Thoughts of an Overthinking Parent (Part 3)

As you might expect of a perfectionist overthinking about anxiety, actually finding the right words to speak honestly about my struggle was an obstacle at first. Even after I knew I was ready to talk, it depended on who I was talking to and their initial reaction/response as to whether I could have a conversation at all. And if I did, then how long I’d be thinking about it afterwards.

Talking to people I wasn’t close to always felt easier, probably because then I wouldn’t spend the following days wondering whether I’d been understood or if I’d burdened people. Or if someone I cared about would think I was losing my mind. Some people I’d imagined might be a struggle to open up to were really helpful and present for the conversation, and some that I hoped might be able to hold space for me, weren’t. One thing is for sure, in the end I was always glad that I’d tried because, if nothing else, I was sure I was finally being myself.

We’re all at very different places with our understanding and experience of mental health and we just need to practice those difficult conversations if we want to get better at them. I think back over previous conversations I’ve had where I failed to be what someone needed. It’s a skill to actively listen and empathise without making the conversation about you; to support without trivialising; to share advice or experience without telling people what they should do or feel or to ‘cheer up’ and ‘look on the bright side’. Communication around mental health is a constant learning exercise, and now I’ve experienced being unable to cope and how that can affect every part of your life, it’s a skill I’m determined to become adept at.

A word I’ve noticed I use a lot more these days is ‘journey’, it always sounds false for some reason and like I’ve lost sight of my extreme privilege in life. But other synonyms either feel too literal or even more pretentious – I know I haven’t been on a voyage! So, let’s just say, for want of a better expression, that I feel like I’ve been on quite a journey in the last year or so. As well as accepting my anxiety is real and seeking out help, I’ve had my work and social life turned upside down due to the virus, and have been locked down with a pregnant and clinically vulnerable partner throughout the pandemic. I am fully aware though of how much more tough this has been for so many other people, and it would be wrong of me to do anything other than be honest about how fortunate I am right now.

My family has avoided the virus so far. I’ve kept my job and been gifted time to think and work on my own wellbeing which clearly had been needed for some time. I’ve also been lucky enough to connect more closely (albeit digitally) than ever with some incredible humans around the subject of self-awareness and personal growth, as well as reaching new levels of honesty with my fellow overthinker and hero of a partner, Anna. I’ve had the chance to try my hand at creating content that might be able to help others who are struggling.

Now I’m much more able to talk about what is really going on with me, I’ve learned to listen to those around me and understand what is actually going on with them. It’s, unsurprisingly, way more interesting and engaging than general small talk. It’s also affirming and enlightening to follow someone else’s struggles as they almost always have an overlap with my own, and providing support on each other’s journey can solidify a relationship on a deeper and more profound level.

I’ve found sources of support which have been catalysts for personal growth and inspiration to push even harder to connect, create and grow. Menfulness was already out there, but presented itself exactly when I needed it. After attending the activities and getting to know the people, I’m becoming a trustee, to work with four other local men to run and build the organisation up to achieve its full potential. The same thing happened several years ago with my community cinema – Film at the Folk Hall. Almost as soon as I realised I needed to be of service to my community, there it was, round the corner from my house, in need of the sort of help which I could offer. These networks have helped me to accept and understand myself while directing me closer to who I want to be.

There’s a safe and unspoken permission you get in such a support network which means that you’re already allowed and accepted: the reactions are kinder; more time will be given to get your thoughts out; you won’t be told how to feel, or what you should be doing to defeat your demons; or what you should be grateful for instead of working on yourself. You can practice some of those more complex conversations before you speak to family, friends and loved ones. I recommend everyone go out and find your support network. If it doesn’t exist, why not create it? There is support and funding available to help you. Trust people enough to ask for help. Talk to me, if I can assist you, I will. Just remember, however much you might feel it, you are not alone. I can assure you we are all craving connection in some way or another. 

The Menfulness Team

I believe this connection is available to us all, because we are all capable of owning our own vulnerabilities and speaking our inner truth. I know this is not new to many of you reading. I imagine that many women reading this already understand the benefits of this kind of connection. Historically and traditionally men have not felt able to learn about and share their more complex emotional struggles. This leads to repression of painful or uncomfortable feelings and a deterioration in overall mental wellbeing. We all know people who are, right now, struggling through their own silent battles. People who could be empowered from us vocalising ours. For some reason, despite recent progress generally, this mutually beneficial transaction still remains a big secret from a large part of society. So many people are suffering inside while talking about the weather or what they’ve been watching on TV. 

