High sensitivity and social media – some guidelines that help me

 

Day 2 of Inktober, by Marija Smits

Day 2 of Inktober, by Marija Smits

 

Although much has been written about the ills of social media, I have a sense that HSPs feel the lows (and highs) of online life more acutely. I can only speak for myself, of course, but I do believe that high sensitivity, accompanied as it usually is with empathy and a deep sense of conscientiousness, only heightens the experience of being involved in social media.

An analogy from real life: as I write this I’m sitting in the car in a car park as I wait for my son to finish his gymnastics session. For the last half hour it’s been quiet, but just now a man has pulled up beside me, the radio blaring. He then proceeds to have a loud conversation on his phone. I feel my nerves getting jangled; I begin to pick the skin around my thumb nail as my stress levels increase, tearing away at the skin as I quietly, anxiously, run through my options. I consider moving the car but then worry that he’ll get offended. Heaven forbid I offend someone with my need for peace and quiet. I tell myself to sit it out – after all, I will lose some precious writing time if I move the car. I remind myself that he’s no doubt unaware of my discomfort; the level of noise emanating from his car is his normal.

Minutes pass. Eventually, I can’t take it anymore. I move the car.

And there, in a nutshell, is the problem of social media for this HSP.

There are many people in this world; many of them use social media. They’re simply going about their everyday lives, expressing opinions, sharing news, what they’ve eaten for dinner, cat videos, whatever. There is nothing wrong with this. But what it ultimately results in is a lot of white noise. And many HSPs, me included, are very sensitive to noise. I have to remind myself that this sensitivity is okay. I am not at fault or broken. I just have a different level of tolerance for noise compared with others.

Life is challenging enough without the extra added (artificial) noise of social media. There are many times I’ve considered leaving Facebook and Twitter entirely. I mainly stay for two reasons: my publishing work and the core group of friends and supporters who value what I have to share and seem to actually care about what I post. You see, that’s another stress of social media for me – I feel bad for posting stuff about myself, knowing that I’m simply adding to the white noise and possibly increasing other people’s stress levels. It makes me scared to post; makes me want to run away and hide and keep silent. But when my friends respond in a positive way to something I’ve written I feel a deep well of gratitude in my heart. Being seen in this way means a lot. Because it speaks to a fundamental drive in humans: connection. E.M. Forster was right when, all those years ago, he wrote “only connect”. It’s as good a creed to live by as any.

On a practical level, then, how can an HSP navigate the noise and avoid overwhelm (as well as manage the addictive qualities of social media)? Well, like with the car guy, I will either have to tolerate it or protect myself by imposing boundaries. Tolerating it for more than only short periods of time will only lead to high stress levels though (and the skin off my thumb) so imposing boundaries has to be the way to go. So I put together the following list of things I do to help me manage my life on social media.

1. Write down why you’re there. As with most things in life, when one goes about a task with purpose, it is far more likely to be a successful venture. So before I go on social media I make a note of what it is I came there for, be it work or to post an arty/writing update on my own page, or to respond to a message/connect with a friend. It helps to keep me focussed, away from proscratination, and in and out of there before the noise gets too much.

 

Trees in autumn, photo by Marija Smits

Trees in autumn, photo by Marija Smits

 

2. Minimize “idle scrolling”. There are days when I simply don’t have time to check my feed at all (those are good days – right? – because it means I’m busy with important work such as admiring autumn trees, or busy at work/creating). Some days I easily lose an hour to scrolling through my feed. This usually results in me becoming overwhelmed by various emotions. So I’ve begun to limit the time I spend scrolling through my feed. Yes, I sometimes feel bad for not checking in with all my friends and responding to their news, but I also figure that if they’re true friends they’ll understand.

3. Curate your feed. Because I work (mainly) in the book world I have gained many lovely bookish Facebook friends. But as with any given group of people there is a certain percentage who are far more vocal than others. They post incredibly frequently and so their updates have a tendency to live at the top of your feed. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being vocal, but as with the car guy, sometimes it’s all a bit too much. I still want to be connected to them via Facebook, but a little distance is necessary. That’s when the unfollow button comes in useful by making one’s feed that little less noisy.

4. To unfriend or not to unfriend? Ah, now there’s a question! With an ever-growing number of friends/followers and friend requests I do wonder about this. After all, some people, on becoming my friend/follower proceed to have zero interaction with me (apart from asking me to like their page or whatever). And the sheer number of virtual friends I have on Facebook boggles my mind! I mean, in school, I had a couple of close friends and that was it. It was emotionally manageable. For the time being I’ve decided to not curtail my list of friends by hitting the unfriend button, but I may well change my mind about that. Interestingly, the people I have the most positive interactions with are the people I know in real life. (Barring the few not-quite-met-in-real-life writer friends who remain steadfastly inspiring and lovely.) So this is one I haven’t quite made my mind up about, but I think it’s safe to say that it’s always worth thinking carefully about who to friend (or not) in the first place. 

