things.

Everyone has weird thoughts from time to time. Like, really weird. Thoughts that make you think ‘where the bloody hell did THAT come from?’ They might be angry, inappropriate, sad, sexual, scary, hopeful, or just plain mental. Thoughts that have the potential to trigger an emotional response. It wasn’t until I started having CBT that I realised just how much meaning I was applying to these unplanned, intrusive imaginings. The more meaning I applied, the scarier and scarier they turned, and the line between my thoughts and reality started to blur. I felt like I was having premonitions, jumping to the worse-case scenario at the tiniest things. I thought I had just developed some sort of anxiety disorder out of nowhere, when really I had let the controlling OCD voice in my head get too loud. It’s very similar to the one that says ‘don’t walk under a ladder, it’s bad luck’, only more exaggerated: ‘don’t open the front door, someone will murder you with an axe.’ When you actually start believing that voice, it is terrifying, let me tell you.

The worse thing about OCD is that it feels like a comfort, like something is keeping you safe and allowing you to have full control of a situation. When in reality, it’s controlling you. So many mental afflictions provoke the same response – trying to claim complete control over your mind and body, only to find that the illness dictates everything you do, robbing you of any autonomy.

At first I felt quite guilty receiving the therapy. I’m not that bad, I thought. And I’m not, but week after week I’ve been confronted with just how much belief I’ve had in the power of my imagination. Last month at work, I was told I would find out on 22nd July whether I would be promoted. On 15th July in therapy, I was asked to write this on a piece of paper:

‘Something bad will happen this week.’

It sounds ridiculous, but I felt so angry with the therapist for ‘tempting fate’ the week before my potential promotion. I convinced myself it wouldn’t happen, and that some other awful thing would happen that week as well. Interestingly enough, the people I’ve shared this story with, who don’t have OCD, have said they would also have struggled to write this down for fear of it coming true. It’s exaggerated superstition; a personal religion that sometimes gets out of hand. It’s as old as humanity itself.

On 22nd July, I’m incredibly pleased to say I was promoted to Senior Writer at The White Company. I don’t know what made me happier and more relieved; the promotion or the fact the therapist was right – my thoughts really do have no effect on reality. It’s an easy, uplifting lesson to have learned. The real test would have been if the promotion hadn’t happened – to then learn to accept that what I wrote on a piece of paper was completely unrelated, just an unfortunate coincidence.

The way I see it, I’m pretty lucky to have been given the opportunity to learn more about how the brain works and fine-tune my thoughts with the help of an expert. As much as we all like to moan about the NHS, it’s actually kind of amazing that CBT is a free service to people who need it, despite the lengthy waiting list. If you feel like this might be something you’d benefit from, ask your doctor to refer you and don’t be ashamed to speak up.

I feel so much more relaxed simply letting the things beyond my control happen. It’s liberating. More to the point, I hope the fact I’ve been able to carry on as normal – continuing to work hard and be sociable despite feeling constantly anxious – encourages other people to believe in themselves no matter what. Ignore the negative thoughts and power-on through. Good or bad things won’t happen because we will them to with our minds. The mind is a powerful thing, but the only thing it can control is your thoughts. The rest is up to you.

 

 

 

Lesson 20: feeling comfortable in your own skin

Like Her Type - Corin Jackson

Flawless skin fascinates me. Perhaps this is because I’ve worn foundation since I was 13, or perhaps I’ve read too many magazines. Either way, a perfect complexion is something I will probably never have. And I’m ok with that, most of the time.

Anyone who has ever suffered with acne, scarring, eczema, psoriasis, warts, thread veins, poor circulation, dry skin or any other unwanted skin complaint will understand the psychological implications that inevitably come with them. It’s one thing feeling completely dependent on makeup to feel like you, but it’s something entirely different feeling like you have no control over your own body. You feel at war with yourself. You’ve tried every medicated cream, cleanser and herbal remedy on the market and still the soreness, redness and itching prevails. Problem skin is expensive and time consuming if nothing else. You feel as if on the surface, your body isn’t performing the way it’s supposed to. You feel disconnected from yourself, like there’s something wrong with you that you don’t understand, or that you’re being punished for something you didn’t do. It’s a frustrating battle, but, reassuringly, one that many people can relate to. According to the British Skin Foundation, acne affects 80% of women in the UK before the age of 21.