Opening up about my mental health might well be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I say that now because I’m about to become a parent, which is likely to be both the best and the hardest thing I’ve ever done. So this acceptance of struggle and commitment to growth has come at the right time for me. The more I think about the timing of all this anxiety, the more certain I am that it is precisely because of this journey to parenthood that these things have bubbled to the surface.

To me it has always felt like a race between having a child and arriving at the point where I feel psychologically ready to have a child. It’s like, I know it’s not real or helpful, but I still can’t shake off the baggage from the stories we’re all told to ‘protect’ and commodify us in this uncertain world: Don’t say that; Don’t do that; Don’t wear that; Man up; Be more like your sister, your friends, that rich or ‘successful’ person; Get better grades, cars, things; Don’t over share; Share more; ‘Meet my expectations of the persona I’ve created of you!’

I can’t help but (over) think about what this all means for my daughter. Completely innocent. On her way into this turbulent existence without consent. Near limitless potential, divided by the sum of our collective fear and judgement which will be taught to her through the stories she is told. My stories need to be better, stronger, more inspiring or perhaps she’ll end up like me: Playing a role defined not purely by my own ‘destiny’ or capability, but by the limitations my own stories, beliefs and anxieties have set before me.

The way our needs are met in our early learning phase, the way these evolutionary fight-or-flight chemical disturbances play out, our countless and cumulative experiences over a life-time; all this enables us to cope, or not, with what this world throws at us. So here we are. Here I am. Thirty five years old, weeks away from parenthood and I feel like I’m just getting to know a huge part of myself that I’d been taught I was supposed to repress. But instead of continuing to conform, I’m attempting to reframe as best I can.  ‘Struggling with your mental health is a weakness’, becomes ‘Challenge is what makes the strong rise up’; ‘If we talk about it people will think we’re mental’, becomes ‘We are all mental beings, and we connect the most when we talk about it’; ‘Being honest will affect my future opportunities’ becomes ‘I am capable and can create value despite my struggle’.

So what now? Well, I know I’m not out of the woods yet by any means. I’ve been at home. I’ve had the perfect get-out clause for avoidance. While this has given me time to work on some stuff, there will surely be a challenge to now find what ‘normal’ is for me, especially as I’m about to be thrust back into it with a new baby human in tow. So I’m not going to pretend like everything is fine all of a sudden because I’m finally ‘owning it’. Or even like this version of me I’m aspiring to no longer responds to external validation and criticism. Of course I do, but at least I can fully recognise it for what it is. It’s not just bubbling away in my subconscious, governing my behaviour.

I’m taking positive action to assist my progress. I exercise, not because I enjoy it, I don’t. But it does wonders for my head. I keep my social media accounts at a safer distance, which might slow any potential business ‘growth’, but I’m beginning to prioritise my mindset above such things. I keep some people at a safer distance, which might limit my connections. Again, it’s a matter of learning to put my wellbeing first, it’s a steep learning curve around who and where I can really be comfortable being me and that finally feels OK to say.

From the work I’ve done coaching others, and the progress I’ve made coaching myself, I’ve learned the benefits of not ‘settling’ and always striving to get 1% nearer to where you want to be, despite any self-limiting beliefs. But since parenthood has become a reality, I’ve realised that acceptance is equally important. Otherwise growth is just another hurdle/fight towards an unreachable perfection. You can’t always justify the time and resources to push, or ever fully know which direction you should be pushing towards. Sometimes you have to sit back, relinquish control of the outcome and just allow things to be.

Finding the balance between progress and acceptance will be key for me as a parent. As will accepting that I may never completely ‘defeat’ my own programming, but that I do have some control over the experiences I create for my daughter. And that these early experiences can have a profound impact on her understanding of reality, her feelings of fulfilment, her acceptance of who she is and what her place in the world might be. Perhaps that’s how we truly escape our childhoods and defeat our shame: By not passing it on. This is fast becoming what I believe is my true calling and maybe even, if there is such a thing, the meaning of life. 