5. Set some ground rules. I know I can easily get addicted to computer games, so I’ve had to set a rule: it’s always a no to requests to play Candy Crush (or whatever). My whole life would pass in a blur if I was to ever start playing this. Likewise, my tiny bank account would empty tout-suite if I donated to every friend’s birthday fundraiser. Again, I feel bad that I can’t donate, but I’m sure people understand.

6. Impose a curfew. From past experience I know that ‘just hopping into an (apparently lighthearted) conversation’ before bedtime can lead to a lot of stress. Miscommunication is rife on social media. Crucially, social media doesn’t present you with the all-important body language of the person you’re engaging with. In real life HSPs are very good at picking up on these visual cues and sensing/intuiting people’s feelings (whatever face they’re presenting us with). On social media you get nothing, well, apart from emojis. (I can see their appeal – they certainly have their uses – but they’re not a substitute for the myriad and subtle emotions a real human being can express through their body.) So, 9 p.m. is my limit. Otherwise I may well end up going to bed full of unexpressed and not-worked-through emotions. Not good. Cue staying up half the night… (In addition to my self-imposed curfew I also try to stay off social media most Saturdays to keep this time for family only, if possible.)

7. Be mindful of how you message. Ah, now this is one I know I’m guilty of not always doing. Sometimes I need a quick response to something and so I pop a message on messenger or send a direct message via Twitter. But I also know that publishers (me included) find ourselves somewhat deluged by these kinds of messages. Email really is a much better way of communicating when it comes to work stuff. So, one to remind myself of – use email when possible!

8. Beware the troll! Thankfully, I’ve had a fairly sheltered online existence so far, but it hasn’t totally left me immune to the dreaded troll attack. Naif that I am I didn’t think someone would actually go out of their way to throw some outrage my way re: what I choose as my writer’s label. But they did – you can read about it here. And just the other day in a totally innocuous public thread (where I had mentioned that I’m writing a novella) a complete stranger made fun of my “novella” (the scare quotes were his). Now, I must admit that I was rather taken aback about this, but then I had a little chuckle when I told my husband about; he was mightily impressed that this person thought I’d invented a new category of novel. Indeed, I may well add this to my CV. Anyway, the point is that even though I *think* I have a pretty good handle on minimizing overwhelm via social media, every now and then they’ll always be someone who pops up and gives you a whack on the head. The key thing is to not feed the troll. (Better to use the energy on writing a blog post about them…!) 

9. Group dynamics. Groups can be a great way of meeting with like-minded people who are working on similar projects. But sometimes groups become so large and cumbersome, or your interests change and shift so that you forget why you ever joined in the first place. Stay in groups that are positive and supportive, and quietly leave the ones that are noisy and no longer chime with you. 

10. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” (Kurt Vonnegut). As with any human interaction, kindness is key. Social media has the power to amplify the unkindnesses and to make this HSP sometimes want to run a mile. But there are so many kind people out there. It’s worth finding your tribe online to connect with them and to share some much-needed philia. Just remember to be kind to yourself. Sometimes it’s a kindness to stay away if the noise is too overwhelming or you find yourself slipping into the horrible black hole of life/career comparison, outrage and unkindness.

 

Yorkshire puddings, photo by Marija Smits

Homemade Yorkshire puddings – now a staple of our mealtimes since a lovely, inspiring writer friend posted about her fond memories of this delicious comfort food. (I’d only ever previously bought ready made – and they’re really not as good as homebaked.)

 

So… for the time being I’m sticking with social media (with the above guidelines) but I do remind myself that this can always be reviewed. Social media is a tool just like any other man-made tool. And it’s worth reminding myself of that. It’s simply one way of communicating with other people. But there are other less overwhelming communication tools out there – remember the telephone? Letter writing? When I can I try to phone friends and colleagues or write; I find these ways of communicating enriching rather than overwhelming and I always appreciate getting phone calls and letters back.

I would love to hear from others HSPs about how they handle social media and to compare notes! (p.s. I don’t have a smartphone and don’t receive social media notifications in my email inbox. Another thing that helps me cope.)

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Holiday Healing

Around this time last year I wrote a post called Running on “empty” that resonated with a fair few readers. Sadly, it would seem that many of us are prone to the idea that we must constantly be “on” – working, creating, socializing (and all while documenting/Instagramming every moment of our lives). Often, and particularly if we’re women, caring for children or elderly or ill relatives is another constant/semi-constant occupation.