I think a lot of my insecurities are linked to having acne as a teenager. Your teenage years are awkward enough without having relentless outbreaks of painful spots all over your face. I don’t think anyone can fully appreciate how it feels unless they’ve experienced it firsthand. Imagine you’re 15 and planning a party, you’ve spent all your money on a new outfit, the boy you like is going to be there, you wake up with a load of spots in the middle of your face and all your confidence and excitement goes completely out of the window. I assumed I’d outgrow my breakouts eventually, and I did to some extent, but there rarely goes a day where I’m 100% spot-free, particularly if I’m stressed. On top of this, I have terrible circulation (a running joke with my friends), so my skin tone has a mind of its own, too. I think as you get older, you learn to laugh at yourself a lot more. Thank god. Taking your appearance seriously all the time is exhausting.

The reason I’m writing about this is because having problem skin can feel alienating, embarrassing and a bit hopeless. In reality, of course, it’s completely normal. The lucky few with flawless complexions are the anomalies. And besides, how lucky am I that the rest of my body is perfectly healthy? Far too often, we become so preoccupied with the things that are obviously ‘wrong’ that we take all the good things for granted. I might have been applying multiple products to my face every morning for as long as I remember, but if that’s one of my major complaints in life then I should probably keep quiet. I know it’s long, I know it’s uncomfortable and I know it seems endless, but it could be so much worse. If you feel hard-done by, or like you don’t want to leave the house, read about the struggles of people who physically can’t leave the house. Focus your energy on the fact that some people are allergic to sunlight, and then force yourself to go about your day the way they wish they could.

It’s not easy to cast your insecurities to one side, so here are a few little tips from one acne sufferer to another:

  1. Always remind yourself that people don’t fixate on your flaws the way you do. Your skin often feels worse than it looks
  1. Confidence, kindness and a beautiful smile stand out far more than a couple of spots
  1. Very few people get as close to your skin as you do in the mirror
  1. Even Kate Moss gets spots
  1. You could have allergies or a hormonal imbalance, so seek advice from a doctor and dermatologist
  1. Reducing the amount of sugar and alcohol you consume can make a big difference
  1. Estee Lauder Double Wear Foundation and Mineral Rich Loose Powder changed my life – but refrain from applying layers and layers of the stuff
  1. Always moisturise your skin, even if it’s oily – depriving your skin of oil will only encourage it to produce more oil
  1. Smashbox Photo Finish Primer actually works
  1. Be kind to your body – that healthy glow often only comes from inside

Perhaps the biggest piece of advice I can give to anyone feeling uncomfortable in their own skin is to remember this: our personal interpretation of perfection is only desirable because we are programmed to want what we can’t have. The sooner we learn to appreciate what we do have, the happier we’ll feel.

 

Lesson 18: feeling normal

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Growing up can be a lonely experience. Gradually, it becomes more and more inappropriate to share our weird and wonderful traits with people the way we might have at school or uni. We become more proper and more private with age. Having touched on mental health issues and with it being Mental Health Awareness week, I’ve been thinking about the things that put us at ease, starting with confession. After I posted about my anxiety, I received so many lovely, reassuring messages from people simply saying ‘hey, I feel like that too sometimes’. So not only was confessing to receiving CBT a way of unloading my issues, it seemed to benefit other people just as much to hear it. One of the most heart-warming things we can experience is a collective emotion. Connecting with people about a negative experience often equates to a positive outcome. For this reason, I’ve decided to list all the ‘abnormal’ things I do but wouldn’t usually talk about. Chances are I’m not alone in doing them, and it might make you feel less lonely too.