(EDIT: Well I finished writing this weeks ago but of course needed time to have a characteristic overthink about the grandiose ending. The truth is, of course I can only speak about my truth; the possible meaning of my life; how I feel at this moment in time. While terrified of the prospect, I for some reason always knew I wanted to have a child one day and the fact we were able to makes us incredibly lucky and, while I may have struggled with many things, I am grateful every day for that.

I’m also aware that not everyone wants to have children, and I completely believe this should be a personal choice. I also strongly believe that women should have complete autonomy over their own body and reproductive decision making. I certainly do not propose that anyone needs to have a child to find the meaning in their life. But I suppose I do float the idea that regardless of your feelings/circumstance around parenthood, there could be some deeper meaning in the way we set an example in our lives, if not directly for the next generation, then for each other. Perhaps by leading with vulnerability, self awareness and honesty we lay the foundations for a more empowered, inclusive and open society in the future).

To be continued…

Thoughts of an Overthinking Parent (Part 2)

I’ve been spending the additional time this last year has afforded me to step back from some of my unconscious behaviours and witness them as a spectator for the first time. While it has felt uncomfortable at times I can honestly recommend it. Like a workout for the brain, it’s felt exhausting yet ultimately enhancing and cathartic. It’s like I’ve kind of known me for years, but only to chat about the usual top level stuff. I’ve finally taken that next step and invited me over for dinner, then stayed up all night talking about what really matters. I’m finally trying to get to know myself properly and understand some of what makes me behave the way I do. For me this has been primarily working out why my coping mechanisms failed me, why anxiety and panic has become such a part of my life lately, and how can I ensure that this does not impact the way I will parent.

What is it about our minds that makes us wait until something goes wrong before we learn how to look after them? Our species tends to err on the side of caution, it’s what has kept us evolving for millions of years, but for some reason many of us neglect looking after our minds and instead accept coping over thriving; repression over ownership. Why is it, for example, that diet and exercise to keep our bodies in shape is so normalised, but articulating how we really feel can still be so uncomfortable?

Perhaps not all of us need to reach breaking point to push the fix. What if we just need to have the right conversation or consume the right content? Maybe there’s the perfect formula of words to help each of us realise that we are all worthy of allowing our mental health some TLC once in a while. This idea is what has spurred me on to talking and writing more about my thought processes. With the hope that if you can relate to what I’m trying to convey then we might be able to make some sense of it all. Then perhaps, between us, encourage others to do the same.

It’s stigma that makes us believe having these conversations shows weakness. At some point in history male vulnerability began being mistaken for, or reframed as, weakness and this has kept many men from discussing their struggles. It’s this stigma that has us creating realities and coping mechanisms around us to help us hide the tough bits away. Conditioning ourselves to keep our own needs at arm’s length and hold back what’s really going on. Silencing important parts of who we are for fear of failure and judgement or, perhaps even more frighteningly, success and self-actualisation. It’s hard to unlearn the idea that you’re a burden and that you have to pretend to be OK all the time for everyone else’s sake, especially when you’re struggling. Be honest, what would you be like if you took off all the different masks you wear for the different roles you play? What would your truth be?

It’s a slow process but I’m gradually learning that being validated a bit for who we truly are is infinitely more affirming and rewarding than being validated a lot for who we’re burning ourselves out trying to be. I know it’s not going to be easy, but I do think we can change if we have the right motivation. So, who’s with me?! It’s OK if you’re not, or if you can’t relate to anything I’m saying. I appreciate you taking the time to read this all the same. For the first time I actually feel like I can travel this path on my own. It’s genuine progress for me to accept that people don’t have to agree with the things I say. Just knowing I can put honest things out and have a go, without it being perfect or knowing if it’s going to work is a step in the right direction.