This year I made a conscious decision to not take too much on, particularly work-wise. I’ve mostly managed to adhere to this though I’m still prone to getting too absorbed by work or excited by a writing prompt/call for submissions or agitating over a book review which, inevitably, makes me work late into the night when, really, I need to be sleeping.

However, as I said, I’ve mostly managed to honour my intention. So when we got to the cottage we’d rented for our holiday this year, I didn’t have a jolt of realization that I was (and had been) running on empty; though I did come to the conclusion that information, news (and social media) overload is definitely a problem for HSPs in today’s world. I would probably go so far as to liken it to chronic stress or anxiety). It would seem that the art of living in the present is a much underrated and somewhat lost skill. And yet how vital it is for mental health, physical wellbeing and our relationships with ourselves, other people and the natural world. It is also important for those who want creativity to play a part of their daily lives. In short, it is a necessity for being authentic to one’s true self – to being wild.

 

Devon field, photo by Marija Smits

Devon field, photo by Marija Smits

 

Being in the present helps me to focus on my own needs (and desires) and those of my loved ones. It brings me into the moment with the reminder that I need to listen – not be off in future dreamland somewhere, the hazy (and sometimes regrettable) past or, much worse, thinking about the latest work problem or less-than-satisfactory social media interactions. Being in the present helps me to fully experience this moment, reconnect with loved ones, myself and the world around me. And in Devon, where we spent the week, there was much natural beauty on offer. I also got to “indulge” in some of my most favourite things – reading for pleasure, creating art just for the sake of creating art, and beachcombing for sea glass, pebbles and shells. What more could an introverted HSP want?

 

Sea glass, photo by Marija Smits

Sea glass, photo by Marija Smits

 

Now the trick is to bring more ‘living in the present’ back home with me, and to actually make it a habit.

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Marriage and the Midlife Crisis

Last week it was my husband’s and my wedding anniversary. We celebrated with hugs and kind words and time spent pottering about with our kids, getting on with the usual chores. In the evening we had a takeaway and dessert. In quiet moments I reflected on our almost 20 years together (13 of them as a married couple).

 

Teika Marija Smits, photo by Andy Rhymer

Teika Marija Smits, photo by Andy Rhymer

 

On the day of our wedding, it would have been good if, along with the marriage certificate, we were given a guide to negotiating the ups and downs of marriage, but as no one presented us with such a guide, like many other couples we bumbled along and came up with our own. Although it took a while to craft, it is, thankfully, short. It goes something like this:

  1. Love and respect each other.
  2. Communicate well.

And voila! That is it!

In the early days of marriage, when we were in our late 20s, it seemed so simple. We had it all figured out. Go us!

But you know what… we got older. We had kids. We were constantly tired. Number 2 sometimes seemed impossible. Simply because there was no time to communicate, let alone communicate well. Time seemed to have sped up and slowed down all at once. There was no time to just be. No time to be alone with each other. But equally, sometimes time stretched on forever… particularly when one of the children was ill or teething or going through a particularly challenging phase of development. You name it… it seemed to go on and on and on…. When we were childless, the importance of time spent together hadn’t even crossed my mind.

So in the glorious muddle of early motherhood I made a note to myself:

  1. Spend time together (with or without the kids, depending on their age & needs).

As the children became more independent and the hazy days of early motherhood began to clear I thought, Aha! We have more time now! We’re back on track. But you know what? We were now middle-aged. And you know what happens at middle age, don’t you? Yep. The midlife crisis.

 

The Uninvited Guest, painting by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale

The Uninvited Guest, painting by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale

 

But this wasn’t something that I’d ever considered in my 20s. The midlife crisis was only for men who had a penchant for motorbikes, wasn’t it? Turns out I was wrong.

Suddenly at the midpoint of our lives, it dawns on us that time is beginning to run out. We still haven’t been to Australia, won the Nobel Prize or travelled in outer space. This is the time of the midlife crisis, which Jung says is frequently marked in men by a period of depression around the age of 40, and at a slightly younger age in women.

Some women seem to hit the midlife crisis when their children have all started school and they suddenly have a bit more freedom. Others, especially those who are working full-time, seem to have a later one when the children leave home.

Jung, The Key Ideas, by Ruth Snowden

Whoa! This was serious stuff! And we both seemed to be going through it.