  1. Very few people know this about me, but I have trichotillomania. Without meaning to or really realising, I compulsively pull out my own hair when I’m tired or nervous. It’s generally my eyelashes but often my eyebrows and the hairs from my head as well. You know that satisfying feeling of picking off clumpy old mascara? Usually, it’s just that. But when I’m a feeling a bit anxious, it leads to physical pulling. It’s no different to biting your nails or cracking your knuckles, and yet nobody really talks about it. We all have weird bodily impulses from time to time. It’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.
  1. I have a tendency to conjure up the worst-case scenario in my head. If someone is knocking at the door, it’s never the postman, it’s a burglar. I catch myself physically hiding from the postman. Which sounds funny now, but it’s not exactly ‘normal’.
  1. I have days where I hate the way I look more than anything else on Earth. I have a strong belief that 99% of people do. Everyone thinks other people are so happy and comfortable with themselves, when really we’re all intimidated by each other. People with straight hair would do anything for natural waves and people with curly hair gaze wistfully at poker-straight locks. We all want what we can’t have and we all choose to see people the way we want to. Just remember, nobody is as critical of you as you. Nobody notices the spots you obsess over, or the fact you’ve worn the same shoes every day for two weeks. People tend to focus on the things you have that they want.
  1. My boyfriend and I practically have a language of our own, speaking in weird voices with even weirder made-up words. If anyone ever overheard us they would probably mistake us for aliens. Or think we’ve been exposed to vast amounts of radiation. We also dance around the kitchen far more than is necessary.
  1. I never, ever wash my duvet cover once a week. Life is too short for that nonsense. However, anything less than once a month is nothing to be proud of. For someone with OCD tendencies, I never obsess over cleanliness. Not showering at a four-day festival is something I welcome with open arms. Gross, I know.
  1. I look back at old photos of myself on Facebook and Instagram and try to imagine them from other people’s point of view. Have I got better or worse with age? Were my eyebrows really that bad? Was I that uncool? Or that drunk? The truth is, of course, nobody cares.
  1. I sometimes convince myself that people are annoyed with me for no apparent reason. They only put one kiss at the end of a text, they forgot my birthday, they didn’t go to an event I organised. In reality, they were in a rush, forgot the date and had 10 other things to do that day.
  1. I feel anxious speaking on the phone. I’ve never really enjoyed ridiculously long phone calls and tend to let my phone go to answer phone when someone rings me out of the blue. I have to be in the right frame of mind for a phone call, whoever it is. I usually tell myself off and ring people back straight away, but my natural reaction is to ignore my phone. God knows why.
  1. I used to have a weird obsession with balancing out food groups. No carb-on-carb or meat-on-meat action for example. Rice in a wrap or a bacon AND sausage bap were literally my worst nightmare. I also know how many calories are in almost everything, even though I don’t calorie count.
  1. I can’t throw things away. My sister once asked why I’d kept one earring after I’d lost the other one, to which I replied ‘I might need it one day’. I’m overly sentimental and have boxes and boxes of ‘memories’. I’m paranoid I’ll forget or lose something import. Joe is the complete opposite. I don’t think he owns a single photograph and that panics me slightly. He says all his memories are in his head. The irony is that I’m incredibly scatty and constantly misplace everything I own. I’ve never had the same phone for longer than a year.

Although it’s important not to let your struggles become your sole identity, I hope my weird confessions encourage you to embrace what makes you you. I would love to know if you can relate to any of the above. Who wants to be normal anyway?

 

Lesson 16: taking back control

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Three years ago today, my caring, funny, inspirational Granddad passed away. Despite being diagnosed with Leukaemia and given 2 years to live, he stayed with us for 8. He simply refused to go. He didn’t want to miss out. However much pain he was in, whatever it took, he wasn’t ready to leave the party. Bi-weekly blood transfusions were the norm and yet I never saw him without a smile on his face. So grateful to be with his family, my Granddad loved life and was the absolute life and soul, right until his very last day.

One of the reasons I’m writing this is because recently, I haven’t been enjoying life the way I used to, and I know I’m not alone. As we get older, life seems to get more and more complicated. It’s hard to always see past the stresses of work and the endless bills, let alone the things that seem completely beyond our control. But are they? Are the negative things we face completely uncontrollable? Because if my brave granddad can outright refuse to die, I have means to believe we are often more powerful than we know.

For anyone struggling a bit at the moment, take a step back from your life and isolate all the things you are unhappy with. Split them into two categories and write them down; things you can change and things you can’t. Take the ‘can’t change’ category and think about each and every thing very carefully, then simply rip it up. If you honestly feel like there is nothing you can do then maybe it’s time to cast these things from your mind entirely. Letting them go will give you more energy to focus on the things you can change. Next, take your ‘can change’ list and write a positive, realistic goal next to each thing. Whether you want to travel the world, lose weight, beat depression, get the job of your dreams or find the love or your life, these things are all within your grasp if you want them badly enough. The very best things in life come from hard work and dedication – that is what makes them so great.

Some of you will know that I often have very vivid, messed-up dreams, both when I’m awake and asleep. Apparently, these ‘intrusive thoughts’ have developed as a result of an anxiety disorder. For me, this often feels like something I have absolutely zero control over. Unimaginable things come into my head when I’m walking down the street, catching the tube or lying in bed at night. They stay with me for days. They provoke panic attacks. I don’t know where they come from, but I’ve been assured that CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) will teach me how to control them.

In the last week or so, I’ve dreamed of my Granddad three times. The dreams were calm, he was smiling and I woke up feeling safe. Always remember that you are the author of your own life. Take control and never forget how lucky you are to have a voice. Whatever you think you become, it’s as simple as that.