I’m coming to terms with the fact that some of my relationships have diminished as I deviate from my usual path. Perhaps Covid can be blamed; perhaps it was just the right time. As I’ve pulled back from certain people and situations which seemed to compound my anxiety, I’ve realised that perhaps I was doing much of the heavy lifting anyway. Undoubtedly this was from that part of me that needs to know people are always happy with me. Even though I still feel it in there somewhere, I know I don’t need that validation anymore. Of course, like anything addictive, there can be withdrawal and relapse. For me, this comes in the form of seeking reassurance, assuming people’s motivations, avoidance, guilt, shame etc. At least though I now recognise that these things are not grounded in reality. They are not the fault of any other person, nor do they need to be a permanent feature of me. They are patterns and scripts which I have unknowingly developed over a long time. Mechanisms which keep me hyper-aware of what I need to do to keep the semblance of ‘happiness’ going. Now I can see that they don’t serve me well, I can no longer justify spending my limited time and resources on them. If I’m to be truly effective and of service to the world and as a parent, then I must start working on delaying gratification, writing more positive scripts and holding onto healthier habits. The more I commit to these improvements to my mindset, the more I seem to connect with the right people and action. And as this cycle (hopefully) continues, I’ve found myself ever more fascinated by the wellbeing of myself and those around me. I want to understand our motivations and goals and try to learn more about what’s holding us all back from talking about where we want to be.

I know the subject of ‘mental health’ can put some people off. It can be triggering and it can direct conversations deeper down the iceberg to places people aren’t comfortable opening up about. Plus it’s always seemed to me like people are either all about it, or not about it at all. I know these are my own previous misjudgements coming to the surface, but that’s my point – It is possible to change those judgements. The reality is that once you realise there are undiscovered parts of you that need work, and that discussing those parts can encourage those around you to do the same, it can become paramount. Of course I don’t commit to this being my only topic of discussion, but I do hope that I’ve shown we can talk about our difficult times, without it being too upsetting or self-deprecating. I’d like to think that as we continue to tackle the stigma, we can approach the subject on a much more natural and conversational level. As well as it feeling less upsetting, being casual about mental health if we can, allows us to include those who may otherwise feel they must avoid the subject. Maybe because they can’t find the words or they don’t have the experiences from which to draw the presence required to be there for someone in their hour of need.

We all have mental health. It affects us all. Granted some are in such a good (or perhaps oblivious) place that they genuinely believe we’re all just a making it up. There are also many who still think that people should just ‘get a grip’ or ‘man up’. Or that mental health is just some distant problem that their weird uncle had. Or something that only those in asylums need to worry about. But as I’ve found out, any of us can join the 1 in 4 people in this country affected by a ‘mental health problem’ each year. I went from a sociable, albeit overthinking, extrovert to a socially anxious panic attack waiting to happen, all within a matter of months. Surrounded by people who care, I still initially chose to hide my struggle due to the stigma and that deep-seated need to appear strong and happy. I am not alone in this, men failing to talk about their mental health remains a silent emergency – Only 36% of referrals to NHS talking therapies are for men. Men are nearly three times as likely to become alcohol dependent and three times more likely to take their own lives.

We don’t wait until our cars break down, we MOT them. We’d have no problem talking to a doctor or a friend about a broken leg. The same should be said for mental health. The truth is I didn’t practice what I’m now trying not to be too preachy about. I can’t say I was blissfully unaware, I should have noticed how hard I was working. How much I needed everything to be under my control and everyone to be happy with me or my day or week or month would be consumed by what people were thinking and how I could fix it. Or how I accepted the negativity of certain individuals because, well, it’s a small price to pay for their validation. But I didn’t see it or if I did catch a glimpse, I didn’t slow down long enough to acknowledge it. I was too busy on the hamster-wheel holding out for that next weekend, or trip, or gadget. Holding out hope that the next ‘thing’ would bring that elusive inner peace to me. I realise now all that burying this stuff does is give it chance to grow roots and come back stronger. It’s hard to have gratitude for any of the incredible opportunities life affords us while we’re using all our energy just to go through the motions and pretend we’re alright.

It’s a sobering realisation to arrive at: that if external validation, or the increasing acquisition of ‘stuff’ was ever going to resolve our inner angst it would have done so by now. And yet so many of us carry on regardless, without considering if there’s a better way. Jim Carrey said, ‘I think everybody should get rich and famous and have everything they ever dreamed of, so they can see that it’s not the answer’. 