Not only are us middle-aged folk ‘psychologically vulnerable’ at this time, biology seems to be against us too. Our bodies are changing. Growing older. Hair falls out. Or turns grey. Hormones are in flux. Ovaries are on the downturn… For many women it is a last chance to consider having children. Men don’t experience quite the same fertility anxieties. Yet the possibility of other partners – younger spouses – often adds to the mix of the midlife crisis. As does realising that the ‘career-for-life’ (often chosen in one’s 20s) doesn’t quite turn out to be the right career. Where do you go from there – particularly when the weight of financial responsibility is on your shoulders? Job stuck. Heart stuck. Mind stuck. It all sucks.

I hope (I trust) we are through the worst of it, but you know what, it was sometimes rough. Sometimes more down than up. But what really helped was this:

  1. Communicating well.

Although there was the whole ‘figuring out how to communicate’ thing! In our 20s, talking to each other had always come easily, but real proper communication… well, first we both had to figure out how to do that. Turns out it’s dead simple. But hard. It consists of a) LISTENING to the other person WITHOUT JUDGEMENT (that’s a challenge!) and b) LISTENING to oneself and one’s own needs WITHOUT JUDGEMENT (again, harder said than done). After that, comes honest discussion, with solutions put forward for ways to work through the particular challenge. It’s about remembering that if you do still:

  1. Love and respect each other

in essence you’re on the other person’s side. So make time to talk. To listen. To find a way through a challenging time.

Also, in the midst of the midlife crisis muddles I remember thinking that self-reflection was (again) a real saviour. Figuring out that I was a highly-sensitive person as well as a limerent helped. So I added the following to add to the guide:

  1. Know thyself. (Though I think some Greek philosophers got there before me!)

Finally…

Midlife crisis, then, marks the return of the opposite, an attempt on the part of the psyche to re-balance. Jung says that this stage is actually very important, because otherwise we risk developing the kind of personality that attempts always to recreate the psychic disposition of youth.

Jung, The Key Ideas, by Ruth Snowden

So the last point I’d add to the guide is this:

  1. Be mindful of life’s rhythms, and how these rhythms and shifts in circumstances can affect a relationship. Wild beings (Wild Man and Wild Woman too) instinctively understand the importance of taking note of natural rhythms. There will be ups and downs; as long as number 1. (love and respect) is still there, one of the most worthwhile things to do is to hold on to each other and find a way through.

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Women in Science

As we’re currently in British Science Week (10 – 19th March), I thought it the perfect opportunity to write about something close to my heart: women in science.

Teika Marija Smits in the lab, photo courtesy Lankani Hettigoda

Teika Marija Smits in the lab, photo courtesy Lankani Hettigoda

Now, I used to be a woman in science, but then I left for all sorts of reasons, which I outlined in an earlier post. To clarify, it was not the science that was the issue, rather, a male-dominated environment (and the competitiveness, extrovertism and ‘blokey’ jokes that was a huge part of that environment). It was also a time when work email somehow allowed people (okay, let’s admit it – they were men!) to send pornographic images. At one university I worked at I walked past the odd computer screen seeing some things I’d much rather not have seen. This experience didn’t make me (one of about 5 women in a group with 20 men or so) feel so great about myself.

In addition, looking up the hierarchy, I could see that the female lecturers and researchers were clearly juggling so much – their careers and motherhood and trying to run a household, and, and… and still the male lecturers would make comments about the women ‘not pulling their weight’.

In conclusion: I did not love scientific research enough to continue in that career. And that is okay. I am glad I realized this sooner rather than later.

However, I am immensely thankful for the women who do love research and overcome all kinds of obstacles to pursue their research and excel in their specialism. But why is it that at the age of 40 (and even as an ex-scientist) I still find it difficult to name the contributions women have made to science? Once again, and as in so many fields of endeavour, women’s achievements in science have been overlooked, sidelined, ignored. Or been appropriated by men. In general, women scientists have been put on ‘mute’.

So when I came across this image on Facebook on International Women’s Day – from the excellent Compound Interest page – I was delighted to discover more women scientists. (Chemists, like me!)

 

And when I went to my local library the other day they had a wonderful display full of cards with inventions and discoveries by scientific women on them. Such as:

Stem cell research – Ann Tsukamoto

Kevlar – invented by Stephanie Kwolek

Semi-conductor theory/telecommunications research – Shirley Ann Jackson

The life raft – Maria Beasley

Computing – Grace Hopper

Solar-energy technology – Maria Telkes

This display was for International Women’s Day (or to call it by its other name – ‘Why Isn’t There An International Men’s Day’?). Sad but true, every year outraged men take to Twitter to wonder aloud Why oh why isn’t there a special day for men? Richard Herring, bless his heart, answers many, many of them to let them know that yes, there is an International Men’s Day. It’s on 19th November. He also encourages his followers/those interested in his cause to educate the incredulous to donate money to the charity Refuge).