 

Lesson 14: looking forward

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About six weeks ago, I wrote about the damaging effects of mobile phones in relation to properly communicating with the people you care about – the lesson being one about balance. We have become so heavily dependent on mobile phones that they trick us into thinking we’ve spent quality time with people, when in reality they prevent us from acknowledging the people right in front of us. Anyway, ironically, my phone was STOLEN the day after I posted this. One minute it was in my bag, then *poof* it was gone. And, for once in my life, I wasn’t even drunk when it happened.

We’ve probably all experienced that feeling by now – suddenly being cut off from the world, unfairly, without warning. Panic sets in, and then the sheer inconvenience of it becomes a reality. It’s horrible to think that being separated from a piece of technology can make us feel so sub-human.

No matter how many times you do it, losing a phone takes you on a little journey of self-discovery. At first you are beside yourself with grief and within a day or so you feel liberated. I went phoneless for a week and I came out the other side feeling even more convinced that we should all take a tiny break from our phones every now and again. It really, really doesn’t hurt. In the time it has taken for my insurance to kick in, I’ve been borrowing my sister’s boyfriend’s old phone. At first it felt clunky and alien, and now I love it like it was one of my own. We are very adjustable creatures when we have to be.

After countless phone calls and emails, I have finally received a lovely cheque for £479 from my insurance company. A few weeks ago, when my phone first got nicked, I would have given all my belongings for a replacement, let alone this money. Now I find myself wondering whether I ever needed an iPhone 5S in the first place. So, not only have I gained a greater perspective from this incident, I’ve potentially earned myself a couple of quid. It goes back to the same mantra I’ve mentioned before – who knows what’s good or bad?

Apply this little lesson to any hurdles life throws at you and you’ll be surprised what a difference it can make. Time and hindsight change everything, and bad luck gives us the opportunity to learn how to overcome something new. If you feel like the world isn’t on your side right now, give things a chance to unfurl and always look for the light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how long and twisted it may seem.

I’m not saying that everything happens for a reason, merely, that we can only learn to trust the world around us when we give it time to prove us wrong. We have no choice but to believe in the order of things; there is simply no other option.

Never be afraid to look back at what you’ve learned from something, and always believe that positive things are right around the corner. Positivity spreads positivity – the perfect excuse to remain in a constant, blissful state of hope.

Lesson 9: living in the moment

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It’s a strange time of year, March. We are so well and truly over Winter. A ping of excitement surges through me when I leave work in daylight, my once-loved jumpers, boots and coats are starting to look a bit tired and I find myself scrolling through all the festival line ups, daring to imagine how it feels to dance in a field with mud in my hair. The thing is though, and I hate to put a downer on it, Summer is quite far away. We have an entire season to get through first, and it’s a temperamental one at that. I’ve decided that this year I’m not going to spend every day from now counting down to the sunshine, because it’s not a healthy attitude to have in general. Yes, it’s great to have things to look forward to, but what about today? The journey to the destination is sometimes the most significant part. A bit like when you go round someone’s house to pre-drink before the main event – quite often this is more fun than the place you end up.

The main reason I’m adopting this frame of mind is because for a while now, I’ve been looking forward to just being in the future. It’s a dangerous wish, to fast forward time – like that film, ‘Click’. I’ve become so preoccupied with dreams of owning a home, having a more senior job, travelling the world, that I’ve started to lose sight of all the positive things in my life right now. Looking back at me three years ago, I thought all I needed to be happy was to live and work in London, rent my own place and write with a purpose. I have all of those things now and I’m ashamed to say that I no longer appreciate them. The same way we often don’t notice how beautiful or fun Spring can be because we’re too focussed on the fact it’s not quite Summer. If we are forever chasing more, how will we ever feel satisfied?

Yesterday I moaned to Joe about our flat not having a bath. I never have baths, but at that precise moment I wanted one and felt hard-done by. I then complained that the sofa wasn’t big enough before staring miserably into our tiny excuse for a garden. Joe completely shot me down. As he quite rightly reminded me, I moaned about not having a place of our own when we were living with his parents last year. In a house, I might add, that had a bath I never used and a huge garden I didn’t always appreciate. I know I’m not alone in this. Ok, sometimes we’re just venting our anger or frustrations at house-hold objects rather than people, but that doesn’t make it ok to constantly want more than what we have.