Thoughts of an Overthinking Parent (Part 1)

OK, so I’m not officially a parent yet. But I do seem to have started talking, behaving and spending like one! I’ve certainly started overthinking like one. Anyone suffering from imposter syndrome or toxic shame will likely know what it means to be a perfectionist and an overthinker. To think so intently on a goal and all its tasks and outcomes, that it becomes something unbearable to take on. It’s often the thing which people joke you should give as your weakness at a job interview; the truth of it is that perfectionism has stifled much of my creativity over the years because I’ve not been comfortable really ‘putting myself out there’. Freaked out at the idea of failure, stressed out about how people might judge me; overthinking things has been the norm for as long as I can remember. I believe overthinking can even affect memory, I feel like I’ve spent more time thinking, about mistakes from the past or worries about the future, than I’ve spent being present in the moments where memories are made. There I go again… I already know what you’re thinking… I’m overthinking it.

Like many of us, I’m used to second guessing my decisions and doubting myself; I’ve found many coping mechanisms for this which range from positivity and goal setting, to avoidance, reassurance seeking and blaming others. The former have enabled me to push forward and step outside my comfort zone to a certain point. The latter are why many of my ideas and plans have never been anything but. One common theme through life which I’m just waking up to has been my insatiable need for control, and the discomfort I feel when I lack it. The reality is though, all of the big steps I’ve taken outside my comfort zone over the years have been ‘undoable’. After all, I could always fold a business, sell a house, end a relationship.

The undeniable truth before me is that there is no undoing this next part of my life. The gravity of giving and sustaining the life of another human has always been overwhelming for me. From an outsider’s perspective it could well seem that it’s the commitment side of parenthood that has me rattled. I think until the last few years I’d have probably agreed. But despite my fairly recent and ongoing tussle with social anxiety, and the state of the world as it is out there, I’m more aware than I’ve ever been about who I am. As a result, it’s become clearer what’s been troubling me about becoming a parent and its way deeper seated than a fear of commitment. No doubt, the permanence of it all is certainly a factor, as is the responsibility to do it as well as I can.  But the thing which really got to me, and had me trying to find reasons to put off parenting, is the idea that I might pass on these unconscious behaviours that have eluded me for so much of my life.

First of all, my need for external validation and my underlying lack of self-worth could easily have me parenting on other people’s terms. As I understand it, everyone is an expert only on their own child’s needs, because they are all so unique. So, it stands to reason that my trusty old coping mechanisms won’t work here. I will need to be my own authentic self when parenting, not doing what I think someone else would do or worrying how other people might view my decisions. While I may not sign up to the old fashioned/patriarchal viewpoint of men taking the lead role in the family, or the macho requirement to ‘man up’ and ‘be strong’, I do still of course wish to be a stable role model for my daughter.  To achieve this, I am in no doubt that I need to put in work on truly understanding my anxiety and shame. For those who haven’t felt shame themselves, or read much about it before, shame and guilt get confused a lot: Guilt is what you feel when you believe you did something bad. Shame is what you feel when you believe you are bad. The latter is much harder to rationalise and accept.

I could never really put my finger on it before but having read more on the subject, I understand toxic shame can be passed on like a hereditary illness. We tend to manifest what we most fear; we seek to bury or avoid the difficult bits of ourselves which we don’t understand, but they continue to reveal themselves in our responses or reflex reactions, ready for our children to pick up in their own subconscious and turn into their own traits. We fear what we don’t understand and what I feared and was failing to understand most was myself. Whatever I’ve been creating those coping mechanisms for. Whatever’s underneath the masks I wear, between the lines of the scripts I’ve written for myself, lurking in my blind spot. The bogeyman under the bed. It’s the ‘other’ me; the me you never see.

This might all sound fairly sinister when explained in such dramatic terms, but hopefully anyone who has been following my sporadic socials content can see that talking about what’s really going on with us doesn’t have to be sad. It can help us reframe our thoughts and feelings, empower us to own our stories and connect us with others who can relate, which has happened way more often than I ever expected. I hope those who were worried about me initially have realised by now that I’m not having a breakdown. Far from it. Despite my recent wobble, in fact, because of my recent wobble, I’m probably in the best state mentally that I’ve been in for a long time. My imposter syndrome won’t let me be sure of it, and I still can’t always show up how I want to, but hopefully it’s clear I’m not crying out for help. More crying out for hope. Reaching out in an attempt at deepening the virtual connection during these physically disconnected times. Showing up with a message that I imagine may run through everything I do from now on. A message that says, HEY! I’ve realised I’m a bit messed up and I want to work on it. How about you?