And another good resource for women scientists I came across recently is Sheroes of History.

Having been a teacher (and now a parent) for a fair while now, I’m pretty sure that girls and young women have got the message that science is something that both sexes can excel at. But it cannot be overlooked that academia is very much an environment for the privileged white middle-class male. That’s not to say that boys and young men shouldn’t be encouraged to study science – they should be, it’s brilliant! It’s just that schools, universities and scientific companies need to look at their environment through the feminist (as well as racist) lens. How can we make academia more accessible to women? How can we keep mother scientists still involved in research if they don’t want to spend virtually all their waking hours away from their children? How can we get away from the competitiveness that so obviously suits highly-driven testosterone-fuelled men? Indeed, can scientific research be a cooperative endeavour? And why oh why must everything be measured by publication in the ‘big’ journals, Science, Nature et al.? Is this really where all the ‘good’ science is? Just as with poetry, there are the ‘big’ journals/magazines. That does not mean that the smaller literary magazines aren’t publishing just-as-good (if not better) poetry. They are!

Sadly, again, so much of the problems of academia come down to that monster, neoliberalism. Universities are more companies nowadays, the students the ‘customers’ – the power taken from academics and given to the bureaucrats and the private companies they fling money at. The people at the top enjoy six-figure salaries for formulating things like: strategic mission and the academic vision, innovative streamlining, the student-centred approach etc. while the academics (who are irreplaceable, because, let’s face it, how many of us have a good working knowledge of quantum mechanics, or crystallography or neuroplasticity or… or… ?) grind on, trapped between teaching, research and the huge amount of administrative tasks they have to complete. They do not enjoy six-figure salaries. And especially not if they’re women.

However, all that said, there are, of course, exceptions to the rule. There are high-earning women at the top, just as there are high-earning men at the top. Check out this link if you want to know just what the heads of some unis pay themselves. I will add two words here that are appropriate: fat and cat. But as always, there are good stewards at the head of universities, who are perhaps worthy of their salary. And there are bad stewards at the top of many universities too, who are most certainly not worth of their salary. Also, there are women who thrive in a competitive environment. And those who do not. But the lower down the hierarchy you go the more likely you are to find women not negotiating for extra pay, not negotiating for better working conditions for themselves and their families, and not speaking out about inappropriate conduct or unprofessionalism of male colleagues.

I don’t know what the answer to all this is, although I think it’s clear that separating business from academia is key. Commercialism is making science less science-y. And in these post-truth times, scientific rigour, objectivity and the pursuit of truth (no matter if that truth pains us) is absolutely vital. I also think that talking and writing about all the many women scientists of the past and today is also key in helping girls and women to know that science is something that they can really get involved in. And excel at. Lastly, we need to give young women the tools to assert for themselves so that they can make the changes to academia that are so badly needed to free it of capitalism’s grip so that it can become a true place of learning and creative investigation, irrespective of the student or teacher’s sex, skin colour, class or financial background.

 

My daughter's base + acid volcano, photo by Marija Smits

My daughter’s base + acid volcano, photo by Marija Smits (with thanks to Red Ted Art for the YouTube video on how to construct the volcano).

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The Poetess, The Outraged, and The Wild Woman

The other day I was genuinely discombobulated (and a bit upset) that a fairly well-known literary author (or should that be authoress?!) decided to, completely out of the blue, tweet me at my Marija Smits Twitter account to say this:

 

@MarijaSmits PoetESS? Really? I’ve find that title very belittling. Poet is genderless. Like writer. And chemist.

 

Now, as some of you know, I am a deeply reflective person. I don’t do quick, clever retorts or off-the-cuff tweets (as I have to assume this was, given the typo). I don’t do ‘soundbites’, so I’m sure as hell not going to start a discussion about this on Twitter.

But… I thought and thought about it, and carefully considered what to do about this tweet. The HSP in me said: ‘Say nothing, don’t speak out, be silent, because then you won’t get hurt and overwhelmed by it all.’ But the Wild Woman in me – she who is very good at helping me to speak out when I know an issue is dear to me – said: ‘Be brave. Write. Explain yourself. Speak out for all the Wild Women who are silenced in small and big ways every day.’

So here are my thoughts. I would also like to add that as most of you know, yes, I am careful with my words, so I did not choose the title ‘poetess’ lightly, and I want to explain my reasoning behind this. To help me do this, let’s begin to analyze that tweet…

 

Definition of 'poetess'

Definition of ‘poetess’

The Poetess

Why is the female gendered form of ‘poet’ belittling? Is ‘poet’ truly genderless? I sometimes see women calling themselves ‘female poets’ but I don’t read about ‘male poets’. So is ‘poetess’ “belittling” because the author who tweeted me assumes that the male form is the usual default, and that the female form is obviously subordinate and therefore lesser?