I do it with clothes all the time. I tell myself that if I just had one more pair of trainers, or one more jacket, or one more bag, my wardrobe would be complete and I would be happy. Then I see something looking amazing on someone else and instantly assume that a) their life must be wonderful, and b) if I buy it I will be happier. Obviously, I’m wrong. We are often so preoccupied with chasing the dream that we don’t even acknowledge the feeling of that dream coming true – we’ve already moved on to the next hole in our lives that needs filling.

Whether we choose to admit it or not, there are people in the world who have very little. There are people with no friends, no family, no education, no source of income, no health, no home. In our quest for leading perfect, possession-filled lives, we’re starting to lose sight of the things that really matter, the things some people would do anything to have.  There is nothing wrong with being optimistic about the future, so long as it doesn’t cast a big shadow over everything you’re doing right now. It’s ok to let the future take care of itself sometimes. It’s not going anywhere, unlike today – tomorrow, today will be gone. ‘Look after the pennies’, my nan always says. If you appreciate the small things, the big things will fall into place.

The next time you feel hard-up, take a moment to note down all the good things in your life. Think twice about whether your job is really that bad, or your wardrobe really needs updating, or your life really sucks. Chances are that it doesn’t. It’s just some cruel trick of the mind that’s inherent to human nature telling you it does.Whatever the future holds, just be glad that you made the most of today. That’s all we can ever do.

Lesson 8: controlling anxiety

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Everyone feels self-conscious. It’s the price we pay for being intelligent human beings. We’re acutely aware of what we look like, what we say, how we feel, who we are and how we interact with everything around us. The challenge arises when this awareness becomes overly critical, obsessive, worried, controlling. How many of us worry on a daily basis about something we just said, something we used to wear, that hair cut we once had, whether someone likes us or not, whether you’re supposed to like something or not? Like many of us, over-thinking and over-analysing everything has always been a part of my personality. I’m as self-conscious as they come.

I’m going to put something out there that you might not agree with. For me, self-consciousness is not a weakness. In some ways, self-consciousness is one of my greatest strengths. Confused? I’m going to explain how it’s possible to turn anxiety into something positive, rather than something that gnaws away at your soul. Anxiety is a difficult thing to live with, and it’s more common than you might think. I’m not going to define what anxiety is or feels like in this post. It’s incredibly complicated and everyone is very different. For now, let’s just think of it in the context of feeling self-conscious, which is something we can all relate to.

Somebody once said to me:

‘You’ve gone downhill.’

Meaning, I’ve let myself go, I’ve reached my peak, I will forever be less attractive than I once was. This is both one of the most upsetting and prominent things that was said to me in my late teens – a direct insult to both my appearance and my ability to recognise my apparent deterioration. Not only did I feel ugly, I felt stupid for not realising how ugly I was. It didn’t matter that this was simply one person’s unwarranted opinion, all that mattered at that moment was that someone thought that about me. The bitter and honest truth was that although there will never be any justification for someone saying something so cruel, I was forced to face the fact that I had stopped making an effort with my appearance. I had done strange things to my hair, I had stopped eating healthily, and I was partying a lot. I was the least self-conscious I have ever been, but I didn’t feel much like me at all. I hated that person for saying that to me, and for years those words ate away at my confidence, causing me to second guess how attractive I was and how well I understood myself. It’s not healthy to obsess about the way you look, but before this comment I had started to go the other way. I had started to not care that much at all. And that’s just not the sort of person I am. These horrible words reminded me of that. In a kind of messed-up way, they did me a massive favour.

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You can argue that the reason I started taking better care of myself was to prove that person wrong, letting them define me, but I simply wanted to look and feel like myself again. I am the sort of person who wears makeup every single day. It isn’t because I feel societal pressures to do so, I just enjoy the act of getting ready, of being polished, of being well-dressed. There’s a quote you’ve probably heard: ‘being well-dressed is a beautiful form of politeness’, and I really believe that. If I don’t make an effort I end up feeling lazy, and subsequently end up being lazy. If I felt comfortable going barefaced and wearing any old thing (and I do sometimes envy people who are), it would be a different story all together, but that’s just not me.

Negative comments are always difficult to digest, especially when there is an element of truth in them. These comments don’t have to come from someone you know, it could be that you talk yourself down on a daily basis. The secret to rising above it? Be the best person you can be. Challenge yourself to that. Anything negative that comes your way can simply do one, because if you are yourself and you are trying your hardest in life, nobody is allowed to critique that, not even you. And I don’t mean the best looking, either.  I am critical of myself, but I use that feeling to try and do good things. When I have achieved something, I leave myself alone. If I wake up with a huge spot in the middle of my face (something I’m often confronted with), my natural reaction is to hide in a dark room and cry a little bit. Then I think about all the inspiring people in the world who would do anything to actually be able to SEE their own faces, to have the gift of sight. I really believe you can draw on the energy anxiety can give you and turn it into positive rather than negative energy – which is exactly what this blog post is a product of.

