Last week I found that a message from a friend (“Dot, we haven’t seen you since your birthday!”) triggered an overwhelm of emotions – some I hardly dared own in the quiet of my own heart, let alone share with my friend.
The first emotion was anger. Didn’t you read the letter I sent you at Christmas?! In it I shared, as tactfully as I could, the experience I had of supporting a friend in a suicidal episode (an experience I also referred to in my blog posting entitled Preventing employee suicide). How could my friend – if she’d read my letter – admonish me for our lack of contact over recent months?
Sitting with the anger, I quickly realised that it masked a layer of guilt. It wasn’t just guilt about my lack of contact with my friend – no.
I am feeling guilty about all sorts of things right now.
My most chaotic New Year ever…
The truth is, this year has been my most chaotic start to the New Year – ever.
I haven’t yet written all my Christmas cards (yes really).
I haven’t yet opened all the Christmas cards that loved ones have sent to me (sadly, also true).
I haven’t yet bought Christmas presents for all my loved ones.
And it’s not just about Christmas.
Last week, I spent hours catching up on my first couple of days back at work – opening December’s unopened post, sending invoices for the work I did last month, bringing my diary up to date and more.
I also spent time every day washing clothes, and sheets and towels. I now have a huge pile of ironing to contend with.
I can still see all sorts of carnage that needs sorting out throughout the house. My office needs a good clear out. In my dining room, I need to move a cupboard back into place that was treated for woodworm and put the contents back in place. I have decided that one of my priorities in 2014 is to create storage for a new hobby – buying and selling china on a well-known *ahem* on-line trading facility.
And my diary is already tightly packed. On Saturday, I took part in a singing Day as a member of the London Symphony Chorus. I have a number of feedback sessions in the coming days with assessment candidates I interviewed last year. I am working intensely in preparation for the launch of my new website.
The list goes on…
I wonder if you, too, have stumbled into 2014 in a way that is less than ideal.
Maybe you’ve enjoyed time with friends and family and, still, you missed some longed-for quiet time over the Christmas break.
Maybe you spent the last couple of months last year meeting tight end-of-year deadlines and you know you’ve failed to plan for 2014.
Maybe you know you’ve got too much on your plate but you can’t see what you can cut out of your schedule, unless it’s the things you put in precisely because you wanted more “life” in your “work/life balance”.
Maybe you have so much in your schedule for 2014 and you still need to catch up with the remnants of 2013.
You’ve started the New Year feeling tired and in need of a rest. Or perhaps you’re confused about what you want in the year ahead. Or maybe you feel overwhelmed with everything that lies ahead.
The pressures that come with stepping in to a New Year
One thing I have noticed about Christmas and the New Year, is a certain amount of pressure we put on ourselves at this time of the year.
I’ve noticed, for example, how some people struggle to give an honest account of the year just gone because they believe that, somehow, their year should have been better. Their career (or their spouse’s or children’s) should have been more sparkling than, in fact, it was. Perhaps their relationships or even the people in their lives (spouse, parents, children etc.) should have been better. More challenging still, perhaps they, themselves, should somehow have been better.
There’s another challenge, too – the pressure to be happy. In the UK, for example, happiness is a matter of government policy. In July 2013 the BBC reported a small increase in happiness across the UK as measured by a UK-wide annual well-being survey. The pressure is often closer to home. Friends and family can be so keen to see their loved ones happy that they offer solutions, unbidden, when we share our problems and challenges or even criticise us for feeling anything other than happy. This pressure carries the risk that we start to hide our emotions from ourselves and others or to respond to authentic emotion with criticism and self-punishment.
The gift of keeping it real
One person who argues for something different is psychologist and author Oliver James. I was grateful over the holiday to hear him (on BBC Radio 4) arguing for emotional health rather than happiness as a goal worth aiming for.
What is emotional health? James argued for being present in the moment to our emotions rather than prescriptive about what we should be feeling. My own experience is that it is the way we feel about our feelings (based on judgements of what is or is not acceptable) rather than our feelings themselves (what some call our primary feelings) that causes us most distress.
More than this, I would add that our feelings are a valuable gauge; a guide to needs that may or may not being met. When we give space for our authentic feelings in the moment, we open up a space for our needs – to welcome them, to experience them and, at times, to meet them.
Happy New Year
Last week, opening my heart to my feelings and to the needs that lay hidden beneath them, I noticed that, more than anything, I have a need for understanding from friends, family, even colleagues and clients, for the ongoing impact from having taken time to support my friend. Taking time to understand my need also opened up the opportunity to ask for understanding. I also caught myself in an interpretation (that my friend was intending to admonish me) and was able to honestly share my interpretation and ask, is that what you meant to do? This was my way of keeping it real.