This is the same impulse in genderless environments/occupations like ‘scientist’ or ‘chemist’. In fact, these cultures (academic and commercial) are competitive, aggressive and confrontational, and, in fact, stereotypically masculine. Women are equal in this “genderless” world as long as they behave like men. But not paid the same, of course. And, it’s worth noting, some women are better than other women at behaving like stereotypically masculine men. (The arena of politics is another apt example.)

Removal of the female gendered form in artistic contexts is denying the different lived experience and different aesthetic/sensibility that women have. It belittles them by suggesting they can only be equal to men by being the same and having the same identity.

As a deeply reflective person, I thought about the pros and cons of using the word ‘poetess’ for a fair while before I decided to give myself that title on my blog… I meant to call myself ‘poetess’ because my poetry reflects (and is generally about) my life as a woman and the impact that my feminine identity has on my artistic expression. Why should we women NOT be allowed to draw attention to our gender in the names we choose for ourselves? Why must the female form be suppressed? How does this suppression “enlarge us” and make us less “little”? And finally, why must I, a woman, face attack from another woman who wants to censor the names I use for myself? This, in itself, is a belitting, and sad disempowerment – which is fundamentally against everything that I have strived for in my breastfeeding counselling voluntary work, my writing and my publishing work.

Continuing to look at the bigger picture, I also see from the breastfeeding support world that sometimes people get upset about the use of the word ‘mother’ and ‘father’ and that it should be simply ‘parent’. Now, I think we’re getting into difficult territory here, because mothers and fathers have differing, though unique roles. And believe me, I’ve seen enough people arguing about this until I’m fit to burst with melancholy. I’ve been drawn into it myself, while arguing for safe spaces for women, and I’ve been called names to my face and seen some pretty ugly name-calling online. And then I’ve also read the arguments about how we should all just call each other and ourselves humans so that we cut out any gendered stuff like ‘man’ or ‘woman’. And perhaps, while we’re at it, we should get rid of female and male names (or perhaps adopt the male names only – they can be the standard, right?!). Again, this is tricky territory we’re getting into, and one that needs far more critical (and nuanced) thinking about than our social media–savvy society seems to be able to cope with.

 

The Outraged

But, coming back to the tweet… I cannot see that my use of the word ‘poetess’ is worth the outrage. Or perhaps it is? Maybe, by labelling myself thus, I unknowingly hit upon a nerve. But I know too that we are living in the age of outrage and people seem quick to look for reasons to be offended. Indeed, some of them go out of their way to be offended. (Something I cannot for the life of me understand.)

I also thought it particularly apt that just the other day I read this excellent blog post by Kristen Lamb about whether or not Facebook is dying, and how it really isn’t about fun (and harmless) socializing anymore. Kristen said that she’d done something she’d never expected to do – unfollow other writers – because they were simply too busy being outraged (my words here) and it wasn’t much fun.

These writers—The Unfollowed—have mutated from friends into geysers of hysteria, hate, ranting, or general pissed-offedness. And I think that’s sad. The same writer who’s spending time on social media might one day announce a book that I would have seen and maybe even bought…had they not pushed me to the point of unfollowing anything they posted.

There are even some well known authors I used to read and buy their books…but now I no longer like them. Deep down I resent how they’ve selfishly beaten me over the head with their opinions. Frankly, there are too many nice and considerate authors to buy from instead.

The thing is… when this author-tweeter started following me on Twitter the other day, I felt genuinely excited because she is an acclaimed writer. Though now… I feel deflated and I have a desire to stay off social media. But hey, that’s the world we live in at the moment and it’s probably a good reminder to me that no matter what I say online someone somewhere will be offended by what I, a woman, choose to call myself.

 

The Wild Woman

I now feel in a place in my life where I don’t just want to stick to Aren’t cats cute? online. Maintaining a front of 100% bland and inoffensiveness is exhausting and depleting to the soul. So I will continue to be me, to be genuine and truthful to my own Wild Woman. For she is the one who reminds me in countless ways every day that I am a woman, and a mother, and a poetess, and that I should take pride in my identity.

 

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A Christmas argument… and cognitive dissonance

As some of you already know, as an HSP I’m slow to react to stuff. Which is why I’m not writing a new year’s resolutions post in January; I’m still thinking about stuff that happened in December.

Our Christmas was rather fraught and we’ll probably always remember it as the one where our youngest was ill (although, thankfully, it was only a bug that affected him mildly); it was also the Christmas where the veg was undercooked and the Christmas where my husband and I had an argument about wrapping paper on the 23rd December. Wrapping paper! I mean, for goodness sake!