I hope talking a bit about anxiety allows you to confront your insecurities. Feeling constantly self-conscious is nothing to be ashamed of, and it’s very hard to control, but it can be controlled. Just remember that self-worth and confidence aren’t gifts from other people, they come from within. And similarly, other people can’t take them from you. They might get damaged, but that merely allows you to build something bigger and better each and every time they do.

Lesson 6: treasuring friends

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At secondary school, I was lucky enough to have a big, happy, supportive group of girls around me at all times. All those teenage discoveries – alcohol, smoking, makeup, clothes, sex, heartache, exams – were a group conquest. We were in everything together, all the time. Growing up, this was just what we all needed. Nothing was too daunting. However, being a tad introverted is a challenge when you’re never alone. Whereas my friends would spend the whole day together and the whole evening talking about it on the phone, I would start to crave a bit of solitude. On girly holidays, I would slink off for a walk or spend an extra hour in the hotel by myself. I loved them, loved being with them. I still do. But I like to be alone sometimes, too. Not in a miserable, feeling sorry for myself kind of way. I just generally need a few hours to recharge my batteries. Quite simply, if you’re an introvert, you feel energised by being alone, whereas extroverts get their energy by being around other people. As I grew up, and learned a bit more about myself, I realised I was never going to be a central part of a huge group of friends my whole life. Don’t get me wrong, I have so many amazing friends. I can’t believe how lucky I am to have them – true friends that understand that sometimes life gets in the way, but will never let you drift too far. Being surrounded by people who care about you when you need them most is an incredible thing. However, having a best friend in times of crisis is quite literally life changing.

Becky was part of the same all-girl group as me at school. She was always kind of ‘the naughty one’. At 13, we shared a pack of Mayfair, got horrendously drunk on bottles of Red Square and had a competition to see who could kiss the most boys (some things never change). At 15, we both fell in love with a boy for the first time (different boys, thank god). At 18, we had a joint birthday party at the local rugby club and planned it meticulously for months. At 19, I went off to get a degree and Becky went off to be a ski instructor. We didn’t speak. We drifted apart, like a lot of people did. We were never the closest friends in the group. We found other friends. Then, after I moved back home, our paths coincidentally crossed and we ended up working in the same pub together. Becky quickly filled a gap I didn’t even realise was there. 4 years on and I honestly can’t imagine life without her. We are polar opposites and yet completely and utterly the same. Becky reminds me every single day that although I often feel an overwhelming urge to be alone, friendship is one of the most important and beautiful things anyone can have. We went off, did our own thing, changed, and found our way back to each other. Now we’re closer than ever. We text each other the same thing at the same time, we pine after each other after a week of not talking, we have THE most fun on a night out together, we’re quite sickening really.

Becky isn’t the only close friend I’ve reconnected with during the last couple of years. In short, if you miss someone, need someone, or feel like someone might need you; it is never ever too late to tell them. Growing up, I was so close with my family I never really felt dependant on other people. My sister is my soul mate and I can honestly count the arguments we’ve had on one hand. It has recently dawned on me that after a certain stage in life, it’s your interaction with the people outside of home that truly helps you learn and grow as a person; whether that’s people you meet from completely different cultures, or simply people you confide in outside of your family unit. If family are the foundations, then friends are the bricks. Without the bricks, you can’t grow upwards. My closest friends aren’t necessarily the people I’ve known the longest, but the people who bring out the best in me, who inspire me, who make it all worthwhile. We’ve shared our darkest secrets and trusted each other to keep them safe. They’re the people I clicked with instantly, and all of a sudden couldn’t manage life without. I would fight for them, cry for them, and probably even die for them. You know who you are, and I don’t thank you enough for being such an incredible influence in my life. And special thanks to my beautiful sister, my original friend. It’s Valentine’s Day, and I’m declaring my love to you.

A simple lesson I’ve learned: even your closest friends are only human. If you neglect them, hurt them, push them to the edge or simply make zero effort, they will slowly let you go. Recognise the people you can’t live without and treasure them until the end. Enrich their lives the way they have yours and live forever safe with the satisfaction that if nothing else, you have each other.

 

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