Only it wasn’t really an argument about wrapping paper. It was an argument about parenting, our definitions of generosity and our own attitudes towards Christmas and our views on being environmentally-friendly. (And for clarity, I must elaborate: I am fed up of the amount of waste produced at Christmas – wrapping paper making up a large part of that – and so I wanted to use second-hand gift bags and pillows and old bits of ribbon etc. to wrap our presents with instead, to cut down on the waste and the time I spend peeling off bits of sellotape from the wrapping paper torn off the presents in an instant so that I can put it into the paper recycling rather than landfill. My husband found it difficult to see where I was coming from and we didn’t take the time to listen or try to understand each other’s position. There, I hope that clarifies things!)

It was a horrible argument – both of us were shouty (very unlike us!) and then very very quiet and withdrawn afterwards (both of us are HSPs so it took us a long time to merely process what was said in the heat of the argument). Anyway, thankfully, the next day, on Christmas Eve, we had the chance to talk it through and to apologise to each other. And thank goodness! Otherwise Christmas Day would have consisted of a poorly boy and undercooked veg as well as two very unhappy and sulky parents. 😦

Anyway… what this post is really about is the difficulty in admitting when one is wrong. When you have made a mistake and you know you have to own up to it. Because, boy is that challenging!

It is as though one’s own sense of self, one’s own sense of oneself as a “good” person will shatter and crumble under the admission of a mistake. And saying sorry is the thing that collapses oneself. It is a horrible, uncomfortable, shaky feeling to have. And it is something that can’t be experienced for long. Ego, that coward (who, I guess, is only trying to relieve us of that horrible, uncomfortable feeling) would prefer to rationalize away our mistakes and, through self-deceit, turn them into something far more palatable, like mere trifles caused by the stupidity of others.

But this feeling… it has a proper name. It is known as cognitive dissonance.

“Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as “Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke two packs a day.” Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it. In this example, the most direct way for a smoker to reduce dissonance is by quitting. But if she has tried to quit and failed, now she must reduce dissonance by convincing herself that smoking isn’t really so harmful, or that smoking is worth the risk because it helps her relax or prevents her from gaining weight (and after all, obesity is a health risk too), and so on. Most smokers manage to reduce dissonance in many such ingenious, if self-deluding, ways.”

Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions and hurtful acts by Carol Tarvis and Elliot Aronson (Pinter & Martin 2013)

Mistakes were made, but not by me. By Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

Mistakes were made, but not by me. By Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

The difficulty both my husband and I felt in saying sorry after our argument reminded me of various instances in my life when I’d been in the wrong and found it difficult to say sorry. One particular instance was when I’d had a minor argument with my father (I can’t remember what the argument was about) and I knew that I was in the wrong. I was a teenager and probably hormonal, but I forced myself to go and say sorry.*

In this situation, my heightened conscience was a good thing. (It is not always – it usually causes me a lot of anguish because I can tie myself up in knots about what the “right” thing to do is, whether it be a small thing or big thing.)

Anyway, in this situation, it was a good thing. Because a few days later, my father died. I know that with my heightened sense of guilt, if I hadn’t said sorry, I would still be experiencing guilt today. (Although I do have to add that saying sorry solely to put off a future guilt isn’t probably the most healthy thing either – but more on that for another post, perhaps.)

This post isn’t really about saying sorry when it isn’t appropriate (I know that I can also fall into the trap of saying sorry when really I haven’t done anything wrong – and I’m not sure that’s very good for a healthy sense of self either), but I do want to highlight the uncomfortable feeling that cognitive dissonance can produce. It reminds me of this beautiful painting, by one of my favourite artists, Agnes-Cecile, which both discomforts and delights me:

 

I have a hypothesis that perhaps HSPs feel cognitive dissonance a little more keenly than others. I don’t know. And I’m not even sure that one is necessarily holding two very contradictory points of view; it’s just that there is one part of me that knows I acted meanly/without thinking/made a mistake and that doesn’t resonate with the image of myself that I have (as being generous, thoughtful, impervious to making mistakes etc.) and so that is why there is this horrible clash inside me. And it is this clash that thunders in my chest so noisily, so uncomfortably, that I wish for it to go away – by any means. My ego says: Wasn’t your fault. It was so and so’s fault. They’re an idiot. Don’t say sorry. (It wants to give me a quick-fix solution.) Thankfully, my heroic (but sometimes plain annoying) conscience comes along and says: Hey! I see that there’s a little noisy cognitive dissonance around here. Give it a while to quiet down and then go and do the right thing. It won’t break you. I promise. You’re still a good person. Just human. Just human.

So to acknowledge cognitive dissonance, and to name it for what it is, perhaps makes it that bit easier to act humbly if we are brave enough to do so. We then have the power to say sorry, knowing that it will not shatter us or make us any less worthwhile as humans, and it is then that we can move forwards with humility and grace and love.

 

*I think I probably mumbled something like: Sorry. Got a bit of PMT at the moment. I’m not entirely sure if I was experiencing PMT, but hey, I was fifteen and any apology was better than none. (See how that heightened sense of guilt would like me to keep worrying about this? Well I won’t let it! I’m only human for goodness sake!)

 

And… I did also want to say thank you to all the people who read and/or comment on my blog. I wish you a healthy and happy and creative 2016. 🙂

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Grief, and why it’s useful to grieve

I’ve been thinking about grief a lot recently. When I begin to type ‘Marija Smits’ into my Google search bar one of the suggestions Google comes up with is ‘Marija Smits grief’. Strange. Only it isn’t, I guess, because I’ve written about grief in the past and sometimes I try to search online for my poem on grief, ‘To Death, May He Be Pleased With His Handiwork’ (because Google is faster than me trawling through my folders of poems).

During Baby Loss Awareness Week here in the UK I read some of the moving posts on poet Wendy Pratt’s blog. What really struck me was the way that some of Wendy’s work colleagues simply couldn’t handle speaking to her after she’d lost her baby, and it made me think about how not only is this a communication issue (you could argue too that it’s an issue of empathy) but also an issue of how our society deals with death. Because, basically, it doesn’t.

Nobody wants to have to consider their own mortality, or their parents’ mortality, or – worst of all – their children’s mortality, but it’s something that we all have to do at some point in our lives. What we need are the words to express our fears and our sadness that death happens. We need words to express that we care about someone’s loss. We need to know that it’s okay to grieve.

I remember when I lost my dad at the age of fifteen; sometimes I hated it when people told me they were sorry for my loss. I hated it because it was another concrete reminder that he really was gone and this (although well-meant) phrase had the power to overwhelm me with a grief that threatened to eat me up from the inside out. I also couldn’t cope with the idea of being seen with tears streaming down my face, because crying in public was just one of those things that one DID NOT DO. I had already subconsciously taken on board society’s discomfort with grief. But now, in retrospect, I was glad that people had wanted to reach out and show that they cared.

I didn’t really get a chance to grieve properly because I had to be strong for my mum. I had to keep things together. And so I bundled away my grief and put a brave face on things and simply carried on. But when a person hasn’t had a chance to grieve properly, the grief has a way of manifesting itself in all manner of unhelpful behaviours and, depending on the individual, may lead to all sorts of problems which have to be dealt with in later life: low self-esteem, heavy drinking, drug taking, gambling, depression, OCD, anorexia, physical self-harm, anxiety, fear… in so many ways these things are all, in effect, self-harming and yet, of course, they can cause harm or hurt to others too.

And yet how many of those dealing with loss get a chance to grieve properly? Very few, I should think, because our society simply can’t handle it.

And I’m not talking only about death. How many of us are dealing with other kinds of grief? Grief for a childhood snatched away from us too early; grief for a parent or loved one who absented themselves, or hurt us, for whatever reason, knowingly or unknowingly. Grief for the loss of function in our bodies, be it infertility, the loss of a limb or damage or disability as a result of illness, accident or genetics. Grief for a birth that didn’t go to plan. Grief for the end of a breastfeeding relationship, perhaps curtailed too soon. Grief for the end of child-bearing years. Grief for romantic relationships which became distant or sour or ugly.

And then there is the grief for another kind of loss, a bittersweet kind of loss: loss of our youthful selves, loss of our children’s baby days, toddler years and even school years, loss of friends who have passed out of our lives, loss of the past phases of a current romantic relationship… I could go on.

The key thing is to acknowledge the loss. To grieve. To share your story and feelings about your story with someone absolutely trustworthy. To cry. And it is then that the path to now, and to the future, becomes a real option. It is then that the future holds possibilities – and joy – that can be seized wholeheartedly.

 

The Sad Russian Doll by Marija Smits

The Sad Russian Doll by Marija Smits

 

And as an aside, I did want to add that in my own personal experience of grief, loss and how to better communicate my feelings with loved ones I have found the following books useful:

Women Who Run With The Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Parenting Through Crisis: Helping Kids in Times of Loss, Grief, and Change by Barbara Coloroso

People Skills by Robert Bolton

The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron

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And thank you to Maddy for suggesting that I link up this reflective post with #WhatImWriting.